John Calvin on “God is Love”

One of the most famous verses in the Bible is probably 1 John 4:8, which says that “God is love.” This phrase has often been understood to have Trinitarian implications. If God is love in His essence, then there must be persons in God who share love with one another. It would not be an exaggeration to say that 1 John 4:8 is an incredibly important Bible verse.

On another subject, it would also probably not be an exaggeration to say that John Calvin is one of the most influential voices in the history of Christianity. True, what we today call the Protestant Reformation began with professor Martin Luther; however, it was certainly Calvin who gave Protestantism is characteristic vigor. It was Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion that changed the Protestant Reformation from a marginal sect of Christendom to an intellectual tradition in its own right.

One of the most recognizable aspects of John Calvin’s theology is his belief not only in the predestination of the elect for salvation in Christ and eternal life, but also in the predestination of the non-elect (the “reprobate”) for damnation apart from Christ and eternal punishment. The title of chapter twenty-one in book three of Calvin’s institutes reads thus: “Of the eternal election, by which God has predestinated some to salvation, and others to destruction.”

Throughout the history of Reformed (Calvinist) thought, several figures have diverged from Calvin’s understanding of predestination and election, notably Jacobus Arminius (the father of “Arminian” theology, which ironically was originally a tradition within Calvinism proper) and Karl Barth. But the ominous picture of God that Calvin painted remains all too present in the minds of both Christians and non-Christians alike.

In light of Calvin’s understanding of election and predestination, how did he understand 1 John 4:8? If we take 1 John 4:8 at face value (admittedly not the best thing to do when reading literature that is four times older than Shakespeare), it would seem to teach that God is love in His very essence and that nothing He can do can be incompatible with love. If this is the case, it is difficult to imagine God predestinating anyone to destruction. This should especially be the case if God has the type of power that Calvinism claims that He does. Calvinists believe that God could elect everyone for salvation if He so pleased. Karl Barth, who was in many respects a Calvinist himself, took this rhetoric to its logical conclusion: universal salvation. All are elect; none are reprobate. Therefore, all will be saved.

Whatever certain of Calvin’s intellectual heirs might have said about election and predestination, Calvin himself was clear: there are those who are predestined for eternal misery. It would seem that Calvin did not believe that God was love in His essence, for surely a loving God with the power to override a human’s ability to reject the good would use that power on everyone. Alas, for Calvin it is not so. Here is Calvin’s own treatment of the phrase “God is love.”

“Here then he does not speak of the essence of God, but only shews what he is found to be by us.” [1]

That is, God is not love in His essence, but is merely experienced as love by those who are elected for salvation.

What does this mean for Trinitarian theology? If God is not love in His essence, do the Trinitarian persons love one another? Is God simple, or is Tritheism the logical conclusion of three gods selfishly competing for power, since power is really the only thing that actually matters in Calvin’s theology? The implications are almost boundless.

The take-away of all this, in my opinion, is to be wary of trusting only a single person for one’s theology. Surely they can only be called “Christian” who listen to the testimony of the entire church, and not simply the opinions of a few rag-tag men.

 

[1] Calvin’s commentary on 1 John 4: <http://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/1_john/4.htm&gt;

Seeking Justice

As I have been reading the biblical book of Psalms again recently, it has struck me that the pursuit of God and the pursuit of justice are seen by the Psalmists as an essentially identical journey. God is the God of justice. And what is God’s justice concerned with? Enforcing the law upon all of the peasants? Not at all. God’s justice is concerned with the very people that human justice is most likely to overlook. God’s justice is concerned with the poor, the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. If we desire to seek this God, then we must also be committed to His justice.

What does that look like for me? I do not know yet.

Why I am not a Calvinist

Calvinism represents an influential sect of Christianity that originated during the Protestant Reformation. Although John Calvin (for whom the theological system is named) had many key ideas, perhaps no concepts became more strongly associated with Calvinism than Calvin’s views on election (God’s electing some humans for eternal salvation) and predestination (God choosing before all time who would be elect and, by implication, who would not be elect). The implications of these ideas are fairly straightforward, but quite enormous: God Himself determines who is saved from everlasting hellfire and who is not. Nothing we can do can violate God’s “eternal decree” of the saved and the damned. What God desires He will do.

