Four Views on Hell, Part II: The Case for Terminal Punishment

Review of Four Views on Hell, Part II:
The Case for Terminal Punishment


In the first installment of this series, I reviewed Part One of Four Views on Hell, which presented Denny Burk’s defense of what editor Preston Sprinkle calls the “traditional view of hell” as a place of eternal conscious torment, or ECT. This segment deals with Part II, the case for terminal punishment (aka conditionalism or annihilationism), presented byJohn Stackhouse, Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Stackhouse defines hell as the “situation in which those who do not avail themselves of the atonement made by Jesus in his suffering and death must make their own atonement by suffering and then death, separated from the sustaining life of God and thus disappearing from the cosmos.” He primarily contrasts terminal punishment with ECT, arguing that it better takes into account both God’s perfect holiness and his loving kindness, and—most important from an evangelical perspective—is the doctrine of hell best supported by Scripture. Indeed, Stackhouse goes so far as to affirm that “terminal punishment enjoys about as strong a warrant in Scripture as I have seen can be offered for any doctrine.”

 “Suffering is what sin incurs and is that which atones for sin,” he explains. “The final result of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), as the fire of judgement purges the universe of the truly mortal remains of those who do not possess eternal life as the gift of God.” So, in contrast to the ECT framework, sin is purged from the universe. However, “God’s wrath against sin is not…ever extinguished.”; “wrath against sin” is an “eternal” quality of God.

What’s in a Word?
Debates over biblical exegesis often revolve around the definitions of key words, and in this case, Professor Stackhouse sets forth three critical terms: eternal, destroy, and death.

The Hebrew word olam is frequently translated “eternal,” but Stackhouse notes that it is used by Old Testament writers to describe many things that don’t in fact last forever. In the New Testament, of course, the key word translated eternal is aionion, which, he observes, “can mean ‘everlasting,’ but often means ‘of the age to come.’ Thus the ‘eternal life’ of which John loves to write is not only life that doesn’t end (a quantitative idea) but also is the kind of life lived in the light of the coming kingdom of God…(a qualitative idea).”

Stackhouse further writes that “[a]n event or action…can properly be called ‘eternal’ because of its everlasting implication.” For example, he reasons that when the author of Hebrews writes of “eternal judgment/redemption” (6:1-2), the acts of judgment and redeeming don’t go on forever, but the results of those actions are everlasting. Similarly, in Mark 3:28-29, the “eternal sin” is not a sin that goes on forever, but one that has eternal consequences.

When the Bible refers to death and destruction, Stackhouse argues, “it generally means termination.” Terminal punishment apologists see Edward Fudge’s book, The Fire that Consumes, as decisively demonstrating that the Bible speaks “of the destiny of the lost as termination…eradication, annihilation, and vanishing.” “Psalm after psalm and proverb after proverb” teach that the wicked will “vanish from the face of the earth.” When Jesus speaks of the wicked being “destroyed..cut down and thrown into the fire,” writes Stackhouse, his words need to be understood in these Old Testament terms. Similarly, 2 Peter 2:6 references the utter destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as “an example of what is coming to the ungodly.” “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and death means, if nothing else, termination. The one thing death does not mean is “not dying.” And in Scripture’s final chapter, “[t]he second death” of Revelation 20:14-15 means, ultimately, to disappear, burned up in the lake of fire.

Revelation, of course, provides ECT traditionalists like Burk with plenty of juicy verses to quote. Revelation 20:10 refers to the devil, beast, and false prophet being “tormented day and night forever and ever.” Yet, Stackhouse argues, if “Death and Hades” are also thrown into the lake of fire, and it “doesn’t make any sense” to imagine those as experiencing endless torment, he concludes that it also seems unlikely humans would incur that fate. “What, then,” he asks, “to make of the ‘forever and ever’ torment of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet?” “When we recall…that the language of apocalyptic in general, and of this passage in particular, is typically extravagant, poetical, and allusive, we ought not to press the language of everlasting torment into a metaphysical construction of an actual state of affairs in which these strange beings suffer forever….[t]he enemies of God will be soundly, eternally defeated…since they are the worst sinners imaginable, the author sees them receiving the worst punishment imaginable and expresses that in the most powerful language imaginable…we should be careful not to mistakenly press [this point] into the wrong category: metaphysics instead of poetry.”

One of the reasons why ECT has been the traditional view of hell, Stackhouse believes, is that many Christians “take for granted” that humans have immortal souls. But “immortality is clearly something we must get, not something we already have.” Eternal life is a gift to believers, and the others will naturally vanish from God’s creation.

