A Response to Four Views on Hell, Pt. 1 (Denny Burk on Eternal Torment)

In the discussion of hell, Denny Burk has a very significant advantage; his interpretation is the majority opinion. What cannot be disputed in this discussion is that over the course of 2000 years of Church history the majority (though of course not all) of Christian theological writing has presented that those who reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ will experience eternal conscious torment (ECT) in hell. But one of the things which becomes apparent in reading Denny Burk’s chapter in Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 20161 – for a chance to win a copy enter here) is that the scriptural basis for this view being the majority is far more flimsy than this view’s advocates would have us believe. Even though John Stackhouse, Robin Parry, and Preston Sprinkle pointed out several problems (there will be considerable overlap below) there is still much in Burk’s presentation to be covered.2

Burk begins his essay with a quote (p. 17) from John Stott, in which Stott states his revulsion at the idea of ECT: “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain”. It seems that Burk is suggesting that those like Stott who question ECT do so because of an emotional revulsion to the idea of ECT. However, had Burk presented the whole thought Stott presented instead of the one sentence quoted, one would get a very different picture. What Stott states immediately after the quoted text is this:

But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be—and is—not what my heart tells me, but what does God’s word say? And in order to answer this question, we need to survey the Biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilationism, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture.3)

So while Denny Burk claims the exegetical high ground by straw-manning those who disagree as sentimentalists, what becomes clear very quickly is that things are not as Denny Burk would have us believe. Even J.I. Packer, among the most staunch opponents of Stott and British New Testament scholar John Wenham, wrote, “Both men adopted annihilationism . . . not because it fitted into their comfort zone, though it did, but because they found it in the Bible.”4

So the real question is does Scripture support Denny Burk’s view (that of the majority of Christian theology historically speaking, and certainly the majority among evangelicals today)? Burk writes, “The burden of this essay will be to explain what the relevant texts of Scripture actually teach”.(18) The problem with this statement is twofold; first Burk restricts the discussion of “relevant texts” to a grand total of 10 texts, which he insists clearly demonstrate that the lost will be tormented consciously without end. Burk argues that these 10 passages demonstrate that hell is 1) final separation, 2) unending experience, and 3) just retribution. The number of relevant texts which speak to the final punishment of the wicked is of course much greater than 10 (which I’m sure Burk would acknowledge). The research done by John Wenham5 presented 264 texts which refer “to the fate of the of the lost.”6 Therefore, to select 10 texts is to leave out roughly 96% of the data. Obviously no single essay of the scope of Burk’s can cover all of this data, but certainly we should expect greater than 10 if the case for ECT is so overwhelmingly obvious in the biblical witness. Second, this selective presentation of the data becomes even more alarming when we realize that at least 5 of these 10 texts which are supposed to clearly teach ECT7 cannot be read as evidence for ECT using any sort of responsible hermeneutics.

But before we examine these texts, it is important to note Burk’s other tactic before he does any actual exegesis. Burk begins with a parable; a grotesque and bizarre parable involving people pulling legs off of a variety of creatures. The purpose of the parable is make us believe that the punishment for sin is relative to “the value and worth of the one being sinned against.”(19) Therefore, because God is of infinite value and worth, sin against God is deserving of an infinite punishment. The problem is that this is stated precisely nowhere in Scripture. Instead, we see evidence in Scripture which actually says that punishment for sin is equal to the nature of the sin, not the victim of the sin. The lex talionis of the Mosaic covenant lays out the principle of “eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:23-25). Death, that is capital punishment, is prescribed for certain severe sins. But the infliction of torment- physical, corporeal punishment- is very rarely prescribed, and when it is, the duration and severity is restricted significantly. For example:

If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes. (Deut. 25:2-3, emphasis added).

