Category: Book Reviews

Two more reasons people become universalists—Robin Parry

Tradition

Most Christian Universalists reflect on traditional Christian beliefs, as an important reason as to why they embrace universalism. I’m talking about things like this:

  • God made us in His image (I know that’s biblical but this is a thing in the Bible that the Church has made an important thing and the focus of attention).
  • God loves everyone.
  • God sent Christ to die for everyone.
  • God is sovereign and will bring about his purposes.

These kinds of basic Christian beliefs that aren’t about universalism but when some folk started to think about these things and reflect on them, they found that these kinds of ideas were drawing them towards universalism. I would count that as tradition and this is partly why I think universalism is what I call the “perennial heresy.”

It’s not really a heresy so I use it in scare quotes. It’s the “perennial heresy” because it keeps reinventing itself. It’s really interesting how it just keeps popping up almost spontaneously through church history, with folk who aren’t getting it from other folk, they’re getting it from ordinary Christian beliefs that they were taught at church. It’s like, “Ding! Doesn’t this mean… if that’s true, wouldn’t that mean…” and suddenly they find themselves becoming Universalists. This is why you’re not going to be able to squash universalism—because I think it’s implicit in the very core of ordinary Christian faith.

Another aspect of tradition that is important for some folk, is discovering past Universalists who are orthodox Christians. For example, Gregory of Nyssa. This is important particularly for folk who are Orthodox Christians—with a big “O”—or Catholic Christians or Anglican Christians. But also for a lot of folk who were… I mean, I was really drawn by this when I was non-denominational charismatic-y, what not, thingamabob Christian. Realizing that some of these great spiritual giants of the past—people I respected and admired—were universalists. For example, I think Athanasius was a universalist. And that’s like, “Oh, wow, so maybe it’s not so heretical after all…”

By the way, if you are interested in this subject, two new volumes might intrigue you:

“A Larger Hope?, Volume 1” is sort of history of universal salvation. This is patristic universalism, this is Ilaria Ramelli who is the world authority on the subject.
A Larger Hope?, Volume 2″ goes from the Reformation to the 19th century, that’s by me. They’re quite good books if you like stories about people and so on.

Experience

For some people, a particular experience is really a key reason why they embraced Universal salvation. For example, George de Benneville. He’s an interesting guy, he was a Huguenot refugee. He was born in London but his parents were Calvinists from France who—under persecution—escaped. He was living in the household of Queen Anne. Anyway, when he’s a teenager he felt just so crushed by his own sense of sin and guilt—then he has his revelation of God’s divine grace for him and love and mercy—and this is transforming. But from this experience—all on his own—he infers that this kind of applies to everyone. From the moment of that experience, he was a Universalist—so his church kicked him out.

He went over to France and he started preaching. He nearly was executed—he was at the gallows and the King stopped his execution. Later on, people thought he was dead—he was in a coma for a few days. He woke up in the coffin but he has this sort of out-of-body experience where he’s taken around hell, then he’s shown heaven, and then he’s shown the final restoration when the people in hell come out. He becomes a preacher and goes to North America and preaches on all that. But the point is, for him scripture was really important but the thing that flipped him was this experience, this charismatic or pneumatic experience.

Another person to mention in this regard might be Hannah Whittle Smith who was a Quaker (also as she was part of the Brethren for some time because she had an evangelical conversion). She was an American, a revivalist holiness preacher—really, really influential, one of the most influential women preachers of 19th century. She was a Universalist, although this was often suppressed—in fact, it was removed from the second edition of her autobiography.

She has this experience where she’s on a tram and she’s just struggling with the suffering of humanity and then she looks at this guy and she sees in his face the suffering he’s having and she just protests to God about his justice and desires his salvation. She has this sense that God says to her, from the verse from Isaiah, “He, Christ, will see the travail of his soul and be satisfied.” She thinks, “He’ll be satisfied, he will be satisfied… How can he be satisfied unless he redeems this guy? How can he be satisfied unless that for which he suffered comes to pass?” So she has this profound experience that completely reorientates her and she goes back to the Bible then and she says, this is a little quote from her, “I turned greedily from page to page of my Bible, fairly laughing aloud for joy at the blaze of light that illuminated at all. It became a new book.” And that’s quite common. So she’s reading Scripture again but in a new way, in the light of this experience.


Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos

Review of Gooder’s “Heaven”

I enjoyed reading Heaven by Paula Gooder. It was obviously very well researched, yet still entirely accessible to an amateur theologian like me. In the introduction she notes that most people, even non-believers, have an opinion about heaven but unfortunately it is rarely discussed in depth—hence this book. The book taught me new things and helped bring together, and process, the scattered ideas and opinions that I’d picked up over the years, from Sunday School, artwork, pop culture, and general Bible reading.

[Heaven] lifts our vision from the mundane realities of our everyday lives and reminds us that beyond the daily grind of our existence there is another, unseen reality. … A reality that is as real – if not more so – than our everyday lives. Heaven suggests an answer to the familiar human feeling that there must be more than this, and prompts us to wonder whether there is indeed more in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in all our philosophies.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. x

The book lifted my spirits and made me appreciate how heaven is closer and more relevant to everyday life than I’d realised.

Believing in heaven should mean that we carry with us a vision of the world as God intended it to be and strive with everything that we have to bring about that kind of world in the place where we live and work.

As a result, rather than feeling esoteric and irrelevant, believing in heaven becomes a vital part of the way in which we live out our lives. It challenges us to see … heaven and earth exist side by side … God can and does intervene and … God’s justice and love finds its proper place in earth as in heaven.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 102-103

I love how Revelation 21 describes heaven and earth becoming one in the end—a process we anticipate and participate in now—”Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

[The] biblical language of heaven challenges us into an act of poetic imagination which takes seriously the reality of God … ruled by love, compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness.

A good theology of heaven challenges us to re-imagine who we are and what the world might be.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 106

Reflecting on Revelation 4-5, Gooder points out that when we worship God, we are united with the hosts of angels, and all those who have gone before us, worshipping God!

Worship, at least occasionally, should be one of those times when heaven opens and we see that our words are not ours alone, but are joined together with heaven’s eternal worship before God’s throne.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 67

Those are just a few of the gems in the book. It also covers Hebrew cosmology, the descriptions of God’s throne and court, cherubim, seraphim, angels, archangels, fallen angels, visions, revelation, ascent into heaven, life, death, intermediate states (Sheol, Paradise, etc.), and resurrection! However, for the sake of space, I won’t cover those topics but just the three pages that discuss hell.

A brief excursus on hell

This book is about heaven and not about hell, but so many people are interested in hell (in the idea, not going there, that is!) that it is worth a brief note here. By and large there is little evidence in the Bible for the full-blown doctrine of hell that we find in later texts. However, as with so much we have explored in this book, there are hints and seeds of ideas that make it easy to see how the fuller idea grew up.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 94

She notes five strands:

1. Sheol/Hades

Gooder explains that, in biblical times, Sheol was where everyone went when they died. Although it isn’t described as a place of punishment, she suggests that there is the idea of being “cut off from God’s presence”. I’d want to push back a bit with verses like:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

Psalm 139:8, ESV

2. Punishment by God for sins committed

Gooder rightly notes that throughout the Bible there are examples of people sinning and God responding with punishment. She goes as far as saying Daniel 12:1-3 introduces the concept of “eternal punishment”. I don’t think aionios (or olam) in Daniel 12:2 should be translated as “eternal” for the reasons I discussed in Is Aionios Eternal? Rather, I believe God’s correction of sinners—in the age to come—will only continue until they’re saved.

3. Gehenna

Gooder gives a good, albeit short, explanation of Gehenna (an actual, physical valley just outside Jerusalem) and it’s connection to shameful child sacrifices to Molech in the OT.

The question is whether or not the New Testament ever tips into understanding Gehenna as a place of eternal destruction. Wright argues clearly that Jesus’ warnings about what would happen in Gehenna were not, as a rule, about the next life but about this life [now] … Others would see Gehenna language as being very close to language about a future fate for the wicked. On balance I would take the second view, as texts like ‘do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]’ (Matt. 10.28) seem to have a ring of eternal punishment about them and to have transformed Gehenna from ‘just’ a physical place into the manifestation of a future potential fate after death.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95

I like how Gooder often gives an alternative view, such as Wright’s, before her own. In this case, I suspect Jesus was both warning of the consequences of sin on earth (e.g. destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD) and the consequences in the age to come.

The context of Matthew 10:28 is Jesus commissioning His disciples and letting them know they will face persecution. However, God will be with them (v20), will help them (v19), knows them intimately (v30), cares for them even more than sparrows (v31), and will save them in the end (v22). Therefore, they don’t need to be afraid of people (v26, 28) and instead acknowledge Jesus before all (v32). Interpreting v28 as threatening the disciples suddenly with eternal punishment is surely at odds with His love for them expressed in the surrounding verses-? Keeping in mind that:

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

4. Lake of fire

Gooder gives a brief overview of the lake of fire image mentioned in Revelation and how it is linked to the idea of the second death.

