Tag Archives: doctrine

Hell: A Tentative Conclusion

In the previous series, I surveyed four views on hell. In this post, I will share what I believe to be the “best fit” with the evidence at hand. 

I find the terminal punishment (conditionalist) perspective outlined by John Stackhouse to be the most coherent argument that fits best with the Scriptural evidence. Here’s why, after more than a decade of teaching eternal conscious torment, I changed my mind: 

First, conditionalism makes the most sense of how the Bible uses the words “death” and “destruction.” The paradigms set in the Old Testament (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood), the imagery of the prophets and psalms (death and destruction), the warnings of Jesus (fear him who can destroy body and soul in hell), the teachings of Paul (the wages of sin is death), and the conclusion of Revelation (death is no more) fit together well under the conditionalist interpretation.

The traditional interpretation redefines “death” as “not dead, but being kept alive forever in torment” and “destruction” as “ruin” in a way that works against biblical imagery of fire that consumes what it burns. Prooftexts (see #3 below) understandably lead traditionalists to this conclusion, but I don’t think it naturally flows from the story the Bible tells or the bulk of the evidence.

Universalists present a hopeful story that they believe correlates to the metanarrative of Scripture, but this story forces them to “smooth over” too many texts which talk about the finality of the final judgment (whether eternal torment or annihilation). Furthermore, universalism requires post-mortem salvation, which has to arise out of pure conjecture. I want to believe in universalism, but I do not have the evidence to warrant that hope.

Second, conditionalism makes the most sense of God’s revealed justice. This view honors the punitive nature of God’s judgment (unlike many formulations of universalism). Hell is a punishment for those who reject God. And yet, hell is not arbitrary, but the natural result (death) for those who walk away from the Source of life. This view honors the principles of proportionate justice that God reveals in Scripture.

Augustine’s perspective (which Burk presents) that finite sin warrants eternal torment because it is against an infinite God is logical but isn’t taught in Scripture. At the end of the day, proponents of eternal torment infer it in order to make sense of the texts which they believe require them to accept that position.

To his credit, Parry’s presentation of the universalist position acknowledges that hell has a punitive component to it, but most universalists I have encountered emphasize restorative justice at the expense of punitive justice. I can’t reconcile such an image of God’s justice with the language of the Bible (especially Jesus’s language).

Third, conditionalists offer plausible interpretations for the texts which, at first glance, appear to point to eternal torment. For example, I invite you to read an article I wrote on conditional immortality in the book of Matthew. In it, I provide an annihilationist perspective on the parable of the sheep and the goats. I have more work to do on Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10, but I have read conditionalist interpretations on both passages that honor the text and the Old Testament background.

Traditionalists rely heavily on these proof texts and use them to read their position back into texts which would otherwise promote conditionalism (see Burk on Isaiah 66:24). These texts also lead to philosophical conjectures regarding the proportionality of hell. Indeed, two specific texts kept me in the traditionalist camp for the past decade. Once the traditionalist interpretations of these texts were undermined through further study, the other pieces locked into place. I do not find universalist interpretations of these texts to be convincing at all.

Further Study

The points above are expanded in numerous resources, including Stackhouse’s chapter in the Four Views, the book Rethinking HellThe Fire that Consumes by pioneering conditionalist Edward Fudge, and, if you don’t want a book, the website Rethinking Hell, which has a comprehensive description of the perspective, and an extensive list of Scripture references.

As I indicated in the title of this post, it is a “tentative conclusion.” I am not dogmatic about my position. But, I have come to a settled conclusion that it fits the evidence well. I am fully aware that I am adopting a minority position (though no less than John Stott advocated for conditional immortality) which I do not take lightly. Still, I believe that this view is the one best supported by Scripture.

Hell and Purgatory

This post is part 4 of the series Four Views of Hell which summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible. In my previous post, I covered the Christian Universalism view.

Jerry Walls provided the chapter on purgatory. 

