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

Summary of Stackhouse’s Response to Burk’s ECT

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.

Stackhouse and Burk
Stackhouse and Burk

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

Is Aionios Eternal?―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 4

Denny Burk
Denny Burk

I’m blogging my way through Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. The biblical and theological case for the first of the views, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT), was written by Denny Burk. In this post I’ll look at the next passage he examines, Matthew 18:6-9.

6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternalaiónios fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hellgeenna.

Matthew 18:6-9, NIV

Burk states that the penalty for causing a believer to completely fall away is:

complete destruction in “eternal fire” (v. 8) and “fiery hell” (v. 9)Denny Burk, page 26

He explains that the word geenna, translated “hell”, literally means the “Valley of Hinnom” but that intertestamental literature and the New Testament used it as an image of final judgment. I recently read Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, which made a compelling case that Jesus actually used geenna much more like Jeremiah did (e.g. warning of imminent destruction in this world). However, for the sake of the argument, I’ll assume it’s also about the final judgment.

Burk says that “life” in Matthew is always “eternal” life of the next age, so it must be that in v8. His next step is to say that because the life is everlasting, then the punishment in the fire is also everlasting. I tried to demonstrate in my last post that just because both things occur in the next age doesn’t imply they must be of equal duration.

That aiónios is often translated as “eternal” or “everlasting” in mainstream English bibles, also doesn’t settle the matter. Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts is the most comprehensive academic analysis of these particular words that I know of 1. As it is far more in depth than any lexicon entry, it seems to be the logical starting point 2.

[aiónios] may sometimes mean eternal but also bears many other meanings … [such as] pertaining to the next aion [aeon/eon]

Ramelli & Konstan, Terms for Eternity, vii

This is supported by other respected scholars:

[aiónios means] belonging to the age to come

J.I. Packer, The Problem of Eternal Punishment, Crux XXVI.3, September 1990, 23
[aiónios means] of the Age to Come
N.T. Wright, The New Interpreter’s Bible

Some examples of the range of meanings:

in the hope of eternalaiónios life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginningaiónios of time

Titus 1:2, NIV

the mystery hidden for longaiónios ages past

Romans 16:25, NIV

in the ancientaiónios paths

Jeremiah 18:15, NIV
the age-oldaiónios hills collapsed—but he marches on foreveraiónios
Habakkuk 3:6b, NIV
the years of long-agoaiónios
Psalm 77:5, NIV
as in ancientaiónios ruins
Ezekiel 26:20,  NIV
Do not move ancientaiónios boundary stone set up by your ancestors.
Proverbs 22:28, NIV
its bars held me with no-end-in-sightaiónios [ended up being 3 days!]
Jonah 2:6, CEB

Burk sort-of acknowledges the range of meanings (although he adds a disclaimer, which I’ll look at later):

[aiónios] means “a long period of time” in a handful of New Testament texts.Denny Burk, page 27-28

Surely if God had wanted to unambiguously convey to everyone the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment, He would’ve used less ambiguous words (example below) and phrases. Conversely, because He used the polysemous aiónios, it’s reasonable to infer that He wasn’t trying to convey the idea of eternity.

We have seen that the term aïdios has its roots in the earliest Greek philosophical vocabulary, and more or less consistently refers to a strictly eternal stretch of time, without beginning or end, or at least endless. This use obtains in later pagan as well as Christian writers.

Terms for Eternity, page 237

God is a responsible Creator (many would also say loving Father), so if there was Eternal Conscious Torment, there would be clear support for it in every book of the Bible. That we don’t find anything that could even vaguely suggest it in most of the OT (and much of the NT), seems to suggest He really wasn’t warning us of it.

Similarly if Conditionalism is true, that God only gives people limited chances, I would expect to find no hint of Universalism anywhere in the Bible because God wouldn’t want to give people false hope and potentially lose them forever. That thousands (millions?) have, often independently, interpreted the Bible as promising Universalism seems to indicate it’s at least a real possibility.

An example of the Bible giving us hope is in the very next verse in Matthew, which is the famous Parable of the Lost Sheep―widely recognised as illustrating God’s grace that persists until all are rescued.

