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”.

Heaven, the Ultimate Destination?—Williamson at Moore College—part 2

In the first lecture of the Annual Moore College Lectures Dr Paul Williamson 1 briefly summarised Evangelical Universalism and said that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. In his last lecture 2 he responded to that challenge. My previous post covered the first half of that lecture and I’ll now continue where I left off.

But this [God’s kingdom] is clearly not portrayed as an all inclusive prospect—Matthew 8:12.

Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (53m 17s)

The context of that verse is that Jesus is amazed at the faith of a Roman centurion, and reveals that the Gentiles are going to come into the Kingdom while many of the Jews are cut off:

And I [Jesus] tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. But many Israelites—those for whom the Kingdom was prepared—will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 8:11-12, NLT

The Apostle Paul seems to have had this in mind in Romans 11 as “eyes that cannot see” (Rom 11:9) and “Let their eyes be darkened so they cannot see” (Rom 11:10) are reminiscent of “outer darkness”. However, thankfully he reveals the next chapter for those Jews:

I ask, then, has God rejected His people? Absolutely not! … I ask, then, have they stumbled in order to fall [irreversibly]? Absolutely not! On the contrary, by their stumbling, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling brings riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full number bring! … A partial [temporary] hardening has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved …

Romans 11:1a,11-12,25b-26a, HCSB

Romans 11 suggests to me that the “outer darkness” is a severe method God uses to shatter arrogant delusions (see earlier in Romans) and to provoke “jealousy”—the desire to return home and join the Kingdom’s feast.

Indeed, not even all of Christ’s professed disciples will enter this coming kingdom—Matthew 7:21-23.

Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (53m 25s)

I think we should heed the serious warning in the passage:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’

Matthew 7:21-23, HCSB

However, surely, “I never knew you” is an impossibility for the all-knowing God? Likewise, according to Jonah et al., it is impossible to leave God behind—to truly “Depart from Me”. Therefore, I think the passage is hyperbole. So while, it teaches that God will severely discipline lawbreakers 3 by hiding Himself from them, I don’t think the consequence has to be interpreted absolutely—as forever. Furthermore, the disciples would’ve been mostly (all?) Jews and so again Romans 11 applies—that those cut off will be grafted back after  their hearts are changed.

Paul himself lists various examples of impenitent sinners who are expressly excluded—who will not, who will not, inherit the Kingdom of God.

Paul Williamson, Lecture 6 (53m 44s)

There are many passages that describe our rebellion, including the Paul’s lists of impenitent sinners. While rebels are rebelling, they can’t come into God’s Kingdom. It’s only when they cease to be rebels, that is, turn to Jesus with the Spirit’s help.

While a prodigal son/daughter is wallowing in the pigpen (outside the Kingdom) they aren’t at home (in the Kingdom) with the Father and their siblings experiencing all the benefits, instead they are:

  • hungry (sin is unfulfilling).
  • lonely.
  • uncomfortable.
  • stinking (sin quickly becomes unpleasant).
  • prone to sickness 4.

Some Christians believe God only goes as far as allowing these natural consequences of rebellion to occur but I think that because He is our Father, He is also proactive. Metaphorically speaking, God:

  • prunes rotten branches off us.
  • irradiates the cancer in our bodies.
  • purifies us like metal—purging the dross.
  • pulls out the weeds within us.
  • burns up the rubbish within us.

One of the difficulties in the discussion of hell is that people point to the state that people are in now (e.g. impenitent sin) and project it into the future. It’s understandable because we are a mess but I think it really underestimates God. I believe God’s ability:

  1. to reveal truth is greater than our capacity to continue deluding ourselves.
  2. to satisfy is greater than evil’s fleeting highs.
  3. to woo is greater than evil’s allure.
  4. as a gardener is greater than the infestation of any weed.
  5. as a doctor is greater than the destruction of any disease.

Darkness cannot withstand Light.

I hope that Williamson, as a Calvinist, would agree that God is at least capable of achieving the best outcome (union with Him) for each and every person.

(Part 3)

Dr Paul Williamson
Dr Paul Williamson

1. Williamson lectures in Old Testament, Hebrew and Aramaic at Moore College, has written a number of books, and was a contributor to the NIV Study Bible.
2. See here for his talk outline.
3. In particular those who try to look impressive in public but aren’t doing God’s will—aren’t loving God and neighbour.
4. At least spiritually speaking, although physical, mental, and spiritual health seem intertwined to some degree.

Fiery Darkness―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 7

I’ve been engaging Denny Burk’s biblical and theological case for Eternal Conscious Torment in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. The next passage he examines is:

In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternalaiónios fire.

Jude 1:7, NIV

I agree with what Burk wrote about this passage up until the end of this quote:

the fire that rained down on the infamous cites was an example of “eternal fire,” or “fire of the age to come,” invading the present age.

Denny Burk, page 37

However, after admitting here that word aiónios can (I’d say probably should, see Is Aionios Eternal?) mean “of the age to come”, he frustratingly suggests that the fire is everlasting because life “of the age to come” is everlasting. If I said:

The highlight of the year to come will be my long service leave and lowlight of the year to come will be my sick leave.

