In Surprised by Hope (did you buy it yet?) N.T. Wright recalls his time at Oxford in the 60s and 70s, when it became popular for liberal theologians to suggest that “though hell may exist, it will at the last be untenanted.”
And this is where Rob Bell and N.T. Wright, for all their apparent similarities, seem to part company. Wright is far less hopeful about the duration and population of hell (or more realistic, depending on your perspective) for two reasons:
1. Universalism doesn’t deal seriously enough with evil.
Mind you, we’re not talking about the breaking-the-speed-limit kind of evil. We’re talking about “genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commodification of souls, the idolization of race.” To this kind of evil, Wright insists, judgment is the only answer:
Judgment—the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated and that is evil and to be condemned—is the only alternative to chaos.
He describes universalism as a kind of fast-food theology which has become “depressingly flabby, unable to climb even the lower slopes of social and cultural judgment let alone the steeper reaches.”
And in one of the most rhetorically powerful passages in Surprised by Hope, Wright suggests (I’m trying hard to avoid typing “Wright writes”):
One cannot forever whistle ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ in the darkness of Hiroshima, or Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own…
The massive denial of reality by the cheap and cheerful universalism of Western liberalism has a lot to answer for.
2. Universalism doesn’t take into consideration the whole biblical picture of judgment.
Wright accepts that there are “those scriptural passages that appear to speak unambiguously of a continuing state for those who reject the worship of the true God.”
He specifically rejects the idea put forth in Love Wins that God will continue to offer salvation after death until the last person in hell accepts. Citing Desmond Tutu’s work on the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, Wright insists that you can’t have one (reconciliation) without the other (truth):
Where those who have acted wickedly refuse to see the point, there can be no reconciliation, no embrace.
Next up: So just how are we to understand hell?