Eternal Conscious Torment―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 1

I’m now going to dive into the actual views in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition, trying my best to keep Sprinkle’s gracious introduction in mind1. Remember that I’m posting as I go, so I don’t know what conclusions the author makes, nor the responses from the other authors…

Denny Burk
Denny Burk

The first of the views is Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). The biblical and theological case for this was written by Denny Burk. He starts by rightly acknowledging that people don’t like the idea of hell.

One can hardly contemplate the horror of an eternal hell without shuddering at the thought of anyone having to bear such a fate.
Denny Burk, page 17

However, he believes ECT is what God reveals in the Bible, and therefore he has to submit to it. While he notes that some oppose ECT on exegetical and theological grounds, he quickly gives the impression that most objections are based primarily “on human estimations of the way God ought to behave”2. He gives three examples:

  1. Eternal punishment contradicts the goodness, love, and compassion of God and makes Him a tyrant.
  2. Eternal punishment contradicts the justice of God because it is in no way proportionate to the sin in question.
  3. Eternal punishment that is purely punitive and not remedial has no apparent value.
    Denny Burk, page 17

I think (1) is a fair objection but not because I’m bringing my “human estimations of the way God ought to behave” but because the Bible seems clear about what goodness, love, and compassion look like (e.g. Jesus! 1Cor 13:4-8, John 15:13), and that God is indeed Goodness (Psalm 119:68), Love (1John 4:8), and Compassion (Luke 6:36).

I don’t think much is gained discussing (2) because:

a) even if everyone deserves ECT, God is free to save everyone so that no one will experience it, OR
b) even if no one deserves ECT, without God saving each person, no one would be saved (Rom 9:16).

I’m uncertain about (3). While God may use some retributive punishment, I don’t think it’s something God needs as before Creation, He was eternally holy, just, etc. without it. Neither do we need an eternal demonstration of retribution “just so we won’t forget how bad sin is”. I’d also suggest retributive punishment isn’t as satisfactory for God (or us) as remedial correction. For example, if I steal your car, that I’m forced to give it back, would only be one small step towards repairing our relationship. I assume you’d also want to see that:

a) I had genuinely understood the betrayal and stress that I’d caused by stealing it.
b) I had genuinely asked for your forgiveness.
c) I had genuinely had a desire to “make things right”.
d) I had genuinely changed my ways so I never stole from anyone ever again.

If I did a, b, c, and d, you may even waive returning the car if, say, I’d written it off. I get the impression God desires genuine change of heart more than “eye-for-eye” legal retribution (Matt 15:8 and Kevin Miller’s article on punishment).

Such objections have indeed been long-standing and can invoke an emotional response that precludes certain readings of the text.
Denny Burk, page 18

I think the role emotions should, or shouldn’t, play in biblical interpretation is tricky… However, I agree that emotions shouldn’t be the sole consideration. I think we should acknowledge them and then investigate whether or not they are being informed by a misunderstanding. I think that is a better approach than kidding ourselves into thinking that we are being objective and totally unaffected by our emotions.

He gives some examples of the questions that ECT raises:

What kind of a God would preside over a place of eternal conscious torment? Can the loving God of the Bible possibly be responsible for punishing the unrepentant in this way?
Denny Burk, page 18

I think if one believes God is the Father of everyone3, this should also inform our discussion of these questions.

To challenge the one of the “theological presuppositions that often predispose readers against the traditional view”4, Burk now gives a parable to illustrate that:

[T]he seriousness of sin is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and worth of the one being sinned against.
Denny Burk, page 19

In the parable he compares the reaction to someone pulling the legs off an insect vs. someone pulling the legs off a baby. The action is the same, “pulling legs off”, but who the victim makes the former disturbing but latter absolutely horrific! He then rightly notes that God is infinitely more valuable, glorious and holy than us. However, because of this, he says:

Thus to sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.
Denny Burk, page 20

While the parable is coherent, I think it is a problematic for at least two reasons, which I think he almost gets to with these comments.

[God] is not exactly like you and me… He is compassionate and gracious.
Denny Burk, page 20

First, can we ever “pull the legs off God”? When we tried something similar, in the crucifixion, the divinity of Jesus not only reversed it, in the resurrection, it overcame death for everyone else too!

