Hell is a sobering topic to say the least, but it must be studied if we want to understand God and represent His word. The time is ripe to reevaluate Scriptures’ teaching on hell since Zondervan just updated its “Views on Hell” volume. This is welcome, as the original book had a few quirks: separate chapters defending “literal” and “metaphorical” views of hell (that looked suspiciously alike), along with a Roman Catholic defense of purgatory in a book aimed for Evangelicals, and a highly-charged emotion-driven defense of Annihilationism that was more heat than light. More crucially, it had become quite dated and the discussion has moved forward significantly, with Annihilationism (aka. Conditionalism) gaining popularity and credibility, and evangelical Universalism even being on the table.
The new book, Four Views on Hell (Second Edition), edited by Preston Sprinkle (who himself has moved from Traditional to Conditional) has the following lineup:
- Denny Burk: Eternal Conscious Torment (the “Traditional” view)
- John Stackhouse: Terminal Punishment (Annihilationism or Conditionalism)
- Robin Parry: Universalism (of an Evangelical variety)
- Jerry Walls: Purgatory (of an Evangelical – that is, non-Catholic – variety)
I want to zoom in on Burk and Stackhouse’s chapters as, personally, I find theirs as the only two viable options. This week we’ll consider Traditionalism and next week Conditionalism.
Denny Burk: Eternal Conscious Torment
Burk acknowledges the difficulty in coming to terms with unbelievers facing the punishment of eternal conscious torment. How can a relatively short lifetime of sin (some longer and/or more sinful than others) be rewarded with an eternity of suffering? According to Burk, it is important to consider that “the seriousness of the sin is not measured merely by the sin itself…but by the value and the worth of the one being sinned against” (p19, emphasis italics in original). In other words, the one sinned against is our eternally glorious Creator Himself, so we think too lightly of the seriousness of our sins. “The emotional reflex against the traditional doctrine of hell reveals what we really believe about God” (p20).
The remainder of his chapter is given “to explain what the relevant texts of Scripture actually teach” (p18), as this is the most crucial point. To do so, he covers 10 texts that deal with hell and the final state of the wicked. Read in light of each other, these texts establish three characteristics of the damned: 1) final separation from God, 2) unending experience of punishment, 3) just retribution of sin. These three characteristics disprove universalism, annihilationalism and purgatory respectively.
Here are the texts and some summary highlights of Burk’s comments. The book will need to be consulted for his arguments:
- Isaiah 66:22-24. The final state of the wicked will be permanent and the degradation of their bodies unending, “[implying] that their experience will involve consciousness of their unending punishment” (p24)
- Daniel 12:2-3. This passage presents the two possible final and unending destinies of being “raised”: life or disgrace. That the text has unbelievers ‘awakening’ to disgrace “implies consciousness” (p25).
- Matthew 18:6-9. A final state experiencing ‘fire’, symbolizing “the pain that must be endured by those in hell” (p28).
- Matthew 25:31-46. The ‘eternal punishment’ is final and cannot be reversed.
- Mark 9:42-48. This passage alludes to Isa 66:24, which “presupposes a double resurrection in which the wicked are given bodies fit for an everlasting punishment…an experience of judgment that has no end” (p32)
- 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10. The eternal destruction (2 Thess 1:9) does not mean “to cease to exist” (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:3; 1 Tim 6:9), but “[its] primary sense is something more along the lines of ruin or loss, not annihilation” (p35).
- Jude 7. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah “functions typologically” (p37) of the final state: “the fire that was revealed in part in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah will be revealed in full at the final judgment in the age to come” (p37). Since the life (Jude 21) of the saved is eternal, the eternal fire “is of the same duration” (p37) also.
- Jude 13. The utter darkness links back to Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30, which refer to weeping and gnashing of teeth, “[suggesting] consciousness of their punishment” (p39).
- Revelation 14:9-11. The “pain and distress do not end but go on everlastingly” (40).
- Revelation 20:10, 14-15. The unjust “obtain bodies supernaturally fit to endure the same torment as the devil and his minions” (41).
Burk closes his chapter reflecting on God’s glory and wrath as well as the urgency of evangelism.
Burke presents a strong and balanced case for the traditional viewpoint. I suspect his argument will be airtight for those who already accept his view. Once I decided to step back and reevaluate Scripture’s teaching on hell, I have realized the texts don’t all say exactly what I thought they did. A few points of critique, then.
- Burk’s selection of texts is a far cry from being ‘the relevant texts of Scripture on hell’, but is rather 10 passages that may teach eternal conscious torment (or at least elements of it). But Scripture says much more about the punishment of sin than these texts alone. Death as punishment for sin becomes much more prominent (Rom 6:23; John 3:16) when we bring the many other texts into the discussion.
- Burk often assumes what he sets out to prove; primarily, the consciousness of those in hell. A close reading of these texts does not say everything Burk assumes they do. For example, Burk builds much of his case for eternal consciousness upon the fact that the unbelievers’ bodies in Isaiah 66:22-24 apparently do not perish. However, Isaiah’s dead bodies are… well, dead. Nowhere is it clear that they are conscious; a major point for his view.
- Jude 7 doesn’t say that the temporal fire of Sodom’s judgment was typological for the eternal fire of hell, but that Sodom experienced “eternal fire” too! If Jude calls Sodom’s (temporary) judgment of fire eternal, are we correct to assume the eternal fire of the unsaved is unlike Sodom’s?
Though many of his texts are more vague than ‘traditionalists’ often assume, it is difficult to respond to Burk’s reading of Revelation 14:9-11 and Rev 20:10, 14-15!
Next week we’ll consider Terminal Punishment.
Thanks to Zondervan for providing a review copy!