N.T. Wright on Rob Bell and the Reality of Hell
When asked recently about the reality of hell, N.T. Wright responded:
My usual counter question is: “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?” Far more Americans ask me about hell than ever happens in my own country. And I really want to know, why is it that the most prosperous affluent nation on earth is really determined to be sure that they know precisely who is going to be frying in hell and what the temperature will be and so on. There’s something quite disturbing about that, especially when your nation and mine has done quite a lot in the last decade or two to drop bombs on people elsewhere and to make a lot of other people’s lives hell. So, I think there are some quite serious issues about why people want to ask that question.
Having said that, I am not a universalist. I’ve never been universalist. Someone quoted a theologian saying, “I’m not a universalist, but maybe God is.” That’s kind of a neat way of saying, “OK, there’s stuff in Scripture which is a little puzzling about this, and we can’t be absolutely sure all down the line.” But it seems to me that the New Testament is very clear that there are people who do reject God and reject what would have been His best will for them, and God honors that decision. How that works and how you then deal with the questions which result I have written about at some length.
I don’t think myself that Rob Bell has quite taken the same line that I did in Surprised by Hope. I haven’t actually had the conversation with Rob since his book was published. So, one of these days, we will and we’ll have that one out. I do think it’s good to stir things up because so many people, as I say, particularly in American culture, really want to know the last fine-tuned details of hell. And it seems to be part of their faith, often a central part of their faith that a certain number of people are simply going to go to hell and we know who these people are. I think Rob is saying, “Hey wait a minute! Start reading the Bible differently. God is not a horrible ogre who is just determined to fry as many people as He can forever. God is actually incredibly generous and gracious and wonderful and loving and caring. And if you paint a picture of God which is other than that, then you’re producing a monster and that has long-lasting effects in Christian lives and in the church.”
A couple of things in response:
1. Asking the question behind the question is good, but not if it results in downplaying the importance of the question.
Wright asks “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?” in order to consider the context of the question. He implies that Americans may be asking this question because of deep-seated feelings of guilt for our economic prosperity or our nation’s foreign policy. I’m afraid this simply won’t work as an explanation. The U.K. was just as invested in the Middle Eastern conflicts as the U.S., and yet he claims he is rarely asked about hell in England.
Furthermore, the idea that only Americans are asking about hell seems reductionist. When I lived overseas, I discovered Romanians to be very interested in future judgment. Visit Eastern Europe, Africa, China, and other parts of the world where there is a strong evangelical presence and you will find people grappling with these issues. The fact that few in the UK ask Wright about hell says more about the paucity of evangelical witness in England than it does any lopsided obsession with hell in the States.
Frankly, there are other, better reasons behind the recent dustup over hell. We’re coming out of a decade or two in which some of the sharp edges of Christian doctrine have been blunted and softened. Much of American preaching has centered on practical ways to better one’s present life. Newer gospel presentations sidestep the question of hell altogether and focus instead on God’s calling us to join him in the mission life for this world now. We’ve been told that people aren’t that concerned about the life of the age to come (this, despite the number of books about heaven and hell that linger around the summit of the New York Times bestseller list).
Perhaps, the reason why the subject of eternal destiny has come roaring back is because people do indeed wonder about these things, the Bible does indeed speak to them (quite often, in fact), and people who read their Bibles regularly (evangelicals in the U.S.) can’t miss all the references to final judgment. Like Wright, we should indeed ask the question behind the question, but not if our intention is to downplay the importance of the question.
2. Hell is not merely the natural outworking on sin’s consequences.
I don’t like writing about hell. I don’t relish the thought of eternal condemnation. I’m not one who, in Wright’s words, is obsessed with who will be “frying in hell and what the temperature will be and so on.” My desire is to be faithful to what Scripture teaches and to represent Jesus as best as I can – even when Jesus challenges my own presuppositions and ideas. When I asked Wright about hell back in 2008, he said this:
In a sense, it is shocking and horrifying. Think about people we know! I’m sure most people, unless we live in very enclosed worlds, must know some people (if we truly hold to a theology of hell) who are going there! That should give us pause. That should cause us to pray for them and to weep over them. So I don’t say this with any relish at all.
I echo these sentiments and have had to fight back tears even while writing this blog post.
Despite the fact that the idea of eternal judgment is difficult to swallow, Wright is not a universalist. He believes that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead.
Still, I’m not sure Wright’s picture of hell does justice to the Bible’s description of “last things”. Following the thought of C.S. Lewis, Wright casts hell as the consequential outworking of sinful life patterns. Sin becomes its own damnation, leading to dehumanization to the point that an individual is beyond pity. Wright is putting forth a middle way between eternal conscious torment and annihilationism, but I think his proposal neglects the passages that indicate God will actively be involved in a sinner’s eternal destiny.
Hell is not just the natural outworking of sin. It’s also the active judgment of God. In Counterfeit Gospels, I write:
Though it’s true that condemnation is the consequence of our sinful choices on earth, it’s not enough to speak of hell as merely consequential. There are too many biblical passages that describe God as actively judging sinners… Surely this view of judgment is unpopular and has negative connotations. It may be hard to stomach. But if Christianity is true, we should expect it to confront our presuppositions and views at several points. This may be the place it hits us Westerners the hardest. In trying to make sense of the biblical portrait of eternal judgment, we are left with no other choice. As glorious and majestic as the New Testament portrayal of resurrection and new creation is, so horrific and terrifying is its portrayal of God’s wrath against sinners outside of Christ.
It is puzzling to me that Wright never shies away from the glorious implications of resurrection and new heavens and new earth, and yet in his writings, he seems to distance himself from the frightening implications of some of the descriptions of hell found in the New Testament.
3. I’m all for stirring things up, but what I want to see stirred up is urgency in calling people to repentance and faith.
Wright clearly doesn’t agree with everything in Rob Bell’s book. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he and Bell get together and talk about their differences.) And yet, Wright gives Bell a pass, saying it’s “good to stir things up” among those who think they’ve got hell down to the “last fine-tuned details.” He goes easy on Bell because he sees Bell as countering a common caricature of God as a monster and ogre.
Perhaps the caricature of “God as capricious monster” exists out there, somewhere. But I have yet to run across non-Christians who conceive of God this way. In my conversations with non-Christians, I am more likely to hear them articulate a vision of God that is held captive to Western notions of “love” (sentimentalism) and “fairness”. I don’t run across many people who are afraid of hell or final judgment. Instead, I see people who resemble those in Noah’s day, eating and drinking and marrying without any sense that judgment is coming.
There is certainly a caricature of hell that deserves to be attacked (hell as a torture chamber in the middle of God’s new world), but surely the more common error in today’s time is the absence of any notion that God would actively judge sinners. Rob Bell is only counter-cultural when it comes to the evangelical subculture he has riled up. Traditional evangelicals are the true subversives, swimming hard against the entire tide of our pluralist society.
Jesus didn’t “stir things up” by backing off the truth of final judgment. He stirred things up by reaching for the most gruesome, horrifying images imaginable in order to communicate the horror of God’s judgment. I don’t think “stirring things up” among those who think they have it all figured out is the best way to increase evangelistic fervor today. Instead, I want God to use what Jesus taught about hell in such a way that my own heart will be gripped by compassion for lost people, and that I will be bold enough to faithfully represent a Savior whose teaching is increasingly unpopular.