Four Views on Hell, Part One: The Case for Eternal Conscious Torment

Four Views On Hell

I am a big fan of the Zondervan Counterpoint series, which explores topics such as the role of works at the final judgement, creation and evolution, and the nature of hell. Typically, an editor will invite three or four authorities with differing views to contribute a chapter, and then have each author provide a brief response to the other chapters. The editor plays a key role, setting the stage with an introduction that provides an overview of the subject, and wrapping things up with a concluding chapter. For me, it’s often like seeing a subject in three dimensions for the first time, and an efficient way to make sure I’m challenging my preconceptions and opening myself up to new ways of interpreting Scripture. And I admit to enjoying the debates as a sort of theological sparring match; when the matters being discussed are of such profound importance, sometimes the sparks fly. 

Four Views on Hell is the latest in the series. To cut to the chase: buy it. I only wish that the book, which presents four competing evangelical views on hell, could have been broader in scope, encompassing Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican views, but that would have been unwieldy given the Counterpoint Series’ debate format. 

Before I launch into a discussion of the book, however, a question: Why does any of this matter, and what are my biases as a reviewer? Of course, it’s fascinating—and thrilling, and terrifying!—stuff to contemplate, and if we read Scripture, we have an obligation to try our best to understand what it means; but I’ve sometimes found myself reading tomes of theological speculation only to feel the Lord tapping me on the shoulder and asking “What is that to you? Don’t you have an enemy to love or, as that George MacDonald fellow you so admire might say, a floor that needs sweeping?” 

Well, there is indeed something very big at stake, for I am commanded to love God with all my heart, strength, soul, and mind, and there are some conceptions of hell that, for me, make that impossible. Indeed, much of MacDonald’s writing was motivated out of compassion for those whose very faith had been shaken by particular doctrines of the afterlife. That being said, and my admiration for MacDonald notwithstanding, I am not a convinced believer in universal reconciliation, holding more to the classic Anglican view expressed by the wonderfully wise Frank Wilson in his book Faith and Practice: “St Paul says that ‘God may be all in all’ and somehow that must come to pass. So far as he Holy Scriptures are concerned, it remains an unanswered question. The best we can do is to leave it so, knowing that God has a way of working out even seeming contradictions, and He has not seen fit to tell us how."

What background and points of view does the book’s editor bring with him? Preston Sprinkle, Vice President for Eternity Bible College's Boise extension, has published several books, including Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence (David C. Cook, 2013), and the New York Times bestselling Erasing Hell (David C. Cook, 2011), which he co-authored with Francis Chan.  He’s done an outstanding job of being a fair and balanced referee, revealing some of his own thinking in the book’s conclusion.  Dr. Sprinkle has written a series of posts last year for Patheos, beginning with Is Annihilation an Evangelical Option? (his answer is yes, and is still evaluating the relative merits of annihilation versus ECT), and in his concluding post on Feb 9 2015 wrote:

“I have to admit, I’m growing more and more discouraged at the state of so-called ‘bible believing evangelicalism’ that isn’t really all that interested in what the Bible actually says. Practically speaking, it’s tradition that has more authority than the inspired word of God breathed out by our Creator. I actually love tradition. I think it should be honored, consulted, and, at times, submitted to. But the Bible is our authority. Let’s live like it. Let’s reason like it. Let’s hold to our doctrine in such a way that showcases the authority of the text.”

That is certainly the spirit he brings to Four View on Hell. Presenting the four views are:

Denny Burk, who argues for the traditional view of hell as a place where the wicked will suffer eternal conscious torment (ECT), is a professor of Biblical Studies and the director of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College. 

John Stackhouse, Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, makes the case for annihilation versus ECT, arguing that wicked unbelievers will indeed suffer in hell, but that their lives will terminate after judgment day. 

