A Response to Four Views on Hell, Pt. 2 (John Stackhouse on Terminal Punishment)

John Stackhouse has been a faithful friend to Rethinking Hell. He has appeared on our podcast twice (Episode 3, and Episode 86). He wrote the foreward to the first Rethinking Hell book, Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (Eugene: Cascade, 2014), and was a plenary speaker at the first Rethinking Hell conference in 2014 (that address was printed in our second book, A Consuming Passion: Essays in Honor of Edward Fudge. Eugene: Pickwick, 2015.). So Rethinking Hell contributors were pleased to hear he had been tapped on the shoulder to contribute to the second edition of Four Views on Hell.

In contrast to Denny Burk’s chapter (see response here), John Stackhouse’s chapter on “terminal punishment” (more on this choice of terminology below) takes a very different approach. Denny Burk is a professor of biblical theology, whereas Stackhouse is a historical and systematic theologian. Whereas Burk identified a selection of texts, and presented an interpretation of each text in turn, Stackhouse seeks to present the broad sweep within the rubric of God’s goodness, expressed in two “poles”; “God’s moral rectitude and cleanness, God’s detestation of all that is wrong and his relentless action to make everything right” and “God’s benevolence; God’s kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice”.(61) In other words, Stackhouse’s approach is to work through Scripture to demonstrate that the doctrine of hell (and really all doctrine) must express, in balance, both poles of God’s goodness. His argument is that annihilationism/conditional immortality, or what he calls “terminal punishment” “best takes into account these two poles of God’s goodness”. Stackhouse defines this view as this:

hell is the situation in which those who do not avail themselves of the atonement made by Jesus in his suffering and death must make their own atonement by suffering and death, separated from the sustaining life of God and thus disappearing from the cosmos.

As one who identifies as a conditionalist, I find this definition (as well as the terminology of terminal punishment ) to be a bit off. First, I’m not a fan of speaking of God’s moral goodness and God’s kindness as two “poles”. Yes, God is both morally pure and forgiving/kind, but I don’t see these as two attributes in tension, or at ends of a spectrum. Second, I would argue that a properly developed position on final punishment should be the result of exegesis of Scripture, not finding a position which takes a via media between two poles. So while I adamantly disagree with much of Burk’s response to Stackhouse1which is, in my opinion wrong on every front except this one, I would say he is correct to note that Stackhouse has an improper starting point by beginning with these two poles.

Third, by Stackhouse’s definition, the punishment of those who reject Christ comes to an end with the annihilation of the person. Most conditionalists would argue that non-being, annihilation, exclusion from life in the age to come, death is the punishment. How the suffering and pain of the process of death is understood varies among conditionalists, but what is typically asserted is an agreement with supporters of eternal torment; that the “eternal punishment” mentioned in Matt. 25:46 is an everlasting punishment, but for conditionalists it is not everlasting torment but everlasting, complete, and irreversible extinction. Stackhouse takes a different route suggesting that aionion “can mean ‘everlasting,’ but often means ‘of the age to come.'”(67) While this is certainly true, in the context of Matthew 25:46 that is not explicit, though perhaps possible. Stackhouse makes an appeal to Heb. 6:1-2 and 9:11-12, in which “eternal” is used to describe the result of a one time act.(68) As noted in my critique of Burk, Hebrews 9:12 certainly gives us a grammatical precedent to read “eternal punishment” as a one time act resulting in an everlasting state of non-being. The question I have with Stackhouse’s reading is this: is the punishment the act or process of making extinct and the suffering which precedes non-being, or is it the permanent state of exclusion from life and non-being? I prefer the latter, which makes the choice of “terminal punishment” to be a poor choice. That said, this is mostly semantics, since the situation is the same for the one on the wrong end of judgment; they are deprived of life and being.

Stackhouse receives some very heavy criticism, especially from Jerry Walls regarding his bold assertion that “terminal punishment enjoys as strong a warrant in Scripture as I have seen can be offered for any doctrine.”(62) This statement I can actually get behind. I do think the cataloged of texts which present death, destruction, non-being as the punishment for those who reject the offer of eternal life is immense. Here it’s worth returning to John Wenham’s research noted in my response to Burk.2John Wenham, “The Case for Conditional Immortality”, Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Condtionalism. (Eugene: Cascade, 2014), 74-94. Wenham’s count gives 264 texts which refer to the fate of those who reject eternal life in Christ. Of these, 26 speak of “burning up” or destroying with fire (an additional 10 speak of the lost going into Gehenna, which would conjure up images of death and destruction by fire from Jeremiah 7:30ff). Wenham cites 59 that speak of destruction with no means of destruction specified, an additional 25 which speak of “death in its finality”, 20 which speak of separation from God (which if we affirm God’s omnipresence can hardly support eternal torment, and strongly suggests non-being), 108 refer to judgment and punishment with no specifics, and 15 refer to anguish or suffering but include no specifics on duration. This means we have 140 texts which strongly suggest death, destruction, extinction, non-being, and 123 which can only be said to say those who reject eternal life will be judged, and the penalty is left ambiguous. Wenham leaves Rev. 14:11 as the only text which suggests unending torment, which I think concedes more than he needs to. As I noted in my reply to Burk, that text is not nearly as clear as eternal torment supporters would have us believe. So, yes, Stackhouse is actually justified in his confidence that the biblical witness points very strongly in the direction of annihilation.