What is the purpose of purgatory? 

Purgatory has often been understood in its relationship to hell because the two often share images of suffering and punishment. But it might be better understood in its relationship to heaven, as a temporary stage “for those who die in a state of grace and will eventually make it into heaven” (146).

Purgatory is an attempt to answer the question “how is it that persons who died in a state of grace, but are less than fully perfect, are made fit for heaven” (146)? The question arises from passages like Rev. 21:27 which says that nothing unclean will enter heaven and Heb. 12:14 which describes holiness (for which we are to strive) that is required to see the Lord. 

Many Protestants might argue that such a purification happens the moment we die, but the doctrine of purgatory provides a fuller account.

Purgatory isn’t a place of probation that determines one’s final state. All who are in purgatory will eventually make it into heaven. 

It’s also not, at least in the traditional definition, a second chance for those who reject Christ in this life. That choice is final. 

Instead, it’s a place where those who have not been sanctified in this life, will have the grace to receive sanctification before entering heaven. In a death bed conversation, for instance, that conversion is accepted (the person is justified) but the process of sanctification still needs to happen, and will happen, in purgatory. 

Purgatory, by creating a third possibility between heaven and hell, 

purgatory expands the hope for the number of people who will be finally saved (more on this later).

Two Reasons for Purgatory: Satisfaction and Sanctification

Purgatory can be understood as accomplishing two goals (1) sanctification and/or (2) satisfaction. Sanctification refers to the process of being made holy by purifying (purging) the person of impurities. Satisfaction refers to undergoing punishments to satisfy the justice of God. Roman Catholics at the time of Luther and beyond focused on satisfaction.

Protestants reject purgatory because the satisfaction model, which plays an integral part in Roman Catholic theology, goes against Protestant teaching that Jesus has fully satisfied the justice of God through his death on the cross. However, it is possible to reject that satisfaction model and keep the sanctification model.

But is It in the Bible?

While not addressed directly by Scripture “the doctrine of purgatory can be rightly considered biblical in the broader sense that it is a natural implication of things that are clearly taught in Scripture” (152). Furthermore, some specific passages seem to suggest purgatory.

For instance, 1 Cor 3:11-15 describes the Day (of judgment) as a day when our works will be revealed for what they truly were. Some on that day will be saved but will suffer loss as those “escaping through the flames.” Through this process, they will be sanctified by the truth (John17:17). “Watching the fire burn would bring home the truth to us, and as we accepted and came to terms with it, our sanctification would go forward” (154). So, there is a process within the final judgment that involves coming to terms with the truth, which leads us to sanctification. 

Purgatory and the Process of Sanctification

C.S. Lewis observed that our problem is not just the guilt incurred from following our sinful habits and tendencies, but those habits and tendencies themselves. Therefore, salvation is not just about receiving forgiveness and being cleansed of guilt (justification). More than that, we need to be completely healed of our sinfulness to truly see God. Sanctification requires human cooperation, takes time, and involves suffering. 

Human Cooperation over Time

God has given humans the freedom to accept or reject him, to cooperate with his will, or to thwart it. Human freedom is so valuable to God because of the good things it makes possible (love, joy, etc.). “If God can give us the goods of love, goodness, and joy unilaterally at the moment of death without our free cooperation, it is hard to see why freedom is necessary in this life to achieve these goods, particularly given all the evil that results from the misuse of our freedom” (158).

The sanctification in this life, which springs from our free cooperation with God, takes time. It is the result of “innumerable choices.” If sanctification is a process that requires our free cooperation in this life, perhaps it will continue to be so after we die.

Suffering and Transformation

Is suffering essential to purgatory and, if so, does it imply an element of satisfaction, which Protestants reject? Pain is essential to the moral transformation required for us to enter heaven, but that pain isn’t for the purpose of punishment, but because it is the result of transformation. “[T]he pain is due essentially to the radical transformation we must undergo in order to become persons who could truly welcome a God of perfect holiness to take up residence in every part of our lives” (163). 

