Response 2 to a Conditionalist Critical Review

In part one of my response to David Jakubovic’s review of Is There Anything Good About Hell (AGAH), I introduced a few small matters concerning my intentions with this series of articles and the constraints and goals of my book, before finally arguing that there is a strong theological tradition concerning the word “evil” (eg. Aquinas) that does not bleed into moral evil and that hell is an evil in this general sense. In this sense too, a conditionalist would be constrained to view the annihilation of the wicked as an evil. The fascinating question which arises in consideration of comparing these two “evils” (eternal punishment vs. extinction) is which one constitutes the greatest punishment?

This question lies near the centre of the larger debate, as far as I can figure, and certainly is quite significant to Jakubovic’s critical review of my book. It crops up again and again, and I will give a few examples before arguing that there is an exceptionally strong biblical and experiential case for the greater punishment of eternal torment.

Before I do, however, I point out that the reviewer quotes extensively from other sources and that this approach presents both advantages and disadvantages. Jakubovic is certainly well-read, and his breadth in citations looks impressive—indeed, in a certain sense it is impressive. There is a commensurate weakness to this approach, however. Firstly, the reviewer doesn’t often state his own case in disagreeing with the book and I find it difficult at certain points to ascertain the precise nature of the critique and the reviewer’s own thoughts. Secondly, there are times that those he quotes seem to disagree among themselves. No doubt these other authors are marshalled for particular purposes at certain times, but in concert with the paucity of his own clear conclusions and statements, the critique is left ambiguous in many places. These weaknesses (not inherently wrong in approach), plays into the central challenge I will be addressing in this second response.

The crux of this second article is that the reviewer states, in principle, his support for hell not only as retribution, but as a punishment of the wicked that is more serious/severe than the traditional, endless suffering, viewpoint. This is my best understanding of Jakubovic’s position, one which I have a hard time nailing down because, in all honesty, it seems to me to be discordantly expressed throughout the entirety of the review. More than this, however, I think that this discordance is a function of a basic incoherence. I hope I will make that case by the end of the article.

Is Extinction Harsher than Eternal Suffering?

I will start with a few statements and references in the review which seem very clear. In his review of chapter 6, after an extended quote on retribution and closure, he suggests, pointing to two essays by Joey Dear, that annihilation is not a “soft alternative” to eternal torment. Later, he responds to my chapter 7 statement that, “The god of the annihilationist is like the judge who punishes a man for murder with a two-year sentence instead of sending him away for life or calling for the executioner.” (120-1), by saying,

This seems to infer that, on CI, God issues a flimsy sentence (like 2 years for murder) instead of a fittingly harsher sentence (like life imprisonment or – interestingly – capital punishment). Spiegel shows how CI logically proves to be the harsher punishment:

“The punitive nature of ECT is essentially qualitative – pertaining to facts about the person’s relational, psychological (and perhaps physical) states, as all or most of her conscious life becomes and remains entirely negative in quality. In contrast, the punitive nature of annihilation is fundamentally ontological, pertaining to the condemned person’s most basic status as a thing, as she moves from being to absolute nothingness. Again, the latter seems more extreme than the former.”

One further example will suffice. In his review of chapter 3, in response to the idea that God removes all good from those cast into an eternal hell, he points to an article by Chris Woznicki (a traditionalist), “who incidentally confirms CI to be a more severe i.e. less ‘compassionate’ punishment than ECT”, and quotes him stating,

“Given the Being Thesis we can say that God is actually more compassionate by subjecting them to eternal punishment as opposed to annihilation because the damned still possess a good, namely being or existence. To remove the property of existence from the damned would be to remove the final good thing which they possess.”

I will briefly consider Speigel’s quote first, as it seems to me to be the most challenging. I agree with him that to remove the existence of someone seems more ontologically significant than the essentially qualitative nature of the traditional position of eternal suffering. I am not sure there is anything in the quoted statement with which I would disagree, at least on its face. The relevant question, however, is “more extreme” to whom? It may just be possible to consider the loss of existence as more extreme/severe in some metaphysical or abstract sense. However, it is not so for those who undergo the punishment.

