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"To this day, I have wondered why Christians prefer — as many seem to do —
believing in eternal conscious torment (ECT). [This is a topic in
itself, one worthy of someone to take up seriously -- with the tools of
the social sciences in hand.]"
To start off: http://rspb.royalsocietypub...
Basically, people stop being as vengeful individually, engaging in less "altruistic punishment", because they believe that justice will eventually be done (Romans 12:9- "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord"). What theology will be able to "absorb" the most of this kind of vengeance? It would make sense that the worse the eventual punishment, the more vengeance that will be able to be absorbed this way. Therefore, we would expect that ECT would win over other theologies because it represents the most extreme and comprehensive kind of punishment that could be met out. A thought experiment: can one even imagine a more extensive punishment? ECT fills up both time ("eternal") and subjective distress ("torment") to their highest levels. Perhaps the only way it could be worse is if the consequences spread to one's family/kin. But that might fatally compromise perceived fairness, and lead to "nothing left to lose" behavior on the part of the kin.
Additionally, this can make some sense of the "suburban universalists"- to the extent that vengeance is effectively served out by the state, it makes sense that people will feel less individual need to "outsorce" vengeance to God. I do wonder sometimes about the accusation of "suburban universalists"- (Miroslav Volf was the last person I read who made this accusation, I can't remember the book). The idea is that only the soft, cushiness of suburban living makes it possible to imagine universalism. To some extent, that is exactly what the social science might suggest. (Consider Origen- he wrote in a (relatively) secure Roman empire. Dante? The turbulent Italian states.) The irony here is that, presumably, there is no safer, more abundant place than heaven, and yet "next door" to that will be hell. If surburban living makes hell unnecessary because it is too safe, wouldn't heaven have the same effect to an even greater extent? In some ways, by these lights, hell will actually happen at the exact time it is least needed.
The whole conversation could be improved by thinking about how hell is actually functioning right now . I think universalists might need to consider their social location, as is suggested, but likewise, ECT folks might need to think about how hell motivates and intersects with life right now. My guess is that for the most part, this will not change any minds, but it might make people understand where others are coming from a bit more.
(Checking out older posts I had commented on, and just found this.)
I'm trying to wrap my head around your comment. Are you saying that the current trend toward universalism is a product of suburban living? (I googled the phrase "suburban universalist/m" (in quotes) and didn't find any significant explanation of the term.) And that the hope is that the state will exact punishment to evil doers? I'm not following. I get that social location can impact theology, and I'm both a suburbanite and a universalist, but my hope is not that the state will exact vengeance. My hope is for reconciliation at all levels.
Fair enough, it was unclear.
The article I linked to found that people endorsed less feelings of wanting to punish rule violators themselves (or through a government/police/law) when they believed that God would punish them eventually. Previous studies have also found that God's role in assuring justice becomes less important as people perceive that the state is taking care of most injustice. (I am having trouble using Google Scholar to locate them- my computer crashed and deleted all my cookies).
Miroslav Volf was the person I got the "suburban universalist" idea from. He basically argues (in Exclusion and Embrace) that the only way we can conceive of a completely non-punitive God is if we live in the safety of a suburban environment, away from people who do horrendous evil.
"I'm both a suburbanite and a universalist, but my hope is not that the state will exact vengeance. My hope is for reconciliation at all levels." Okay, cool. My point is that ideas about reconciliation of all things are easier to hold onto in stable, reasonably just societies, and that ideas about ECT are easier in unstable, violent, unjust societies. My overall point: there is more than just the top-level theology when it comes to hell- there is also the "on-the-ground" effects of God's justice beliefs in people's day to day lives.
OK, that makes sense. My move toward universalism coincided with my move to suburbia, and I will allow that those are (somewhat) related. At the same time, I don't find a whole lot of my fellow Dallas suburbanites on board with universalism, so while I will grant a correlation, I won't say that it is a very strong one. It *is* complex. That much is certainly true.
