Should We Fear God?―Conclusion of Burk’s Case

Denny Burk wrote the biblical and theological case for Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. In this post I’ll finish engaging with his chapter.

There are numerous objections to the traditional doctrine of hell

Denny Burk, page 42

Perhaps that’s because the “traditional doctrine” isn’t what Scripture presents…

The weight of the scriptural arguments … should be enough to settle the issue even if our lingering objections are never fully resolved in this life.

Denny Burk, page 42

I think that’s cheeky given that the debate about Hell has been ongoing since the Early Church. Hopefully, this blog series has at least shown the scriptural arguments for ECT aren’t strong enough to settle the issue.

Augustine once reproved those who act as “if the conjectures of men are to weigh more than the word of God.” He thunders, “They who desire to be rid of eternal punishment ought to abstain from arguing against God.”

Denny Burk, page 42

I agree we don’t want to argue with God, but surely any non-Augustinian Christian could equally say Augustine is putting his conjectures above God’s word and arguing against God?

Fear (D Sharon Pruitt)

Next Burk says we should consider the implications of ECT, and gives two:

First, the biblical doctrine of hell teaches us whom to fear. God is not only the treasure of heaven. He is also the terror of hell. … If you have been frightened of hell because you are frightened of the devil, you are not fearing the right person. The Lord Jesus himself teaches us this,

“Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

Who destroys soul and body in hell? Is it the devil? Of course not. The devil himself is being punished there. Who is the one destroying soul and body in hell forever? God “afflicts” the wicked in hell, and the Lord Jesus deals out “retribution” to his enemies (2 Thess. 1:6-8). Going to hell means being left in the presence of God’s wrath forever (Rom. 2:5-8). Hell is scary because

“it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

Denny Burk, page 42-43

I find the direction Burk goes here disturbing. Matthew says God is “able” to destroy, not that God ever does, and it’s in the immediate context of encouraging the disciples, the opposite of inducing fear (v22 “persevere, endure, saved”, v23 God knows you are being persecuted, v24-25 you are following in Jesus’ footsteps, v26-27 “don’t be afraid” God will bring justice, v28 “Don’t fear”, v29-30 God cares for you even more than sparrows).

Romans 2:5-8 talks about wrath but it doesn’t say it’s forever.

Jesus spoke with authority and garnered a lot of respect. At the same time, I don’t think His relationships were based on fear. Likewise, with God the Father, we should show Him awe, respect, reverence, obedience, and perhaps even the kind of apprehension we have before undergoing surgery (Heb 10:31), but it isn’t the type of fear we have for the devil―fear of hatred, malevolence, and torment. Surely that kind of fear isn’t healthy between a parent—our “Abba Father”—and a child? We are told almost 150 times in the Bible not to fear. For example:

There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror! For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].

1John 4:18, AMPC

Moving on.

Second, the biblical doctrine of hell compels believers to see the urgency of evangelism. Have you considered the great mercy of God toward you in Christ? Have you begun to fathom what he rescued you from through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross? If his mercy was big enough and wide enough to include you, is it not sufficient for your neighbor as well? Shouldn’t the terrors of the damned move you to share the mercy of God with those who have not experienced it while there’s still time? Perhaps Spurgeon has said it best:

Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves 1 . If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.

Denny Burk, page 43

I’ve been more motivated to evangelise since becoming an Evangelical Universalist for lots of reasons, one of which is that it now feels less hopeless, that even when people I evangelise die in apparent non-belief, I know that God can still use whatever small word or kindness I’ve given them. Also most non-universalistic forms of Christianity are overwhelmingly depressing, when you really consider the billions of our brothers and sisters ending up utterly ruined and wasted, either by torment or annihilation.

Having said that, I can almost agree with Burk if I consider hell from my reformed perspective―a place that God uses for reforming, correcting, pruning, purging, surgery, etc. I think there is urgency, that living in bondage to sin is destructive, and that the addictions and idols of this life don’t truly satisfy. I also think it’s good to consider the great, wide mercy of God and Christ’s amazing sacrifice―doing so was one of the reasons I left Burk’s view.

I like the quote of Spurgeon. It seems to be a reflection on:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9, NIV

However, this raises the question, given God loves people even more than Spurgeon, why didn’t we see Jesus 2 with “arms about their knees, imploring them to stay”? I think the most plausible answer is that He knew their rebellion was only the first chapter in their story―that in the end, all shall be well.

1. Although Burk’s ECT emphasises God afflicting people (see earlier quote that starts with ‘First’), rather than people ‘destroying themselves’.
2. Nor the Prodigal Son’s father.

9 thoughts on “Should We Fear God?―Conclusion of Burk’s Case”

  1. The problem with the ECT theory is that they also believe that God is punishing Satan and the fallen angels, and that Hell had to enlarge her borders to have room for all the condemned souls who did not trust in Jesus Christ.

    If that were true how can they also claim that the Devil and the demons are still active in the lives of men and women, and that Satan is the prince and power of the air (world)? If they have been eternally judged, how do they get out to muck up the lives of people here on earth?

    I suppose they could say that we are in Hell right now, but that is certainly not consistent with their declaration for the Great White Throne judgment, the lambs and the goats, and many other fear measures that the Church uses to keep the faithful in line, and keep the tithes coming in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point, I hadn’t considered how demon possession, etc. works in light of these two passages:

      “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment;” (2Peter 2:4 NIV)

      “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling–these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” (Jude 1:6 NIV)


  2. Alex, thank you for so thoroughly engaging with Burk’s view. I could hardly bear to read his chapter or his responses, so I’m very happy to see the balance and the light and the hope that you bring!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A friend posted a thought provoking comment on Facebook about the “fear him who can destroy body and soul in hell” passage:

    “It seems that Jesus is setting up a contrast between the one who is to be feared and the one who looks after us here. It seems unusual that he would be saying that God has the power to destroy body and soul in hell but we must not be afraid of him because we are worth more to sparrows than him (who are also in his providence).

    The worldly powers are obviously those that can destroy the ‘body’. But what does ‘soul’ mean here. Soul seems to mean something like the mental and emotional life of a person. ‘Spirit’ the essence of a person that is in the gift of breath, is not the same as soul. Origen following Paul’s tripartite division of human beings into body, soul and spirit, affirmed that the spirit is not included for destruction here because the spirit is God’s gift and always, in a sense, with God.

    Also I wonder if it is the case that Jesus thought of Satan as being tormented in hell. He seems rather to have thought of Satan as the power behind the powers of this world and he has referred to as having a sort of dominion several times in the NT as I remember. Jesus saw him ‘fall like lightning from heaven’ suggesting that his dominion was overturned but not yet defeated. Also in Revelations for example Satan is shown as trying to get complete control but only after he is defeated finally – in the last days – is he cast into the lake of fire.

    So I think there is some sort of case for seeing that Jesus is referring to Satan here – as the one who can colonise/undermine the mind with fears and doubts and treachery as the false accusations are pressed by the earthly powers (and of course the Satan does his worst in Holy Week to do just this). I’m not sure about this – but I can see the case for this interpretation.”


  4. Great article! It seems to me the argument that ECT produces a fear of God never made much sense to me. Being afraid of God sending you to hell is a fear of hell, not a fear of God. And a fear of hell is just a fear of suffering, i.e. cowardice.

    The fear of God ought to be a fear of being in His presence – a fear that you cannot stand being with Him without being like Him. A fear that becomes love as you become like Him.

    But a fear of suffering is NOT the same thing as fearing God.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Josh!

      I agree that there’s a difference between fearing suffering and fearing God. I think the latter is also associated with overwhelming awe, being dumbstruck by the greatness of God.


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