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.


7 thoughts on “Tom Wright’s Hell

  1. Hey Nathan,

    Thanks for your interesting thoughts. NTW has written several times on hell in his corpus, and hasn’t changed his mind. I find NTW’s thinking about the sin that leads to hell problematic.

    His idea that the more we sin the more we cease to be human fails to grasp the significance of the image of God in humans and human responsibility. One can only sin if they possess the image of God. To lose the image of God is to lose responsibility, and therefore lose an ability to sin (or do good). In short: one can only sin when one is truly human–sin is not dehumanising, but the rebellion against God of responsible humans made in God’s image. At least, that’s how I see the scriptural logic.

    Blessings brother,


  2. Hi Marty,

    Interesting comment – I hadn’t considered this idea before. Wright would tend to see sin as taking us further and further away from our humanity while you see it as the very proof of our humanity? But perhaps you would both agree that being fully human in the new creation (after our resurrection) will mean being as Jesus Christ – to be voluntarily living in communion with God, without sin?

    Shalom, Nathan.

  3. Dear Nathan,

    Yes, it seems to me that sin is indeed proof of our humanity not an annihilation of it. This is a classic idea embedded deeply in the Christian tradition, rather than my own feeble wonderings–although to me it makes best sense of the biblical data.

    And yes, with NTW it seems to me the Bible teaches that we will be living in a new (material) creation voluntarily without sin in the presence of the God and of his Christ (and of there won’t be a tree of the knowledge of good and evil–whatever that means–in this environment). Again, this is an idea that has long currency in the Christian tradition, which NTW has recovered so powerfully.

    Blessings bro,


  4. Hi Marty,

    I should clarify – it was just to the question of hell that I hadn’t thought of applying the idea of sin as humanness. Agreed it’s an idea with a strong pedigree!

    I’m wondering that if Jesus shows us what it is to be fully human, then is part of being fully human to be without sin? (Something only he has achieved so far.) If so, we might conclude that even though sin is a part of our human condition in the fallen world, sin actually takes us away from being fully human – thus laying the foundation for Wright’s suggestion, even if I don’t follow him there.

    In the end, it comes down to different anthropologies, perhaps – are people completely given over to sin fully dehumanized or fully humanized? Whatever we might call them – fully human or fully inhuman – they are in hell.

    Shalom, Nathan.

  5. Dear Nathan,

    Ok, I see from where you’re coming. I struggle with the idea that we, even in sin, are somehow less than “fully human”. It seems to me that the image of God is fundamentally ontological not functional (Gen. 9:6). Thus what we do, doesn’t make us more or less human. Rather it displays more or less of God’s glory (i.e. an image produces glory e.g. 2 Cor. 4:4). Hence, I’m also not sure that it’s best to speak of Jesus showing us what it means to be “fully human”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see the NT saying that Christ came to give us an example of what it means to be “fully human”. He certainly is an example of many things (love, justice, compassion, etc.) I don’t deny that. Rather it seems to me the biblical idea that Christ as a true human (ontologically) just like us, came to display the Father’s glory precisely by what he (functionally) did(John 1:14).

    As I understand it, Christ now in his resurrected state bears a (new) image–that one day we will have (1 Cor. 15:49). The new creation will be a different quality of existence fit for a different reality (1 Cor. 15:42-48). Quite frankly I don’t know what this entails because I exist in the current first creation whose categories don’t fit the new creation. (I assume that’s why the Bible speaks of the new creation in metaphor).

    Hence, I can’t grasp the idea that all people will be raised (i.e. assume in a new creation state) of which some will experience “the destruction of both [resurrected?] body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28). I’m happy to leave the particulars to God.

    God bless you,


  6. Hi Marty,

    You’ve shown me I need to think through my christology some more!

    A lot of my thinking comes from an Anabaptist interpretation of discipleship as being imitators of Christ, of taking up the cross daily. I guess that means I think of Christ’s example as functional as well as ontological. But I’m aware I haven’t thought this through as well as you.

    Thanks for the interesting dialogue.

    Shalom, Nathan.

  7. Interesting discussion concerning N.T. Wright’s teachings about what is true humanness in the image of God.

    In Christ, the entire creation of heaven and earth, spirit-creation and material-creation will be joined and integrated, as the material-creation is renewed in glory to be compatible with the spirit-creation of heaven and with God directly. The Kingdom of God in Christ is the “marriage-union” of God with His “created-through-Christ” creation, brought to glory. Tom Wright teaches this well.

    But notice that the physical has to be “brought to glory” through the glory-resurrection of Christ. As originally created, even before the Fall, the physical-natural-material is not intrinsically glorified, but in a neutral-like innocence without the spiritual adoption (enhancement) that is now destined for it in the incarnate Son’s glory, as represented in the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Life (and depicted in Revelation 21 and 22). Even if there had been no Fall, mankind and creation still awaited the incarnation of the eternal divine Son, so that there can be glorification (spiritual enhancement) and real union with God, which is being spiritually adopted into real compatibility with the Father through the incarnation and glorification of the Son. But since there was a Fall, Christ had to do two things in one when He came incarnate. He had to provide redemption (fix up) as well as the original glorification purpose which was intended before man fell. Mere innocence and sinlessness in not enough. It is not the glory of holy spiritual adoption through the eternally beloved Son incarnate, which was the original purpose for man and creation in the first place, not a “redemptive” afterthought or Plan B. With Christ, man and creation are spiritually “married-united” to God. Without Christ, even before the Fall, man and creation are simple “single” and unattached to the Creator.

    This theology is found in the Eastern Church and among the Franciscans in the Western Church, as well as in the writings of Watchman Nee from China.

    It makes biblical-Christian theology more consistent in explaining how even though mankind is originally created “innocent and sinless” in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, he was still in a “spiritually incomplete” state until Christ (the divine Son incarnate) should come and bring mankind and creation to the higher state of glory and real compatibility with God through the Son’s intervention, even if there had been no sin or Fall. This theology is called “the absolute primacy of the Incarnation”, which is not dependent on the Fall of man. (It is also called “the Hypothetical Question” and “the Franciscan Thesis”. ) Other wise, you have the glorification of man and creation (a higher superior condition, even God’s original intention) necessarily brought about only by God’s redemptive reaction to sin and evil. If there were no sin, evil, or the Fall, the eternal divine Son still would have needed to come incarnate into our world to bring us all into glory, completing our original, but incomplete “image of God” condition by “adopting us into His spiritual glory.”

    Hope you were able to follow this brief explanation, if this is your first exposure to this theological perspective.
    It should change the way Christians should think about what God’s original intention was (and is) for His “image”-creature, man, who was created destined to have an even higher glory than even the angels, but that’s another story…

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