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July 08, 2010

Wright and Lewis on Hell


Another post from the Wheaton N.T. Wright conference on a relatively benign topic...ahem.

This time the quote comes from the panel discussion on day two, the last 14 minutes. The moderator is asking questions from the audience to Wright and the other panelists. The question begins by stating that Wright's work renegotiating our understanding of Heaven has been prominent and important. That set-up is followed by an inquiry into whether or not Wright has done any similar kind of renegotiation regarding Hell?

Wright's initial response is telling I think. Before launching into content, he supplies some context that is as revealing as any answer he supplies.

"I did a riff on hell in Surprised by Hope because whenever I talked - I did those lectures many, many times around the country and around the world - and always somebody said, 'What about Hell?' and I used to get really depressed when that was the first question (laughter and nodding by other panelists). What sort of a culture is it where the main thing that people want to know is 'Will there be worms in Hell?' and 'How big will the flames be?' etcetera. I've been asked that question on a radio talk show once. 'Will there be worms in Hell? Because my Bible says there will be worms in Hell and unless you believe that, you don't believe the Bible.' Come on."

That last "Come on" is gold, by the way. It happens so rarely that you see Wright exasperated in public appearances that when he lets a little shine through...well, it's nice to see. Anyway, he goes on to share an anecdote about sitting next to an Greek Orthodox priest at an event in the Sistine Chapel. Looking at the artwork by Michelangelo, the priest looks at one wall depicting the life of Moses and says, "This, I understand." Looking at another wall depicting the life of Jesus, he says, "That, I understand." Then, pointing at the great east wall and its depiction of "The Last Judgment," he says, "That I do not understand." This story highlights the way the Western church, under the influence of Dante and Michelangelo as much as anyone else according to Wright, went on a different trajectory theologically than did the Orthodox communion. Wright aligns himself in the Eastern tradition as it relates to last things, or eschatology as it is known in theological studies. Wright states:

"Hell and heaven are not equal and opposite. I'm with C.S. Lewis on this in The Great Divorce. I'm not a universalist, but I think when people choose to worship that which is not God they diminish, and finally extinguish, their humanness. Insofar as they have a continuing existence post-mortem, it is an ex-human existence, which I think is a very, very, very horrible thing to imagine. But it is not then something that has the capacity to excite hope, pity, or anything else. I write about this in Surprised by Hope. I wish I didn't have to talk about that, I don't like thinking about that, but insofar as there is an answer to the question, that is how I do it."

I so appreciate Wright's Lewis reference. I discovered The Great Divorce in my early twenties and have read it almost once a year ever since. The divorce that the title references is the gulf that Lewis says exists between Heaven and Hell. Lewis is keen to point out that the distance between them is great. In the introduction to this book, he quotes the poet William Blake and his writing about the marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis states that there is, in every generation, a temptation to marry Heaven and Hell - that these eternal realities are equal and opposite in a kind of yin and yang twinning. Lewis, and Wright, want to "divorce" these two realities from one another. They are not equal and opposite. A couple of different quotes from The Great Divorce illustrate this and have had a significant influence on my own understanding of the doctrine of Heaven and Hell. That these doctrines are mediated so powerfully through a fictional/mythic account of Heaven illustrates something of the nature of what I was trying to get at in the last post.

In this quote, the protagonist is nearing the end of his journey and is speaking plainly with his heavenly guide. When asked directly about who gets to make the journey he himself is on, the guide replies:

"Everyone who wishes it does. Never fear. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened."

Earlier, in response to the question of whether or not Heaven and Hell are only states of mind, he says:

"Hush...Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind - ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature with the dungeons of its own mind - is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains."

We are relational beings made in the image of a relational God. Within this kind of understanding of life in God, we see that eternal life is not positional, it is relational. This is what Jesus is getting at when says, "This is eternal life: that they know you,the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3). In Matthew 22: 37-40, Jesus equates love of God with love of neighbor (and recasts neighbor subversively as the person you hate the most in the parable of "The Good Samaritan" in Luke 10). The implications of this relational reality are not something we spend a lot of time dwelling on I fear. According to Lewis and Wright, the unwillingness to turn to God and to one another is itself imprisoning, a dehumanization that diminishes, then finally extinguishes creatures made to know and experience the glory of Love through relationship. Which brings me to the final quote from The Great Divorce.

