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”.

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.

Pruning the Flock?―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 5

I’m blogging through Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. Denny Burk wrote the theological and biblical case for the first view, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). This post will look at the next passage he examines, Matthew 24:31-46.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Matthew 24:31-32, NIV

Burk helpfully notes how this fulfills one of Daniel’s visions:

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlastingaiónios dominion that will not pass away 1, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14, NIV

Burk points out that everyone receives justice:

This Son of Man rules over the nations as the world’s true king, and he will render justice to every individual who has ever lived.

Denny Burk, page 28

But Daniel’s vision goes further, stating that everyone worshiped God (v14). Burk might respond that the reprobates’ worship is because of their subjugation. However, I think that’s very unlikely for two reasons:

First, in the vision’s interpretation we are told:

The kingdom, dominion, and greatness of the kingdoms under all of heaven will be given to the people, the holy ones of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will serve and obey Him.

Daniel 7:27, NIV

The only way for these rulers and kingdom folk to serve and obey God is to receive a new heart from God―to repent and willingly join His kingdom.

Second, God isn’t interested in mere forced lip service 2, He rightly requires and deserves wholehearted worship, which can only come from a renewed, Spirit-filled person.

Burk moves on to Jesus dividing “the sheep from the goats”:

The Son of Man separates them from one another because he intends to treat them differently based on what they are.

Denny Burk, page 29

Last year I gave reasons why I think Jesus wasn’t comparing adult sheep with adult goats but rather mature and immature animals within the Good Shepherd’s flock. If this is correct, this changes “what they are” and therefore the interpretation of how “he intends to treat them”. That doesn’t mean it will be easy for the immature but it seems to imply His aim is maturity―particularly Christlike empathy in this parable.

Baby goat
Young goat

Yes, Burk is right that aiónios fire is mentioned but I think this evocative language highlights the severity not the unlovingness of the process. For example:

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger. Then I will purify the speech of all people, so that everyone can worship the Lord together.

Zephaniah 3:8 (NIV), 3:9 (NLT)

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.

Malachi 3:2-3, ESV

their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day [of Jesus’ Judgment] will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.

1 Corinthians 3:13, NIV

Burk discusses how some people translate kolasis aiónios (Matt 25:45) as “correction in-the-next-age” rather than “eternal punishment” as he does. He goes as far as saying:

kolasis never means “correction” or “pruning” anywhere in the New Testament or related literature.

Denny Burk, page 30

I’m puzzled by his certainty because I’ve found evidence to the contrary. For example, according to Perseus 3 kolasis appears in a few hundred ancient Greek texts, and they’ve summed it up as:

checking the growth.

Perseus, Greek Word Study Tool

Barclay, a theologian and author of popular NT commentaries, came to a very similar conclusion:

The word was originally a gardening word, and its original meaning was pruning trees. In Greek there are two words for punishment… kolasis is for the sake of the one who suffers it [i.e. correction to mature someone]; timoria is for the sake of the one who inflicts it [i.e. retribution]

William Barclay, The Apostles’ Creed (see also 

Furthermore, the NAS Exhaustive Concordance says kolasis comes from kolazó, which includes:

1. properly, to lop, prune, as trees, wings.

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon

Another word that comes from kolazó, is kólon, which means:

a limb of the body (as if lopped)
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance

However, given correction can be severe (like chopping off a gangrenous leg) it’s understandable that it also became associated with punishment.

kolasis: maiming, cutting off.
J. Schneider, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Volume III

All this reminds me of Paul’s description of God cutting the Jews off for a time (which has been unpleasant for them), before grafting them back on again once the Gentiles have come in.

Burk comments that:

The term is used one other time in the New Testament, in 1 John 4:18 where it clearly means punishment.

Denny Burk, page 30

I think “clearly” is a bit strong as some translations don’t translate it that way (e.g. Douay-Rheims BibleWeymouth New Testament, 1599 Geneva Bible, and Wycliffe Bible translate it as pain, and Aramaic Bible in Plain English translates it as suspicion). Also if the word is translated “correction” it seems to link better with teleioó in the last sentence:

God’s love doesn’t contain fear, rather His perfect love removes fear―the fear of correctionkolasis. That we still fear means we haven’t yet been fully correctedteleioó (indeed filled) by His love 4.

In any case, universalism doesn’t hinge on the definition of kolasis as there are plenty of examples of God even restoring people who appear to have experienced retributive punishment 5.

Lastly, Burk says that the fate of demonic creatures is ECT, and that therefore ECT is the fate of the people sent into the fire “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). However, Universalists, such as Gregory of Nyssa, the father of orthodoxy, maintained that even “the originator of evil himself will be healed” 6 ―that he will be reconciled because he is part of all things that God has created (see Col 1:15-20).


1. It’s interesting how translating aiónios as everlasting makes an unnecessary tautology, whereas translating it eonian would not. See also Is Aionios Eternal?.
2. See Everyone Repents & Rejoices for examples of what He requires and what He says is unsatisfactory.
3.  An online dictionary used by Logos, the largest and most widely used Bible software in the world.
4. I like the way the Amplified Bible, Classic Edition puts it.
5. e.g. restoration of Sodom in Ezekiel 16:53.
6. Thanks to Robin Parry for pointing this out in Origen on the Salvation of the Devil.
.

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

Doubt & Desire: Peter Rollins vs John Dickson

  • The greater the importance of something to you, the more likely you are to have doubts about it.
  • The greater the doubt, the more you desire to have certainty.