In the sentence after Burk says aiónios is sometimes a long period, he adds this disclaimer:

But its [aiónios] use in Matthew’s Gospel routinely means a “period of unending duration” or a time “without end”
Denny Burk, page 28

However, aiónios only appears in Matthew five other times (see below), that’s hardly routinely, especially when the word appears a total of 163 times in the Greek OT and 77 times in the NT.

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternalaiónios life?”
Matthew 19:16, NIV
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternalaiónios life.
Matthew 19:29, NIV
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternalaiónios fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Matthew 25:41, NIV
“Then they will go away to eternalaiónios punishment, but the righteous to eternalaiónios life.”
Matthew 25:46, NIV

If each aiónios above was translated, say “belonging to the age to come” as Packer suggested, each verse would still make just as much sense—it is not necessary to translate any of them as “eternal” or as Burk suggests. Sure we believe the life “belonging to the age to come” is also unending but that’s not because of aiónios but because it is:

  • in the sustaining/renewing presence of God (Rev 21:23, 22:5).
  • immortal (2Tim 1:10).
  • without death (1Cor 15:26; 2Tim 1:10; Rev 20:14).
  • without rust and decay (Matt 6:20).
  • tied to our relationship with God (John 17:3).

So far I’ve been arguing that it’s unlikely that the word pivotal to Burk’s case, aiónios, means “everlasting”, but let’s say it does. There are a few different responses that can be given 3 but I’ll just look at one based on this comment:

It is best not to take the eternal fire as literal but as a metaphorical expression that is drawn from Old Testament antecedents (e.g., Isa. 66:24) and that expresses the pain that must be endured by those in hell.

Denny Burk, page 28

I agree we should interpret the fire as metaphorical. So, given that we’re talking about non-literal things, shouldn’t the fuzzy aiónios also be considered non-literal??


1. 250 pages covering almost every instance in the texts of the period. A helpful review.
2. For much longer discussions see Sometimes Eternal Isn’t Forever or Talbott on Matthew 25:41, 46.
3. Others point to examples in the OT where we see that statements about the future are conditional, in that God’s punishments are everlasting/perpetual/no-end-in-sight, until the group or person repents (because God has been working in them) and God saves them. James Goetz makes a good case for this in his book, Conditional Futurism. Others take the dual-selves approach, which I explained at the end of Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 2

Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 2

In my last post I started looking at the first of the views in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). Denny Burk wrote a biblical and theological case for this view. The next section of his chapter is titled “Scriptural Teaching on Hell”.

Denny Burk
Denny Burk

Robert Peterson has argued that there are at least ten texts of Scripture that deal explicitly with hell and with the final state of the wicked: Isaiah 66:22-24; Daniel 12:2-3; Matthew 18:6-9; 25:31-46; Mark 9:42-48; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10, 14-15.
Denny Burk, page 21

Burk states that from these passages we find at least three characteristics, which rule out all the other views in this book:

  1. Irrevocable final separation at the last judgment.
  2. Absolutely unending conscious experience.
  3. Just retribution to recompense for evil, not to redeem or renew.

I’ll discuss the above characteristics as I go through Burk’s section on Isaiah 66:22-24:

22 “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure.
23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord.
24 “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
Isaiah 66:22-24, NIV

He introduces this as “foundational because Jesus himself alludes to it to describe the final fate of the wicked”. 1

So how did Jesus use Isaiah 66? 2 In Mark 9, His disciples after they have been arguing about who was the greatest and who was in the “in group”. In response, Jesus gives a series of exhortations to be humble and welcoming, and to remove temptations from their lives. To illustrate the severity of not doing these things, He quotes Isaiah 66:24:

And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into [the Valley of Hinnom], ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’.
Mark 9:47-48, ESV

I’d like to tentatively suggest that Jesus comments on the “fire” in the next two verses:

For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Mark 9:49-50, ESV

If the “salt” here is God’s fire, then perhaps a reasonable paraphrase could be something like this:

