Wednesday, August 6, 2008

N. T. Wright on Hell and Universalism

I thought that you might be interested in this insightful critique of Tom Wright's theology of Hell.

Feel free to join the discussion. I hold Tom Wright in high regard so I'd be interested to know his response.



dan said...

Hello Gregory!

I read and enjoyed your book last year (and have since told several of my friends to read it as well), so I feel honoured that you have linked to my post regarding N. T. Wright's view on hell. Thanks! Like you, I would be very interested to hear what Wright would say in response... but I'm not holding my breath. He seems like a busy fellow, you know?

Previously I wrote a post entitled 'Ten Propositions on Hell' ( wherein I explained why Christianity, rather than functioning as a 'Get Out of Hell Free' card, atually calls us to journey into hell. If you have the time, I would love to hear your thoughts on the ideas expressed therein.

Grace and peace.

Bobby said...

Thanks for including the link to Dan's blog...this is just the kind of information we are looking for! It's great to find another blog where we can be open and honest about our theology! Again, thanks for keeping this one going!!!

Auggybendoggy said...

I don't know if you have spoken to N.T. Wright. But I do know this much. He was asking about you a few months back.

My father in law attended some convention (the name escapes me) in San Diego, California where quite a number of speakers were present; Roger Olsen, N.T. Wright, JP Moreland and so on.

TW gave a presentation and my father in law was FASCINATED. Appartnely, N.T. Wright held up your book and asked if anyone had read it. My Father in law raised his hand but sadly not many (if any) did. He responded with a interest in your view on revelation and as mentioned in this link PRECISELY that the leaves of the trees were for the healing of the nations, The gates are never shut...
He then asked if anyone knows who GM is please write it on a note and pass it on to him.

My Father in law then went to him and asked him what he thought of EU by GM and he replied he thought the exegesis was poor but that he was fascinated by his views and wishes to speak to him.

From what I've read and heard of NT it seems he is close to UR. He often speaks in terms of Jesus being not the king of some small piece of land but KING OF THE UNIVERSE. But then he seems to bash U in general.

now, GM is there a way we could send a email to a (yahoo, hotmail) account to dailouge outside of a public forum. I would really appreciate it.

Gregory MacDonald said...


Thanks - I will take a look at your blog and offer some reflections.


Gregory MacDonald said...


If the convention was ETS/AAR/SBL then I was there although not in the meeting in question.

I did not expect NTW to follow my interpretation on various points but I did expect him to be interested in the fact that the backbone of my theology is provided by NTW. I did not expect him to be interested in my take on Revelation. Hmmmmm.

I have met him on occasion but I would not say that we have ever had a proper conversation. I may email him.



Gregory MacDonald said...


re: your 10 theses. A very creative theological take on the issue and one in which I hear distant Moltmannian echoes. Right?

I am not totally sure what to make of it. I agree with much of it but cannot follow your logic to then end.

I do think that Jesus was in Hell on the cross and in the grave. And I agree with you that there he was there in solidarity with those in their living hells and with the dead. I also agree that Christians are called to 'weep with those who weep' and to be suffering servants 'alongside the god-forsaken'. We are called to participate in Christ's suffering servant mission (Paul was certainly happy to see his own mission in such 'servant of Yahweh' terms).

You correctly point out that Christians are not saved from suffering and death so we still can go through our 'hells' now (which I think are anticipations of final Hell). In that sense death and 'hell' run parallel. In that sense we are saved through and not from Hell.

But, whilst I see your theo-logic, I don't see how one can BIBLICALLY extrapolate from that to final HELL (see below).

As you will know from my book it seems to me that the Bible does teach that those who embrace the gospel now are saved from (not merely through) eschatological Hell. I don't see how we can really get away from that. The Redeemed do not experience the Second Death. So to convince me you'd need to show me the biblical exegesis.

Your logic suggests to me that either
(i) eschatological Hell is really only in this age and nobody will end in the Lake of Fire (extreme-preterism), or
(ii) everyone will enter the Lake of Fire and progress through it to salvation at various speeds.
I suspect that you might opt for (i). I struggle to see that either option can make sense of the NT (though i stands a better chance). Such are my initial thoughts



dan said...

