A 20 year update of the 1996 book by the same name, this slim volume (211 pages) is a helpful cross-section of current evangelical thought on Final Punishment, sampling Denny Burk on Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT hereafter), John Stackhouse Jr on Conditional immortality (CI hereafter), Robin Parry on Christian Universalism (CU hereafter) and Jerry Walls on (a Protestant) Purgatory. Preston Sprinkle pens both Introduction and Conclusion, plus there are Scripture, Author and Subject indices.
The Introduction sets the scene, listing the 3 historically available views along with speculation about post-mortem purgatorial sanctification, before clarifying that it is not the existence of hell that is here in doubt: “They agree that hell exists, but they differ on what this hell is like.” (11) Sprinkle lists verses used by all 4 views, then introduces the academic background of the 4 essayists. He finally issues a substantial challenge to the reader:
“You, of course, will probably agree with only one of the following essays and disagree with the other three. But keep in mind: disagreement is not refutation. We must be able to refute the evidence of the views that we disagree with and then provide more compelling biblical evidence for the view that we uphold.” (15)
Burk kicks off Chapter One (‘Eternal Conscious Torment’) with a startling parable. He visualizes a man torturing creatures in increasing order of complexity and dignity: first torturing a grasshopper, a frog, a bird, a puppy and finally a human baby. Burk states:
“In each of the scenarios above, the ‘sin’ is the same – pulling the legs off. The only difference in each of these scenarios is the one sinned against…The seriousness of the 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.” (19, italics his)
This macabre thought-experiment is of course a gruesome version of Anselm’s ‘Status Principle’, namely that to sin against an infinitely good God merits infinite or eternal punishment. But fellow pro-ECT essayist Walls squashes this analogy:
“There is profound disanalogy in the parable that undermines the central point he wants to establish. This resides in the fact that we do not have the power to do anything to God that is remotely analogous to the harm the character in the parable inflicts on helpless creatures ranging from grasshoppers to human
infants. Indeed, God is so far above us in power, glory, and moral perfection that we are utterly incapable of harming him.”1
Burk even ventures that ECT “will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God.” (20) Yet it is grossly incongruous to place ECT side by side with notions of ‘joy’, ‘goodness’ or ‘justice’ as these are universally understood. The very philosophical logic behind the ‘Status Principle’ is itself highly suspect, as Kronen points out when dismantling the ‘Classical Doctrine of Hell’ (CDH):
“It is by no means obvious that an offense against an infinite being must be punished by the sorts of torments envisioned by CDH. One might sin more or less gravely against such a being, and in that case it does not seem that just any sin against an infinite being would merit eternal, continuous, and excruciating pain.”2
Spiegel adds that “human guilt is at most maximally great, not infinitely great”3, meaning that human guilt is still finite: “Finite guilt, however great, presumably does not warrant endless punishment in the form of ECT.” (Spiegel, op. cit. 41) He adds that, under the ‘Status Principle’, even the first sin you commit as a child is enough to incur ‘infinite guilt’, but this does not allow for the vast spectrum of people’s actions, from less to more virtuous, as it makes everyone infinitely guilty. “The notion of equal and infinite human guilt is difficult to square with the biblical teaching that there are degrees of punishment in hell.”4
Kershnar makes an eloquent ethical/philosophical case against ‘infinite sin’:
“Human beings do not deserve hell because they either cannot cause an infinite amount of harm or are not responsible for doing so. Also, since humans don’t have infinitely bad characters, hell can’t be deserved on the basis of character.”5
Fellow essayist Parry further reminds us that “in the Bible sins are differentiated in degrees of seriousness”, thus not all incurring identical punishment anyway, plus: “Finite creatures are simply not capable of committing sins that warrant never-ending punishment.”6 Walls likewise contradicts Burk on ‘infinite sin’:
“It does not follow merely from the fact that sin is against an infinitely glorious being that sin is infinitely heinous. Indeed, a more plausible claim is the following: A finite being, with only finite time and power, can do only finite harm and, therefore, deserve only finite punishment. So far then, I am dubious that Burk has made the case that eternal hell as he conceives it is just.”7
Stackhouse concurs: “Finite beings can perform only a finite amount of sin, and therefore a finite amount of suffering is sufficient to atone for it.”8 Burk counters: “This is a statement without biblical warrant”9, but then simply repeats his definition of the ‘Status Principle’ without giving it ‘biblical warrant’ either. Stackhouse tellingly flags up the glaring absence of any biblical evidence for Burk’s point: “Nowhere in Scripture does any biblical author say, ‘Because God is infinitely great, sin against God is infinitely bad and therefore entails everlasting punishing.’ ”10 Conditionalists also object that such a medieval, even feudal idea is invalid for modern times, since it is not only the status of the offended but of the offender that carries weight in law (e.g. an adult who hits the President incurs a harsher penalty than, say, a child who hits him). One reviewer also notices Burk’s shortcoming:
“Burk’s essay began with a glaring problem: he argues that an offense against an infinite God demands an infinite punishment. Nowhere in Scripture is this logic supported (it seems completely untenable to anything but a limited atonement view, and even then, Christ did not die an infinite punishment in the elect’s place)…In this regard, Burk’s ECT is very limited in appeal, attractive to only strict, five-point Calvinists.”11
So in sum, Burk’s revival of the ‘Status Principle’ does not really get off the ground judicially or philosophically, let alone biblically.
