Hell and the Goodness of God

At the conclusion of my course in Systematic Theology this term, I offered a lecture on “Hell and the Goodness of God.” I give the same material in my apologetics course as well, since the theme is a site of perennial doubt, worry, and resistance to the Christian faith.

And, yes, Rob Bell’s Love Wins is inescapable these days, so while I do not refer to Brother Rob’s book (since I haven’t read it), clearly the material will be of  use to those working through at least some of the issues he raises.

So Regent Audio is making it available as a free download for at least the next short while. I look forward to comments you may want to offer here on it.

0 Responses to “Hell and the Goodness of God”

  1. Steve Wilkinson

    Great program, thanks for making it free!

    However, while I’m not certain on my position, I find some disagreement.

    First, in Matt 25:46 Gehenna (geenna) often (but not always) translated as hell isn’t used but punishment (kolasis) and the words for eternal (aionios) are the same for the punishment as for the life.

    Matt. 25:46 “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    On the annihilationist view, this would seem troubling about our hope for heaven.

    The same problem shows up in other places, such as in Paul (Rom 6:22) or in the judgement scene in Revelation. The ‘eternal’ nature of the punishment seems to be set opposite of the ‘eternal’ nature of the heavenly reward. (Rev 20:10 – 22:5)

    Also note that the imagery doesn’t just come from the idea of Gehenna, but also Isaiah 34 & 66:

    34:8 For the Lord has planned a day of revenge, a time when he will repay Edom for her hostility toward Zion. 9 Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch and her soil into brimstone; her land will become burning pitch. 10 Night and day it will burn; its smoke will ascend continually. Generation after generation it will be a wasteland and no one will ever pass through it again. 66:24 “They will go out and observe the corpses of those who rebelled against me, for the maggots that eat them will not die, and the fire that consumes them will not die out. All people will find the sight abhorrent.”

    That said, as always, you certainly bring up a number of troubling aspects of the more traditional view which we all have to, at minimum, wrestle with. If this were how Bell’s book were questioning things, as opposed to the rhetorical questions he poses, he wouldn’t have met so much flack!

    This discussion is far from what Bell is going into, the more I read and hear. A good podcast I’ve heard on his book is from Apologetics.com @ http://www.apologetics.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=618:love-hell-and-eternity&catid=43:kkla-995-fm-los-angeles&Itemid=74

    They say he even went beyond universalism, in that he sees the gates of hell to be open both ways. So, in this life, he might be more of an inclusivist, after death, the options are still open, and both ways. By implication this says something about heaven if people can still sin or would want to head off to hell. And, it makes a mockery of Scripture and all the saints’ lives who have urgently delivered the Gospel message and often gave their lives to do so.

    The sad thing, to me, is that because the general Christian population is so uneducated about Christianity, Bell’s book and ideas will likely remain popular and become more common because of his book.

    • John Stackhouse

      Much as you apparently want to talk about Rob Bell, I won’t, Steve! 😉

      See below for reply to some of your questions.

      • John Stackhouse

        One note on the Isaianic passages, though, Steve: If we’re not going to take most of the details literally (e.g., eternal maggots), why would we take the temporal details literally? Isn’t it appropriate to see this is the (fearsome) poetry it is and then square it properly with the other kinds of information we have in Scripture?

        • Steve Wilkinson

          Won’t take the Rob Bell bait, huh? 🙂

          re: Isaiah, I agree. I think I’d place more weight on Matthew and Revelation, where the temporal aspects of damnation and eternal life seem to be put in parallel. I’m not sure why in one case we’d say eternal is eternal, but in the other case we’d say it is less than eternal.

          Other than that, your view makes a lot of sense, I’m just having trouble saying it seems to be better aligned with Scripture. I don’t think it is necessarily a problematic view in any way, other than that some in the Reformed camp might feel it doesn’t give proper due to God’s holiness & the magnitude of sin, but others might say they are pushing that beyond Scripture as well.

          • John Stackhouse

            Eternal is eternal, Steve, per the thing itself. So, again, once you’re dead in the second death, you’re eternally dead.

