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.

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

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

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

Preston Sprinkle
Preston Sprinkle

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

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

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

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

Preston Sprinkle, p15

He briefly introduces each contributor4 and their view:

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

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

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

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

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