Like in the renovation of a house, where the contractors need to perform some demolition before they add on, so it is with our hearts. Walls of sin and selfishness need to be demolished – a painful process – before we attain the holiness required for heaven.  

“Our self-centered attitudes badly skew our perspective on reality and put us out of joint with it. Our disordered loves close our hearts to Love himself” (165). That “disjointedness” causes discomfort and, until we are transformed, it will continue to cause us pain. We will not be able to enjoy heaven until we are transformed, and that transformation involves a level of pain.

But isn’t this still salvation by works?

Our salvation, justification and sanctification, gifts of grace, and both are required to enter into heaven. “We should be under no illusion that our entrance into heaven is fully assured by justification or having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Sanctification is not an optional matter… [but] a necessary condition for all of us who want to experience joy in the presence of God” (166).

As noted above human cooperation is a necessary component of sanctification. However, that doesn’t mean that sanctification is any less a gift of God. “Sanctification is a gift for which God is ultimately responsible, but this does not preclude human cooperation” (166).

The plausibility of purgatory rests on a few questions. First, are we able to disentangle the satisfaction view of purgatory from the sanctification view? Second, how seriously do we take sanctification? Third, do we believe that sanctification requires human participation? Purgatory “will be a theologically viable option for Protestants to the degree that they have a holistic view of salvation by faith that emphasizes that sanctification is a work of grace just as much as justification is” (168).

Expanding purgatory hope even further?

Early in this essay, we said that purgatory was not a “second chance.” In its traditional sense, it is not. However, this view is worth questioning. “Why is repentance at the very last moment of death always accepted, but repentance a moment after death too late? Indeed, what is objectionable about the idea of a ‘second chance,’ especially since many people have countless chances in this life?” (170)

Perhaps the gap spoken of in Luke 16:26 is unbridgable only to the extent that the rich man refuses to repent. If so, even someone in hell could be forgiven and sanctified.

A view consistent with God’s character of love and justice is that God only damns to eternal hell those who have decisively chosen evil. But for such a choice to be a true choice God gives them “optimal grace,” which is “the measure of grace that is best suited to elicit a positive-free response to God” (171). Optimal grace will be different from person to person. Since it is unlikely that everyone receives optimal grace in this life, it is plausible that they might receive such grace in Purgatory, leading to post-mortem repentance.

Purgatory, then, makes sense of how we who are less than fully sanctified could enter into heaven in a way that honors human cooperation in sanctification. And, it’s worth asking whether this “expanded hope” could extend even to those in hell, providing them a path to repentance and salvation. 

Hell and Christian Universalism

This post is part 3 of the series Four Views of Hell which summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible. In my previous post, I covered the Terminal Punishment view.

Robin Parry provided the chapter which describes the perspective that all people will one day be reconciled to God. 

Introduction

Christian universalists do not teach that people can be saved apart from Christ, but that, in the end, all will be saved through him. “Christian universalism is the view that in the end, God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ” (101). Christian universalists believe in an eschatological punishment, “but ‘in the end’ there will be deliverance” (101).

Reading the Bible through the gospel story

Debates on hell “often get bogged down in proof texting” (102). All sides can point to proof texts which seem to prove their position. Traditionalists point to Matthew 25:45, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Revelation 14:11, and Revelation 20:1-15. Annihilationists point to Matthew 7:13, 10:28, John 3:16, Romans 6:23, and Hebrews 10:39. Universalists point to Romans 5:18, 11:32, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Philippians 2:11, and Colossians 1:30. Therefore, all sides must interpret some texts against their “obvious” meaning.

Instead of proof texting, we need to read the Bible in the context of its bigger picture. This “bigger picture” is the theological framework knowns as the “rule of faith.” The rule of faith is the “gospel narrative of the triune God manifest in Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and return” (103).