The Cleansing of Creation
The sins of the wicked, affirms Stackhouse, “cannot simply be allowed by God’s goodness to remain in God’s good cosmos indefinitely. God ensures that justice is done, that pollution is cleansed, that debts are paid, that all becomes well…Each sinful action makes a damaging mark on the goodness of the world, and the moral order of the world thus somehow requires this damage to be repaired…God cannot ‘just forgive’ our sins without anyone suffering….Atonement is required to make straight the crooked…”

Therefore, “God graciously [became] human in order to do for us what we  cannot do for ourselves: fully atone for sin and yet emerge, resurrected, to new life.”
 “Someone has to pay for our sins: either Jesus does, or we do.” If we reject Jesus, then we find ourselves “‘free’ only to suffer and die.” But “[j]ust as Jesus did not suffer eternally, even for the sins of the whole world, so each person who makes atonement on his or her own will not suffer eternally, either.” 

“I submit, then,” Stackhouse concludes, “that the Bible’s express teaching, the Bible’s logic, and the Bible’s images nicely coincide in the doctrine of terminal punishment.”

Observations and Author Reponses to Stackhouse
George MacDonald, contemplating the scenario that a sinner might refuse to ever repent, agreed that annihilation would be an appropriate fate; but such a defeat for God seemed to him unimaginable. Nonetheless, I think he’d agree in principle with what Stackhouse writes early in his essay: “Hell is not a destination that God arbitrarily assigns to the recalcitrant sinner. Hell is simply the natural result of a moral agent choosing to separate from God, the source of life, and go some other way…” Cut off from God, not granted eternal life, annihilationists argue that unbelievers eventually wink out of existence.

But not for nothing does Stackhouse prefer the term “terminal punishment.” Since they have not sought refuge in the suffering and death of the Christ, unbelievers must themselves atone for their sins through their own suffering and death. “Someone has to pay for our sins; either Jesus does, or we do,” says Stackhouse. This is certainly a (perhaps the) traditional evangelical view, and it is one MacDonald critiques most forcefully (and perhaps, to evangelicals, most infamously) in one of his greatest works, Justice, from Volume III of Unspoken Sermons.

Briefly, MacDonald’s point is that punishment accomplishes nothing in itself; there is no justice in retributive punishment, for justice means the setting of things right. No amount of punishment, no amount of suffering by a wrongdoer before he vanishes from the universe, can make up for the smallest sin. Punishment must be a means to an end, the end being the repentance and redemption of the sinner, which is the only way in which God’s creation can be set right.

What then of the punishment, the suffering and death that Jesus endured on the cross? That was indeed a means to an end, for it made possible our at-one-ment with God; not only our salvation, but the redemption of all creation. I note that MacDonald’s critique of retributive punishment of course applies equally to both ECT and terminal punishment.

Stackhouse makes a strong case for the Old Testament’s pervasive references to the wicked vanishing from the face of the earth. But he is less persuasive when it comes to the New Testament, where his interpretation of Revelation 20:10 seems strained, to put it mildly. Revelation, however, is a great challenge to many of us; and while Stackhouse’s comments about poetry versus metaphysics probably induce sneers among the ECT contingent, I suspect he’s right.

The problem for him, of course, is that once you play the poetry/hyperbole card in interpreting Revelation, you open the door not only for terminal punishment, but for universal reconciliation as well. 

Denny Burk
Professor Burk is, of course, unimpressed with Stackhouse’s arguments. Of course Jesus didn’t suffer for eternity, he thunders. “What would have taken us an eternity in hell to suffer, Jesus Christ endured for us in his painful experience on the cross. Thus, the measure of his sufferings—which included his earning the eternal wrath of God against sin—is the measure of his love for us. To diminish God’s wrath would be to diminish the measure of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf and thus our experience of his love.” To Burk, if you don’t subscribe to ECT, you think less of God; although many there are of us who see things just the other way round.

Burk scores an interesting point in observing that “…in Stackhouse’s argument the very existence of the damned in hell—even though temporary—leaves the matter of evil still unresolved after the final judgment. In that sense, it extends the “already/not yet” eschatology of the New Testament for ages beyond the final judgment. This is an absurdity…” The problem with that argument, though, it seems to me, is that it doesn’t consider a point that C.S. Lewis and others have made, which is that God’s Eternal Reality is likely outside of our limited sense of space and time.

