Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?

Amy Orr-Ewing
Amy Orr-Ewing

Amy Orr-Ewing, in her article How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?, begins by pointing out that many people are shocked that anyone still believes in hell. Despite that, she says there are serious questions we need to consider:

Is it part of the profile of a loving God to punish people? How could that be fair?

To answer these questions, Orr-Ewing rightly notes that:

Most people want to live in a society where administrators operate the legal system justly and fairly. When we are victims of a crime, we long for justice. Our loved ones want justice on our behalf if they care for us.

Similarly, when our loved ones are victims of crime, we cry out for justice for them and Orr-Ewing shares an example from her own life. Reflecting on this, she makes a profound statement:

Love and justice are inseparable. To ignore evil or injustice would not be loving, so a loving God must also be a just God.

Yes, but doesn’t this also imply that a just God must also be a loving God—that His justice includes the ultimate good of the ones being judged?

“The problem of evil is the problem of love.” If love is to exist, we must freely give and receive it, or else it is not love. If this freedom is possible, withholding love is also possible. Selfishness, violence, and injustice are the result of the abuse of love’s freedom.

I think this is a strong argument.

Why must God’s judgment involve retribution and punishment in hell? Is this not outmoded and vindictive?

I think some theologians and preachers sadly do express a retributive punishment that is vindictive. However, I think retributive punishment can be non-vindictive when the punishment is done for the ultimate good of both the victim and perpetrator—namely their reconciliation.

Retribution is an important factor because, in a real sense, it connects the punishment with the sin. It means that punishment is not arbitrary or random, but rational and consequential.

I’d also add, that retribution should be purposeful—aiming to achieve something worthwhile.

If one of my boys hits his brother over the head and then bites his leg, he knows I will remove him from the room for time out. He endures this separation for a minute or so because he has acted aggressively. Even as a toddler he understands that his actions lead to punishment.

While this example shows that wrongdoing rightly has consequences, it’s already more developed than a simplistic “eye for eye” retribution. I suspect that Orr-Ewing would also encourage (or even insist upon) an apology from the offending toddler. Because her goal is not just to punish the toddler but to heal the relationship between the siblings.

Wrongdoing must be recognized as such both by the perpetrator and the world around us. This is the function of punishment.

I think punishment can be involved in achieving genuine comprehension (see Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty).

Hell is the ultimate punishment. It is the destination of those who refuse to recognize their own sin for what it is. Their assertion of the self over others and God, defies divine justice. Hell is the ultimate consequence of egotism.

I think Hell is an inevitable—very sobering—consequence and punishment for the egotism Orr-Ewing describes. At the same time, I don’t think it’s “ultimate” because God doesn’t allow the evil of egotism to continue unaddressed forever. Instead God hides everyone (including Himself) from the egotistic person (“Outer Darkness”), which shatters their delusion of superiority and independence.

The idea of eternal suffering as a result of temporal sinning seems disproportionate if people do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin. But a biblical view of sin positions it as serious. The worth of people, created as we are in the divine image and given the capacity and opportunity to make moral choices, shows how serious it is to abuse this human dignity by sinning. This applies to one’s own life, to others, and ultimately, to defying the Maker himself. We underscore further the seriousness of sin in the Christian worldview when we reflect on the cost Jesus paid to deal with it.

I think sin is so serious that Jesus died for everyone so that sin won’t eternally infect His creation, particularly all His immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable image bearers!

Orr-Ewing’s appeal to free will being the cause of evil, including people egotistically refusing God, suggests she would agree with C. S. Lewis’ statement, that “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). However, his “Checkmate” chapter (below) reveals there is much more to the story.

Title titled
C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 247

He describes his own conversion, which demonstrates that even when people make free moves, God will always checkmate them in the end.

I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood [my emphasis], they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29

Looking back he realised that because he chose God it was free choice—an overwhelmingly superior choice. Had he rejected God, it would’ve have been because he was enslaved to a sick, sinful delusion.

… before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

Imagine a firefighter at the top of a ladder imploring someone to escape the flames. Surely if the person “chose” not to come, they’d be considered insane—not pejoratively but literally unable to make a rational free choice? Because of this, the firefighter may need to drag them to safety so that they can come to their senses. Likewise, our loving Father doesn’t abandon us to our own misguided “choices” but instead shatters our delusions, frees us from our enslaving sin, and heals our minds. In doing so, God comes inside, lifts us up so together we can unlock the door. (I highly recommend reading the article Free-will Theodicies of Hell, where Thomas Talbott fleshes this out).