This very fact is admitted by Joey Dear in his first essay, linked in the review. Dear’s essay deals with a very particular objection to conditionalism which, in my opinion, makes it very close to a stick-man argument. His very narrow concern is to counter the idea that a dying sinner would want to be annihilated. Given the specificity of the essay, I don’t think it has much value in a broader sense. But for our purposes, Dear states

I actually agree that annihilation is a less terrible fate than eternal torment – at least the historical Christian version of eternal torment that involved fire and unbelievable pain and suffering, that is. By comparison, death would be an improvement. Annihilationists are divided on this, but that is where I stand. Therefore, if some people were in hell, being horribly tormented, burned alive (or its equivalent) in the presence of Jesus and the angels (which is as much a part of Revelation 14:9-11 as the references to the smoke of their torment and “for ever and ever”), and these people were given the option to be destroyed or to stay in that condition for eternity, they would surely choose destruction. And in doing so, they would be better off than if they stayed alive in traditionalist hell for ever and ever. To this extent, I agree with the traditionalist sentiment behind this argument.

It is entirely unclear whether the reviewer agrees with Dear on this point or not. I don’t know. But consider a though experiment of what it would mean if he (or any other conditionalist) did. It would mean that within the annihilationist camp not only would there be disagreements about how much suffering and torment an unrepentant sinner underwent prior to being extinguished, itself a considerable one, but that there would be disagreement about whether the harshness/extremity of the punishment was less or more than in the traditional account of eternal torment! I have a hard time imagining what that would look like. Consider Clark Pinnock’s views on the traditional perspective:

“Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon His creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself.”

Would someone like Jakubovic, say to Pinnock, “you’ve got your conclusion correct, but you’ve arrived at it completely backwards– the traditional view with it’s eternal torment is far too lenient. Annihilation is far worse towards the wicked. I really wish you would stop saying the traditional view makes God to seem more like Satan, because if that is the case our version is far more satanic.”

There are however, hints in the rest of the review of AGAH that suggests the reviewer probably doesn’t think that annihilations is “harsher” or “more extreme” than the traditional hell. For instance, in reference to chapter 2, he quotes from Laura Ekstrom,

“If a human being is consigned to hell after earthly death and this is God’s doing, then it seems that it is God’s intentional action…God’s sending someone to hell – or God’s being the agent who does the eternal tormenting – implies, if that action is wrong or unjust, that God is morally responsible for doing so in the sense of deserving blame.”

It would seem as if “eternal torment” is something presented here as a morally problematical action. The question then is, why is not annhihilation, if it is worse and more of a moral problem? I will come back to this example.

Later, in response to the thesis of chapter 5, that the fear of hell is a particularly helpful motivator for sinners, the reviewer states that the “terror of ECT” is “counterproductive”, and quotes a number of authors including Manis: “The fear of the Lord – however we might understand this notion – is one kind of fear, the fear of hell another. But then the original problem remains: the doctrine of hell induces fear which is incompatible with love, and love is necessary for worship; this belief in hell impedes worship and is unedifying.”

Maybe I am missing something, but if the annihilationist hell is worse than the eternal-torment hell, doesn’t the conditionalist have a worse fear-problem?

Examples like this in the very extensive review could be multiplied and it creates a highly disjunctive experience. The reviewer really needs to pick a side—is annihilation a terror-inducing horror to sinners worse than eternal torment, or is less terrible and horrific? I have an inkling—an educated guess—as to the reviewer’s views that make some, but not complete, sense of all this. Before I get there however, I want to make my position clear and present a biblical and experiential case for the harsher, more severe, punishment of the traditional hell.

The Traditional Hell Harsher

In a number of places, the scriptures are clear that death is preferred to ongoing suffering. Saints like Elijah and Jonah desired to die.

“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’” (1 Ki 19:4)

“Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?’” (Jon 4:3–4)

Similarly, the person to whom AGAH is dedicated, Don Bleasdale, was a man who suffered intensely and constantly for the last ten or twelve years of his life. He was a very good friend, among my best friends, and there were times it was difficult to know how to relate to him, pray for him, or console him. I remember at one point sitting by his bed and weeping for him. He was so thankful because in his state he could not cry—he didn’t have the strength to do so. For most of those last years, he wanted to die. He held fast to the Lord and prayed for the strength to not succumb to any temptation to take his life. He persevered and won the fight of faith and is now with the Lord. In his case, he had the certain hope of heaven upon death. But his experience of wanting to end his life rather than continuing to live in agony is a common one, regardless of personal faith or religion. Unbelievers who have no desire to be with the Lord, or those who don’t believe in any eternity after death whatsoever, equally share this experience.

