No Penitent in Hell: A [Reformed] Response to D. A. Carson

On June 22, 2012, well-known and respected theologian and scholar D. A. Carson told his audience that, as far as he could see, in Scripture “there is no hint anywhere that people in hell genuinely repent.”1 As part of an exposition of Revelation chapters 21 and 22 he cited both Revelation 21:8 and Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 as evidence that “hell is not filled with people who are deeply sorry for their sins.” To the contrary, Carson said, it is “filled with people who for all eternity still shake their puny fists in the face of God Almighty, in an endless existence of evil.”
Although he didn’t include it as part of that presentation, in the past he has also pointed to Revelation 22:11 (“Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong”), writing of “the vileness they will live and practice throughout all eternity.”2 He has also elsewhere suggested the possibility that this perpetual lack of repentance on the part of the wicked, and their ongoing sinfulness, is part of the ground and justification for their eternally ongoing punishing.
Carson’s view raises several questions. How legitimate is his application of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man? Will those consigned to final punishment fail to repent and continue to sin following their judgment and sentencing? Does the Bible indicate that they will go on sinning forever, implying that they have been raised immortal? Even if it does not, if they continue to sin after judgment at all, wouldn’t they accrue additional retributive debt, requiring further punishment, during which their continued rebellion would earn them still further punishment, and so on ad infinitum throughout eternity?

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Here at Rethinking Hell I have written twice about the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, listing three reasons why it’s not about final punishment,3 and criticizing an otherwise excellent book and its author for misrepresenting the parable as “one of our clearest pictures” of what final punishment looks like.4 Imagine my frustration, then, as I heard Carson say,

As far as I can see in Scripture, there is no hint anywhere that people in hell genuinely repent. Even in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man lifts his eyes in torment, and somehow he is enabled to see, in the story, Abraham and Lazarus afar off. Considering how he had treated Lazarus during the days of his flesh, what do you think the rich man in hell should say? What do you think he would say? Wouldn’t you expect him to say, “Oh, Lazarus, did I get that one wrong. I am so sorry. Would you please forgive me?” Wouldn’t you expect that?

As I explained in those articles, the setting of this parable is not hell or Gehenna, the place where the resurrected dead receive their eternal punishment. Rather, the scene takes place in hades, the so-called intermediate state of the dead awaiting resurrection and final judgment.
If Carson’s point was that the attitude of the wicked in the intermediate state can tell us something about their attitude in the final state, then that would be one thing. Unfortunately, I did not hear Carson make the distinction between hades and hell for his audience. In fact, one could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that Carson does think that the parable depicts goings-on in hell, based on his statement elsewhere that “the New Testament repeatedly warns of the certainty of final judgment and the danger of final ruin … There is no escape from hell: there is a great, fixed chasm (Luke 16:26).”5
Assuming he knows that the parable isn’t about final punishment, what does Carson think the rich man’s behavior in hades can tell us about the wicked in hell?

Doesn’t even address him. He was a nobody in the days of his flesh. The rich man doesn’t deal with nobodies. He goes right to the top. “Father Abraham,” he says, “tell Lazarus to go and dip his finger in water and bring me something to cool my tongue. It’s pretty hot here.” Where’s the repentance in that? He still thinks he’s at the center of the universe! He’s still going to order Lazarus around! There’s no brokenness, there’s no contrition, there’s no shame.”

Larry Dixon makes the same point: “What a presumptuous, non-repentant request on [the rich man’s] part! He expresses no remorse for how he treated Lazarus during his earthly life; now he simply expects Lazarus to be his messenger boy.”6 And Carson goes on to say, “And before the story is over he’s actually arguing theologically with Abraham. ‘No, father Abraham, you got that one wrong. If someone rose from the dead it would really make a difference, don’t you see?'”
Until recently I had agreed with Carson and Dixon concerning the seeming impenitence of the rich man, although I’ll admit that upon taking a closer look I think the text suggests just the opposite. “Have mercy on me,” the rich man says,7 and “I beg you, father.”8 The rich man is hardly barking out orders or arrogantly questioning Abraham’s theology! Rather, he is desperately pleading with Abraham. His request that Abraham send Lazarus to his living brothers to warn them casts further doubt on Carson’s claim that the rich man thinks he’s at the center of the universe.
Having said that, there do not appear to be any indicators of remorse and penitence on the part of the rich man; but it does not necessarily follow that he is not in fact contrite and repentant. Jesus may have intended the moral of the story to be the irreversibility of the fate of the wicked following death, and the sufficiency of revelation to warn them to repent before they meet that fate, without revealing anything about their attitude after they meet it. As such, I’m not convinced that the parable of Lazarus and the rich man can truly tell us anything about the attitude of the damned when final punishment is inflicted, and I think Carson is overly confident in his insistence that it can. And although one might think he would do better to point to Revelation 16:9 and 11, in which the wicked are depicted as blaspheming God and failing to repent in the midst of retributive suffering, that passage suffers from the same problems as Lazarus and the rich man, in that it is symbolic imagery and depicts something taking place prior to final judgment rather than following it.

