Hell—Practical & Ethical Implications Now

Last month I was asked to write an article for an e-zine, Engage.Mail. This online publication is a produced by Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society. Here is my introduction:

Evangelical Universalism

In March 2016, one of the world’s largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan, produced a second edition of Four Views on Hell, which included Eternal Conscious Torment, Terminal Punishment, Purgatory and, for the first time, Universalism. The editor states that all four contributors are committed Evangelicals who affirm biblical inspiration and authority and the existence of Hell, and who base their view primarily on Scripture and theological reasoning, rather than tradition, emotion or sentimentality.

In this article, I explore the practical and ethical implications of the Evangelical Universalist view of hell on our understanding of justice and judgement, imitating God, punishment, God’s character and evangelism. It is beyond the scope here to make a case for this view, and for this I recommend Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (2012), as well as the Four Views on Hell mentioned above. The latter was recommended by Dr. Paul Williamson as further reading during the annual lecture series on ‘Death and the Life Hereafter’ organised by Moore College, an influential Evangelical college in Sydney, in August. Williamson said that, while he doesn’t agree with the last three views, he believes their proponents are Evangelicals who deserve to be respectfully engaged.

I go on to look at:

  • Judgment and Justice: what do they look like?
  • Imitating God in all our actions?
  • Our perception of hell’s purpose/nature and our view of punishment now
  • Hell and God’s abilities, character and response to evil
  • Inspiring hope and evangelism

The full article is freely available on their website:
Practical and ethical implications of hell. Part I: evangelical universalism

I’m now working on a sermon titled, “Hospitality—Why?”, so I may not get a chance to post anything else this month…

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”.

Videoclip: The Gauntlet Thrown Down by Evangelical Universalists—Williamson at Moore College

Dr Paul Williamson lectures in Old Testament, Hebrew and Aramaic at Moore College, has written a number of books, and was a NIV Study Bible contributor. In the first lecture of the Annual Moore College Lectures, he surveyed the views of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Zoroastrians, Greeks, and Romans then focused on Evangelical views. He also explained what each of the remaining lectures would cover.

Of particular interest were his comments (clips below) on Evangelical Universalism—he explains the view and says that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. In the Q&A it turns out he has read the second edition of Four Views on Hell, and while he disagrees with Robin Parry, he acknowledges that Parry is a genuine Evangelical seeking to be faithful to Scripture.

One other comment that caught my attention was:

Hell has generally been perceived as a place of conscious punishment that endures forever. Not surprisingly, many find such a thought deeply disturbing, indeed there’s probably something wrong with you if you don’t find such a thought deeply disturbing.

Paul Williamson, at 1h 22m 36s

I look forward to seeing him engage these topics further in the rest of the lectures.

Annual Moore College Lectures 2016 "Death and the Life Hereafter" by Dr Paul Williamson
Annual Moore College Lectures 2016
“Death and the Life Hereafter”
by Dr Paul Williamson

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

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

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

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

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

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

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

Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?

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

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

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

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

Yeah… I don’t doubt that.

Four Views on Hell?

Have you read Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell?

No, I haven’t.

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

From an Evangelical point of view??

Yeah.

{chuckles} That’s good.

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

Origen?

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

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

OK, that’s cool 1.

Torture?

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

No.

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

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

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

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

Is Everyone A Child Of God?

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

Yes.

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

Yes.

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

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


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

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

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

Should We Fear God?―Conclusion of Burk’s Case

Denny Burk wrote the biblical and theological case for Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. In this post I’ll finish engaging with his chapter.

There are numerous objections to the traditional doctrine of hell

Denny Burk, page 42

Perhaps that’s because the “traditional doctrine” isn’t what Scripture presents…

The weight of the scriptural arguments … should be enough to settle the issue even if our lingering objections are never fully resolved in this life.

Denny Burk, page 42

I think that’s cheeky given that the debate about Hell has been ongoing since the Early Church. Hopefully, this blog series has at least shown the scriptural arguments for ECT aren’t strong enough to settle the issue.

Augustine once reproved those who act as “if the conjectures of men are to weigh more than the word of God.” He thunders, “They who desire to be rid of eternal punishment ought to abstain from arguing against God.”

Denny Burk, page 42

I agree we don’t want to argue with God, but surely any non-Augustinian Christian could equally say Augustine is putting his conjectures above God’s word and arguing against God?