Robin Parry, a Christian theologian who earned his PhD from the University of Gloucestershire (UK), is a commissioning editor for Wipf and Stock Publishers and the author of The Evangelical Universalist, published under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald. He makes the biblical case for universal reconciliation—that, as Sprinkle writes in the introduction, “all creation, through the atoning work of Christ, will ultimately be reconciled to its Creator.”  

Jerry Walls, Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University and author of Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, believes in the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal misery, but argues that believers finish the process of sanctification after death, in purgatory. Interestingly, he also argues the case for the possibility of post-mortem repentance, which puts him a considerable distance from Denny Burk. 

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here: The Case for Eternal Conscious Torment
I will begin by summarizing the key points made by Burk, and then present the principal rebuttals made by the other authors as well as my own observations. 

The book’s premise is that ECT is the mainstream, traditional  view of hell. But, befitting a debate between evangelicals, the focus is on biblical exegesis, and Sprinkle notes that “[a]s a biblical scholar, Burk uses extensive scriptural argumentation, rather than relying on tradition…[He uses] theological reasoning to show that the traditional view of hell makes the most sense of what the Bible says about the character of God and the magnitude of sin.” So let’s examine Burk’s argument when it comes to Scripture and theological reasoning. 

Burk begins by examining the objections that some believers have to ECT, and observes that they are often “based less on specific Scriptural passages than they are on human estimations of the way God ought to behave.” Classic objections such as “What kind of a God would preside over a place of eternal conscious torment? Can the loving God of the Bible possible…[punish] the unrepentant in this way?” The “emotional response” that such arguments evoke, Burk argues, “precludes [an appropriate, unbiased] reading of the text.” 

Burke begins, however, not with an appeal to Scripture, but with a “Parable on Punishment and Justice” that he sets forward as the “underlying theological principle” of his apologetics for ECT. Imagine you see a stranger pulling the legs off an insect. You may be a bit disturbed, but unlikely to intervene. Burk gradually intensifies the imagery, until the stranger is threatening to pull the legs off an infant, in which case “you would move heaven and earth to save that baby.” The point of the parable is that “sin is not measured merely by the sin itself (pulling off the legs) but by the value and the worth of the one being sinned against…God is holy and infinite…[t]hus to sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.” QED!

Burk reasons that if we have a reflexive emotional reaction against ECT, it reveals a “diminished view of sin…because we have a diminished view of God.” If only we understood God’s perfect goodness and glory, we would see that ECT is the only appropriate punishment for sin; and the eternal torment of “[a]ll those who fail to experience saving faith in Jesus while they are alive… would be for us not a “cause for embarrassment,” but “a source of joy and praise.”

The theological underpinnings of ECT having been established, Burke now turns to its “biblical foundations”, choosing ten texts, each of which he claims show that the final state of the damned share, at a minimum, the following characteristics:

1.    Final separation of the wicked from the righteous at the last judgment
2.    Unending conscious experience of punishment in hell
3.    Just retribution , meaning punishment is retributive, not redemptive 

It is well worth your time to carefully study Burk’s discussion of the ten texts, but I’ll touch on just two as representative. His first, Foundation #1, is Isaiah 66:22-24, to which Jesus makes reference “to describe the final state of the wicked.” Isaiah’s eschatological vision (1) divides the righteous (who inherit the glorious new heavens and new earth) from the wicked, who are now corpses slain by the Lord; and (2) the joy  of the righteous will be “permanent worship and blessedness”, while the corpses of the wicked are consumed  by the worm which “will not die” and the fire which “will not be quenched.” Burk concludes that “[t]hough not mentioned specifically in this text, this scene seems to assume that God’s enemies have been given body fit for an unending punishment.” Finally, Burk notes that Isaiah 66:24 “is the last verse in the book, and the implication is that the final word corresponds to their final state which is unending. This means that the punishment of the wicked is not disciplinary or restorative. Rather, it is a punitive measure to recompense the wicked for rebelling against God.”