If God fails to follow through on His promises, we're all in bad shape and He has promised all the nations will worship Him. I think it's going to happen myself, just as Paul and John saw it. Every knee will bow and all the nations led by their kings will bring their glory into the new Jersualem.
Jesus did not fail when he said He was sent to seek and save that which was lost.
If the Bible says it, then why doesn't that settle it? Whether one believes it or not is immaterial.
Hummm, I'm a bit surprised with all the toing and frowing around this issue in the comments so far that there is so little direct discussion of biblical texts over what the writers think or feel. Best to get a good read or listen to people like Stackhouse on these matters before commenting on what they are thought to have said also. I really enjoyed his scriptural and theological discussion of this topic in a free lecture downloadable from Regent College (my alma mater) here:
"...writing in everlasting agony." I love it when typos have unintended meaning. I wonder what they have to write. :)
I recently started listening to a podcast called Beyond the Box and instantly became addicted to it. The hosts over time grew to believe in universal reconciliation. One argument against ECT that they made that I had never heard before was this idea that in the beginning, there was God, and he decided to create something "good". But with the ECT framework, when you get to the eschaton, you now have two realms, one "good" and one "bad", and in fact, most Evangelicals will have you believe that there are way more people in the "bad" place. And that will be the state of things for eternity. It begs the question as to whether God should have bothered creating anything in first place, it seems like he vastly increased the amount of suffering in the universe and didn't really get much for it in exchange. Not exactly an exegetical argument, but if you start with the premise that God is good, and that "good" actually means something, creation seems to be a total failure when you throw in ETC. Even if you bootstrap the "glassy-eyed" Calivinist view of God's "glory" to try and rehabilitate the eschaton within this framework, it still seems rather half-assed.
"Wouldn’t it be great to be able to believe that God did not keep the damned on a spit, rotating forever in the flames of eternal hellfire?"
I don't know if Dr. Stackhouse is being tongue in cheek or seriously sees this as the two options. But, one can believe in something other than annihilationism (i.e., eternal separation) that does not fit with this highly incendiary rhetoric.
Personally I still lean to a kind of voluntary, eternal separation. I'm not so sure eternal non-existence is much more welcoming.
The metaphorical view of hell?
By voluntary are you suggesting that at some point the (quasi-)damned could decide to end the separation? (As Revelation ends, it says that the gates are never shut. Maybe they really *are* never shut?)
To this day, I have wondered why Christians prefer — as many seem to do — believing in eternal conscious torment (ECT). [This is a topic in itself, one worthy of someone to take up seriously -- with the tools of the social sciences in hand.]
I too like these sorts of questions: bracketing the metaphysical (i.e., arguments about illumination, etc.), one answer would be something like what we learn from the sociology of knowledge when it comes to certain beliefs. The question then becomes less about why individual Christians "prefer" ECT over against alternative views and more about how they've come to prefer it: The belief requires legitimation, which is learned by each new generation during socialization. Where problems of compliance arise, sanctions are enacted (sanctions serve to control deviation). In this instance, the "logic" of ECT resides in its simply being a part of the institutional order—it's the only view and is taken for granted as such .
So, then, "knowledge" of ECT is borne out of experience and systematized as objective truth, then internalized as subjective reality, thus shaping the person (Christians who "prefer" ECT, in this instance).
Perhaps another pressing question is, out of what experience was this belief in ECT eventually legitimized? It's one Stackhouse alludes to in that last paragraph: experience with divine revelation (and thus transcending experience—"the Bible says it . . . and that settles it") or experience that can only be rooted in some kind of ancient socially constructed reality (and thus not the only alternative, but no alternative at all in this modern age).
I do not know how annihilationism can be understood as an act of divine love, except in the sense that euthanizing our pets is preferable to allowing them to suffer needlessly. Is this the best Omnipotent Love can do? Does God obliterate the damned with or without their permission? However you cut it, annihilationism is a huge defeat for the Kingdom of God.