5. Accounts of tours of hell

A final element, found more often outside the Bible, is the growth of accounts of tours of hell which can be found in Jewish and Christian texts from the second century onwards. Both Himmelfarb and Bauckham see these as growing naturally out of the heavenly ascent texts that we explored in the previous chapter, since a number (including 1 Enoch 22) seem to include the place where the souls of the wicked are held prior to resurrection.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95-96

I haven’t considered these much before so I’d want to read examples before commenting.

Gooder concludes the excursus with a helpful point to remember:

The New Testament seems to come from a time when ideas about a future punishment were shifting and changing rapidly; it certainly contains no fully formed, elaborate view of hell such as we find in later texts. But the Bible – and the New Testament in particular – does contain concepts which eventually grew into a more elaborate view.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 96

I’m glad I had the opportunity to read Heaven and I suspect I’ll refer to it when the topic arises. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the Judeo-Christian view of heaven.

"Heaven" by Paula Gooder

Engaging Stackhouse’s View of Hell―Part 1

John G. Stackhouse Jr.
John G. Stackhouse Jr.

John Stackhouse wrote the biblical and theological case for Terminal Punishment (also know as Conditionalism or Annihilationism) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. As I did with the previous chapter, my aim is to engage with him as I read through his chapter, and not read the responses from the other authors until after I’ve finished my own.

Introduction

I like Stackhouse’s opening paragraph:

Any proper doctrine of hell must take thoroughly into account the goodness of God, an attribute that can be viewed as having two poles, both of which are essential …

… God’s holiness: God’s moral rectitude and cleanness, God’s detestation of all that is wrong and his relentless action to make everything right. God is, in a word, a perfectionist … “God is light” (1 John 1:5)

… God’s benevolence: God’s kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. God is, in a word, a lover … “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16)

John Stackhouse, page 61

The first example of “everything right” was in Eden before the Fall, and so I think that scene should define the minimum of any future right-ness. In it all humanity were created in God’s image and enjoyed holy relationships of selfless love―there was no death, destruction, or annihilation.

Stackhouse contends that his view, summarised below, satisfies both poles of God’s goodness better than the alternative views, and furthermore, is the most warranted by Scripture.

hell is the situation in which those who do not avail themselves of the atonement made by Jesus in his suffering and death must make their own atonement by suffering and then death, separated from the sustaining life of God and thus disappearing from the cosmos.

John Stackhouse, page 61-62

It will be interesting to see Stackhouse unpack this but my first reaction is that I don’t see why death has to be seen as complete separation from God. According to the 2016 Annual Moore College Lectures, most Christians believe in at least a semi-conscious intermediate state, where those who have died go until the general resurrection. That seems to imply “death” cannot simply be equated to complete separation and cessation.

What Is Hell?

In this section, Stackhouse highlights the three biblical depictions of hell he sees as central:

  1. A destination.

Hell is the logical and metaphysical, and thus inevitable, outcome of the decision to reject God―and thus to reject the good.

John Stackhouse, page 63

As with the previous quote, I’m concerned too much weight is placed on someone’s “decision“―whether they reject or “avail themselves”. As far as I can tell, everyone is ignorant of the complete reality of their choices, that we are corrupted/damaged and lacking in discernment. We desperately need the Holy Spirit to work in us, to heal us, give us wisdom, and the ability to choose what is best for us―namely the Good. I think Talbott’s reflection on C. S. Lewis’ conversion is very helpful when considering the role of our decisions.

  1. A fire. He says that fire performs two functions in the Bible:

The first is that of testing, or judging, the essential nature of a thing by destroying anything that lacks value, as fire burns away husks to reveal seeds, if there are any … . The second … [is] purifying the situation of that thing itself if there is nothing to it of lasting value.

John Stackhouse, page 63

I believe the Bible teaches us that everyone is a child of God―made in His image. If the biological seed/connection from our parents is irreversible (it’s in our DNA), how much more permanent will the divine (immortal) seed/connection from our Father be!

