How (Not) to Deconstruct Hell (and a quote from N.T. Wright)

How (Not) to Deconstruct Hell (and a quote from N.T. Wright) January 11, 2018


As I often do, I find myself circling back to a subject that has been a matter of deconstruction in the past:


Yep, H-E-Double-Hockey… it is an an issue that many of us continue to wrestle with.

Now, there are two approaches to deconstructing hell.

2 Approaches to Deconstructing Damnation

First, you might find yourself saying: “I can’t believe in a God like that, who would send billions of people to hell for eternity.”

If this is you, I get the impulse. However, many people often allow that impulse to lead them to disregard the Bible. Such a person stays a Christian for part of this season. Then, eventually they may say: “If I’m no longer believing what the Bible teaches here, why do I believe the Bible at all?”

For this first approach to deconstructing hell, the natural result can be that a person deconstructs out of faith altogether. Not always, but often this is the case. Surely this is a simple example that needs some flesh and bone, but hopefully the basic point is made.

The second approach has been my own, and many others who grew up with a traditional view of hell (that it is eternal conscious torment), might say: “I can’t believe that the Bible doesn’t teach eternal conscious torment… thank God there are other sound theological options!” In other words, whereas the first approach starts and ends in mostly in experience, this latter approach starts with the Bible (informed by experience and exegetical resources) and ends with the Bible.

In fact, finding alternative views of hell that are more biblically sound than the so-called “traditional view,” has made my faith stronger.

Not only am I more passionate, than ever, about reading Scripture; I’m more in love with the God—Jesus himself—that I find in its pages.

N.T. Wright on Hell

Let me share a great quote from N.T. Wright about hell in its historical context.

He articulates that impending destruction of the City of Jerusalem (by the Romans in 70 CE) is what Jesus’ Gehenna (the main word we have in Greek for “hell”) warnings have in view, and it is “only by extension, and with difficulty, that we can extrapolate from the many gospel sayings which articulate this urgent, immediate warning to the deeper question of a warning about what may happen after death itself.”* He adds:

Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) who resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’, that is the primary meaning he had in mind…. [H]e was not concerned to give any fresh instruction on post-mortem judgment, apart from the strange hints that it was going to be dramatically and horribly anticipated in one particular way, in space-time history, within a generation (176-177).

For more reflections about hell, here’s what I’ve written in the past.

*N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 176.

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  • stevezahm

    Kurt, I get what you are saying, however, your first option is a straw man, me thinks. The assumption seems to be that a person deconstructing hell in the first scenario has a clear and accurate understanding of just what the biblical texts say about the prevailing understanding of hell in American Christianity. They may be merely rejecting what they conclude is a false interpretation of the relevant texts even as that interpretation is widely held. A more likely real scenario is the person questions traditional interpretations of hell, gets chided, perhaps rebuked. She/he persists and is spiritually abused via shunning, resulting in the loss of social support network called the local church. Just ask Pete Enns. Plenty of people today reject the conventional belief in hell and remain followers of Jesus. But, back to the texts or Scripture as the basis for our theology and doctrine of hell.

    At this point, I am close to as certain as I can be, that the OT and NT, the biblical texts we all generally accept, do not support the view of hell extant in Evangelicalism today.

    So, with the texts (God-breathed Scripture) we must start and end since no one by experience knows of a place of eternal torment and damnation. Applying all the the exegetical tools required and applying sound hermeneutical practices, my assertion is that, as we say in Maine, “You can’t get there from here.” so, I think when we start with the biblical texts, apply reason, tradition, and experience and the more technical tools mentioned above it is hard as hell to find a version of hell that resembles the hell American Evangelicalist generally assert and understand.

  • I guess Wright is onto something here, but that doesn’t exhaust all the passages relating to eternal destinies. I wonder if he would apply the same with Lk 16.19-31; Mt 25.46; 2 Thes 1.9 and Rev 20.14? One cant just dodge the issue by explaining one group of references while ignoring others… i.e. Yes Ghenna refers to a real world garbage heap. But there is also such a thing as eternal destiny. I seem to recall Wright suggesting they will still be resurrected, remain in a corrupted sub-human state and kept separate from God’s people.

  • Spirit Plumber

    What’s the problem?

