I have always felt some frustration with the way in which N. T. Wright approaches the topic of hell, both because of the positions he engages and because I expect a little more from someone so committed to the larger narrative of Scripture.
I first came across his views in three small articles he had written (“Toward a Biblical View of Universalism” in Themelios 4:2 : 54-58; “Universalism” in The New Dictionary of Theology, eds. S. B. Ferguson and D. F. Wright [Leicester: IVP, 1988], 701-703; “Universalism in the World-Wide Community” in The Churchman 89:3 : 197-212), but he has, once again, addressed the topic in his recent book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of God. I'll begin by summarising what he says in this book, before making a few comments.
Wright begins, IMO, in the right place by refocusing what Jesus had to say about Gehenna. Essentially, Wright argues, Jesus was warning Israel of what would befall her if she continued to pursue violent revolution and rejected the way of peace that Jesus was offering (Wright expounds on this in more detail in Jesus and the Victory of God). Hence, he argues:
As with God's kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter… Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God's kingdom in their own terms… then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to small countries… Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own rubbish heap. When Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” that is the primary meaning he had in mind.
So far so good, and Wright continues to argue that the parables that appear to address hell directly must be remembered as parables that insist on the pursuit of justice and mercy within the present life.
Hence, he concludes that Jesus offers us no fresh teaching on this topic, but simply follows the normal first-century Jewish belief on this topic — which does include the belief that some people will be damned.
Wright then goes on the attack against the type of universalism promoted by liberal theologians in the '60s and '70s. He argues that their optimism is naive and that our recent experiences of horrible evils (he names places like Rwanda, Darfur, and the Balkans) remind us that there must be a judgment — good must be upheld, evil condemned, and the world set right.
Again, this is all well and good, but then Wright's argument continues in a way that I wish to challenge. He argues that setting the world right requires that some have “no place” in the new creation — in particular, those who have pursued idolatry, and thereby both acted in subhuman ways, and become subhuman creatures. What is the fate of these subhuman creatures? Not the traditional view of endless torment, nor a universalist view of repentance made possible after death, nor, yet again, a conditionalist view that argues that those who presistently refuse God's love, will be annihilated. Rather, Wright argues that the fate of such people is to become “by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not.” Hence, he argues that these creatures, existing in an ex-human state “can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal”. In this way, they are “beyond hope, beyond pity”.
Ultimately, Wright states that he would “be glad to be proved wrong but not at the cost of the foundational claims that this world is the good creation of the one true God and that he will at the end bring about the judgment at which the whole creation will rejoice.” Indeed, he even goes so far as to suggest that Revelation 21-22 might open the door for holding the view that those outside the gates might be healed because the water of life flows out of the city, but he holds back from going any further in this thinking. Thus, he says, regarding this suggestion:
This is not at all to cast doubt on the reality of final judgment for those who have resolutely worshipped and served idols that dehumanize us and deface God's world. It is to say that God is always the God of surprises.
There are a few points I would like to raise related to Wright's presentation of these things. To begin with, I'm puzzled that he chooses to engage the forms of universalism that he does (and always has). Granted, there are some serious flaws in the liberal universalism that he criticises, but there is another form of universalism that he either doesn't know or ignores — that is, the hopeful universalism propogated especially by Hans Urs von Balthasar, but also expressed recently by Gregory MacDonald.
Secondly, I'm not sure why Wright links hell so closely to judgment. Indeed, I think the most compelling thing about Moltmann's understanding of eschatology and universalism, is that he deftly and biblically demonstrates that the two need not be held together. It is quite possible for good to be upheld, evil to be condemned, the world set right, and, at the same time, for all people to be saved. Yes, there must be exclusion before there can be an embrace (as Wright argues, following both Volf and Tutu), but that does not mean that the act of exclusion must be final — it could mean that all will, in the end, be embraced. This point, I think, goes a long way to overthrowing his stated objection to universalism.
