Four views on hell: Terminal punishment

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.

Back in 2011, when I read the first edition of Four Views of Hell, I recall being thoroughly unimpressed by the case for terminal punishment (conditionalism)1 as it was presented by Clark Pinnock. At the time, I already had reservations about Pinnock in general, so I was no doubt already predisposed to be unpersuaded. Nonetheless, I distinctly recall feeling that his arguments were weak.

When I read the second edition of the book, I felt that John Stackhouse did a far better job of presenting the case for conditionalism. After reading Stackhouse, I wondered if I had been unduly prejudiced against Pinnock, and so I went and reread Pinnock in the first edition of the book.

While Pinnock presents similar arguments and deals similarly with biblical texts, I must admit that I still find that I don’t have much time for his presentation. His spirit in presenting the view is overly critical, and he seems to have a particular bug bear with certain doctrines (Calvinism, for example) that really have no bearing on the matter under discussion. I can fully understand why a reader holding to the traditional view of hell would not be swayed by Pinnock. Stackhouse, on the other hand, brings the matter to light in a completely different spirit.2

Stackhouse begins his defence of terminal punishment by drawing a distinction between hell and Hades (or Sheol). Whereas Hades and Sheol are simply the abode of the dead generally speaking, hell is the place of God’s final retribution against sin—“the place to which evil is removed and in which it is destroyed.” Most modern interpreters agree with this distinction.

He goes on to argue that hell is, in a sense, good. It is good, he contends, because it “respects the freedom and the validity of our choices as human beings.” Hell is the place that we choose by rejecting the gospel, and it is good that God honours our freewill in giving us what we have chosen. Hell is also good because it is the place where God finally destroys all that is evil in his creation. Ultimately, nothing evil will remain in or escape hell. “Hell … signifies, to our great relief, that evil has no lasting, legitimate place in God’s good order.”

The doctrine of hell, he contends, is not taken very seriously today—in large measure because the world has so trivialised it. On the other hand, many Christians have portrayed hell in such a horrible fashion that they are hesitant to talk about it. Still others have viewed hell as a kind of holding cell for sinners until they eventually believe the gospel and are delivered from it. Stackhouse argues that annihilationism is the view that takes most seriously the biblical evidence.

To make his biblical case, Stackhouse begins by examining key biblical words and what they mean: “eternal,” “destroy,” and “death.”

He shows that language in Scripture like “eternal” does not necessarily mean everlasting, citing a number of examples where “eternal” language clearly means less than everlasting. In the Old Testament, Passover, the Levitical priesthood and Solomon’s temple were all said to be appointed “forever,” but none of these is still in place today. Circumcision is said to be God’s “everlasting” covenant, yet the New Testament invalidates the need for circumcision today.

Stackhouse shows that, in New Testament usage, the word “eternal” has at least two distinct meanings. On the one hand, it can describe everlasting duration. On the other, it often speaks of “eternal” as contrasted with “temporal.” “Eternal” belongs to the world to come, not to this world, and so is different in nature. The word then is sometimes used quantitatively, and sometimes qualitatively. He further argues that “eternal” is often used in the New Testament as an adjective modifying nouns, not verbs. Eternal, in other words, describes punishment, not punishing, in the same way that it describes salvation but not saving and redemption but not redeeming.

Stackhouse continues to explain that “destroy” and “death” in Scripture consistently speak of termination, not of ongoing existence. This is true both temporally and eternally. He points to a number of examples in Scripture to make this point. There are times when such language can point to ruin rather than utter destruction, but these are the minority.

He shows how the examples in the Bible that are clearly said to point to final judgement stand more in support of annihilation than ongoing existence. Second Peter 2:6, for example, uses Sodom and Gomorrah as “an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly,” and Peter says of them that God “condemned them to extinction.” “Extinction” does not speak of ongoing existence. Obadiah 16 says that the wicked “shall be as though they had never been,” language that, again, cannot imply continued existence. Even the term “the second death” lends itself more to annihilation than to continued existence.

