Can NT Wright Have It Both Ways?

Can NT Wright Have It Both Ways? June 2, 2014
On the issue of Hell, NT Wright seems to be on a lonely island. (Sophie Gerrard, Christianity Today)

Keith DeRose doesn’t think so. DeRose, a philosopher at Yale and correspondent with YFB, has posted a retort to Wright’s posture of both emphasizing the “Kingdom-Now” theology that he’s made famous, while holding onto a belief while holding onto a belief in a grim fate for unbelievers, set at their deaths. Among the strange (and not particularly biblical) claims that Wright makes regarding Hell is that the lost will devolve to a kind of subhuman state and will thus be beyond human pity.

There are other problems, too. Here’s Keith:

But we know that, on whatever the exact account is of what these choices are (and just where the lines are between choosing well enough or not), in this life we humans often make these choices under hostile circumstances—circumstances under which we’re quite likely to choose badly. Often, as C.S. Lewis (whom Wright seems to be following here to some extent, and who in any case was a big proponent of the position that, as he memorably put it “the doors of hell are locked on the inside” (626)) stressed, it’s various of our own vices that cause us to choose against joy. But of course, we attain these vices in a variety of ways. Some (for instance, those raised very abusively from birth by wicked parents) seem never to have much of a chance. Others of us have it much easier. Sometimes, though we’ve worked ourselves into and/or some outside force has worked us into a situation in which we seem quite firmly in the “choosing against” category, God apparently intervenes to give one a chance to choose to turn things around under circumstances in which, let’s just say, we’re quite unlikely to refuse: one thinks of the conversion of Saul here. But apparently, at least in this life, God does not do this for everybody—though perhaps God at least gives much more subtle “whisperings of good news” to everyone.

If you’re interested in the work of Wright, the king-of-the-hill of evangelical biblical scholarship these days, I suggest you read Keith’s whole post.

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  • Steven Kurtz

    Hell is a hard topic for many reasons, but for me, it begins with this question: how would anybody get into hell? Is resurrection a natural phenomenon that just automatically happens, so that, after it does, you have to figure out where to put people? Why would that be? No other creatures resurrect, right (dogs, cats, spiders)? So why would we be different – unless there is God-intervention? But why would God bother to resurrect us, if there’s no “salvation” on offer? Why not just let dead be dead? Unless the reason is that God needs to resurrect people to punish them. But what would be the point of that, after life was over for them? To scare other people into – whatever it takes to avoid it? Or justice (on the theory that to get off without punishment leaves justice unserved (retributive – with all the problems that involves)?

  • Andrew Dowling

    I like Wright’s “Kingdom-now” focus . . it’s healthy for him to be embraced by evangelicals and not be your typical John Piper-esque circus clown. And he’s a fair scholar.

    But when Wright can’t back up one of his positions logically and clearly (and there are more than several he has), he swarms the reader with prolixity and jargon until they cry uncle. It’s interesting he’s sold so many books as his style is not reader-friendly . . he makes Dom Crossan’s writing look like Dr. Seuss.

    He also has interpreted the Bible through his over-simplifying meta-narrative of “God works through Israel, Israel sins, Jesus comes, Israel saved through universal Gentile mission etc.” Much of his views on what will occur in the future depends on a rather literal reading of Revelation as future seeing.

    Can we be honest with ourselves and admit we honestly don’t know what comes next? Neither did Paul . . .neither did John the evangelist. And if there is something else, and I hope there is, the only act that would be compatible of the loving God revealed in/by Jesus would be ultimate universal salvation (throw in some purgatory in there if you like).

    • R Vogel

      “Can we be honest with ourselves and admit we honestly don’t know what comes next?”

      Not to assume your occupation, but we laity probably can – a bishop in a denominational structure might have a harder time doing so….

      • Andrew Dowling

        Sure, I definitely agree with that. Those in the Church are expected to have at least some answers in their pocket.

        • R Vogel

          One of the many personal reasons why I stay away from institutional religion – it’s unfair on both sides. The laity expect the leadership to have answers and the leaders eventually believe they do….

    • The “over-simplifying meta-narrative” of Wright is what allows him to think that there is such a thing as a “biblical sexual ethic” which remains consistent throughout the Scripture. He sees Scripture as a unified vision. I think that is a legitimate way to view the story of Israel and the way Jesus is central to God’s redemption of his work. But, when it comes to the application of alot of contemporary topics, including sexual ethics – its not clear to me that the Bible gives a systematic, consistent view. Especially the role of women in these sexual dynamics. Wright seems to think that the Bible does outline it all. But there are many voices in the Scripture, and they’re not all in harmony. Living rigidly by the sexual ethics of the ancient near east makes about as much sense as accepting ancient ways of dealing with physical and mental health.

      “It’s interesting he’s sold so many books as his style is not reader-friendly . . he makes Dom Crossan’s writing look like Dr. Seuss.”