Foundation #4 is Matthew 25:31-46, which pictures (1) the separation of the sheep from the goats, the “final division of all humanity into two groups…the blessed who will “inherit the kingdom” and the “’accursed’…heading to ‘eternal fire.’” The goats are (2) doomed to “’eternal punishment’…the fire refers to the painful experience that must be endured for time ‘without end.’” Burk notes that annihilationists argue that the "punishment is eternal only in the sense of an ongoing fire of judgment…the ones tossed into it are ultimately destroyed…[b]ut this misses the point of the double resurrection …in Matthew 18:8-9…The bodies that are cast into the fire have properties that make them fit for an eternal destiny.” Finally, (3) Burk rejects the notion, often brought up by advocates for universal reconciliation, that the Greek word for punishment (kolasis), deriving from kolazo, or pruning, refers to corrective punishment; rather, in New Testament Greek, the word’s “semantic range is limited to either divine or human punishment…'eternal punishment’ in verse 46 is the same place as ‘eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’…Interpreters tend to agree that hell is a permanent place of punishment for demonic creatures. Indeed, Revelation 20:10 confirms that the devil and his minions will be cast into the lake of fire and ‘tormented day and night forever and ever’…If unbelievers are cast into the same place…that suggests that the duration is the same for both groups…[Kolasis] is retributive in nature with no notion of rehabilitation or restoration in view.” 

In his conclusion, Burk quotes Augustine, who “once reproved those who ‘act as if the conjectures of men are to weight more than the word of God…they who desire to be rid of eternal punishment ought to abstain from arguing against God.’” God, Burk points out, “is not only the treasure of heaven. He is also the terror of hell…God ‘afflicts’ the wicked in hell, and the Lord Jesus deals out ‘retribution’ to his enemies…Going to hell means being left in the presence of God’s wrath forever.” The reality of ECT thus “compels believers to see the urgency of evangelism.” Burk closes with a quote from Charles Spurgeon which includes these heartfelt words: “…if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies, and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees…”

As Burk states near the opening of his chapter, “the question of eternal conscious torment really does come down to who God is.” I agree; that’s why we take such an intense, passionate interest in this debate — or rather, in the quest to understand the nature of hell. If nothing else, Four Views of Hell should make it clear that ECT can mean very different things to different people. For example, as we shall see, if Denny Burk is from Mars, then Jerry Walls is from Venus; yet both are described as subscribing to the “traditional view of hell”. 

George MacDonald famously wrote that he “turn[s] with loathing from the god of Jonathan Edwards,” a statement that has eternally endeared him to John Piper, Tim Keller, and legions of evangelicals everywhere. And yet — brace yourselves, MacDonald fans — I believe that the Scotsman would not at all "turn with loathing” from the doctrine of ECT, in other guises. 

Not every believer in ECT, for example, considers it God’s “retributive justice.” When we speak of the “traditional” view of hell, the question can be asked, which tradition are we talking about? An intramural debate between evangelicals reminds me just a bit of Major League Baseball’s “world” championship, which of course leaves out 194 of the 196 countries in the world. The Orthodox  Church in America, for example, takes the following position: 

“According to the saints, the “fire” that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom of God is the same “fire” that will shine with splendor in the saints. It is the “fire” of God’s love; the “fire” of God Himself who is Love. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) who “dwells in unapproachable light.” (I Timothy 6:16) For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the “consuming fire” of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same “consuming fire” will be the cause of their “weeping” and their “gnashing of teeth.”

Thus it is the Church’s spiritual teaching that God does not punish man by some material fire or physical torment. God simply reveals Himself in the risen Lord Jesus in such a glorious way that no man can fail to behold His glory. It is the presence of God’s splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject its radiant power and light (”

Orthodox eternal torment, but, to me, a very different God than the one Burk presents. Similarly, the hell that C.S. Lewis imagines in The Great Divorce is arguably one of ECT, but certainly not one of a God who inflicts it as retributive justice, with one’s fate determined at the instant of death. But I’ll leave further development of that line of thought to Jerry Walls. 

