Another Letter from the Trashcan


First let me say, when you’re the editor of any publication, you get to choose which letters to the editor to publish.  Below you will find one Logia chose not to.


I wrote concerning the Epiphany 2009 article The Harrowing of Hell: Filling in the Blanks. Editor Albrecht responded on 2-3-09: “I have forwarded your email to Pastor Burfeind to give him the first opportunity to respond.”  Respond he did not.  I wrote back to the editor, “As for forwarding it to Pastor Burfeind, my letter doesn’t take issue with him for writing it but with Logia for publishing it.  His article makes it plain why he wrote it; I’d like to hear Logia’s rational for publishing it though I recognize I am owed no explanation.”


I didn’t get an explanation from Logia, but you can’t cry foul when a debt not owed isn’t paid.  What does pain me is that no response to this article was ever given. (I don’t think mine was particularly good, but I think some points should be given for resisting the temptation to use the author’s name in a pun.)  I like to think, but have no way of knowing, that dozens of responses came to the editor. I like to think that his office was heckled or at least harrowed.  Maybe this is one of the mysteries that is reserved for revelation in the other world.


January 28, 2009


Dear Editor:


By publishing of The Harrowing of Hell: Filling in the Blanks you have met your goal of being “a free conference in print,” but have fallen short of being a “theological forum normed by the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions” (Logia masthead, emphasis added).


Our Lutheran Confessions simply confess the descent of Christ into hell and warn precisely of doing what Pastor Burfeind has done:

“1] It has also been disputed among some theologians who have subscribed to the Augsburg Confession concerning this article: When and in what manner the Lord Christ, according to our simple Christian faith, descended to hell: whether this was done before or after His death; also, whether it occurred according to the soul alone, or according to the divinity alone, or with body and soul, spiritually or bodily; also, whether this article belongs to the passion or to the glorious victory and triumph of Christ.

2] But since this article, as also the preceding, cannot be comprehended by the senses or by our reason, but must be grasped by faith alone, it is our unanimous opinion that there should be no disputation concerning it, but that it should be believed 3] and taught only in the simplest manner; according as Dr. Luther, of blessed memory, in his sermon at Torgau in the year 1533 has explained this article in an altogether Christian manner, separated from it all useless, unnecessary questions, and admonished all godly Christians to Christian simplicity of faith.

4] For it is sufficient that we know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and delivered them from the power of death and of the devil, from eternal condemnation and the jaws of hell. But how this occurred we should [not curiously investigate, but] reserve until the other world, where not only this point [mystery], but also still others will be revealed, which we here simply believe, and cannot comprehend with our blind reason” (FC, EP, IX, emphasis added).

Pastor Burfeind does not quote this clear confession.  He only says he doesn’t know what is meant by “useless and unnecessary” questions about the descent (p.5).  He does refer to the Torgau sermon, but doesn’t seem to get the point there either.  He cites Luther’s beautiful description of the descent which concludes with the admonition “’we should put aside thoughts that are too deep and incomprehensible for us” (p.8). He chooses to ignore this sage (and Confessional) advice.  In the very next paragraph he brings up the question of whether Jesus preached the gospel or the law (p.8).  Later he cities Luther’s admission that Peter’s words could have the meaning that “’He descended to the souls and preached to them there’” (p.12). However, Luther never says whether he thinks this was law or gospel preaching, but he does conclude, “But do not understand this to mean that He preaches this way to all spirits” (AE 30:114).  Pastor Burfeind maintains He preaches the gospel (something Luther doesn’t admit) to all spirits in Sheol who didn’t have the opportunity to hear the gospel in this life (something Luther denies).