For instance, the Lord says of the idolatrous and wicked leaders of Judah that, “Death shall be preferred to life by all the remnant that remains of this evil family in all the places where I have driven them, declares the LORD of hosts” (Je 8:3). There are multiple examples of a desire to die by the wicked in Revelation as well.

“They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.” (Re 9:5–6)

“Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Re 6:15–17)

Many examples could be found in the book of Job as well. Several of these statements concerning his desire to die, given his life as a believing saint, may be put within a slightly less helpful category of comparing ongoing suffering to heaven, depending on one’s interpretation of Job’s understanding of the resurrection and eternal life. Others however, like in Job 3:1–10 (see also Jer 20:14–18), express a desire to have never been born than to face his current suffering, a very close analogue to the comparison of extinction (no being) and ongoing suffering in hell.

The current rise in euthanasia is surely evidence of the fact that many atheists would rather have extinction (or what they assume will be extinction) rather than ongoing suffering—a suffering that will be far less severe than the torment of hell.

A More Philosophical Challenge

I have expressed that it is challenging to know exactly what the reviewer is thinking. If he genuinely thinks eternal torment would simply be too lenient and that to properly punish the seriousness of sins, God would need the harshness or severity of extinction, I think he ought to make that clear.

Given the rest of the quotations, however, not to mention the fact that this simply seems nonsensical to me, I am going to guess, without too much to go on, that he thinks annihilation is only more severe/harsh/extreme in a certain way. It’s always a challenge to respond to what is unspoken, but I will at least attempt to go a little way down that road.

Let’s return to Speigel’s argument that the ontological aspect of annihilation seems harsher than the (merely) qualitative aspect of eternal torment. Aquinas, and the tradition from which he draws, agrees that there is a sense in which the pains of loss (of God’s blessing/glory/goodness etc.) are more significant than the pains of sense (infliction of punishment/torment etc.). Indeed, it is the aspect of the pains of loss in which sin and its punishment is infinite in weight or value. The pains of sense are not as significant and are not infinite in the same way. As an aside, I think the word “infinite” is apt for the pains of sense, and I happily use the term in the book to refer to the eternality of suffering, but I don’t mean “maximal” suffering (which is reserved for Satan), whereas the pains of loss are maximal simply because they are binary—none of those in hell experience the active goodness or blessing of God’s presence.

I offer three responses to this idea of annihilation being harsher but only regarding the pains of loss. Firstly, it isn’t at all consistent with Ekstrom’s challenge that the reviewer himself offers. She blames God for the eternal torment of the traditional hell because He retains moral responsibility in sending the wicked there. But if annihilation is indeed worse and harsher overall, even without any pains of sense, God is still morally responsible for extinguishing the wicked and this ought to be more of a concern. Notice that because the concern is of a moral category to do with responsibility and agency, the idea of fittingness or repugnancy doesn’t enter into the equation. The reviewer can’t have it both ways—either God is blameworthy for exceedingly harsh punishments, or He is not.

Now, there is a way to possibly escape this conundrum, and it would be by denying the retributive principle in annihilation—to argue essentially that annihilation pertains only to pains of loss and that this is simply giving the wicked that for which they themselves have asked. However, the reviewer has already strongly affirmed the retributive principle in annihilation. Something needs to give.

Furthermore, Aquinas argues that pains of sense are important for actual sins because the pains of loss are consistent with the reprobate’s disordered will—they don’t want to be with, or experience, God. Without pains of sense, the wicked “get away with it.” In some cases, not only in this life, but in the ever-after, they get precisely what they desire, against God’s (revealed) will, and in this limited way, without pains of sense, they win against God. God allows them to forever turn their backs upon him.

Let me give an example. As a Pastor I have to encourage some parents not to exasperate their children with harshness, while others I must encourage to discipline their children more strongly. I teach this latter group that the punishments have to hurt the child in some way or else it is ineffective. If a parent has a child that likes to be alone and would gladly spend much of his life reading or on a tablet in his room, sending that child to his room is not going to be a good penalty. He may miss out on blessings and the fellowship of the family, but he will not feel or sense the punishment.