In the Context of Christ-Centered Biblical Narrative

Our exploration of the “gospel narrative” begins in Colossians 1:16-20. Here we see the creation-to-new-creation plot by which we can make sense of hell. The text says that “all things” were created through Christ and that God will reconcile the same all things through Christ. Non-universalists must interpret reconciliation in this passage in a way that is at odds with how Paul uses the word. “Being defeated and condemned is not being reconciled” (104).

Creation

God created all things. “[T]he doctrine of creation is not simply about origins… but about purpose and destiny” (105). We find humanity’s destiny and purpose in Christ. God made us to be conformed to the image of Jesus. Will God bring creation to its intended destiny?

Fall

All people sin. “Sin corrodes humanity at every level and makes it impossible for us to reach our destination” (105). We all deserve to be punished. We don’t deserve God’s grace. But, the questions remain: “Will God allow sin to thwart his purposes to beautify the cosmos?” and “Does Christ undo all the damage caused by sin, or does he only undo some of it?” (106)

Redemption

In the incarnation, Jesus came to represent all humans in his humanity. 

He died to atone for the sins of all people. 1 John 2:2 says that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the whole world. 1 Cor. 5:14 says that Christ died for all. God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3-6). Jesus suffered death to taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). We know that God wants to redeem all people. “Will God’s desired to save all people be satisfied or eternally frustrated?” (108)

Christian eschatology is rooted in the resurrection, the inauguration of new creation. Since Jesus represents all humanity, his resurrection, like his death, is effective for all humanity.

Already/not-yet of new creation

We live in the already/not-yet of new creation. Already, all people are justified through the death of Christ. “However, it is only as we respond in obedient trust to the gospel and are united to Christ by the Spirit that we participate subjectively in this justification” (109). Even here, our experience is partial. We still await the resurrection.

Current in-group/out-group designations are temporary. God can make those who are dead in their sin (the out-group) alive in Christ (the in-group). For instance, in Romans 9-11 Paul sees Israel as currently cut off from Messiah. Nevertheless, he looks forward to a time when “all Israel will be saved.” So, “Paul sees a current division between the in-group and the out-group within Israel itself, but it’s a division that will be overcome in the new age” (110).

The church functions as a “prophetic foretaste” and “an anticipation of the grander fulfillment” (111) when all people from all nations will come together in Christ.

Consummation

In this story, universal salvation, as we see in places like Ephesians 1:9-10 (“to bring to unity all things in heaven and on earth under Christ”) seems like a fitting end. Any non-universalist ending is a “tragic partial failure for God” (112).

Hell: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here”?

Divine judgment serves various ends in the Bible, including retribution. But retributive justice isn’t the whole story. “Biblical justice is about putting wrong things right” (113) and retribution cannot, by itself, undo harms. Punishment can also be used as a deterrent, warning, or correction (restorative justice). These different goals aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. God can judgment both because punishment is deserved and to bring ultimate restoration.

This is consistent with the normative pattern we find in the way God relates to his people, the pattern of judgment followed by restoration. The book of Jeremiah is an example. “This pattern – judgment and salvation, exile and restoration, death and resurrection – is God’s way with Israel” (114).

Does this only apply to Israel? No. We also see cases where the prophets apply this to the nations, including Elam (Jeremiah 49:37, 39), Sodom (Ezekiel 16:53), and Egypt (Isaiah 19:22).

The pattern of punishment/restoration can be applied to final judgment so that hell is “more than retributive; that it is also restorative” (115). This view fits within the broader story of Scripture and aligns with God’s goodness, love, and justice. 

Can One Come to Christ After Death

This version of Christian universalism only works if some can be saved after they have died. The possibility is “highly consistent with the doctrine of divine holy love and the doctrine of God’s eschatological victory over sin” (117).

But, does the Bible teach a view of hell that necessarily excludes post-mortem salvation and universalism?