This text shows that going above 40 lashes for any crime which deserves lashes would be unjust and degrades an Israelite, and is not permitted. In other words, inflicting prolonged physical torment is unbiblical and ungodly. Burk has an embedded presupposition that God must punish with ECT8, and it is through this lens which Burk reads the 10 texts he identifies as relevant, and the result is a case of eisegesis- reading a previously held view into a text where it simply isn’t present, and is actually in tension with other biblical data. We don’t have space to deal with all these texts in fine detail in this particular post unfortunately. But I’d like to offer some important observations.

In Isaiah 66:22-24- Burk’s “Foundation #1″(21-24)- we read of God’s decisive defeat against the enemies of God and of his people, in which the wicked are slain (66:16), and the corpses are viewed by the righteous who go out and view them with contempt (or as “an abhorrence”, 66:24 NRSV), as the bodies are consumed by unquenchable fire and undying worms. However, Burk makes the blunder of arguing “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, emphasis added) To which John Stackhouse has quite rightly responded: “I suggest that it is not ‘the text’ that is doing the assuming here.”(46) The text itself gives absolutely no indication that anything but dead bodies are in view, since the text says “dead bodies” or “corpses”. To argue dead bodies should be read as consciously tormented human beings simply distorts the text, and the notion has be read into the text. This text from Isaiah is quoted in Mark 9- Burk’s “Foundation #5″ (31-33), in which Jesus gives no significant modification, except adding a specific location- gehenna. Unless there is reason to believe Jesus modifies Isaiah’s intended meaning (there isn’t9) we should conclude that Jesus has in view the same thing Isaiah does; death.

Also interesting in the Isaiah text is the use of the term “contempt” (or “abhorrance” or “loathsome” depending on your English translation). The Hebrew root word is used precisely twice in the Old Testament, Isaiah 66 and in a different form in Daniel 12:2, which is Burk’s second foundational text (24-26). The latter verse reads; “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” As John Stackhouse notes in his response, the word contempt does not refer to the experience of the object (the corpses in Isa. 66:24, and those who do not receive eternal life here in Dan. 12:2) but to the disgust with which the righteous view those on the other side of God’s judgment (46-47). So already, these three of Burk’s 10 texts say nothing about an unending experience, and two speak of the very opposite. Daniel 12:2 could at best be considered ambiguous, but since only one group receives eternal life, the other group is excluded from eternal life, meaning eternal torment is unlikely. These texts point moreso in the direction of conditional immortality.

The same can be said of Matthew 18:6-9, 2 Thess. 1:9 and Jude 7 & 13. The “eternal fire” mentioned in Jude is equated with Sodom and Gomorrah (the Sodom and Gomorrah typology is also used in 2 Peter with even stronger annihilationist language). Therefore, “eternal fire” used in the context of Sodom and Gomorrah would make far more sense as a “fire of the aeon/age”10; an eschatalogical judgement which brings about complete destruction. Nowhere in these texts is an unending conscious experience of torment connected to the fire. Fire is frequently used as an image of complete destruction.11

Paul nowhere speaks of an unending experience of punishment or torment. He speaks of death, perishing, destruction. Even in 2 Thess. 1:9 in which the phrase “eternal destruction” is used, this hardly makes sense to read as an unending experience. As John Stott notes;

It would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed; and, as you put it, it is ‘difficult to imagine a perpetually inconclusive process of perishing’.12

Further, the “eternal destruction” mentioned by Paul in 2 Thess. 1:9 is “from the presence of the Lord”.13 To be “destroyed from the presence of the Lord” would not indicate an unending experience, but a permanent end, especially if we continue to uphold the omnipresence of God. To be eternally destroyed from his presence, is to be forever dead, reduced to non-being, or as Athanasius worded it “everlastingly bereft even of being” (On the Incarnation, 4.5).