Suffering is an intrinsic part of punishment. It may not be the chief part, but it is necessary. The conditionalist may claim that annihilation fulfills the eternality of punishment described in scripture. It doesn’t and that view wrests scripture from its normative expression. But even if it were true that the extinction could be viewed as an eternal punishment, it certainly cannot not be that the extinct eternally experience the pain of sense. The retributive principle requires both. We see this in the pages of scripture concerning God’s earthly retribution upon the wicked. But the chief example is the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the review, Jakubovic critiques the fact that it is “Jesus’ death, not agony (which) secures the atonement.” He then goes on to quote Turretin! He seems unaware that Turretin uses death and suffering interchangeably (14.10.8, 14.10.12, 14.11.21, 14.11.25, 14.11.27, 14.12.7), following the biblical pattern observed throughout the New Testament (Lk 24:46, Heb 2:9-10, 9:26, 13:12, 1 Pet 3:18). For instance, Acts 17:3, “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’”

Sections 14.11.22 and 14.13.2 are particularly useful. In the latter section Turretin states that the satisfaction of Christ’s mediatorial work involved all the suffering he endured, not only in his death, but also in his life. (In fact, the context in this section is that the satisfaction also includes the active obedience of Christ, but this lies beyond our particular purpose regarding punishment and hell.) It is not only Turretin’s view but a reformed commonplace, as much as I can figure, that:

  • Christ’s suffering and death are mostly interchangeable
  • Christ’s suffering in his passion was a substitutionary penalty for sin
  • All the suffering of Christ’s incarnation in the flesh was substitutionary and satisfactory

Turretin’s point in the section the reviewer quotes is that suffering without death would have been insufficient. I do not think I wrote anything in AGAH that undermines this point. From where I am standing the reviewer looks guilty of pulling a piece out from Turretin without any understanding of its function in his wider work and theology.

In spite of the erudition and wide reading of the reviewer, it looks to me like he is approaching the book already knowing what he believes, and is pulling out whatever he can to undermine the thesis, without awareness of how it hangs, or doesn’t hang together coherently. More charitably, maybe the reviewer simply needs to dispense with the abundance of (discordant) quotes, and be clearer with his own views and how he thinks my thesis fails.

More could be stated, but I think this suffices for now. In the next article I intend to respond the reviewer on the section on Anselm and his formidable proof in Cur Deus Homo. I will finish with a selection from Turretin, only one page prior to the section the reviewer quotes.

XXII. Sixth, the same doctrine is proved from the nature and adjuncts of the sufferings of Christ as well as from the form of death which he suffered (to which nothing was wanting for a full and true satisfaction). (1) Not the essence and kind of punishment because the death denounced by the law was endured by him; not a common and ordinary death, but a violent and most bitter, inflicted as a punishment and accursed of God himself. In that death, besides the greatest ignominy and the severest pains inflicted upon his most sacred body, his soul was seized with the most appalling terror and sadness, and he was agitated with such anguish and fear that he had need of a comforting angel to appear to him. Sweat flowed from his body like great drops of blood. He offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him who was able to save him from death (Heb. 5:7). He was forsaken by God the Father, though not by a dissolution of the union, nor by withdrawing a participation of holiness, nor by withholding his supporting power, yet by withdrawing from him the beatific vision, by suspending the joy and comfort and the sense and fruition of full felicity. Such things can have no other adequate cause except in vindicatory justice demanding from Christ a most full satisfaction for us (unless we say that Christ was more effeminate and timid than innumerable martyrs who have sustained the same most painful bodily death; nay, if possible, torments more intolerable and yet with unshaken fortitude with the greatest alacrity and without any indications of grief or terror). Such blasphemy Christian ears cannot endure. (2) Not the time because although the time of Christ’s sufferings was but finite in duration, yet it was infinite in value in consequence of the dignity of the person suffering. (3) Not the identity of the person sinning because although the law demanded this according to strict justice (kata to akribodikaion), the gospel through fatherly kindness (epieikeian), admitted a substitution (as was said before). It is sufficient that sin be punished, even if the sinner is not always punished.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 434–435.