  2. Wesley

    Brother John –
    working my way through your lecture right now. Can already see that your approach is vastly more orthodox than Bell’s, even if we do land in different places.
    Some initial questions as i go here:
    1. Where does authorial intent play into your exegesis, particularly in some of the Exodus passages you quote? No, we are not to continue celebrating passover (at least not in the way the Jews did at that time) for instance, but surely the author writing at that time does intend for them to continue this ordinance for all time, at least as far as he can see it. Beyond that, we absolutely DO continue to celebrate passover in it’s Christiological implications so, in that sense, we will celebrate that eternally.
    2. In your treatment of Heb. 6:2 viz. “eternal judgement”, it feels to me like you’re imposing your worldview on the text rather than allowing what appears – again – to be authorial intent based on the context, to speak for itself. Your polemic for your understanding of “eternal” NOT being eternal in Heb. 6:2 seems unfair, especially taking into account the whole of Scripture and even the immediate context. Now i don’t know Greek from a hole in the ground but can the word judgement not also be a noun as well as a verb? If you begin with the premise that it’s a verb then your view makes more sense, but then raises even more questions. We don’t speak of the ‘eternal decrees of God’ for instance and say, “well, those can’t be eternal because God isn’t speaking out these decrees forever, He just gave them once.” That does start to sound like some of Bell’s argumentation for inclusivism when he reads texts saying Christ will restore all things unto Himself and concludes that everyone will be eventually saved. “See!”, he argues, “it says ‘ALL things’ and people are certainly things, so …” It is there in the text but even the most basic handling of the text would in light of the whole counsel of Scripture would eliminate such a reading, however much one might want it to be true (and i do!).

    Anyways, those are just some initial points to put out there. Love to hear back from you or anyone else on here who could speak into that. Is Paul using the word judgement in Heb. 6 as a verb or as a noun? Is that obvious in the Greek? Does the context of Paul’s argument make it clearer which way he might be using the word?

    • John Stackhouse

      A few points in reply to Brother Steve and Brother Wesley:

      1. “Eternal” can mean “of eternal consequence or significance” in some of these passages, so that eternal punishment and eternal life are, indeed, parallel in that key respect. The thing about life if it is eternal is that it is extended infinitely, but what would it mean that death is extended infinitely? Only that once you’re dead (in the “second death”), you’re dead forever.

      2. Authorial intent clearly can’t govern us here if we mean something like this: “The OT author saw the Aaronic priesthood stretching to the horizon and so called it permanent/lasting/eternal, so it must be in fact permanent/lasting/eternal”–because the NT makes it clear that the Aaronic priesthood is in fact over; that Christ’s Melchizedekian priesthood is superior and has rendered the Aaronic priesthood otiose; so the OT human writer’s version was right so far as he could see, but later revelation shows the limitations of his sight.

      3. As for “judgement,” the noun is describing an action and this action can’t keep going forever, obviously. The outcome of the action, however, does have eternal significance: that’s what it means in this context.


      • Steve Wilkinson

        Oops, I should have read this first. Yes, I can agree on point #1, though I’m not totally convinced yet. That makes sense. I think where some annihilationists get in trouble here, or are misunderstood, is seeing the annihilation as a kind of instant thing, where no debt is really paid. So, if an unrepentant Hitler dies and then poof, is annihilated, that just doesn’t seem right. I’ve heard the view put that way, so I’m not sure if that is what some really believe or if it is just a mischaracterization.

      • Wesley

        Tone is so hard to read in a blog post; can’t discern if i’m irritating you not. Please know, i’m not trying to ‘stir the pot’ for stirring’s sake, but am genuinely wrestling with what you’re writing.
        For your first point, i see what you’re saying except the argument falls apart when you remember that Scripture uses the terms ‘life’ and ‘death’ in more that just a literal sense. So in John 10:10 when Jesus says that He has come that we might have ‘life’, He’s not saying He’s come so that we could be alive – clearly life here (and i would argue MANY places in Scripture) has a metaphorical sense attached to it referring to God’s eternal rest in the presence of the Father. Similarly, death is often used this way.
        As for authorial intent, all i was arguing is that the author meant ‘eternal/ongoing for all time’ when he wrote it, not that it would literally go on forever.

        The main problem i find with the annihilationist perspective is that it weakens the power of the cross. If i can live however i want in defiance of my Creator and then, when i die just cease to exist viz. be annihilated, how is that really punishment for sin. Yes, we miss out on an eternity in the joys and presence of Christ, but the unregenerate heart doesn’t want that anyways and, i would argue, most unsaved folks i talk to already think they die and then there’s nothing. So how is the annihilationist perspective any different than this very common view except that it attaches God’s Name to it? While freely adhering to the saying that heaven is not for people who are afraid of hell, etc. etc. it seems a very ‘man-centered’ perspective to imagine that the worst punishment God could bring against our sinful rebellion is to cause us to cease to exist. In fact, He has created something far worse and the death of His son both frees us from that eternal suffering and frees us to adoption as sons and daughters to dwell with Him eternally. Thanks be to God for His inestimable richness toward us in Christ.