This leaves us with 3 texts which could speak of ECT. These three are of course the most complicated and often relied on (Matt. 25:31-46, Rev. 14:9-11, & Rev. 20:10, 14-15). But given the tidal wave of exegetical evidence from the rest of the biblical data, which gives at least a very strong sense of those who reject the offer of eternal ceasing to have life, we have three options: 1) we can ask if these three texts can trump the dozens of verses that speak of death, perishing, destruction as the final end of the unredeemed 2) we re-examine these three passages to see if they can be read differently or 3) we throw up our hands and say the Bible simply contains contradictions. I’d suggest option 2 is the best option. Though many would claim these texts make conditional immortality an impossibility, I would say this is not the case; they actually fit very nicely when we read them more carefully. Matthew 25:31-46 is probably the weakest of the three in support of ECT. Verse 46 reads: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Burk argues that these two fates parallel each other- both are eternal.(29) But I would suggest Jesus is making a contrast- eternal life or it’s opposite; eternal death. One group enters into life, the other is excluded eternally from life. The phrase “eternal punishment” does not have to mean “eternal punishing”, that is, it doesn’t grammatically have to mean an ongoing experience. It can (and, in my mind, almost certainly does) mean a punishment handed down once which is irreversible. The adjective aionion, paired with a deverbal noun (in this case kolasin) occurs 6 times in the New Testament (one being 2 Thess. 1:9, briefly mentioned above). The most relevant here is of course Hebrews 9:12 (noted by Preston Sprinkle in his conclusion, 194): “he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” Here we see a one time act securing an eternal redemption (aionian lutrosin). As Edward Fudge has pointed out, the 5 occurrences of deverbal nouns with the adjective aionion other than Matthew 25:46 cannot refer to an unending experience.14 In other words, Matthew 25:46 actually makes more sense when read as something other than eternal torment.15

This leaves 2 passages, both in Revelation. Given the apocalyptic nature of Revelation, much care should be taken not to be overly literal, and to see the overall flow of the text as a whole. Rev. 14:9-11 is tricky, and one can see how a surface reading of these 2 verse in isolation might lead one to see ECT here. However, it is important to note a few things; first, is it final punishment? We also have a description of judgement in Rev. 20; are the two both speaking of the same thing? In a following verse we read: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’” (14:13) If the Saints are still dying while this torment is happening, how can we say this is final judgement, since following final judgment, death is no more (Rev. 21:4)? Second, if this punishment is torment in the presence of the Lamb (14:10), how does this fit with 2 Thess. 1:9 and other passages which speak of being outside the presence of the Lord (and the argument of Burk himself who argues one of the three main features of hell is “eternal separation”)? Third, what are the images of fire and sulphur and smoke rising speaking to? These are of course drawn from Gen. 19 and Isa. 34, in which smoke rising speaks of complete destruction of cities by fire and sulphur. It would seem this text is speaking in symbols and images of something other than final judgement, and something which perhaps is best not read literally. These simple questions, at the very least, cast serious doubt on Burk’s conclusion that Revelation 14:9-11 & 20:10, 14-15 are “two of the most important passages in Scripture describing the final state of the wicked… Revelation 14:9-11 is a scene of the final judgment that describes what happens to those who worship ‘the beast and his image’”.(39)

When we get to Revelation 20, we see the devil, the beast, and the false prophet thrown into the Lake of Fire, “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (20:10) Then a few verses later we read, “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (20:14-15) Again, a surface reading might suggest that those who will not be welcomed into the New Heavens and the New Earth are thrown into hell along with the devil, the beast, and the false prophet to be tormented forever and ever. However, we have to ask, first, who or what are the devil, the beast, and the false prophet? These are certainly not human beings. We don’t have space here to unpack a full theology of Satan/the devil. However, it is definitely worth noting that Hebrews 2:14 tells us that in death Jesus “might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”. The beast and the false prophet are likely symbols of imperial power and false religion/idolatry. How do these things, as well as Hades, that is death itself, suffer an “unending experience” of torment in the Lake of Fire?

