N.T. Wright on Hell

Worth a listen. Well said. I’ll write on the topic a little later…

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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41 responses to “N.T. Wright on Hell”

  1. Andrew Avatar

    Brilliant. I love the work of NT Wright.

  2. sergieyes Avatar

    Bishop Wright seems to be in the same theology as C.S.Lewis. Lewis states that after a lot of dialogue,God can say to us: “Your (human ) will be done.” Further,Lewis states that Hell is locked on the inside–those who state to God, “my will be done” could go forth from Hell but choose not to.

  3. Syrian Fire Avatar
    Syrian Fire

    I always like NT Wright’s stuff. I think he is very close to Orthodoxy. It is interesting that he allows for the conditionalism of an annihilationist position while not actually postulating that people cease to exist. It does sometimes seem like annihilationism would make the most sense of many biblical passages about eternal life and also make sense of the theological idea of conditional mortality, which seems to at least have a fair amount of advocates in Orthodox theology. But annihilationism as such does not appear to have even a minority support among them. A person could argue that a minority of Orthodox theologians believed in universal reconciliation, but the list of those that believed in annihilationism is non-existent so far as I know.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would find annihilationism far more problematic than any form of universal reconciliation. God is a good God. Existence is His greatest gift. I do not see this as something He takes away from us.

  5. Deacon Antony Avatar
    Deacon Antony

    I am SO glad to see that I’m not the only Orthodox person out there who finds Bishop Wright’s works compelling.

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    I agree with sergieyes that on the question of hell, Wright stands in the tradition of C. S. Lewis. Lewis also regards damnation as a process of de-humanization, and he ends up in a position that comes very close to annihilationism, without explicitly saying that. Both Lewis and Wright see hell as self-chosen destiny and the suffering of the interior consequences of rejecting Life–might this be one reason both authors are popular among the Orthodox?

  7. Abbot Michael Avatar
    Abbot Michael

    It is interesting that Wright comes so close to Orthodoxy – although he is by no means the first Anglican to do so. I have always thought of Sheol as the place where all the dead go. It is experienced differently according to the decisions that you made here in earth. If you reject God here, you experience His pervading love as exquisite pain, whereas if you embrace God here, you experience His pervading love as bliss. Lewis’ The Great Divorce encapsulates his thinking, where the decision is ours alone, no one sentences us to everlasting punishment. His picture of those rejecting God as drifting ever further apart does smack somewhat of annihilationism. While I doubt that I am a true universalist (although I would love it to be true), neither am I an annihilationist (although it would seem the merciful answer). What then does one make of the first and second judgements? Are these opportunities to reconsider our position?

  8. Andrew Avatar

    To understand hell you have to understand the distortion of the devil (or at the very least, the distortion of those who are influenced by him). In St. Irenaeus’ narrative, the gnostics rearranged the tiles according to the image they had formed within themselves. Also why the Greek Orthodox Archimandrite in the story does not recognise the version of hell depicted on the wall of the Sistine chapel.

  9. Laura Avatar

    I appreciate the distinction I hear, but when I look at Orthodox icons of the last judgment, I see a lot of similarities to the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps that’s my Western upbringing muddling my vision, but it would be helpful to see the difference, too. Here’s an example:

  10. Brian Avatar

    As Jesus endured the crucifixion, He literally took on the entirety of humankind’s sin debt. In the words of the Apostles Creed “…He descended into hell, and on the third day He rose again…”

    What exactly did our Savior face during those two days, was it a literal place? While I cannot definitively say it isn’t, I don’t think the spatial locale is the source of the terror. I think it is more of a state of being which none of us can truly comprehend, one in which the presence of the Lord is removed from us. For Jesus to pay our debt, He would have had to endure that.

    Thus the notion of a physical hell should not be nearly so scary for us as the reality of an eternal separation from God Himself, something we cannot even imagine, but which much become a reality for those who reject Him, as Wright alluded to. Universalism cannot stand, as sinful man can never be in the perfect Presence of the Lord for eternity. Without the Savior, we would be damned to an ultimate eternal existence apart from God’s presence, where the physical location of that existence is probably immaterial. Those who suffer that fate will wish for annihilationism, which simply is not mentioned in the Bible. Does that mean that God will not show them mercy rather than righteous justice? I cannot and am not qualified to say. But it should remind all of us believers, whatever path, to help fulfill the Great Commission in spreading the Good News of our Savior to all before it is too late.