        • John Stackhouse

          Um, guys, did you get to the part of the lecture where I explicitly agree with you that it is abhorrent to our native sense of justice that a Very Bad Sinner could die peacefully in bed only to wake up at the resurrection to a brief trial and then be annihilated?

          Did you get to the part where I say that such a person does not get off easy, let alone scot-free, but instead has to suffer for everything he has done?

  3. Bev

    Thanks for sharing this and I must say, as someone who lives in an area with little access to seminary or even good Christian conferences or workshops, it is quite exciting to see what is available on the website.

    I do have a couple of questions further to what the other folks have asked as I would echo some of their comments.

    1) Could you elaborate on the idea of “damage to the cosmos”? I liked the analogy you made of the plates being thrown around the kitchen and how though there may be forgiveness there is still damage done. But where does that damage lie? I kind of have a fuzzy sense of what you mean but I’m not quite sure.

    2)I appreciate that we do not know who is in the book of Life and therefore have no idea what percentage of humanity that may get into heaven. In terms of judgement you said that if one is an unrepentant sinner that one must pay the consequences of their sins themselves in hell. How does this square with heaven perhaps being fuller than we may think? Would you adhere to more of the Roman Catholic teaching that those who sincerely seek God and follow his ways be saved?

    Thanks again for sharing this. I do like this take on the topic. It offers justice in that the sinner does pay for the sins in hell, yet is merciful in that it doesn’t last forever and ever. After all, some folks are “minor league sinners” and one would like to think that a “kabillion” years in hell would be enough for 70-80 years of sinning on this earth. Even though it may not last for all of eternity, it is still a terrifying and tragic end.

  4. John Stackhouse

    Sister Bev, I wish I could specify more clearly what the Bible and Christian theology point to when they use motifs such as stain, debt, hole, damage, disease, and so on. I just haven’t been able to get that objective reality into better focus yet.

    I’m not a Roman Catholic, and I don’t think anyone can follow God’s ways in some abstract sense. But Hebrews 11 tells us that the very definition of faith is believing that God exists and that he is the rewarder of all who diligently seek him, so we cast ourselves on God’s mercy. And this teaching comes in the beginning of a long catalogue of heroes of faith none of whom asked Jesus into his heart as his own personal Saviour. So I am hopeful that God’s Holy Spirit is busy around the globe, as God has always been, drawing people to God and enabling them to enjoy the gift of faith, however murky their theology and erratic their practices might have been.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m no universalist, nor do I think that the careful observance of non-Christian religions will get you into heaven. I don’t think the practice of ANY religion will save you, including the practice of Christianity. GOD saves us, not our religious practice.

    But I do think that the gift of faith is extended by God to those outside the immediate ambit of Christian proclamation even as God calls us to self-sacrificially preach the Gospel as widely and as effectively as we can, since that is the very best way to come to faith AND to grow up in it: with a Bible, Christian teaching, Christian community, and all else God lovingly gives us not only to just “get us saved” but to save us to the uttermost!

    • Bev

      Thank you for the response, Brother John. You have certainly given me something to think about. Indeed, God saves and not our religious practice.

  5. Benj Petroelje


    I’ve been following the discussion of these very issues on Scot McKnight’s blog and also Andrew Perriman’s blog as well. Something recently came up on McKnight’s blog that I thought you might be interested in seeing. Don’t think it makes a difference for the overall thrust of your lecture, but for the sake of accuracy, I thought you’d care. I certainly have perpetuated this “myth” many times. I quote McKnight below.

    5. Finally, and we’ve perhaps all made this mistake. Gehenna was not a dump outside Jerusalem. No matter how many times people say this — and it has become street truth — there is no evidence that there was a town dump outside Jerusalem in the first century. As Dale Allison puts it, “without ancient support.” That place, the Valley of Hinnom where there was an idolatrous high place called Topheth, was the notorious place of death and idolatry and fire and judgment, but it was not the town dump of Jerusalem. To use Gehenna for Jesus was to use a metaphor for divine judgment and destruction. See the OT uses in Jer 7:31-32; 19:2-9; 32:35; Isa 30:33. It is not only flippant but inaccurate to say Gehenna is the town dump — it is a metaphor for divine judgment.

    In the comments section of his blog someone asked him if he knew where this idea started, and he said he had been trying to track it down, but couldn’t find it. He thinks it may be late medieval. Anyways, in light of your “Point #3” about hell early in your lecture, I thought you’d be interested in this.