He then leans on fellow ECT-defender Robert Peterson to ground ECT on 10 foundational scriptures that allegedly demonstrate the 3 key constituents of (1) final separation, (2) unending experience and (3) just retribution, ranging from Isa 66 through to Rev 20.
Burk gets off to a shaky start on Isa 66, alleging that it furnishes “explicit support” (21) – yet note
his revealingly speculative language: “Though 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.” (23, italics added) Stackhouse wryly exposes this strained argument: “I suggest that it is not ‘the text’ that is doing the assuming here.”12 Sprinkle likewise notes the shallowness of Burk’s claim:
“It’s quite a stretch, then, to say that people on earth who have been ‘slain by the Lord’ and whose ‘dead bodies’ lay lifeless on the ground are actually being tormented in hell forever and ever. At least, it’s far from being ‘explicit’ as Burk promises.”13
The related, glaring flaw in Burk’s thesis is the concept (repeated 41, 85 & 87) of specially immortalised resurrection bodies for the damned, whereas the NT only promises such for the saved (Luke 20:36, 1 Cor 15). Nowhere does Scripture even imply that such immortalised “bodies that are cast into the fire have properties that make them fit for an eternal destiny” (Burk, 30) – in fact Mt 10:28 foretells precisely the opposite for them in Gehenna’s termination (apolesai) of both ‘body and soul’.
On Dan 12:2-3, all Burk can offer is the ‘disgrace and everlasting contempt’ facing the resurrected wicked, noting that ‘contempt’ [deraon] occurs only here and in Isa 66: “The term evokes the same imagery in Daniel, suggesting that those resurrected to ‘contempt’ are awakened for judgment and punishment.” (Burk, 25) But that the wicked are viewed with contempt forever by the saved in no way means that these wicked have to be alive forever! Again, this amounts to creative eisegesis on Burk’s part, as Stackhouse accurately retorts:
“This text says literally nothing about whether the damned are conscious forever to be ashamed of their contemptible reputations. Their reputations live on in ignominy, so to speak, whether they are alive or dead. That’s all Daniel is saying…Those terms refer to people’s reputations, not to their own existence.”14
Burk surveys well-known verses in Mt 18, Mt 25 and Mk 9 to advance his case. He focuses on the “double resurrection, fire, and eternality” (26) in Mt 18, plus the ‘punishment’ [kolasis] in Mt 25:46, to argue that “punishment is in fact everlasting for every individual that enters the fire.” (30) Of course, this assumes that the deverbal result noun ‘punishment’ always means a continuous state, whereas Chris Date demonstrates that it can simply stand for the final outcome of the punishing process, hence a ‘fixed penalty’ – just as ‘translation’ can mean both the continuous process of translating (‘The translation of the document took weeks’) and the end-result (‘I bought a new translation of the Bible’):15 Sprinkle alludes to this in his response:
“Burk doesn’t entertain the possibility – some would day probability – that the adjective ‘eternal’ (aiônios) doesn’t describe the act of punishing, but the results of that act, and that Jesus here warns not of eternal punishing but of an eternal punishment, one described as death and destruction elsewhere in Scripture Matt 10:28; John 3:16; Rom 6:23). After all, when Hebrews 9:12 refers to our ‘eternal redemption’, it most probably doesn’t refer to a never-ending act of redeeming, but to the never-ending redemption that results from God’s saving work.”16
It is also worth recalling that Jesus here spells out two contrary, not comparable, destinies in antithetical or asymmetrical contrast – life versus its opposite – as proven many times in CI literature.