    As described in the Bible, Hell is very much a solvable engineering problem. This would not have been something that the writers would have thought of, of course, but it’s pretty obvious to a modern reader.

    “You can go to Heaven, which looks like being in church forever, or you can tackle an interesting terraforming challenge, knowing that you have people like Einstein and Tesla on your team”.

    So… what’s the issue again?

  • Steven Waling

    Or you just say “the bible isn’t God. It can be wrong.” I get that you might want to question whether the bible really says it or not, but even if it turns out to say there is a hell, that doesn’t make it any less of a reprehensible belief that needs to be junked.

    • That is an approach to Scripture that is unneeded and unhelpful. It makes it fully relativistic and I’ve never advocated that approach. We can get to more “progressive” views while uphold the unique authority of the Scriptures.

      KURT WILLEMS, M.Div.

      Lead Pastor, Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.)

      • Steven Waling

        I’m happy with relativistic thanks.

        • That is totally fair. I just don’t know why I would trust an ancient book if I took a cherry picking approach, rather than a contextual interpretive approach.

          KURT WILLEMS, M.Div.

          Lead Pastor, Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.)

          • Steven Waling

            Contextual is fine most of the time. But when the bible tells me it’s ok to kill the children of Israel’s enemies, I don’t spend time working up a contextual answer as to why they said that. I just say, nope, that’s wrong. Academic theologians can mug up a context if they wish to.

          • Right…. But again, we know that is wrong on multiple fronts: if we take the Bible as authoritative for life and practice, it is because the Bible negates those commands later. “Love your enemies” is the Bible speaking to that older text. Context. On multiple fronts. But, to say: ahhhh…. the Bible teaches something (specifically, the New Testament) and then to say… well, progress shows us that this is dumb… without someone walking it through an interpretive grid… just doesn’t seem fruitful for the church and people who identify with God’s people. Yes. We intuitively know it is wrong (those who don’t really have an interpretation problem, amongst other issues that need to be worked out). But, to get beyond intuition and to challenge surface readings of the sacred text is important. Otherwise, why do we believe in God? Where does that idea come from? Why do we trust it?
            Scot McKnight makes this distinction in a helpful way here: What is “Liberal” Theology?

            KURT WILLEMS, M.Div.

            Lead Pastor, Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.)

          • Steven Waling

            Yes but let’s not be cute about this. You’re still saying that parts of the bible are wrong. Unless of course it was ok to kill your enemies’ children until Jesus said it was bad… in which case it’s not me who’s being relativistic…

          • I am saying that I know parts of the Bible are wrong by applying exegetical methods. I also intuit some things are wrong by human nature. Intuition alone isn’t enough when it comes to following the teachings of Scripture. That is my point. It is not relativism to decide that Jesus overturns Hebrew Scripture in some ways. It is following proper exegesis. It is giving the Bible the authority that the church has always tried to give it. Have a good weekend.

            KURT WILLEMS, M.Div.

            Lead Pastor, Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.)

          • jekylldoc

            The question is not where the idea of God comes from (hint: it was around before the Bible) but why we still take it seriously. The answer is not “the Bible tells me so.” The Bible sets out a wonderful message. The Protestant Reformation was not wrong to give it equal status to church authority. But unless you believe indulgences were a great idea, you recognize that “equal authority to the church” does not mean “perfect and perfectly clear.”

          • But in the situation in which it happened, it was not wrong.

          • Steven Waling

            They may well not have seen it as wrong I’ll grant you that. But it was still evil.

          • To our very limited understanding, with the presumption to call evil what God commanded. Could there be any higher level of arrogance?

          • Steven Waling

            So you’re basically saying that if God says it it must be “good.” So that makes infanticide & murder ok if we can justify it by saying God told us to it. Sorry, but your god is a monster. No god (or country, or ideology for that matter) is worth killing for. And anyone who thinks God is telling them to kill is insane.

          • I am saying that the Bible says in some OT circumstances, God instructed them to do that. And He had His reasons. I will not presume to question Him, or call Him wrong. If I disagree with the Word, the Word is right, and I am wrong. You are saying the God of the Bible was a monster for instructing them the way He did. While I don’t like what happened, I am not going to presume to judge God. I am also very glad that in NT and current times, God does not do that.

