Surprised by Hell: Introduction

[This is a continuation and expansion of N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. Wright says very little on hell, and what he says, I disagree with. So we’ll talk about it and move into Ed Fudge’s The Fire that Consumes. We’ll be talking about conditionalism, also known as annihilationism.

Now, I read Fudge’s book a while back and wasn’t quite convinced. But since then, I’ve seen where Patrick Mead and Al Maxey have supported this interpretation. Well … that’s about as impressive a list of Church of Christ intellectuals as you can come up with! (Fudge is a lawyer and an elder!) Therefore, I figure I should take a fresh look.

And, by the way, the following is a re-run, but I have to repost it to get things in order.]

Wright notes that the idea of a new heaven and new earth argues against the traditional understanding of hell. After all, no longer do we imagine going to heaven when we die. Rather, heaven comes down to earth and we stay here — but “here” is transformed, as are we, into something glorious beyond description.

We receive new bodies. The old world is burned with consuming fire.

(2 Pet 3:7) By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

And this same fire that purges the old heavens and earth destroys ungodly men. Where then is hell?

Wright notes that universalism has gone out of fashion among theologians, as it’s clear that there is great evil in the world that merits punishment. Americans think immediately of Auschwitz, but there are many horrors that are much more recent. Just think about Cambodia, Rwanda, and Sudan. Think about those killed by Saddam Hussein by being put through a wood chipper feet first.

But Wright also criticizes the traditional view of eternal, conscious torment.He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus often used gehenna to refer, not to hell, but the fate of those who would suffer and die at the hands of the Romans. Gehenna was, of course, the local trash dump outside Jerusalem, burning with a continuous fire. And it’s likely true that many of those conquered by the Romans wound up there.

However, some verses seem irreconcilable with such an interpretation —

(Mat 10:28 ) Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Jesus is plainly contrasting God’s power to cast into gehenna with that of earthly powers, such as the Romans.

Wright questions the views of the conditionalists — those who teach that immortality is a gift God only gives to the saved. All others die and have no eternal existence. Hence, they wind up on the trash heap where they are destroyed, as Jesus seems to plainly say in Mat 10:28. “Destroy” is quite a different idea from “burn in eternal, conscious torment.”

Wright suggests an alternative theory. He notes that we tend to perceive the world based on the idols we worship. If we worship sex, we see women as potential sex partners and men as rivals. If we worship money, we think in terms of what we are owed by others and what we owe to others. Those who worship power see others as stepping stones, rivals, or pawns.

Wright suggests that, in the end, those who worship the wrong god finally cease to bear the divine image at all. Thus they exist, not in some torture chamber, but in a God-less state, beyond pity. (I keep thinking of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings.)

Finally Wright reminds us that although Rev 21-22 plainly leave certain sinners outside the new Jerusalem, the water of life flows out of the city, and the leaves of the Tree of Life are for the “healing of the nations.”

There is a great mystery here, and all our speaking about God’s eventual future must make room for it (184)

Well, I’m not convinced. At least not yet.

(Rev 22:1-2) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

It might be argued that this is for a post-End healing for those who didn’t make it in, but the more likely interpretation is that the Tree of Life will complete the healing begun by Jesus and the Spirit through the church before the Eschaton.

The reference is to this passage in Ezekiel —

(Ezek 47:12) “Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”

This is a description of Israel after its return from exile and seems clearly eschatological. In context, the leaves are for the healing of Israel. In Rev 22, the leaves heal the nations — meaning the nations become Israel — which is very consistent with New Testament theology.

(Ezek 47:23) In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,” declares the Sovereign LORD.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Surprised by Hell: Introduction

  1. Tim Archer says:

    I've long believed that what makes hell horrible is the absence of God and all that He is: light, love, life, etc. That seems to be what 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is saying.

    Grace and peace,

  2. Jay Guin says:


    I agree. If that's not the totality of the agony, it's a huge piece of it. That verse will show up a few more times as we work through the passages on damnation.

  3. Frank Hatch says:

    Hell vs. God's Mercy:

    "If Hell exists, then God's Mercy can't exist."

    No. Hell exists only because God's mercy exists. When an individual soul falls into the Void, the pain gets progressively worse in its eternal fall. Hell will not stop the pain, but Hell will stop the pain from getting worse. Since each soul has Free Will, each lost soul can choose to stop at Hell or continue its fall into the Void.

  4. Frank Hatch says:


    "Hear and hear,

    but do not understand,

    see and see,

    but do not perceive." (Isaiah 6: 9)

    To break the restriction of a linear time sequence, the Lost need empirical data – uncorrupted, honest data. However, the Lost have filtered all their data with a scientific-religious presumption: a finite universe with a finite number of dimensions.

    The Lost do not understand, nor do they perceive their conflict with the infinite Universe and the Infinite number of dimensions…

    "…nothing can be added to it,

    nor anything taken from it…" (Ecclesiastes 3: 14)

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