Can Hell be Restorative?

Can Hell be Restorative? August 7, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 1.44.33 PMChristopher Marshall, a professor at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, thinks so. While I’m not entirely sure he resolves the problems he generates, and he generates them as well as anyone I’ve read, his approach to the problem of hell (Rethinking Hell) is somewhere along the line of conditionalism or annihilationism or final radical diminishment. Perhaps he is closest to C.S. Lewis though I don’t think he would say that.

His concern is the moral problem of retributivist judgment as contradictory to God’s goodness and love, and his appeal is for a restorationist justice model as consistent with God’s grace, love and goodness.

At this point I want to raise my big question: Can “hell” be restorationist without becoming universalism or, if not universalism, can it be called restorationist justice? In what sense is Marshall’s piece “restorationist”?  If God’s motive is restorationist, is God desiring universalism? If not, is God’s judgment restorationist?

His contention is that a retributivist model of final judgment/hell is both unjust and out of line with God’s relational qualities. That is, it is impossible to square an infinite and eternal punishment — ongoing forever and ever — on finite beings. In what might be his best section, he contends that the “status argument,” or defending eternality of punishment and suffering on the basis of God’s status as infinite, cuts against the grain of all senses of human judgment. How so? In our world, for a strong man to pound the daylights out of a weak child, is so out of line with our sense of what is right that we have to wonder if the logic of the “status argument” makes God immoral.

He pushes against D.A. Carson’s theory of ongoing rebellion by sinners diminishes or defeats God’s ultimate victory and results in God willing immortality in order to continue punishing.  Why, he asks, would God want to punish endlessly? To quote Walter Moberley, this would be “truly pointless, gratuitous evil” (216). I find these arguments potent and deserving more than casual dismissals.

So he proposes a restorationist model of hell, with the above questions:

1. God is love so all judgment must emerge from God’s goodness and love. The final judgment then must flow from restorative love and justice, not simply retributivist. Some may refuse this restorative love, and God will leave them to their own will (this sounds like Lewis).

2. The language of the NT is often parabolic and symbolic and outside human experience. It must be seen as rhetoric first and not literal descriptions.

3. The final judgment is not really retributivist but relational: humans are judged for their overall character and orientation to God (faith, which is relational not qualitative).

4. Eschatological loss is also relational and not genuinely retributivist: there are no grades of punishment.

5. Retributivist language is often used and is designed to transform. I have to add a response here: there is a fine line between mere rhetoric and an imagined world created by that rhetoric. In other words, why use such language rhetorically? If it is OK rhetorically is it therefore OK morally in reality? Does not rhetoric create a moral world and order?

6. He sees final hell more as “metaphysical suicide than divinely imposed capital punishment” (225). He’s siding here with annihilationism.

I’m back to my original questions in bold above.

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  • I have not visited this fine blog in a long time, but thought I would drop in again. I am especially interested in the questions Scot raises and their broader implications: “there is a fine line between mere rhetoric and an imagined world created by that rhetoric. In other words, why use such language rhetorically? If it is OK rhetorically is it therefore OK morally in reality? Does not rhetoric create a moral world and order?” Does rhetoric create reality?

  • Gordie LaChance

    I love his argument about the “strong man pounding the daylights out of the weak man”. Even if the weak man had just murdered your child, I think it’s possible that the majority of people would still feel the injustice of the beating in their souls.
    I have trouble with the retributivist view for that reason. If I desire mercy for the man who killed my child (like Jesus’ pleading for those killing Him), then what does God feel who supposedly has a wider breadth of emotion (possibly).

    How is it that the mere existence of someone offends God and harms Him so much, that He must enact revenge on them in some eternal torment or even annihilation, especially when he asks us to forgive endlessly and turn the other cheek?

    That retributivist idea vs demons and Satan, I understand perhaps a bit more as they are supposedly more powerful than humans, and thus have a greater effect/responsibility. But humans are presented in the Bible as so finite, so limited in our knowledge, so frail that we can’t help but constantly screw up.
    To some extent, I can see a parallel with addicts. Take a kid who starts using heroin at 16, can’t ever break the addiction and dies of an overdose at 25.

