When evil is ultimately and finally vanquished, sinful acts and sinful hearts will nowhere be found. (Bawulski, “Reconciliationism,” 133)
I can think of no doctrine that troubles Christians as much as hell. Many of us wish that universalism were true, but Scripture convinces us otherwise. Perhaps traditionalists (those who believe that hell entails endless conscious punishment) feel the weight of objections to this doctrine more than annihilationists do, but even they frequently voice a wish that universalism were the truth, even though the thought that the wicked are finally destroyed, in both body and soul seems easier to live with than the conviction that the wicked are endlessly punished, or tormented.
I think that one of the more difficult challenges for proponents of the traditional view to answer has been the question of proportionality between the sins committed and the divine punishment received for those sins. The question is often put like this: “How can God justly punish with infinite severity the finite number of sins committed by finite creatures?” Two responses seem particularly common: (1) that the purportedly disproportionate penalty must be assessed, not on the basis of the finitude of the sinners, but in terms of the infinitude of the One against whom they sinned; and (2) that the endlessness of God’s punishing of the wicked is justified by the endlessness of their sinning. Having been consigned to hell, it is frequently asserted, sinners continue to rebel against God endlessly, thereby justifying the endlessness of their sentence to judgment.
I have used the second argument myself on occasion, having heard it often and found it helpful. So I read with interest Shawn Bawulski’s rejection of this idea, in favor of reconciliationism (in “Reconciliationism, A Better View of Hell: Reconciliationism and Eternal Punishment,” JETS 56/1 [March 2013]:123-38).
Put succinctly, reconciliationism is the view that all sinning ceases in the eternal state, and in some sense the reprobate participate in the cosmic reconciliation of all things to God: they are reconciled, not salvifically but in and through punishment. They do not experience the divine presence of blessing, but instead experience punishment, loss, shame, humiliation, pain, suffering, subjection, and lucidity of their wrongdoing and of God’s holiness and justice. They are defeated rebels, no longer able to continue in rebellion. They acquiescently accept their judgment and in so doing glorify God, under and through punishment praising him for his justice, an ability brought by the lucidity of God’s right and their wrong. This view embraces a universal and cosmic reconciliation of all things to God: the finally impenitent are part of a restored divine order not by receiving salvation but by their subjection and punishment. (124)
The notion of continuing sin finds little, if any, biblical support
Bawulski acknowledges that the idea of continuing sin has been “common in traditionalism” But he posits that it has “at best scant and speculative biblical support.” (In this regard he shares Henri Blocher’s objection, in Nigel Cameron, ed. Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell: Papers Presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference in Christian Dogmatics, 1991, 301.) The verse which might most obviously be taken as supporting continuing sin is Mark 3:29, where Jesus states that one who blasphemes the Holy Spirit “is guilty of an eternal sin.” But Bawulski posits that this “is more naturally understood as describing guilt that remains than perpetual sinning, especially considering the context of the verse and its synoptic parallels” (134).
D. A. Carson is one of the few scholars who has proposed exegetical support for continuing sin. He calls the view “probable,” though “hard to prove” (The Gagging of God, 533, as cited by Bawulski, 134), and he appeals to Rev 16:21 and 22:10-11. I had written a fairly detailed account of Bawulski’s argument against Carson’s case, but I have decided that this blog post is not a good place for that discussion, so I simply refer anyone who has an interest in it to pages 134-36 of Bawulski’s article. (Don’t you just hate it when you waste time like that while working on a writing project?)
The problem of endless cosmological dualism
From a broader biblical and systematic theological perspective, more significant than the lack of individual texts teaching that the wicked continue to sin forever in hell is the problem that this view connotes an endless dualism. Henri Blocher puts his finger on this defect:
The theory of sin forever flourishing ignores the message of Christ’s perfect victory over sin and all evil. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess . . . (Phil 2:10f), those of the lost included. It cannot mean mere outward, hypocritcal and forced agreement; what sense could there be in any outward show in the light of that Day, when all the secrets shall be exposed (Rom 2:16), before the God who is Spirit? Sinners are forced, then, to confess the truth, but they are forced by truth itself, by its overwhelming evidence and spiritual authority; they can no longer refuse to see, they cannot think otherwise . . . . Nothing could be farther removed from divine defeat and sin going on after divine judgment (in Cameron, Universalism, 303, cited by Bawulski, 137).
It is here that I found Bawulski’s work most fruitful, in regard to the notion of continuing sin in hell. Such an idea makes it impossible for us to make sense of the wonderful passages which speak of God’s final reconciliation with the entire cosmos. This is where the universalist proposal is most powerful. There we can easily see how it would be that God is reconciled with all of his creation, achieving a glorious time in which no rebels are found anywhere because all have repented of their rebellion and willingly submitted to God’s reign. Perfect peace ensues. Regrettably (if one dare say that of God’s clearly revealed truth), Scripture portrays “an eternal and more-or-less binary distinction between the righteous and the wicked that is actually realized. In other words, hell is populated” (Bawulski, 125). That is a constant feature in this present age, but it is finally and fully realized in the eschaton (Mt 25:31-46; Rev 20:10-15; 21:1-8).
