Sin plus God does not equal eternal torment, in spite of traditionalists frequently telling us otherwise.
Jacob Brunton of For The New Christian Intellectual lives in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, which happens to be where we recently held our annual Rethinking Hell Conference. Mr. Brunton heard of the upcoming conference and marked the occasion by writing an article arguing against conditional immortality (or annihilationism as he prefers to call it), however we wish that he had been able to join us in person. At our conference we received critical engagement from scholars such as Dr. Gregg Allison, demonstrating how we strive to uphold the standards of Christian intellectual inquiry by fostering dialogue between different positions on hell. Mr. Brunton could have helped to sharpen our views by engaging in conversation there, and hopefully benefited from finding his own views sharpened by the experience (although as you’ll see below, in my view his argument may not have fared very well when exposed to other able minds!).
In any case, prior to publishing this response to his argument, we followed standard practice by reaching out to a representative of the organization, letting them know that we’d seen Mr. Brunton’s critical argument, and offering to share a link to our pending response. Surprisingly, we were told, “I’m not interested in your article, thanks.” Although others do have the right to remain ignorant of our responses to their criticism, it must be said that in reality this preference doesn’t reflect the spirit of Christian intellectual inquiry that we are used to in the world of theology. We do often encounter critics of our view that are better described as mere apologists, compared to intellectuals in that more virtuous sense, so we’d like to take this opportunity to call the important movement of Christian apologetics to the higher standard of back-and-forth critical engagement.
To Brunton’s credit, he at least acknowledges from the outset that his argument is not a biblical one, but rather a theological or philosophical argument from the nature of God. He makes this clear:
“[T]he nature and character of God is the fundamental reason that I reject annihilationism.”
“I claim that God’s character necessitates that He pour out His wrath on conscious sinners for all of eternity.”
“We’re now ready to advance to my positive argument for the traditional view based on the character of God which is summarized by the following claim: A God who does not inflict eternal punishment upon His enemies is a God who is not worthy of worship. ”
As you skim through the article, it becomes clear at once that there is no interaction with a single biblical argument for or against our view, for this is not the author’s intention. What Brunton aims to argue is that there is at least an implicit contradiction between the following propositions:
1) God will not torment his enemies forever
2) God is worthy of worship.
Now, it is clear that there is no explicit contradiction between these propositions. The burden that Brunton has chosen to bear, therefore, is to show that one or both of these propositions have implications that entail the denial of the other proposition. This is an ambitious task! But before taking a look at how our interlocutor fares, let me first clear aside some minor issues with Brunton’s article that prevent it from hitting the mark.
Disdain for life
First, like many proponents of eternal torment, Brunton uses turns of phrase that suggest a strange and unbiblical lack of concern over death. Naturally, this is not a compelling argument against the doctrine of eternal torment, but just look at how Brunton refers to the possibility of being destroyed forever:
“On this view, the wicked, on the day of judgment (or perhaps some finite time after), simply cease to exist.”
“They think that simply being annihilated is a punishment more suitable to the crime.”
“If they did, they would have the same objections concerning proportionality to the “eternal punishment” of mere death as they do to the eternal punishment of the traditional view.”
[pullquote]Simply cease to exist? Simply being annihilated? Mere death?[/pullquote]
Simply cease to exist? Simply being annihilated? Mere death? This is not at all the way Scripture treats this fearful prospect, and it is troubling to see the emergence of this all-too-common language in Brunton’s article, as if he thinks (as he surely cannot really believe) that missing out on everlasting life in Christ and dying forever instead is a trifling matter. Given that so many Evangelicals are opposed to the “mere” death of the unborn or the sick and elderly in our hospitals and rest homes, one wonders how they can so easily about-face on the value of life when it comes to the special case of the dreaded doctrine of conditional immortality.
Deciding for us?
Anybody who has spent much time in the literature of those who advance conditional immortality is well aware that conditionalists maintain that their view is first and foremost a biblical doctrine. When I summarize the case for this view, I typically do so under four arguments: The biblical argument from immortality, the biblical argument from the atonement, the biblical vision of eternity, and the biblical language of destruction.