Second, unlike most of us, when attacked or insulted, Jesus didn’t demand His rights but instead stoops down and opens His arms (‎Luke 23:34). God never gives up on Israel despite their obnoxious attitude towards Him (see Hosea). Determining how offensive something is isn’t just a matter of how important the victim is but also how humble they are and how they choose to react. God can choose not to be heinous in response to our heinousness.

We fail to take sin and judgment seriously as we ought because we fail to take God as seriously as we ought. And so we are often tempted to view the penalty of hell―eternal conscious suffering under the wrath of God―as an overreaction on God’s part.
Denny Burk, page 20

Saying God is merciful can be misunderstood as saying God doesn’t mind sin or that we don’t think it’s serious. While I think sin is so serious that letting it continue in ECT would be an underreaction on God’s part, I think Burk is right to be concerned that sometimes we don’t take sin seriously.

So the question of eternal conscious torment really does come down to who God is. Is God the kind of God for whom this kind of punishment would be necessary? Or is he not? What does the Bible say about God and the judgments that issue forth from him?
Denny Burk, page 20

I agree, I think these are important questions. I can’t see how it could be absolutely necessary, as even in his own view, at least the Elect don’t experience the punishment. One of the helpful things in Robin Parry’s5 book The Evangelical Universalist, is that he spends a considerable amount of time examining God’s judgments in the OT, suggesting that there’s a pattern of warning, judgment, and then restoration.

[ECT] is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God (Rev. 18:20; 19:3).
Denny Burk, page 20

“Ouch!” was my emotional reaction but upon pondering the Revelation 18-19, I think he’s right that we will witness the infinite goodness and justice. I even think he’s right that we will rejoice, just not at ECT but at seeing the end of Babylon, the end of immorality, greed, terror, and all other evil deeds. I don’t think the chapters are necessarily discussing eternal conscious torment for a few reasons:

a) The apocalyptic genre is full of hyperbolic, vivid images that don’t necessarily mean what we initially think (e.g. the sword coming out of His mouth isn’t a physical sword for killing people with but His penetrating words). There are images in chapter 18 that could be used to support the other views:

“Do to her as she has done to others. Double her penalty for all her evil deeds. She brewed a cup of terror for others, so brew twice as much for her.” (v6) As Babylon had caused a finite amount of suffering, even doubling her suffering wouldn’t be eternal.

“And the kings of the world who committed adultery with her and enjoyed her great luxury will mourn for her as they see the smoke rising from her charred remains.” (v9) Doesn’t sound like anything is left conscious.

b) I think there are some reasons to hope in Revelation 21-226.

c) As we grow more Christlike I assume we will love those we currently love even more than we do now―which seems to imply we would be even more upset than we are now at seeing them suffer torment7.

However, I think there’s no doubt God still wants us to heed the severity and intensity of what will happen to those who persist in doing evil.

Wow! I’m only 4 pages into his chapter but I think that’s more than enough for one post.

1. Please feel free to pull me up if I go astray!
2. p18
3. I realise there are differing views on the Fatherhood of God.
4. p18
5. A contributor to the Counterpoints book I’m reviewing here.
6. I think Jersak makes a good biblical case for this in Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.
7. I think Talbott makes a good theological case for this in The Inescapable Love of God.

11 thoughts on “Eternal Conscious Torment―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 1”

  1. I’ll add this book to my “to read” list, but I expect to be disappointed.

    Something that I have noticed in most of the Evangelical writing on this subject is that the conclusion is assumed rather than derived by persuasive exegesis. A really good example of this is Kim P.’s “The Geography of Hell in the teaching of Jesus,…” which assumes without careful proof that Jesus’ “gehenna” sayings refer to post-mortem realities rather than to “this generation” judgement on Israel. Jesus’ “gehenna” sayings have a very natural interpretation in terms of an appeal to Israel to repent and safely live through the coming “this generation” outpouring of wrath on unrepentant Israel and into the coming “age” in which God’s Spirit will be more widely poured out on the peoples. The “eternal life” interpretation entails the absurdity that those who die maimed will also be raised maimed. Evangelicals do not take this detail of Jesus’ saying seriously, but if that aspect is metaphorical or hyperbolic, on what basis does one distinguish metaphorical/hyperbolic from literal language in the rest of the saying?

