N.T. Wright on hell

I found this video at the "Out of Ur" blog connected with Christianity Today. This is N.T. Wright's intersting take on 'hell' - which he gets into a little bit in his marvelous book Surprised by Hope . What he says reminds me a good deal of the ideas about the nature of hell tossed around by C.S. Lewis in his own marvelous book The Great Divorce and elsewhere.

Many Christians in the historic Protestant churches seem to have lost a language for talking about hell. It may be, as some have suggested, this is because we don't really believe in hell or don't really believe anyone will actually experience hell. If that is so, we should look more closely at the spiritual condition of the world around us. I also wonder if we've given much thought to the matter, or considered that hell might be a necessary corollary to some of our other beliefs - such as the freedom (by God's grace) to accept or reject the offer of salvation given us in Jesus Christ. Presumably a free choice - if it genuinely is that - must make us liable to actual consequences.

I personally don't much like the English word 'hell' - owing to its associations with torture in Medieval theology and also to its origin in Norse mythology that has no clear connection to any Greek or Hebrew concept deployed in the Bible (like Hades/Sheol, Gehenna/Tartarus, and so on). Yet I think it is important for us to learn a compelling way to speak about the state of those who have forsaken God, as indeed Jesus Christ and his apostles certainly do in the New Testament. I applaud N.T. Wright for attempting to do just that.

Of all the biblical images of hell, the one that makes the most sense to me is that of "outer darkeness" (see Matt. 8:12; Matt. 22:13; Matt. 25:30), since by our sin we seperate ourselves from the God who is Light and Life (see Is. 59:2), and so we will continue on in that state of darkness and death unless we experience the redemption of Christ Jesus.

I think the old word "damnation" may also be instructive here. The Latin means "finding guilty" or "condemn", but the root of this word was also used to mean something along the lines of "to suffer a loss" Perhaps we should think of the sufferings of damnation as the loss of God.

"In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: 'What are you asking God to do?' To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has already done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They [do not will to] be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.
-C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chp 8 (p. 130)

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Blogger Fr. Philip said...

Precisely the Orthodox approach as he says by his conversation with the Orthodox archimandrite (monastic priest). Our choices do matter, which is a very sombre humbling reality. We choose to reject God, God does not reject us. There is a difference. Thank you for posting.

9:58 AM, February 08, 2010  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I am a little curious, as someone who clearly sees "the Last judgment" in the Bible (and, I think, in NT Wright's other writings as well) what he would say about it, besides that the Western Church has misconstrued it somehow.

The idea of "damnation" as "suffering the loss of God" is actually to be found in John Wesley's interesting sermon "On Hell."

In this sermon he first considers this aspect of "loss", then moves on to a defense of hell as a place of material fires (where I want most to object or ask him some follow up questions), but when he begins to speak of "their worms that never die" he actually (and interestingly) interprets this somewhat metaphorically, as the wounded consciences of those in hell, eternally lamenting their own particular evils.
This might be related to Screwtape's comment that Hell affords a particular kind of clarity to the soul of the sinner.

10:22 AM, February 09, 2010  

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