    • John Stackhouse

      Thanks for this heads-up, Benj. It seems that the idea of Gehenna as a burning garbage dump stems from a few facts we have at hand: the site was religiously polluted as a place of human sacrifice by fire; by the time of Jesus Gehenna was a common reference for the place of postmortem judgment of the wicked; and the Romans used the site as a place to burn their dead (versus the burial practices of the other peoples in the area).

      The earliest documented references to the idea of it being an actual dump, however, seem to be quite late–medieval and Jewish, in fact, before entering the Christian tradition.

      So it seems that I, too, have been taught something that is not currently well rooted in archaeological confirmation and have passed it on. I’m sorry about that, and I am glad to be better instructed.

      As you say, Benj, the motif of hell as a sort of dump does cohere well with other data we have about it–which is doubtless why the tradition about Gehenna has “stuck”: It’s the sort of thing that seems right, even if it isn’t! So we can use it as a theological motif to explain the doctrine of hell if it makes sense on other grounds, which I think it does, even if we should be much more tentative than I was about Gehenna references per se.

      (I’ll also stay tuned, however, to see if this later tradition turns out to be righter than we currently think. Medievals often had access to information now lost and they sometimes have been shown to know more than we thought they did about ancient times.)

      • John Stackhouse

        Here’s a little more on this particular subject from my colleague Dr. Rikki Watts, NT scholar extraordinary:

        “Whether there was such a rubbish dump in Jesus’ day is unattested in contemporary sources, but I’m having a hard time trying to imagine a context in which anyone would make such a comment; does any ancient Jewish document talk about a city’s dump? It seems though that a number of my NT colleagues have argued that a garbage dump is what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of Gehenna. Still, I think that would be surprising seeing how by around this time it seems to have taken on a life of its own as the place of eternal punishment.

        “And yet: Isa 66:24’s fire and worms sounds a lot like a place of refuse, and since a number of folk connect it with Jeremiah’s fulminations concerning Topheth/Hinnom and the dead carcasses thrown into it, there seems to be some sort of connection.

        “In other words, whether Hinnom was a garbage dump in Jesus’ day or not, it seems that it had that association in the days of Isaiah 66 (for me, after the exile), and that irrespective of what later tradition did with it. For Jesus to cite Isa 66:24 (which does not mention Gehenna/Hinnom) in Mark 9:48 sounds very much as though he still maintains those earlier associations.”

        • Benj Petroelje

          John, thanks for this – really helpful. What I think McKnight was pressing against was people who flippantly dismiss Jesus’ “Gehenna” references as not all that serious because he’s just referring to a garbage dump. Taking this attitude is to limit the severity of Jesus’ words whenever he uses this loaded term Gehenna. I think what he (and you and Rikk) wants to remind us is that by drawing on this term with connotations back to Jeremiah (7:30-33; 19:6-8) and Isaiah (66:24), Jesus is actually using a more technical term which, by his day, does in fact connote some kind of eternal destruction/punishment (in the way you have defined eternal in your lecture, methinks).

          Thanks for your thoughts and for bringing Rikk into the conversation.

  6. Samuel

    Dear Dr. Stackhouse,

    I found your lecture immensely helpful. I have struggled with “eternal conscious torment” ever since I learned of the issue, and my struggles have included serious related psychological problems (I think I’m one of William James’ “sick-minded”).

    I have a question about the very coherence of the doctrine in its traditional form. It’s simple: if one takes a substitutionary view of atonement, how does Jesus absorb “eternal conscious torment,” which is apparently the deserved punishment for sin? The response I’ve always and only heard is, because God is infinite. But that always struck me as literally incoherent: one infinite cancels another infinite, rendering it essentially finite (presumably Jesus is not in hell today!)?!

    So, it seems even apart from the details of exegesis, there are difficulties with the very idea of Jesus suffering hell for us, and hell as eternal conscious torment. Do you think this is off base? Thanks a lot.

    • John Stackhouse

      “Infinity” is used ‘way too much in theology and causes lots of difficulties, as you’ve indicated here. I caution my students to use infinity only if they are quite sure it is the right term to use.

      For example, to say that God is “infinitely patient” is wrong. God’s patience eventually ends and judgment comes–thank God! And to say that God is “infinitely good” is to use the wrong superlative: God is completely or totally good.

