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”.

Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 6

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?

What do you think of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? ? Have you read it?

I have, actually I just reread it recently. I think again that’s the sort of Barthian idea that we should at least hope that all will be saved. There’s that passage in first Timothy I think that kind of indicates that. But we can’t say for sure. And again the question is how could anybody resist God’s grace forever.

Mmm… Peter Kreeft, when he was interviewed about this, said, “We hope and pray that everyone is saved but we can’t say for sure.” So again that’s kind of the standard Catholic and Eastern Orthodox position. I think George Pell said that hell may be empty. I think he was criticizing people who dogmatically say there’s people in Hell. He says we can’t say there definitely will, or won’t, be.

Somebody told me there’s a website out there with lists of people that definitely are in Hell… {concerned laugh} that’s so…

Yeah… I don’t doubt that.

Four Views on Hell?

Have you read Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell?

No, I haven’t.

It’s from an Evangelical perspective, and they’ve got a case for Annihilationism, a case for Eternal Conscious Torment, a case for Universalism, and a case for Purgatory.

From an Evangelical point of view??

Yeah.

{chuckles} That’s good.

Yeah, it’s the first time that a major evangelical publisher has admitted that Evangelical Universalism is a biblical and theological Christian position, even though they disagreed with it. {shows William Four View on Hell book} It only came out this year and I haven’t actually finished reading it.

Origen?

What do you think about some of the Early Church Fathers? What do you think about Gregory of Nyssa and Origen, for example? Who both appear to hold to Universal Salvation. What’s your view on that?

{laughs} I think Origen was probably a little too confident. I haven’t read Gregory of Nyssa on that. But again I think the wiser position if to say we hope but we don’t know for sure. Origen seemed to know for sure. He seemed to know a lot of things for sure.

OK, that’s cool 1.

Torture?

You wrote a book on torture, which I haven’t actually read. Do you think torture is ever justified?

No.

No… that’s good! {both laugh} I’m glad to hear that! Some people seem to think it is…?

It’s listed in various church documents as an intrinsically evil act and I think that’s the way we should treat it. What’s interesting to me is just the way torture works in the popular imagination. You know it doesn’t work at all as it does in reality. In reality it doesn’t really work much. You very rarely, if ever, get real, actionable intelligence. It’s more for intimidating people and breaking up social bodies and things like that.

But the role it plays in the popular imagination in United States… it’s really important for some people to know that we’re torturing terrorists because that seems to protect us. This is I think, in part, behind the popularity of Trump. “He’s going to be a strong person with few scruples, going to protect us from the bad things that are out there.” It doesn’t make any logical sense but torture is a kind of theatre, is really what I argue, a sort of liturgy—anti-liturgy—that reverses the Eucharist.

Yes, I found the idea interesting, well the little bit I could read in Google, {both laugh} and I wondered how it worked.

Is Everyone A Child Of God?

We’ve almost run out of time but quickly, do you think everyone is a child of God?

Yes.

Coming from a few different passages. I think starting in Genesis.

Yes.

Yes, you do think that, and I agree. {both laugh} My latest blog series was on everyone being a child of God. What are some of the implications of that—of everyone being a child of God?

Well, you need to treat everybody with dignity, even people that seem completely alien—these days, Muslims. Children of the same God. I mean that’s at the most basic level.


1. Upon further reflection, I was puzzled by the description of Origen as “presumptuous”, as he doesn’t come across that way to me. So I asked Dr. Ben Myers, who lectures on Origen:

Short answer: no, ‘presumptuous’ would be the last word anyone would use to describe Origen! Even on the topic of universal salvation, he’s actually very tentative and suggestive and exploratory, never fully decided or dogmatic. This is because he’s essentially an exegete, not a theologian, so he’s always keenly aware of the huge diversity within the biblical canon.

Why Everyone is a Child of God

I often ponder just how much more of a jerk I would be if I didn't happen to believe that all men and women, regardless of their capacity or usefulness, are inestimably precious children of the Creator―John Dickson
John Dickson’s post

I particularly like his point that “all men and women … are inestimably precious children of the Creator”. It is something I’ve been pondering for ages so I thought I’d explore the idea in four posts (drawing a lot from Spencer Boersma’s article):

  1. Why Everyone is a Child of God
  2. Implications of Everyone Being a Child of God
  3. What if We Disown Our Father in Heaven?
  4. Doesn’t the NT also talk about becoming children of God??

I’ll start by looking at where I think the Bible implies everyone is a child of God.

The “image of God” means the child of God

The first place we find God described as a parent is:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness … So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27, NIV

The same image and likeness language is used to describe the relationship between Adam and his son:

When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.

Genesis 5:3, NIV

Boersma explains that it’s “an ancient way of saying “These are my children”” and we still have a sense of that in the common, “Wow, your baby looks just like you”, compliment. We also find this connection in the NT:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

Colossians 1:15, NIV

His Son is the radiance of his glory, the very image of his substance

Hebrews 1:3, WEB

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

James 3:9-10, NIV

Everyone is a child of Adam and thus a child of God

Another place we find God described as a parent is at the end of the genealogy in Luke:

the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

Luke 3:38, WEB

As all humanity comes from Adam, we all inherit his curses (Rom 5:12-21) and blessings―including being a child of God.

God is the Father of everything

I think it’s worth considering Ephesians 4:6:

One God and Father of pás, who is over pás, and through pás, and in pás.

The question is, what is the scope of the Greek pás here? pás is usually translated “all” but when the context is people, it’s appropriate to translate it “everyone” or “all people”; or when the context is creation, it can be “all things”, “everything”, or “everywhere”.

Given verses 4-8 have many people related words―God, Father, body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, “each one of us”, prisoners, and people―it’s possible that pás could be translated “all-people/everyone”, and indeed some translations translate it that way (e.g. CEV, GNT, and ERV).

However, given almost every English translation translates pás as “all-things/everything” in verse 10, it seems most likely that is the scope of verse 6 too (e.g. EXB, ICB, NIRV, NCV, and GW). I think linking parenthood and creator isn’t unique to Ephesians. For example, God’s challenge to Job:

Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens

Job 38:28-9, NIV

And in other OT passages the concepts appear overlapping:

Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people?
Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?

Deuteronomy 32:6, NIV

Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers?

Malachi 2:10, NASB

God is the head of all families

While parental headship isn’t as significant in our culture, hopefully we can still see how this supports God’s universal parenthood:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.

Ephesians 3:14-15, NIV

Even non-believers are God’s children

In part 4 I will look at the question of why the NT seems to talk about people becoming children of God when they believe but for now I’ll just point out that Paul associates God being Creator, with God being a parent of even non-believers (his audience):

and he [God] gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said. Since we are God’s children

Acts 17:28-29, CEV

Conclusion

I find it encouraging that Christians across the spectrum, including conservative evangelicals, are acknowledging this life changing (for reasons I’ll explore in my next post) teaching.

In recent years a number of scholars have taken the view that “the image and likeness of God” is the language of family relationship. For example, Graeme Goldsworthy argues that “image and likeness are terms of sonship.” John Dickson writes that “the image of God means that men and women stand in a filial relationship to God; they are his offspring, as it were. They bear the family resemblance.” And Greg Beale holds that “Adam was conceived of as a ‘son of God,’” appealing to Genesis 5:1-3.

… “In the garden, Adam is portrayed by Calvin as the loving son, surrounded with signs of the ‘paternal goodness’ (Institutes I. 14.2) of God. … Adam has no fear at the sight of God, whom he is able to identify as Father.”

Brian Rosner, Image of God as Son of God