Thursday, September 21, 2006

Carson, justice and hell as eternal conscious torment

One particularly, at least in my judgment, offensive and arguably unscriptural response to the problem of justice and hell as eternal torment is supplied by Carson in The Gagging of God (I note that I actually respect Carson’s scholarship very often, though not at this point). As I mentioned, I’ve been very ill the last few days, so apologies if my temper gets the better of me in this post.

How to reconcile eternal conscious torment and finite sin? Carson wants to suggest that people carry on sinning in hell (furious at the torments?) and thus incur more punishment for their continued sin. A cycle of sin-punishment-sin-punishment is thus set up for all eternity. Thus he justifies eternal conscious torment with the problem of justice.

I’m sorry, but this is just incredible! What kind of understanding of God does such a comment insinuate? ‘I know’, God says one day, ‘I’ll create a world and then set it up so that I can punish sinners (probably the majority of my creation) for ever through a clever cycle of sin-punishment-sin-punishment. What a delightful way to be a God of love’. In this scenario God’s love and justice to all are, I think, separated, for how is God’s holiness also loving in this universe? Furthermore, it also means that God’s intentions to truly be all in all (1 Cor 15) would have failed as sin continues in this universe. Carson responds to this by suggesting that God’s ultimate victory is simply that he will justly punish all sin. However, Paul is very clear that the eschaton involves the subduing (not just punishment) of all of Christ’s enemies. This is clear in both 1 Cor 15 and Phil 2.

(1 Corinthians 15:24-28 ‘Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power [i.e. those opposed to God]. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death [Paul is clear about the association between sin and death. But if God is doesn’t get rid of sin, then death also remains victorious – unless we try to ignore a the association made in not a few passages: Rom. 5:12, 21; 6:10, 13, 16, 23; 7:13; 8:2; 1 Cor. 15:56]. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all’)

Is person A really subjected to God if that very way of existence that makes him an enemy of God continues? Furthermore, even if we don't translate the Greek as 'everything to everyone' which would surely rule out ongoing eternal sin, it should be understood as 'the unchallenged reign of God alone' (cf. Garland's new 1 Cor commentary and the references he cites, p. 714) - and thus rules out Carson's suggestion anyway. In Carson’s suggestion, sin continues in the universe, God never rids it. His ‘victory’ is redefined so as to include the continued cursing of God for all eternity! I suppose the tiny club that make it to heaven will be happy enough, but lets face it, the vast majority of all who have ever lived will be a-cursing and sinning on and on. Nice victory, huh?! More importantly, according to Carson it would follow that God is all in all precisely where and when there is sin. I suppose he who cannot look on sin can nevertheless find his eschatological fullness and glory in dwelling precisely within sin! ‘All in all’, and all. Add a nice dollop of eisegesis into the mix and I’m sure we can whip up a take on some of these verses such that Carson’s suggestions lives, and those who are desparate to believe what he says will no doubt try. But it wouldn’t be an exegesis that I could honestly look in the face.

Besides, one wonders why God suddenly, in Carson’s eternal scenario, isn’t the same as the one of whom Paul could say in light of the sending of Christ: ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ (Rom 5:20).

I find it disturbing that a scholar of Carson’s ability can resort to such blinkered exegesis (especially of Revelation) and dubious theological reasoning in this section of The Gagging of God. The things some people suggest, when they should know better, to defend a traditional view of hell on philosophical grounds! The best you can do, if you want to hang on to ‘eternal conscious torment’, is to accept there is mystery in relation to the question of justice, and don’t pretend to be able to offer scriptural justification for it. We need to be all the more careful with this subject too, for pastoral reasons. Many of us have people we love who have since died and were not Christian, so we had better be sure that we offer good arguments at this sensitive point, rather than bludgeoning in with our theologically dogmatic size-twelves. The scriptures he cited were, I suspect, used in a ‘Christmas tree fashion’, i.e. to decorate a theologically pre-given without (his usual) serious contextual and exegetical thoroughness.

For those of you who love everything Carson pens, my apologies. I also think he is a terrific scholar, and one who is always worth reading. But much discernment needs to be exercised in reading his works as he tends to come across as very confident and ‘of course this is how it really is’ when the matter is actually far less black and white. For example, in relation to this very debate he introduces his argument concerning the ongoing nature sin in hell with the claim that ‘There is surely at least one passage that hints at this reality’ (533, italics mine). How about ‘that hints in this direction’, or ‘provides reason for this suggestion’?! Nevertheless, given his learning and cogency one should always consult his works, The Gagging of God included.


At 9/21/2006 4:00 PM, Anonymous richard said...

I must admit the only book of Carson's that I have read is The Gagging of God and I was far from impressed. It is a good few years ago now but I remember being quite angered by his presentation of the inclusivism of Pinnock et al as having a somewhat inaccurate presentation of what they believed. It was enough to never prompt me to try reading him again.

At 9/21/2006 5:00 PM, Anonymous Brian said...

Well, my understanding about the Gagging of God - if it is fair to read reviews on (US) and trust their judgement, it seems that Carson botched a lot of things in that ginourmous work. It seems like not all in that book is well though out or throughly dealt with.

Like you I am not an annihalationoist (sp?) but the discussion is interesting. I grew up with the "hell is forever" theology - supported farily well by Jesus himself in his assertions of a place where "where the worm never dies and the flame is not quenched." Hard not to think hell is forever when Jesus himself seems to suggest it might be (cf. Mark 9:48).

