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.