As I mentioned in my previous post, I am working through two chapters of Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell: Eternal Conscious Torment (Denny Burk) and Terminal Punishment (John Stackhouse). See my previous post on Burk’s chapter.
John Stackhouse: Terminal Punishment
Stackhouse articulates and defends the view often known as annihilationism or conditional immorality, though he prefers “terminal punishment” as a label. In his words, “hell is 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” (p61-62). Human beings enter hell because they have refused the goodness of God and thus the source of all life. Therefore “there is nothing in themselves to sustain or regain their existence, and so they vanish once they have paid their debt” (p66).
For Stackhouse, hell is a destination, a place of purifying fire (often resulting in destruction), and a dump where evil is destroyed. Hell is “the fire of God’s goodness” that never goes out because His “resistance to evil…[is] simply part of the divine character” (p64).
Rather than detailed exegesis of a handful of texts (like Burk), Stackhouse builds his argument in several stages.
- “Eternal” means final. For example eternal judgment (Heb 6:1-2) does not refer to the act of God sitting on the judge chair in judicial deliberation for all eternity, but rather the final verdict. Eternal redemption (Heb 9:11-12) does not refer to Christ forever dying, but a final and complete redemption accomplished by Him. Eternal destruction (2 Thess 1:9) is not an endless process of being destroyed, but an irreversible and final one. Eternal sin (Mark 3:28-29) does not refer to partaking in a sinful act for all eternity, but one that has final consequences. This is all to say that the eternal character of hell is not eternal punishing, but primarily the finality of punishment.
- The meaning of “destroy” and “death” must be taken seriously. “literally dozens and dozens [of texts] speak of the destiny of the lost as termination, end, disappearance, eradication, annihilation, and vanishing” (p69). The point is that death is the consequence of sin (John 3:16). 2 Peter 2:6 is another example.
- The gracious character of God. Hell is final and terrible, but terminal punishment is more consistent with God’s character, being “no worse than it has to be”, in contrast to Eternal Conscious Torment’s “appalling image of a perpetual tormenter” (p81).
Stackhouse’s chapter was well written, a balance of balanced rhetoric, philosophy, theology. However, in the end it was a little scant on exegesis. I wish more time had been spent on displaying the raw data of the OT and NT in regards to the consequences of sin. It is quite overwhelming when one recognizes that death is the punishment for sin; passages saying as much are everywhere. However, Stackhouse did not spend much time here.
I have primarily three questions with his chapter
- I take issue with Stackhouse’s one-sided emphasis that hell is a destination mankind chooses to enter, whilst neglecting, or at least downplaying, the reality that it is a punishment that God does assign. This is seen in quotes such as “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…” (p63, emphasis added). Passages such as Matt 10:28 and Rev 20:11-15 make it clear that hell is not simply a place one chooses to enter, but it is in fact God’s judgment. This is the case whether one accepts the traditional or conditional viewpoints.
- Stackhouse refers to unbelievers “[vanishing] once they have paid their debt” (p66). However, this raises the question that if one can and does atone for their own sin, why can they not then enter into eternal life? For Stackhouse, “the final result of sin is death (Rom 6:23)” (p64), but other annihilationists hold that death itself is (at least part of) the judgment, thus overcoming the problem I am raising here. For them, since death is part of the punishment, it will not be overturned. In Stackhouse’s presentation, I am not sure why God does not simply resurrect the self-atoned into eternal life.
- Most problematic for the annihilation/terminal punishment view, to my mind, are Revelation 14:10-11 and Rev 20:10. I don’t think Stackhouse (nor any other I’ve read/heard) is satisfying in their answer, other than to point out that these most unique and explicit of texts are found Revelation, a highly symbolic book. But I still find it hard to swallow that “the extravagant phrasing John uses here depicts a total defeat of God’s enemies and the destruction of all who opposed God” (p72-73).
As I mentioned with Burk’s chapter, Revelation 20:10, 14-15 and Rev 14:9-11 appear the most difficult hurdles to overcome for the annihilationist. Though Stackhouse gave a good argument, I’m not convinced by his treatment of these two passages.
Questions and comments are welcome!
Thanks to Zondervan for providing a review copy!