    (As a related thought: Most people in my generation (born in 80s) I think would feel sympathy for the addict’s succumbing to his addiction. Older generations often seem to have a view of “He got what was coming to him; he should’ve taken his life more seriously.” Which I think the difference in generation views also shows up in our views of God. I wonder if perhaps 40 years ago, this article would’ve been considered so crazy no one would read it.)

    Anyway, I think the Bible shows humanity similarly to this proposed addict story. And the people that don’t find the grace of God ultimately die in a tragic circumstance. My point, I guess, is that from my interpretation of Scripture, I would think God would see even the most evil person as an addict (sort of a logismoi idea of Father Maximos); and I wouldn’t think revenge or whatever you’d call it is warranted in that understanding. It’s akin to punishing your 3 year old for not learning how to program a VCR. But that’s probably way too simple of an analogy.

    The other question I’d have is: is it possible that the most evil men/women to ever live were possessed? I don’t mean to suggest that possession would solve the issue solely. But think about it. Jesus healed the man in the Decapolis (I think that’s right), but what about all the other possessed he didn’t heal? I wonder if they were unilaterally thrown down and destroyed at 70 AD, but that’s another digression.

    Bottom line for me: I like Marshall’s thinking. I like Richard Beck’s idea of post-mortem chances. I like the idea that God saves everyone. That’s a lot of “I likes”, and I think that’s ultimately what it comes down to for everyone. The Bible just isn’t that explicit on hell or that comprehensive on God’s exact character. So to some extent we’re all “wishing and hoping and praying” based on our own personalities and experiences and desires.
    But maybe I’m way far off and blind.

  • scotmcknight

    What I mean is that it creates an imagined world and order.

  • KentonS

    Juxtaposing the “Can hell be restorationist with becoming universalism?” question with the “fine line between rhetoric and an imagined world” line.

    It seems to me that the imagined world Marshall is envisioning is at the bottom line universalist. I mean in the wisdom of my grade-school educated grandma, if it looks like a duck, waddles and quacks… it’s a duck. But he keeps calling it anihilationism (or “conditionalism”, whatever the rhetoric du jour is). Why? Is there fear of three word tweets and the ostracism that comes with it? If he concludes that there is ulitmate reconciliation, he should just say so! I’ll be happy to welcome him to the club and show him the secret handshake.

  • Timothy Stidham

    It seems like most of the deep energy around this topic isn’t found in the nuances but the bottom line. It is argued that you’re soft on sin if you support anything but ECT, OR that you and/or God are moral monsters if you do support ECT. It seems like both are motivated by humanistic concerns that my argument would be affirmed by others from whom I want approval.
    I think we should look closely with fresh eyes at the biblical material without trying to work out whether God is moral (which seems a little arrogant and scary). Has anyone who doesn’t already strongly support one side or the other, simply done a full exegesis of the passages involved without drawing their own conclusions?

  • Stephen W

    If it leads to annihilation then it can’t be restoration, can it? So it seems to me for it to be restorationist it must be universalist. (Is restorationist really a word? And what about retributivist? Seriously?)

    Another issue that occurs to me about annihilationism – isn’t it the equivalent of God putting a gun to someone’s head and saying “Love me or die”?

  • Patrick

    The answer to Scot’s question is NO.

    However, before closing our mind’s to Christ centered universalist thought, just consider what God promised in Gen. 3:15, what Jesus claimed He came here for and what Peter&Paul claimed Jesus accomplished.

    IF those claims are valid, there is simply no chance Jesus did not reverse all the “works of the devil”, including all relating to humanity. That leaves out none of us and no piece of evil influences the works of the devil brought and I would argue none of creation is exempt once you see passages like “God will be all in all”.

    What do we think happens to all humanity when they see Christ at the eschaton with us and they fall on their knees and pledge allegiance to Jesus as Yahweh? Those who pierced Him will mourn over Christ as if He was their only long lost son?

    Will Jesus accept that post resurrection worship as valid worship like He did with Thomas, Jude, James and Paul? Why wouldn’t He? Didn’t Jesus make it clear He came to save that which was lost? What part of humanity does that preclude?