Mark 9:42-50

First, we observe that this text draws its background imagery from Jeremiah (Gehenna/hell equals the Valley of Ben Hinnom, known as a place of idolatry) and Isaiah (the worm that does not die comes from Isaiah 66:24). We should let Jeremiah and Isaiah set the backdrop instead of going to Jewish texts that occur after the destruction of Jesus which describe Gehenna as a place of everlasting punishment. 

Second, “that the fire will not be quenched and the worms will not die need not mean no more than that the dire and the worms will be unceasingly and unstoppably active until they have finished their work” (119). 

Third, the phrase “everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49) is suggestive of purification consistent with the universalist view that could occur in the fires of Gehenna.

Matthew 25:31-46

The word here translated as “eternal” (aionios) refers to the “age to come.” So, eternal punishment is “punishment belonging to the age to come” and eternal life is “life belonging to the age to come.” We aren’t told how long that age will last, but we are given a hint in Jude 7 where Sodom and Gomorrah suffer “eternal (aionios) life.” In that case, the fire lasted for a single day. By contrast, we know that “eternal life” lasts forever, not based on this passage, but because it is grounded in participation in Jesus’s incorruptible resurrected life.

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

The phrase “eternal destruction” can be rendered as “ruin/punishment belonging to the age to come.” As in Matthew 25:31-46, we need not assume that this punishment will last forever.

Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10-15

We must consider these texts within their literary context. In both cases, the judgment texts are followed by universalist post-scripts. Revelation 14:9-11 is followed by Revelation 15:3-4 which states that “all nations will come and worship before you.” “The nations” in Revelation are always depicted as the bad guys who are the objects of God’s judgment, but who here come and worship before the throne. 

Likewise, Revelation 20:10-15 is followed by 21:24-45. Of the New Jerusalem, it states: “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.” Like the nations, the “kings of the earth” are Christ’s enemies defeated in the last battle. Yet here, they are entering the New Jerusalem. These passages suggest post-damnation salvation.

Conclusion

In the end, God will accomplish his purposes. He will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Christian universalists argue that final destruction or eternal torment of the damned cannot constitute such a victory, but only in the final reconciliation of all of creation.

Hell as Terminal Punishment

This post is part 2 of the series Four Views of Hell which summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible. In my previous post, I covered the Eternal Conscious Torment view.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. provided the chapter in defense of the view of hell as a place of terminal punishment.

What does Terminal Punishment Teach? 

Terminal punishment – also referred to as annihilationism or conditional immortality – is an “understanding of hell as a place of limited punishment: ‘punishment’ because sins can be atoned for only by commensurate suffering and death, and ‘limited’ because the sins of any one human being, and the collective sins of all of unredeemed humanity, can and will be eventually atoned for and thus will be eliminated some time in the future” (66). Because they have deliberately rejected God, the source of life and goodness, they vanish from existence once their debt has been paid.

What is Hell?

The Bible describes hell as a destination, as fire, and as a dump.

Destination: Hell is not a destination arbitrarily assigned to the wicked, but the inevitable outcome of rejecting God. It is “simply the natural result of a moral agent choosing to separate from God” (63) and choosing a way that eventually leads to destruction.

Fire: Fire plays two roles in the Bible, both related to purification. It can either test and purify a thing by destroying anything in it that lacks value, as in dross removed from precious metal. Or, it can purify the situation of the thing, if it has no lasting value, as in the destruction of chaff, weeds, or trees that fail to produce good fruit. “Hell as fire points to God’s fixed determination to judge all things, to make plain their true character, and to purge God’s cosmos of all that is not completely good” (64).

Dump: The New Testament word for hell is Gehenna which denotes a valley outside of Jerusalem with a terrible past. While scholars recognize that during Jesus’s time it was probably not a literal dump, the generic description still fits: “hell is the place to which evil is removed and in which it is destroyed” (63). This view of hell highlights God’s commitment “to remove evil once and for all from his good creation” (64).

