Archive for March, 2014

Surprised by Hope and Hell – Tom Wright: 22 March

March 22, 2014

‘I’m finding your book comforting,’ said an 86 year old woman a few months ago. The book is about hell so this is a bit surprising. The Lie of Hell (www.laddermedia.co.uk) demonstrates that Jesus and the Bible do not teach hell as we know it. God is kinder than we have been led to believe. That is comforting.

A key part of the true, comforting, picture is that there is not one life after death but two. Immediately after death we, our souls, are in either Paradise or Hades. We are there until the Resurrection and Final Judgement. After Jesus’ Judgement we are either living in the New Earth and Heaven, body and soul, or destroyed in Gehenna, body and soul. No human lives in torment for ever. No human fate is final until the Final Judgement, even beyond this life. Comforting, surprising, truth.

The surprising truth of Paradise and the Resurrection has been demonstrated clearly by Tom (NT) Wright in Surprised by Hope (SPCK 2007). In The Lie of Hell I reviewed many good books, but not this one, partly because Wright only refers to hell a little, and partly because I forgot. Here is now my extended review:

‘Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.’ Memorable succinct words of Tom Wright. By heaven, we mean the peaceful, joyful, life of human souls immediately after death. The more proper Biblical name for this place is Paradise. Jesus only used this name once, to the thief beside him on the cross (Luke 23:43), and because Jesus is the Cornerstone, we take His words as a cornerstone concept and line up our understanding by it. The soul-life of Paradise, to which Jesus leads us, is great, so that Paul was much attracted to dying to live there (Philippians 1:23) But there is more, far more, to look forward to.

‘Resurrection is life after life after death.’ Tom Wright quotes another writer for another memorable statement. Resurrection is to Paradise as life in the world is to life in the womb. In Paradise we, our souls, are cocooned in God’s immense love. In the Resurrection we, souls and bodies, run and leap and taste and feel in new dimensions. We see colours that we have not yet seen – and much more. Resurrection life is unrestricted life. All the restrictions and consequences of evil have been removed.

The puzzle of Tom Wright’s book is why, when he teaches that there is not one heaven, but two, Paradise and Resurrection, he fails to see that there is also not one hell, but two, Hades and Gehenna. The main thrust of Surprised by Hope is not to explain the fate of the wicked, without Jesus, but to explain the life of the forgiven, with Jesus. As a minor element, Wright comes to ‘Purgatory, paradise, hell’ for the wicked in Chapter 11. The chapter title is revealing. Wright begins by looking at medieval views of Purgatory, not by looking at the words of Jesus, nor even the Bible. It is always better to begin with Jesus and his teaching.

Wright states early that the concept of Purgatory developed when the truth of the resurrection and the waiting for resurrection had ‘dropped out altogether.’ (p177) His first criticism of Purgatory is, then, that it ignores that ‘the resurrection is still in the future. This resurrection is the official view of all mainstream orthodox theologians, Catholic and Protestant, East and West, except for those who think that after death we pass into an eternity in which all moments are present…’ Tom Wright recognises that the truth of resurrection as life after life after death is not widely held. ‘I am repeatedly frustrated by how hard it is to get this point through the thick wall of traditional thought and language that most Christians put up…’ (p180) Yet Wright does not apply to thinking about hell the all-changing nature of the resurrection. Life before and life after the resurrection are very different, for both the forgiven and the unrepentant.

Wright’s focus at the beginning of this chapter is still on the state of Christians beyond death. He then writes that he is often asked ‘What about hell?’ ‘Part of the difficulty of this topic… is that the word ‘hell’ itself conjures up an image gained more from medieval imagery than from the earliest Christian writings.’ (p187) Wright goes on to explain Gehenna, Jesus’ word for the destroying eternal fire, as the burning rubbish dump of Jerusalem, therefore a picture of this life, not beyond this life. This is a strange way of understanding body and soul being destroyed in Gehenna (Matthew 10:28) and the fire prepared for the devil and his angels, into which the Son of Man will cast the ‘goats.’ (Matthew 25:41) Both these sayings of Jesus indicate clearly that Gehenna is for beyond this life, even for after life after death.