I am not going to comment on the historical reasons why Calvin’s system became popular. What I will say is that there has been somewhat of a resurgence of Calvinistic thinking in the American Evangelical circles in which I was raised (and which I have since forsaken). Although I still consider myself a Christian, I am no longer a Calvinist.

I am no longer a Calvinist primarily because I believe Calvin’s concept of election and predestination makes God seem arbitrary, and possibly very cruel. If God’s absolute decree is not based on anything in us, what is it based on? If it is based on Himself, then why did God choose to permit anyone to go to hell forever? This question becomes especially troubling in light of the biblical teaching on the love of God and His desire for the good of all creatures (E.g., Matt. 18:14, 1 Tim. 2:3-4, 1 Jn 4:8, 2 Pt 3:9).

What I think is more fitting to Christian theology than a paradigmatic, inviolable “eternal decree” is God’s unqualified “Yes” (evident in Christ) to what He has made. If what I am saying sounds familiar, that is because it is what the 20th Century Reformed theologian Karl Barth argued. Calvin’s “eternal decree” for Barth could not be more absolute than God’s love for humanity revealed by Christ. God’s “Yes” to humanity in Christ is His true absolute decree, and not the arbitrary predestination to salvation and damnation of individual human beings.

For me, then, it was Karl Barth who drew me out of Calvinism during my senior year of college. It has been argued that Barth’s theology of election contains an implicit universalism. Perhaps we should become more comfortable with implicit universalism than explicit Calvinism. Implicit universalism, after all, is what appears to be represented by the theology of Paul the Apostle.

For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.” (Romans 11:32)

What’s Wrong with Rob Bell?

The evangelical reaction to Rob Bell’s 2011 book “Love Wins” was pretty remarkable. All sorts of counter-books were released and every variety of statements were made. Some said their farewells to Rob Bell. Others questioned his “dangerous theology.”

What seemed strangest to me about the evangelical response to Rob Bell was its implicit rejection of the love of God. Does God desire the salvation of everyone? Francis Chan’s “Erasing Hell” answered “no.” Some of the response may be due to the contemporary resurgence of Calvinism, which includes belief in an “infallible decree” of “double predestination” that leaves one arbitrary group consigned to a self-made hell and another equally arbitrary group destined for eternal well-being in heaven. (Notably, one of the Twentieth Century’s hugest names in Reformed (Calvinistic) theology is Karl Barth, who rejected the infallible decree and with it the standard Calvinistic model of double predestination. But this is a tale for another time.) Calvinistic evangelical orthodoxy demands a silent submission to God’s heavenly slaughter-bench.

What I want to say is this: If evangelical leaders condemned Rob Bell for trying to make sense of a God of tangible goodness and genuine love, then do evangelical leaders really understand the Christ whom they claim to follow?

Some Theological Books I’ve Loved

I have found that reading books has been one of the ways in which my theological development has been particularly stimulated. Here are some of my favorite theological books at the moment.

The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Jürgen Moltmann)

This book discusses Christian ideas about “last things,” traditionally Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Judgment Day. However, Moltmann comes at these topics from an alternative perspective. Moltmann begins with a survey of modern eschatology in both Christianity and Judaism. He then tackles eschatology from the perspectives of the individual (personal eschatology), the community (the Kingdom of God), the cosmos (cosmological eschatology), and God (divine eschatology). On pages 235-255, Moltmann argues for a kind of “universalism” from the traditional concept of Christ’s descent into Hell.

Christian Origins and the Question of God Part IV: Paul and the Faithfulness of God (N. T. Wright)

PFG is N. T. Wright’s major tome on the Apostle Paul. It considers Paul within his four worlds: Second Temple Judaism, Greek philosophy, First Century Religion, and the Roman Empire. The book goes on to discuss, based on Paul’s surviving letters, his overall “worldview” and his theology. It concludes by considering Paul’s historical impact from within his four worlds.