Burk uses Mk 9 to foreground “the devouring worm (that never finishes devouring) and the burning fire (that never finishes burning)” (32), twice inserting the word ‘never’ when it does not even
appear in these verses. Instead, the worm ‘does not die’ and ‘the fire is not quenched’ or put out, making it a near certainty that the worm does not die while carrying out its task, nor is the fire extinguished while in the process of consuming; Sprinkle adds:
“In the Old Testament, the idea of an ‘unquenchable fire’ in contexts of judgment communicates that God’s wrath cannot be prevented or reversed, not that it is poured out unendingly…Standing in parallel to the unquenchable fire, the worms probably underscore the strength and surety of God’s judgment, very much like the scavenging beasts and birds of Jeremiah 7:33 that won’t be frightened away from the dead bodies upon which they feed.”17
Burk turns to 2 Thess 1:9 to urge that the wicked will “be in the presence of God’s wrath in their eternal destruction” (35) while still being ‘alienated from his power’, citing Isa 2:10 and Gordon Fee on the preposition apo to signal “the location of the unbelievers ‘away from’ the presence of Christ, not the location ‘from’ which the judgment comes.” (34, ftn 47) More accurately, in Isa 2:10, the wicked hide in the rocks ‘because of the terror of the Lord’, not geographically ‘away from’ the terror of the Lord (cf ‘hide thee in the dust, for fear of the LORD’ Isa 2:10 KJV). Paul is referring to a direct confrontation with God’s presence that leads to execution, not hiding away from Him. Charles Quarles confirms this:
“Destruction did not come by separation from God’s presence and glory. Separation was a relief and escape which the sinners sought. Punishment came by encountering the presence and glory of God. Paul’s intention in quoting Isa 2 was not to utilize ἀπὸ in a way identical to the OT passage but to borrow the prophetic theme of the divine presence serving as the source of the sinner’s destruction on the Day of the Lord.”18
Parry astutely adds that in 2 Thess 1:6 “ ‘pay back’ implies some proportioning of punishment to the suffering inflicted on the church. This counts against everlasting punishment.”19
At this point, Burk offers an illustration to suggest that ‘destruction’ (olethros in 2 Thess 1:9) means ‘ruin or loss’:
“If I were to say that my car was destroyed in a crash last week, no one hears that to mean that the car ceases to exist. They understand it to mean that the car was completely ruined and lost to me as a result of the accident. That is the sense in which the Greek term olethros is used here.” (35)
But notice: this car wreck is as good as non-existent for all practical purposes of driving, thus destined for crushing or scrapping, aka obliteration. This is similar to Doug Moo’s analogy backfiring, as he paints a similar image: “ ‘The tornado destroyed the house.’ The component parts
of that house did not cease to exist, but the entity ‘house,’ a structure that provides shelter for human beings, ceased to exist.”20 Precisely: the car and house in Burk’s and Moo’s thought-experiments no longer exist in any practical, usable sense (though they cannot be said to be ‘dead’, of course), even though fragments or wreckage may remain. To repeat: living beings die by losing embodied life, while inanimate objects ‘cease to exist’, albeit leaving leftover fragments behind. Burk’s argumentation suffers from a seriously ill-conceived analogy. Stackhouse offers the rejoinder:
“Paul writes of ‘eternal destruction’ in 2 Thessalonians1:9, by which he cannot sensibly mean an endless process of being destroyed. He obviously means that the destruction, which concludes at some point following the Last Judgment, has the grim ramification of being utter and irremediable: ‘destroyed’ as in ‘gone forever.’ ”21
2 Thess 1:9 is ultimately unsupportive of ECT and has been recuperated for CI by Grice, Demler and Tanksley:22
Burk next quotes Jude 7 & 13 to appeal to the phraseology ‘eternal fire’ and ‘blackest darkness’, although ‘eternal fire’ reveals its own divine origin, not necessarily an unending conflagration; as Parry quips: “The need for caution is illustrated by the ‘eternal fire’ (puros aiôniou) of Sodom’s punishment (Jude 7), which – contra Burk – did not burn forever.” (Parry, Four Views, 51)
Sprinkle is also critical of Burk’s interpretation:
“Burk’s use of Jude 7 is particularly curious. Jude offers the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – not their torment – as an example of what will happen to the ungodly…You can read about this destruction in Genesis 19. There is no ongoing torment in that passage, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah aren’t still burning in an ‘eternal fire.’ The phrase ‘eternal fire’ (puros aioniou) is stock Old Testament imagery for the intensity of God’s judgment and – again – not its duration. This meaning of Jude 7 is confirmed by the parallel in 2 Peter 2…Burk doesn’t deal with this passage, so I don’t know what he would say. But the text clearly says that in ‘burning…to ashes’ Sodom and Gomorrah are ‘an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.’…2 Peter 2:6 (and Jude 7, I would argue) cannot be interpreted with exegetical honesty to support the traditional view.”23
The ‘blackest darkness’ (which Burk links back to Jesus’ parables in Mt 8, 22 & 25 that indicate, not ECT, but being ousted into the dark Judean night-time away from the protective illumination of the torch-lit wedding feast) again perfectly fits lifeless obliteration, not least because no endless ‘hellish’ suffering is even hinted at by Jude.