Having focused on ‘Gehenna’ Wright points out that much of what Jesus said about the wicked beyond this life was in two parables. He refers to the Rich Man and Lazarus, without mentioning that here Jesus talks not of Gehenna but of Hades. He writes that because these are parables, we cannot gain from them understanding of beyond this life. But surely Jesus can and did teach about both this life and the next, teaching us to be generous in this life so as to store up treasure in the next?

Wright states that neither in the words of Jesus, nor in the rest of the New Testament, do we have anything like enough to build an understanding of the fate of the wicked beyond death. Wright says that Jesus was mostly ‘content to reinforce the normal Jewish picture.’ (p189) Wright does not explain in detail what that picture was. Wright does not justify his assessment by detailing the words of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament. If he did, and he also included the teaching of the Old Testament, he would find that there is indeed enough to build an understanding of the fate of the wicked beyond death. (See The Lie of Hell)

Wright then writes at more length about the failings of universalism. With great force and eloquence Wright argues that the judgement of God, and the possibility at least that not all humans will enjoy the resurrected life of the new heaven and new earth, is necessary and beneficial. ‘The merest mention of final judgment has been squeezed out of Christian consciousness in several denominations, including my own, by the cavalier omission of verses from public biblical reading.’ (p190) ‘Judgment – the sovereign declaration that this is good and to upheld and vindicated, and that is evil and is to be condemned – is the only alternative to chaos. There are some things, quite a lot of them in fact, which one must not “tolerate”, lest one merely collude with wickedness…. where those who have acted wickedly refuse to see the point, there can be no reconciliation, no embrace.’ (p191) ‘I wish it were otherwise but one cannot for ever whistle “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own.’ (p193)

Wright acknowledges that the description of this judgement as destruction, by ‘conditionalists’ or ‘annihilationists’ has strong points. This position, he considers, suffers from the weakness of ‘’belittling those scriptural passages which appear to speak unambiguously of a continuing state for those who have rejected the worship of the one true God and the way of humanness which follows from it.’ (p194) Wright does not address the view that there could be both a continuing interim state (called Hades) after death and ultimate destruction (called Gehenna) after Final Judgement, after life after death. So Wright has to find some way of combining both ongoing affliction and destruction in the one place and period.

Wright suggests (his word) that there is a process in which people, through worshipping and being transformed into the image of idols (money, sex, power…) lose their humanity. ‘Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite, in themselves or others, the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.’ (p195)

Wright draws no further conclusions. He implies that the ex-humans continue to exist beyond death. It is not clear whether the process of dehumanisation continues beyond this life, whether there is a possibility of turning back to the one true God and thereby to true humanity, beyond this life. It is not clear whether ex-humans are ultimately destroyed. Wright’s main thrust seems to be to enable us today to talk of hell, as it has been traditionally understood, in more acceptable modern terms.

The other stronger, more coherent, more Biblical, approach is to distinguish between Hades, pre-resurrection, and Gehenna, post-resurrection. Hades is the continuing state for the wicked, those on the road to becoming ex-human. Jesus has the keys of Hades, a message which Jesus says is a powerful antidote to fear, a comforting message (Rev. 1:18) The life after death of the wicked in Hades, of those who refuse repentance and forgiveness, is terrible and miserable, but with Jesus there is a continual way out. Gehenna is the destroying fire for those who have been ultimately judged to be fully ex-human, the rubbish, the chaff from which all goodness has been extracted, by their own continuing choice to refuse forgiveness. For more on this approach see The Lie of Hell (www.laddermedia.co.uk)

As we grasp the true Biblical picture of life after life after death, of two ‘heavens’ and two ‘hells’ for everyone, we may well be surprised, and we will also be comforted.

Roger Harper

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