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.