      That’s what I know! But exactly what it meant for Jesus to take upon himself the suffering due a sinful world in the hours he was on the Cross–no one knows what happened there. How could the sins and sinfulness of humanity over the ages be “funneled” onto Jesus during those few hours? No one knows. But his declaration, “It is finished” or, in another context, “Paid in full” (tetelestai), indicates that indeed Christ did atone for the sins of the world once for all and then died.

  7. Meera

    Hi John,

    Thank you for your lecture. I’m new to this whole discussion, but have been reading up on it in the past month since Rob Bell’s book came out just so that I can better speak into the confusion that this has created in my own church. I’ve talked with people who hold to the literal lake of fire, and people who think that everybody is going to heaven. From what I understand, the Bible is clear on hell existing, not just on earth (like child abuse), but as something permanent. Whether this means death (annihilationism) or sadistic torment, seems up to interpretation. Sadistic torment doesn’t seem to fit with a good and loving God though.

    I found your thoughts on the necessity of some kind of justice helpful, although it takes me straight to the struggle between mercy and justice. Perhaps the bottom line for me is that I don’t understand how God can be fully merciful and also fully just. I believe it, but I can’t wrap my head around it. Do you think that this struggle also informs the discussion on hell or am I barking up the wrong tree?

    I feel like my thoughts on this are quite random and confused, and I’m trying to assess what is fact and what is interpretation. Is it fair to say that:

    1. We know there is going to be a final judgment of some kind,
    2. We’re not completely sure what happens to those God deems will go to hell (some think they just die, some think they experience hell on earth, some people think they live in a world separate from God, some people think they suffer for their sins and then die),
    3. God is good and isn’t going to enjoy tormenting people in hell,
    4. Hell is probably not a literal lake of fire but rather some kind of a state of permanent separation from God,
    5. Those that accept Christ might go to heaven for a time but ultimately will be resurrected to joy on earth in a restored land,
    6. Christians can’t judge who will experience hell and who will be resurrected to eternal life on earth – only God can.

    Do you think that I generally have the facts straight? Is there anything else that you would say “for sure” about hell? I will continue to research the various streams of thought both so I can present them appropriately and so I can get a better idea of what I think.

    • John Stackhouse

      Sorry, Sister Meera, but you’ll forgive me if I can’t take the time to provide a set of notes to a 90-minute lecture. I provide a lot of what you’re calling “facts” in that lecture (and quite a bit more than you list in points 1-6, even as I don’t say what you say in point 2: I have no idea, for instance, what you mean about “hell on earth” as it pertains to “God deems will go to hell”) as well as a lot of interpretation, and I try to be clear about what’s what. So maybe give it another listen and see if it gets clearer.

      • Meera

        Went through it again – it’s a bit more clear, but still difficult to wrap my mind around. These are tough questions, and I’m left unsatisfied with the answers, although that may be because there are no quick and clear answers. What I’m wrestling with is how to address these questions with regular people. Questions such as “What is hell like,” “Why would a good God send people to hell,” and “What does the Bible say about hell” are all common, and it’s taking some weeding through your stuff and the other material out there to come up with clear and concise answers. Thanks for speaking into it anyways. 🙂

  8. chriswignall

    Found this very helpful, but struggling somewhat with the idea of unrepentant sinners paying consciously for their sins before ceasing to exist. If, as you say, all life exists only by God’s will then rejection by God would seem to logically equate with annihilation and truly be more severe than suffering. To advocate for a period of penance seems to put the cosmic accounting for sin on a higher plane of importance than existence itself.
    Or am I just elevating the Good (mercy) over the Good (justice)?

    • John Stackhouse

      I’m sorry, Chris, but I don’t yet see your point. Suffering in exact proportion to your sins seems right (I am arguing), after which your decision to avoid God and go your own way has its inevitable, because natural, result: extinction.

      Where are we not connecting?

      • chriswignall

        Not entirely connecting with the suffering in exact proportion idea. Maybe it sounds too much like accounting class to me but doesn’t ceasing to exist balance the cosmic scales?
        Delaying annihilation seems both somewhat sadistic and unnecessary to me. I think I understand the logic behind it (your description of the wealthy abuser fits) and I agree that there are Scriptures that suggest some period of torment. I’m just thinking (maybe hoping on behalf of loved ones likely facing that reality) that those texts are figurative for a humanity that can’t truly conceive of not being in any form.

  9. gingoro

    I already accepted a limited duration for hell and then Annihilation or possibly conditional immortality having read John Stott’s short discussion and CS Lewis. I see hell more as a state of being than a definite place although I expect those who reject God will tend to congregate.
    Dave W
    (former evangelical)


Comments are closed.