For everyone will be refined by God’s fire (because everyone fails to remove temptation and sin for their lives?). Thankfully God’s fire is good, although if the fire has lost its fieriness (through our apathy and complacency? See Rev 3:15-18 below), how will you make it fiery again? Therefore keep God’s fire in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.
Mark 9:49-50, my tentative paraphrase

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot [on fire?]. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me [God] gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich…
Revelation 3:15-18a, ESV

It’s also worth noting that most Christians interpret, rightly I believe, “tearing your eye out” as rhetorical hyperbole―that Jesus isn’t advocating physical self-harm. That He discusses the worm and fire in this context might indicate that they too are rhetorical hyperbole. I think this fits with Isaiah 66 too, which is full of non-literal imagery, for example:

earth is My footstool… Zion was in labor, she gave birth to her sons… Be glad for Jerusalem… nurse and be satisfied from her comforting breast… His chariots are like the whirlwind… His fiery sword
Isaiah 66:1, 8, 10, 11, 15, 16, HCSB

Under the heading “Final Separation” Burk says v22 indicates Isaiah isn’t describing immediate events but the end of this age. He notes that Isaiah 65 describes the next age as in God’s presence, free from weeping, death, want, conflict, and evil, but only for God’s people―that these things don’t apply to the wicked.

I think this is problematic because our love for our loved ones will surely increase as we become more Christlike in the New Creation. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, He didn’t rejoice that they were about to experience the consequences of their love of violence (Luke 19:41). Therefore it’s hard to imagine us not weeping over those in ECT. Similarly, anything that isn’t in a right relationship with God is in an evil state. Therefore it seems to me that if ECT continues, so does evil.

Furthermore, he understands v24 as implying the dead rebels will be visible to God’s people, probably just outside Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom.

At the very least, it pictures a separation between the righteous and the wicked… The imagery pictures… “complete separation” of God’s enemies from his worshipers.
Denny Burk, page 23

Given the wicked are visible, just outside the open gates, I’d suggest the emphasis isn’t really on “complete separation”…

Burk then seeks to make a case for it being “Unending Experience”. He says that v22 implies that both the worshipers and wicked will endure as long as the New Creation (i.e. forever), the latter in “a perpetual state of dishonor”. 3

Lastly, under the heading “Just Retribution” Burk writes:

Isaiah 66:24 is the last verse in the book, and the implication is that the final word corresponds to their final state which is unending. This means that the punishment of the wicked is not disciplinary or restorative. Rather, it is a punitive measure to recompense the wicked for rebelling against God. The “continual burning” of the “consuming fire” of God does not purge evil but punished evil.
Denny Burk, page 24

If Isaiah 66:24 was the last verse of the Bible, then this would carry some weight, however, thankfully we have the rest of the Bible, most significantly the record of the coming of Jesus, the full revelation of God.

I’m baffled as to why he sees no possibility of the fire being anything other than punitive as even within Isaiah the image of fire is used in other ways:

I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities.
Isaiah 1:25, NIV
The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.
Isaiah 4:4, NIV
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.
Isaiah 6:6, ESV
See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
Isaiah 48:10, NIV

And there are other examples throughout the Bible:

 

I think there’s potentially another way of understanding the passage, which comes from the last two verses:

  • all mankind bow down to God (v23)
  • all mankind go out and look at the dead bodies of the rebels (v24)

As all mankind are rebels (Rom 3:23) it seems v24 could read as:

  • all mankind will realise their dead bodies are loathsome

In other words, this appears to be another example of our dual-selves, a theme that appears in Isaiah and throughout the rest of the Bible:

Old name New name Isa 56:5, 62:2, 65:15; Rev 2:17, 3:12
Old man New man Rom 6:6; Eph 2:15, 4:22-24; Col 3:9-11 4
Abram Abraham Gen 17:5
Heart of stone Heart of flesh Ezk 11:19, 36:26
Flesh Spirit Gal 5:16–18
Old things New creature 2Cor 5:17
Old heart New heart Jer 24:7
Simon Peter Mat 16:18
Satanic Peter Peter the leader Mat 16:23, 16:18
Dead Alive Col 2:13, 3:1-17; Eph 2:1-10

I think a case could be made that the wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs) is similar―that rather than viewing ourselves as the righteous, wise, diligent, etc. and other people as the wicked, foolish, lazy, etc. , that we acknowledge that we are both, but thankfully God is helping us destroy the latter within us.