          • Steven Waling

            And I’m calling that out as bollocks.

          • You choose to judge God as evil in those circumstances. That is your right.

          • Steven Waling

            No I choose to judge the human beings who wrote the bible as human beings with all the faults that human beings have (including hatred of enemies). As God did not write the bible, their misunderstanding of the nature of God is entirely down to them.

          • Bottom line . . . we have different views of the inspiration of Scripture.

            Since you do not see the Bible as authoritative in speaking about God, what do you believe to be so? If the Word is not our final guide, what is?

          • Steven Waling

            “Christ says this, the Apostles say that – but what canst thou say?” The words are George Fox’s. Ultimately, the authority is not ancient texts, church tradition, even reason and experience; but the Spirit within all of us. All those can be – as the author of 2 Timothy put it – “useful.” But the ultimate authority is the Spirit of love that is already present in all of us. The idea that you need some external authority to tell you how not to commit atrocities (unless it tells you to) is nonsense.

          • Does not that make your subjective feelings on what “love” is, and what it tells you, your final authority?

          • Steven Waling

            And a 2000+ year old collection of ancient texts is more objective is it? Riiighhht…

          • You ignored my question, deflecting. Are you not making your subjective feelings of what “love” is your final authority? I am honestly interested in your answer, not to give you a witty or wise answer, but to understand your perspective.

            For me, the idea that what I, as a finite human, think “love” to be having any consequence is foreign to my way of thinking. It carries no authority nor is it applicable in understanding the Scriptures.

            But to answer your question, yes for some of us the ancient God inspired texts are an objective final authority.

          • Steven Waling

            Sorry for the flip remark. I’m very suspicious of conservative appeals to authority (I tend to see a picture of Cartman saying “Respect my authoritah!”)
            But as for “love” – obviously there is a subjective element – but what is a loving act has to be thought through – using reason, experience, yes even looking at the scriptures. Though not just Christian scriptures – there may well be wisdom elsewhere.
            But I don’t believe any of them to be absolute authorities. They are all flawed – so there always exists the possibility of being wrong. “Accept the possibility that you might be wrong” is a line from our Quaker Faith & Practice that speaks to me every day, especially as I don’t like to be wrong.
            I actually think the craving for certainty is a kind of fault in humanity. We have to live in the uncertainty and do the most loving thing we can.

          • Kathy Ruth

            The Word–capital ‘W’–is JESUS, NOT the Bible!

            John Chapter 1: “1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.”

            Jesus–the Word–said God is Love!
            JESUS is our final guide!
            You appear to worship a book and THAT is idolatry!

          • I worship a Book? lol, that is silly. Ridiculous. However it is a common insult and accusation.

            Accepting the authority of the Bible, and believing it to contain the Word of God, is not idolatry.

            I accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and He is the one I worship and serve.

          • Kathy Ruth

            Again, HOW do we know that was actually GOD’S command? Because some MAN said so? Not credible proof, especially if you believe Jesus’ words that God is love.

          • Kathy Ruth

            We only have the word of a MAN that God commanded those killings! What if He didn’t? What if He commanded the exact opposite– to befriend the people in that land–but the HUMANS in charge didn’t want to? History belongs to the victor, after all!

          • The inhabitants of the Land were savages, people who generation after generation sacrificed their children to the demon Molech by slowly burning them alive between two fires. Finally, God had enough and ordered them eliminated.

            It is not up to us to tell God how to be God.

          • Steven Waling

            You actually have any independent evidence that they were savages? Seems to me that as the accounts were written several hundred years after they supposedly occured that what we have here is boilerplate racism.

          • Steven Waling

            Aside that is from the dubious morality of “it’s alright to slaughter them – they’re only savages.” Reminds me of the slaughter of Native Americans in that fine old country of yours.

          • I think you are showing some attitude. Like you, I am not American.

          • Deuteronomy 12:31 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.

            Deuteronomy 18:10-13 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the LORD your God.

          • Steven Waling

            Deuteronomy was compiled during the exile. And it is not an independent source. Do keep up.

          • I was not trying to give you and independent source. I knew you would not accept it, but I decided to give what I believe to be the ultimate authoritative source, the Scriptures.