Thirdly, given Wright's emphasis upon the biblical narrative, I'm a little surprised that he doesn't think (or at least doesn't say) that the salvation of all might be just the sort of “surprise” that fits rather well within the trajectory of that narrative. Despite the Old Testament material that shows us that the Gentiles would be also be welcomed into the Kingdom of God, the offer of the inclusion still came as a surprise to many in the days of Jesus and Paul. Of course, in retrospect, we 21st-century Christians can see how that inclusion fits the story rather well. I can't help but wonder if a similar surprise awaits us. Given the hints that exist within the Scriptures, we might also see the inclusion of all people in the consummation of the Kingdom.
Fourthly, I'm somewhat troubled by the things to which Wright appeals in order to refute “liberal optimism”. In his “catalog of awfulnesses” and his mention of those who are “utterly abhorrent” he lists mass murderers, child rapists, those who engage in “the commodification of souls”, and so on. Here's the kicker: over the years I have personally known several people who would fit into these categories, yet I hold onto the hope that they will be saved, and made new, along with the rest of us. I have known those who have tortured and killed others (gang members), I have known those who have sexually exploited children (pimps and johns), and I have known those who have commodified the souls of others (drug dealers), yet I have been unable to “cast the first stone.” Now, let me be clear on this: I believe that all of these actions are truly, truly horrible, but I do not yet believe that the people who performed these actions are horrible. Yes, such people must be resisted, yes, they must be held to account; but must they be damned? I don't think so.
Wright, I think, is too quick to demonise the humanity of the Other in these examples. I don't know if he has spent much time with such people, but I wonder how that might change his views. You see, because I have had the opportunity to personally journey alongside of many of these people, I have had a chance to see that most of them had little or no chance to be something other than what they are. Some were born broken, others were so broken when they were young that they never had a chance to develop into anything else (remember most of those who sexually abuse kids, were sexually abused as children — this is not to suggest that all those who are sexually abused as kids go on to abuse others, but it is a large factor, and I think other circumstances in one's life go a long way to determining whether or not one goes on to abuse others or not). Ultimately, contra Wright, I don't think that it is the human Other that becomes ex-human and is damned. Rather, I think it is the forces that dehumanise the Other — forces of sickness, of structural evil, and so on — that are damned, while the person is restored to their fully human status in Christ.
But wait, what do I mean when I say “some were born broken”? A few things: first, some people are born unable to empathise with others or follow moral codes (this is called Antisocial Personality Disorder, or, more commonly, such people are referred to as sociopaths). It is hard to know how to respond to such people. People who never had a conscience. Yes, they can do awful things — but will they be damned or will they, in the end, be healed? Secondly, I also think of kids born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome — often born into poor and violent homes. Such kids often have their brains damaged in such a way that they are unable to empathise, and unable to understood the consequences of their actions. Again, it's just the way their brains are wired. I've known a few like this; some were gang-bangers, who had done some awful things, but I'm just not sure that they'll be damned in the end. They, too, might be healed. In such people, sinful actions are the symptom of an underlying brokenness — a brokenness they had absolutely no control over.
Similarly, for many of those who are not born broken, but are made broken, I cannot help but wonder if those who have not journeyed alongside of people who have experienced great traumas and violence, can really understand the true depth of the impact that trauma and violence can have — especially on children. If these children grow up to inflict violence upon others this is tragic, but I wonder to what degree they are culpable — or, rather, I wonder if I would have been able to grow up and be any different, or if any of us would. So, in the end, will these people be damned, or will they, like us, be healed, and made new?
I can't help but think of the scenario in Jn 8.1-11 involving the woman caught in adultery. I wonder, if at the moment of judgment, once we have been fully confronted with both our own sinfulness, our own complicity in the broader structures of sin, and the ways in which those who sinned against us have been sinned against, if what will result is similar to what happens to the woman. In 1 Cor 6.2, Paul tells us that the saints will judge the world. I wonder if this means that God will say “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.” I wonder then, if we are unable to throw stones, if God will also say to those being judged, “then neither do I condemn you. Come now and leave your life of sin.”