      I suspect some Christians *actually* read N.T. Wright in the same way people keep Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time on their coffee tables without having cracked it open, hoping to gain insight by its mere presence (as though books were Febreze). The best popular writers can often hope for is that their ideas get out there by osmosis. Nevertheless, the ideas that Wright has pumped into American Christianity have been overwhelmingly positive.

      In the end it is a matter of what our focus is, in practice. Wright is excited about the Kingdom of God in the here and now – not just the one to come. His belief in the literal Resurrection feeds that passion, rather than diminishing it. In practice, therefore, his theology is a far cry from the likes of Tim Lahaye. He is spot on with contemporary applications for Christian principles when it comes to the environment, women’s equality, science and faith, and economic injustice. His views on gay marriage and gays serving in the ministry are disappointing – but not surprising. It also doesn’t surprise me that he tends to avoid talking about hot topics like hell and homosexuality that dominate American religious discourse.

  • I’m the normal Catholic free-will universalist on this one. God gives the chance to everybody- but some people (like, I fear, myself) are stubborn assholes who choose to be so:

  • Jenny Warner

    Thanks for posting Tony. I think this is a really key issue and one that a lot of progressive evangelicals evade by focusing on the kingdom-now. However, if indeed, they believe hell is a real threat, it seems their energies should be spent with getting people to cross “the line” that their theology sets forth. In some ways, I respect those who do spend their energies that way – it seems to have a lot more integrity.

  • Thomas Haviland-Pabst

    Although I do not find all of what N.T. Wright says to be true, I am actually happy that he may not find a place in the canons of “progressive” theology. Despite what one may think, he is not a “progressive” in the true definition of the term. Yes, he may buck against the more conservative wing(s) of evangelicalism. Yes, he may be comfortable with rethinking things that others have taken for granted. Yes, he may be egalitarian with regard to women in church leadership. But, at base, he’s within the stream of evangelicalism. His “kingdom-now” theology is standing on the shoulders of a very well-defined branch of evangelicalism propagated by contributors to biblical theology. His analysis is not unique in this regard, nor should it have been deemed as such.

    The sad part of this is that the very over-simplified narrative of N.T. Wright, as one writer below construed it, is the very narrative of the Bible. Yet, when I hear such comments discounting the view of an opponent by left-leaning critics, they fail to deal with the exegetical evidence of those whom they oppose or to present a clear biblical basis to the contrary. It seems that it’s much easier to villainize, denigrate, or belittle one’s opponents than thoughtfully or carefully interact with them.

    • Andrew Dowling

      “The sad part of this is that the very over-simplified narrative of N.T.
      Wright, as a writer below construed it, is the very narrative of the

      Well that’s debatable.

      “Yet, when I hear such comments discounting the view of an opponent by
      left-leaning critics, they fail to deal with the exegetical evidence of
      those whom they oppose or present a clear biblical basis to the
      contrary. It seems that it’s much easier to villainize, denigrate, or
      belittle one’s opponents than thoughtfully or carefully interact with

      I’m not sure if this is in response to my post or not, and forgive me if it isn’t, but I’ll interact with Wright (I doubt he’d care to) or his supporters in a respectful manner anytime. I think one can critique another’s work without “villainizing” them.

      As I stated, I definitely like Wright more than not. But I do think he often gets a free pass from Christian moderates (because he’s a centrist on many issues, definitely not always a bad thing) and progressives (because he generally doesn’t publicly advocate his more conservative views, and he’s often busy defending his right flank so much that those on the left don’t even bother)

      • Thomas Haviland-Pabst

        Thanks for responding Andrew. I think the outline you gave of N.T. Wright is deficient, but my suspicion is that it is quite close to his actual “meta-narrative.” So, given that this outline would need to be supplied with some more details, without changing much of the substance, then, yes, I would argue that this is the biblical “meta-narrative,” if you will. Clearly this is debatable among many, but the voices that debate this often do so without carefully engaging arguments to the contrary, which is the main thrust of my response to this post (and more indirectly to you).

        With regard to your second respond to my comments, I do think a brief, non-nuanced, and non-engaged response to, or description of, N.T. Wrights views has the affect of villainizing him for it doesn’t deal with the complexity of his arguments and thus treats his views tritely and reductionistically. In other words, a low-blow, straw-man characterization has the rhetorical affect of villainizing and denigrating one’s opponents.

        But, on a somewhat different note, it may be that you are seeing Wright’s views within the framework of your own narrative, if you will, which may, in fact, run contrary to the biblical one. In this case, you see what you believe he is saying as it stands against (or, for) your own worldview, and you analyze it from this starting point. If this is true, I would probably argue that you are not intentionally villanizing him (although you may be!) but that you still are indirectly, although implicitly (and, thus, perhaps, unintentionally).

        • Andrew Dowling

          “it may be that you are seeing Wright’s views within the framework of
          your own narrative”

          We all see things from within the framework of our own narratives.