Jesus is a king because his business is to bear witness to the truth. What truth? All truth; all verity of relation throughout the universe—first of all, that his father is good, perfectly good; and that the crown and joy of life is to desire and do the will of the eternal source of will, and of all life. He deals thus the death-blow to the power of hell. For the one principle of Hell is “I am my own…

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons—Kingship (emphasis mine)

Lastly, consider the context of Lewis’ MacDonald quote at the start of his “Checkmate” chapter. Before MacDonald wrote, “… the one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own'”, he explained that Jesus reveals all truth universally, including the truth that the glorious goal (“the crown”) of all life is to choose (“desire and do”) the will of God, thus defeating hell—all the deluded, sinful, egotistic pride.

Engaging Dickson & Smart: Loving Judgment, Shalom, & Eternal Proportionality?

Simon Smart introduces the second half of the Life & Faith hell series and asks John Dickson what he thinks.

Image result for john dickson and simon smart
John Dickson & Simon Smart (filming For the Love of God documentary)

John starts by acknowledging that there’s a lot of unhelpful non-biblical baggage around the topic of hell, and that’s partly the reason it’s now often mocked by pop culture. It’s a shame because it means Jesus’ serious warnings about the consequences of evil, particularly violence, are often totally ignored.

John: … the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.

I explained in my first post why I find the Justice Commissioner metaphor helpful but I guess the big question is, what does “right the wrongs” mean and involve?

John: … it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time.

Loving victims involves the perpetrator being judged—accountability and reparation are important. But justice and love don’t stop there. For a victim to be healed, they need an opportunity to forgive (see Michael Jensen’s, When Thordis Elva forgave her rapist, she broke a curse), they need to see the perpetrator genuinely transformed, so that there can be authentic reconciliation of the relationship (see Engaging Shumack). This has a positive, flow-on effect, rippling out. First to their immediate loved ones, then the surrounding community, and eventually all humanity. I love the way Keller puts it:

God created the world to be a fabric, for everything to be woven together and interdependent. … Threads become a fabric when each one has been woven over, under, around, and through every other one. The more interdependent they are, the more beautiful they are. … God made the world with billions of entities … He made them to be in a beautiful, harmonious, knitted, webbed, interdependent relationship with each other.

Tim Keller, The Beauty of Biblical Justice

Another implication of God’s love and justice for victims is that it extends to everyone because, in our fallen world, everyone’s a victim at some stage. But hasn’t everyone also mistreated others at some stage, and therefore needs to be judged? How does God respond when everyone is both a victim and a perpetrator? Thankfully, Jesus showed us (particularly on the Cross) that God even loves perpetrators. Indeed I’d go as far as saying that God judges perpetrators for both the sake of the victims and the ultimate good of the perpetrators. Through this He will bring shalom, a concept explained here by Keller:

Neil Plantinga, a theologian, puts it like this: “The webbing together of God, [all] humans, and all creation in equity, fulfillment, and delight”—[this] is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We translate it “peace,” but in the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.

Tim Keller, The Beauty of Biblical Justice

Moving on.

Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?

Before I look at John’s answer to Simon, I’ll give my two cents:

I don’t think anyone can earn salvation, which is a free gift from God, received by the gift of faith. So without Jesus, everyone would be judged and face their sentence, no matter what kind of life they had lived. However, the Bible says Jesus has acted, has atoned, and therefore:

… will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:4, KJV

If God can’t save everyone, and instead they continue rejecting Him (which is evil), there would be no end of evil—no complete victory, which seems to imply some sort of disturbing eternal dualism.

John takes a different angle to Simon’s question:

John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds.

I’ve never come across the phrase “eternal judgment” in the Bible but I’m guessing Matthew 25:46 is in mind? If so, Is Aionios Eternal? explains why J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright, and other scholars, think aionios should be translated “pertaining-to/belonging-to/of/in the age to come”, and Pruning the Flock? explains why I think that translation is reinforced by the verse’s use of kolasis (the word aionios, an adjective, is describing). Put together, I think “correction (or pruning) from God in the age to come” is more accurate. But even if that isn’t the case, parables are known for hyperbole, which makes basing a doctrine on a detail unwise.