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39, ESV

  1. A dump. He says it fits because:

… hell is the place to which evil is removed and in which it is destroyed (Matt. 22:13; 25:30)

John Stackhouse, page 63

The first passage cited is the parable where one of the king’s wedding guests was so arrogant and ungrateful that he didn’t even bother to dress respectfully. Similarly, the second passage is the parable where a servant was so apathetic about his master’s business, that he did nothing with the talent entrusted to him. In both cases, the consequence was being thrown into the “outer darkness”. However, there’s no mention of them being “destroyed”, on the contrary, we are told there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (a conscious activity), which might be a sign of remorse (a step towards repentance). Given another chance, I suspect they would have a better attitude. Regardless of whether I’ve interpreted that detail correctly, I think Jesus’ point was that self-righteousness and laziness towards God are character flaws that will be addressed―and I believe―corrected, even if that requires hiding from us (outer darkness) so our delusions shatter.

Regarding Stackhouse’s comments about evil, I believe God’s holiness and love means He will not tolerate evil continuing anywhere, not even in hell 1. But how He achieves that seems to depend on what evil isor isn’t… Some theologians suggest it is the privation of good, similar to darkness occurring when light is removed. If that is the case, adding enough divine light/goodness should result in the cessation of evil.

Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.

Romans 12:21, CEV

Alternatively, I think evil could be described as “any will discordant to God’s”. If that is correct, evil will cease if God can freely bring our wills into harmony with His―which seems to be His plan.

… [God] is patient with you; for it is not his purpose that anyone should be destroyed, but that everyone should turn 2 from his sins.

2 Peter 3:9, CJB

Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?

Abraham Lincoln


1. Which I think is a huge issue for the Eternal Conscious Torment view.
2. Literally, “a change of mind”.

Review of The Forgotten Gospel Conference

This conference on God’s boundless love and ability to save brought together these amazing speakers:

Talk videos (free)!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to travel there from Tasmania but one of my friends who attended gave a report, which I’ve condensed/edited slightly:

My overwhelming sense is that the conference was a success—a magnificent one even—though not as much for the reasons I’d expected…

I came with legal notepads ready to record more information, clever twists of favorite Universalism defenses, new ways of looking at old texts. I came with a readiness to engage my mind; less aware of my needs to bring heart into alignment with head. Almost instantly though, I realized I would likely take no notes (and I didn’t…) but just listen. Mind very much filled and engaged and alert yes, but Universal Reconciliation, and Restoration, and Recreation, as a reality for the heart just as much as for the mind. Real world in other words…

Strangely, I already knew this at some level… Six, perhaps seven years ago, when I tried to win my wife to Universalism, I met with failure. My arguments—solid as they seemed for me—simply fell on deaf ears. My son, then 17 or 18, listened to my arguments, challenged them intelligently and appropriately and in fairly short order embraced the truth of God’s Universal Victory through Jesus. And in something of a blow to my ego, it was he who convinced my wife of the reality of Universalism! Where I had employed what worked for me—reason and logic and irrefutably clever argument—he shared it in the realms of the heart and of relationships. The relentless pursuit of a loving Father going about reconciling His creation to Himself. Relationships…

Pastoral Concerns

What dawned on me then, in those first few moments of the Conference on Friday night, with the warm and genuine welcome by our host, Pastor Peter Hiett, and the first two messages of the evening—one by Brad Jersak and one by Peter—was that this was to be an affair for the heart. A moving beyond the wonderful facts and logic and intelligence of Universalism, to that place of pastoral concerns; where passionate and smart leaders, shepherds of real life drama flocks, bring the grace and compassion of Universalism into the world of heart and spirit and relationship. Yes—there was ample and generous portions of reason and logic and academic rigor. But it was in the service of nurturing and ministering to a church full of real people with all the drama and pain and dysfunction that uncamouflaged life brings.

And the greatest truth—logical, relational, head, and heart—repeatedly driven home with a joyous intensity by each and every speaker was a rediscovery, a reawakening, a rehabilitation, indeed a resurrection of the Truth about God’s very essence and character and being. A God whose wrath and justice are not counter to His love, but rather a redemptive reflection of it.

Christ/Cross-centred Worship

Further, and infinitely supporting and revealing of this great truth, stands the person of Jesus and the realities of the Cross. In fact, the entire Conference stands as a shattering rebuke to the craven and baseless assertion (one I’ve been subjected to countless times…) that we Christian Universalists minimize and marginalize Christ and His Cross and don’t take it seriously enough. For the essence of the Conference was worship. The triumph of God’s Love—demonstrated at such cost through the life and death and resurrection and person of His Son Jesus.