Ending on Rev 14 & Rev 20, Burk picks up on the terms ‘tormented’ (basanizo) in 14:10 plus the noun ‘torment’ (basanismos) in 14:11 to insist that “John says that the pain and distress do not end but go on everlastingly” (40). Equally, from Rev 20, he argues that the damned “endure the same torment as the devil and his minions.” (41) Stackhouse counters that Rev 14:10-11 actually culminates in a Sodom-like “incineration of fire and sulphur”24, while Rev 20: 10,15 have to account for Death and Hades also being cast into the lake of fire:
“The passage makes better sense if Death and Hades were understood to end, and indeed that is what the passage says…Since the very next verse is the one that speaks of lost humans, the most natural reading is to conclude that they, too, experience the second death. To state the obvious, the passage does not say that humans will be tormented forever and ever, and in fact the passage seems, in its basic literary elements, to suggest otherwise… Even if we grant that it is possibly the case that Satan and his minions literally suffer forever, we must be sure to note that Revelation teaches only that they do.”25
Burk winds up his essay with a not-so-subtle threat: “Anyone who argues against what Scripture teaches is arguing against God. And that is not a position any disciple wants to be in.” (42) Surely, since the Reformation, it has been incumbent on Evangelicals to check first exactly ‘what Scripture teaches’, in a good Berean spirit (Acts 17:11), to make sure that God is not being misrepresented by any disciples – as was successfully done in rejecting the long-held but unbiblical RC teachings of Papacy, Mariolatry, Purgatory etc. Burk concludes by claiming “the existence of hell serves to demonstrate eternally the glory of God’s justice in his judgment on sin.” (42) As a counterpoint, under CI, God’s holy wrath finds full expression in His definitive eradication of both sin and sinner. Wesleyan scholar Truesdale actually asks fellow believers to choose between CI and CU (‘reconciliationism’) in order to replace ECT, owing to the intolerable tension ECT produces:
“The belief that God is Holy Love as we understand this, and the notion of hell as we have stated it, appear to be mutually exclusive ideas…Annihilation would simply be the conclusion of persistently rejecting the overtures of Holy Love. Importantly, according to this option, God does not choose annihilation. The recalcitrant sinner does. God does not ‘quit.’ This position has the strength of the Apostle Paul’s assertion that only for the saints will the mortal put on immortality (1 Cor.15:29-56).” (Al Truesdale, ‘Holy Love vs Eternal Hell: The Wesleyan Options’, Wesleyan Theological Journal, 36, 2001, 106 & 111, italics his)
Gordon Graham reconciles, not merely justice, but God’s very goodness with annihilation:
“If, therefore, we are to preserve the idea of heaven and modify the idea of hell, we must cease to think of them as opposites, and thus conceive of hell as annihilation rather than torment. The view of hell as being removed from the love of God for ever by annihilation arguably is not out of line with the main stream of Christian thought…What is the greatest loss a human being can sustain? The answer, most people would agree, is the loss of life itself, that is, death…It is, in short, annihilation, the coming to nothing.”30
Kronen also exposes the root fallacy in the ‘Classical Doctrine of Hell’ compared to the doctrine of God’s essential goodness, regarding the damned:
“Their punishments according to CDH constitute a vitiation of their being. For they were created for fellowship with God and yet, according to CDH, they will be forever driven from God by God Himself, and the torments inflicted on them will in no way benefit them…Therefore, God in hating or opposing evil, opposes the vitiation of something good. To oppose this vitiation is to will it to be gone: it is not to will it to be worsened, as CDH would have it.”31
Crofford reasons: “The traditional view of hell might square with God’s holiness, but it denies God’s love and obliterates any sense of proportionality in punishment.”32 Or as Stackhouse ends his own essay: “The doctrine of terminal punishment exonerates our good God from the appalling image of a perpetual tormenter. There is no joy here in the suffering of the wicked, but only sad justice.”33
Chapter Two (‘Terminal Punishment’) is Stackhouse’s defence of CI (he dubs it ‘terminal punishment’ 61). He firstly reminds us that the biblical hell is a destination depicted as both a fire and a dump; while he admits that the ‘garbage dump of Jerusalem’ designation is certainly apocryphal, he still uses the word ‘dump’ since “hell is the place to which evil is removed and in which it is destroyed.” (63) In justifying why hell can even be ‘good’, he reasons: “Hell as dump demonstrates that God intends to remove evil once and for all from his good creation.” (64) Turning to his preferred designation ‘terminal punishment’, he scrutinizes the key words ‘eternal’, ‘destroy’ and ‘death’. He establishes that ‘eternal’ [ôlâm] may describe things in the OT that came
to an end, such as rites (Ex 12:24-5, 29: 4-9) or the Solomonic temple that would be a place for God to dwell in ‘forever’ (1 Kgs 8:6, 12-13); equally, in the NT, he shows that ‘eternal’ [aiônion] can pertain to ‘the age to come’ such as ‘eternal life’ in John. But he underscores too that, while ‘eternal’ in the NT does indeed indicate perpetual or ‘without end’, it is often collocationally linked with “the result of that event or action that is indeed ‘without end’.” (67) Like Fudge in The Fire That Consumes, he singles out ‘eternal sin’ (Mk 3:28-9), ‘eternal judgment’ (Heb 6:1-2) and ‘eternal redemption’ (Heb 9:11-12), summing up:
“ ‘Eternal’ does indeed have something to do with ‘lasting forever,’ but in each case in Scripture we have to be careful to understand what it is that lasts forever: the thing or event being described, or its implications? And in the view of hell I am defending, this distinction is basic.” (69)
On ‘destroy’ and ‘death’, Stackhouse also takes on the ECT tactic ‘destruction is just ruin or loss’, acknowledging this secondary meaning of the apollumi/apoleia word-cluster:
“The same idea occurs in English: a bad stain on a silk garment ruins it. It cannot be cleaned. The stain doesn’t cause the garment immediately to wink out of existence, of course, but it does render it utterly unfit for its proper use. So what do we do with it? We throw it away: as far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t exist anymore. So with ruined wineskins (Matt 9:17), to use a more biblical image.” (69)
He then recaps the multiple OT instances of destruction and execution, like Sodom and Gomorrah to name the most famous one, that are “graphic examples of utter devastation” (71) picked up by 2 Pet 2:6, on which he says: “This verse – and many others like it – is clear proof for the terminal punishment view of hell. Other interpreters must read this verse against its clear and natural meaning.” (71) He spends some time on Rev 14 & 20, already outlined above in response to Chap 2, wherein he sees “the eventual termination of human beings in ‘the second death.’ ” (74) Stackhouse pins down the slippery term ‘death’ to set the record straight on the divine death sentence of Gen 2:17:
“What precisely no one can conclude is that God was threatening that ‘in the day you eat of it you shall die – by which I mean, you will actually live forever, if very unpleasantly.’ Given the pains God later takes to keep Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life (Gen 3:22), we can be sure that by ‘die’ God does not mean ‘not die.’ …The one thing death does not mean is ‘not dying.’ ” (75 & 79)
Drawing on Fudge again, he cautions against misusing such foundational terms in a sense that is contrary to their normal and especially biblical connotation:
“We therefore must be careful not to interpret phrases that sound pretty plainly like termination (passages that speak of ‘destruction’ and ‘death’) to somehow mean not destroyed and not dead, but instead ‘kept painfully alive forever.’…I am not saying that God could not keep creatures alive forever in pain. But I am saying that there is no good reason to think that God will do so, and especially not from Scripture. Quite the contrary.” (75)
In his final paragraphs, he reiterates that this ‘terminal punishment’ understanding of death is thoroughly biblical and consistent with the ‘second death’ of God’s Final Judgment:
“Recall, again, our understanding of capital punishment. It is punishment that terminates life and the implication is understood to be everlasting: You don’t come back from it. What none of us mean by capital punishment is some enduring state of suffering.” (78)
In his summing-up, Sprinkle agrees with Stackhouse that “the duration of hell must be argued from the context. It cannot be assumed from the word aiônios alone.”34 He commends Stackhouse for stressing the biblical connotations of ‘death’ and ‘destruction’ that “suggest finality rather than an ongoing conscious torment…Death – the cessation of life; capital punishment – is the consequence for sin.”35 A valid and crucial philosophical point arises concerning soul immortality too:
“All the other views of hell represented in this volume, however, maintain that everyone will live forever…Stackhouse is the odd man out, since he believes that the wicked will not live forever; their life will be terminated at some point…The other contributors must explain from Scripture how it is that those who do not believe in Jesus will be granted immortality.”36
Oddly, he take issue with Stackhouse’s view of ‘eternal life’ and allied use of Jn 3:16, since Sprinkle sees such ‘eternal life’ in the quality of life enjoyed by believers now: “Wicked and righteous both could theoretically live forever, while only believers experience eternal life – biblically conceived.”37 But while ‘eternal life’ certainly includes qualitatively superior life for believers, it primarily has the future orientation of endless duration in view – and surely, according to 1 Cor 15 and Luke 20:36, only the ‘children of the resurrection’ gain the ongoing life of the eschaton, not the wicked. So it is demonstrably false to say that the wicked could ‘live forever’ without enjoying ‘eternal life’ – a pure contradiction.
Burk makes several criticisms of this essay, most notably: he objects that “hellfire as annihilation introduces eschatological absurdity” (84), Stackhouse’s “exposition of key biblical texts remains unconvincing” (86), plus “the finite duration of sin does not imply a finite duration of punishment.” (87) The ‘eschatological absurdity’ he detects involves Stackhouse’s conviction that the wicked are obliterated at the Final Judgment:
“His fires would yet burn for ages until he completely erases sinners from the cosmos. But this does not comport with the biblical depiction of the final judgment, after which evil has been decisively dealt with and the cosmos has been restored to its righteous order (Rev 21:5). Yet, in Stackhouse’s argument the very existence of the damned in hell – even though temporary – leaves the mater of evil unresolved after the final judgment.”38
To be honest, there is blatant inconsistency here by Burk whose own essay itself promotes such ‘eschatological dualism’ by positing sinners who, also after the Final Judgment, suffer eternally in hell! So if “the very existence of the damned in hell leaves the matter of evil unresolved” and amounts to so-called ‘eschatological absurdity’, ECT unmistakably got there first, since it keeps the damned in hell and maintains ongoing evil or sin in perpetuity: so just which essayist is generating genuine ‘eschatological absurdity’?!