The Heavenly tourist, who is our protagonist, encounters a woman on the shores of Heaven made glorious by Love. Her husband, on the other hand, is in the last stages of his devolution. With our protagonist, he, too, has made the journey to this purgatorial middle ground. He seeks to emotionally manipulate his wife into joining him on his terms, in his misery. It is pathetic. Now knowing love, she refuses.

"Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenseless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? For it was real misery. I know that now. You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do. But you can no longer communicate your wretchedness. Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? Did you not know they were stronger than their opposites?"

Then one of the most beautiful lines I have ever read:

"I am in Love, and out of it I will not go."

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Melody Hoskins

I don't say this often, though I am a fairly consistent reader, and when you're speaking on Lewis and the 'Divorce, I feel I have to comment.:)
Thank you Tim for your heart and what you are showing to us on this blog. Some things we get and some things, even with years of reading and rereading, we need another to point out. The dehumanizing of oneself (turning away from God) is hell, and there but by the grace of God go I.

Tim Keel

Thanks, Melody. You are welcome and it is truly my pleasure. Thanks for reading and participating.


Again, Tim, you have blessed me with a new perspective on a old story.

Tim Keel

Glad to know that, Canaan. Thanks.

Tim Suttle

Hey Timmy! I just re-read TGD last week, partly because of that panel discussion and Wright's comments. I was struck by this passage: "Son... ye cannot in your present state understand eternity...But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been hell." The difference between the two, at least in Lewis' vision, seems to be a bitter self-justification v. a joyful self-humiliation.

Have you listened to Begbie's lecture?


I've never thought of the "divorce" of heaven and hell in that way-thanks for the insight. To NOT think of them as yin and yang seems a bit more right in my heart.

Could you recommend an NT Wright text/book/message on the topic of Heaven? I'd like to read more.

Tim Keel

Mr. Suttle! How are you, my friend? I love that passage - though isn't in there that he says such a perspective is not available to us in the present, but only possible when looking backwards at the consummation of all things? Or maybe that is something that Lewis says in the introduction? Anyway, I am working from home without my books so I can't look it up. Great stuff!

Joyful self-humiliation. Yes.

I have not listened to Begbie's lecture yet, though was finishing up the panel discussion he was on. Have you watched that? It concludes with him playing a piece of music (I believe he composed himself) on the piano onstage when asked by someone in the audience to do so. It's sublime. Can't wait to listen now!

Tim Keel

Yes, Moe - this is very important that we see that they are not equal and opposite. Back to Lewis on this. In The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil responsible for instructing his young charge on the art of temptation discusses the right balance regarding his subject's awareness of evil. He says that he should either tempt him think about it all the time (thus denying the goodness, power, and reality of God), or to dismiss it altogether (thus denying the reality of evil). I think many of us give evil much more power than it merits. In The Great Divorce, Lewis writes something along the lines of "...in the end I do not believe that Hell will be a distinct place..." If God is Real, then that which is not with God fades from Reality.

Anyway, see if you can get your hands on Surprised by Hope. That is as good a starting point as any. And The Great Divorce, too.




Thanks, I've read The Great Divorce but it's been years, so I should probably reread. Will pick up Surprised by Hope too.


love this. and i think suttle - that in that passage you quoted, it also says something about where you end up washing back over your entire existence. that always floored me. such an image.

and timk, that bit you quoted at the end: "Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light." whew.

and especially that last line about Love. may we all continue to know that Love more and more that we can say those words ourselves!

family law sydney

This is an unresolved conflict. The state allows divorces while the Catholic church disapproves of it. I see this as a stalemate.

family law sydney

This is an unresolved conflict. The state allows divorces while the Catholic church disapproves of it. I see this as a stalemate.

long island divorce lawyer

First, I have to commend you with such a brilliant assessment on this book. Obviously, this sensitive topic will not go away in a million years. I'm sure the Catholic church has a say on this.

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