Fear
Fear (D Sharon Pruitt)

Next Burk says we should consider the implications of ECT, and gives two:

First, the biblical doctrine of hell teaches us whom to fear. God is not only the treasure of heaven. He is also the terror of hell. … If you have been frightened of hell because you are frightened of the devil, you are not fearing the right person. The Lord Jesus himself teaches us this,

“Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

Who destroys soul and body in hell? Is it the devil? Of course not. The devil himself is being punished there. Who is the one destroying soul and body in hell forever? God “afflicts” the wicked in hell, and the Lord Jesus deals out “retribution” to his enemies (2 Thess. 1:6-8). Going to hell means being left in the presence of God’s wrath forever (Rom. 2:5-8). Hell is scary because

“it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

Denny Burk, page 42-43

I find the direction Burk goes here disturbing. Matthew says God is “able” to destroy, not that God ever does, and it’s in the immediate context of encouraging the disciples, the opposite of inducing fear (v22 “persevere, endure, saved”, v23 God knows you are being persecuted, v24-25 you are following in Jesus’ footsteps, v26-27 “don’t be afraid” God will bring justice, v28 “Don’t fear”, v29-30 God cares for you even more than sparrows).

Romans 2:5-8 talks about wrath but it doesn’t say it’s forever.

Jesus spoke with authority, performed miracles, and garnered a lot of respect, however I don’t think His relationships were based on fear. Likewise, God frequently describes Himself as “Abba Father”. Awe, respect, reverence, obedience, and the apprehension we have before undergoing surgery (Heb 10:31), but the type of fear we have for the devil―fear of his hatred and desire to poison, torment, and destroy―surely isn’t healthy between a parent and child? We are told almost 150 times in the Bible not to fear. For example:

There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror! For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].

1John 4:18, AMPC

Moving on.

Second, the biblical doctrine of hell compels believers to see the urgency of evangelism. Have you considered the great mercy of God toward you in Christ? Have you begun to fathom what he rescued you from through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross? If his mercy was big enough and wide enough to include you, is it not sufficient for your neighbor as well? Shouldn’t the terrors of the damned move you to share the mercy of God with those who have not experienced it while there’s still time? Perhaps Spurgeon has said it best:

Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves 1 . If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.

Denny Burk, page 43

I’ve been more motivated to evangelise since becoming an Evangelical Universalist for lots of reasons, one of which is that it now feels less hopeless, that even when people I evangelise die in apparent non-belief, I know that God can still use whatever small word or kindness I’ve given them. Also most non-universalistic forms of Christianity are overwhelmingly depressing, when you really consider the billions of our brothers and sisters ending up utterly ruined and wasted, either by torment or annihilation.

Having said that, I can almost agree with Burk if I consider hell from my reformed perspective―a place that God uses for reforming, correcting, pruning, purging, surgery, etc. I think there is urgency, that living in bondage to sin is destructive, and that the addictions and idols of this life don’t truly satisfy. I also think it’s good to consider the great, wide mercy of God and Christ’s amazing sacrifice―doing so was one of the reasons I left Burk’s view.

I like the quote of Spurgeon. It seems to be a reflection on:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9, NIV

However, this raises the question, given God loves people even more than Spurgeon, why didn’t we see Jesus 2 with “arms about their knees, imploring them to stay”? I think the most plausible answer is that He knew their rebellion was only the first chapter in their story―that in the end, all shall be well.


1. Although Burk’s ECT emphasises God afflicting people (see earlier quote that starts with ‘First’), rather than people ‘destroying themselves’.
2. Nor the Prodigal Son’s father.

Love or Glory? What Motivates God?―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―10

Denny Burk wrote the biblical and theological case for Eternal Conscious Torment in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. In this post I’ll start engaging with his conclusion.

The Bible teaches that 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

everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory 1, whom I formed and made.”

Isaiah 43:7, ESV

I think the Bible’s teaching is more nuanced. I think that the Father created everything through and out of love for Jesus:

For by him [Jesus] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.

Colossians 1:16, ESV (cf John 1:3, Romans 11:36)
The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.
John 3:35, ESV (cf Hebrews 1:2)

And that out of love for the Father, Jesus brings back everything to Him:

but I [Jesus] do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.

John 14:31a, ESV

Then comes the end, when he [Jesus] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.