But Brunton has taken it upon himself to decide that “one of the main arguments against the traditional view” is the proportionality argument—the question of how an eternity of torment can be a punishment that is proportionally appropriate to sins committed by human creatures. Certainly this is an argument worth considering (I do not recall ever having made the argument myself), but it is hardly a “main” argument for our view—although we often see it listed as such by those hostile to our view. The advice I would offer here is simply to allow people who hold a particular view to tell you what the main arguments for their view are, instead of choosing for them. Before long it becomes clear why Brunton seizes on this argument. It is because treating this as a principal argument for annihilationism serves Brunton’s own argument about eternal punishment, where I will turn next.
Gotcha! Is hell eternal punishment?
Brunton thinks that eternal torment is “the only consistent acceptable meaning” for the phrase “eternal punishment.” He is aware, of course, that conditionalists disagree. We point out that the mere phrase “eternal punishment” doesn’t tell us what the punishment is. Granted, if the punishment were torment, then eternal punishment would mean eternal torment. But Scripture teaches that the punishment is death or destruction. In our view, then, the “eternal punishment” to which Jesus refers in Matthew 25:46 is equivalent to the eschatological punishment of “everlasting destruction” that St Paul refers to when talking about the return of Christ and the punishment of those who reject the Gospel.
Brunton does not think this is the right thing to do. He never specifically explains why—because remember, his is not an article about what Scripture teaches—but interestingly, he thinks that conditionalists themselves are committed to the view that eternal punishment just means eternal torment! If this is so, then his article could have been much shorter than it already is, for once he has shown that we really believe that eternal punishment must amount to eternal torment, all he needs to do is show that the Bible endorses the phrase “eternal punishment,” and that would be the end of the matter.
But how does Brunton defend this remarkable claim that conditionalists themselves admit that eternal punishment amounts to eternal torment? The argument is unremarkable to put it mildly, and this is it:
Consider one of the main arguments against the traditional view: The Proportionality Argument. This argument claims that the punishment of eternal conscious torment is disproportionate to the crime. “How can it be just for temporal sins to deserve eternal punishment?” the argument asks. In other words, annihilationists claim that eternal punishment would be disproportionate to the crime of sin and thus reject the traditional view of eternal conscious torment. They think that simply being annihilated is a punishment more suitable to the crime. But this reveals that they themselves do not count the punishment of annihilation as an eternal punishment. If they did, they would have the same objections concerning proportionality to the “eternal punishment” of mere death as they do to the eternal punishment of the traditional view.
The sleight of hand appears to be so visible it is almost laughable. If Brunton were reading his words out loud, warned that a buzzer would go off should the argument fundamentally go off track, we would hear this:
“How can it be just for temporal sins to deserve eternal punishment- BUZZ!
The conditionalist who is watching his words is not going to make such a silly mistake (and no doubt conditionalists, like traditionalists, do not always watch their words). Brunton has just swapped out “eternal torment” and thrown in “eternal punishment” and then claimed (incorrectly) that conditionalists admit that eternal punishment would be unjust.
The actual argument used on our side is that eternal torment is an unjust response to the finite sins of mortal sinners. The traditionalist cannot just say “in other words, eternal punishment would be unjust” (my paraphrase) without gratuitously assuming that eternal punishment and eternal torment amount to the same thing.
Incidentally, we now see why Brunton claimed that the proportionality argument is one of the “main” arguments we make. It is so that he can use it to make this response—one that ultimately fails, whether it is one of our main arguments or not, just because Brunton freely inserts “eternal punishment” into our argument, when actually the argument objects to eternal torment. As I noted, I have never made this argument, but somebody who did make it might well say that missing out on life is a proportionate or appropriate response to sins that amount to a rejection of the life-giver, whereas an eternity of anguish is not.
What is more, there is a lack of charity (and imagination) in Brunton’s assumption about the way the conditionalist must turn when Brunton points out the alleged problem with their proportionality argument. Essentially what he alleges is this:
- Conditionalists assert that eternal death would amount to eternal punishment.
