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.