I think God’s correction will be proportional both in severity and time.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.

Luke 12:47-48a, NIV

However, maths shows us that “eternal proportionality” would be problematic because infinity times anything is infinity. For example, if I received a dollar every day for an infinite number of days then I’d end up with an infinite amount of money. But even if I only received a cent every day for an infinite number of days I’d still end up with an infinite amount of money. Likewise, if I received ten blows every day for an infinite (eternal) number of days then I’d end up with an infinite number of blows. But even if I only received one blow every day for an infinite number of days, I’d still end up with an infinite number of blows—which certainly isn’t the few blows we find in the parable. John says he doesn’t know how “eternal proportionality” works—neither do I—but I think the apparent oddness of it should prompt him reexamine his previous steps (e.g. translating aionios as “eternal”).


(Note: this post was originally titled, “Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 2”. Full transcripts of the episodes: CPX Interview the Director of Hellbound and John Dickson & Simon Smart discuss hell)

Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty

I recently read Richard Shumack’s Fifty Years Without the Death Penalty, Australia Should be Grateful. It’s a well written article, which explores the important relationship between justice and punishment—a topic I’ve been fascinated with for a long time.

Shumack starts by explaining that he isn’t against punishment:

Anyone who has been seriously wronged knows that the deep intuitive longing for justice usually includes the offender “paying for it” in some sense.

I think he’s right that most people rightly long for justice, although it raises questions:

  • What exactly is justice?
  • How do we know when justice has been achieved?
  • How do we untangle the desire for retribution from the desire for revenge?
  • Should we leave retribution to God?

I’m glad he unpacks this further:

Rehabilitation is a noble goal for our justice system, but not in a way that ignores proper retribution.

What do I mean by proper retribution? I’m still not sure in practice. A simple “eye for an eye” is unworkable (how can the offences of a mass murderer carry a proportional punishment?), and fails to allow for clemency. Still, very serious crimes do seem to warrant very serious punishment.

Along those lines, I do think that a reasonable case can be made for the death penalty as a just punishment.

I think rehabilitation is part of God’s plan and so is indeed noble. Unlike God, we can’t see an offender’s heart, and so our rehabilitation sometimes disappoints because it isn’t complete. Rehabilitation and retribution are sometimes seen as mutually exclusive concepts but, as Shumack implies, I think they can overlap. Although getting retribution right in practice is difficult—possibly something only God can do.

Taking a step back, what if the aim of punishment was to help the perpetrator fully comprehend the physical and psychological damage done (e.g. the anxiety resulting from having trust violated)—to deeply understand their actions from the victim’s perspective? Ideally this authentic empathy would be achieved through educative rehabilitation but it seems that sometimes it’s only possible through personal experience… and I think this is where a particular type of retribution may play a role.

Consider someone who is caught vandalising and the types of retribution they could be given:

  1. Jail time or a fine.
  2. Someone vandalises something of equal value that belongs to the offender.
  3. The offender is required to see how the victims are impacted, and then helps to repair it.

I’d suggest that type 3. is the best as it most clearly demonstrates to the offender the damage done, and is the most natural consequence—most closely linked to the offense. However, if the offender still doesn’t fully comprehend, type 2. might be required or at least threatened (there’s room for clemency/mercy as the goal is comprehension, rather than simply trying to “balance the books”). Type 1. is the most disconnected from the offense and should therefore be the last resort.

Possible Path to Ideal Justice

But what about the case of the mass murderer that Shumack mentioned? Sometimes when the offender experiences gracious love from someone or undeserved forgiveness from the victims (e.g. Jesus, Mandela and Eric Lomax), it brings about genuine comprehension, repentance, and transformation of the offender (e.g. a resolute conviction to never kill again, and instead devote their life to helping victims and helping others to not become murderers). Sometimes educating the offender—say, showing them the awful hurt done to the victims—is enough to turn them around.

But what if all these responses have failed? Is there any type of retribution that would spur the offender to change? Perhaps—the attempts by our justice systems have had mixed results to say the least. Would executing an offender give them a fuller understanding of what it felt like for their victims? If it did, is it worth it when it denies the possibility of reconciliation, and possibly the victim’s healing, in this life?