  11. Victor Avatar


    Christ did not endure separation from God. He was and is eternally God. I think the Orthodox view is that His entry into Sheol was a triumphant one, not one of being punished for our sins while there. Such a view is common among some Protestants but it is highly problematic as it either creates a separation between Father and Son within the Holy Trinity or it makes Christ no longer God which contradicts the plenitude of our salvation and the Incarnation. I don’t think that many who believe such things think them out to such conclusions but the conclusions are unavoidable and lead us to a place of hopelessness in the end.


  12. Dante Avatar


    I actually agree with you here. I think N.T. Wright, as much as respect his work, overdrew the differences here. I mean, the Sistine Chapel really is about separation of sheep from goats as a metaphor in addition to the Resurrection (which was admittedly downplayed).

    Certainly, it would seem Wright was not thinking of the Icon of St. John Climacus which has the same spatial organization except up/down versus right/left.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Laura and Dante,
    It is an interesting observation, or point of departure that NT Wright makes in the video. I’m not sure that I would have introduced the observations in the same way (preacher’s license). But the somewhat “fluid” character of hell in Orthodox thought is certainly correct (as is the ontological characterizations versus the forensic). The icon of the Last Judgment in Orthodoxy, is primarily a depiction associated with the end of Matthew’s gospel. It is commonly painted over the Western doors (and hence the exit). How common it was (and is) would be a worthwhile study. There are many things taken up into the “grammar” of Orthodoxy at a certain point that were “borrowed” from the grammar of Catholicism or Protestantism. For example, there is virtually no interest or usage of the Book of Revelation in Orthodoxy (though it is canonical). It is not appointed to be read in any Orthodox liturgical setting, for example. But I’ve seen the entire book as iconography (it translates very well in such a manner). I comment on this in my book – an example can be found at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Parma, Ohio. But it is quite unusual in Orthodoxy.

    Hell can serve both as eternal punishment (in some accounts) and almost in a purgatorial fashion in others. But the ontological treatment (hell as distant and moving away from God) is almost uniquely Orthodox, though, by no means, universal in Orthodox accounts. I would say rather that it is the absence of ontological accounts of hell in the West that is more interesting.

  14. Jeff Avatar

    universal salvation is quite hip now seems like the new thing not sure if it’s that’s sturdy tho,

  15. sergieyes Avatar

    Abbot Michael, Dom Bede Griffiths was C.S. Lewis’ student in,I believe, Oxford. Griffiths went on to India and developed a series of Ashramas which included Indian culture and orthodox Catholic doctrine. Lewis and Griffiths used to discuss classical Indian annihilationism, as found in Buddhism’s Sunyavada, and also in the basic orthodox Hinduism of Shankaracharya. This is not a rabbit trail, I am getting at this point: Lewis and Griffiths agreed that Christianity DEVELOPS the individual, and Sunyavada and Shankarism annihilate the individual. “His picture of those rejecting God as drifting ever further apart…” is certainly part of Shunyavada and Shankarism.

  16. Ryan Avatar

    I love NT Wright. Because of him, there was a point in my life when I figured that Anglicanism was home. Concerning this video, I find myself curious… what he is saying is Orthodoxy. This is how hell, sheol, gehenna, has always been understood in our Tradition. Sure he articulates it very well, which is great, but that’s kind of where the significance ends, in my opinion. For him, this was a new epiphany, a new take on a spiritual reality that he found significant, and rightly so. But now what? Try to win theological battles in the Church of England or among his Evangelical readership, or have the next jaw dropping insight to place in another book? Perhaps it’s the zealous convert in me (I hope to be kind), but I feel like this should draw him into the once delivered faith where this is, and has been, well known. This video has been circulating on my facebook feed lately, as if to say, “look how amazing NT Wright is”, when I believe it should lead more in the direction of, “look how true Orthodoxy is.” As spiritually astute as Wright is, I am just surprised that his ecclesiology remains so wide open. Am I way off base? If so please correct me.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, I agree. But some will eventually connect the dots. I did. You did.

  18. Andrew Avatar

    It seems to me Father, that the malaise that needs treating here, is the desacramentalized existence.