Given this terrible revelation – that some of God’s moral creatures will never enjoy the kind of peace with God which Christ died to achieve for human beings – how are we to understand the glorious statements that, in the end, God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28), because Christ reconciled “to himself all things” (Col 1:20), and because “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11 NetB)?
To explain how this can be is the essence of “reconciliationism.” In this construct, God will be “all in all,” not because everyone is saved, but because the wicked participate by another means, that of their punishment and defeat. The time will come when no one in hell denies that God is victor, rightful Ruler of all he has created. Rebellion will be at an end. “Like the principalities and powers, the reprobate participate in the final reconciliation by way of conquest and pacification,” and Christ is the agent of this achievement, either through salvation or judgment (Mt 25:31-33; Jn 5:22, 27; Rev 19:11, 15) (Bawulski, 131). Whether by salvation or defeat, all things are brought under God’s rule and order. Everyone will eventually confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, the redeemed in loving adoration, and “the reprobate in subjection, shame, and defeat—not with contrived and insincere external lip service but as an expression of the internal recognition of the undeniable worth, goodness, and righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Bawulski, 133).
In the case of the wicked, this will not be a confession growing out of repentance for past error. Rather, as Peter O’Brien points out, Phil 2:9-11 draws on Isa 45:20ff, “where the future reality of universal worship is an irrevocable truth (v. 23) and at the same time ‘all who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame’ (v. 24)” (Philippians, 243, cited by Bawulski, 133).
Practical implications of reconciliationism
Bawulski grants that this reconciliationist construction will still leave us with questions, but I think that he sums up nicely its benefits:
It removes the troubling depictions of hell as a place where sin is eternally unbridled and wicked people and demons torment each other and themselves and replaces it with a place where God is supreme, a place where even the defeated have a positive role to play, if you will. It gives comfort for those who are suffering today, that evil will ultimately be completely eradicated and defeated. Finally, it pictures a final relationship between God and the totality of creation where the rift of sin is no longer. Even in eternal punishment, reconciliationism can say ‘in the end, God.’ (138)
Reflections on reconciliationism, with regard to the debate between traditionalists and annihilationists
Thanks to conversations in the Facebook group for Rethinking Hell and listening to a number of their podcasts, I have been pondering lately the relative merits of the traditional and annihilationist understandings of the final end of the wicked. I suspect that I’ll have more to say in this regard in future posts. As I reflected on Bawulski’s work, which is put forward as a version of the traditionalist perspective, I have been asking myself how his work might be useful also to annihilationists. Like traditionalists, they must respond to the universalist contention that only universal salvation will do justice to the biblical teaching regarding God’s final victory and his reconciliation with the entire cosmos.
From the universalist perspective, I doubt that either of the other two alternatives look to have any advantage over one another at this point. Whether the wicked are forever conscious of their defeat and live in shame, though not rebellion, or whether they are destroyed, body and soul, after being punished appropriately for the deeds done in this life, the victory by which God achieves reconciliation will look rather hollow to universalists.
I think that reconciliationism makes a helpful contribution to the traditionalist attempt to hold together both: the truth that some people never enjoy life with God on the new earth, and the truth that there will come a time when there is no active rebellion anywhere in God’s creation. Annihilationists may argue that their construct achieves this harmony of truths even more clearly, since a time will come when all those who were consigned to hell have ceased to exist personally. Being dead in every aspect of their being, and therefore lacking consciousness, their ability to rebel against God is forever a thing of the past.
But I can see one aspect of Bawulski’s proposal which annihilationists may want to appropriate. Most of the annihilationists I have “met” believe that the wicked experience a time of conscious punishment which varies in length, and perhaps in intensity, depending on their intentional sinfulness while on the earth. I can see how the reconciliationist reading of the final victory of God might give an annihilationist a helpful way of identifying the moment at which the final death comes to each being in hell. From this perspective, the time spent consciously in hell would be determined, not only by the gravity of the sins committed, but also by the ongoing refusal to acknowledge God’s rightful Kingship and Christ’s Lordship. In other words, God would not snuff out the life of anyone who had not reached the point of that kind of “reconciliation.” Only when a personal being reached that point, would God bring its life to an end.
I would not be surprised if annihilationists are still dissatisfied with the restorationist form of traditionalism, wondering if this might be a rather hollow victory for God that does not contribute significantly to his glory. Perhaps a paragraph from John Frame’s treatment of “God’s goodness” may be appropriate at this point:
There may be some ways, however, in which God is good even to the lost. Perhaps he is as good to them as he can possibly be, given their hatred of him and the demands of his justice. And if there are degrees of punishment in hell (as suggested by Luke 12:47-48), then, even in hell, God may exercise his benevolence by mitigating punishments. It may also be worth considering that in their very punishment in hell, God is giving a privilege to the lost—the privilege of displaying his justice and his victory in the spiritual war (cf. Rom 9:17). Those who find no benevolence in this privilege might be advised to consider whether their standards of goodness are sufficiently theocentric. (The Doctrine of God, 413; italics are mine).
This paragraph is in the context of Frame’s description of the various ways in which God is benevolent even to the wicked, throughout their lives, so it must not be read as the sum of his consideration of God’s goodness to unrepentant sinners. But, lest we wonder why God would keep alive those whom he has adequately punished and effectively subordinated, I think that Frame enunciates a perspective that contributes constructively to the total picture.