Obviously a book with the scope of Four Views on Hell cannot possibly cover every one of these texts, but Stackhouse does provide a strong summation of the most forceful texts on this front (66-76) showing that the Old Testament typologies unpacked in the New Testament (Gehenna, Sodom & Gomorrah) point us to ultimate extinction. While covering every text is impossible, Stackhouse provides examples from all sections of the Bible; pentateuch, historical books, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, epistles, and Revelation. It would have been beneficial for the impact of this essay had Stackhouse provided more exegesis of these texts, rather trying to connect these verse to a schema of the character of God in two poles.

In the penultimate section (“Finite Punishment and the Cross”), Stackhouse examines the correlation between Christ’s atoning work and final punishment (alluded to in Stackhouse’s definition quoted above). Perhaps the issue is space, but Stackhouse’s rather curt depiction of penal substitution grinds on me a bit. Rethinking Hell contributors are happy to see and explore correlations between our views on final punishment and other doctrines, but most of us would recognize that atonement models/theories are quite tricky, and I would add (my own position, not necessarily that of Rethinking Hell as a whole) penal substitution cannot claim exclusivity within historical orthodoxy. So, Stackhouse’s terse assertion “God cannot ‘just forgive’ our sins without anyone suffering… someone has to pay for our sins: either Jesus does, or we do”(77) fits very well within a penal substitution and terminal punishment scheme, but does raise questions regarding the benevolence of God. Can God really not allow sin to go unpunished? Does this not restrict God’s freedom and sovereignty? So, although most (thought not all) evangelicals would affirm some form of penal substitution, this terse statement should be unpacked a bit further.

Also by saying that the unredeemed “must make their own atonement by suffering and death” strikes me as very odd. Do they by suffering and dying atone for their sins? Is not atonement the reconciliation of humanity and God? Stackhouse has reduced atonement to the payment for sin; whereas I’d argue it’s more accurate to speak of Christ’s payment for the penalty of sin one of the means of atonement, not the end goal.

So, in Stackhouse’s version, Jesus suffers and dies, and if we reject his work, we suffer and die. While this may seem internally coherent, it does become a bit difficult if we have a broader view when it comes to atonement. But the fascinating thing about conditional immortality is that it does fit very consistently with other orthodox views of the atonement. In fact, some of the earliest systematic theologians held to a ransom/christus victor understanding of atonement and it seems very likely, also held to conditional immortality (e.g. Irenaeus, and quite possibly Athanasius, who although his position is debated, used language very much consitent with conditional immortality). For both Athanasius and Irenaeus (and also the universalist Father, Gregory of Nyssa, and other Fathers like Gregory Nanzianzen, Basil, et al.), the focusof God’s saving work in Christ was reclaiming, and transforming humanity from death, not paying a penalty (though this notion was not entirely absent from Patristic thought, it was simply not the focus). Through reconcilliation and union between humanity and and divinity in Christ, through his death on the cross, immortality enters death on our behalf and destroys our death through resurrection, ransoming us from our deathly state that we might share in his immortality. Those who refuse to receive this transformative regeneration, Irenaeus argues, “who, in this brief temporal life, have shown themselves ungrateful to Him who bestowed it, shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.” (Adv. Haer. II.34)

While this may seem like an insignificant point, it does have some important ramifications for final punishment. Stackhouse says “not even God can dodge that problem… Atonement has to be made.”(77) And so if we don’t accept Christ’s suffering on our behalf, we have to suffer and die to pay for our sins. But Paul says “the wages of sin is death” not “the wages of sin is suffering for a time and then death.” The punishment does not lead to death, but is death.

Although conditionalists and John Stackhouse end up at the same point (the unredeemed ceasing to be), Stackhouse takes a slightly different path to get there. I’m convinced this is certainly not the best presentation of the conditionalist position, and sadly is, in my own opinion, actually is a step backwards from Clark Pinnock’s essay in the first edition of Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). As a conditionalist I had high hopes, as conditional immortality has seen significant growth since 1992. But I don’t think this essay best captures the strengths of this position. It is stronger than Burk, but still has significant shortcomings.

That said, what Stackhouse has done is show two key things which need to be made clear: 1) the biblical, exegetical evidence supporting conditional immortality is staggering. 2) Conditional immortality/terminal punishment is consistent with a definitively evangelical systematic theology.

Liked it? Take a second to support Rethinking Hell on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

1 which is, in my opinion wrong on every front except this one
2 John Wenham, “The Case for Conditional Immortality”, Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Condtionalism. (Eugene: Cascade, 2014), 74-94.