Response 1 to a Conditionalist Critical Review

Several weeks ago, I was contacted by a friendly annihilationist who had written a critical review of the book that was both impressive and erudite . It begins by stating, “This is the most coherent philosophical/theological defence of Eternal Conscious Torment  that I have seen. Author Dirks doesn’t just go for the usual ‘low-hanging fruit’ that we have all heard before. His 10 chapters  are lucidly expressed & scripturally researched.”

The kind introduction, especially so given the expertise of the reviewer, is followed by a number of significant criticisms, which is to be expected from someone with such a radically different viewpoint.  I am thankful for David Jakubovic contacting me and for interacting with the book. This is the first in what will be several responses to the review. I make no promises that they will all follow quickly, and due to my other responsibilities it is quite likely that I will not engage further after these initial articles.

In this initial response, I want to address a few more general concerns expressed in the review, the sorts of arguments I intend to engage, and to deal with one of them that the reviewer emphasizes multiple times. I then plan to deal more  significantly with the philosophical matters and questions in the next article. 

Firstly, I think it is helpful to point out that the review is a very particular sort of review, coming as it does from an annihilationist viewpoint. For those who are unaware, many annihilationists prefer to call themselves conditionalists. Although there may be some differences between the two groups, they both believe that God’s punishment will result in the extinguishing of the lives of those sent to hell. Conditionalism, or conditional immortality (CI), is so-called such because it posits that man is not inherently immortal (which is the traditional historical view) but that immortality is something granted by God to the righteous and something withheld from the wicked, who thereafter disappear into non-existence. They thus emphasize metaphors of hell like “death” and “destruction,” while downplaying or re-interpreting passages that speak of eternal torment or fire.

In my book I only rarely interact directly with annihilationism or universalism, as it is my purpose to present a positive case for hell which I believe presuppositionally undermines these views and other inferior ideas of eternal punishment. For instance, I spend more time criticizing C. S. Lewis’ view on hell than I do those of annihilationism or universalism. Whether or not it will be satisfactory to the reviewer, I don’t intend to deviate from the book’s intended goal with these articles. In light of the book’s emphasis I am happy to make generalizations where necessary, as when I state in the Preface that both conditionalism and universalism “deny eternal punishment altogether.” The reviewer thinks this is “clumsy” and “inexcusable,” but this is because neither he nor I want to give up ground on terminology. I (continue to) think it is inaccurate to say that 1000 years after the judgment of the righteous and the wicked, that the non-existent wicked are being, or were, ‘eternally’ punished. I don’t expect my interlocutor to give up ground, but neither will I. It isn’t clumsy–it is two views trying not to lose ground in an important debate merely on account of vocabulary.

Similarly, the review considered that my statement that these views (universalism and CI) are based on “sentimentalism and groundless exegesis” to be “unworthy” of my scholarship. I understand that there are certain works which try to present their case in the most dispassionate way possible, but mine is not one of them, and I am content to briefly summarize my conclusions in such a form and believe they are accurate and defensible. Having said that, I well understand my opponent’s desire not to see his views dismissed without significant engagement, but again, that simply is not my aim. If it were, the book would have been significantly different, probably another one or two hundred pages longer, and I frankly feel that others like Robert Peterson have already well-covered this ground.

Although there are several criticisms in this vein in the review, and I don’t judge the reviewer for them, there are also several genuinely significant questions and criticisms that deal more explicitly with my aims and arguments. It is these with which I intend to engage in the articles to come. I believe that the reviewer is wrong, and seriously so, nevertheless I expect that good will come of pressing into the concerns he raises. In this introductory response  article, I will deal only with one small one. At the end of the first paragraph in the review, Jakubovic writes

I prayerfully did some studious reading & started to perceive the biblical, logical & philosophical ‘waters’ eroding the ‘sandy base’ of his impressive edifice. Long story short: Dirks rightly claims that God has “ultimate authority and power in all matters, including general evils like hell” (161, italics his, emphasis added): so he himself answers the book’s title in the negative – if even he admits that ECT [Eternal Conscious Torment] hell is one of several ‘general evils’, how can it be ‘anything good’ after all?

The reviewer returns to this theme several more times, including later as he interacts with chapter 7,

ECT defenders are adept at equivocating over what ‘evil’ means, e.g. ‘good’ and ‘evil’ get switched around & blurred in Bawulski’s account:

“The elimination of sin is not enough – all evil will be eradicated…Like sin, evil is fundamentally against the will of God…Evil is a privation of the good that would be natural and fitting for a particular being, act, or state of affairs to have…The suffering and pain of hell are goods and are not evil, for they are the just and due punishment for sin.”41

So: the damned who are evil (as is hell, by Dirks’ own admission 161) are enjoying the ‘good’ of being kept in existence by God to endure eternal suffering and pain, yet these iniquitous torments are (contrary to logic, semantics & universal consensus) ‘goods’…(?)