Concerning Stackhouse’s treatment of key terms, Burk simply dismisses his semantic argument around ‘termination’ as “a well-worn argument for annihilationists” (86), citing Fudge, though he offers no superior alternative, merely claiming that OT destruction texts solely refer to ‘temporal judgment’, itself a recycled point from Robert Peterson. Burk finally rejects the ‘finite sin = finite punishment’ idea, although many CI writers do take a different route to argue that annihilation is in fact a punishment just as ‘infinite’ or endless as ECT (a fact which even Augustine himself conceded). Significantly, Burk finishes off with a shrill repetition of the ‘Status Principle’, albeit merely a re-assertion instead of a proper argument:
“To sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment. The penalty of hell – eternal conscious suffering under the wrath of God – is not an overreaction on God’s part. It is an eternal, glorious testimony to his holiness and justice.”39
Parry objects to ‘terminal punishment’ over its conflict with his Universalist reading of the Bible:
“God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e., to eradicate sin from the sinners), but a terminator solution (i.e., to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation – like winning all the votes in an election by killing those who would have voted differently….Is this not a pyrrhic victory?”40
This incongruous analogy (God is not a vote-seeking candidate in an ‘election’ but a perfect Creator-Judge passing life or death verdicts, as just about every relevant biblical image from Genesis to Revelation suggests) reveals that Parry must also regard God’s OT executions as failures, since he claims that future eschatological execution “represents God’s failure to bring about his purposes in the case of all such creatures.”41 Surely to believe that God somehow ‘fails’ in the OT is a disconcerting and Evangelically suspect way to evaluate the recurring OT sequence of human wickedness – then warning by God – then consequent destruction by God.
Parry further objects that Stackhouse incorrectly sees death as finality: “Destruction need not be terminal when the Lord God is involved.”42 He invokes the example of Ez 16:53 which seems to promise a restoration even of Sodom, adding that “the dead were not considered utterly non-existent.”43 Truthfully, this tells us more about Parry’s own anthropology than that of the OT, since, on both Universalism and ECT, humans are essentially immortal, ‘unkillable’ (as Sprinkle recognized above on 196), hence they must spend eternity somewhere – on Universalism this is perhaps a time in hell from where they are ultimately restored to God, on ECT they are forever in hell but never restored to God44. Parry here just fails to do his homework or do justice to the cumulative OT data regarding death.
Walls finds that Stackhouse’s essay “has considerably overstated the biblical support for his view.”45 He protests that “the traditional view still enjoys a broad consensus”46, unfortunately repeating these buzz-words ‘traditional’ and ‘consensus’:
“When a traditional doctrine is one that is rooted in biblical exegesis and enjoys centuries of consensus going back to the earliest Fathers and across all branches of the church, one should give it every benefit of the doubt.”47
Significantly, Walls does not even cite one single Bible verse in his rebuttal of Stackhouse, but instead digresses into his purgatorial model, offering a faintly Universalist-sounding conclusion:
“On my view, 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 when he finally came to see that things were much better back home.”48
Chapter Three (‘A Universalist View’) lets Robin Parry expound his CU perspective, a view boosted in recent years by high-calibre written defences by Parry himself, Talbott, Kronen, Reitan, Ramelli and Bentley Hart, to name but a few. He stresses “the biblical metanarrative” (103) which he defines as a “Christ-centred creation-to-new creation plot” (104). Helpfully, he demonstrates that Christians of most persuasions are already ‘universalists’ about creation (God created all things), about sin (all have sinned), Christ’s humanity (all humans are represented by him) and Christ’s crucifixion (dying for all people); he reasons that God’s indefeasible will is to save or redeem all, entailing the famous ‘now/not yet’ tension:
“Everyone is already redeemed…On the other hand, only those who have been united to Christ by the Holy Spirit now participate in that salvation…Actual existential participation of all people in salvation is not a present reality, it lies in the future.” (109, italics his)
Moving on to the hell topic, Parry insists that God’s justice is all about salvation, not merely punishment or retribution: “While retribution may possibly be a necessary condition of justice, it cannot be a sufficient condition, because retribution cannot undo the harms done and put right the wrongs.” (113) He then surveys OT accounts of ‘doom, then healing’ foretold for Israel and nations such as Moab and Egypt, from which he derives “the pattern of judgment followed by restoration.”(114, italics his) The key word for Parry is restorative, not retributive, so that his angle is that “those in hell will be saved out of hell.” (117) Dealing with classic ECT texts like Mk 9, Mt 25, 2 Thess 1:9 and even Revelation, he discerns “salvation postscripts” (123) such as ‘the nations’ and ‘kings of the earth’ who seem to be destroyed late on in Revelation but then re-appear to enter New Jerusalem by Rev. 21-22. In sum, he champions in such passages “post-damnation salvation for all.” (124) Parry ends the essay philosophically defending the role of human freedom within this CU scenario: “Universalists are not suggesting that God saves anyone against their will.” (125, italics his) Rather he thinks that God will manoeuvre matters “to elicit a free response” (125).
