Month: February 2009

Tom Wright’s Hell

Some cursory personal comments on a subject that deserves much better.

For nine years I have believed in conditional immortality. Eternal life is a gift which God gives to those who love him. For those who don’t want to be a part of his kingdom, life ends. It’s the only way to make sense of the idea that God will rule over all creation, that rebellion will be ended. Within a new creation, restored and perfect, it doesn’t make sense that suffering goes on in the form of hell. It also – as opposed to universalism – recognises that God gives us freedom to reject him. I like to think that in the end the vast majority of people will want to be a part of what God’s doing and that only a few will be determined to shut themselves off from his love and the love of others.

I thought Tom Wright would be with me on this one, but he’s not. He’s reluctant to give a position at all, because (rightly so) the focus of eschatology should not be on the fate of the individual but God’s glorious renewal and restoration of creation.

However, he knows that in the end he has to say something, and so he takes a few pages in Surprised By Hope to outline a fourth option. Not universalism (everyone will be a part of God’s kingdom); not conditional immortality (those who don’t want to be a part of God’s kingdom won’t go on existing); not eternal torment in hell. Well, not quite; instead the damned become ex-humans:

When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance and worship to that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship, not only back to the object itself but outwards to the world around… My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choices, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all… [T]hey pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity…. 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. (195)

I find Wright’s proposal horrific. It sounds just like hell, only now the condemned don’t even deserve sympathy. If he’s right, I’ll still feel sorry for them. God’s reign doesn’t seem total and restored while there’s ex-humans no longer even deserving sympathy. I think his proposal is simply, in the end, a speculation on the state of people within hell. It is not a new option but a revision of a traditional one.

2009 Anabaptist Conference : New Monasticism

I was at the Anabaptism and New Monasticism conference in Melbourne from 23-26 January. The speakers were all associated with intentional Christian communities and ‘New Monastic’ to lesser or greater extents; the term isn’t one any of the groups had consciously adopted.

I want to share my impressions of four Melbourne communites who spoke (there were others speaking too, with just as interesting stories to tell):

The Community of the Holy Transfiguration from near Geelong are a group of Baptist monks who have been living in community for forty years; that’s a significant achievement to my mind. But the thought of living in community with the same people for forty years horrifies me. I don’t think I’m very monastic. Too easily people say that someone has become ‘like family’; forty years is truly becoming family to each other. To me, it seems they are psychotherapic in outlook: the community is built around a group of broken people trying to recover through community.

Jahwork is a community of five households in Doveton. They seem to have the most similarity to Peace Tree in Western Australia. They have energy and youth and have managed to sustain five households with no designated leaders and working by consensus. They have common meals every night that everyone is invited to. This year they are taking over a cafe.

Urban Seed and UNOH are more structured. I’ve spent a long time being suspicious of ‘structure’, but it seems to me that it could make a big difference to communities being sustainable. At nearly 28, I’m ready for some structure.

Urban Seed is a series of Christian households in Melbourne supporting the work of the NGO. I visited their household in the city and was so impressed. They work with homeless people and the urban poor every day in their drop in centre/cafe. They seem to have negotiated common life really well too and have a good balance between ministry, work, life – without those being too compartmentalised.

UNOH has a board and formal policies about the shape of the common life of its houses. UNOH missionaries commit to one or three years and they truly live ’embedded’ in their neighbourhoods; they must spend eight hours of their day in the local neighbourhood. From what the speaker, Gabriel, said, they have thought through many of the hazards of the mission. Missionaries are given one day a week for personal enrichment – in his case painting; this is in addition to a sabbath day. Their whole family goes to another house away from the neighbourhood for a day. UNOH seems truly effective over the last fifteen (?) years and I’m going to read one of the books by Ash Barker, their founder, because I think they’re doing something amazing.

(Last year I wrote about how radical Christianity needed to learn from the Sydney Anglicans who have a disciplined, designated path for adherents to follow; in UNOH in particular, I think I see just what I was calling for. Whether I would be up for it is another question. But the idea of living in any of these last three communities appeals to me, from my first impressions; I think they’re living the kingdom really well.)

All the communities face the problem of what to do with people outside the core group. There are opportunities for associates to work with them in the projects they are doing in their local communities. But what of people who work nine to five and don’t have time during the day to give? Hospitality fills some of the gaps; the open table policy of some of the groups must give associates a good opportunity to participate. The UNOH community who spoke run Rainbow Church, which impresses me a lot: by creating a gathering that all can come to, they are including so many more people. The world is crying out for churches built on a radical vision of God’s kingdom, gatherings of people even for those who can’t or don’t want to live in intentional community.