All I could think, and say, both as it was happening, and now, is WOW! The beautiful, but perhaps distant and intangible truth of Universal Restoration if left in the realm of reason, given richness and intensity and realness in the realm of Pastoral concerns and grateful worship. I went planning to be blessed, and encouraged, and my mind stimulated. And all those things happened. I didn’t expect to experience such profound worship though. What a gift that was for me!!

I’ve already noted how Christ and cross centered and worshipful the entire conference was. But other notable themes were woven throughout all the presentations as well.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

First off was the general agreement on the enormous difficulties that penal substitution theology poses to people trying to grasp the love of God and it’s consequent Universal Reconciliation. Huge and perhaps complicated topic I know, but every speaker left little doubt that penal substitution explanations of the Cross are far more hurtful than helpful to understanding the True Love of God… Nuff said about that, except to say I rejoiced to hear that!!! (Yes, it’s a present image, but must be closely limited in how it is interpreted lest God quickly acquire the image of a monster—sated only by violence and innocent blood…)

Love That Judges

There was this relentless urge in all speakers it seemed, to spare no words in emphasizing the fullness and completeness of God’s eternal Love. Not a love that judges or saves, but a love that judges and saves. It was just wonderful to watch and listen as each speaker took—tirelessly—upon himself the mission of restoring and rehabilitating the reputation of God! Truly the forgotten goodness of the news!

True Free Will

I was also very much pleased to note that each speaker took gentle but unmistakable jabs at the common Arminian misperceptions of free will. In fact it’s not free, really, until it is good—as Peter Hiett perhaps drove home best. The notion that instead what is happening is that God is slowly bringing us, teaching us, maturing us into a more and better and fuller freedom. It is only then that we really are free. This is of course utterly crucial in our responses to those believers whose main quarrel with God’s Universal Victory over sin is the “free will” clause.

The Relationship Between God and Creation

Another idea emphasized by many of the speakers was that the creation exists as wholly from and dependent on God. It’s not as if God is here (all holy and separate and protected from His dirty creation—as if it can exist all by itself…) and we are huddled over there, in complete isolation from God. Baxter Kruger was perhaps most gloriously and intensely insistent on this point. There simply is no creation apart from the community of the Trinity. Which of course plays centrally in the idea that a failure on God’s part to restore/reconcile/redeem all His beloved creation is unthinkable in the context of the completeness and fullness of the Trinity.

The Biggest Joy

All of which brings me to a sobering, and to varying degrees painful reality. And this hit home as I chatted with random folks during the conference. But for many (most?) of us—and [from] everything I could tell, all there were convinced Universalists—our home church worship environment and experience really can be marked by a festering and grating loneliness. We have this great conviction of God’s Universal victory through Jesus, and yet cannot share it meaningfully with others we worship with—lest we be ostracized and branded heretical. In fact several I spoke with said they have no home church—and instead have online fellowship experience where they feel more like they belong. This resonated deeply with me. And the sheer joy of just being together with so many who saw the same truths that I do, was a blessing unparalleled…

The biggest joy—and blessed relief—of this conference for me was the feeling that I was home. Yes, I go to church here, in my own little community, but I can’t just blurt out any time I want my convictions of these great Universal Reconciliation truths. I very much appreciated the speakers open recognition that, among themselves, they do have differences and don’t all agree on everything. That’s refreshing, because that’s real and honest. So Peter, if you’re reading this, I feel like I am a part of your church—even though I live in Florida!!!

Constructive Criticism

For the sense that I’m looking at this whole conference with open eyes and constructive criticism—and not just giving it a rubber stamped thumbs up just because it’s right on my favorite topic—let me make a couple observations…

Annihilation. There was nary a mention of this possibility, which is unfortunate given that a growing number are finding their solution to the horrors and inconsistencies of an ECT hell in the answer of annihilationism. This is particularly important to me since I was raised in an annihilation tradition. Not a big complaint at all, but noted…

Speakers Q & A session. This was by far the biggest disappointment for me. It was tacked on at the very end, after a very hasty lunch on Sunday, and felt disorganized (a great contrast from the order of the overall conference) and rushed. Prime goal was to be out of the building by 2pm—which lent this abbreviated session a feeling of haste instead of reflection. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but could have been much better. There is an obvious camaraderie and even fondness for each other among the speakers; this needs time to flourish and be on greater display. Further, why not let this be the time and place to let us in on some of their theological differences—and in the process, model for us out here that all important skill.

My suggestion would be to put it in the afternoon Saturday and make it a bit more “formal” and organized. Have more time and emphasis spent on writing these questions as well on having the moderator more familiar with them before he reads them to us in the actual session.