I happen to be blogging on this theme at this very moment. The first article in the series ("Who Damns Whom?") may be found here: http://goo.gl/8Ij5eH.
Well, isn't it a better option than eternal torment?
Sure, but it doesn't take a lot of compassion to put someone out of their misery.
Scot: You said you were not convinced by the conditionalist argument (but see it as a legitimate option). If I may ask, are you convinced by the argument for ECT? Or do you think the scriptures are not conclusive on the matter? I ask as someone pondering the issue (and respecting your opinion).
Could heaven & hell be not different places but different states of being depending on how the presence of God is perceived depending upon the internal state of the individual?
Paradise and hell are not a reward or a punishment (condemnation), but the way that we individually experience the sight of Christ, depending on the condition of our heart. God doesn't punish in essence, although, for educative purposes, the Scripture does mention punishment. The more spiritual that one becomes, the better he can comprehend the language of the Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Man's condition (clean-unclean, repentant-unrepentant) is the factor that determines the acceptance of the Light as "paradise" or "hell".
"Despite whatever might be the theological sophistication I have acquired over the years, if the Bible says it, I’ll believe it, and that settles it."
That made me wince. Can the Bible's multitude of perspectives on eschatology and soteriology truly be flattened into a single "it" – and if not, shouldn't that in turn affect our views on ECT, conditionalism and universalism? It seems one's view of the Bible is deeply connected to one's view on hell and salvation, and Stackhouse is, ahem, "stack"-ing the deck against more generous views of salvation by assuming a biblicist frame, in which the "refusal" of those who disbelieve is easier to demonize because the true way of salvation is, in this frame, crystal clear to understand and follow.
I took two classes from John Stackhouse and he is very
careful with how he puts things. For
starters, I think you’re assuming something about his view of the Bible when
you refer to his view as being “Biblicist.”
His view of the Bible is that it is infallible—meaning, it cannot fail
in its purpose. That, I don’t think, is
the type of Biblicist frame that you’re talking about.
In the classes that I took from him, as we were talking
about the various modes of how Christians think about knowledge, he talked
about the privilege that the Bible has in Christian epistemology. He said one day that this old, bumper-sticker
theology in question was what he believed as a young teenager (“The Bible says
it, I believe it, that settles it”). He
added that he generally still believes that statement—he just has a lot of
footnotes to it. What I believe he means
in saying this (because he said it in class and explained it) is that you ought
not go against what *you think* the Bible says. Within that there is the fact that, well, we
might be wrong about a lot of things.
That’s not to say that some interpretations of what the Bible says aren’t
better than others. But this sentiment
is far from the flattening that I think it is rendered in your critique.
This is very helpful. Thanks! That bumper sticker is freighted with a lot of baggage, and it sends up my antennae when I hear someone use it, so I'm glad to see it's used differently than it sounded.
I hope it's not a strict, biblicist frame. I hope it indicates that he is being a bit subversive (for the biblicists who read it). But, I also think that he is saying, if he is convinced of the teaching within the Scriptures - then he's not going to compromise based on his own desires for God to be something different than he is. This is always a deep challenge of the heart. For everyone.
I'm about 90% convinced that most people here don't know that Stackhouse is a conditionalist -- i.e. he doesn't believe that the Bible teaches eternal conscious torment.
You may be right, but if so, then he's created a false dichotomy in which the only options are a particular reading of the Bible and personal preference. That also is a classic biblicist argument, in which any reading of the Bible other than the one that convinces the biblicist is based on personal preference (or, worse, a lie or deception from the devil or what have you).
That's possible also. Or, he could simply be saying, for him, that's what he accepts (if he holds that position tentatively - in a critical realist way) based on his understanding and has to follow that regardless of what makes him feel comfortable. Would not necessarily mean (I hope ;)) that anyone who disagrees is dishonest or deceived.