Sprinkle speaks for many when he responds: “If I can be completely honest, I hope that Parry is right.”49 Yet his biblical ‘radar’ will not let him buy into this scheme; for one thing: “I do not think he has successfully explained all of the many passages that appear to support annihilationism.”50 He adds that the OT examples of ‘execution then restoration’ provide too many counter-instances – like Israel’s Babylonian exile51 or those drowned by the Flood who were not ‘refined’ but simply erased. Sprinkle revisits several of Parry’s texts to conclude “they nevertheless all suggest that the judgment of the wicked is final.”52 Even on Parry’s startling example of future hope for Sodom, “Jesus says that Sodom will be judged and not ultimately saved, as do both Peter and Jude.”53
Burk is understandably more vigorous in his critique of CU. “Parry’s errant hermeneutic yields an errant understanding of Scripture”54, plus: “His presupposition becomes impervious to counterevidence from Scripture.”55 Burk also makes the oft-repeated criticism of CU that restoring or ‘healing’ the wicked fails to take account of God’s resolve to remove, not just sinfulness, but evildoers per se, “unless Parry wishes to argue for the salvation of Satan”56 as some universalists have even proclaimed in the past. Burk charges Parry with not giving due weight to divine wrath:
“God’s wrath is not tantamount to love. It is what sinners need to be saved from (Rom 5:9)…God’s wrath is his means of executing vengeance – not restoration – on his enemies (Rom 12:19). God does not love those who are put into hell.”57
These complaints are not unreasonable and do expose real flaws in Parry’s case. Burk rightly foregrounds divine wrath and the irreversibility of divine execution as spelled out in Scripture, whereas Parry tries to see restoration after just about every condemnation or execution. As Burk points out: “God’s judgment on the wicked is a part of God’s putting things right by making all things new (Rev 21:5, 8).”58
Stackhouse too challenges Parry: “Hell is both awful and terminal. It is called, therefore, ‘the second death.’ ”59, adding that CU is “the triumph of hope over exegesis.”60 He, like Sprinkle, cautions that only a remnant of Israel enjoyed restoration – not those executed or even all those exiled. Stackhouse notes that Parry’s piece is full of deductive reasoning and even rhetorical questions to appeal to the reader’s intuitions about what may sound palatable or preferable – as CU surely does. Bluntly he proposes:
“Love does all it can, to be sure, but sometimes it must leave justice to do what finally must be done. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and condemns the entire civilization of Canaan. Jesus gives up on the Pharisees and simply stops speaking to them. Satan’s head is to be crushed.”61
Walls concurs with Sprinkle: “Although I think Robin Parry is wrong, I hope he is right” (Walls, Four Views, 140), but undercuts one of the key assumptions of CU: “While love can be elicited, it cannot be coerced, programmed, or determined.”62 Interestingly, Walls equally lands a blow against a well-rehearsed ECT argument concerning divine wrath which supposedly endures forever for the sake of God’s glory:
“God emphatically does not need to damn some persons forever to display his wrath in order fully to glorify himself, as some Calvinists believe. Eternal hell is neither a theological, philosophical, moral, nor metaphysical necessity. It is entirely contingent and need not be true…so none need go to hell forever.”63
Chapter 4 (‘Hell and Purgatory’) is Walls’ chance to persuade us of a Protestant purgatory. He explains that purgatory in RC tradition had more to do with heaven than hell, adding that his thesis rests on four main points:  Purgatory is preparatory for heaven – “not a place of probation” (147) where you might equally end up in hell;  “Purgatory is not a ‘second chance’” (147, italics his);  death-bed repentance can take you to purgatory;  God’s acceptance of such death-bed contrition “does not mean that the sinner ‘gets away with it’ scot-free.” (148, italics his) Walls spells out the two key historic justifications for purgatory – satisfaction and sanctification:
“Whereas the sanctification model is about moral and spiritual transformation, the satisfaction model is about exacting punishment to pay a debt of justice. Whereas the sanctification model looks forward to the goal of achieving spiritual perfection and holiness, the satisfaction model looks backward to a ‘liquidation of the past.’ ” (151)
Walls reports that he, Calvin and fellow Reformers reject the satisfaction scheme as it denies the all-sufficiency of Christ’s death, yet he believes “the sanctification model of purgatory is entirely compatible with Protestant theology.” (152) Asking the vital question ‘But is it in the Bible?’ (152), he draws a parallel with Trinitarianism: “The doctrine of the Trinity is not directly taught in Scripture, but is an inference from things that are.” (162) But Trinitarians would place their Trinitarian inference from the biblical data far above any putative biblical warrant for purgatory! Despite using only 1 Cor 3:11-15 (‘as one escaping through the flames’), he states that “there are a few key texts that suggest purgatory” (153), before relying on purgatory-supporter CS Lewis and his Arminian theology of human freedom:
“Lewis places such a premium on freedom not because freedom is inherently so valuable, but rather because of the good things is makes possible, and those goods in his view are nothing less than ‘any love or goodness or joy worth having.’ ”(157)
In fact, he footnotes Lewis around 20 times, along with Dorothy Sayers, but sadly the Bible far less. Walls ends on citing ‘grace’ (“a full list of all our sins, each stamped over, blotted out really, with the red ink of grace” 167) as an answer to reproaching purgatory for ‘works righteousness’ which he reformulates as “the necessity of our cooperation in our sanctification” (169). He also asks: “Why is repentance at the very last moment of death always accepted, but repentance a moment after death too late?” (169) Arguably because it is not biblically established that you can repent a moment after death – after death, we all sleep until the resurrection, as CI literature has amply demonstrated often enough. But Walls has a philosophical rationale for this view:
“It seems unlikely that all persons have the best opportunity to receive salvation in this life, so if God is going to supply such grace, it will have to happen in the life to come for many people. If we believe God truly and deeply loves all persons, we have a good reason to modify the traditional doctrine of purgatory to include post-mortem repentance.” (172)
Unsurprisingly, at least 2 of the 3 other essayists come down hard on Walls for the loud scriptural silence on purgatory. Burk notices the sparseness of his scriptural argumentation64, saying that “he gives the reader no reason to believe that the doctrine emerges from Scripture.” (Burk, Four Views, 175) Then he points out its other main flaw: “The doctrine of progressive sanctification after death is deeply unbiblical too.”65
Stackhouse too homes in on Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice, as he complains: “Protestants are repelled by the notion that any further atonement of any sort is needed for those justified before God through faith.”66 He too emphasizes the absence of biblical support for Walls, further pointing out the Protestant tradition of belief in pre-mortem sanctification in this life or, at the latest, on the point of death (e.g. Wesley, Hodge).