    All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will worship before You … Psalm 22:27

  • Andrew Dowling

    Frankly, it sounds like quasi-universalism to me but with the caveat that the “really really evil” people who wish to remain stubborn to the very end get their comeuppance, via non-existence instead of eternal punishment.

    IMO simply a purgatory of some kind makes a lot more philosophical sense.

  • William Tanksley Jr

    I can’t imagine doing an exegesis that isn’t for the purpose of drawing conclusions. I guess you could say, though, that the original purpose of Fudge’s “The Fire that Consumes” was that — he was given a year’s stipend to do the research by a 7th Day Adventist who’s discovered that some of the church’s doctrines were false, and wanted a neutral 3rd party opinion. So his original purpose wasn’t to draw a conclusion.

    He did, though, and the book makes no bones about that. Nonetheless it’s essentially an exegesis, leaving out a few chapters glancing at philosophy and a very brief look at some systematics interactions.

    Yeah, that has to be the one I’d recommend.

  • William Tanksley Jr

    This is why we tend to prefer the name “conditional immortality” — the point isn’t “love me or die”, but rather, “you’re dying — come to me and live.”

  • Timothy Stidham

    Thanks, I will check it out. I guess I should have been more clear that I’m looking for a work that doesn’t have foregone conclusions. One that isn’t designed to support a decision made in advance. This sounds close to that. Thank you.

  • William Tanksley Jr

    Yeah, and as you see I recommended it with the caveat that he’s definitely come to a conclusion.

    Hold on, I just remembered a better one for you!

  • William Tanksley Jr

    Got it — Steve Gregg’s “All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin”.

    He not only doesn’t come to a conclusion in the book, he still hasn’t — you can call up his radio show and talk to him about any of the positions.

    Sorry I didn’t remember this one first; it’s much more what you wanted.

    The caveat here? I haven’t read it — I’ve only listened to his radio program. He’s got the Bible verses for any topic at his fingertips — very impressive.

  • newenglandsun

    1 Tim. 2:3-4 – God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (NRSV-CE)
    “God predestines no one to go to hell” (CCC, 1037)

    So yes, God does desire universalism.

  • KentonS

    OK, so to clarify, is it “you’re dying, come to me. Because once you die that’s it, I can’t help you. That whole Romans 8:38-9 thing was a damned lie.”? Or is it “you’re dying, come to me. But even if you do die the resurrection declares that my love is even stronger than death!”?

  • William Tanksley Jr

    No, it’s more like “I’m talking to someone else about a different topic, why don’t you come on over and demand I retroactively address your topic and call God’s word a ‘damned lie’?”

    Can we discuss this without blasphemy trials?


  • KentonS

    Dude, loosen up, for cryin’ out loud! Seriously! Besides you’re on a thread that I freakin’ started, so who do you think is the one encroaching on the conversation here?

    I’m not calling the Romans text a damned lie, that’s the point. But you’ve got to lie in the bed your making. If you’re saying that the end of the story is annihilation, then own it. Tell us how/why Paul missed the mark here.

    For the record, wearing a universalist label,I know a thing or two about heresy trials, I wouldn’t want to subject anybody to one. Grace to you, wtanksleyjr.

  • William Tanksley Jr

    Wait, you’re accusing me of calling Paul a liar and so I’m the one who needs to loosen up? Nice. Look, I’ve been through a heresy trial too — I respect you now more than before I went through that, but not so much more that I’ll let you use your pain as an excuse for lashing out at me for blasphemy.

    (Actually, what REALLY makes me respect you isn’t the pain we share — it’s the fact that your beliefs are SO much more Biblically grounded than the “incarcerationism” I used to believe was the only option. I still think you’re wrong, but now at least I realize that I might be wrong about that. Kudos to you for your courage to face the false belief I had.)

    You’ve been answered many times as to what conditionalists think that passage means. I’m not going to tell you anything you didn’t expect me to say, so I don’t understand why you think it’s appropriate to frame me as committing blasphemy rather than simply being wrong.

    As you know, conditionalists believe the great apocatastasis is the renewal not of all things that ever existed, but of all things that exist — which elsewhere is described as “those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead,” or contrasted to “all causes of sin and all law-breakers.”