Emotional Responses to the Traditional Doctrine of ECT
In his response, John Stackhouse writes that “Burk starts by taking swipes at his theological counterparts for being ‘emotional’—as if emotions are not conveyors of information that theologians, like any careful thinkers, ought to pay attention to. Why does this formulation of doctrine repel me? Why does this view of God horrify me?” In much the same vein, Robin Parry parries Burk’s comment that opposition to ECT is based on “human estimations of the way God ought to behave” rather than on “specific passages of Scripture” by noting that “there may not be a specific verse that says eternal torment is incompatible with divine love, but that does not mean that the worry does not arise precisely from biblical teaching about God….[i]f the lack of a specific proof text was considered enough to exclude such concerns, then along with them would go…doctrines such as the Trinity.” 

In short, if we get hot under the collar, it’s because the God Burk presents to us can seem a cruel contradiction to the God reflected in Jesus Christ, based on the totality of our reading of Scripture.  John Stackhouse writes that “far from enhancing God’s glory, [ECT] poses an unbiblical and therefore unnecessary stumbling block to genuine faith…the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the exact opposite of one who gets joy from the suffering of others; he gets joy from suffering for others (Heb 12:2).” 

“Does [Burk] believe God loves all fallen sinners” asks Jerry Walls—who, remember shares a belief in ECT—“or does he believe that only we should exert [every possible effort] to win them to Christ, but that God may not love them the same way?...Does God need eternal hell fully to glorify himself? ….was God’s justice not sufficiently demonstrated in the death of Christ?”

The concern that Stackhouse articulates and that I interpret Walls’ questions to imply—that “Burk’s God is preoccupied with his own magnificence”—brings us to the theological underpinnings that Burk cites for ECT. 

The Parable on Punishment and Justice
I have frequently heard the argument which Burk describes as the theological principle underlying ECT, and, while recognizing that it has been endorsed by Anselm, Augustine, Edwards, and others, remain mystified at its logic. If a man offends a supreme tyrant—a Stalin or Hitler—in even the slightest way, we are not shocked if he is summarily executed. But if that man most foully offends the holiest saint, he is apt to be lovingly forgiven. Furthermore, the specific parable with which Burk attempts to illustrate his principle that offending the Holy of Holies deserves the most severe punishment actually works against him. We are horrified by the attempt to dismember an infant in large part because a baby is tiny and helpless. But God, Walls points out, “is so far above us in power, glory, and moral perfection that we are utterly incapable of harming him….[since we] can do only finite harm, [we] deserve only finite punishment.” In short, Walls is observing that Burk’s parable is undermining his own case. 

Stackhouse notes that “Burk shows precisely nowhere in the Bible a single passage in which this argument [that a sin against an infinitely glorious being is worthy of infinitely awful punishment] is actually made.” And Parry finds further fault with this traditional defense of ECT, observing that its logic is that “all sins are as bad as each other – infinitely bad….[yet] in the Bible sins are differentiated in degrees of seriousness…and not all deserve the same punishment…[t]here is certainly no suggestion that they all deserve ‘an infinitely heinous punishment.’” 

These are devastating points, given the ground rules of evangelical discourse, it seems to me.

Scriptural Teaching on Hell: Foundational Verses
A battle of proof-texts can be a frustrating matter, for there are verses to support virtually any theological premise, however far-fetched. Cliff-Notes summaries are tempting. Romans? “We are saved by faith, not works.” There you have it! Don’t even bother to read the whole book, it’ll only confuse you! Let alone reconcile that verse with the rest of Paul’s epistles, the Gospels, and the OT. 

That is why I keenly appreciate Parry’s comment that “[t]he 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 [ECT], and some of universalism. The issues for evangelicals is how to affirm all of these texts as sacred Scripture…and hold their teachings together.” Indeed! The most compelling argument will not only shine a spotlight on the most convenient verses, but also on the ones that seem to directly contradict one’s doctrine, and then show how they can somehow be reconciled.