- Conditionalists maintain as one of their main arguments that eternal torment is disproportional and hence an unjust response to sin.
- Eternal torment and eternal punishment are the same thing (Yes, I am granting Brunton’s leap for the sake of argument), which means that conditionalists must say that eternal punishment is a disproportional response to sin, because they think that eternal torment is a disproportional response to sin.
- Therefore the conditionalists’ claim about eternal punishment is inconsistent with their proportionality argument.
So far, so good (apart from the obvious leap, which I am overlooking just for now). What this means is that to be consistent, conditionalists must either give up their claim to believe in eternal punishment, or they must give up the proportionality argument—then the inconsistency would be gone. But instead, Brunton actually offers the following conclusion:
- Therefore conditionalists must concede that their claim about eternal punishment is false, and they must accept that eternal punishment is eternal torment.
[pullquote]There is a great wealth of biblical evidence for conditional immortality that has nothing to do with the proportionality argument.[/pullquote]
It is surprising that somebody pursuing higher studies in philosophy would make such a visible logical error—namely a non sequitur (a conclusion that does not follow from the premises). As is clear, even if we grant the premises, we conditionalists would just have a choice to make. And why can’t we choose to just give up the proportionality argument? After all, the Bible clearly uses the phrase “eternal punishment,” so we’re unlikely to give that up. There is a great wealth of biblical evidence for conditional immortality that has nothing to do with the proportionality argument, so losing an extra-biblical argument used only occasionally by some would hardly be a significant loss.
What’s interesting, in an amusing sort of way given Brunton’s obvious admiration for Jonathan Edwards, is that Edwards himself comes to our aid at precisely this point! There were those in Edwards’ day who argued for annihilationism on the grounds that eternal torment was out of all proportion to human sin (or at least this is the argument Edwards attributes to them). As I have shown elsewhere, Edwards rejects this argument on the grounds that annihilationism, if true, would still amount to an eternal punishment, which should, by the lights of his interlocutors, fall prey to the same objection. Now, his interlocutors might have had something to say about whether eternal torment is the same as annihilation in this regard (as I noted earlier), but my point is that Edwards’ solution was that conditionalists should give up the proportionality argument, because annihilation ought to be construed as eternal punishment too. Edwards didn’t indulge in the brief pleasure of a “gotcha” moment, as if he’d caught his opponents basically admitting that they didn’t really believe what they were saying.
Where is the contradiction?
And so we come to Brunton’s centerpiece, his logical argument. He summarizes his argument as follows: “A God who does not inflict eternal punishment [by which Brunton specifically means “eternal torment”] upon His enemies is a God who is not worthy of worship.” And again, “if God does not inflict eternal conscious torment on His enemies, then He is not worthy of worship.” Apparently, destroying people (or ceasing to sustain them forever) so that they will never exist again is not enough. God, says Brunton, must torment them forever.
An interlocutor asks, “Why does God inflict punishment for sin at all? What is His aim in punishing sin?” Brunton answers his question thus:
The Biblical answer is: to avenge His glory. Sin, at root, is an offense against God. This is why David, after raping Bathsheba and killing her husband, can say to God, “against you and you only have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). And this is why failure to obey one part of the law makes one guilty regarding the whole law—because every part of the law was given by one and the same God (James 2:10-11). Thus, any offense against the law is an offense against He who issued the law. And if sin is ultimately an offense against the worth of God, then punishment of sin is ultimately God’s defense of His great worth.
It is true that Brunton notes some passages that show that we do indeed sin against God, but they do not support the claim that he makes, namely that God’s reason for punishing sin is to avenge his glory. Were Brunton to offer an exegetical argument for this specific proposition, we can only wonder at how it might go, since there is no place in Scripture that makes this claim.
Although Brunton has not given us any reason to accept his claim that sin is not merely an offence against God but specifically an offense against God’s worth, let us indulge the assertion to see where it goes. Let us grant his theological paradigm that sin is bad because it insults God’s glory, and that in punishing sin, God is defending his worth. I grant this because it is perfectly conceivable that a person who believes this might still also understand punishment for sin as being the total privation of life, and hence they might accept annihilationism. Let’s proceed.