Working through the Text

Stackhouse uses the bulk of his chapter to work through Scripture, addressing many of the same texts that Burk highlighted in his chapter on eternal conscious torment. In doing so, he endeavors to show that terminal punishment “is the view of hell most fully warranted by Scripture” (62).

Eternal actions or eternal results?

While the Bible links the language of hell with the word “eternal” (Greek: aionion), we must ask what the word means in this context. Drawing on the Old Testament, Stackhouse shows that “eternal” (Hebrew: olam) can, but does not always, mean “having continual existence.” He points, for instance, to the rites and rituals performed by the priests in the temple. These are “lasting” (olam) ordinances that have been made obsolete in Christ.

Turning to the New Testament, Stackhouse shows that “eternal” does not always mean “existing forever.” “The crucial distinction here is between, on the one hand, an event or an action that occurs for only a segment of time, and on the other, the result of that event or action that is indeed ‘without end.’ Thus the event or action itself can properly be called ‘eternal’ because of its everlasting implication” (67).

Consider, for instance, Hebrews 6:1-2 which talks about “eternal judgment.” It is not as though “God could never descend from the heavenly bench” (68) and must always remain there giving his verdict. Instead, most Christians believe in a Final Judgment that takes a limited amount of time, but that has an everlasting consequence. Perhaps even more clear is Hebrews 9:11-12 which speaks of “eternal redemption.” Again, God does not go on redeeming forever. He performs a single act of redemption (“once for all” in Hebrews 10:1-14) that has an eternal result. The same logic applies to “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and “eternal sin” in Mark 3:28-29.

This line of reasoning – that the eternality of an action can refer to the result of that action – also explains Matthew 25:46 which contrasts “eternal life” with “eternal destruction.” Here “eternal punishment” “can easily be seen… to be suffering and death that has… eternal implication without eternal conscious experience” (78).

What is the meaning of destruction and death? 

Stackhouse next turns to the meanings of “death” and “destroy” in the Bible: “the Bible is replete with passages – literally dozens and dozens – that speak of the destiny of the lost as termination, end, disappearance, eradication, annihilation, and extinction” (69). Even when the word could be translated as “ruin,” it still carries the idea of destruction. In the case of the ruined wineskins (Matthew 9:17), the wineskins do not wick out of existence, but their essence has been destroyed.

This is how the Bible consistently portrays the end of the wicked. To offer a few examples: Psalm 37:9 and 22 say the evil will be destroyed. Obadiah 16 says that they will “be as if they had never been.” Jesus says that trees that bear bad fruit (false prophets) will be thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:19), a fate parallel to those who go through the wide gate that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13).

Sodom and Gomorrah set the paradigm for final judgment. These cities are completely and literally destroyed. Peter draws on this story to describe the end of the wicked: “if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6). Other New Testament texts draw their meaning from Old Testament imagery, such as the unquenchable fire, the undying worm, and the smoke that ascends forever. These draw on Old Testament images of literal death and destruction. These images help explain apocalyptic passages like Revelation 14:10-11. This passage borrows imagery from Isaiah 34:8-11 which describes the smoke arising forever following God’s judgment on Edom, a judgment with eternal results but that did not go on forever.

We “must be careful not to interpret phrases that sound plainly like termination (passages that speak of ‘destruction’ and ‘death’) to somehow mean not destroyed and not dead, but instead ‘kept painfully alive forever'” (75). Some may argue that only our bodies are destroyed but our souls, being immortal, go on existing forever. But the Bible does not teach that our souls are intrinsically immortal. This property only applies to God (1 Tim 1:17). “Eternal life is a gift of God’s to believers (John 3:16, 1 Cor. 15:50-54). Our ancestors were kept from eating the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22-23), and we Christians look forward to the eternal city lined with abundant trees of life (Rev. 22:2)” (76). 