Parry has more time for Walls, allowing for some flexibility of interpretation:
“Scripture itself does not directly teach purgatory, so the proposal is of necessity speculative. Nevertheless, it can still claim to be biblical in an extended sense. It is an inference from and extension of ideas taught in Scripture (e.g. the eschatological trial by fire for believers in Malachi 3:3 and 1 Corinthians 3:11-15).”67
Parry then draws the distinction between CU and purgatory, as tradition distinguishes “those who go to hell (for whom exit is impossible) and those who go to purgatory (for whom exit is inevitable).”68 He muses that Walls is taking tentative steps towards CU:
“Walls – and for this I commend him – allows for the possibility that one can be saved from hell. He is a cat’s whisker (or a freewill theodicy) away from being a universalist. Still, it’s a pretty stubborn whisker!”69
Then he reviews the biblical occurrences of fire (as divine presence, punishment and purification) before quoting Gregory of Nyssa’s comments about refining gold from dross, re-making his CU case that “the same flames can serve different purposes, depending on how we react to them.”70
Sprinkle revisits the satisfaction/sanctification distinction from Walls’ essay: “Believers must be sanctified even though the payment for their sin has been satisfied.”71 But he is inexorably drawn back to the scriptural deficiency of Walls’ case:
“My primary question, though, has to do with the aforementioned lack of biblical witness to the doctrine of purgatory – even the sanctification model. The New Testament talks a lot about sanctification. Hardly a page goes by on which believers are not encouraged to pursue holiness. Likewise, the New Testament often mentions the future resurrection of believers. It seems odd to me, therefore, that something so crucial to both of these themes – a time of sanctification before resurrection – would be left up to theological inference.”72
He ends noting that the frequent biblical emphasis on instantaneous transformation (e.g. 1 Cor 15:51-2, 1 Jn 3:2, 1 Thess 4:13-17, Phil 3:20-1) suggests there is no prior stage of purgatorial preparation: “This leads me to be somewhat suspicious of the doctrine of purgatory.”73
The book’s four chapters plus interweaving responses by co-essayists make reading it a lively and dialogical experience. The most theologically rigorous essay is, in order of strength, arguably Stackhouse, followed by Burk, then Parry and finally Walls. While Boersma’s review claims that “Parry is definitely the best logician and rhetorician of the bunch”74, the best scriptural exegesis patently comes from Stackhouse who adeptly neutralises ECT arguments and equally lays bare the fragility of CU and purgatory75. Sprinkle, himself a recent ‘convert’ to CI after co-writing (with F. Chan) the more ECT-leaning Erasing Hell (2011), also seems to adjudicate in Stackhouse’s favour:
“Stackhouse has shown that there is a wealth of biblical support for the view …Bible-believing Christians must examine the relevant passages (and there are a lot of them) to see if annihilationism carries more biblical weight than the other views. At the very least, any honest exegete should agree that annihilationism is a credible – indeed biblical – evangelical option.”76
He adds that Burk’s piece “aims to take seriously several biblical texts that seem to suggest it”77, whereby we note his contrast between CI’s “wealth of biblical support … a lot of them” and “several biblical texts” for ECT. Even Boersma feels that Burk fails to mount a truly sturdy traditionalist case: “Walls …oddly did a better job arguing for ECT than Burk did.”78
Sprinkle leaves the reader with 4 tasks, namely to investigate the semantics of ainoios more thoroughly, to parse more deeply the Greek terms for ‘destruction’, to allay fears around debating ancient traditions like ECT, and finally to re-consider the NT texts against their Greco-Roman context. Whether the reader tackles those 4 tasks or not, the book stands as a thought-provoking and well-informed snapshot of 3 contemporary views on hell, plus an arguably more dubious view of purgatory. Happily, the volume does effectively accomplish what Sprinkle urges in his Introduction: “The (Protestant) church should constantly drag traditionally held doctrines back to the text of Scripture and eagerly demand reexamination.”79
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