Ongoing sins

Some of my fellow conditionalists have responded to the traditionalist claim that sinners go on sinning in hell by saying that the Bible nowhere states such. This is true, despite claims to the contrary (which we will look at shortly) and, to be fair, it responds to an argument made equally from silence, that the Bible nowhere tells us that they ever will repent. However, as a popular traditionalist wrote in a private email to me after my interview with Edward Fudge,910 “The Bible doesn’t say a lot of things.” The email is private so I won’t divulge the identity of its author, but he goes on to make a point with which I agree:

What [the Bible] does do is describe man’s nature … [To say the Bible doesn’t teach ongoing sins in hell] requires the unregenerate man to be less than human upon resurrection, no longer capable of continuing to be what he was here on earth, the enemy of God.

The point is that, while it may not say anywhere that the wicked will continue to sin as their final punishment is inflicted, the Bible does say a lot about the nature of man. Being Reformed, I affirm the doctrine of total depravity and people’s inherent “inability to do good and to escape from their fundamental rebellion against God and their fundamental preference for sin.”11 Not intending to start a debate with any of my fellow conditionalists who are not Reformed (but who, if counting themselves Arminian, would have historically affirmed total depravity anyway), I find support in Colossians 1:21 (“you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind”), Ephesians 2:3 (“we too … were by nature children of wrath”), and Romans 5:10 (“while we were enemies we were reconciled to God”). Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick,” and Jesus says in John 8:34 that “everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.”
I believe we are born loving sin and hating God, and that no one will repent unless supernaturally and irresistibly drawn by the Father to do so.12 Jeremiah rhetorically asks, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?”13 That is about how likely it is that “you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil”—the only biblical answer. I see no reason, then, for believing that the risen wicked will repent, even as final punishment is being inflicted. I side with J. I. Packer in saying of those that think otherwise, “They fail to take the measure of the tragic twisting and shattering and consequent perversity of our souls through the Fall, and of the tragic irrationality and inaneness of sin as the now radical ruling force in humanity’s spiritual system.”14

Ongoing forever?

But does the Bible say anywhere that unsaved people will sin forever in hell, implying that they will be raised immortal or otherwise supernaturally enabled to live for eternity? Does the Bible say they will sin during the infliction of final punishment, or that they continue to exist at all?
As noted in the introduction to this article, Carson seems to think it does. Other traditionalists would likewise have us believe that it does, and that it therefore challenges conditionalism. For example, Robert Peterson writes,

The Bible’s last two chapters verify that the duration of hell is endless. John records that the destiny of sinners is “the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). The wicked will not cease to exist; they will exist in perpetual separation from God’s eternal life (“death”) in conscious torment (“fire”). Likewise, although God’s people “may go through the gates into the city,” the new Jerusalem, “outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15). The wicked are not exterminated; they continue to exist, cut off from the gracious presence of God.”15