The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? (David Bentley Hart)

If I could recommend only one book to introduce someone to Christianity, I would choose this short and simple (100 page) essay. Recounting a major Tsunami and some responses that the event received from well-meaning Christians and atheists, Hart largely grants the emotional veracity of skeptics regarding God and evil while offering a profoundly Christian way through the problem that denies that evil has any teleological significance whatsoever in the divine order and asserts with poignant faith that God will one wipe away all tears from the eyes of humanity.

Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Jerry L. Walls)

A book about Hell? How depressing. Well, yes — but it is also an important book. This book is unique because it seeks to justify the theoretical possibility of an eternal Hell while upholding at all costs the moral goodness of God. In this surprisingly fascinating study, Walls makes a number of unconventional claims. To name a few examples, Walls insists that postmortem salvation must be a possibility in order to logically affirm the goodness of God, that Calvinistic predestination is philosophically unreasonable, and that it is possible for persons to come to actually prefer Hell to Heaven. Although eternal Hell is naturally “an abominable  tragedy” (David Bentley Hart), Walls convincingly makes a case that eternal Hell is possible to affirm even within a framework that upholds the true moral goodness of God.

The Princess and the Goblin (George MacDonald)

The Princess and the Goblin, one of MacDonald’s beloved fairytales for children, tells its story as a moral democracy. That is, those who behave nobly are in fact noble. The princess is a princess only because she is noble, and the goblins are goblins only because they are ignoble. MacDonald is able to include a surprising number of themes in this creative book, including faith and doubt, parenthood and childhood, and institutional evil. MacDonald’s description of goblins had a particular influence on J. R. R. Tolkien, who in his own fairytale The Hobbit owes much of his description of goblins to The Princess and the Goblin. All in all, MacDonald remains one of the Victorian Era’s most accomplished and enigmatic authors.

The Unspoken Sermons (George MacDonald)

In addition to being an accomplished fantasy author, MacDonald was also an important figure in Christian spiritual devotion. His sermons contain strong themes of his — at the time — very revolutionary ideas, including themes of Christian universalism, affirmation of Purgatory, rejection of the typical Protestant axiom “Sola Scriptura,”and a profound mysticism. The Unspoken Sermons are a must read for spiritual formation.

The Kingdom New Testament (N. T. Wright)

N. T. Wright is commonly hailed as one of the world’s finest New Testament scholars. The Kingdom New Testament is Wright’s very own translation of the entire New Testament from its original Koine Greek dialect. Writing in a modern British vernacular, Wright produced one of the most readable translations of the New Testament that I have ever encountered. His translations of the gospels, the stories about Jesus’s life, flow particularly well. Wright, perhaps more than anyone else, has helped so much to bring the theology, social vision, and life of the Christian Scriptures into the Twenty-First Century, and The Kingdom New Testament is testimony to his legacy.

Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (N. T. Wright)

This is the single best introduction to Jesus of Nazareth that I have ever read. Wright approaches the life of Christ from both literary and historical perspectives. More than most books I’ve read, Simply Jesus brings Jesus to life in a way that is all at once understandable, mysterious, and deeply challenging.

Universalism: Barth, Gregory, and Me

Many of my favorite theologians are not universalists. Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Karl Rahner all believe that universalism should be hoped for, but not necessarily believed in as a dogma. Interestingly, Barth and von Balthasar both reject affirming universalism as a dogmatic. “We can neither confirm nor deny that all persons and Devils will be saved,” one might imagine Barth and von Balthasar saying.

However, not all of my favorite theologians think that universal salvation is something merely to be hoped for, rather than believed in. Even in the above list, Jürgen Moltmann, in The Coming of God,” strongly implies that we can do even more than hope for the salvation of all. But there are more adamant advocates of the doctrine. David Bentley Hart made the case in a talk at Notre Dame University that if God is not the savior of all without fail, “then the kingdom is only a dream, and creation something considerably worse than a nightmare.” J. A. T. Robinson, the Anglican father of secular theology, believed that God would restore everyone to wholeness, and the myth of eternal hell would remain unfulfilled while the myth of universal restoration would triumph.