Final Thoughts

Was just plain cool to meet these writers. Biggest highlight for me was meeting Tom Talbott! Dude kind of started it all for me—and it turns out quite a few others as well! He seemed genuinely happy to meet “TotalVictory”! Either that or he faked happy pretty well!! And of course meeting Paul Young and Brad Jersak and Peter and Robin Parry himself!! That was just great.

In closing, the idea of the church body, with her many different parts, gathered under One Head; Jesus Christ. I’d always heard that meant the different gifts within our church—as in our particular denomination!!! Well, actually no! I was so pleased to see all the streams of theological thought seen here, with Catholics and Orthodox and Calvinists and charismatics and multiple varieties of Arminians all gathered together celebrating the Lordship of the Christ—as a reflection of the true God. A God who is completely successful in Restoring and redeeming His entire Creation… Wow!!

So a truly blessed and wonderful conference. Would be a thrill to anticipate the next one!!!

All the best,

Bob x3
TotalVictory

The Deeper Story of God's Relentless Love

 

Summary of Walls’ Response to Burk’s ECT

I spent 11 posts carefully engaging Denny Burk’s entire case for Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. I’ve also summarised Stackhouse’s and Parry’s responses. The remaining co-contributor is Jerry Walls, who wrote a case for Purgatory.

Walls and Burk
Walls and Burk

Walls views hell as “eternal, conscious misery” and acknowledges that he broadly agrees with Burk’s exegesis. Although, unlike Burk, he notes that:

the biblical case for eternal hell [isn’t] decisive by itself, and in fact, I think both advocates of conditional immortality and universalism can make impressive exegetical cases for their views. But it is clear where the overwhelming consensus lies in the history of theology, and that is why I think the burden of proof remains on those who reject the traditional doctrine of hell as conscious, eternal misery.

Jerry Walls, page 55

I think Walls makes some helpful suggestions:

the debate must focus more on larger theological, philosophical, moral, and aesthetic issues and assess the various competing positions in light of these criteria. These issues should not be set in contrast to exegetical considerations, of course, nor is giving them their due an alternative to sound exegesis. To the contrary, these issues inevitably arise out of exegetical claims and conclusions, and they must be central to the conversation as we argue our case for whose exegesis is finally most convincing.

Jerry Walls, page 55

In light of this, Walls focuses on the larger issues that Burk mentioned:

[Many people] can hardly comprehend how [ECT] can be reconciled with the ways of a just and loving God.

Denny Burk, page 17

Like Stackhouse, Parry, and myself, Walls is concerned with the Burk’s view of justice and love in relation to ECT. First he looks at whether Burk’s parable proves ECT is just. He acknowledges that the parable shows that there is some relationship between the worth of a victim and the guilt of a perpetrator, but like Parry and myself, he sees problems:

there is profound disanalogy in the parable that undermines the central point he wants to establish … [as] we do not have the power to do anything to God that is remotely analogous to the harm the character in the parable inflicts on helpless creatures

Jerry Walls, page 56

Walls points out that Burk’s “sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment” has well known defenders. However, Walls is very skeptical that it actually holds up because:

the notion of infinity is a difficult one, to put it mildly, and it is far from clear how infinity in one thing entails infinity in another that bears some sort of relation to it.

Jerry Walls, page 56

Walls gives a good example to illustrate that, before explaining the significance:

I am dubious that Burk has made the case that eternal hell as he conceives it is just.

Jerry Walls, page 56

Walls continues considering justice. He says it’s unclear where Burk stands on human freedom, responsibility, and guilt, and whether God gives each and every person equal grace, opportunity, and mercy. He notes that Burk doesn’t believe in postmortem salvation, and that this makes things harder as:

it certainly appears that many people have far more and better opportunities to hear the gospel and accept it in this life than many others who are less fortunate. The person who is raised in a loving family that regularly attends a healthy Bible-believing church, let’s say, has far more opportunity than a person raised in a slum whose mother is a prostitute and whose father is a violent drug dealer. Suppose the latter is exposed only to a garbled view of the gospel, which he rejects, and he is later killed as a teenager by a street gang. If the opportunity to receive Christ ends with death, it appears this person had little, if any, meaningful chance to receive grace and be saved. …

The notion that the opportunity to repent is over at death is hard enough to defend as a matter of justice … But it is impossible to square with the claim that God truly loves all persons and sincerely prefers the salvation of all. I do not think the Bible teaches that the opportunity to repent ends at death, and the reasons that have traditionally been given to support this claim are dubious. … If God, whose mercy endures forever, is not willing that any should perish, but that all will come to repentance, wishes to extend his grace after death, he is certainly capable of enabling sinners to repent …

Jerry Walls, page 57-58

I love Walls’ next point about Justice:

Is hell somehow necessary to demonstrate God’s justice? Does God need eternal hell fully to glorify himself? Assuming Burk affirms substitutionary atonement, was God’s justice not sufficiently demonstrated in the death of Christ?