What comes next is a flaw significant enough to undercut Brunton’s argument as a whole:
If the traditional view is right, that the punishment consists of eternal conscious torment, then God seems to think maximally high of Himself. Conversely, if the annihilationist view is right, that the punishment consists of annihilation (perhaps after a finite amount of time of conscious punishment), then God seems to think that much less of Himself.
After saying this, Brunton claims that therefore the question to be answered is how much God thinks of himself. The answer, he says, is “infinitely valuable.” Since God’s punishment of the lost is a defense of his exact value and God is right to think of himself as infinitely valuable (because if he was wrong, there would be something wrong with him), and since the annihilation of the lost, Brunton thinks, reflects a lower value of God than tormenting the lost forever, it follows that God’s punishment of the lost will consist of eternal torment.
I’ll come to that argument shortly, but stop for a moment to consider Brunton’s assertion that eternal torment would indicate that God thinks maximally highly of himself, but the destruction of the lost forever would indicate that God does not think maximally highly of himself. I call it an assertion because it is a proposition that is essential to Brunton’s argument, but he offers no argument for his assessment. It is remarkable that such a crucial set of claims in Brunton’s argument should stand completely undefended. Even if we grant the premise that the nature of divine punishment is a reflection of God’s view of his worth, we have been given no reason for thinking that a God who values himself maximally would torment people forever rather than remove the gift of life forever.
It is clear that Brunton does not realize how important this oversight is. Why not suppose that if God is perfect (i.e., maximally good), and if this is reflected in his worth and hence in the way he punishes, he will punish the lost by obliterating every trace of non-goodness, since he is himself perfect goodness? Or, if “God is light,” why not suppose that this is reflected in the way he punishes, so that he will annihilate all traces of darkness? Why think for a moment that the elimination of a person’s being is objectively less severe than their living endlessly in a broken relationship with God? In light of obvious questions like this, Brunton’s decision to not offer a defense of his crucial claim about the self-assessment of God reflected in annihilating the lost as opposed to tormenting them forever ends any hope of his argument succeeding. Brunton was supposed to be arguing that if God is worship-worthy (in part because God has infinite value) then eternal torment must be true, and yet he has just taken for granted the belief that only eternal torment reflects God’s infinite value!
But there is a further potential problem with Brunton’s argument, and it is one we have seen before in an argument from Tim Challies, namely a dubious use of the concept of infinity.
As noted, Brunton claims (albeit without an argument) that eternal torment would reflect a very high self-assessment on God’s part, and annihilation a much lower assessment. And what sort of assessment should God have of himself? Here, Brunton turns to Jonathan Edwards. Without going into detail, I’ll just give Brunton’s summary of Edwards’ argument:
(1) Moral rectitude requires assigning value to things based on, and in proportion to, their respective worth.
(2) God is infinitely worthy of value.
(3) Moral rectitude, therefore, requires that God assign infinite value to Himself.
The idea is that since God really is of infinite worth, then if he claimed otherwise he would not be telling the truth, which is immoral. Since God is not immoral (for he would then be unworthy of worship), he tells the truth and assigns infinite value to himself.
Relying heavily on the concept of infinity as something without end (like an infinite series of numbers), Brunton translates this into the doctrine of eternal torment, since it is a punishment without end. But there is a fairly easy way to short circuit this argument, too (not that we need to, for Brunton’s argument as a whole is already derailed at his unwarranted assessment of how annihilation and eternal torment reflect on the worth of God).
What if it’s simply not true that God has a numerically infinite value? Brunton does not quote Edwards saying that God is of infinite worth, but others who have made this argument more fully note that this is what Edwards says about God. (e.g., Bruce W Davidson, “Reasonable Damnation: How Jonathan Edwards Argued for the Rationality of Hell,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38:1 (1995), 47-56). But why should we agree with Edwards? What if we think, as many do, that the existence of an actual infinite is impossible? Certainly a potential infinite is real, so that, for example, we can keep dividing a distance up into smaller and smaller distances, and never stop. But an actual infinite is something else entirely (e.g., consider the absurd notion of an actually infinite number of apples—how many are left after you’ve eaten one?). If God is of infinite value then he must be of actually infinite value, but if an actual infinite is impossible, then it follows that numerical infinity is just the wrong way to think about God’s value.