It also seems possible that [the death penalty] could produce some good, even for the offender – by forcing them to face up to the wrong they’ve done, and so opening up redemptive possibilities. This is especially true if you hold that this life is not all there is. The dramatic transformation of Andrew Chan as he faced death in a Balinese prison is a case in point.

I think sometimes good can come from the death penalty, particularly if you believe justice and redemption are matters that go beyond this life. Although, as Shumack points out, any potential good still seems outweighed by other factors. First, the apparent inability of earthly justice systems to avoid executing innocents. Second, if someone on death penalty isn’t pardoned when they’ve had a dramatic transformation (e.g. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran) the good being done by them is seemingly cut short. Having said that, their influence may continue—like a martyr’s—as Another Day in Paradise demonstrates.

Primarily, however, I am glad [Australia doesn’t have the death penalty] because, in a world of brokenness and violence, I want to be a person who hopes for better, and the death penalty radically diminishes hope …

For Dostoevsky, the death penalty was devastating because it eliminates all hope for continued physical life on earth. This is true, of course, but to me, it seems even more hopeless than that. In the condemned criminal’s situation, I would want to cling not just to life itself, but to the possibility of transformation, redemption, even reconciliation.

I want to be a person who hopes for the better too. While the death penalty diminishes hope of life, transformation, redemption, and reconciliation now, it doesn’t have to diminish the hope that all these will occur in the age to come. Christie Buckingham describes Sukumaran’s amazing hope—even at his execution—that “the better” was in the age to come (reminds me of Paul in Philippians 1:20-24).

Shumack reflects on the last person executed in Australia, Ronald Ryan:

… We cannot know the truth about Ryan’s conscience and whether it [the death sentence] had pricked this repeat offender towards redemption. My hope is that it had – but if not, his hanging certainly eliminated any chance it would.

I hope Ryan’s conscience was pricked during this life but even if it wasn’t, I suspect it probably has been by now as I don’t believe his hanging eliminated repentance and redemption in the age to come.

Often, of course, this sort of hope is against reasonable hope. It would be naive not to recognise the reality that some individuals simply will not be reformed – perhaps cannot be reformed. Still, I hope because I have seen miraculous turnarounds.

I think some individuals refuse to turnaround in this life but I don’t believe (partly because of miraculous turnarounds we’ve already witnessed) anyone is eternally beyond God’s ability to reform.

I have a friend who is a true sociopath. He was jailed for a nearly successful attempt to murder his father with a hammer while studying chemistry to engineer the explosive destruction of thousands. Beyond hope – most others’ and his own – he reluctantly recognised his spiritual poverty through being rudely confronted by the extraordinary love of a cell-mate who responded to his persistent malevolence, not with justice, but with patient humour and grace. This encounter, transcending the will of the justice system, set him on the pathway to deep rehabilitation.

Wow! This type of deep rehabilitation, brought about by love and grace, is what I’m hoping—by God’s grace—will ultimately occur for each and every person.

There’s an important clue in my friend’s story. Hoping for the redemption of the offender, hoping in justice or the justice system, is not enough. In the words of Nelson Mandela (who ought to know), “in the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”

I heartily agree with that Mandela quote!

It may be in its favour that the death penalty satisfies justice, but if so, that is all it does. What goes against the death penalty is that it cuts off abruptly the possibilities for a wrongdoer to discover the sort of redemption that transcends justice.

I don’t think redemption and justice are at odds but that redemption is an essential step towards ultimate justice—that God’s justice/shalom is so much more than retribution (although retribution might need to occur before redemption sometimes, as I tried to articulate above). Because of this, I don’t think the death penalty alone ever satisfies justice—at most it might be a step towards it.

I am glad, then, to celebrate my half-century with the demise of the death penalty. Not because it is necessarily morally wrong, but because it shows that I live in a society that embraces hope, however remote, and the possibility of a second chance.

Amen brother! We all need second chances!

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…

Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 4

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.

Has God Ever Commanded Genocide?

You mentioned Joshua. That’s another question which comes up, do you think God commanded the genocides in the Old Testament? You know, “Kill every man, woman, child, animal” and all that kind of thing. Do you think that was their misunderstanding of what God was saying, or do you think He was saying that, or do you think there’s some other way of dealing with it?