            In spite of your decision to reject it.

            For me, the Bible explains the reason. That is sufficient.

            I’m done.


          • jekylldoc

            This is why the “unique authority of scripture” is so problematic. Contextualizing is bad enough. But the “unique authority of scripture” leads many people to take this approach. Frankly it is sick.

          • Is there something in the New Testament with which you disagree?

            Or is there something in your life that is not in agreement with the New Testament? That is usually the reason why any of us reject the authority of the New Testament Scriptures.

          • jekylldoc

            Well, we could start with Hebrews 10: 26-27. No doubt one of the reasons why Hebrews was almost rejected from the canon. Evidently many of the church fathers were dissatisfied with it. That particular passage is dreadfully bad theology.

            I’m not too happy with the treatment of slavery in the NT, either. No doubt that is because I secretly wish to hold slaves.

            People’s interpretations about what specific things are God’s wishes or messages from God have to be used with discernment. In fact there is no alternative – everyone uses a hermeneutic. The one that says the Bible is a supernaturally dictated source of knowledge is just silly.

          • Thanks for your thoughtful answer.

            Personally I believe the Bible to be Divinely inspired, not supernaturally dictated.

          • jekylldoc

            I also think Augustine and Luther were divinely inspired. That didn’t stop them from botching some topics big-time. Inspiration is about our motivations, not our information or competence.

      • Kathy Ruth

        How can ANY intelligent person believe the the Bible is an authority on anything? We don’t have original manuscripts and, even if we did, those would have been transcribed from oral teachings.
        There is NO way to verify whether the Bible is God’s truth or if it has been corrupted by the repeated translations and copying.
        There is ample evidence that it has been corrupted, by the way–just look at how many different translations there are that differ in many crucial ways. In fact, we tend to completely ignore OTHER sacred writings of the day because they would challenge our set beliefs.
        If the Bible is the authority on the existence of Hell (which is from the Zoroastrian tradition, by the way!) why don’t Jewish people believe in it?

        • Steven Waling

          Translations are a red herring. There are lots of translations of Homer but no-one calls them “corrupted.” All the translations are based on up to date documentary evidence at the time of translation and there is very little to choose between them for most usages.

          No, the real questions are with the text itself and with whether it’s historically accurate (not likely until at least the reign of King David (and even then… not very)) and whether everything is morally right or not. Massacres of men, women & children, as sanctioned by some of the writers, quite clearly is not to any moral person, and doesn’t become moral because you portray your enemy as savage.

    • jimoppenheimer

      Correct. The Bible can indeed be wrong, even evil. One has to grapple with that in order to get at a better appreciation of what it does offer. Psalm 137 is obviously wrong, but the point should be to read it as a testimony of how deep the despair of the writer was in those terrible days when they seemed to have lost everything, and their captors teased and taunted them. The rage of those lines if absolutely understandable.
      Similarly we can see the emotion behind the fable of the children who ridiculed the Prophet and were torn to pieces by wild animals as punishment. In the eyes of the times, that was quite appropriate, since the punishment showed the enormity of the crime of disrespect, whether the children understood it or not notwithstanding.
      Jim Oppenheimer, M.Div.

      • Steven Waling

        I can certainly read those texts as very human responses to situations. But sacred? No.

  • Your intentions are admirable, but overall this is a clear illustration that we believe what we believe, and then discern justification for that belief in ancient (or in the case of the United States constitution, not so ancient) sacred texts. I think that is not only fine, but inevitable. But I do think we would all be better off if we were simply honest about it. Then we could discuss the merits of the beliefs and ideas directly, rather than in an indirect ‘shadow’ form of wrangling over the ‘true’ meanings of this or that text.

  • From Isaiah, “young woman” (Hebrew) became “virgin” (Greek) as the community’s understands evolved. The prophecy had a meaning when it was first given that did not involve a coming Messiah, but became about the coming Messiah.

    There is no reason that a prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem could later become important for other reasons. Bishop Wright should know that.

    I fully agree that God does not send anyone to Hell. The Gates of Hell have been broken by the descent of Jesus to the dead to rise again. That doesn’t mean people don’t end up in Hell, though. God has saved us from that. We are called from that. It doesn’t have to happen. However, some people deny the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives and end up in Hell. We really need to get over Double Predestination. Quickly. For our own good. We can deny God.