Jerry Walls, page 57-58

Walls now moves on to questions about Burk view of God’s love. He wonders whether Burk thinks God really loves each and every sinner, and does everything within His power to save them. Walls thinks we get mixed messages from Burk―that sometimes he makes statements like this:

If his mercy was big enough and wide enough to include you, is it not sufficient for your neighbor as well?

Denny Burk, page 43

This sounds like he means to say there is grace sufficient to save all persons so that those who end up in hell do so because they have persistently rejected grace that was available to save them.

Jerry Walls, page 59

Another example is Burk’s quote of Spurgeon, which Walls’ discusses:

Does he believe God loves all fallen sinners with a heart of true compassion as suggested in the lines from Spurgeon? Or does he believe only that we should exert this sort of effort to win them to Christ, but that God may not love them in the same way? If so, this puts us in the ironic situation of loving these sinners more than God does.

But again, ironically, on Spurgeon’s own theology, God could give all such sinners his irresistible grace that would determine them gladly, joyfully, and most freely to come to Christ. And if they persist in going to hell, it is because he did not favor them with such grace. … For theological determinists, human freedom is no barrier to salvation for anyone God is willing to save.

Jerry Walls, page 59

But that at other times Walls notes that Burk sounds like a determinist, a position Walls is very critical of, for example:

the doctrine of hell is morally indefensible, given theological determinism. … Does [Burk] believe God is glorified in giving irresistible grace to some, while damning others who are not given such grace, and who consequently cannot do other than sin and disobey God? Is this what he means when he says

“the existence of hell serves to demonstrate eternally the glory of God’s justice in his judgment on sin”?

… But how can it be said with a straight face that God loves persons from whom he withholds the saving grace

Jerry Walls, page 57

Walls admits that ECT is a difficult doctrine for everyone but thinks it’s slightly easier if people are only in hell because they really, really don’t want to ever have anything to do with God―even despite God giving them postmortem opportunities because of His neverending, genuine love for them.

Summary of Parry’s Response to Burk’s ECT

I spent 11 posts carefully engaging Denny Burk’s entire case for Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. I’m now summarising the responses of the co-contributors―my last post was Stackhouse’s―now for Robin Parry’s Universalist response.

Parry and Burk
Parry and Burk

Before raising his concerns, Parry commends Burk for the clear, biblical case for judgment, followed by division.

Methodological Concerns

Parry is concerned that Burk ignores the “canonical framework”, in particular the texts about God’s desire and ability to save everyone, and simply sees the debate settled by his ten passages.

The critical hermeneutical aspect to the hell debate is how one deals with the fact that some biblical texts seem to speak of annihilation, some of everlasting conscious torment, and some of universalism. The issues for evangelicals is how to affirm all of these texts as sacred Scripture, how to interpret them in relation to each other, and how to hold their teachings together.

Robin Parry, page 48

Parry suggests Burk―despite criticising opponents of prejudice―gives the impression that all texts must be compatible with ECT.

With regard to the ten texts, we might even agree that, other things being equal, some of the texts appear at face value to teach ECT. But other things are not equal—I have argued in my paper that there are important biblical factors that weigh against such a view of hell. I cannot ignore these when considering the ten texts and their relevance.

Robin Parry, page 49

Two Destinies?

Parry explains how divorce and remarriage is an example of affirming what an author (Mark) wrote while being aware of the qualifications from other authors (in this case, Matthew and Paul). He applies this logic to Burk’s passages:

Burk is correct that most of the two-destinies passages do not suggest any salvation after the division of people into two groups. … [However, in other passages we find] grounds for universalism. So how can we affirm the truth of both of the two-destinies texts and the global salvation texts (both of which can be found side-by-side in Paul, John, and Revelation—who presumably thought they belonged together)? The typical universalist proposal, embraced by many in the early church, is that we can do so by understanding the condemnation as qualified by the ultimate salvation texts and thus as a penultimate fate. The failure of the two-destinies passages to mention post-condemnation salvation … does not in itself rule out such salvation any more than Mark’s failure to mention an exception to the ban on divorce and remarriage rules one out.