  • KentonS

    I think I need to walk away from this conversation, W. I don’t know (maybe I just don’t recall?) what “many times” you’re talking about, and I never accused you of blasphemy.

    I think you’re characterizing my tone in a way it was never intended. Chalk it up to the nature of blog comments. It can happen sometimes. Again, grace to you.

  • Timothy Stidham

    Seems like an interesting guy who is familiar with the scriptures from constantly being in dialogue. I will check out the book. Thanks.

  • Timothy Stidham

    It seems like he’s saying that universalism and/or the opportunity to repent after death are the most palatable to modern sensibilities. But is he clearly saying that’s the most biblical position?
    My own questions about universalism have to do with the meaning of life in this age. The scriptures indicate the time being extended so more can come into the Kingdom. Why delay the Parousia and allow potential suffering, if human choice in this life is not ultimate?
    It seems like the choices we make now affect the post-judgment world. If we are open and teachable now, we gain much. If we are closed now, are we likely to change after death?
    We know for sure God desires no one to perish. It’s interesting to think that punishment after death has repentance as it’s purpose. But I don’t find solid Scriptural support for it.
    I think we’d best be about the business of discipleship and evangelism. Exactly what happens after death is at least somewhat veiled. I pray we make the most of these moments with everyone we know or haven’t met yet. Christ brings healing, restoration-in-community now and a firm hope for the future.

  • William Tanksley Jr

    Thank you, and God bless you as well. You are my brother… but we’ve all seen brothers.

    Please think about what I’ve said, though. Not to convince you, but to explain that conditionalists don’t actually think Paul is _lying_.

  • JK

    This approach seems to provide some resolution to one of the aspects of annihilationism/conditionalism that seems unsettling. As people, we instinctively dehumanize our enemies, but as Jesus followers we actively work to override this instinct. Yet conditionalism holds that God ultimately dehumanizes those who oppose him. Does this bug anyone else?

    The partial resolution offered here seems to be that allowing people to choose their own destruction paradoxically preserves their humanity.

  • KentonS

    I think we ask similar but distinctly different questions, Timothy. Rather than ask “is it the most biblical,” I ask “is it the most Christ-like?” (With the understanding that Jesus will always be the same Jesus who came 2000 years ago, not morphed into some terrorist Jesus.)

    I agree that the choices we make now affect the life to come. Not only that but the life to come *before* “the life to come.” The decisions we make and the actions we take form us into the people that we are. And if we are ruled in love in the age to come, I want to align with that love now as best as I can.

    Are we likely to change after death? Well, for starters, we’ll see Him face to face, as He really is. I think that will matter. We’ll also see ourselves as we truly are. That will matter too.

    Because of all that, yes, we DO have to be about the business of discipleship and evangelism.

  • Timothy Stidham

    I totally agree that living in the kingdom under God’s rule now is the key. That leads to the other things we agree on as well.

  • Tom

    Hi Scott. Great blog. I only drop in a few times here and there. Always good stuff.

    I’d say the answer to your question is “It depends.” Restorative justice certainly implies the universal scope of God’s ‘intent’ that all come into right relationship, and it also implies postmortem grace and opportunity within hell as restorative to find one’s way home. God would never foreclose upon the possibility of Godward movement by us.

    The only thing that could conceivably prevent Marshall’s view from implying ultimate universalism is if persons are themselves capable of irrevocably foreclosing upon the possibility of Godward movement, for example if continued refusal of grace within a postmortem context would increasingly harden the mind and will against God. A point of no return is reached and the person becomes irrevocably fixed or solidified beyond all possibility of Godward movement. In that case, I’m guessing Marshall would agree the most loving thing to do would be annihilation.

    So the question is whether one can make metaphysical sense of sentient being as created by (the kind of loving) God (Marshall imagines) in which we’re capable of disposing of ourselves irrevocably out of all possibility of Godward movement. I don’t think that’s possible metaphysically speaking, so for me Marshall’s position would imply universalism. If hell is restorative/remedial (which presumes God does not foreclose upon the possibility of our turning toward him), and we don’t have the capacity to irrevocably foreclose upon ourselves all possibility of Godward movement, then something like eventual universal reconciliation follows.

