That is the subtitle to N. T. Wright’s book Simply Christian. Wright is Bishop of Durham, England, and author of more than thirty books.
Does Christianity make sense? I believe it does–it fits the reality of how we were made, what we desire, what our souls crave: intimacy with God and partnering with Him for setting things to rights. But it seems that the one thing about Christianity that doesn’t make sense and that causes unbelievers and believers alike to recoil is the doctrine of an eternal hell of torment for most of humanity.
It is ironic that Anne Rice, who is featured on the front cover endorsing Wright’s book, has since abandoned her faith on account of the doctrine of an eternal hell and the ensuing abuse she has observed under that theological regime.
But what is the Christianity that makes sense to N. T. Wright? What does it mean to him to be “simply Christian” at the most fundamental level?
I think he does an incredible job at painting Christianity as it truly is: a breath-taking Story of redemption, romance and beauty as God unfolds His intention “to put the world back to rights” restoring His original dream for His creation. The question that we continue to ask N. T. Wright and other remarkable theologians like him is how it is they can say things we are not supposed to believe? N. T Wright has penned the most beautiful and astonsihing words of hope and restoration only to say that he doesn’t really believe what he has written. He claims he does not hold to a vision of ultimate reconciliation or “Christian Universalism.”
But consider the following:
“The New Testament picks up from the Old the theme that God intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights.” ― Simply Christian
“[Jesus] is, at the moment, present with us, but hidden behind that invisible veil which keeps heaven and earth apart, and which we pierce in those moments, such as prayer, the sacraments, the reading of scripture, and our work with the poor, when the veil seems particularly thin. But one day the veil will be lifted; earth and heaven will be one; Jesus will be personally present, and every knee shall bow at his name; creation will be renewed; the dead will be raised; and God’s new world will at last be in place, full of new prospects and possibilities.” ― Simply Christian
“It is a matter of glimpsing that in God’s new creation, of which Jesus’s resurrection is the start, all that was good in the original creation is reaffirmed. All that has corrupted and defaced it–including many things which are woven so tightly in to the fabric of the world as we know it that we can’t imagine being without them–will be done away. Learning to live as a Christian is learning to live as a renewed human being, anticipating the eventual new creation in and with a world which is still longing and groaning for that final redemption.” ― Simply Christian
“The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating thet God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven.” –N.T. Wright
“The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.” ― N.T. Wright
So I would have to say that what Anne Rice has rejected is a point in N. T. Wright’s theological tradition (eternal conscious torment in hell) in which he doesn’t adequately confess …or perhaps, deep down, doesn’t even believe.
However, because Wright does appear to count himself within the realm of “acceptable evangelical orthodoxy” which affirms the traditional view of an eternal hell I have a few observations.
First, it is worth noting that the boundaries of orthodoxy do not technically include the tenet of eternal conscious torment, as it is entirely absent in the historical creeds.
Second, in what I have read of N. T. Wright thus far I have not encountered any accurate representation of the traditional doctrine of eternal hell. To the contrary I have found sweeping statements of restoration, a vast and hopeful eschatology against a very “alternative” spin on the traditional doctrine of an eternal hell.
Contradicting the above quotes I have found his book Surprised by Hope to contain the very unbiblical assertion that people in “eternal hell” will eventually morph into more of an animal-like existence. Wright describes them as devolving into a state less than human. This “hope” that it will not really be humans who will suffer for all eternity but instead something more like an animal or sub-human entity ought to be very troubling if you consider the implications. I understand it on some level as it buffers the trauma of trying to imagine your Aunt Betty or your grandma as you remember them on earth now undergoing the torments of hell. It is much easier to turn them into some-thing else, other than your loved ones. I would have found some comfort here myself a few years ago. But what worries me is that not only is it not Scripturally supported it is reflective of the way in which oppressive people groups manage to allow abuse by de-humanizing their enemies in order to dismiss them, torture them, and kill them. And since we do not in any way of course desire harm to our loved ones it appears we need to see them degenerating into less-than-human in order for us to allow God to dismiss and torture them. And this “eternal conscious torment” paradigm goes infinitely beyond the torture of an earthly killing but instead keeps them alive so that He might punish them forever!
The doctrine of eternal conscious torment is not something that resonates as “making sense” with the rest of the Story of God that we are told from the Scriptures. But also note that Wright’s alternative interpretation of hell does not bring clarity nor make more sense but in fact injects further instability into the very faith system he is trying to make more “sensible.”
On N.T. Wright’s Question: “Why Are Americans so fixated on Hell?”