Locating N. T. Wright’s eschatology on the spectrum of views concerning hell

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While jogging this morning, I listened to an interesting  Q & A with Tom Wright on “Unbelievable?” A question arose about Wright’s view of hell and he enunciated his usual view of the dehumanization of the wicked, who eventually cease to bear the image of God. I got to thinking of the splendid triangle developed by the leadership of Rethinking Hell, and it occurred to me that Wright’s portrait of dehumanization might actually be more expressive of a position trending away from conditionalism/annihilationism than from traditionalism.

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It is hard for me to imagine a punishment more different from eternal conscious torment, while stopping short of annihilation, than Wright’s depiction of dehumanization. He suggested that a moment might come at which the wicked are aware of what is happening to them and be grief stricken at the loss which they are about to experience in consequence of their rejection of God. Beyond that point, however, it didn’t sound as though the wicked could plausibly be described as consciously tormented. Granted, they are not actually dead, they persist as creatures kept alive by God. But they are no longer suffering as humans, which is essential to the ECT perspective.

It occurred to me that that I’m not aware of having heard or read any exegetical support for Wright’s position, but that is probably a short coming in my reading rather than in his exegesis. If anyone reading this post is aware of occasions on which Wright has provided exegetical grounds for his view, I would welcome that information.

Wright’s proposal leads to a rather revisionary understanding of God’s original warning to Adam and Eve. The consequence of disobeying just one prohibition by God, eating “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” was clearly described to Adam and Eve by God as death (Gen 2:17), not as forfeiture of the image of God. Because they disobeyed that commandment, it would be inappropriate, but also dangerous, for them to then eat of the “tree of life,” which would enable them to “live forever” (Gen 3:22), and so they were expelled from the garden of Eden, and God “placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way of the tree of life” (Gen 3:23-24).

Wright’s view of hell as dehumanization acknowledges the immense importance of humans being made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). To take that identity and covenant responsibility away from them would be the most severe punishment conceivable, short of actually taking away their very life forever. In Wright’s portrait, by eventually ceasing to be God’s image bearers, humans do, in a sense, “die,” but they apparently continue to live as sub-human creatures. It is an interesting concept, but I wonder where Wright would take us exegetically to support it.

It strikes me that loss of the image of God, while falling short of death, does comport well with the essence of the doctrine of conditional immortality. It simply redefines what is conditioned upon relationship to Christ as one’s being in the image of God, rather than one’s being alive. But at least this fits very well within a second Adam Christological perspective on the fate of the wicked. The most exact representation (“exact imprint”) of God in human form was Jesus (Heb 1:3), and the only way of being renewed in the image of God when it is marred by sin, is to be incorporated into Christ and transformed into the image of God. One thinks of 1 John 3:2-3, for instance, where John admits some ignorance of exactly what we will become when we see Christ “as he is,” but John does know that “we will be like him.” Clearly, however, only those who are in Christ, who have died with him and risen with him, will experience the total transformation of their beings so that they represent God’s image fully, just as they did when first created, but even more gloriously than they did in that relative infancy as humans.

Wright places great importance on Christ’s victory over evil, and I heartily concur with him in this regard. I too believe that Christus Victor is the overarching New Testament metaphor for Christ’s atoning work, and that it is accomplished by Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners. As Paul wrote: “If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17). So renewal of fallen creation is central to Wright’s eschatology, as it should be, but participation in that renewal is completely conditional on one’s being incorporated into Christ by grace through faith.

Human beings did not cease to be God’s image bearers because of their sin (Jas 3:9), and God did not take away our responsibility to be fruitful and to exercise dominion over all the rest of God’s creation (Gen 1:28). But we have failed terribly in fulfilling our covenant responsibility as God’s image bearers, so that “the  whole creation has been groaning in labor pains,” and we who believe in Christ, “who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-23). We long for the day when Christ will complete his subjugation of our arch-enemy, the devil, and deliver creation from its millennia of groaning, and bring about a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1). Then “death will be no more” (Rev 21:4), all who have been redeemed by Christ, whose names “are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27), will dwell with Christ in this new earth and “reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5). In remedy of the original forfeiting of our right to eat the fruit of the tree of life, we will live in a city described as having the “river of the water of life” flowing through the middle of its street, with the tree of life growing on both sides of the river (Rev 22:2). Finally, we will enter into eternal life, nourished by God who “who brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10).

Few New Testament scholars have worked harder than N. T. Wright to impress upon God’s people the nature of the hope that God gives to all who are in Christ. But those whom God condemns in his final judgment will not be given life and immortality, theirs will be the terrible experience of the “second death” (Rev 20:6, 14).  Readers of N. T. Wright are left in no doubt concerning the work that God is doing to renew his creation, nor is he unclear about the critical truth that participation in that new creation is conditioned upon being redeemed by Christ. So Wright is very strongly a conditionalist, but immortality is not what he emphasizes when he warns unbelievers that if they persist in unbelief they will be dehumanized and cease to bear God’s image. Consequently, I see Wright as representing a form of “conditionalism,” but he is not quite an annihilationist,  though he seems to me to be very much on the way there.

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One Response to Locating N. T. Wright’s eschatology on the spectrum of views concerning hell

  1. Steven says:

    I think part of the reason Wright doesn’t embrace annihilationism is because of the long church tradition of ECT, yet his view isn’t really the norm, as you say. My main question on Wright’s view, though, would be “What’s the point?” I at least kind of understand the usual ECT arguments such as “If you sin against an infinite being, there is infinite punishment” or “Since people keep sinning in hell, they keep being punished for it” (although I don’t think either of those are particularly convincing). Wright’s view, on the other hand, seems to just be a kind of middle ground view that doesn’t have much support as far as individual Bible verses go, although it might have a larger philosophical framework to back it up (I haven’t read much from him on this point). Instead of people becoming “dehumanized” and living eternally in some strange zombie state, it seems like it would make more sense, like I think I’ve read Greg Boyd say, for God to take away his life-sustaining force once people have passed “the point of no return.”

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