Book Review: Four Views on Hell (Second Edition)
Four Views on Hell is a book in the Counterpoints series published by Zondervan. It tackles the highly controversial and lively debate on the nature of hell, with four different authors explaining four different perspectives. Denny Burk delineates the Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) view, John G. Stackhouse Jr. presents the Terminal Punishment view, Robin Parry represents the Universalist perspective, and Jerry Walls presents the Hell and Purgatory view. Each section allows the other authors to respond to the main author’s views, thereby allowing for the reader to see the strengths and weaknesses of the various views.
Eternal Conscious Torment
The first section involves Denny Burk presenting the ECT view. He begins by addressing the reasons why people often reject ECT, and explains why all these reasons are no more than emotional qualms. He reiterates the importance of testing our views against scripture, rather than judging them by emotion. Such an emotional dismissal of ECT misunderstands the gravity of sin, because biblical punishment not only takes into consideration the seriousness of sin, but also the value and importance of the person that you are sinning against. In the case of God, we are sinning against a being of infinite value and importance, and so an eternal punishment cannot be simply dismissed. Burk then goes over ten texts of scripture that he calls ‘foundations, and from each he derives three characteristics that rule out all other views of hell. The three characteristics are final separation, unending experience, and just retribution. He concludes by telling us only the ECT view reminds us of the need to fear God and the urgency to evangelize.
Stackhouse’s response to Burk focuses on the claim that our emotional objections cannot be dismissed, because they arise from a body that is made in the image of God. He also argues against Burk’s ‘value of the person’ argument, dismissing it as both unbiblical and emotional. Furthermore, he attacks Burk’s view of a God who pursues His own glory in everything as making God ‘monstrously egotistical’. He accuses Burk of conducting bad exegesis and reading too much into the ten texts, often making question begging arguments, and creating a view that is a stumbling block for many to come to God.
Robin Parry’s response comes from a Universalist view. He states that Burk hasn’t considered verses in the Bible that aim at a universal view of salvation; that is, God’s wanting to save all people, and instead is cherry-picking texts that fit his view. He urges readers to remember that a proper view of hell must consider all of scripture. He also raises worries about things like the saints rejoicing over the death and torment of their loved ones, even if that is the ‘justice of God’.
Jerry Walls’ Hell and Purgatory response states that there is no conclusive verdict on whether ECT is scriptural, but given that it is the position that has been traditionally held, its opponents have the burden of proof. He also disagrees with Burk on the view that Hell is necessary to sufficiently display God’s glory.
Terminal Punishment (TP)
Stackhouse argues that TP is the view that balances God’s holiness and benevolence. He defines hell as a natural destination which is the result of man’s free choices; a place of dumping and destruction. It fits in with the goodness of God because God is not the author of sin, which is something that is the result of our free choices. Stackhouse gives instances of where the terms ‘eternal’ is figuratively used, while says that the words ‘death’ or ‘destruction’ are always used literally. He takes several passages to support a terminal punishment view over an ECT view. He also points out that TP does have eternal consequences; it is only that there is no eternal torment.
Burk’s ECT response states that God’s holiness and benevolence are complementary; they are not two extremes needing to be balanced. He also attacks the dismissal of ‘eternality’ as metaphorical. He severely warns against judging a doctrine based on palatability, and states that finite sin does not imply finite punishment, as Stackhouse claims.
Parry’s universalist response claims that TP gives up on displaying the total love of God, for God terminates sinners instead of saving them. He also argues that TP reads too much into the scriptural language of death and destruction.
Walls’ response argues that Stackhouse overstates the Biblical support for TP. He points out that several passages can still be interpreted as ECT or Universalism, and so the burden of proof is still on the TP advocate.
Parry explains universalism as the view that God will ultimately reconcile all people to Himself, even if there is eschatological punishment. Despite it being a minority view, Parry points out that there were several church fathers who held to this view. He doesn’t want to engage in proof-texting because it will lead to cherrypicking, so instead he argues that universalism is the only system that makes sense within a Christian metanarrative. The process of creation, redemption, the founding of the church, and the consummation of all events are most biblical when described from a universalist manner. He also lays out a biblical view of hell, which is for both retributive and restorative justice. He also admits the possibility of salvation after death, and responds to Bible verses showing a different view of hell. He finally addresses free will and how it can co-exist with God, even from a universalist view.
Burk accuses Parry of being unsound in his hermeneutics due to his dismissal of proof-texting. He states that Parry is wrong in discounting the wrath of God, and dismisses Parry’s case for postmortem salvation to be speculative.
Stackhouse also argues that universalism is unbiblical. He points out that even the word ‘all’ being saved has restrictions, for example, animals are not included. He also points out that there is no biblical indication for the twin purpose of hell that Parry pushes.
Walls disagrees with Parry exegetically and philosophically. He states that Parry is focusing too much on the metanarrative, and hence is missing out on exegesis. He argues that eternal hell is a true manifestation of God’s love, and that free will isn’t possible under universalism if God is going to persuade all to turn to him.
Hell and Purgatory view
Walls gives examples of scripture saying how nothing unholy can enter heaven. He clarifies that purgatory is not a middle place between hell and heaven, neither is it a second chance for sinners. Instead, it is a symbol of hope. He rejects the satisfaction view of purgatory, instead taking a sanctification view that is consistent with Protestantism. He admits that there is very little explicit biblical support, but that it is heavily implied, just like the Trinity. For instance, the ‘testing of our works’ he says, is purgatory. It is where the process of being more Christ-like reaches its completion. In short, purgatory is a work of grace that completes sanctification.
Burk responds by stating that Walls rarely interacts with scripture and misinterprets his primary verses. He further argues that instant glorification is what makes us Christ-like after death, not purgatory. Furthermore, he points out that it appeals only to Arminians.
Stackhouse also argues that Protestants hold to instant sanctification after death, even though it is not explicit in scripture. He does, however, point out that purgatory cannot be a vehicle for postmortem salvation or works salvation. While purgatory might be possible, we might have to hold off belief in it due to the lack of evidence.
Parry argues that Walls has succeeded in making purgatory acceptable to evangelicals, but the case made is speculative. Still he argues that the Bible provides more support for instantaneous sanctification. He also argues against Walls’ acceptance of ECT.
The conclusion of the book is presented by Preston Sprinkle. He evaluates each position on its strengths and weaknesses, before closing by encouraging us to focus on scripture and judge each view on its own theological merit and Scriptural context. He warns against fear-driven exegesis, and hopes that the book will be used to open new avenues of discussion.
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