Based on Collins' comment above, it sounds like you're right. I think I'd still say it differently, without using phrases so loaded with biblicist baggage, but I'm glad he himself is not using the frame I feared he was.
Not in the slightest. Stackhouse is saying "IF the Bible says it"; and furthermore, he's referring to an "it" that he doesn't think the Bible _teaches_, ECT.
Now, you're right that he's assuming a Biblicist frame, but this doesn't "stack the deck"; unless, of course, the Bible itself stacks the deck. How is that a problem?
Does the Bible itself stack the deck against more generous views of salvation? I would argue not – that, in fact, the Bible is much less clear on both how one is to be saved (confession of faith alone? baptism alone? confession plus baptism? faith plus works? works [caring for the "least of these"]? asking Jesus into our heart? believing on the Lord Jesus Christ? and how do we define "faith" or "belief" or "calling on his name"?) and what the post-mortem future holds for those who do not take the appropriate steps (if indeed there are any to be taken).
Biblicism, however, assumes a perspicuity of the Bible, and therefore by definition requires that these questions be simply and easily answered from a plain-sense reading of the text (notwithstanding that "plain-sense" varies according to culture) – and, given that assumption, it makes the failure to follow this easily understood answer literally unforgivable, restricting the generosity of salvation.
You're right, Stackhouse doesn't say, "The Bible says it," but he concedes a large part of the argument by accepting the legitimacy of a narrow biblicist framework if someone can show the Bible says it. My argument is that, yes, a plain-sense biblicist reading shows that the Bible says ECT in some places, and it says universalism and conditionalism in other places, so in fact, saying "it" does not settle anything – and this unsettled picture should lead us toward a more generous view of God's method of redeeming humanity.
For myself, conditionalism (annihilation) seems most appropriate with the love of God. It allows freedom of will to have its final say of abandonment of self from God, self, others, and creation. It allows sin its final affects of separation in all these areas. It allows divine justice to justly condemn sin will allowing divine love to give everything away to save the sinner from abandonment. It sees hell's final end as one of extinguishment where divine wrath and eternal anguish (for God, for loved ones, for the sinner) finds an end. It grants a period to the end of the divine sentance of creation. A conclusion to the eternal play of salvation. It fulfills the testimony of Scripture re sin, death, life, and salvation. And it grants an eschatological completeness to divine creation and recreation. Again, for myself, it seems the most consistent with divine love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. If I didn't follow this conclusion than I would have to move to a universalist/purgatory position which is inconsistent with the biblical demand for sin's judgment, payment, and need for redemption. But the least tenable position for me is the ECT position. It is the least gracious. The least complete in terms of eternal redemption. And the most eternally vindictive by both God, by those redeemed pursuing judgment and not forgiveness, and even by the sinner themselves held in eternal agony/torment without recourse to any kind of salvific ending. Thanks for the review.
I'm curious: how is conditionalism "consistent with the biblical demand for sin's judgment, payment, and need for redemption"?
(In the interest of full disclosre, I'm asking from the universalist/purgatory position.)
Romans 6:23 The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Conditionalists simply take 'death' and 'destruction' much more at face value than ECTs.
As do UR's! (and Paul!)
For me universalism doesn't take seriously enough sin and obedience, holiness and forgiveness in this life. I think it also allows for sinful living to be rectified later in death and so, at least for me, the time we have is all we have. Not later. You?
I think that's an understanding of universalism most universalists don't share, but going back to my question: how is conditionalism - distinct from universalism - consistent with the demand for judgment and the need for redemption? Because as a universalist, I still say sin demands judgment and a need for redemption, but that judgment and redemption already happened at the cross. "It is finished" to put it succinctly. I don't see what conditionalism adds to that equation.
The difference can be summed up in whether God is acting "Retributively" or "Restoratively". Whatever God decides to do with us when we die...if that decision is meant to better us (even through pain) or dismiss us - the two choices speak volumes about God's character. Since my impression of God is that his love is unconditional and everlasting, I have to believe that ECT can't be a possibility. I could see that annihilationism might be a possibility (God putting us out of our misery), but the fact that God never fails leads me to believe in universalism.