Going back further in the days of the church, Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac of Syria believed that all will be saved. For Nyssa, God’s foreknowledge and wisdom means that God is, on the scale of eternity, omni-competent. If God desires to rescue a sinner, even if he be the very Devil, God will do it. He has all of eternity. He cannot fail. For Isaac, as I understand it (I know more of Gregory than Isaac), it is God’s gracious compassion that must triumph. Otherwise, sin is shown to, in some cases, be stronger than grace.

Where does this leave me? I believe that God’s grace will triumph in the end and in every life. Though there is indeed punishment, I believe it is only for the purpose of restoration. Barth said that if we teach universalism dogmatically, we are impinging on God’s “freedom.” But what man would admire an emperor who, with plenty of available resources, failed to feed those beneath his rule? Would we not, even on our most generous days, think of that emperor as a capricious, contemptible, wicked, and malevolent fellow? How then, can we expect so little from God, whose gifts far surpass the imagination?

A Plea to Turning Point USA

Today I wrote a plea to Turning Point USA regarding its mission statement and “professor watchlist.” I have copied it below.

Subject: A comment concerning the part of your mission statement, which says “Empower.”

Dear TPUSA,

I was raised (and homeschooled) in an conservative evangelical and Republican home. My father has been a Republican longer than he has been a Christian. For my family, political and fiscal conservativism are basically creeds.

As for myself, I’m still developing many of my views concerning politics and the global market. (I haven’t even had an economics class, to my personal shame!) For me, Christianity is the most important aspect of my identity. At the moment, I do not really mind whether I am a “conservative” or a “liberal.” It is my belief that Christianity is unconcerned with our secondary identities.

One verse in the Bible says that, “There is no Jew nor Greek, there is no slave nor free, there is no ‘male and female;’ you are all one in the Messiah” (Galatians 3:28). To me, being a Christian *is* a political ideology. To be precise, it is a monarchy. For me, to say that “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) is a political confession of Jesus’s universal Kingship. To put it in today’s terms, one could reasonably say that “Jesus is President of the world.” That is my belief.

(Note: None of this means that our civil governments do not matter. The author of Galatians 3:28 was also the author of Romans 13:1-7, which teaches Christians to “submit” to the governing authorities that God has allowed to have power. I love America, and desire the best for her and her people.)

Having provided a brief sketch my personal background, I would like to say something about TPUSA’s mission statement, specifically, the part called “Empower.”

Under the heading “Empower,” it is written, “…the *fight* for free markets and limited government” and also “…equipping activists with the knowledge and strategies needed to *combat* the left…” (emphases mine). Since I consider myself a Christian, I will point out that the rhetoric of these statements are extremely disturbing to me. Why is it called “fight”? And why is it called “combat”?

If the motto of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum” (“out of the many, one”) — which is written on the back of our currency — is taken to be correct, then it implies that all Americans are supposed to be *one the same side.* No one should be fighting each other. We should all be lifting each other up insofar as we can. That is, we should not be in a “fight” for anything, unless it is a matter of obvious human rights needs and injustices.

Considering the disagreements upon “free markets” and “limited government” that exist in the U. S., I think it can safely be said that these do not qualify as obvious human rights needs. Whether we are on the “left” or the “right”, we should not be fighting each other. We should be helping one another.

One of the things that really bothered me about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in fact, was that she said that Republicans are her enemies. That is profoundly troubling to me. We are supposed to be united in America.

The great lie, I believe, of the right-wing / left-wing divide is that we live in a bifurcated country. But I think we do not live in a divided country. Our decisions affect the lives of everyone around us. We should all be united as patriots. As our current President said after the election of Donald Trump, “We’re patriots first.” I believe that unity (“E Pluribus Unum”) is the best paradigm for making America great again.

Having written all of this, I believe that it also relates to the “Professor Watchlist.” I strongly encourage you to consider removing the Professor Watchlist from the Internet. There are other countries (which do *not* have “limited” governments) make watchlists, and some of them imprison, torture, and even kill professors who disagree with them.