    The preterist interpretation of this saying makes more sense — Jesus is making the characteristic prophetic appeal to choose “life” rather than “death.” It is better to live into the coming age maimed for the sake of righteousness than to remain whole but die under God’s wrath in the coming national calamity.

    A really useful investigation that, AFAIK, has not been undertaken by Evangelicals would be a “biblical theology of post-mortem consequences”. Such a study would take seriously the biblical phenomena that the textually most persuasive references to post-mortem punishments consistently occur in the latest books to be published (specifically the Synoptics and Revelation). The proto-Gospel in the Old Testament (Genesis 3) looks a great deal like the mainstream Evangelical “gospel” as derived from the New Testament except for this one point — the penalty of sin is simply bodily death, not eternal conscious torment.

    This inconvenient but undeniable biblical pattern strongly suggests to me that we have misunderstood the judgment language of the New Testament. The penalty of sin may simply be “death”, not “eternal torment”. That is a profoundly hopeful possibility. I am not qualified to undertake such a study, but my amateur level investigations suggest to me that Evangelicals have misunderstood the Gospel as Jesus and Paul taught it. The wrath of God that they warned against was not primarily post-mortem, but pre-mortem (this is especially clear in Romans 1, IMO). And this provides some clarity in tying together the OT, which seems to privilege “wisdom” and the NT, which seems to privilege “faith.” I am amazed that Evangelicals are not more puzzled that the practical wisdom of the Old Testament is quite plainly unconcerned with post-mortem realities. I think that the New Testament is less concerned with post-mortem realities than we constomarily suppose.

    There certainly are post-mortem realities; Jesus was raised from the dead, defeating death and hades, and that is the hope of the believer, that we too shall be raised and shall share Jesus’ glory. But I think that the great majority of Evangelical reflection on post-mortem consequences is based on misunderstandings of what the bible’s judgment sayings were actually referring to. And that has significant implications for the future of the Evangelical church.

    Do you have to become an infernalist in order to become a follower of Jesus? For most evangelicals, the answer is “unequivocally, yes!” But the “escape from post-mortem torment” form of the Gospel doesn’t offer much to a culture than increasingly doesn’t believe in the reality of post-mortem punishment.

    May God encourage, aid and preserve you,

    [Edited to fix formatting of comment only]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Sam. I agree that there’s the risk of focusing so much on the coming age that the implications for the present are ignored. One of the things I like about “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut” is that Brad looks at both.


  2. A point that might be worth carrying over from Jersak’s book, “Her Gates Shall Never be Shut” — thanks for calling attention to this helpful book — is that the English word that we tend to encounter in our bible translations, “hell”, is for protestants and western-tradition catholics heavily freighted with traditionalist theological implications that have built up since about the time of Augustine, when the Western/Latin church began to crystallize its views of the meaning of the Bible’s judgment warnings.

    If, instead of using the translated word, we transliterated:

    “Burk’s view of hades”

    “Burk’s view of gehenna”

    “Burk’s view of tartarus”

    one would be asking for Burk’s exegesis of the specific texts. Does he provide this? From your interaction, it looks like he is making a systematic Theology Proper defense. That could be a valid approach if the underlying systematic theology were itself sound, which leads one back to the necessity of engagement with the text. But one’s systematic theology of God’s person and works cannot be abstracted from the bible’s teaching about God’s response to sin, so one simply has to start with the biblical texts, including those that speak of judgment. Burk’s argument looks to me like it might be vulnerable to the charge of circularity.

    I’m also a little skeptical of the implications Burk draws from this argument:

    [T]he seriousness of sin is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and worth of the one being sinned against.

    This is probably true as far as it goes, but this principle probably doesn’t stop with “the seriousness of sin”

    Two further possible implications:

    1) ‘ the value of obedience is not measured merely by the obedient act itself, but by the value and worth of the one who is being obeyed.”

    If valid, this would imply infinite value of righteous acts. So we can save ourselves after all? I’m not sure that’s a valid conclusion, and so I don’t think one should place too much emphasis on this aspect of Burk’s argument.

    2): ‘the value of an inflicted penalty (ie, the degree of satisfaction of anger that an inflicted penalty produces in the one who inflicts it) is not measured merely by the penalty itself, but by the value and worth of the one inflicting the penalty:”

    IOW, an infinite God could experience infinite satisfaction of wrath even if the penalty inflicted on a finite sinful creature is finite.

