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”.

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

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.