And the argument is brought up again , unsurprisingly, as he deals with chapter 9, in which my original quote appears,

It is at this point that Dirks names hell among “general evils” over which God has authority & power (161) – admitting thereby that hell is an evil, contrary to the title of his book. This is amplified by Feinberg (J.Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil, Crossway, Illinois, 2004) who says of ECT hell: “This evil endures forever” (396, italics his) even calling it “an evil that befalls people as a punishment” (428) and “the ultimate evil of hell for those who reject God.” (431) So there can be little ‘good’ in ECT hell if it (sic) an ‘evil’.

I want to respond to what clearly seems to the reviewer to be an inconsistency. Before I do, I want to clear up one statement, which may become an important point of disagreement and clarification in a subsequent article. I nowhere state that the wicked in hell “are enjoying the ‘good’ of being kept in existence by God.” I understand that to be the position of some ECT authors, but this is is a misstatement of the facts as I see them, if not an outright error. I will come back to this point subsequently.

The major question here is whether or not hell can be a ‘good’, in keeping with my thesis, while at the same time being “a general evil.” I will demonstrate below that the language of “evil” has been used in Aquinas and Augustine  to denote “bad effects” and that they do not carry a moral quality as to culpability (like stealing or murder).

The fourth article of question 1 in Aquinas’, On Evil, is concerned with the question “Is Evil Suitably Divided into the Evil of Moral Wrong and the Evil of Punishment?” to which Aquinas answers affirmatively. The quotations that follow are from the Oxford University Press Kindle Edition, trans. by Richard Regan (2003).

On the Contrary: Augustine says in his work On Faith, to Peter: “Rational creatures can suffer two evils: one whereby they voluntarily defect from the highest good; the other whereby they are punished against their will.” And these two evils describe punishment and moral wrong. Therefore, we divide evil into the evil of punishment and the evil of moral wrong.
Aquinas, Thomas. On Evil. Q1, Art. 4, Contr.

And so it follows that we call every privation of a good that human beings can employ for good activity a punishment. And a like argument applies to angels. And so every evil befalling a rational creature is included either in the evil of moral wrong or in the evil of punishment.
On Evil. Q1, Art. 4, Ans.

This kind of language permeates On Evil, and could be greatly multiplied. It is clear that in the Augustinian-Thomistic tradition, evil is understood very generally and can be categorized as punishment, in which case the sinner justly receives the “evil” (bad effects) of retribution, and moral wrong, which by a rational creature’s disordered will they deprive themselves of the fullest good in sinning.

Just a little earlier, in his reply to objection 10 to Q1. Art. 3, Aquinas states,

The good that causes evil by accident does not need to be a deficient good, as I have already said. And God thus causes the evil of punishment, since God in inflicting punishment does not intend evil for those he punishes but intends to imprint the ordination of his justice on things. And to achieve this end, evil results for those punished, just as water’s privation of its form results from the presence of fire’s form.
On Evil. Q1. Art. 3,. Reply Obj. 10

Aquinas clarifies that God causes evil (bad effects) towards the wicked in punishing them, however this is not the evil of moral wrong because his intention is not for evil, but to “imprint the ordination of his justice.” This distinction is crucial and has been held by every traditionalist concerning hell I know. I allude to this idea and tradition on pages 162-163 in the book. God does not delight in tormenting anyone, either in this life, or in an eternal hell. But He does delight in the display, even eternal display, of His justice and His power over the unrepentantly rebellious and this same delight will be present in the saints.

In retrospect, it may have been useful to footnote some of this background to the idea of hell as a “general evil.” Nevertheless, the reader (and in this case the reviewer as well) is faced with a predicament that cannot be neatly solved by questioning the parallel existence of good and evil in a hell of everlasting punishment–namely that God does punish generally, and that this results in very bad effects for the punished sinner. In fact, for the conditionalist, the predicament is more severe yet, as he does hold that the extinction of the sinner’s being through hell-fire is a great and very severe punishment, a fascinating proposition to which we will return in subsequent articles.

In the end, it seems to me that the reviewer, as a conditionalist, has two options. The first is rather easy: to acquiesce to the fact that even in his own view the evil of punishment, as defined in the tradition,  is fully consistent with God’s goodness, and to focus on other areas of more fruitful disagreement. The second would be somehow to double-down on the inconsistency in his mind of the existence of punishment-evil with good, which would force him back into larger questions of the justice of retribution not only in theory, but as seen in Scripture. We will broach this in the next article.