    On a side note, I recognize that a burning trash dump is the language of metaphor. It isn’t literal. Whatever Hell literally is, I don’t care to find out.

    On a second side note, there is an Orthodox view of Hell (one of many) where Heaven and Hell is the same place. However, for those who denied God, spending an eternity with God will be Hell. That works for me. Your mileage may vary.

  • You said, “you might find yourself saying: ‘I can’t believe in a God like that, who would send billions of people to hell for eternity…’ For this first approach to deconstructing hell, the natural result can be that a person deconstructs out of faith altogether.” Perhaps that is the result for some. For many of us, however, the natural result is that our faith shifts so that we trust in the living God, the eternal Word, rather than in the literal interpretation of words written by men over a thousand years ago.

  • Joris Heise

    As I recall, there is no true Greek nor Semitic word that corresponds in any way to our current understanding of “eternal fire after we die.” Hades/sheol describe the grave/after-world in imagination; the after-world in these ancient cultures is a shady world of dried-up souls more lonely than suffering physical pain. See the Aeneid (I believe one of the Pastoral letters mentions hades in this way, in a kind of neutral way.) Ge-Henna is and always will be the “ge” (valley, arroyo) south of Jerusalem named “henna” where the unending fire of a dump was. Now, the Egyptians had a judgment in which Anubis would listen to the list of denials about moral (and, to some extent, ritual) non-failures; consequently, one of the many “souls” would distributes themselves (I use the grammar awkwardly)–and sometimes, a soul would be a star in heaven, and a soul might just extinguish (like pinching out a candle). But I keep insisting, the modern view of heaven and hell are more products of Dante, Milton, the poetry of Revelations, and other imaginative poets than of true theology, Biblical or otherwise. to Jesus of course, “heaven,”–the kingdom of heaven, the Kingdom of God” was “within” (Here and Now)–AND NOT AN after-life. Imaginatively, one might find oneself in Abraham’s bosom, or have your body/soul/self unburied and burnt in the trash. I firmly believe that Jesus’s cry “Into Your Hands I commend my Spirit.” represents a commitment to mystery of after-death, the trust and faith that whatever is there will be the Love of Our Creator.

  • brassyhub

    So many go for ‘the Bible says…’ with no understanding that so much is a question of translation and then of context. The Bible was not dictated by God in English!

    There I find 33 references to the Greek and Hebrew words translated into ‘hell’ in French, in my Bible concordance (sorry, I work mainly in French) ALL from the Old Testament. For comparison, there are 172 uses of the word translated as ‘love’, 121 of them from the New Testament. So Jesus simply doesn’t talk about hell at all… strange.

    My favourite Bible passage, and saying of Jesus is John 8.16: ‘I judge no-one.’ I really don’t get this passion that some Christians have for judging others. There’s a lovely little book by a Sri Lankan who worked at the World Council of Churches, ‘Not without my neighbour’ – growing up in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society, he didn’t want to be separated from his neighbours of
    others faiths, in this life or the next! And I feel much the same. If there’s another place, I don’t want to go there without my atheist brother. He’s as good a man as I am, perhaps better. In any case, I do not judge him. Judgement belongs to God alone.

  • jekylldoc

    Where to start. First, the “slippery slope” argument for giving the Bible the last word on Hell is building on sand. It isn’t all that different from the fundamentalist claim that the earth must have been created 6000 years ago because otherwise civilization will collapse in a nihilistic heap due to skepticism about Biblical authority. It’s time, really, for the academic leadership in Christianity to provide tools for thinking adults to make sense of their commitment to Christianity outside a framework of creedal authority. We’re all heretics now, because the alternative is worse. Those who think their job is to justify past views can sit on the sidelines, but those of us who think a faith community is a vital thing for society have some responsibility to take the task seriously.

    Second, salvation by grace through faith is not just a formulation about judgment and the afterlife. Once you realize that “faith” doesn’t mean affirming a creed, the real possibilities of experiencing the Kingdom begin to open up. And here’s the thing – people experiencing it don’t feel the urge to wander away for lack of divine threat. “Lord, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life,” is not talking about the afterlife. It’s a real thing.