Four views on hell: Everlasting conscious torment

Series introduction: I recently had opportunity to read the second edition of Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell. This series of posts will form my personal evaluation of each of the arguments presented in the book.

I, like probably most Christians, was raised in a church that taught the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment. In fact, I was raised in a context in which hell was presented in very much the same terms as presented by John Walvoord in the first edition of Four Views on Hell—that is, a view of hell that treats the subject with wooden literalism. There was no space in the discussion for symbolism; the descriptions of what you read were exactly how the doctrine should be understood—literal fire and literal worms.

In the first edition of the book, both Walvoord and William Crockett represented the traditional view of hell, though Crockett was willing to admit that the Bible does use symbolism to describe hell, which cannot always be understood with wooden literalism. In the second edition of this book, Denny Burk shares Crockett’s understanding of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment, though one that is often described with biblical symbolism.

In the introduction to his argument, Burk points to some theologians who have found the traditional view of hell to be both unloving and unjust—certainly uncharacteristic of the God of the Bible. His point in raising these examples is that, while the thought of eternal conscious torment is not a pleasant one, the discussion cannot be settled simply on the basis of what we consider to be fair. To illustrate, he points to a parable of his own.

In the parable, he asks the reader to imagine that he comes across a stranger pulling the legs off a variety of animals. He begins with a grasshopper, and then moves to a bird, and then to a puppy. He argues that each of these animals ups the stake a little; surely the puppy molester is committing a graver offence than the grasshopper molester. He then asks the reader to imagine the stranger pulling the legs of a human baby, in order to illustrate that that would be the gravest offence. While the sin is the same, he argues, the value of the one sinned against is the thing that determines the seriousness of the offence. This, he says, is the underlying theological principle of his essay: “The seriousness of sin—and thus the punishment due to sin—is not measured by the sin itself but by the value and worth of the one sinned against.” Since the God of the Bible is of infinite value and infinite worth, sin against him is infinitely serious, and thus deserving of infinite punishment. “We fail to take sin and judgment as seriously as we ought because we fail to take God as seriously as we ought.”

While Burk clearly illustrates his point with his (presumably) self-written parable, he does not actually attempt to show from Scripture that sin should be understood in that way. It is a powerful philosophical argument, to be sure, but he does not prove it from the text of Scripture.

Burk, however, holds a high doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and while he will admit that philosophical arguments are helpful, it is ultimately to the Scriptures that he turns for his understanding of doctrine.

As he turns to Scripture, he looks at ten specific texts of Scripture that, he says, clearly teach eternal conscious torment: Isaiah 66:22–24; Daniel 12:2–3; Matthew 18:6–9; 25:31–46; Mark 9:42–48; 2 Thessalonians 1:6–10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9–11; and 20:10, 14–15. From these texts, he deduces that the final destiny of the unsaved is characterised by three things: (1) final separation; (2) unending experience; and (3) just retribution.

“Isaiah 66:22–24 is the first of two Old Testament texts that offer explicit support for the traditional view.” This text, he argues, points to an eschatological judgement in which those who rebel against God are consigned to everlasting torment. The righteous, he shows, will “remain” for as long as “the new heavens and the new earth” remain. “Likewise, the final state of the wicked will also be permanent.” He argues that the undying worm and unquenchable fire are evidence that God has given to the damned bodies that are able to endure suffering for eternity. “Their experience will involve consciousness of their unending punishment.” This is neither disciplinary nor restorative, but is purely punitive. While he quotes the NIV as speaking of “dead bodies,” and while he himself uses the term “corpses,” he seems to assume, with no explanation as to why, that these “dead bodies” and “corpses” are, in fact, eternally living “dead bodies” and “corpses.”

Next, Burk turns to Daniel 12:2–3, which “predicts a dual destiny of those who ‘sleep’ in death.” This is the same resurrection, he says, that Jesus speaks of in John 5:28–29. Daniel speaks of dual destinies of the resurrected: “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” The term “everlasting,” he argues, implies consciousness. He applies the “disgrace and everlasting contempt” directly to the wicked, whereas others would argue that the “everlasting contempt” is God’s contempt toward the wicked, not the experience of the wicked. Once again, the everlasting nature of this contempt shows that it is not intended to be restorative or transformative in any way.

Burk turns, thirdly, to Matthew 18:6–9, where Jesus speaks of “eternal fire” and “the hell of fire.” Jesus warns his hearers to take drastic steps to avoid hell. Burk sees in this text “the notions of double resurrection, fire, and eternality.” The options are either “life” or “eternal fire.” While “fire” should be understood metaphorically, “eternal” clearly argues for the unending experience of those who enter hell. Again, there is no hint in this text that the punishment here is restorative; it is punitive. Burk does not deal with the fact that it is the fire that is said to be eternal, not the punishment of those “thrown into the eternal fire.” He appears to assume that the punishing must be eternal because the fire is eternal.