A famous critic of conditionalism responded in a private email to my invitation to interview him on the topic by likewise saying, “Note that, after the wicked are cast into the lake of fire in Rev 20:15 and 21:8, they still exist—Rev 22:15.” Christopher Morgan similarly writes, “Those in hell remain in their sinful state, at least in the sense of their privation of love for God (see Rev. 16:11; 22:11).”16 Note again that Revelation 16:11 portrays something happening prior to final judgment, not following it. But what about Revelation 21:8, 22:11, and 22:15? Do these verses depict the wicked continuing to exist and sin after judgment?
Revelation 21:8 certainly does not. In fact, it doesn’t portray any wicked people at all. It depicts the One on the throne speaking to John from the imagery, telling him who in the future will experience that which is communicated by the imagery. In other words, from within symbols portraying the future God tells John who will end up there. After all, he just promised in verse 7 that “he who overcomes will inherit these things,” a promise to those who overcome in the present that in the future they will inherit that which is communicated by the imagery, the same promise he told John to pass along to the church of Ephesus long before John saw the imagery.17 Verse 8, then, contrasts that promise to the faithful with the doom awaiting the unfaithful: those who remain wicked in the present will in the future be consigned to the second death.
But what about the other two verses alleged by traditionalists to depict the risen wicked continuing to exist and sinning after being thrown into the lake of fire? The angel says to John in Revelation 22:11, “Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy.” And then in verse 15 he tells him, “Outside [the gates into the city] are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.” Having earlier seen the risen wicked thrown into the lake of fire,18 and the New Jerusalem descend from heaven,19 must not these verses therefore depict those sinners continuing to exist and sin from within the lake of fire, outside the gates of the city?
The answer is no, and we’ll see why in a moment. But first it should be noted that even if they did they would serve as no challenge to conditionalism. Many of us recognize that the devil, beast, and false prophet are depicted as eternally tormented in the lake of fire in the imagery, and that consistency demands that the same be true of death and hades and the risen wicked.20 We argue, however, that this is symbolism communicating their permanent destruction. As such, even if John did see the wicked continuing to sin in the lake of fire, the question of the imagery’s interpretation would remain.
Having said that, John didn’t see the wicked continuing to sin in the lake of fire. At least not in Revelation 22:11 and 15, for they contain the words spoken to John on behalf of Jesus after the vision had concluded. The apocalyptic vision of the future had ended in verse 5 with the description of the New Jerusalem’s river and tree of life and the presence of God amongst his saints there. In verse 6 John refers to what he had just finished seeing as that which the Lord gave “to show to his bond-servants the things which must soon take place,” the same language with which he opened his letter.21 In verse 8 he says, “I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things,” and what follows is Jesus’ final message to John through his angel after the vision of the future was complete.
In verse 9 the angel tells John not to worship him, saying, “I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren and of those who heed the words of this book.” He goes on in verse 10, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” The angel is obviously talking about those who receive John’s letter before the prophecy’s fulfillment and who heed the message contained therein, even long before the resurrection, lake of fire and New Jerusalem. No wonder that after receiving those instructions John decided to open his letter saying, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.”22
And so in verse 11, when the angel tells John, “Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy,” he is not describing the impenitent still sinning in the lake of fire. Rather, he is talking about those who don’t heed the message of John’s vision and instead choose to go on rejecting God. Likewise, when verse 14 promises that “those who wash their robes … may enter by the gates into the city,” it is referring to those who wash their robes now, not those who do so after the resurrection depicted in the imagery two chapters earlier. And verse 15 tells us who will not enter that city, and will instead end up in the lake of fire: “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.”
But if the vision has concluded and John no longer beholds the New Jerusalem, why does the angel speak of those who are outside its gates in the present tense? Because although the heavenly city has not yet descended, the saints in a very real sense have already entered through its gates. The author of Hebrews assures his readers that “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”23 If the saints can be said to have come to the New Jerusalem now, even though it hasn’t yet descended from heaven, then so too can the messenger of Jesus tell John that the wicked are outside its gates.

Perpetuating punishment

So we’ve seen that Carson’s application of Lazarus and the rich man, besides erroneously characterizing it as depicting the eternal state, is tenuous at best, and that the closing chapters of Revelation cannot be appealed to as evidence that the risen wicked continue to exist and sin indefinitely after being symbolically thrown into the lake of fire. Yet I’ve admitted that the biblical teaching concerning man’s nature gives us every reason to believe that they will continue in their hatred of God and in their stubborn and rebellious refusal to repent, even as final punishment is being inflicted. Carson sees this as contributing to the justice of their presumed eternal suffering. Commenting on Matthew 25:46, Carson has written that, “Sin continues as part of the punishment and the ground for it.”24 And,

What is hard to prove, but seems to me probable, is that one reason why the conscious punishment of hell is ongoing is because sin is ongoing…at the end hell’s inmates are full of sin. They hate and attract retribution, they still love only themselves and attract retribution, they are neither capable of nor desirous of repenting, and attract retribution. As dark as these reflections are, I suspect they go a long way to providing a rationale for the eternal nature of hell and its torments.25

Carson isn’t alone, and traditionalists sometimes see this as a challenge to conditionalism. William Lane Craig writes, “Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment … because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.”26 Morgan concurs: “If they indeed remain unregenerate, they would likely be continuing in sin and therefore stockpiling more and more guilt and its consequent punishment.27 Perhaps Dr. James White argued the point most forcefully when he said,28

The idea that God’s law in its violation, and its continued violation, can somehow, that punishment somehow ends … it assumes that after death the sinner stops sinning … The question that I would ask [of conditionalists] is, what is the basis … for believing that sin stops after death? … That there’s no more sin, because they’re not continually racking up more guilt before God. Evidently it’s just what they had in this life, and so somehow … If the penalty of sin can be fulfilled in them so that … If after a certain point in time, God’s wrath is fulfilled in that person, then they must not still be sinning.