    Then there’s the question of freedom. If one holds to (some measure of) libertarian free will in such cases, then postmortem restorative justice (i.e., hell) would be open-ended, i.e., there’d be no ‘terminus ad quem’ to hell, a point at which God says, “OK, enough suffering darn it. I’m saying you now. Zap.” Rather, God would neither give up on folks nor determine them compatibilistically, and persons could never themselves foreclose on the possibility of Godward movement (since God defines that possibility, not us) but would always be free on some meaningful level to take responsibility for their actions, honestly own the truth of themselves before God, and cry out sincerely in faith. You’d be left with an open-ended timeline in which God is in no rush.

    But if divine compatibilistic determinism is an option, then you can insert that terminus ad quem. But then one would have to wonder why the world is so screwed up to begin with if God can determine outcomes compatibilistically. But that’s another topic.

  • scotmcknight

    I don’t see how it can be “restorative” apart from universalism. If the imbalance is that absence of repentance and faith and love et al, then restoration implies restoring the person from that condition. In which case, universalism or a return to enmity by the person, which ends restoration. What does restoration mean in Marshall’s case?

  • Tom F.

    “Can “hell” be restorationist without becoming universalism or, if not universalism, can it be called restorationist justice?”

    It seems that based off of point 1 above, “hell” can be “restorationist” in aim, but God allows that restoration to fail if the person resists. So, then, I suppose you could say “its not restorationist” because God will still end up actively or inactively exercises judgment on those who ultimately reject God (ECT or simply non-existence). Whether this is truly “restorationist” or not, it seems clear that this is pretty different than a retributive model, which seems to be his main goal, at least from what I’m understanding.

    “If God’s motive is restorationist, is God desiring universalism?”- I am hearing you ask if God’s motive for “Hell” is restorationist, is God desiring that all be saved when he exercises judgment through “Hell”? I think this is a good question- the center of restoration/judgment I think needs to be something like “things being put/made right”. I think that is the central action of God is that “putting-right-ness”. I think the Bible has human beings near the center of that, but the “putting-right-ness” is the center. So if human beings can get on board with that, great! If not, I think the Bible has very strong language to say that getting in the way of that “putting-right-ness” means very bad things.

    So- yes, I think “Hell” is an expression of things being made right, and I think that God would prefer that things be made right without necessitating the destruction or eternal suffering of anyone. But I don’t think its immediately entailed that this involves “desiring universalism”- because that’s about individual human fates, and while that’s important, that’s not the center, the “being-put-rightness” is the center.

    In any case, from my vantage point, the arguments about retributive justice are quite damning to ECT (no pun intended). First, ECT fails classic formulations of retributive justice because it is disproportional, and thus has to be saved from this by workarounds such as God’s infinite status or people who keep sinning in hell.

    But more importantly, retributive justice is anchored in a strong moral feeling that desires that offenders receive punishment proportional to their crimes. But why would we desire that? I would argue that we feel safer in a society where people are punished, because it will be a deterrent. We feel cheated because we lost something that the other person damaged or stole or wrecked, and we want the moral “ledger” equalized.

    The alternative is that the “just desserts” of retributive justice is simply irreducible, that it simply is, and that violations of moral law have consequences without reference to any other concerns. This is very hard to reconcile with the significant amount of moral shifting across the covenants: for example, disobeying one’s parents is seen as atrocious in the OT, but in the NT, having disobedient children merely disqualifies one for some kinds of leadership. Did the moral fabric of the universe change? No, but societies did. And so it seems that moral concerns are driven at least in part by the societies they are in, and thus the “just desserts” of moral violation can not be irreducible- it is clearly strongly affected by context and the needs of that society, meaning that moral discourse serves broader goals than just itself.

    Theologically, those broader concerns are relationship itself. Moral discourse and rhetoric in the Bible serves relationship- relationship with God, relationship with others. And thus, insisting on the need for hell on retributive grounds based on moral violations undercuts the purpose of moral discourse itself- it says that God would “desire” to be in relationship with the damned, but that God must instead punish and hate them to serve the moral good, the same moral good that exists to create relational flourishing.

  • bobbygrow

    His logic seems universalist to me, not annihilationist/conditionalist.