Yeah, that’s a really, really tough one. I suppose I would want to say that, no, God did not command that. That this was a kind of misunderstanding. I mean this might be one of the reasons I suppose that the early Christians developed allegorical ways of reading Scripture, which we tend to dismiss as being pre-critical and so on, but in many ways are necessary.

What is Justice?

How do you define “Justice”? What do you think “Justice” means because “Justice” seems to mean different things to different people? How do you define “Justice”? What does “Justice” look like?

Oh goodness, wow! Give me some context for that question?

Some people frame it as: when I take your eye, the only way for justice to occur is for you to take my eye. So a retribution model is essential for justice to work.

Other people see it as: what’s happening when I take your eye is that I’ve broken our relationship and trust and so the ultimate justice can only be served when the relationship is being restored and healed and that may require me sacrificing something back, but it may not.

So you’ve got some people who sort of put an emphasis, when you talk about justice, on the retribution side of things. It’s all about just making sure that a person suffers as much as the other person suffers.

Whereas for other people it’s about trying to bring a relationship back, that you’ve shattered relationship and you’re trying to reconcile the two. When you’ve got restored harmony, that’s when you’ve got justice.

Augustine discusses this question in The City of God and he talks about how a republic is based on justice and that justice is suum cuique, “to each his own”, or “to each his or her own”, “Whatever corresponds to each one”, and he says the problem with Pagan Rome, is that God has not been given God’s due because the true God is not worshiped, so there is no justice in ancient Rome. That seems to me to be a way of thinking about justice, that ultimately it’s not just kind of dividing up what belongs to each person and therefore you get retribution, eye for an eye, and all that kind of stuff. But it means ultimately giving God what is God’s due and, if God is the God of Jesus Christ, that includes inaugurating this kingdom of forgiveness and mercy, and so justice in that broader sense, that I think that you’re pointing towards in your second alternative. Justice can never be spoken of as what pertains between two people without including the third element, which is God.

Yes, I agree. I should’ve framed it a bit more precisely. In Eden, before the Fall, we see how God intended humans to be, in relation to Him, everyone else, and Creation. So I’d say it is a very, very good picture of what “justice” looks like. When I’m trying to achieve justice for people, I want them to be in right relationship with each other, with God, and with Creation. Obviously we’ve got quite a few limitations here with our ability but I think that kind of justice is what God has always intended and will achieve.

I think all other forms of justice are stepping stones, or potential tools, in order to get to there. There will be our Father’s discipline, the Gardener’s pruning, the Metal Worker’s purging and purifying—there are various analogies the Bible uses. There is a whole range of ways God uses, it’s not just a “sweep it under the carpet” and “let’s have a group hug” kind of thing. There’s an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

Yeah.

This feeds into Restorative Justice where you’ve got an acknowledgment of fault, you have the opportunity for the victim to explain the hurt and the damage that’s been done, so that the perpetrator can see and actually go, “Argh! I’ve done the wrong thing!” and an opportunity for them to apologize and an opportunity for the victim to forgive, and possibly work together to fix some of the consequences and stuff. So that’s a little picture of what God’s doing on a cosmic scale.

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

My Response to Phillip Jensen’s―What Joy in Hell?

Phillip Jensen
Phillip Jensen

Phillip Jensen has made a significant contribution to Australian Evangelicalism over many decades. Yesterday he wrote a Facebook post about Hell (quoted in full below) and a friend shared it. As I respect both my friend and Phillip (who I met about a decade ago), I thought I’d take the time to engage with him here.

What Joy in Hell?

There is no joy in hell.

I agree.

Its very existence reassures us of ultimate justice. Where else can the victims of the Holocaust find justice? But justice is little comfort when we consider hell’s horror.

Yes… but I think it does so in a different way than you think. It seems to me that justice is about righting wrongs, and that while punishment can be involved, punishment of a perpetrator alone cannot heal the victim, cannot restore the relationship to how God intended all relationships to be: a reflection of the relationship within the Trinity. That requires reconciliation of the estranged parties, which requires repentance and (self-sacrificial) forgiveness. All of which is only possible when the Holy Spirit works within a situation.

