In his book ‘Surprised by Hope‘ (which I am still reading!) N.T. Wright offers a concise account of the interpretations of the doctrine of Hell and offers his own account (pages 187-198). He categorically rejects universalism as a product of the liberal theology from the first half of the 20th century. However, he also has issues with the traditional interpretation of hell as an ‘eternal torture chamber’, saying that this comes from a medieval ideas of heaven and judgement.
You’d have thought, then, that he would therefore accept the other fairly mainstream interpretation of hell of annihilationism, where, at the judgement, those who have not aligned themselves with Christ simply cease to exist. Wright, however, rejects this view as neglecting parts of the new testament which clearly allude to an ongoing state of existence for those who reject Christ.
Instead, he opts for an interpretation which takes the best arts of both views (whilst acknowledging that, like all interpretations of the doctrine of hell, there is a certain amount of theological conjecture that necessarily goes on!). He argues that human beings, made in the amge of God but flawed through sin, can choose to worship whomever and whatever they want. As they do so, they become more like the person/thing that they worship. So, those who worship, say, money start to define themselves and others in terms of money – as partner, debtor, creditor etc. Consequently, the image of God in them is further diminished. Those who worship God wholeheartedly will become more like Him, as the object of their worship. Wright then applies this to the state of existence after death. Bearing in mind that the whole of creation will be restored under Christ’s rule, those who follow him will be restored into the perfect image of God. Those who do not will get what they wanted too, the image of God in them will be diminished and removed. They will, Wright suggests, continue in an eternal state of existence but in that state the image of God in them will be less that what it should be. They will be permanently less than human. Again, Tom Wright is clear to say that this is his conjecture!
This is the first time I’ve heart such an argument, and I’d have to look into more to comment more fully. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that, as Wright mentions later on, the questions “Who is going to heaven or hell?” and “What is it like?” are not really the right questions t be asking. As God’s salvation plans includes individuals but extends to all creation, the right question is “How is God’s plan of salvation panning out in individual’s lives and in the world as a whole?” or “What is God doing now?”. I’m sure God sees the issue of eternal like and separation from him as much more continuous than our more usual categories of before death/after death.