Yes and no. Human will must still be involved. Without some kind of "reception" (I'm not thinking formulaic here) redemption for that soul is incomplete and unapplied.
Too, I believe (you may consider this a theologoumennon) that the time we have in this life is enough for God to effect His will and for us to respond. That it is unnecessary to slip into death for further redemption to take place (contra universalism). It forces the real issue of time for this life now and not sometime later after death. Interestingly, this position is in parallel with the ECT position re the importance of the human act before God.
However, I should ask, how then would you explain universalism? What is the majority opinion for this position? Thanks.
The "time we have here" stuff opens up a whole 'nother thing. Certainly there are children who die before they reach the ambiguous and unscriptural "age of accountability." As are there also plenty of people living into their adult years that are incapable of understanding so they don't have the ability to respond. Then there are people who never hear the word, or are victimized in such a way that they could never respond positively.
All that said, YES, there should be a response of "human will" to the gospel. A "reception for the soul" that changes one's whole life. It should be done "now and not sometime later after death." Why wait till you die for the life aionios when it's available today?
My explanation then is that God loves us, death is conquered in the resurrection (contra annihilationism?), and that love has the last word.
Grace to you, Russ.
No arguments here. Well said. However, as stated in my opening comments universalism/purgatory is my second preferred position after annihilation and not my primary position per reasons given. I thought your first paragraph said it best, but again, I still would prefer to place all of these question marks into this period of life now, and not later. Like you, I trust in a wise and loving God who will complete the incomplete; redeem the unredeemable (in some sense, which for me is "death" itself and all that it means); and, at the last, conquer sin and death.
And yet, there must be some accounting for victimization, abuse, hedonism, lawless living, merciless living, tyranny, evil acts, wickedness, and so on. Otherwise, the commands in the Bible make no sense to not do these things. Moreover, the judgment in my mind comes immediately in the here-and-now, and not simply later after death. Hence, one living in this way begins to die immediately in many senses of the word death. And then completely after physical death. Thanks again and grace returned, Kenton.
Thanks for highlighting this book Scot. I know that this is an argument from silence, but it is thought-provoking to notice that the Acts of the Apostles and epistles spend more time talking about judgment than about Gehenna or Hades. The latter show up very seldom outside of the Gospels and Revelation. I have found it more helpful to focus on God's justice and judgment rather than the precise details of "hell." Having said that, I have found the arguments for conditional mortality more convincing.
Pssst, while "writing in everlasting agony" sounds like it would motivate a lot of high school English students to get right with Jesus, I think the company line is that the damned are writ*H*ing in everlasting agony.
It does make for an interesting concept though. What it the additional "h" was a mistake? Maybe hell isn't all that fire and brimstone stuff; maybe hell is a giant chalkboard and the damned are Bart Simpson writing sentences for eternity. :)
You have to write that essay about "what I did last summer" or a term paper on the Smoot-Hawley tariff forever.
Thanks for the post. Honestly, I for the life of me can't understand how this is a secondary issue. Divisions over this are inevitable and natural (at least from my perspective) as some different pictures of the character of God emerge depending on which view one holds.
The "wouldn't it's" are right on the money. It would be a great, reassuring relief and I sincerely hope for it, if not better. But yes, that doesn't make it true. Being in the midst of a faith crisis centering around issues of science and the meaning of inerrancy/inspiration, one of the things that I struggle with is why there should be any level of ambiguity about this issue at all.
