I spent 11 posts carefully engaging all of Denny Burk’s case for Eternal Conscious Torment in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. To give myself something to look forward to, I didn’t read the responses from the co-contributors beforehand. Anyway, it was great reading them last night so I’ll now summarise them for you, starting with John Stackhouse, who holds the Terminal Punishment (aka Conditionalism/Annihilationism) view.
I like that Stackhouse started by highlighting the significant common ground with Burk, before critiquing his case.
In particular, we agree that our view of God is at stake in our view of hell. So I grasp the nettle to suggest that Burk’s view of God is rather more focused on God’s greatness than upon God’s goodness and particularly, it seems, at the expense of celebrating God’s love for his creatures.
John Stackhouse, page 44
I think Stackhouse explains the role of emotions really well:
Burk starts by taking swipes at his theological counterparts for being “emotional”—as if emotions are not conveyors of information that theologians, like any careful thinkers, ought to pay attention to. Why does this formulation of doctrine repel me? Why does this view of God horrify me? Perhaps it is because I have unsanctified feelings that need to be corrected by God’s Word. But perhaps instead, those are sanctified feelings, or even just good, basic human feelings remaining of the imago dei, that are warning me that I am on the wrong theological path. To be “emotional” is simply to be humanly alert to what’s going on, and we are wise to take the feelings into account, although not, of course, to be dominated by them.
[Burk also begins his main argument with] a story not from the Bible [, which appeals] immediately to our emotions… (I myself don’t think there’s anything wrong with such a move; it simply seems incongruous from someone who has just taken pains to warn us about the emotionalism of his opponents.)
John Stackhouse, page 44
Stackhouse now examines Burk’s central argument.
Despite Burk’s claim to be rigorously biblical, I submit that his argument is essentially deductive:
Since God is infinitely great, any sin against such a God deserves infinite punishment …
The immediate problem here, and one that shows up in all the exegetical work that follows, is that Burk shows precisely nowhere in the Bible a single passage in which this argument is actually made. … I suggest that it is Burk who is guided by his emotions and intuitions expressed deductively and that the actual data of Scripture are entirely against him when freed from the interpretative presupposition he brings to it from reasoning such as this.
John Stackhouse, page 44-45
Stackhouse’s next point is similar to Love or Glory? What Motivates God?:
Burk’s view of God has God pursuing primarily his own glory:
God has created the world for the purpose of exalting the glory of his own name (Isa. 42:8; 43:7).
Denny Burk, page 42
Let’s notice first that the former of the two proof texts offered here does not in fact make the point in question, and that the latter one actually speaks of God’s love for Israel, not that Israel is some means God uses merely to glorify himself.
Indeed, this view of God as preoccupied with his own glory, so popular among some evangelicals today, is a dangerously narrow view of God’s purposes in the world. It is narrow because it leaves out lots of scriptural teaching:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16)
not so that God would get more glory but so
“that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Likewise, Jesus suffered and died for us “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2)—the joy of a lover who gets to save the beloved. God is deeply invested in the whole cosmos and in making shalom (peace”) everywhere, and so he undertook
“to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20).
John Stackhouse, page 45
Stackhouse spends another three paragraphs going even further in his criticism of this, particularly in relation to Calvinism, but I’ll move on for the sake of space.
His next point is that the Bible discusses Judgment, and its consequences, which he believes is extinction for those opposing God, in more than just the ten passages Burk looked at. Furthermore:
In passage after passage of Burk’s analysis, moreover, he adds meanings that are not in the text—especially the idea that the suffering depicted therein is eternal, which is, after all, begging the question.
John Stackhouse, page 46
Stackhouse gives a few examples of where he thinks Burk has done this, including his discussion of Isaiah 66:
[The worms and fire] do not die, but they are consuming corpses, not zombies or some other form of perpetually living “undead.” The deathlessness of the symbols of judgment, worms and fire, speak of the perpetuity of God’s holy antipathy toward sin, but the corpses themselves are dead. They’re finished. And Burk has the integrity in this case to admit that he is, indeed, adding information to the text:
“Though not mentioned specifically in this text, this scene seems to assume that God’s enemies have been given a body fit for an unending punishment.”
I suggest that it is not “the text” that is doing the assuming here.
John Stackhouse, page 46
Stackhouse’s final point is that:
God’s wrath is fierce, but it does not last forever, as we are told in Scripture again and again (Ps. 30:5; 103:9). … And since universalism is not correct …, terminal punishment remains as the view consistent with scriptural teaching.
In Burk’s view, alas, God’s wrath does last forever, he punishes forever, and he does so because it makes him look good to do so (equal to increasing his glory). I respectfully suggest that the view of God as keeping human beings conscious in torment forever does nothing to achieve God’s other purposes of saving the creatures he loves and enhancing shalom.
I suggest further that such a view doesn’t even achieve its desired result: to enhance God’s glory. Quite the contrary: It poses an unbiblical and therefore unnecessary stumbling block to genuine faith. Such a view is, to speak more bluntly, sadistic, and the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the exact opposite of one who gets joy from the suffering of others: he gets joy from suffering for others (Heb. 12:2 again).
John Stackhouse, page 47
I like that Stackhouse finishes by praising God:
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
Psalm 30:5, NRSV