The Gag-Reflex and the Doctrine of Hell: Realigning Our Emotional Response to God’s Justice
The new issue of Credo Magazine focuses on the question, “Will all be saved?” The following is an excerpt from Denny Burk’s article, “The Gag-Reflex and the Doctrine of Hell: Realigning Our Emotional Response to God’s Justice.” Denny Burk (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Burk edits The Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and speaks and writes extensively about gender and sexuality. His books include Transforming Homosexuality (P&R, 2015) and What is the Meaning of Sex (Crossway, 2013). He keeps a popular blog at DennyBurk.com.
In his recent book arguing for universalism, David Bentley Hart explains why he abhors the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment. It turns out that his reasons are not first of all to do with God’s revelation in scripture but with a gag-reflex—his moral revulsion against a deity that would preside over an eternal conscious torment in hell. Hart writes,
How viciously vindictive the creator of such a hell would have to be to have devised so exquisitely malicious a form of torture and then to have made it eternal, and how unjust in condemning men and women to unending torment for the “sin” of not knowing him even though he had never revealed himself to them, or for some formally imputed guilt supposedly attaching to them on account of some distant ancestor’s transgression.
Hart’s rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell at least has the virtue of being clear. He does not mince words or hedge in the least. He rejects what the church has overwhelmingly taught and believed throughout its two-thousand year history. He knows he’s in the minority on this, but he nevertheless soldiers on in his contempt for any view of hell as eternal conscious torment. And it is clear that the doctrine of hell is not the only doctrine in his crosshairs. Hart is aware that the doctrine of hell sits atop a foundation of other theological commitments, including the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of man, and even the doctrine of God. Nevertheless, it is his doctrine of God that most drives his scorn for the biblical doctrine of hell. He simply will not bow the knee to a God who would preside over a hell of eternal fire and torment. Hart writes, “My conscience forbids assent to a picture of reality that I regard as morally corrupt, contrary to justice, perverse, inexcusably cruel, deeply irrational, and essentially wicked.” Again, at least he’s clear.
A familiar objection
John Stott also reflects the instinctive reaction that many people have to the idea of eternal conscious torment. He writes, “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” Stott and Hart are not alone in recoiling from the idea of “eternal conscious torment.” Hardly anyone can contemplate the horror of an eternal hell without shuddering at the thought of someone having to bear such a fate. Nevertheless, are our visceral feelings about hell really a reliable guide to evaluating the doctrine of hell?
What if the gag-reflex that people experience against hell is wrong? Obviously, serious Christians wish for God’s revelation in scripture to be the ultimate arbiter of the debate. But oftentimes our feelings can blind us to doctrines that we prefer not to be in the Bible. And that is often the case when it comes to people’s grappling with the biblical doctrine of eternal conscious torment.
To be sure, many people oppose the doctrine of eternal conscious torment on exegetical grounds, and I have addressed those arguments at length elsewhere. But many others simply express a moral revulsion at the doctrine and then revise or forsake the Bible’s teaching. Herman Bavinck explains, “The grounds on which people argue against the eternity of hellish punishment always remain the same.”
The first three reasons he lists are based less on specific scripture than they are on human judgments about the way God ought to behave: (1) Eternal punishment contradicts the goodness, love, and compassion of God and makes him a tyrant; (2) Eternal punishment contradicts the justice of God because it is in no way proportionate to the sin in question; and (3) Eternal punishment that is purely punitive and not remedial has no apparent value.
Over 1,500 years ago, Augustine dealt with similar questions in his defense of eternal conscious punishment. Again, these objections are not new nor is people’s abhorrence for the doctrine. Hart argues that such objections have no good answers under the traditional view. We are left with the “primary question of whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible… can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is.” Given that the Bible teaches hell to be eternal conscious torment and God to be just, then hell must be an indication of how grave and awful it is to sin against an infinitely holy God. Click To Tweet
Reforming the gag-reflex
When I was in seminary, I wrestled with my own emotional response to the doctrine of hell and how my affections might be rightly ordered towards God’s eternal wrath against sinners. There were two items that shaped my thinking during that period and that still shape my thinking today. The first was a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous.” This sermon is a meditation on Revelation 18:20, which says, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her.”
Edwards observes something profound revealed in this text. One day, God will turn to His glorified people and command them to “rejoice” over the destruction of the wicked in hell. Why? For several reasons: because God has finally given justice to His people by punishing her persecutors (Rev. 18:20b); because God’s judgment reveals His righteousness and justice (Rev. 19:2a); because God’s judgment ends Babylon’s wickedness (Rev. 19:2b); because God’s judgment vindicates the martyrs (Rev. 19:2c; cf. 6:10); because God’s judgment is eternal (Rev. 19:3); and because God’s judgment reveals that He reigns as the true King (Rev. 19:6).
This text from Revelation reveals that—regardless of my feelings now—there is coming a day when I will rejoice in the justice of God revealed in his punishment of sinners. That observation led me to ponder the crucial question: Why would I hold in contempt now the very thing that I will praise God for in the age to come? In the age to come, my heart will be made new, and my affections will be rightly ordered. In that day, I will no longer be haunted by indwelling sin and its distorting influence on my view of things. Therefore, I ought to aspire to be now what God will enable me to be perfectly in the age to come. I won’t be despising God’s righteous judgement in that future day, so I shouldn’t be despising it now.
That doesn’t mean that the thought of hell ceases to horrify me. It does horrify me. I am overwhelmed by the thought that the most powerful Being in the universe will inflict all his holy wrath upon the damned for eternity. I tremble to think that when the damned have suffered a million ages of despair, pain, anguish, and aloneness, their horror will only have just begun. I shudder to imagine the shock and astonishment of the damned, that their grief and pain will only increase forever. So I understand the emotional recoil that causes some people to soften the doctrine of hell or to jettison it altogether. I have felt it.
When I feel it, however, I try to remind myself that the problem is not with the doctrine. The problem is with me. My gag-reflex is malformed and needs to be adjusted to reality. I just don’t see things as I ought to see them. I don’t see things the way I will see them when I am made new. What is it about me now that tempts me to resist what I will one day embrace? It’s my inability to perceive and feel the greatness of an infinitely holy God. My vision of Him tends to be so dim that an infinite hell seems to be an overreaction to finite sin committed in time. If I understand the true greatness of God and the utter horror of sin, I would see that hell is not an overreaction on God’s part. It is an expression of his justice.
*Read Dr. Burk’s entire article in the latest issue: Will all be Saved?