Hell is such a horrible concept that sensitive souls want to recoil from even considering it. Denying its existence can even be called a godly heresy. Godly – in that God does not enjoy the death of a sinner and nor should we (Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11, 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); but – a heresy none the less because the scriptures teach the reality of judgement and hell (Matthew 7:13, 21-23; 10:28).

I agree that it’s not a pleasant topic―indeed I have friends who have been deeply scarred by having certain interpretations of Hell forced upon them as children (some to the extent that they can no longer trust God). Personally I don’t deny God’s judgement and Hell’s existence (although we differ on the nature, purpose, and duration), and I do consider both almost every day (which isn’t an exaggeration).

However, I don’t think everyone who denies Hell’s existence is just being “sensitive”, I know some people who do so for theological and philosophical reasons―although I think that unfortunately puts them outside orthodox Christianity, which means it is technically heresy.

I agree that God doesn’t enjoy the death of anyone and that we shouldn’t either.

Much of what horrifies people about hell is the vivid and imaginative presentation of it by preachers, artists and writers. When confronted by scary pictures, some people close their eyes while others bravely make fun and laugh at them. So we have the Christians who cannot so much as think of hell and the non-Christian who will parody the whole notion portraying Satan with horns and tail, pitchfork and opera cape, or boasting, with more bravado than sense, of sharing a beer and a joke with all their mates down there.

I agree, although to be fair, Christians often haven’t helped the situation by grossly misrepresenting the topic.

Both responses make speaking on hell difficult. On the one hand the preacher is accused of insensitively using manipulative scare tactics and on the other hand he is ridiculed for believing in childish ghost stories. But it is our Lord Jesus himself who used hell in his preaching, so we must not – and cannot – leave it out of our declaration of the whole counsel of God.

I agree, although I think He was often using it differently than modern preachers.

So what do we know about hell? The Bible itself spends very little time describing or even mentioning hell. The word only occurs 12 times in the Bible, all in the New Testament, all but once on the lips of Jesus. Based on usage of the word ‘hell’, there is only one hell fire preacher in the Bible – and that is our Lord Jesus Christ.

I agree hell isn’t the focus of the Bible but it depends a bit on how you define it… For example, passages that describe future punishment are often interpreted as speaking about hell.

The word itself referred to the valley of the sons of Hinnom, close to and outside Jerusalem. The valley had been used for human sacrifices to Molech but was intentionally ‘defiled’ in Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6). The prophets (Isaiah 30:31-33, Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5-6, 32:35) spoke of it as the valley of slaughter and of its fire and vermin as the final end place and destruction of the wicked.

I agree.

The descriptions of hell are usually minimal but involve fire, corpses and vermin (Isaiah 66: 24, Mark 9:43, 48, Matthew 18:8 James 3:6). Other parts of the New Testament speak of the final state of judgement in terms of outer darkness, weeping and gnashing teeth, destruction, and second death. However, eternal fire is an image of God’s prepared punishment for the devil and his angels, to which sinful humans can be cast (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 14:10, 20:10).

I agree, except I don’t think the Bible says it’s the final state.

While the word ‘hell and any descriptions of it are used sparingly in the Bible, retributive punishment is widely taught and illustrated. Such punishment is not limited to this world and lifetime only; for both judgement after death and life after death are clearly taught in scripture. (Isaiah 66:22-24, Hebrews 9:26-28). Indeed the very concept of “the resurrection” is one of judgement as well as eternal life beyond the grave (Matthew 10:28, Luke 14:14, John 5:28-29, Acts 17:31).

I agree that judgment and punishment isn’t limited to this age but that it also occurs in the next. However, I think the type of punishment isn’t as clear as you think. There are certainly passages that sound retributive, and may well be. However, just because punishment is retributive doesn’t mean it can’t also serve a purpose. For example, Sodom and Gomorrah get burned to the ground but later we discover God restoring them.

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

A similar destruction followed by restoration occurs with Egypt, Israel’s architype enemy, in Isaiah 19. Likewise with the Israel in Romans 11―indeed I think Paul goes as far as saying that it happens with everyone.

For God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone.

Romans 11:32, NLT

And that Christ brings this justification/mercy/restoration:

So then, as through one trespass [Adam’s] there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act [Jesus’] there is life-giving justification for everyone.

Romans 5:18, HCSB

Continuing with your post…

Both this life and judgement are talked of as ‘eternal’ (Matthew 25:46).