But then again I am not well read on the topic so I may need to be rebuffed? Perhaps I am being too literal?

At 9/21/2006 5:18 PM, Anonymous Volker said...

Brilliant post, Chris. I think you've shown very well on the basis of what Paul/the NT says about God (and the future) that Carson's reasoning is very problematic. I guess the reason for his different perspective from yours is also that his reasoning is not based on theology but on anthropology. His basic assumption seems to be the immortality of the soul. If one agrees on that presupposition, I guess Carson may have a point in that God is not going to forcefully convert people who (in the worse cases willfully) sin into people who no longer sin. Unless you are a universalist and give up both the ideas of a (somewhat) free will and of any kind of punishment. Hence, annihilationism makes a lot more sense of the passages that you've cited, I think.
So, are you indeed not an annihilationist, as Brian suggests above?

At 9/21/2006 10:48 PM, Anonymous Jon Henry said...

I meant to say, "The best presentation THAT I HAVE SEEN YET."

At 9/21/2006 10:48 PM, Anonymous Jon Henry said...

The best presentation of the "conditional view" of immortality (a.k.a. annihilationism) is Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. I think that there is something to be learned from Robert Peterson and Ed. Fudge, "Two Views on Hell" (IVP), and Gundry, ed., "Four Views on Hell" (Zondervan).

My own thinking began to develop following a survey of world religions. There are a lot of "Hells," from Greek to Buddhist, but the Judeo-Christian idea is the only one that features the wrath of God as a sanctifying exertion against evil(like cherem, the ban). I'm still trying to conclude whether this is "forever" or not, but I'm leaning toward not.

Thanks for putting these review out there for us to see.

At 9/22/2006 4:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you'd be good enough to actually mention the passages he refers to when he says: ‘There is surely at least one passage that hints at this reality’ (533). Then we could evaluate his case. Your post is long on polemic, but short on substance.

At 9/22/2006 5:42 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Anon writes: ‘Your post is long on polemic, but short on substance

– bit like your comment then!

The verse he refers to is Rev 22:10-12, but my point was simply his overconfidence, in calling this verse a hint at the ‘reality’ of his suggestion. It isn’t certain that it is ‘reality’ at all, hence the last paragraph.

Needless to say I suspect that 22:12 makes clear that these verses are probably not referring to a post-mortem hell-state, so I think my ‘decorating pre-given theological assumption with bible texts in an unwarranted fashion’ point in the post is acceptable. My argument is that the truth or falsehood of his argument doesn’t hinge on this correct interpretation of this strange verse, because the clear implications of 1 Cor 15 rule it out.

BTW, there is plenty of substance in this post, and ironically it is entirely polemical, unfriendly and unsubstantiated to claim as you do. If you have a good point that sinks my argument in this post then I would honestly appreciate it if you deal with the arguments. That is what debate is all about.

Hi Jon
Have you read the EA book I mentioned?

Hey Volker!
are you indeed not an annihilationist?’. To be honest, I’m not sure what I would call my self yet. I recently read the brilliant Evangelical Universalist, and I want to get into the EA book on hell too before I take a stance. If push comes to shove, I guess the annihilationist position is the most plausible to me at the moment, but I have a few questions still ...!

Hi Brian,
Thanks for your comments. Certainly some pictorial passages support an eternal fire, yet others support a total annihilation. Then we need to ask what is the best way to handle the colourful, pictorial verses, and whether they work theologically in light of the rest of the NT. In my mind, they don’t, though I don understand the struggles of those who want to be faithful to Scripture, and cannot feel as though they can get away from the ‘eternal fire’ type language. One other point, many will challenge the understanding of ‘eternal’ in some of those verses if it is used to mean unending time (Cf. Genesis 19:28 and compare with Jude 7). I would say, however, and to Richard, that while Carson may write some things that at least need questioning, I would still recommend his works.

At 9/22/2006 6:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No one can say for sure what hell is like... I tend to agree with the opinion that the "Gates of Hell" are locked from the inside. However, when ever you are guesstimating about what MIGHT happen, and your guess makes God look like a giant cosmic ass-hole, it's time to shut your pie-hole.


At 9/22/2006 7:12 PM, Anonymous Brian said...

I agree that Carson is worth reading, though I have only read some of his stuff. Exegetical Fallicies is the only thing if his I own, though I especially recommend his NT Intro and his stuff on the NPP.

I might have to confess I am too close to the "hell is forever" position that leaving it is entirely uncomfortable, though I am willing to say I could be wrong. I'll keep "listening" for now.

At 9/22/2006 10:46 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Poetically put, Scott!

Brian, thanks for the Carson recommendations. I haven't looked at his NT intro yet.

At 9/25/2006 6:47 PM, Anonymous ntWrong said...

I've read a couple of Carson's commentaries (on Matthew and John) and profitted from them. But if Carson is forced to choose between sound exegesis and his prior theological commitments, he seems to prefer the latter.

I haven't read the Gagging of God. But I have read Carson's argument for the cessation of the spiritual gifts and I was appalled at the poor exegesis there. Similarly, he opts for an easy rejection of liberal positions, even though he is a good enough scholar to know that some liberal arguments (e.g. re John's Gospel) are rooted in the biblical texts themselves, and not to be lightly dismissed.


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