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

Eternal Conscious Torment―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 1

I’m now going to dive into the actual views in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition, trying my best to keep Sprinkle’s gracious introduction in mind1. Remember that I’m posting as I go, so I don’t know what conclusions the author makes, nor the responses from the other authors…

Denny Burk
Denny Burk

The first of the views is Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). The biblical and theological case for this was written by Denny Burk. He starts by rightly acknowledging that people don’t like the idea of hell.

One can hardly contemplate the horror of an eternal hell without shuddering at the thought of anyone having to bear such a fate.
Denny Burk, page 17

However, he believes ECT is what God reveals in the Bible, and therefore he has to submit to it. While he notes that some oppose ECT on exegetical and theological grounds, he quickly gives the impression that most objections are based primarily “on human estimations of the way God ought to behave”2. He gives three examples:

  1. Eternal punishment contradicts the goodness, love, and compassion of God and makes Him a tyrant.
  2. Eternal punishment contradicts the justice of God because it is in no way proportionate to the sin in question.
  3. Eternal punishment that is purely punitive and not remedial has no apparent value.
    Denny Burk, page 17

I think (1) is a fair objection but not because I’m bringing my “human estimations of the way God ought to behave” but because the Bible seems clear about what goodness, love, and compassion look like (e.g. Jesus! 1Cor 13:4-8, John 15:13), and that God is indeed Goodness (Psalm 119:68), Love (1John 4:8), and Compassion (Luke 6:36).

I don’t think much is gained discussing (2) because:

a) even if everyone deserves ECT, God is free to save everyone so that no one will experience it, OR
b) even if no one deserves ECT, without God saving each person, no one would be saved (Rom 9:16).

I’m uncertain about (3). While God may use some retributive punishment, I don’t think it’s something God needs as before Creation, He was eternally holy, just, etc. without it. Neither do we need an eternal demonstration of retribution “just so we won’t forget how bad sin is”. I’d also suggest retributive punishment isn’t as satisfactory for God (or us) as remedial correction. For example, if I steal your car, that I’m forced to give it back, would only be one small step towards repairing our relationship. I assume you’d also want to see that:

a) I had genuinely understood the betrayal and stress that I’d caused by stealing it.
b) I had genuinely asked for your forgiveness.
c) I had genuinely had a desire to “make things right”.
d) I had genuinely changed my ways so I never stole from anyone ever again.

If I did a, b, c, and d, you may even waive returning the car if, say, I’d written it off. I get the impression God desires genuine change of heart more than “eye-for-eye” legal retribution (Matt 15:8 and Kevin Miller’s article on punishment).

Such objections have indeed been long-standing and can invoke an emotional response that precludes certain readings of the text.
Denny Burk, page 18

I think the role emotions should, or shouldn’t, play in biblical interpretation is tricky… However, I agree that emotions shouldn’t be the sole consideration. I think we should acknowledge them and then investigate whether or not they are being informed by a misunderstanding. I think that is a better approach than kidding ourselves into thinking that we are being objective and totally unaffected by our emotions.

He gives some examples of the questions that ECT raises:

What kind of a God would preside over a place of eternal conscious torment? Can the loving God of the Bible possibly be responsible for punishing the unrepentant in this way?
Denny Burk, page 18

I think if one believes God is the Father of everyone3, this should also inform our discussion of these questions.

To challenge the one of the “theological presuppositions that often predispose readers against the traditional view”4, Burk now gives a parable to illustrate that:

[T]he seriousness of sin is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and worth of the one being sinned against.
Denny Burk, page 19

In the parable he compares the reaction to someone pulling the legs off an insect vs. someone pulling the legs off a baby. The action is the same, “pulling legs off”, but who the victim makes the former disturbing but latter absolutely horrific! He then rightly notes that God is infinitely more valuable, glorious and holy than us. However, because of this, he says:

Thus to sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.
Denny Burk, page 20

While the parable is coherent, I think it is a problematic for at least two reasons, which I think he almost gets to with these comments.

[God] is not exactly like you and me… He is compassionate and gracious.
Denny Burk, page 20

First, can we ever “pull the legs off God”? When we tried something similar, in the crucifixion, the divinity of Jesus not only reversed it, in the resurrection, it overcame death for everyone else too!

Second, unlike most of us, when attacked or insulted, Jesus didn’t demand His rights but instead stoops down and opens His arms (‎Luke 23:34). God never gives up on Israel despite their obnoxious attitude towards Him (see Hosea). Determining how offensive something is isn’t just a matter of how important the victim is but also how humble they are and how they choose to react. God can choose not to be heinous in response to our heinousness.

We fail to take sin and judgment seriously as we ought because we fail to take God as seriously as we ought. And so we are often tempted to view the penalty of hell―eternal conscious suffering under the wrath of God―as an overreaction on God’s part.
Denny Burk, page 20

Saying God is merciful can be misunderstood as saying God doesn’t mind sin or that we don’t think it’s serious. While I think sin is so serious that letting it continue in ECT would be an underreaction on God’s part, I think Burk is right to be concerned that sometimes we don’t take sin seriously.

So the question of eternal conscious torment really does come down to who God is. Is God the kind of God for whom this kind of punishment would be necessary? Or is he not? What does the Bible say about God and the judgments that issue forth from him?
Denny Burk, page 20

I agree, I think these are important questions. I can’t see how it could be absolutely necessary, as even in his own view, at least the Elect don’t experience the punishment. One of the helpful things in Robin Parry’s5 book The Evangelical Universalist, is that he spends a considerable amount of time examining God’s judgments in the OT, suggesting that there’s a pattern of warning, judgment, and then restoration.

[ECT] is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God (Rev. 18:20; 19:3).
Denny Burk, page 20

“Ouch!” was my emotional reaction but upon pondering the Revelation 18-19, I think he’s right that we will witness the infinite goodness and justice. I even think he’s right that we will rejoice, just not at ECT but at seeing the end of Babylon, the end of immorality, greed, terror, and all other evil deeds. I don’t think the chapters are necessarily discussing eternal conscious torment for a few reasons:

a) The apocalyptic genre is full of hyperbolic, vivid images that don’t necessarily mean what we initially think (e.g. the sword coming out of His mouth isn’t a physical sword for killing people with but His penetrating words). There are images in chapter 18 that could be used to support the other views:

“Do to her as she has done to others. Double her penalty for all her evil deeds. She brewed a cup of terror for others, so brew twice as much for her.” (v6) As Babylon had caused a finite amount of suffering, even doubling her suffering wouldn’t be eternal.

“And the kings of the world who committed adultery with her and enjoyed her great luxury will mourn for her as they see the smoke rising from her charred remains.” (v9) Doesn’t sound like anything is left conscious.

b) I think there are some reasons to hope in Revelation 21-226.

c) As we grow more Christlike I assume we will love those we currently love even more than we do now―which seems to imply we would be even more upset than we are now at seeing them suffer torment7.

However, I think there’s no doubt God still wants us to heed the severity and intensity of what will happen to those who persist in doing evil.

Wow! I’m only 4 pages into his chapter but I think that’s more than enough for one post.


1. Please feel free to pull me up if I go astray!
2. p18
3. I realise there are differing views on the Fatherhood of God.
4. p18
5. A contributor to the Counterpoints book I’m reviewing here.
6. I think Jersak makes a good biblical case for this in Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.
7. I think Talbott makes a good theological case for this in The Inescapable Love of God.