Along the way, Stackhouse deals with several texts often cited by traditionalists in support of eternal conscious torment and shows how a conditionalist might interpret them. For example, he shows that Revelation 20:10, which speaks of the seeming eternal torment of Satan, the beast and the false prophet, and anyone who followed them, is not as clear as it might initially seem. After all, death and Hades are thrown into the same place, and it is difficult to imagine how death and Hades, neither of which is a person, might suffer for eternity.

Stackhouse believes that annihilationism is far more consistent than eternal conscious torment with the character of God as revealed in the Bible. The soul, he contends is not naturally immortal; immortality must be granted by God. The God of the Bible does not sound like one who would deliberately give immortality to the wicked only to keep them alive for eternity in torment.

Stackhouse is clear to state that he does not believe that death is the end. Final judgement awaits all sinners after death. Nor does he believe that sinners are raised at the general resurrection only to be immediately annihilated. He concedes the possibility that, if there is an intermediate state where the wicked currently suffer, some of the wicked may have paid their debt by the time of the general resurrection, but those who have not must yet atone for their sins. This intermediate state, however, is not something clearly taught in Scripture. Stackhouse seems to lean to the interpretation that the wicked sleep in the dust of the earth until they are all raised at the general resurrection to be judged and then cast into hell to atone for their sins.

The cross, he argues, is more compatible with annihilationism than with eternal conscious torment. Christ suffered for a finite period before redemption was accomplished. There is no need for eternal suffering for sins to be atoned for. And since humans are finite beings, who are capable only of finite sins, finite suffering (either by Christ on the cross or by the sinner in hell), followed by death, is a sufficient atonement for sins.

Stackhouse closes his defence by appealing to the goodness of God. Annihilationism, he contends, is more consistent with the goodness of God than is eternal conscious torment. Hell, he says, “is bad, horribly bad…. But hell is no worse than it has to be.” Annihilationism, he contends, makes best sense of the Bible’s express teaching, its logic, and the images it provides of final judgement. This view also makes best sense of God’s love and God’s wrath without denying either.

I was struck reading this chapter at the exegetical case that Stackhouse makes for his argument. It is true that he delves into philosophical arguments at times, and that is where I find his arguments weakest. He takes the position that it cannot possibly be just for finite sins to require infinite punishment, and while I see the point he is trying to make, I’m not sure that it is a particularly powerful one. If God determined that infinite punishment was required for finite sins, it would certainly be just, for everything God decrees and does is just.

Further, Stackhouse finds eternal conscious torment to be a particularly unpalatable form of punishment. Anyone who seriously considers what eternal conscious torment would look like would agree that it’s not particularly palatable, but that is no argument in and of itself against it. As Denny Burk says in his rebuttal to Stackhouse, “In the end, the Bible is our final authority, not our own conjectures about how God ought to behave in the world. After all, what may seem ‘palatable’ to sinners might not be at all palatable to a holy God.”

Stackhouse does an admirable job of presenting both the theological and philosophical case for terminal punishment. He does so charitably, and both his argumentation and his demeanour make for a far more convincing case than Pinnock’s in the first edition of the book. His exegetical reasoning is particularly strong, and he really gives the reader some pause to honestly examine the evidence for annihilationism.

  1. For the sake of this review, I will be using the terms “terminal punishment,” “conditionalism,” “conditional immortality,” and “annihilationism” interchangeably. I realise that these terms each has its own nuanced emphasis, but I am not concerned with making those distinctions in this particular post.
  2. Stackhouse himself seems to admit that Pinnock’s defence of conditionalism was not the most gracious. In a footnote, he writes, “In this enthusiasm I judge that I do not exceed in vigor my predecessor in the first edition of Four Views on Hell, Clark Pinnock.” Stackhouse is indeed far more charitable and reasoned in his defence than Pinnock was in his.

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