You know, after this discussion, it would be amusing if 'Gregory MacDonald' ended up being NTW...

Hello Gregory,

Many thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my theses on 'hell'. You are certainly correct to read echoes of Moltmann in the post, although von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale was also fresh in my mind at that point. In my opinion, Moltmann really gets to the core of 'Good Friday' but it is von Balthasar who gets 'Holy Saturday'.

So, let me try to flesh out the objection that you raise to my argument (if I undertand you correctly).

It seems to me that we are talking about two different dimensions of hell. On the one hand, we both affirm Jesus' descent into hell, and we both agree that Christians are called to journey through 'hell' (understood not only as our own personal experiences of suffering, but also as a part of our calling to be in solidarity with 'the damned' and the forsaken of our time).

However, on the other hand, you raise the issue of 'eschatological hell' or 'the second death'. Like you, I would agree that the redeemed do not experience the second death. Furthermore, like you, I would also affirm that this 'eschatological hell' is an actual future event (I'm choosing my words carefully here, as I would not want to affirm this 'eschatological hell' as a future place or something like that).

However, I would like to suggest that this eschatological hell is reserved for Sin, Death, and the Powers and Principalities in their service. That is to say, it is the demonic powers that prey upon creation that are ultimately assigned to the lake of fire, and destroyed in the second death. To put this another way, it is the idols who are condemned to the second death -- for idols, as Moltmann has argued, are simply human constructs that then develop into actual Powers that have authority over us. It is these perverse non/beings who are destroyed, while all of God's good creation is made new.

Consequently, all people would be numbered amongst the redeemed, and therefore no people would actually experience the eschatological hell.

Of course, as you suggest, this is a rather difficult point to make biblically. Yet here, despite his flaws as an exegete, I am convinced by Moltmann's argument that the New Testament contains an irresolvable ambiguity on this topic. Thus, instead of being something that could be proved definitively, I believe that this position is one amongst many possibilities that the bible leaves open to us -- I just happen to believe that it is the option that is the most consistent with the biblical narrative! Hence, although I would disavow any certainty on this issue (I don't think any of the parties in this discussion can claim certainty), I would want to suggest that this position is a good and appropriate expression of Christian hope.

So, i guess you could say that I take a modified version of your position (i). As far as God's good creation is concerned, our only experience of hell is before the parousia of Christ. But, as far as Sin and Death are concerned, there is an eschatological hell waiting for them (cf. Rev 20.14; 1 Cor 15.24-26; and so on).


Gregory MacDonald said...


I understand. And I think Moltmann's view is very similar. I did not think his exegetical case for the tension in NT teaching was made in convincing enough a way but I have to say that the position he took exegetically is one that is pretty much the mainstream. So your position is one that has exegetical credibility even though I disagree.

There is certainly a good case for a real tension in NT teaching. The question is how to handle it. One can leave the tension in place and be a universalist of one type or another (e.g., Lincoln, Best, Robinson, Hillert, Moltmann). One could leave it in place and not be a universalist (e.g., Bauckham). One could interpret universalist texts so that they fit with Hell texts (the majority Christian tradition) or one could try to interpret Hell texts so that they fit with other texts (the route I take).

My evangelical instincts make it very hard for me to accept what would amount to a fundamental contradiction in the teachings of the Bible. I know that this makes me run the risk of 'twisting' Hell texts to fit my theology (the reverse risk traditional evangelicals run) but I considered several kinds of universalism that see a contradiction in the biblical teaching and I could not bring myself to embrace them. My evangelical instincts run very deep and so if there are ways to embrace all biblical texts I will take it.

I don't want to have to read a Hell text in the gospels, say, and think, 'Well, I know that Jesus said that but I don't believe it.'

That said, some ways of maintaining the tension are much more evangelically plausible. If I did go down the irresolvable tension route then my inclination would be towards the way John A.T. Robinson handled the tension in his book "In the End God". I think he took the Hell texts very seriously and respectfully even though he was a universalist.

