“All this should warn us against the cheerful double dogmatism that has bedeviled discussion of these topics [of posthumous judgment] – the dogmatism, that is, both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn’t ‘going to hell’ and of the universalist who is absolutely certain that there is no such place or that if there is it will, at the last, be empty.
“The latter kind of universalism was the normal working assumption of many theologians and clergy in the liberal heyday of the 1960s and 1970s and has remained a fixed point, almost in some cases the fixed point, for many whose thinking was shaped by the period. I well remember, in one of my first tutorials at Oxford, being told by my tutor that he and many others believed that ‘though hell may exist, it will at the last be untenanted’—in other words, that hell would turn out to be purgatory after all, an unpleasant preparation for eventual bliss. The merest mention of final judgment has been squeezed out of Christian consciousness in several denominations, including my own, by the cavalier omission of verses from public biblical reading. Whenever you see, in an official lectionary, the command to omit two or three verses, you can normally be sure that they contain words of judgment. Unless, of course, they are about sex.
“But the worm has turned, theologically speaking, in the last twenty years. The failure of liberal optimism in Western society has been matched by the obvious failure of the equivalent liberal optimism in theology, driven as it was by the spirit of the age. It is a shame to have to rerun the story of nearly a hundred year ago, with Karl Barth furiously rejecting the liberal theology that had created the climate for the First World War, but it does sometimes feel as though that is what has happened. Faced with the Balkans, Rwanda, the Middle East, Darfur, and all kinds of other horrors that enlightened Western thought can neither explain nor alleviate, opinion in many quarters has, rightly in my view, come to see that there must be such a thing as judgment.” (177-78)
“But judgment is necessary—unless we were to conclude, absurdly, that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much. In the justly famous phrase of Miroslav Volf, there must be ‘exclusion’ before there can be ‘embrace’: evil must be identified, named, and dealt with before there can be reconciliation.” (179)
Note first that Wright associates universalism with a naive “liberal optimism” which allegedly fails to appreciate the depth of the “horrors” that befall our world. The picture looks rather like what Christian Smith has called “moralistic therapeutic deism” according to which God is concerned only with individual human happiness and self-actualization, that he makes no demands of repentance, and that he shields us from all consequence or punishment.
There may be universalists that fit that description just like there are traditionalists who fit this description:
confidently counts himself among the righteous and relishes the agonies to which the reprobate are soon to be subjected in God’s fiery dungeon of horrors for eternity.
But the fact that some traditionalists are nasty, self-righteous cruel misanthropes is not in itself a reason to reject eternal conscious torment. By the same token, the fact that some universalists are moralistic therapeutic deists is not itself a reason to reject universalism.
The fact is that no Christian universalism worthy of the name dispenses with judgment. Nor does it downplay the evils, horrors, and suffering of the world. On the contrary, what it does is posit that posthumous judgment has a restorative purpose
Rather than diminish the evil of the world, it magnifies hope that the same God who created the world can bring about a completed new creation free of any pockets of tortured resistance;
Rather than downplay pain and suffering, it insists that God is so infinitely resourceful that he can and will eventually bring healing to even the deepest wounds and bridge the deepest divides;
Rather than granting irrational, stubborn human wills the prerogative to conclude the final chapter, it hands God the quill so he may write “all will be well.”