    In another place and time you say this:

    “But the rise of the new meaning of “ordinary,” meaning “common” or “just the usual,” was thus a modern, or post Reformation event. Howard argued in his book [Splendour of the Ordinary, Your Home as a Holy Place] that the rise of the ordinary was the mark of the fall of the sacramental. As the world became rid of sacramental presence, it became something else – the ordinary world. And, of course, with a word like ordinary or usual, it was presumed that the sacramental was thus somehow extraordinary and unusual. As goes the sacrament, so goes God. Adam and Eve had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. With the 16th and 17th century, man returned the favor.”

    And then this:

    The icon of the Theophany reveals the Jordan to be Hades itself, the chaos of darkness into which we had plunged ourselves. Christ enters the waters just as at the Cross He entered Hades. In the waters He “crushed the heads of the dragons” (quoting the psalm noted in the prayer of blessing), just as in Hades He crushed that old serpent, the enemy of man.

    In Matthew 8:11, Jesus gives a very graphic description of what the wedding feast in the kingdom of heaven should look like, which the Church has preserved in her icon of St. Michael the Archangel.

    (Quoted from Father Stephen’s post on Christianity in a One-Storey Universe which can be accessed here.)

  19. CJ Avatar

    Father, are there any differences between Hell, Hades, and Sheol? I seem to remember a sermon where it was stressed that Christ descended into and vanquished Hades, which was basically the holding place for all souls from the time of Adam and Eve to Christ, and that Hell is the future place or condition where our souls are in separation from God. Could you clarify? Thank you!

  20. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    The Bible provides few details about hell and heaven. It has a great deal to say about here and now.

  21. Dante Avatar

    Interesting. I’m a bit confused when you say Hell as moving away from God ontologically. Do you mean on as in C.S. Lewis’ “Great Divorce” where the damned become less and less human – that is, bearers of God’s image?

    I see what you mean about the West and progressive dehumanization although St. Athanasius certainly depicts such dehumanization as his primary theme.

    Aquinas, I believe, did mention how the souls of damned are placed in an unnatural state by their own spiritual, self-centered “haunting” of Hell’s fires as opposed to being allowed to experience the divine upwardness and airy mobility proper to the soul. Philosopher Edward Feser wrote something about that, but I don’t remember whether I linked it here or Fr. Kimel’s blog awhile back. Of course, it’s not progressive (regressive?) in that sense.

    Certainly Dante Aligheri hints at fixated dehumanization although it does not appear to be progressive in the sense of moving further away from God. Of course, it seems to me (and this is only a guess) that might act as a corollary to the idea of the saints’ progression into God’s energies without beholding the whole of the essence.

    What I always found very interesting is the very old notion, which both Richard Bauckham and Metro. Hilarion Alfeyev’s “Christ the Conqueror” mention in their work, that Hell doesn’t strictly exist yet until the final eschaton and the unveiling of God’s Kingdom (in a kind of “River of Fire” sense). Until then, the state of the dead is somewhat more indeterminant in a Sheol-like state, more malleable. Is that considered a possibility in Orthodoxy?

    I wonder if this is where C.S. Lewis got his wrenching scene at the end of “Last Battle.”

    I know at least Catholicism it was to be held that both blessed and damned experienced their respective rewards before the Eschaton.


  22. Dante Avatar

    Oops. I realized CJ just asked the question, I think.

  23. Charlie Avatar

    But does Hell even exist any more? What is it we proclaim many times and so joyfully during the Paschal season? ” trampling down death by death ”
    The Creator of Heaven and Earth; and all things; is simply too
    HUGE to be contained by something not of His own making. He has broken Adam’s chains – led captivity captive.
    So cross hell off the map.
    But then of course there is the second Resurrection. Isn’t it the thinking of the Fathers that Gehenna is perhaps a perhaps a perpetual low-grade volcano like something to be found in Hawaii or off the Sicilian coast, or something similar; anyway something horrid enough to catch the readers’ attention and make his hair stand on end.
    Lewis, in (is it “Til we have Faces” – I don’t recall?) suggests that in seeing two individuals in the afterlife, figuratively speaking, one might appear angelic and the other like a contorted jellyfish — a very poor summation – I hope you forgive me. In any case the cause of this is the same: both individuals have seen the Face of God.

    If I am not mistaken Hades is the place of the departed ‘heroes’ of mythical Greece?/Rome? -or those kidnapped, Prosperina for example – does this help?

  24. Charlie Avatar

    perhaps I have the terms Sheol/Hell and Gehenna mixed up ? come to think of it, isn’t ‘Hell’ derived from old Norse Höele? so much for my MA 50 yrs old!
    so sheol and Gehenna – which is which?