So what should we do when we doubt? Should we suppress it or express it? Can we ever relieve our doubts or should we just settle for uncertainty?

I recently got to go to a talk by John Dickson, and in the following week two events by Peter Rollins. Both are highly educated, intelligent, thought-provoking and effective communicators. I particularly appreciated their humility, approachableness and willingness engage with my questions and objections. As I’ve been mulling over what they said, I’ve realised there are both similarities and contrasts between the two that are worth sharing.

Peter Rollins and John Dickson
Peter Rollins and John Dickson

While they both had helpful insights on a range of things, topics they both focused on were doubt and desire. They both spoke about acknowledging that we are all deeply flawed people in a broken world. We all have doubts, at least at times, about big questions―be that the existence or character of God, the interpretation of the Bible, about who we are, or why we suffer. This was refreshing because sometimes there is pressure to “have it all worked out”, or that any doubt implies we don’t have enough faith1.

But once we’ve acknowledged our doubts, what do we do next?? At both events this question came up, and both speakers acknowledged that it depends on the type of doubt. If someone is plagued by psychological doubts and despairing to the point of feeling anxious or depressed, we should be sensitive, take their concerns seriously and support them as best we can2. However, if the doubts are straightforward intellectual doubts, Rollins and Dickson offer two different approaches.

My impression from Rollins’ talk, and the conversations with him afterwards3, is that he is comfortable leaving many things unresolved, as doubts, as mystery4. He suggests that in our consumerist, hedonistic culture we are too quick to give neat “answers” and to seek to satisfy every desire.

… the Good News [is] that we can’t be satisfied, that life is difficult, and that we don’t know the secret.Peter Rollins

I think Rollins’ caution should be heeded. Often the more we learn about something, the more we discover how much more there is to learn―that things are often more complex than we initially think. I suspect God deliberately leaves ambiguity around some things to encourage the virtues of patience, trust, humility and perseverance.

For those with intellectual doubts, Dickson recommended reading and researching more because most quandaries have been pondered and addressed extensively by someone before. I’m naturally attracted to Dickson’s approach. My Dad is a science teacher and my Mum is teacher librarian, so questioning and reading were ingrained in me from an early age. Dickson also suggests that God, largely through the Bible, does offer answers to some of our doubts now and promises that in the future there will be a resolution to all doubts and suffering. We can have hope now. In the book that his talk summarized, Dickson writes:

But Is It All Wishful Thinking?
In The Weight of Glory C. S. Lewis describes humanity as having a sort of longing for a far-off country, which some people dismiss as nostalgia or romanticism but which he thinks comes because we were made for heaven. “Almost all our education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent inner voice,” he says; “almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.” But Lewis says we are never satisfied with earth as it is, with all its discord and sadness. Christians look beyond the pain, for “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so”.John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2014), 214

I do think it is easier to endure suffering and live with the questions and doubts it raises, if we believe we are promised a good outcome.

If I knew there was a resolution [to suffering], I could walk through life without precisely knowing why I’m experiencing ugliness [suffering].John Dickson, Doubting the Bible, Hobart talk 2015

I put this to Rollins but he wasn’t convinced. My impression is that he thinks we risk not fully living in the now5 if we are desiring the future.

… [set] aside questions regarding life after death to explore the possibility of a life before death.Peter Rollins

While I think the Bible does encourage peace and contentment with the current, non-ideal situation, I don’t think that it’s suggesting this at the expense of hope and the desire to see the ideal realised. For example, I can be at peace with the death of a loved one, while still looking forward to the day when we’ll be reunited in the New Creation.

The fact that humanity has longings [for God, the afterlife, and ethics] that are satisfied by the teaching of the Bible is no more an argument against the Bible than the physical thirst can be thought of as an argument against the reality of water. … perhaps this “match” between human longings and the Bible’s message arises because the one who made us for himself stands behind the Bible, as water for our thirst. … in Jesus Christ all of our longings for God, for each other, and for the redemption of creation are satisfied. … [in] the final lines of the Bible itself, we are all invited for a drink…John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Zondervan, 2014), 215-217

“Come!” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink [receive] freely from the water of life.Revelation 22:17b (NLT)

I think this verse goes even further than Dickson realises, and suggests universal salvation. For the water of life flows out (Zechariah 14:8) the open gates (Rev 21:25) of the New Jerusalem to the not-yet-saved outside (Rev 22:15) and it is God and the quenched (John 4:14) who are calling the thirsty to drink. In a future post I’ll look at the objection that some people will refuse to drink. For now, I think it’s worth considering how parched one becomes near fire6, and how irrational it would be not to accept a free drink. Anyway, for Calvinists, like Dickson, I hope they wouldn’t have this objection as they believe all whom God calls will come7.

“Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! … My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” Isaiah 55:1,11 (NLT)

Koala given a much needed drink of water after a bushfire (Photo: ABC)
Koala given a much needed drink of water after a bushfire (Photo: ABC)

1. Which could be interpreted as meaning one’s salvation is at stake.
2. This may include encouraging them to seek professional help via a GP.
3. I’ve watched some of his YouTube videos too but unfortunately I haven’t read any of his books yet.
4. This reminds me of the Eastern approach to theology.
5. He made some excellent points about making sure we give priority to loving people over philosophising about things.
6. Also located outside the gates in Revelation imagery.
7. The “I” in TULIP is for Irresistable Grace.