1. Page 21
2. I’ll leave the question of how Jesus compares to Isaiah’s revelation of God to another day, although it’s definitely worth considering, particularly given it’s Good Friday as I’m writing this!
3. Page 23
4. See also “Old Man” and “New Man” in Paul

Eternal Conscious Torment―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 1

I’m now going to dive into the actual views in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition, trying my best to keep Sprinkle’s gracious introduction in mind1. Remember that I’m posting as I go, so I don’t know what conclusions the author makes, nor the responses from the other authors…

Denny Burk
Denny Burk

The first of the views is Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). The biblical and theological case for this was written by Denny Burk. He starts by rightly acknowledging that people don’t like the idea of hell.

One can hardly contemplate the horror of an eternal hell without shuddering at the thought of anyone having to bear such a fate.
Denny Burk, page 17

However, he believes ECT is what God reveals in the Bible, and therefore he has to submit to it. While he notes that some oppose ECT on exegetical and theological grounds, he quickly gives the impression that most objections are based primarily “on human estimations of the way God ought to behave”2. He gives three examples:

  1. Eternal punishment contradicts the goodness, love, and compassion of God and makes Him a tyrant.
  2. Eternal punishment contradicts the justice of God because it is in no way proportionate to the sin in question.
  3. Eternal punishment that is purely punitive and not remedial has no apparent value.
    Denny Burk, page 17

I think (1) is a fair objection but not because I’m bringing my “human estimations of the way God ought to behave” but because the Bible seems clear about what goodness, love, and compassion look like (e.g. Jesus! 1Cor 13:4-8, John 15:13), and that God is indeed Goodness (Psalm 119:68), Love (1John 4:8), and Compassion (Luke 6:36).

I don’t think much is gained discussing (2) because:

a) even if everyone deserves ECT, God is free to save everyone so that no one will experience it, OR
b) even if no one deserves ECT, without God saving each person, no one would be saved (Rom 9:16).

I’m uncertain about (3). While God may use some retributive punishment, I don’t think it’s something God needs as before Creation, He was eternally holy, just, etc. without it. Neither do we need an eternal demonstration of retribution “just so we won’t forget how bad sin is”. I’d also suggest retributive punishment isn’t as satisfactory for God (or us) as remedial correction. For example, if I steal your car, that I’m forced to give it back, would only be one small step towards repairing our relationship. I assume you’d also want to see that:

a) I had genuinely understood the betrayal and stress that I’d caused by stealing it.
b) I had genuinely asked for your forgiveness.
c) I had genuinely had a desire to “make things right”.
d) I had genuinely changed my ways so I never stole from anyone ever again.

If I did a, b, c, and d, you may even waive returning the car if, say, I’d written it off. I get the impression God desires genuine change of heart more than “eye-for-eye” legal retribution (Matt 15:8 and Kevin Miller’s article on punishment).

Such objections have indeed been long-standing and can invoke an emotional response that precludes certain readings of the text.
Denny Burk, page 18

I think the role emotions should, or shouldn’t, play in biblical interpretation is tricky… However, I agree that emotions shouldn’t be the sole consideration. I think we should acknowledge them and then investigate whether or not they are being informed by a misunderstanding. I think that is a better approach than kidding ourselves into thinking that we are being objective and totally unaffected by our emotions.

He gives some examples of the questions that ECT raises:

What kind of a God would preside over a place of eternal conscious torment? Can the loving God of the Bible possibly be responsible for punishing the unrepentant in this way?
Denny Burk, page 18

I think if one believes God is the Father of everyone3, this should also inform our discussion of these questions.