  25. Dante Avatar


    You’re right about that. “Hell” as a general term just meant the realm of the dead, like Sheol.

    Gehinnom was the place of eschatological destruction, referring to the historical Valley. Later rabbinic Jews see this as purgatorial for most souls except the most heinous. In the first century, Judaism was somewhat more loose on that issue of whether it was eternal or not.

    I believe at least what Met. Hilarion said was that Sheol, the more malleable realm of the dead, was trampled down and defeated at the Resurrection so that death has lost its sting. What we call “Hell” is the singular response of some to this action of God similar to the “River of Fire” idea.

    The scene you mention is similar to the one I was referencing beforehand in the “Last Battle” where the final dawn breaks, and Aslan appears – causing some of the creatures to shirk away and fall into the growing blackness, deforming themselves, and others responding to Aslan with great joy. There was a scene like that near the end of Great Divorce, too, I believe.

  26. Charlie Avatar

    right; thanks for that. One of my favourite lines is ‘Farther in and higher up…’

  27. […] (H/T Father Stephen Freeman) […]

  28. Yannis Avatar

    The word “Hell” is originally a Germanic pagan term for the underworld / abode of the dead. It thus corresponds to the Greek “Hades”. The latter is used to render the Jewish “Sheol” in Greek, so these three terms should properly be considered equivalent. However, the word “Hell” in modern English has become associated with eternal damnation and devils with pitchforks, which makes it a difficult word to use clearly in conversations such as these.

  29. Andrew Avatar

    Dante if I may:

    The “withdrawal” of the divine breath (Rev 3:14;16 cf. Gen 1:26) can be likened to the soul of man returning to the darkness of primordial chaos (Gen 1:1).

    Hades/Sheol is a pleasant place, where souls are in the constant remembrance of God (Matthew 22:31-32).

  30. Andrew_C Avatar

    My two penn’orth on a vexed topic. In Greek myth, Hades is the name of the brother of Zeus who rules over the underworld (oikos Haidou, the house of Hades), whence the departed (oiketores Haidou, house-guests of Hades) proceed. Nothing particularly happens to them there, but the descent into the underworld was a stock-in-trade of epic poetry (see Odyssey, Book XI or Aeneid, Book VI, where the underworld is domus Ditis, exactly equivalent to the Greek). It is a place of shades, recognisable as the persons they once were, though not what you’d describe as a happy place – more a place of regret, of longing for sunshine and fresh air, despair at being robbed of the power to do anything. Swift-footed, lion-hearted Achilles reduced to this lament addressed to Odysseus:

    “…how could you
    endure to come down here to Hades’ place, where the senseless
    dead men dwell; mere imitations of perished mortals?

    O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying
    I would rather follow the plough as thrall to another
    man, with no land allotted him and not much to live on,
    than be king over al the perished dead.” (Odyssey, XI, 474 et seq)

    This picture of an ineluctable place of inescapable melancholy is beautifully portrayed in Horace’s ode which beginsDiffugere nives redeunt iam gramina campis.

    Far below Hades is the abyssal dungeon of Tartarus, the prison of the Titans (whom, in general, the Immortal Gods did not get on with). By analogy, Tartarus is mentioned once in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:4) as a verb – to cast down to Tartarus – which is what God has done with the rebellious angels.

    I recall Gehenna being a a valley outside Jerusalem – the city dump to which waste and rubbish was taken and destroyed.

    All three are images which were doubtless familiar to the Mediterranean mind of the time and which could certainly have been used illustratively.

  31. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Dante, Remember the scene in Lewis’ Last Battle where the dwarfs are in the hut and Aslan has given them a banquet but they think they are eating old cattle food and drinking from a animal trough?

  32. Lina Avatar

    So, how does “A Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgement seat of Christ, let us ask.” ?

  33. SeraphicFather Avatar

    Encountering many times and places that statement by CS Lewis about the ‘door being locked from the inside’ conveys a deep truth about humanity its free will and the nature of sin. The problem with it is that it does not recognize the limits of human free will. There maybe a rather large doubt that we have either the power or the will to lock it eternally. Perhaps only the One who gave the door and lock is the One who is to say how in the end its outcome is final.
    For the human person to have the final choice, i.e. locking the door for all eternity is somewhat an imposition on the sovereignty of eternity. The Divine freedom mandates its own choice in eternal light (note Mt. 25 depart from me…). The reality of God being wholly Other and transcending human free will is ignored in that statement.