Robin Parry, page 50

Parry also points out that:

the lack of qualification of the two destinies may play an important rhetorical function. Think of a policeman warning a criminal: “If you do that, you’ll go to prison!” He doesn’t add, “But don’t worry, you’ll get out eventually.” Such mitigation would serve to undermine the impact of the warning, even if it is true. In the same way, there may be good reasons in certain speech contexts why God would not want to undercut the seriousness of two destinies by qualifying them.

Robin Parry, page 50

Eternal?

Like Is Aionios Eternal?, Parry discusses the translation “eternal” from the Greek aionios.

I was pleased that Burk notes that aionios “is an adjective that means ‘pertaining to an age,’” and, as Stackhouse observes, “often means ‘of the age to come.’” This is correct, and it is part of the reason that I don’t think we can “be confident that kolasis is a punishment… that is unending.”

In the case of kolasin aionion (Matt. 25:46), we cannot settle the question of the duration of the punishment from this word, even if the age to come (in which the punishment occurs) is everlasting. The need for caution is illustrated by the “eternal fire” (puros aioniou) of Sodom’s punishment (Jude 7), which—contra Burk—did not burn forever.

We also do well to note the numerous examples in which universalists among the early church fathers would happily speak of eschatological punishment as aionios and consider such biblical terminology as fully compatible with their universalism.

Robin Parry, page 50-51

Thinking Biblically

Burk was concerned that some objections to ECT are “based on human estimations of the way God ought to behave” instead of “specific passages of Scripture”. Parry responds:

[T]hinking theologically is not simply about explaining “specific passages of Scripture,” but of indwelling the Bible and allowing the Bible to indwell us, such that our mind and emotions are reshaped in biblical ways. … [The objections] arise when Christians are trying to think biblically. … If the lack of a specific proof text was considered enough to exclude such concerns, then along with them would go other matters for which specific proof texts are lacking—doctrines such as the Trinity. There be dragons!

Robin Parry, page 51-52

Rejoicing in Damnation?

Like Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 1, Parry is also disturbed by Burk’s suggestion that ECT would be a source of joy:

We will look upon the damned, which will include people we love deeply, and see them in desolate turmoil of soul, with absolutely no hope, and our hearts will overflow with happiness. No thanks. God does not delight in the death of sinners, even if it is just (Ezek. 33:11)

Robin Parry, page 52

The Happiness of the Redeemed

Parry explains how ECT would cause another problem:

Can the saints ever be fully happy in the new creation if those they love are suffering ECT (or are annihilated)? In the resurrection, how could a mother ever find perfect joy if her beloved daughter is burning in hell? The God-given love she has makes her yearn for her daughter’s entry into divine life. But this can never be. So it is not only the daughter who has no hope—the mother has none either. And how can this do anything but diminish her heavenly joy?

Robin Parry, page 52

The Parable

Burk’s parable was meant to show that God’s infinity makes any sin against God “worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment” (see Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 1 for details).

Burk is telling us about the principle underpinning his essay. … However, this kind of argument did not make an appearance before St. Anselm (1033-1109), and it is certainly not found in Scripture. … in the Bible sins are differentiated in degrees of seriousness [“determined not only by the status of the one sinned against, but also by the nature of the sin itself (the motivation, the intentions, the effects, etc.).”] … [and] not all deserve the same punishment. There is certainly no suggestion that they all deserve “an infinitely heinous punishment.”

Robin Parry, page 52-53

Parry suggests it’s also logically problematic because:

All sins are sins against God, and on this argument, as God is infinitely glorious, they all incur infinite demerit. You cannot get worse than infinite demerit, so it seems that all sins are as bad as each other—infinitely bad. If you steal a sheet of paper from the office, you have committed a sin that is worthy of infinite punishment in just the same way that you have if you torture and kill children.

Robin Parry, page 53

Parry concludes by explaining why this suggests ECT would be unjust, or that it implies:

God ends up perpetuating sin and an evil world without end. It is true that he is forever balancing them out with the appropriate amount of punishment, but it remains the case that instead of removing sin from creation, God actively keeps unreconciled, sinful wills around forever in hell. I find that theologically problematic.

Burk says that the question of ECT comes down to the question of who God is and that “our emotional reflex against the traditional doctrine of hell reveals what we really believe about God.” I agree. But this is precisely the problem for ECT! The very reason Christians struggle with it is that it seems incompatible with divine goodness, love, and—yes—justice.

Robin Parry, page 54