The case for finite suffering for sins

Suffering and death are required to atone for sins. Stated another way, death is the just reward for rebellion against God. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “The logic of justice is basic and inescapable: Someone has to pay, and pay fully, the debt – or fill the hole, or clean the dirt, or fix the break. Atonement is required to make straight the crooked and to level the uneven” (77). Either Jesus pays the debt for us through His death, or we pay through our death.

Since our sins are finite, our debt must also be finite, and therefore our suffering will be finite. Furthermore, if the debts must go on being paid forever, as in the traditional view, then in the end things remain broken and unresolved. “God’s cosmos cannot remain entirely and forever good if remnants of Satan or Death or wicked humans persist” (78).

Traditionalists will argue that since we sin against a God of infinite value, we must pay an infinite debt and suffer an infinite amount of time. But this can only be drawn out through analogy as a creative construct, not taught directly in Scripture. One could easily argue the other point, “that finite creatures can wreak only a finite amount of damage in and on the universe, and so a finite amount of suffering must suffice to atone for it” (79) which corresponds to God’s prior revelation of proportionate justice. Furthermore, Scripture specifically tells us that “the wages of sin is death” and “death means, if nothing else, termination. The one thing death does not mean is ‘not dying'” (79).

Conclusion: Hell and the Goodness of God

God’s goodness consists of two poles that must be held together. On one side we see his holiness and on the other his benevolence. His holiness is “his relentless action to make everything right” (61). His benevolence speaks of his kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.

Terminal punishment takes both his holiness and his benevolence seriously. It frames hell in the biblical language of just punishment for the unrepentant sinner. But, it “exonerates our good God from the appalling image of a perpetual tormenter” (81). Contra Burk, “There is no joy here in the suffering of the wicked, but only sad justice” (81).

Hell as Eternal Conscious Torment

This post is part 1 of the series Four Views of Hell that summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible.

Denny Burk provided the chapter in defense of the traditional view that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment.

The Argument for Eternal Conscious Torment

Many people find the traditional view of hell objectionable. John Stott summarizes a common position when he says, “I find the concept of [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” Stott is not an outlier. How should we reconcile eternal conscious torment with a just God? 

Philosophical defense

On the one hand, regardless of this difficulty, Scripture demands that Christians accept the traditional view of hell. However, we can and should find a solution to this apparent difficulty. After all, our conception of hell says a lot about our idea of God, and the traditional view of hell provides us with the highest view of God.

Imagine that you see a stranger pulling the legs off of a grasshopper. You will be disturbed but would not likely intervene. Now imagine that he is pulling the legs off a puppy. Now you will be appalled and might step in and get the authorities involved. Finally, imagine that he is about to rip a baby apart. Now you will act immediately, risking your skin to save the baby. In every case, the sin is the same – ripping the legs off a living being – but the object of that sin (grasshopper, puppy, baby) changes the appropriate response.

If we imagine that God is like a grasshopper then we will think God is overreacting to our sin. But, if we recognize that God is infinitely more valuable than even that precious baby, we begin to see the logic of hell as eternal conscious torment. “The seriousness of the sin – and thus the punishment due to sin – is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and the worth of the one sinned against” (19).

Since God is of infinite value, God can be just by demanding a punishment of infinite duration.

We can see, then, that “our emotional reflex against the traditional doctrine of hell reveals what we really believe about God” (20). We find the traditional view unjust because we have too light a view of sin, which reveals too low a view of God. If we had a proper view of God, we would rejoice in hell as a tool to give God the glory he deserves: “This view of God’s judgment is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately be a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God (Rev. 18:20, 19:3)” (20). 

Scriptural defense

As stated before, Scripture demands the traditional view of hell. This view is expounded in ten foundational texts that deal specifically with hell: Isaiah 66:22-24, Daniel 12:2-3, Matthew 18:6-9, 25:31-46, Mark 9:42-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, June 7, 13, Revelation 14:9-11, 20:10-14-15. Each of these texts shows how Scripture defines hell with the following characteristics: (1) final separation, (2) unending experience, (3) just retribution.