  34. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    I agree with SeraphicFather.

    I remember having a conversation with an Orthodox theologian two years ago in which he invoked the Rev 3:20 as the determinative text on this matter: God cannot be inside us until we invite him in. I have thought about this ever since and have finally concluded that the text only gives us part of the truth. God is already inside. No matter how hard we try, we can never place ourselves in a position where God is utterly powerless against our refusal to open the door. St Isaac understood this.

  35. fatherstephen Avatar

    SeraphicFather and Fr. Aidan,
    Very important points. We sing in a number of the Church’s hymns, “God does whatsoever He pleases” (I’m so glad that Orthodox hymns don’t have to rhyme – it gives us the ability to sing so much more interesting things!). The human will is part of what it means to be fully human, but the whole question of the will (and a personal sovereignty of sorts) has been completely overdone it seems to me. I have raised four children. Their free wills have sometimes been large presences in the household, but not exactly “locked doors.” I’ve picked locks (figuratively speaking), used hammers, taken doors off the hinges, etc. We cannot and should not “violate” another human being, and I think that God respects us as well, but also knows precisely how far He can go and precisely how to go there. CS Lewis’ “the door is locked from the inside,” is a catchy phrase, sort of a line to use while the busses are waiting and people are coming from all over the stadium sort of thing – but not proper for theological reflection.

    Our personhood is maintained, intact. However, thank God, my ego may be violated and smashed regularly. Most of my locked doors are equipped with the delusional locks of my ego – not an impregnable door of my personhood.

  36. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    And of course there is the famous sonnet by John Donne:

    BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
    As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
    That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
    Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
    I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
    Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
    Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
    But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
    Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
    But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
    Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
    Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
    Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
    Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

  37. Dino Avatar

    SeraphicFather and Fr Aidan,,
    I am afraid I cannot help but discern that the basis of an ever-continuing passing of time (as we now know it) is basis of this particular universalist argument that also states that “locking the door for all eternity is somewhat an imposition on the sovereignty of eternity”.
    It goes without saying that there is nothing we could desire more than the eventual salvation of all – there can never be a question about it. However, the patristic understanding against this ‘type’ of universalism is firmly rooted on the basis of our ‘temporal conditioning’ (as far as that is fashioned through our free-will) of our eternal “interpretation” of God and His Love.
    So, for instance, when Elder Sophrony would declare that St Silouan’s profound lamentation when in prayer for the eventual salvation of all of Adam (from the first man to the last) reached such unimaginable depths as he had witnessed, he also emphatically added that, the possibility of these ‘other types of universalism’ (discussed here) could never spawn such prayer in the Saint. Such prayer, as we know, is birthed by the Holy Spirit of Love (without any personal favouritism whatsoever may I add) inspiring repentance for all others in the heart of the Saint. It is in the same fashion as that ‘eternal hope’ (which can also be eternally –though not in a ‘temporally unfolding’ eternity – refuted by some), which is expressed in the words of the Christ: “…and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me.”

  38. Dino Avatar

    Of course, we have had this conversation in fascinating depth in the comments section here: http://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/universal-salvation-what-are-the-odds/

  39. Andrew Avatar


    The “unlocking” or more precisely the “release” is a paschal event, perceptible only to the noetic soul (which encompasses all the senses).

    As it is written:

    “Wherefore he saith: Ascending on high, he led captivity captive; he gave gifts to men”
    Ephesians 4:8

    “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive; thou hast received gifts in men.”
    Psalm 68:18

    When we say “Christ is risen!” we are only stating the obvious.

  40. Dino Avatar

    I believe that this subject has been discussed in great depth on Eclectic Orthodoxy, most especially in the comments section of “Universal Salvation: What Are the Odds?”, so perhaps there might be little reason to reiterate all that discussion here.

  41. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    When the shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind “who need no repentance” to pursue the one lost, I imagine the good shepherd’s encounter with that lost sheep is personal and persuasive.

    I can’t even think about this mystery as some form of universalism because it is personal when Love goes all-out for one lost beloved. God is personal and possessive, saying “My sheep.”

    My hope for lost ones is solely in Him who harrowed hades. He is still harrowing hades. While there is no other hope, oh, what a hope!

    Luke 15

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