So we are justified in pushing back, protesting that in fact God is not, for example, infinitely holy, infinitely good or infinitely worthy in any sense involving numerical infinity, but rather perfectly holy, perfectly good, and perfectly worthy. God is not merely like one of us only with the amplitude turned up to infinity (for this is impossible and perhaps even meaningless), but rather, as expressed in classical Christian theism, God is pure being. What Brunton is trying to do is take the value of God (as an actually infinite number) and multiply it by the amount of time over which God must punish the lost. But if we think of God’s nature (goodness, holiness, etc) in terms of perfection or purity rather than numerical infinity, the whole calculation collapses. God, who is complete and perfect in himself, completely and perfectly punishes the lost by completely and perfectly removing them from existence. So even if we let Edwards’ argument run its course here and agree that God properly assigns maximal value to himself, we have no need to embrace his language of “infinity” when it comes to God. You might say, of course, that Edwards did not have in mind numerical infinity, but instead just the idea of surpassing perfection that cannot be adequately measured. Very well, that might help Edwards. But Brunton cannot say this, because he is using the idea of numerical value so that he can determine an infinite duration (that is, a never-ending duration) of the torment of the damned. We must assume that Brunton means numerical infinity therefore, otherwise he would not have an argument at all.
Of course, even if we gratuitously allow the idea of numerical infinity to enter the fray and accept that God is “infinitely” good etc., we still have no argument for the total and eternal annihilation of the lost somehow reflecting a lower value of God than endless torment. The only possible nod in this direction comes from Brunton’s highly implausible “gotcha” where he seeks to show that really, we annihilationists do see that only eternal torment counts as an eternal punishment, an argument that fell short in multiple ways.1
Although others have made this argument before Brunton, there’s no doubt (in my mind anyway) that we should commend the attempt to engage creatively with positions like annihilationism, in ways that seem difficult for proponents to tackle. Of course, the case for conditional immortality is an overwhelmingly biblical case, as we at Rethinking Hell and others have spelled out many times, so any argument that does not seriously grapple to some extent with the biblical material is unlikely to move somebody who has accepted our view. But serious logical problems must be identified where they arise, and they may well serve as the catalyst for us to revisit the biblical evidence, asking if we might have taken a wrong turn in our interpretation of all the material.
Although I for one welcome such engagement, the arguments Brunton has given us simply proceed from one error to the next. To briefly sum up:
- The article appears to reflect a troublingly flippant concern for the value of life and the seriousness of losing life forever.
- The article self-servingly represents the proportionality argument as one of “the main” arguments for our view, when really our main arguments are exegetical in nature.
- The article fails terribly in showing that the term “eternal punishment” cannot rightly be used of annihilation, and it fails by gratuitously assuming what it seeks to prove, namely that only eternal torment is eternal punishment.
- The article assumes without any argument that eternal torment would reflect a high value of God, and annihilation would reflect a much lower value of God (in God’s own assessment).
- The article trades on the dubious idea of an actual infinite, using this in a sort of equation to determine how long the suffering of the damned must last, when in fact this problematic idea of numerical infinity can be jettisoned entirely in a defensible view of God as expressed in historic Christian classical theism.
More than one of these problems are sufficient, on their own, to cause Brunton’s argument as a whole to fail, and as such it poses no problem for the biblical doctrine of conditional immortality.
* * * * * *
- I would observe, too, that Brunton’s views about which punishments do and do not amount an infinite punishment could probably be improved by consulting James Spiegel’s chapter “Making the Philosophical Case for Conditionalism” in Christopher M. Date and Ron Highfield (eds), A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge (Eugene: Pickwick, 2016).