In terms of a "faith crisis" what helped me was wrapping my head around the idea that God HAS to (if he is everything he is cracked up to be) condescend and communicate to our level of knowledge. He communicates the important stuff but in the conceptual context he is speaking into. He did this in the past (scripture) but he would also have to condescend to us in the 21st cent. and even forward to the 31st cent. Add to this the cross-cultural nature of reading scripture and ambiguity is inevitable. I married someone who grew up in Brazil and we have experienced various levels of ambiguity in our communication (well into our 30th year of marriage)- and that with a living, breathing person, let alone reading writings from the distant past. There is hope within all this ambiguity- dependence on the Spirit, connection with community, and large doses of love and openness toward ourselves and others.
I appreciate what you’re saying about both the complexities in communication and the nature of the Bible. It’s a helpful approach and I’m just becoming familiar with it thru people like Peter Enns, but what does it do for this specific issue? This post isn’t about Biblicism or pervasive interpretive pluralism, but it's an example of how it can manifest itself. I’m really grateful that there are smarter people than me attempting to work through these issues, but in the end when nothing is ever really resolved, I wonder if we’re just completely missing the point. These arguments aren’t going to be resolved anytime soon. One “side” of the argument will take a few verses and Greek word definitions in support of ECT. Another will dispute those word definitions and will add a few different Bible verses in support of annihilation. Another will take those same verses, plus a few more, revise a few word definitions and you have universalism. And as scholars dig more into the historical context, all of these seem to be subject to revision (the word “Gehenna” doesn't exist in a vacuum – it seems that Jesus’ listeners were familiar with it). Attempting to frame the issue thru the interpretive lens of Jesus doesn’t seem to resolve anything because proponents of ECT, annihilation, and universalism all claim to do it.
Then we have to work through the moral/emotional side of this (if we think our moral/emotional side is allowed to play a role which is also debated) which takes a huge emotional toll. I’m speaking from experience here. But basically every theologian brings some kind of moral generosity to their thoughts on this – it’s just a matter of where to draw the line. I have a 9 month old at home – the thought of ECT in that context is quite simply psychologically impossible for me to handle - either now or in the future, doesn't matter. So there is the so called “age of accountability” (which can possibly be justified with some careful proof texting I suppose) which most people support even though it doesn’t seem to fit in with a traditional theology of universal sin. There are those with mental disabilities who lack the ability to comprehend spiritual things. Again, most have a generous view here. Having a brother with down syndrome, I clearly remember my mother trying to walk thru PSA theology with him so that he would “accept Jesus” and wouldn’t go to hell when he dies. It seems ridiculous, but it’s the natural outcome of standard evangelical theological approaches. Some Christians have a generous view towards those who have never heard the name of Jesus, others don’t.
I don’t mean to come across as cynical, but it gets to be overwhelming for me as a layperson without any kind of formal theological education to try to work thru these issues. Bottom line, I have no idea. Love God. Love people.
I was mostly responding to your "why there should be any level of ambiguity about this issue at all." question- of which this specific issue is one example of what I was talking about. Being able to live with the ambiguity depends somewhat on your view of scripture- what is it?, what is it there for?, how is it authoritative?....
I'm also just someone (with little time and lots of responsibilities) trying to figure things out. I come from a very conservative background and when I first began rethinking Christianity I became a bit bitter (rather than cynical). As I have moved forward (with a different view of scripture) however, I find that I am much more fascinated with Scripture than I ever was before. Thankfully, Gods favor toward us doesn't rest on us getting everything right. I agree with your bottom line, love God, love people. I might only add that knowing God is love stands behind those things.
I appreciate the response. I too can relate to being "a bit bitter" at times - probably an understatement. Glad you found a way to move forward - I hope to do the same thing but not sure what that really looks like at this point. Yeah, the view of the Bible that I've been given certainly needs to be refined to better line up with what it actually is rather than what it theoretically needs to be for a certain theological system to work. Can be tricky navigating that minefield because most of the people around me are heavily invested in a certain view of the Bible.
Actually, I held to ETC for many years, but looking at the arguments for Conditional Immortality - they are very much convincing from scripture that only believers gain immortality. Anyway - there is a great website that covers this extensively. http://www.jewishnotgreek.com