I don’t think that Matthew 25:46 describes either life or judgement as “eternal”. When pressed, most theologians usually admit that it actually says life and punishment “of, in, or pertaining to, the age to come”. It’s a significant, further interpretive step to deduce how long either will go for in the age to come. 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. Therefore, why should I interpret the following any differently:

The highlight of the age to come will be my long service leave and lowlight of the age to come will be my sick leave.

I look at this in more detail in Is Aionios Eternal? and Pruning the Flock?.

The permanence of this judgement is emphasized in Jesus’ parable (Luke 16:19-31), as well as Paul’s language of “eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

I disagree and think:

The parable is more about Jesus and his mission to be the Israel that the Pharisees had failed to be, rather than a discourse on the afterlife.

Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (according to Parry)

Furthermore, there’s evidence it’s probably a “subversion” of a parable the Pharisees would’ve known e.g. there’s an Egyptian parallel, seven Jewish ones, and one from Lucian (Greco‐Roman) (see Bauckhman, The Fate of the Dead, chapter 4). There are other considerations too e.g. it’s talking about Hades (which comes to an end in Revelation) before Christ had died and visited it―unlocking it’s gates and bridging it’s chasm (I really should dedicate an entire post about it one day).

This morning I posted a post dedicated to 2 Thessalonians 1:9. I don’t think it gives much support to your position, partly because it’s relying on the word mistranslated as “eternal”.

Jesus teaches us about hell to warn us of behaviour that would take us there. In Matthew 5:22 he speaks of hating and despising our brother in such fashion as to be liable to the hell of fire. And in Matthew 5:29, 18:9 and Mark 9:43-47, he portrays the horror of hell in such terms that it would be better to lose an eye or a hand than ever to be thrown there. In Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:5 he warns us to be more fearful of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell rather than the one who can only kill the body.

I agree, although I think we need to be careful not to take Matthew 10:28 out of it’s context, which is encouraging the disciples―that their persecution isn’t unexpected (v.22-25), that God cares deeply for them.

“Therefore, don’t be afraid of them, since there is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered and nothing hidden that won’t be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light. What you hear in a whisper, proclaim on the housetops. Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. But even the hairs of your head have all been counted.

Matthew 10:26-30, HCSB

Moving on…

Whatever we do or do not know about the details of hell, it is clear from Jesus’ teaching that it is so terrible and terrifying that we should do all in our power to avoid it.

I agree.

Our hatred of hell is but a pale reflection of God’s detestation of its terrors. It is why he responded to Amos’ prayers by holding back the judgement that was coming on Israel (Amos 7:2-6) and why his heart recoiled within him when faced with destroying Israel (Hosea 11:8f). It is this compassion of God that even now means he patiently endures sinfulness to give time and opportunity for us to repent (Romans 2:4f, 2 Peter 3:9f). And even more, it is God’s compassionate desire that none should perish, which moved him to give his only Son that we should not perish at all but have eternal life (John 3:16); and it is because of his Son’s similar compassionate desire that Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:4-6).

I agree, although I would suggest that the passages you quote here (as well as those in your 3rd paragraph) should prompt us to reconsider the nature, purpose, and duration of hell. That perhaps it isn’t solely retributive, that God has bigger plans, a higher telos, for each and every being He has created in His image.

I would also suggest that “God’s detestation of [Hell’s] terrors”, as well as His compassion, motivates Him to make Hell cease. I believe this is well within the ability of an all-powerful, all-knowing, infinitely resourceful and patient God. Indeed I think He promises to do so. I don’t expect you to be necessarily convinced by this response but I would seriously challenge you to read the Four Views on Hell: Second Edition, which has been recently published by one of the largest Evangelical publishers, Zondervan. It makes a strong case for Eternal Conscious Torment, Conditionalism, and Universalism all being legitimate, biblical, Evangelical positions.

Hell is a horrible topic but we must not avoid thinking about it or preaching it, for it is the basis of seeing not only the ultimate justice of God but more importantly the greatness of our God’s compassion and saving work in Jesus.

I agree, although I think hell isn’t the entire picture of “ultimate justice”.

There is no joy in hell but that is why there is such joy in heaven over every sinner that repents (Luke 15).

Amen!