To challenge the one of the “theological presuppositions that often predispose readers against the traditional view”4, Burk now gives a parable to illustrate that:

[T]he seriousness of sin is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and worth of the one being sinned against.
Denny Burk, page 19

In the parable he compares the reaction to someone pulling the legs off an insect vs. someone pulling the legs off a baby. The action is the same, “pulling legs off”, but who the victim makes the former disturbing but latter absolutely horrific! He then rightly notes that God is infinitely more valuable, glorious and holy than us. However, because of this, he says:

Thus to sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.
Denny Burk, page 20

While the parable is coherent, I think it is a problematic for at least two reasons, which I think he almost gets to with these comments.

[God] is not exactly like you and me… He is compassionate and gracious.
Denny Burk, page 20

First, can we ever “pull the legs off God”? When we tried something similar, in the crucifixion, the divinity of Jesus not only reversed it, in the resurrection, it overcame death for everyone else too!

Second, unlike most of us, when attacked or insulted, Jesus didn’t demand His rights but instead stoops down and opens His arms (‎Luke 23:34). God never gives up on Israel despite their obnoxious attitude towards Him (see Hosea). Determining how offensive something is isn’t just a matter of how important the victim is but also how humble they are and how they choose to react. God can choose not to be heinous in response to our heinousness.

We fail to take sin and judgment seriously as we ought because we fail to take God as seriously as we ought. And so we are often tempted to view the penalty of hell―eternal conscious suffering under the wrath of God―as an overreaction on God’s part.
Denny Burk, page 20

Saying God is merciful can be misunderstood as saying God doesn’t mind sin or that we don’t think it’s serious. While I think sin is so serious that letting it continue in ECT would be an underreaction on God’s part, I think Burk is right to be concerned that sometimes we don’t take sin seriously.

So the question of eternal conscious torment really does come down to who God is. Is God the kind of God for whom this kind of punishment would be necessary? Or is he not? What does the Bible say about God and the judgments that issue forth from him?
Denny Burk, page 20

I agree, I think these are important questions. I can’t see how it could be absolutely necessary, as even in his own view, at least the Elect don’t experience the punishment. One of the helpful things in Robin Parry’s5 book The Evangelical Universalist, is that he spends a considerable amount of time examining God’s judgments in the OT, suggesting that there’s a pattern of warning, judgment, and then restoration.

[ECT] is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God (Rev. 18:20; 19:3).
Denny Burk, page 20

“Ouch!” was my emotional reaction but upon pondering the Revelation 18-19, I think he’s right that we will witness the infinite goodness and justice. I even think he’s right that we will rejoice, just not at ECT but at seeing the end of Babylon, the end of immorality, greed, terror, and all other evil deeds. I don’t think the chapters are necessarily discussing eternal conscious torment for a few reasons:

a) The apocalyptic genre is full of hyperbolic, vivid images that don’t necessarily mean what we initially think (e.g. the sword coming out of His mouth isn’t a physical sword for killing people with but His penetrating words). There are images in chapter 18 that could be used to support the other views:

“Do to her as she has done to others. Double her penalty for all her evil deeds. She brewed a cup of terror for others, so brew twice as much for her.” (v6) As Babylon had caused a finite amount of suffering, even doubling her suffering wouldn’t be eternal.

“And the kings of the world who committed adultery with her and enjoyed her great luxury will mourn for her as they see the smoke rising from her charred remains.” (v9) Doesn’t sound like anything is left conscious.

b) I think there are some reasons to hope in Revelation 21-226.

c) As we grow more Christlike I assume we will love those we currently love even more than we do now―which seems to imply we would be even more upset than we are now at seeing them suffer torment7.

However, I think there’s no doubt God still wants us to heed the severity and intensity of what will happen to those who persist in doing evil.

Wow! I’m only 4 pages into his chapter but I think that’s more than enough for one post.


1. Please feel free to pull me up if I go astray!
2. p18
3. I realise there are differing views on the Fatherhood of God.
4. p18
5. A contributor to the Counterpoints book I’m reviewing here.
6. I think Jersak makes a good biblical case for this in Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.
7. I think Talbott makes a good theological case for this in The Inescapable Love of God.