Burk hammers home the point that “Scripture repeatedly says that God’s justice is magnified by his judgment on the wicked, not by the elimination of the wicked.” He points out how Revelation 19:1-6 describes the burning of the “great harlot,” noting that God’s “justice is vindicated by her burning. Everything is good in God’s cosmos when God’s judgment falls on the damned.”

God’s glory requires the suffering of the damned, and the saints will eternally delight in their anguish. What’s at stake here is nothing less than the character of God. The terminal punishment crowd see annihilation as a kinder, gentler alternative to ECT (“entirely commensurate with the goodness of God”); but bothregard punishment in and of itself as an offset for sin, not as a means to a decisive setting of things right, to the restoration of God’s perfect creation.

Robin Parry
Contemplating the character of God brings us to the counterarguments put forward by the book’s apologist for universal reconciliation, Robin Parry. “If universalism is not true,” says Parry, “…the pressure is on to surrender either the claim that God is love or the claim that God completely wins.”

Parry brings to bear one of the most powerful arguments against terminal punishment. He notes Stackhouse’s citation from Scripture, that “God is indeed not willing that any should perish” and his affirmation that God has done “all [that he] can do to draw people to himself;” therefore, “if eschatological destruction is something that God reluctantly allows creatures to inflict upon themselves, then it represents God’s permanent failure to bring about his purposes…”

Parry then demonstrates the deep problem with Stackhouse’s positon with this reductio ad absurdum: “The problem is that this notion of divine victory is theoretically compatible with a state in which every rational agent in creation freely chooses to reject God and embrace destruction. We would look at…the whole cosmos…burning in hell or…terminated, in which none of those for whom Christ died has been saved…and we would say, “This is God’s triumph over sin!”

Parry counters a number of Stackhouse’s Old Testament references.  For example, he notes that Stackhouse makes the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah paradigmatic: “nothing remains of them except the smoke of their burning.” Yet, Parry points out, Ezekiel promises Sodom “a post-annihilation restoration.”

Turning to the New Testament and the more challenging verses in Revelation, Parry observes that “the Bible is more than happy to use the notions of life and death in a theological sense, indicating one’s relation…to God, the source of life…those out of relation with God are considered to be dead in sin (e.g. Eph 2.1). …talk of the lake of fire as the “second death’ cannot be assumed to mean ‘the second annihilation,’ unless one already knows that death-talk equals annihilation-talk. But if it indicates alienation from divine life in the age to come, the language seems to me to make complete sense…[t]he blood of the lamb ever avails, offering hope in the place beyond all hope.”

Jerry L. Walls
Professor Walls, like Burk, believes that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment, rather than a temporary punishment on the way to annihilation, but provides a perspective very different from his colleague. Responding to the annihilationist’s argument that ECT “is too horrible to consider”, and the idea that finite creatures are only deserving of a finite punishment, Walls notes that “hell is not an eternal punishment that is imposed for sins committed in this life. Rather, hell is eternal because some sinners persist in rejecting the love and grace of God for all eternity.” Walls notes that he is “sympathetic” to the Eastern Orthodox notion that, as David Hart puts it, “makes no distinction between the fire of hell and light of God’s glory and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory…”

Walls then opens up the possibility of post-mortem repentance, consistent with a God who desires that “none be lost:” “God’s love is forever extended to those in hell, and it is possible that some of them may receive it and decide to return home to the Father, as the prodigal son did…”

While the vision of hell which MacDonald paints in The Last Farthing is agony to the wicked because of the absence of God, I imagine him reading Walls and nodding, “Aye; this works as well!” The key difference between MacDonald and Walls—and between MacDonald and the vision that C.S. Lewis presents in The Great Divorce—is the issue of whether or not all souls will eventually repent. A cosmos in which some did not was, to MacDonald, a defeat for God, and that was to him unimaginable. Not so to Walls (at least, not yet!)

Stackhouse argues that annihilation cleanses the New Heavens and New Earth of every trace of past evil, but Walls points out the flaw in that argument: “Unless God simply erases all memories of [our wicked brothers and sisters and children and parents]—a suggestion that raises more problems than it solves—the good world to come will still contain some painful unredeemed evil.”

Conclusions and Coming Attractions
The logical flaws in Stackhouse’s arguments ultimately wouldn’t matter quite so much if Scripture and tradition were both on his side. By his own admission, tradition favors ECT; and, while he does make a powerful Scriptural case for terminal punishment, there are ample verses to support ECT and universal reconciliation, undercutting his claim to have a decisive Scriptural edge.

In the near future, we’ll turn to the argument for universal reconciliation, presented by Robin Parry. Meanwhile, buy Four Views on Hell, and join in the debate!