  • Brad

    What is so difficult about settling on the idea that our decisions eternally matter? Aside from from analogical and literary purposes, it is a shame anyone gets caught up in “saved” or “not saved” terminology. The apostles did not have supernatural abilities to peer into the fate of the “predestined” souls addressed by their letters. It would benefit Christians of any color to just drop the lingo altogether. It is nothing less than unhealthy vocabulary, and it incites well-intended folks to waste their days speculating about worthless ideas.

  • You know, if conservative Christians needed a tweak on the nose from Rob Bell for their views on hell, it may be that some progressive Christians need a tweak from someone like N.T. Wright, on taking classic Christian concepts more seriously. I say that even though I have a hard time with concept of hell too. Any thinking, empathetic believer with an ounce of morality is sure to have struggled with it. But if Wright doesn’t take it lightly, I feel like some liberal Christians either outright dismiss the concept. . . or eliminate it by omission. I’m certain that hell has been misused and misappropriated over the years. But reading Wright, I have to say I think his trust in God to do the right thing is the appropriate attitude to take.

    Again, I myself do not take a strong view on hell – just a view on God’s justice being above ours. I doubted God’s justice only when my view of hell was out of sync with what I believed of the character of God. Conversations about hell almost always bring to light one’s view of God’s character. Some views are quite ugly, vindictive, and tyrannical. I have my own musings on where it is all headed though, and it is closer to Wright’s than to uber-conservative hellmongers. In this case, I don’t mind Wright affirming a particular view of hell, which frankly is much more nuanced than what the vast majority of conservative evangelicals hold. Wright is part of the ongoing process of Christians revisiting these things, as we have done over the centuries. The only views of hell are not limited to extreme conservative (eternal conscious torment for all who didn’t pass the litmus test of right belief) OR extreme liberal (hard universalism with total lack of justice and accountability for evil.). Many progressive Christians can’t abide the idea of hell serving an important function – in so doing, they cede “hell” to conservatives.

    To me, the fact that Jesus spoke about it means we should take it seriously (sorry liberals). . . but maybe not in the way most people fear (sorry conservatives). Sin, evil, and hell may actually be more immediate and pressing than a far off future reckoning. For many people, these concepts aren’t theoretical – their descriptions of darker spiritual experiences. If fundamentalists make these grim ideas the center of their theology, its hard to resist the temptation to banish them from our own, and focus on the positive in the spiritual life. But I can’t shake the feeling that, in doing that, we’ll have ignored something important.

  • Luke Allison

    Pretty sure I’ve never heard Wright say that some kind of intellectual/faith-based assent to Jesus as Lord determines the eventual fate of human beings. That he believes in some kind of judgment for “the wicked” puts him firmly on the same island as a crazy conservative like Miroslav Volf.

  • Keith DeRose

    In response to Luke Allison: I don’t know if your comment is directed at me, but I didn’t present NTW as supposing that it is “some kind of intellectual/faith-based assent to Jesus as Lord” that “determines the eventual fate of human beings.” I just went by his own words, by which it’s some kind of choice, trying hard not to presume what he thinks that choice looks like. As comes out in my discussion, *I* think that all who enjoy everlasting life with Christ will have made a choice to explicitly accept Jesus as Lord, and I think that’s the way for pro-choicers to go, but I don’t think I presented NTW as thinking this.

    • Luke Allison

      I was responding more to Tony than to you, I think. I only read that little snippet of your article. I’m a universal reconciliationist (is that a thing?) so I guess I lean in the same direction you do. But I also want dictators/rapists/mass murderers to experience a reckoning…maybe that looks like having to live with and love their victims as they are slowly restored back to humanity…who can say?

      • Keith DeRose

        There may be more involved as well, but it would seem reconciliation with victims would have to be part of the picture. Sounds pretty tough. In fact, even before getting to the dictators/rapists/mass murderers, it seems it will be plenty tough enough for some of us more ordinary bad people to achieve the needed reconciliation. I think we tend to focus too much on the reconciling-with-God aspect of what’s needed, and not enough on the reconciling-with-each-other.


        Here’s the first paragraph:

        When asked whether it is true that one day in heaven we will see again our loved ones, Karl Barth is reported to have responded, “Not only the loved ones!” The sting of the great theologian’s response—be ready to meet there even those whom you dislike here—is more than just a personal challenge. It contains a serious and, as it turns out, inadequately addressed theological problem. How can those who have disliked or even had good reasons to hate each other here, come to inhabit together what is claimed to be, in Jonathan Edwards’ memorable phrase, “a world of love”? The not-loved-ones will have to be transformed into the loved ones and those who do not love will have to begin to do so; enemies will have to become friends.

  • Keith DeRose

    In response to some of the comments: Though I certainly disagree with NTW about the ultimate fate of the lost, I was not in the linked piece, and Tony was not here, questioning NTW’s view on the fate of lost itself so much as how well it cohered with his view on what the focus of the Christian life should be.

  • Brian P.

    NT Wright can have it both ways. Parsimony is not required of theology. Nor is consistency. Nor truthfulness. It just is.