    If valid, this would imply that bodily death could be enough to satisfy God’s wrath against sin — which looks more and more to me to be what the Bible actually teaches. Thus, Jesus did not suffer ECT in a lake of fire between his death and resurrection, which is what many Evangelicals believe is required by their understanding 1) that “the penalty of sin is ECT” and 2) that “Jesus bore the penalty of our sins”. But the Bible does not clearly teach that Jesus experienced ECT. It pretty plainly affirms simply that Jesus suffered bodily death, and that was his atonement for the sins of the world. It is Jesus’ blood (a metaphor for bodily death) that purges sins, not a notional ECT agony of Jesus. Rationalist theology goes too far in this instance, as IMO it so often does.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree the word hell carries a lot of baggage, and highlighting the nuance of each original word (gehenna, etc.) was was one of the helpful things about Brad’s book.

      To be fair to Burk, I’m only 4 pages into his 27 page chapter. Looking at the heading of his next section, he is going to go through 10 passages, arguing that they support the “Final Separation”, “Unending Experience”, and “Just Retribution” of the punishment. I’m hoping to read/post about it this weekend.

      I hadn’t considered 1 & 2 but they appear to create more problems for Burk’s argument.


      1. I’m not sure that “further implication” 1) above is airtight, but I think that 2) is quite strong. Infernalists who rely on Theology Proper to justify their infernalism want to have it both ways — God, being infinite, is infinitely offended by the finite creature’s finite transgressions, but is not infinitely satisfied with finite retribution — the retribution has to involve an infinite amount of suffering on the part of the offending creature in order to counteract God’s infinite sense of offense. That looks to me to be special pleading.

        Scripture itself suggests that God is satisfied with finite penalties. Israel was forgiven after having “paid double” for her sins (which by the Theology Proper argument deserved eternal exile from the land) — Israel’s payment was plainly finite. Jesus’ substitutionary suffering is characterized as finite — he emptied himself and obeyed to the point death, even the death of the cross.

        For the first 3+ decades of my christian faith, I assumed that Jesus must have experienced ECT either on the cross or during the interval between his death and resurrection. I absorbed infernalism from the local christian “culture” and that controlled how I read the Scriptures. And if you assume that “the penalty of sin is ECT”, then you are practically compelled to posit Jesus’ “spirit suffering” as a necessary logical consequence of the affirmation that He bore the penalty of our sins. But there are no clear statements that Jesus experienced ECT either while on the cross or between His death and resurrection.

        This might be an argument that could fruitfully be deployed against the ECTangelical consensus.

        (Digression: I don’t apologize for the snark; the prevailing view is that the good news of the Gospel cannot be appreciated unless one first appreciates the bad news of ECT. So consensus evangelicals are by their own self-conception “messengers” first of ECT and only then of the good news that it is possible to avoid ECT. Hence, “ECTangelical.” The shoe fits).

        The Bible repeatedly affirms that Jesus’ blood sacrifice — His death — is the atonement for the guilt of our sins. It goes way beyond the text to assert that Jesus experienced ECT. Jesus paid the penalty of our sins by dying as a perfectly righteous man, period. Which implies that “the penalty of sin is bodily death,” an affirmation that appears over and over again in plain language throughout the Bible. There is no place for ECT in a theology that declines to rationalise as far beyond what the texts affirm as ECTangelicals insist on doing.

        This doesn’t rule out annihilationism/conditional immortality, however. Perhaps only those who have genuine faith at the time of their bodily death are granted participation in the resurrection and in the age to come.

        Thanks for your weblog. The churches need to revisit these questions. I am increasingly persuaded that the self-described evangelical churches have theologised themselves into a bad place.

        May God encourage, aid and preserve you,


        Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, I’ve wondered about how the logic of “the penalty of sin is ECT” works with Jesus on the cross. The standard reply is that because Jesus was infinite, He didn’t need to suffer for eternity, but that then raises the question of why He stayed dead for more than an instant e.g. if an instant of His suffering is the equivalent to ECT, why did He suffer for 3 days?? Also not sure “size” and “duration” can even be substituted for each other like that…

      I’ve had a similar conversation with a Conditionalist. If “the penalty of sin is annihilation”, why wasn’t Jesus annihilated”??


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