Final separation

Final separation occurs at the last judgment and consists in the irrevocable separation of the wicked from the righteous and from the presence of God’s mercy” (21). That this separation is irrevocable rules out the possibility of post-judgment redemption of the damned. Note the two-fold separation. First, God separates the righteous from the wicked. Then, the wicked are separated from God’s mercy.

The separation of the righteous from the wicked can be found in Isaiah 66:22-24 where the righteous enjoy the new heaven and the new earth while the wicked are portrayed as “dead bodies” being continually eaten away by undying worms and unquenchable fire. It can also be seen in Daniel 12:2-3 where the dead are raised to either eternal life or eternal contempt. Or, it can be seen in Matthew 25:46 where the righteous go to eternal life and the wicked to eternal punishment.

The separation of the wicked from God’s mercy also appears in the ten passages listed above. In Matthew 25:41 the Son of Man says “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul says the wicked “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” They are not only shut out in a generic sense but specifically from the “glory of his might.” They are shut out of the mercy of his resurrection power. 

This separation is irrevocable, a point made clear by the language of these texts which describe the punishment as eternal. Hell is an “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), and an “eternal destruction” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The wicked “suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). They will be thrown into hell “where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43). 

Unending experience

Unending experience indicates that the punishment of hell will be consciously experienced forever and will not abate with annihilation or eventual salvation of the damned” (21).

The damned will receive bodies at the resurrection (Daniel 12:2-3) that are fitted for hell, just as the righteous receive bodies that are fitted for eternal life. We can infer this from passages such as Isaiah 66:24 where the corpses are eaten by worms that don’t die and by a fire that does not go out. “Under normal circumstances, fire and worm would consume a corpse until there was nothing left… this scene seems to assume that God’s enemies have been given a body fit for unending punishment” (23).

Other passages speak more directly to the idea that hell is consciously experienced forever. When the Son of Man separates the righteous from the wicked, the righteous go to eternal life while the wicked go to eternal punishment. The parallelism here suggests that if the state of the righteous is of eternal consciousness, so must be the state of the wicked. John says in Revelation 14:9-11 says that those who receive the mark of the beast will be “tormented,” that “the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever,” and that “there will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast.”

The word “destruction” in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 presents a challenge since “eternal destruction” seems to indicate annihilation but the Greek word for destruction here doesn’t mean “cease to exist” but has the sense of “ruin or loss.” The wicked, therefore, experience eternal ruin, apart from the presence of God.

Just retribution

Just retribution indicates that the terrors of the damned are a recompense for evil, not a means of redemption or renewal. It is a punitive judgment intended to magnify the justice of God” (21). This perspective precludes the hope that the fires of hell will purify the wicked. It also precludes more recent conceptions of hell (not covered in this book) which view it primarily as a way that God ultimately “gives people what they want.”

As has already been noted, hell is described as “‘eternal punishment” against the wicked in Matthew 25:46. In Mark 9:45 and 47, the wicked are “thrown into hell” as punishment for causing a little one to stumble. In 1 Thessalonians 1:8-9, Paul says that God will “punish those who do not know God or obey the gospel of Jesus our Lord” and that they will be “punished with everlasting destruction.” Jude 7 compares the final judgment of the wicked with the punitive destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That punishment serves as an example “of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. Revelation 14:10 says that those who are tormented eternally “will drink the wine of God’s fury.”

Conclusion

The doctrine of hell should teach us whom we should properly fear: “God is not only the treasure of heaven. He is the terror of hell. What makes hell terrifying is not just the presence of the devil but the presence of God’s wrath and indignation forever” (42). But the terror of hell does not just give us a proper sense of fear, but should also cause us to glorify God for His mercy and justice. In the end, “God is glorified in both mercy and justice, and the existence of hell serves to demonstrate eternally the glory of God’s justice and judgment on sin” (42).