Does that mean my long service leave will be the same duration as my sick leave? I see no necessity to interpret it that way… Indeed it seems the probability of any two future events having identical durations is low.

As I tried to show in Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire, there are plenty of examples in the Bible of God’s fire achieving things. It doesn’t have to be interpreted as an end in-and-of-itself. For example, fire is described as refining and purifying. Sometimes the fire’s purpose, the good that it brings about, is not explicitly stated when the fire is used. For example, with Sodom and Gomorrah, we only discover this much later, in Ezekiel.

I [God] will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and those of Samaria and her daughters. I will also restore your fortunes among them, so you will bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you did when you comforted them. As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters and Samaria and her daughters will return to their former state. You and your daughters will also return to your former state.

Ezekiel 16:53-55, HCSB

It’s also pertinent to consider how long Sodom and Gomorrah physically burned? Was it days? Weeks? If we traveled to the site today it’s certainly no longer burning! I think this should inform our interpretation of “eternal” fire.

The next passage Burk looks at is Jude 1:13. I find most English translations very irritating in how they “translate” eis ton aión as “forever”. For example:

wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom-of-utterzophos darkness has been reserved forevereis ton aión.

Jude 1:13, ESV

1Samuel 27:12 and Malachi 3:4 are examples in the LXX where the words can’t literally mean forever, and indeed some translations realise this:

Achish trusted David and said to himself, “He has become so obnoxious to his people, the Israelites, that he will be my servant for lifeeis ton aión.”

1Samuel 27:12, NIV

And the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord as in days of oldton aión and years gone by.

Malachi 3:4, HCSB

 If we look at each word in word, here’s what we find:

eis: to or into (indicating the point reached or entered, of place, time, fig. purpose, result)

Strong’s Concordance, 1519

ho, hé, to: the

Strong’s Concordance, 3588

aión: a space of time, an age

Strong’s Concordance, 165

Seriously, why can’t they just translate each word and leave the interpretation to the reader? I think the Apostolic Bible Polyglot translation is more honest and helpful in this regard:

wild waves of the sea foaming up their own shame; wandering stars, ones to whom the infernal-regionzophos of darkness is being kept intoeis theton eonaión.

Jude 1:13, Apostolic Bible Polyglot

Although Burk mentions that the darkness is “forever”, I’m glad doesn’t base his argument on eis ton aión. Instead he notes that verse 6 also talks about darkness:

And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternalaidios chains under gloomy-darknesszophos until the judgment of the great day

Jude 1:6, ESV

Burk comment on this is that:

The black darkness suggests the same fate [for the false teachers] as that of the fallen angels who were being “kept in eternal bonds under darkness” (v. 6) until the final judgment.

Denny Burk, page 38

However, this is puzzling because doesn’t it say the fallen angels are only in darkness temporarily, until judgment? Does that mean the false teachers are only in the darkness temporarily too?

Anyway, Burk goes on to look at the image of “darkness” in Matthew, and how it’s connected to the “fiery furnace” and “weeping and gnashing” images:

I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 8:11-12, HCSB
So he [the king in the parable] said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him up hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Matthew 22:12-13, HCSB (cf 25:28-30)

Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the ageaión. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13:40-42, ESV (cf v48-50)

Sobering stuff. It’s not surprising that the Pharisees were very offended (Matt 22:15, 26:3) that Jesus’ parables implied they weren’t entitled to be at the feast, that their complacency and negligence was going to result in their blessing/invite/talent being taken away from them and given to those they disdained, even evil people off the streets (Matt 22:10) and Roman centurions (Matt 8:10)! As we now know, Israel was indeed thrown into the “fiery furnace”―God allowed the Romans to burn Jerusalem to the ground in 70AD. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, the natural consequences of rejecting God’s ways―becoming smug, violent, and unloving―was severe and left them weeping and gnashing in the dark.

Jerusalem 70 AD
Jerusalem 70 AD

While I believe the impending earthly “hell” was Jesus’ primary concern for His immediate audience, I think the parables can be applied further. At times, each and every person is unloving in all manner of ways―from subtle disregard of those in need, to blatant smugness, lust for power, and violence. Jesus even warned His 12 disciples about these things so none of us should be complacent and reliant on our righteousness.

However, for those who are trying to heed Jesus, particularly those who are already weeping in the dark, I believe that thankfully the Bible promises that one day there will be no more tears or darkness anywhere, and that those who have been cut off will be grafted back on.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.

Revelation 21:4, HCSB

On that day the sources of light will no longer shine, yet there will be continuous day! Only the Lord knows how this could happen. There will be no normal day and night, for at evening time it will still be light.

On that day life-giving waters will flow out from Jerusalem, half toward the Dead Sea [the Lake of Fire 1] and half toward the Mediterranean, flowing continuously in both summer and winter.

And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshiped.

Zechariah 14:6-9, NLT

Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves… And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them back into the tree.

Romans 11:11,23, NLT


1. Thanks to Brad Jersak for pointing this out in Her Gate Will Never Be Shut.