Easier said than done, but I award big-time points for even trying!

Burk’s ten foundational passages are presumably the most consistent, compelling evidence for the traditional doctrine of hell. He does not address and defuse verses that appear to support other doctrines; but, to be fair, each author had to pack as much material as possible into a limited page count, and one obvious Counterpoint Series strategy is to save your counter-punches for your replies to other authors, who can be counted on to trot out the most useful verses for their point of view. The only trouble with that approach is that it fails to provide what Parry calls the metanarrative, the unity that can overcome apparent contradictions. 

There’s pretty decent consensus among the authors and editor that Burk’s verses provide solid support for (1) separation of the wicked from the righteous (though how final is another matter), and to a lesser extent for (3) retributive punishment (Parry concedes that the passages Burk cites do not offer any hope of salvation after separation; but we’ll see how he addresses that in just a bit).  But unfortunately for Burk, when it comes to the E of ECT, his first foundational passage, Isaiah 66:22-24, runs into a blistering buzz-saw of compelling criticism, the essence of which can be applied to many of the other nine foundational verses. 

When his argument for the very first foundational verse hinges on lines like, “[t]hough not mentioned specifically in this text, this scene seems to assume that God’s enemies have been given a body fit for an unending punishment,” Burk is making it clear that there’s room for interpretation; and indeed, several Mac trucks (chariots?) get driven through that opening. 

Stackhouse gets first dibs: “In passage after passage of Burk’s analysis…he adds meanings that are not in the text—especially the idea that the suffering depicted therein is eternal…Isaiah 66, to begin with, speaks of worms and fire that do not die, but they are consuming corpses, not zombies or some other form of perpetually living ‘undead.’ The deathlessness of the symbols of judgment, worms and fire, speak of the perpetuity of God’s holy antipathy toward sin, but the corpses themselves are dead.” Score one for the annihilationist, who makes similarly persuasive points about several other of Burk’s foundational verses. Editor Sprinkle (who, while open to annihilation as an option for evangelicals, has not declared himself an annihilationist) expresses similar reservations about Burk’s arguments in his Conclusion. 

Parry consistently looks to back up and place any given passage in a larger context, with respect to the metanarrative of the OT and NT. Thus, in addressing the verses which seem to divide all people into two groups assigned to two very different final fates, he writes, “if we had no reasons from Scripture to hope for ultimate universal salvation, then these texts would certainly count strongly against it. But we do have biblical grounds for universalism. So how can we affirm the truth of both of the two-destinies tests and the global salvation texts (both of which can be found side-by-side in Paul, John, and Revelation…)…we can do so by understanding the condemnation as qualified by the ultimate salvation texts and thus as a penultimate fate… [These passages do not] rule out such salvation any more than Mark’s failure to mention an exception to the ban on divorce and remarriage rules one out [since such exceptions are given in Matthew and Paul].”

Matthew 25:46 is the verse most often cited as the knock-out punch in favor of the traditional doctrine of ECT, and in the Conclusion, Sprinkle cites that verse as “the best text Burk enlists in his case…in which Jesus says that the wicked “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” The parallel…strongly suggests that the punishment of the lost will last forever, since the life given to the saved will last forever. Still, Burk doesn’t entertain the possibility –some would say probability—that the adjective “eternal” (aionios) doesn’t describe the act of punishing, but the results of that act…”

Parry notes 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.” 

Anglican Frank Wilson reminds readers of Faith and Practice that aionios in this context “has to do with quality rather than duration. It is difficult for us to think that God's purposes will not be completely successful in the long run or that there can be two conflicting states, one of righteousness and one of unrighteousness, existing forever in clear opposition to each other.” But, as I mentioned above, he cautions us that God “has not seen fit” to resolve the mysteries inherent in Scripture’s account of the final judgment. 

Which will not, of course, stop us from considering the case for Annihilation in the next installment of this review of Four Views on Hell!