1Corinthians 15:24, ESV (cf Philippians 2:6-7)

I think Jesus loves the gift (creation) that the Father has given Him and that the Father loves the gift (creation) that Jesus gives Him. So much so that God gives Himself to ransom/restore/reconcile/save creation:

and through Him [Jesus] to reconcile everything to Himself by making peace through the blood of His cross—whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Colossians 1:20, HCSB

Heaven must receive him [Jesus] until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.

Acts 3:21, NIV

This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all. This was the testimony at the proper time.

1Timothy 2:3-6, NABRE

So I think it makes sense that this other focused love is also the telos of creation―our purpose given by God.

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us [which includes loving]. They will reign over [care for] the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”

Genesis 1:26, NLT

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

Matthew 22:37, NIV

For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

1John 3:11, NIV

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children [a reflection] of your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:44-45a, NIV

Anyway, I agree with Burk that God deserves all glory and will receive it. Although I think it will be freely given. The Father freely gives Jesus glory, Jesus freely gives the Father glory, and one day all humanity will freely give God glory. To me, this makes more sense of how Jesus spoke about glory:

Jesus answered, “… But I do not seek my glory; there is the one seeking and judging. … If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my father glorifying me, whom you say that ‘He is your God.'”

John 8:49a-50,54b, Apostolic Bible Polyglot

I realise that’s a lot of commentary about one sentence by Burk but our beliefs about our purpose―what God intended―significantly affects the rest of our theology 2. However, moving on to Burk’s next sentence:

He means to manifest both his justice and his mercy in his disposition of sinful humanity (Ex. 34:7).

Denny Burk, page 42

He continues to show his love to thousands of generations, forgiving wrongdoing, disobedience, and sin. He never lets the guilty go unpunished, punishing children and grandchildren for their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:7, GWT

I agree, although encouragingly the punishment in Exodus 34:7 is significantly less than the love and forgiveness―thousands of generations vs four generations, which is actually reduced to one in Ezekiel 18:20!

The person who sins will die. A son will not be punished for his father’s sins, and a father will not be punished for his son’s sins. The righteousness of the righteous person will be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be his own.

Ezekiel 18:20, GWT

Back to Burk:

Those who follow Christ are “vessels of mercy” who show forth “the riches of His glory” (Rom. 9:23). Those who do not follow Christ and go to judgment are like Pharaoh, whom God raised up “to demonstrate My power in you and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth” (Rom. 9:17). In short, God is glorified in both mercy and justice, and the existence of hell serves to demonstrate eternally the glory of God’s justice in his judgment on sin.

Denny Burk, page 42

I agree that God is glorified in mercy and justice, although I don’t see those two in opposition. God’s mercy isn’t unjust, nor is His justice unmerciful. Both work together towards his purpose of realizing love between everyone.

I agree God is just in His judgment on sin. However, sin is an impediment to the harmonious relationships that God made us for. Therefore, now that Jesus, on the cross, has overthrown the power of sin, I think God is working towards eradicating all sin, through conversion and sanctification. Once all sin is gone, I can see no need for any ongoing judgment.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God, after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the spiritual realm.

1 Peter 3:18, HCSB

I cannot imagine anything more glorious that seeing God justly bringing everything that has ever been created, to freely, wholeheartedly, and eternally love and worship Him as He deserves and intended.

Creation


1. Most English translations seem to skip the Greek word ‘en‘ (usually translated ‘in’), which seems to change the meaning. e.g. Apostolic Bible Polyglot translation is ‘For in my glory I carefully prepared’
2. See also Why Did God Create Man?

Book of Life―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 9

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

And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever [literally “into the ages of the ages”]…

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:10, 14-15, NIV

The Book of Life
The Book of Life

In the previous post I looked at how the Greek word translated “tormented” was connected to testing metal in preparation for purification, and how “sulfur” was linked to purification and healing. I also explained why “forever” isn’t a literal translation but an interpretation based on other unnecessary beliefs about the ages. However, in this post I’ll focus on new points Burk raises:

Those found in the Book of Life are separated once and for all from those who are not found there. Those not in the Book of Life are raised from the dead in bodies fit to endure their final punishment, and they are thrown into the lake of fire.