But for me the problem is this - the Bible says that some people will be in the Lake of Fire. It is not silent or agnostic on the issue. It says that some people will be there and so my evangelical universalism feels compelled to say, 'Yes they shall.'.

poserorprophet said...


If you'll allow me to press you further on one point, I would be grateful.

As with most discussions involving evangelical-type Christians (by the way, I don't mean that as a slight -- I'm studying at an evangelical institution!), this discussion comes down to a question of hermeneutics.

Like you, I desire to embrace all biblical texts, but I think that this has led me to take a different approach than you, at least when it comes to the contradictions within the bible (apparent or otherwise).

The thing is that I really do believe that some Scriptures -- and the positions taken by the narrative voice of certain passages of Scripture -- contradict other Scriptures. Let me provide what I think is an obvious, and irrefutable, example -- OT positions taken towards the Israelite monarchy (and here I should mention that Walter Brueggemann lays all of this out -- and the exegetical position to which I am drawn -- far better than I).

Some biblical passages function as blatant examples of monarchical ideology and propaganda (hence, the reader should fully and unquestionable support that monarchy) while other biblical passages blatantly attack the monarcy and call for its complete overthrow (note, this tension is about the monarchy itself, not just about the reign of particular kings).

What, then, is the discerning reader to make of this apparent contradiction in Scripture? Well, stated in an over-simplified manner, I would suggest that Scripture provides us with examples of the ideology spread by the powers-that-be, so that we are better equipped to recognise it, and counter it, in our day-to-day lives.

Thus, the contradictory passages reveal to us how even the authors of Scripture are caught up in the contexts (including the ideological contexts!) in which they write.

So, on the one hand we get completely contradictory messages from Scripture but, on the other hand, we are able to still accept of all Scripture as Scripture by reading in the way I have suggested.

I would make a similar case for the apparent contradictions regarding the hell texts. Part of a contextual reading of the NT is taking into consideration the ideological context of the NT authors which made it more or less difficult for them to discern or affirm certain points (which still manage to come through anyway).

I am curious as to what you make of this hermeneutical approach, as it is one that I have only embraced in the last few years (and I am still struggling with it).

If you don't have time, I understand. Grace and peace.

Gregory MacDonald said...


I do understand your hermeneutic and several times have wondered whether I could adopt something like it. Your example is an interesting one.

It is clear that the theologies of different biblical authors and books are different. Sometimes very different. But what if they contradict? Well, I guess that there are contradictions and contradictions. I do struggle with the idea of deep and fundamental theological contradictions.

My worry with your hermeneutic is that you it looks like 'affirm' some Scriptures by saying, "This Scripture tells us X, X is wrong so it must be there to teach us to resist X." But that is a very odd way of 'affirming' a text as having Scriptural status.

On what basis do we decide which texts are there to teach us to reject what they teach? Clearly the texts themselves cannot tell us that as their authors, as you agree, wrote them to affirm what is taught.

This becomes more acute when it is the teaching of Jesus himself on Hell. Is that inspired by the powers that be and placed in Scripture so that we can learn to resist it? Surely not.

Perhaps there is another way forward similar to yours. Perhaps the author of Revelation, for example, did believe in eternal conscious torment. Perhaps certain texts in Rev do teach it. However, certain other texts in Rev subvert that teaching. Perhaps the author's theology was not fully coherent in their own mind. Now given the way in which the two sets of texts are juxtaopsed in the final form of Revelation perhaps the reader can see that the 'universalist' texts serve to reinterpret the 'ECT' texts. Perhaps what I did in my chapter in the book was not to expose the views of the author - perhaps the author had not intended to subvert ECT teaching - but to show how the tension between the author's teachings ended up subverting ECT.

Now that hermeneutic is perhaps a via media between my view and yours. It allows that there is a real theological contradiction in Scripture (in this case in a single book) but that this contradiction invites a readerly theological interpretation that is canonical. In this interpretation the teachings of the ECT-texts are not rejected but affirmed in a non-ECT form. So ECT itself is not affirmed but the basic thrust of the texts is.