Burk’s fourth text is Matthew 25:31–46, which “gives one of the starkest depictions of final judgment in all of Scripture.” Again, this text portrays final separation as the sheep are separated from the goats. According to Burk, it also depicts unending experience, because Jesus again speaks of “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” He assumes that because the fire and the punishment are “eternal” that the experience of “punishment” in the “fire” must be eternal. “The bodies that are cast into the fire have properties that make them fit for an eternal destiny. Thus the punishment is in fact everlasting for every individual that enters the fire.” As in Matthew 18, this seems to be an assumption, not something that is clearly stated in the text.

Fifth, Burk references Mark 9:42–48, which is Mark’s (slightly expanded) parallel to Matthew 18:6–9. As in Matthew, there is a dual destiny here: either “life” or “hell … the unquenchable fire.” The wicked are cast into hell “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Because this fire is “unquenchable,” and because the “worm does not die” there, the experience of those sent there must be everlastingly conscious. “It is an experience of judgment that has no end.” Once again, the text does not explicitly speak to the experience of those cast into hell, but the language of undying worm and unquenchable fire “presupposes a double resurrection in which the wicked are given bodies fit for an everlasting punishment.”

Burk turns his attention, sixthly, to 2 Thessalonians 1:6–10, which constitutes “one of the most fearsome predictions of judgment in the entire Bible.” This text speaks of unbelievers suffering “eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” This “destruction” is contrasted with the glorious experience of God’s own people, and it is “eternal.” Burk argues that “destruction” here does not mean destruction as we might normally think of it, but that “its primary sense is something more along the lines of ruin or loss, not annihilation”—or so says Douglas Moo, according to a footnote. He does not examine other places in the New Testament where this word is used to prove his case.

Burk’s seventh foundation for eternal conscious torment is found in Jude 7. There, Sodom and Gomorrah are used as “an example” of the end of the wicked “by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” “Eternal fire,” he says, or “fire of the age to come” was “revealed in part in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” but “will be revealed in full at the final judgment in the age to come.” Because “eternal” in Jude 21 is used to describe the ongoing, conscious experience of believers in “eternal life,” so it must carry the same sense in v. 7, he suggests. He does not deal with the fact that the “eternal fire” that rained upon Sodom was temporary, nor that the wicked in Sodom were completely destroyed, not unendingly tormented.

In the eighth place, Burk references Jude 13, which speaks of “the blackest darkness” being “reserved” for the wicked “forever.” Again, the key phrase here is “forever,” which must, he urges, be understood in terms of everlasting experience. He correctly identifies the “darkness” as hell, and suggests that “forever” describes the experience of those who go there.

For his ninth and tenth proof texts, Burk turns to Revelation. He first cites Revelation 14:9–11, which speaks of beast worshippers being “tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” John adds that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night.” The second text in Revelation is found in 20:10, 14–15. There, the devil is thrown into the lake of fire, where the beast and the false prophet already are, and “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Eventually, Death and Hades themselves are cast into this lake of fire. Burk seems to assume that the devil and the beast and the false prophet are individuals who are tormented eternally, and therefore concludes that those who worship the beast must suffer the same fate. “It is clear that everyone who enters the lake of fire has an everlasting conscious experience of suffering.” He does not attempt to explain how it is that Death and Hades—neither a personal being—are consciously tormented for eternity. He does not ask whether John is using symbolism in these visions, as he does throughout Revelation, or what such symbolism might in reality depict.

Having dealt briefly with each of these texts, Burk concludes that “the weight of the scriptural arguments above should be enough to settle the issue even if our lingering objections are never fully resolved in this life.”

Having read this defence of the traditional view of hell, I personally came away feeling less than fully convinced. Burk would have served his readers better, I think, to prove his underlying principle rather than assuming it. It sounds good to suggest that sin against an infinite God deserves infinite punishment, but can that be proven from Scripture? If it can be, Burk does not do so.

Further, it seems that he assumes and presupposes a great deal as he explains the foundational texts that support traditionalism. Instead of seeking to prove the assertions that he makes, he is often happy to assume or presuppose them.

To be perfectly fair, Burk, like all the authors in this volume, is severely limited in the space he has to defend his view. A fuller treatment might deal more thoroughly with the evidence, but as it stands, it seems to me that he assumes too much without actually proving it. The traditional view of hell as unending conscious torment is not one that should be brushed off too quickly, but if it is to receive a thoroughly convincing treatment, it will have to be elsewhere.

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