Denny Burk, page 41

I agree that judgment will result in separation. However, Revelation 20:10-15 seems to be linked to yet another “Universalist postscript”:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

Revelation 21:23-26, ESV

To understand just how remarkable this could be, we need to look at who the “kings of the earth” were:

These kings of the earth have committed fornication with the economic whore-city Babylon, and she rules over them. When she is burned up in the fiery judgment of God, they stand appalled. Indeed, the lake of fire is the way in which those who join themselves with Babylon share in the same fate as her (17:2, 18; 18:3, 9). These same kings hide in fear from the end-time wrath of God (6:15) but still join with the Beast to make war on Christ (19:19). But the Christ they attack is the King of kings (19:16) and the ruler of the kings of the earth (1:5), and he defeats them (19:21). There can be no doubt that these kings of the earth find themselves in the lake of fire. Yet it is the very same kings of the earth of whom we read that they enter the New Jerusalem via the open gates in order to bring their splendor into it (a contrast with 18:4-19, in which they bring their splendor into Babylon). John has actually changed the “kings” of his source text (Isa 60:3, 11) to “kings of the earth” so as to ensure we understand just who he has in mind. They come, “not as captives or second class citizens,” but as worshippers on an equal standing with the other redeemed.

Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist page 116

Likewise, “the nations” in Revelation are those who have been receiving God’s wrath―the ones who weren’t in the Book of Life and were in the Lake of Fire (see previous post for details). To be clear, it’s only after they get their names written in the Book of Life, that they enter. This alone suggests the contents of the book aren’t fixed but there’s more support:

A more important observation is that [Revelation] 3:5 strongly suggests that one could have one’s name removed from the BOL. This interpretation is strengthened by the following observations:

(i) The Old Testament background to the notion of the BOL clearly envisages the real possibility of being “blotted out” from it (Ps 69:28; Exod 32:32-33; Dan 12:1-2).

(ii) The book of Revelation is clear in its warnings that Christian apostates will be thrown into the lake of fire. To suggest that such apostates were not real Christians does not, in my view, do justice to the way in which they are described and the severity of the warnings to the churches not to apostatize.

Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist page 193

However, if you are still adamant that it’s fixed, there are other possibilities. For example:

Perhaps the BOL is a record of those who will receive eternal life, and within it we see the following, and only, entry—“Christ.” Before creation, God ordains that those “in Christ” (to resort to Pauline terminology) would receive eternal life—share in the resurrection life of Christ. When a person believes the gospel they are in Christ and share in that promise of his life. In Christ they are in the book from before creation. If they apostasize, they are out of Christ and are thus no longer in the book from creation. The moment a person believes he or she moves from the state of “not being (in Christ) recorded in the BOL from before the creation of the world” to the state of “being (in Christ) recorded in the BOL from before the creation of the world.”

I put this forward as a tentative proposal that could possibly make sense of the problematic data. Although the theology of indwelling Christ and sharing in his life is not prominent in the Apocalypse, it is a major theme in John’s Gospel, which probably arose in the same Christian circle; and that could lend weight to this proposal.

Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist page 194

The above seems similar to Karl Barth’s view.

In an email to Parry, Talbott suggests another approach:

Perhaps all the descendents of Adam, all who come into the world as “children of wrath,” also go by a name that is not written in the BOL. Yes some names are written there from the foundation of the world and some are not. But is “Abram” written there? Or is it “Abraham”? In Revelation 2:17 we read:

To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone, which no one knows except him who receives it.

Evidently then, people can receive a new name, and this is certainly consistent with the idea of a new birth or a new creation in Christ. So is not the following consistent with the teaching about the Lamb’s BOL? Even though no new names are ever added, people can (as all Christians do) receive a new name, one that has always been written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world.

Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist page 194

Talbott’s suggestion also fits with the table at the end of Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire.

Back to Burk’s argument:

The opening of the books and the judgment according to deeds indicate that the final assize will render to each person what is owed to them. Again, there is no hint of renewal or annihilation, only of divine retribution for the deeds that each person accomplished while living.

Denny Burk, page 41

I agree that there are consequences to our deeds. However, I also believe that God is free to forgive and use those consequences for His glory and our good. As I tried to show in my previous post, I think that even in this severe passage, there are hints of renewal:

  • in the Universalist postscripts.
  • in the wider use of the image of “sulfur” and “fire”.
  • in the Greek words translated “tormented” and “forever”.
  • in the hyperbolic OT language that John seems to be drawing from.
  • even without all of the above, because there seems to be a pattern of sin-judgment-repentance-restoration throughout the Bible, acknowledging that a particular text is judgment doesn’t rule out the possibility that it’s also part of the pattern.