And now. . . the juicy stuff!
After spending the first half of the book debunking much of the conventional wisdom about “heaven,” Wright takes up in chapter 11 the corollary issues of hell and purgatory. In light of recent controversy (and publicity!) among evangelicals about this subject, it seems to be a very timely topic for discussion indeed.
Wright begins by laying out the biblical and theological reasons to be wary of making category distinctions between Christians who have died. He also points out that even two of the most important Catholic theologians of the last generation, including current Pope Benedict XVI, have taken steps away from the traditional Roman understanding of purgatory as a distinct, intermediate state before heaven itself.
Most importantly, however, Wright exposes the imaginative appeal (consider Dante) of “the myth of purgatory," that is, it fosters a projection from the present onto the future. In so doing, it inevitably undermines the very real and necessary real-time sanctification that we are all called to in the present.
While the first half of the chapter may prove more challenging for those from a Catholic background, Wright’s reexamination of the doctrine of Hell was more difficult to swallow for those, like myself, with evangelical Protestant roots.
He cautions against “cheerful double dogmatism”—that of those who claim to know exactly who is and isn’t “going to hell” as well as those universalists who are equally convinced that no one will go there. Rather, Wright argues, Jesus’ teaching on hell, while not excluding the possibility of postmortem punishment, is primarily focused on the present consequences of denying God in this life.
If you’re like me, you may be wondering at this point: where is Wright going with this line of thinking? As usual, he seems to walk a tightrope between two extremes: contra the traditionalists, hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment; yet neither is it, as liberalism would have us believe, a myth without grounding in reality. Evil is real after all, and there is no room for it in God’s kingdom. Wright argues—based on the principle that we become like what we worship—that human beings may, by their own volition, continue down the path of evil until they become “beings that once were human but now are not.”
Needless to say, this is heavy stuff! As tempting as it is for many of us to over-debate these possibilities, though, Wright insists that ultimately “heaven and hell are not, so to speak, what the whole game is about.” Rather, the destiny of individual human beings only makes sense in light of a bigger question: how is God going to redeem and renew his creation? Humans are a vitally important part of this process, but not the point of it all.
Does this seem surprising? Confusing? A relief? If so, you are in good company! Whether we agree with Wright’s full argument or not, I think he does a good job of jolting the reader into something like the first disciples must have felt after the resurrection—the disorienting but exhilarating sense of stepping into a completely new and unexpected reality.
Jesus intends to humble us, surprise us, and call us into service of something much grander than ourselves. Are you ready to engage—even if it means some of your theology may be wrong?
1. What stock imagery guides your own personal understanding of Hell and God’s “judgement”?
2. Do you long for God to judge the world rightly? Why or why not?
3. Have you noticed what Wright calls the “cavalier omission of [certain, usually judgement-oriented] verses from public bible reading” even at St. B’s? What do you make of this?
4. In your opinion, does a preoccupation with heaven and hell help or hinder the work of the kingdom?