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!