In a similar way the canonical form of Samuel holds pro and anti monarchy texts together and synthesises them by saying that God adopted their bad choice to bring about his good purpose (and in Christ the Davidic King is himself God resolving the original tension). So both pro and anti texts are affirmed in the sysnthesis. None are there to teach us what not to do but some find their meanings modified by the new contexts in which they find themselves. Same with Hell?

That is not my view but I do sometimes wonder about something like that and it is some way towards your hermeneutic but, for my sensibilities, less theologically troublesome.

Just thiking aloud (and thus probably not very coherently).

poserorprophet said...


I agree that this hermeneutic is something of an "odd" way of affirming all biblical texts as Scripture, but it isn't entirely subjective.

I'm also taking the canonical approach. That is to say, in determining which texts function as examples of the ways in which the biblical authors are caught up in their own ideological contexts, it is necessary to appeal to the entire biblical narrative (which we must constantly revisit and renegotiate as we, too, are caught up in our own ideological contexts!). Thus, when reading Scripture, we must ask ourselves, "Is what this author says in keeping with the character of the God revealed in this whole book? Does it, or oculd it, fit with the broader trajectory of this story?" and so on and so forth.

Really, what I am trying to do is synthesise the hermeneutics practiced by Walter Brueggemann and N. T. Wright. Brueggemann has taught me to take the texts seriously in themselves (and not rush to fit them into some sort of broader whole) and Wright has shown me the value of applying narrative criticsm to all of Scripture (and not just the applying it to the elements that we moderns see as 'stories'). Drawing from these two authors (and others of course, but these two are the main influences in this regard), I am inclined to think that no element of Scripture is necessarily universally true or binding, unless it can be shown to fit within the whole narrative trajectory of Scripture.

Besides, I really don't think that what I am doing is all that different than what all of us do with Scripture. All of us practice some sort of hermeneutic that recognises some parts of Scripture as lasting truths, and other parts of Scripture as more contextual and no longer binding today (Christian approaches to many of the OT laws are the most obvious example of what I'm talking about here).

Furthermore, all of us choose which hermeneutical model to employ when we read Scripture so -- regardless of how coherent and logical that system is once we enter into it -- there is an inescapable subjectivity to every reading of Scripture.

But let me place one last challenge to the alternative hermeneutic that you employ regarding your synthesis of the perspectives held in Samuel. It is fairly easy to create that sort of synthesis when it comes to an historical book -- but what do we do with the passages in Psalms and Proverbs that are such obvious examples of imperial ideology? Do we continue to say that these are examples of the bad choices people made that God later redeemed? This point is made explicitly in Samuel, but it is harder to find in the psalms and proverbs. Furthermore, imposing this understanding would certainly invalidate the actual message being communicated by some of these psalms and proverbs. Thus, I think, your hypothetical hermeneutic ends up in the same camp as my own: it affirms those psalms and proverbs as Scripture, but it does so in such as way that what is actually communicated in those psalms and proverbs is rejected!

Then again, perhaps I have misunderstood you.

Gregory MacDonald said...


Sorry for slow reply.

Your hermeneutic is certainly up front, honest and sophisticated. It has a certain appeal but I am simply not sure what I think about it. Instinctively I am reluctant to embrace it but I do appreciate what would motivate someone to embrace it.

The great danger is, of course, that the Bible becomes a wax nose (shaped and reshaped into the pattern we want it). However, your hermeneutic need not lead that way and conservative evangelical hermeneutics is also open to precisely the same danger.

One key issue is which ideological lenses we use to critique the parts. Do we adopt ideologies which are inimical to the Bible itself? That is a danger with ideological criticism. But then the ideology though which one critiques could be an ideology that arises from the text itself. That, I think, is what you defend.

Am I suggesting effectively the same thing as you in my hypothetical via-media approach? Almost ... but not quite (perhaps it is semantics). I guess I would not look at text X and say, 'In the light of the canonical context text X must be rejected. It is not right.' I am saying, 'In the light of the canonical context text X can still be affirmed but only if understood in a fresh way - a way that goes beyond (and sometimes possibly, to some extent, against) what the author had in mind.'

Perhaps that is rather close to your position.

I am not happy with my via media - I really do not know how to think about the issue. Thanks you for your stimulating reflections