It’s worth repeating that conditionalists do not propose “that punishment somehow ends,” and so this argument attacks a straw man. Edward Fudge, for example, arguably the most influential contemporary conditionalist, writes, “Both the life and the punishment are also unending … the essence of this ‘punishment’ is the total and everlasting dissolution and extinction of the person punished.”29 A far less influential conditionalist, I have explained that punishment, belonging to a particular linguistic category of nouns, may refer either to the process of being punished or to its result; conditionalists believe the latter is its meaning in Matthew 25:46 and that “eternal punishment” refers to “the everlasting effect of being punished by death.”30
We could certainly ask the question, Do sins committed in hell require additional punishment? After all, the imagery of Revelation 20 appears to depict the risen wicked being judged for their past deeds, not future ones. But however we might answer that question, conditionalists propose that final punishment never ends, that it lasts forever because the punishment is the eternal lifelessness that results from being destroyed in body and soul.31 The process of being punished—their punishing—may be temporally definite, but the result of being punished—their punishment—will be eternal. The wicked will rise to judgment, be killed, and never live again. Since their punishment is without limit, it absorbs whatever retributive debt might be accumulated as the wicked continue to rebel during their execution.
Consider capital punishment on this side of the resurrection. A criminal found guilty of several lesser crimes may accumulate a number of years in prison per crime, but a serial murderer will be executed once, not resuscitated and killed again multiple times. Similarly, a prisoner who commits a crime while incarcerated may receive a lengthier stay in prison, but a criminal who assaults the officer strapping him to the electric chair will not return to his cell to pay for it. The punishment of death is of such gravity that it can serve as the penalty for any number of crimes, committed prior to sentencing and up until the heart ceases beating.

No Penitent in Hell

Many of my Reformed brethren like D. A. Carson are wrong to point to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man and the closing chapters of Revelation as evidence that the damned will continue to sin in hell. However, I would be the first to agree that the nature of man is such that we can be sure they would continue to sin. But annihilation as the final, permanent, capital punishment is eternal and infinite. Like its contemporary counterpart it can serve as the penalty for any number of sins, both those committed prior to death and following resurrection, up until the moment the risen wicked breathe their last.

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  1. Carson, D. A. “Home at last: The spectacular God at the center (Revelation 21-22).” []
  2. Carson, D. A. (2009). The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. (Zondervan, Kindle Edition) p. 533. []
  3. Date, C. (2012, June 23). “Lazarus and the rich man: It’s not about final punishment.” Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 20 July 2012. []
  4. Date, C. (2012, July 15). “Explicit mistakes: A response to Matt Chandler.” Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 20 July 2012. []
  5. Carson. Gagging. 521. []
  6. Dixon, L. (2003) The Other Side of the Good News (Christian Focus), 167. []
  7. Luke 16:24 []
  8. Luke 16:27 []
  9. Date, C. (Host). (2011, August 4). “Episode 54: Burn it up.” Theopologetics

    . []
  10. Date, C. (Host). (2011, August 4). “Episode 55: Eternal fire.” Theopologetics

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  11. Grudem, W. (1994). “Inherited corruption: We are totally unable to do spiritual good before God.” Systematic Theology (InterVarsity Press and Zondervan), 498. []
  12. John 6:44 []
  13. Jeremiah 13:23 []
  14. Packer, J. I. (2004). “Universalism: Will everyone ultimately be saved?” Morgan, C. & Peterson, R. (eds.), Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondervan), 193. []
  15. Peterson, R. (1995). Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Presbyterian and Reformed), 198. []
  16. Morgan, C. (2004). “Annihilationism: Will the unsaved be punished forever?” Morgan, C & Peterson, R. (eds.), Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondervan), 212. []
  17. Revelation 2:7 []
  18. Revelation 20:15 []
  19. Revelation 21:2 []
  20. Date, C. (2012, July 12). “Consistency in preterism: Annihilation and Revelation 20:10.” Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 24 July 2012. []
  21. Revelation 1:1 []
  22. Revelation 1:3 []
  23. Hebrews 12:22 []
  24. Carson, D. A. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Matthew 13-28) (Zondervan, 1995), 523. []
  25. Carson, Gagging. 533-534. []
  26. Craig, W. L. (2010). On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Kindle Locations 5499-5501). David C Cook. Kindle Edition. []
  27. Morgan. Hell Under Fire. 212. []
  28. Brierley, J. (Host). (2009, August 8). “Hell—two different views debated.” Unbelievable?

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  29. Fudge, E. (2011) The Fire That Consumes, 3rd edition (Cascade), 39. []
  30. Date, C. (2012, June 19). “‘Punishment’ and the polysemy of deverbal nouns.” Rethinking Hell [blog]. Retrieved 26 July 2012. []
  31. Matthew 10:28 []