Sprinkle’s Introduction to “Four Views on Hell: Second Edition”

Alex holding his copy of "Four Views on Hell: Second Edition"
“Four Views on Hell: Second Edition”

I’ll have to pause my current blog series because Four Views on Hell: Second Edition has arrived! This is the latest book in Zondervan’s1 Counterpoints―a series that allows 3-5 prominent scholars to each present their view on an important biblical and theological issue, and then respond to each of the others. Thus, in one book, a reader can get a good overview of the topic and see where the points of difference are. Because of this, I suspect the book will turn out to be one of the most significant books on the topic of Hell for many years to come. My aim is to post about the book as I read through it.

Preston Sprinkle
Preston Sprinkle

The general editor of this book, Preston Sprinkle, wrote the Introduction. He starts by acknowledging that Christianity’s doctrine of Hell has sometimes been poorly articulated and misused. Also, that even within evangelical Protestantism there has been a wide range of views. The examples he gives are Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, John Stott, and N. T. Wright. He says that in the last 20 years there has been an increasing amount of discussion of the topic (I’ve observed this too). He rightly notes that this isn’t because people are becoming “wishy-washy” but quite the opposite, it’s because people are re-examining Scripture. I think this is partly due to the Internet exposing us to many great Christian thinkers, past and present, across the entire Church, not just our local denomination. In the same vein, he mentions that dialogue between Protestants and Catholics is now common. Another reason for re-examining Scripture is that Early Church history, councils and creeds are more accessible, meaning we can see for ourselves that all of the views on Hell in this book are actually orthodox2.

If you hold onto your view too tightly, unwilling to reexamine it in light of Scripture, then you are placing your traditions and presuppositions on a higher pedestal than Scripture itself. If the view you have always believed is indeed Scriptural, then there’s nothing to fear by considering and wrestling with other views. If Scripture is clear, then such clarity will be manifest.
Preston Sprinkle, p14

I loved that he emphasised “ecclesia temper reformanda est, or ‘the church is (reformed and) always reforming’”3, which was the inspiration behind this blog (see my first post). I agree with him that we regularly need to review our views, otherwise:

It’s common, perhaps likely, that unexamined beliefs become detached from their scriptural roots over time [and acquire “unbiblical baggage” p11] … We believe particular doctrines, but can’t always defend them biblically.

Preston Sprinkle, p15

He briefly introduces each contributor4 and their view:

  1. Denny Burk is “a Professor of Biblical Studies and the director of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College”. His view is Eternal Conscious Torment, and is based on passages such as Matt 25:46.
  2. John Stackhouse is “the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University”. His view is “terminal punishment” (aka Annihilationism or Conditionalism), and is based on passages such as Matt 10:28.
  3. Robin Parry has “a PhD [in OT theology] from the University of Gloucestershire (UK) and serves as the commissioning editor for Wipf and Stock Publishers”. His view is Christian [Evangelical] Universalism (aka Universal Reconciliation), and is based on passages such as Rom 5:18. Sprinkle helpfully points out that this is not “anything goes, all roads lead to heaven” pluralism!
  4. Jerry Walls is “Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University”. His view assumes Eternal Conscious Torment but unlike Burk, he argues here for a type of purgatory where sanctification of believers and sometimes repentance of some (but not all) people who hadn’t believed in this life, can occur (similar to C. S. Lewis?), based on passages such as 1Cor 3:10-15. Sprinkle explains that this does not replace Christ’s atonement.

All of them have also authored multiple books and publications. I appreciated that he repeatedly points out all the contributors to this book:

  1. are committed Christians
  2. believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture
  3. affirm the existence of Hell (despite differing on the nature of it)
  4. base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality

As Christians, we should seek to understand before we refute, and if we refute, we must do so based on compelling biblical evidence and not out of fear or presupposition.
Preston Sprinkle, p15


1. Publisher of the well known NIV translation.
2. He mentions this here in relation to Annihilationism but elsewhere I’ve seen him say this about Evangelical Universalism too.
3. p15
4. All quotes in this paragraph are from p13.