More troubling still is that after reading his article I think I’m going to Sheol.  O I’ll be safe in the hand of God (p.7), but my soul will be in “the place where sin, death, and the power of the devil reign supreme” (p.5).  I’ll be there unless I suffer the fate of poor Samuel.  “However, at moments such as Saul’s séance, the Lord may release a soul from his hand” (p.7).  I thought we confessed that “Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and delivered them from the power of death and of the devil.”  I suppose I’m being Sunday Schoolish to think that when Stephen saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God and prayed, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” that Jesus actually received it where He was standing, and that when Jesus promised the thief “Today you with Me in paradise,” He didn’t mean they would be in Sheol together, and that when Paul desired to depart and be with Christ he envisioned something other than the place where the power of the devil reigns supreme!


Pastor Burfeind seems to read the New Testament in light of the Old rather than the other way around.  Revelation shows us souls beneath the altar of God, gathered around the throne, singing the Lamb’s praises, offering up their prayers.  On the authority of the account of the rich man and Lazarus (which I’m well aware is not called a parable but is usually treated as such in our circles), he develops a topography of Sheol (p.7).  Rather than the glorious descriptions in Revelation of singing saints in heaven we have silent Lazarus in “a general place of the dead” (p. 7).


Of course, Pastor Burfeind doesn’t deal with the wide awake Abraham or with the fact that Abraham doesn’t preach the gospel to the rich man. Oops that’s right; the rich man had his chance on earth.  It’s only those who have had no chance to hear it that get to hear it in Sheol.  Though St. Paul says “they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20) who die in unbelief, Pastor Burfeind says they will have one.  “What is not heard in this world will be heard in Sheol” (p. 14). Furthermore, they might hear it from one of us pastors in Sheol since Jesus gave some to be pastors apparently even there (p.14).


Pastor Burfeind believes his view that in Sheol those who had no chance to hear are given a chance silences forever “the pious message of gospel urgency, which in effect imposes upon all Christians the burden they personally are responsible if a neighbor or coworker (or distant tribesman through their giving!) does not hear the gospel and consequently goes to hell.”  While I resonate to Pastor Burden’s distaste for placing burdens on men that no man can bear, he is silencing the urgency of the gospel that fired St. Paul to write, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent” (Romans 10: 14-15a).  This is no problem for Pastor Burfeind.  If one is not sent so they can hear here, one will be sent to them in Sheol.


Logia must do better than this if it is going to continue the claim to be a journal of Lutheran theology publishing articles “that promote the orthodox theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church” (Logia masthead, emphasis added).  In this article what Logia has promoted is logomachy.


Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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2 Responses to Another Letter from the Trashcan

  1. Scott says:

    Kinda gives a new meaning to the term Ablaze as an evangelistic ministry, but what is the freaking point of Burfeind’s article, I mean really? What assurance can the means of grace provide for me, if we do what he says and ascribe to this doctrine. But how does this doctrine “short-circuit” the roots of purgatory when really he just seems to be endorsing and cultivating that doctrine by tilling the soil.

    I guess it’s a good thing that the Pope already got rid of Limbo. Otherwise we might have had to read Butfeind’s pt.2 since he might have felt it necessary to “short circuit” those Limbo roots when really all he would more than likely do is to make the soil all the more fertile for that annoying doctrinal root thereby encouraging it to advance and grow.

  2. Dale Nelson says:

    I wasn’t raised a Lutheran. I came to Confessional Lutheranism after growing up in Wesleyan evangelicalism. It has been very good to find a church tradition that takes seriously the need for sound doctrine.

    From time to time, however, I notice a tendency in Lutheran circles that I think I see in this letter, the use of sarcasm and even intimidation to rebuke or even to shut off discussion of theological matters. How can we know where to draw the line between what is appropriate for contemplation and what is not if we can’t even talk about it? I feel like getting sarcastic myself, along the lines of “Right, got it, we should just shut up and force our minds back to things appropriate for us: hey, so who do you think will win the next Super Bowl?”

    It was good for Logia to publish Pastor Burfeind’s article. It would have been good to have had a well-mannered symposium on it at the Logia blog site, or some such venue. Pastor Harris makes some good points, and I suspect Pastor Burfeind would have had some good responses to them, especially if they had been made without insinuations about his or Logia’s Confessional integrity.

    Just a layman’s passing comment.

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