Second, torment is not said to be the experience of humans thrown into the Lake of Fire. Instead we are told, “This is the second death.” Burk refers to this as “‘the second death’ that never ends”.(41) In other words, an unending process of dying. However, the logic of that is hard swallow. If the person said to be dying will never actually die, they aren’t dying. Any unending experience can hardly be called dying. An unending state of being dead however makes complete sense. Further, in the next chapter of Revelation we read, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). If “the second death” is perpetual dying and torment, how can Scripture speak of the New Creation as a place free from death, mourning, crying, and pain?16

Finally, in Burk’s conclusion, he writes regarding the implications for our broader theology, suggesting that “the existence of hell serves to demonstrate eternally the glory of God’s justice in his judgment on sin.”(42) This argument has always bothered me- God is glorified in ensuring that human beings writhe in agony for all time? A biblical theology of the character of God, and of justice would actually suggest the opposite is true. As I’ve argued elsewhere, ECT is actually an affront to God’s justice and character. So even though Burk claims “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”(42); to this claim I say a resounding “no, absolutely not”. The scriptural arguments are incredibly weak, and poor, unsatisfactory arguments like this one, and John Walvoord’s in the first edition of Four Views on Hell, advocating for ECT are among the key reasons I jettisoned the notion of eternal torment. I don’t think this view fits with the biblical evidence, and this presentation from Burk falls short on all fronts. The responses from Stackhouse, Parry, and Sprinkle in this new edition of Four Views effectively demonstrate the obvious problems with the argument Burk has presented. This isn’t to say there aren’t problems with the other chapters, and in the coming posts, I will be almost as harsh in my criticisms- yes, even with John Stackhouse, with whom I am in basic agreement. But of the four presentations, Burk and Walls (both of whom advocate for ECT but with variations) are clearly the weakest.

  1. Many thanks to Zondervan for providing copies of this book to Rethinking Hell contributors. []
  2. The same can be said of the other contributions which will be reviewed in the near future []
  3. David Edwards & John Stott, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), 314. Reproduced in Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism. (Eugene: Cascade, 2014), 51. (emphasis added []
  4. See Chris Date & Nick Quient, “Why J. I. Packer Is (Still) Wrong: A Response to The Gospel Coalition (Part 1)“. Rethinking Hell [blog]. Oct. 23, 2015. []
  5. John Wenham. “The Case for Conditional Immortality”. reproduced in Rethinking Hell, 74-94. []
  6. Ibid. 80. []
  7. I believe all 10 are poor evidence for ECT, but 5 of these texts Burk cites- Isa. 66:22-24, Mark 9:42-48, 2 Thess. 1:6-10, Jude 7, and Jude 13 (which Burk treats as 2 passages instead treating 7-13 as a single textual unit) are not only poor evidence for ECT but actually present death, not eternal torment as the fate of those on the wrong side of judgment. []
  8. For a more extensive look at the issue of holiness, justice, and eternal torment, I wrote a response for the rethinking hell blog here. []
  9. The Apocryphal Jewish text Judith for instance uses the same image of flames and worms, but shifts the language to make eternal torment seem like the intended picture: “Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.” (Judith 16:17) But in Mark 9, Jesus is quoted as using Isaiah’s wording with no discernable change in meaning. It would appear Mark’s quotation of Jesus paints the same picture as Isaiah; “Nothing less than eternal life and death is at stake” R.T. France. The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC). (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 383. []
  10. The adjective usually translated eternal is frequently used by Jewish authors to designate of or belonging to a certain age, this age, or the age to come. []
  11. e.g. Matt. 13, where the fiery furnace burns up (Greek katakaio, an intensified form of the verb to burn) the chaff. Or Hebrews 12:29 which says God is a consuming fire. See also I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology, (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2004), 666. []
  12. David Edwards & John Stott, Essentials. Reproduced in Rethinking Hell, 51. []
  13. NRSV translates “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord”. However, the word “separated” is not in the original Greek text. []
  14. Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Third Edition). (Eugene: Cascade, 2011), 38-43. []
  15. See R.T. France. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT). (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 966-967. []
  16. See Michael J. Gorman. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness, Following the Lamb into the New Creation. (Eugene: Cascade, 2011), 153-155 & J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 207-209. []
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