Watch the above 3 minute video or read the following transcript of D. A. Carson’s very sincere and careful defense of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment for most of humanity.
We spoke of Carson’s “Blessed Conundrum” in another post meaning he has argued himself into a dilemma where the only conclusion he is left with is a glorious one! His God is apparently just too loving and too powerful at the same time to allow for his doctrine of eternal conscious torment to hold together. Carson can be found speaking of both but to acknowledge both at the same time spells hope for all mankind!
In this short clip Carson focuses on “the righteousness of God” as the basis and foundation for an eternal hell. Yet, the very Biblical definition of “righteousness” we will see supports not “an endless cycle of sin and punishment” for most of humanity but rather a returning to “right-useness” in the context of right relationship for all!
We will follow up each section with some things to consider in response to Carson’s rationale for an eternal retributive hell.
In answer to the question: How can God be loving yet send people to an eternal hell?
Dr. Carson: Well. that’s a very good question. Right off the top one would have to say that many of those who have fought God all of their lives wouldn’t be all that happy in heaven it seems to me. If the enjoyment of God’s holiness, the praise of His name and the wonder of His character–if these things are really not precious to them in the first place then why on earth would a person want to go to heaven?
The phrase here to note is “it seems to me.” The problem is that Carson hasn’t considered what God has said He can do and will do. And as a Calvinist we find Carson beginning his defense on very subjective ground. Calvinists believe that God is sovereign over all things pertaining to man’s salvation and that He has the power to win the hearts of any He so chooses. In a commentary in which Carson was a contributor he argued that the passage where Jesus said, “And when I be lifted up I will draw all people to myself” is that of an irresistible “wooing” unto Himself (John 12:32). He needs to come clean and admit that Calvinism requires you believe that God does not desire or try to woo as much of humanity as He can but rather singles out only a special “elect” to save. But that would not have started out well and ended the conversation for most. Honestly, I think that the words just will not come forth, (as we have witnessed with Keller and others) even though predestination represents his theological confession as a Calvinist.
Dr. Carson: But there are more fundamental answers. It really is important to see that hell is not a place where there are a lot of deeply, sorrowful, repenting sinners who really want to turn from their sin and get out. The Bible speaks of hell as a place where “the filthy are filthy still” (Rev 21). It’s an alarming picture. There’s no evidence anywhere in the Bible that people come to hell and actually repent and want to turn to the living God. Rather it’s going to be a place where, for all eternity, people are are still defying God, still hating Him, still justifying themselves, still tearing down relationships, still being resentful, still nurturing self-righteousness in an endless cycle of brokenness and shame and guilt and punishment that brooks no repentance…ever. In that sense there is an ongoing cycle of guilt and punishment that is part of what individual sinners still want.
Again we would challenge the fact that as a Calvinist Carson professes that God has the POWER to draw sinners to Himself but in some mystery of His sovereignty He simply chooses NOT to apply His grace to most of humanity.
The passage from Revelation 21 of the “let the filthy be filthy still” is certainly not the last word for anybody; for to leave a sinner in sin indefinitely is not in character with the overall righteous nature of our God. He will not allow sin to perpetuate endlessly. This would mean He is ultimately the sponsor of sin by punishing sin with infinitely more sin! This interpretation is a far cry from the prodigal’s father who allowed his son to continue on his trajectory of sin till it “ripened” to a state where the son “came to his senses” resulting in a return, a reconciliation and a restoration. There are countless passages where this is allowed by God in order to let sin do its work in order to bring us back to our Father. The last word in Revelation is “Behold, I am making all things new’…”her gates will never be shut,” “The rivers shall be for the healing of the nations” and “The Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come, take the water of life freely…'”
Carson has constructed yet another quandary with his Calvinism when he construes that billions of eternally lost people will cycle hatred, defiance, resentment, shame and guilt with punishment, infinitely. As a Calvinist who must also believe that God will have ALL the glory and that this glory will not be shared with another, Carson has to face the problem of his paradigm supporting a scenario where God allows literally BILLIONS of idolators to cycle their self-worship…forever. To believe that an eternal hell of perpetual evil will parallel a holy righteous God is classic pagan dualism. He has turned sin into a god that eternally parallels Him. This is unbiblical as well as incoherent.
Dr. Carson: It’s painful to say it but it’s the truth.
But, the very nature of Biblical Christianity is that God intervenes and breaks the power of these sinful cycles and gives a new heart and transforms people, frees them from their guilt, gives them His Spirit so that there is the beginning of new life, new desire, new orientation, new hunger…finally consummated in a new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
The question erupts and we ask: Dr. Carson, if you believe that God has the authority to intervene and break the power of sinful cycles and sovereignly give new hearts and transforms people then why on earth do you believe He won’t do it?! Carson is not an Arminian so it is not a matter of God not being able to overcome our so called “free-will” but that He somehow has chosen not to intervene and give new hearts to everybody. Understandably Carson is afraid to be clear on this and echo his theological tradition openly.
Dr. Carson: So, you cannot really answer the question of why does God ever consider putting people in hell unless you put it with the much larger question of what is righteousness, what is sin, what is the connection between shame and punishment.
Within that framework what will be clear is that for all eternity both for those in heaven and even for those in hell that God is just and is seen to be just; even those in hell will acknowledge that …for all eternity.”
To briefly conclude we must call your attention to two things. First, Dr. Carson chose to reference the “framework” of his understanding of the nature of hell through God’s “righteousness” and “justice.” Is it not an immense oversight that God’s love is not referenced here as the “framework” being that His very nature is love? It is similar to what we found in Chan’s Erasing Hell where the topic of God’s love in relation to the question of the nature of hell was evaded and relegated not just to the end of the book but to the last question in the appendix! (And Chan did not even cite the most foundational love passages of 1 Corinthians 13 or the book of 1 John!) Is this not a very suspicious (and serious) omission by both Chan and Carson?
Second, even with this omission it still remains that the Biblical concepts of righteousness and justice are at their core restorative and redemptive. (We are thankful to The Gospel Coalition for their teaching on this!) We will not repeat here what we have covered elsewhere but in summary the word righteousness literally means a return of something ultimately to its “right-useness.” Justice is often used interchangeably with the word righteousness and carries with it the idea of “doing” rather than that of “getting” justice.
As well we are told that righteousness is at its foundation relational. The foundation of our existence and all creation is set within the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit before time began. Their holiness was reflected in their perfect relationship of love with one another (John 1; John 17). Mankind originated and was birthed out of this loving relationship within the Trinity. This is our origin: “Let us make man in our image…behold, it is very good,” fulfilled by Jesus when He said: “It is finished” and consummated in: “Behold, I am making all things new…the dwelling place of God is with mankind.” (Rev 21)
It is clear that D. A. Carson is troubled by the unimaginable and horrific implications of such a reality as an eternal hell of conscious torment. But the chasm between what our theologians say they believe and what they say to make sense of it is growing ever wider. Our prayer is that these converging “conundrums” will give way to an increasing openness to a “Gospel Third Way;” a way that unites the precious conviction of our Arminian brothers and sisters who believe that our God loves the world and “desires that all come to repentance,” with the Calvinists’ robust confidence that God’s word “will not return to Him empty but will accomplish all that it was intended to accomplish”! What a glorious re-union of His Body when we treasure the Church as a whole, as His Bride becoming one, so that the world will know that He is the Savior of the World! (John 17)