I do not want America to become a country like that. Therefore, I implore TPUSA to consider removing the Professor Watchlist from the Internet. TPUSA could even keep the list, and simply re-name it. Perhaps TPUSA could call it the “List of Professors whose work challenges our Political Mission.” That would be much better, and I think it would even welcome positive debate between the left and the right. But I think that when it is called a “watchlist,” it has a disturbingly totalitarian ring to it. If TPUSA is truly committed to “limited government,” then it absolutely behooves TPUSA to avoid totalitarian rhetoric.

I also suggest rephrasing two key parts of the “Empower” statement in TPUSA’s Mission statement. Here are my suggestions played out:

“Empower young activists to get involved in the *propagation of* free markets and limited government. Through building strong campus networks, organizing conferences and training workshops, and equipping activists with the knowledge and strategies needed to *critique* the left, TPUSA empowers young people to make a difference within their own campus and community” (emphases mine).

I believe that the above changes — from “fight for” to “propagation of” and from “combat” to “critique” — would go a long way in marketing the mission of TPUSA to American college students around the country.

I wish you the best in your mission to “make America great again.” I pray that, as an organization, you will do so using the rhetoric of peace which I believe has its origins in the Christian gospel.

I will close with three verses from the Bible which outline what I believe is an excellent Christian view of “fight” and “combat.”

“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:10-12).

Our fight is not against women and men, but against the unseen forces of evil that threaten to poison every economy, government, and person.

* I edited one phrase in the original e-mail that was somewhat vague.

How Gregory of Nyssa has Helped My Theology

I know how this post may look at first glance to many people. “Oh, would you look at that – it’s another progressive type Christian rambling on about how great that Origen and Gregory of Nyssa were and how we are all so silly for still believing in eternal hell.”

It is true that, more often than I am proud to admit, my blog has turned into a space for venting my theological frustrations. I would like to think that my break from writing this past month or so has been an attempt on my part to depart from more emotive blogging. All of this said, please permit me to share my thoughts on Gregory of Nyssa.

I originally heard of Gregory of Nyssa, who lived during the 4th Century, in the context of universal salvation. For anyone unfamiliar with the term “universal salvation” or “universalism,” I will try to summarize briefly the idea as I am using it here.

Christianity is, to a great degree, a religion that is concerned with “salvation.” Now, “salvation” is not a typical term in conversational English today. (English speakers who use words like “salvation” these days are probably Tolkien nerds who listen to Dragonforce and have beaten “Through the Fire and Flames” in Guitar Hero on the highest difficultly level.) In essence, of course, salvation simply means rescue. Christianity is concerned with rescue. A rescue from what, one might ask?

Naturally, different Christians will explain the matter differently. I would summarize the great Christian rescue by simply saying that in Christian thought, our God has given human beings a task. Because the Christian God is – firstly, as it could be argued – a God of love (1 John 4:8), the Christian God desires for human beings to govern the earth in accordance with the justice of love.

Now it would not take any great measure of wit for someone to point out that human beings, historically speaking, have not done a very decent job at all of exercising their power over others or the earth with any sort of real justice. (If one reads the Wikipedia page about the 20th Century, one will quickly see what I am talking about.) Many would even say that the extent to which humanity has failed in this supposed task constitutes sufficient testimony in the intellectual court against the very existence of such a god of love. To connect this discussion to a matter of justice that is close to my heart, I point out that human beings have, especially in recent modernity, been an ecological disaster. Tons of animal, plant, and algal species are going extinct, and the pollution of air is a serious problem in some parts of the world. This is to say nothing of the countless wars we have waged as a species throughout our relatively short history. Humanity’s failure to “do justice” and “love mercy” (Micah 6:8) has created many sorts of ingenious torments for others. We could call these torments, perhaps provocatively, “hells.”

One theological mistake that it is possible to make is to think of hell as a place of its own, a postmortem Tartarus of pain for those who believed the wrong things or messed up badly enough in life. But, as David Hart so eloquently puts it, “hell is no space within creation, no event, though its story is everywhere told, its dominion everywhere suffered.”[1] The rescue for which Christianity longs, then, is for deliverance from the evil – from the “sin,” “death,” and “hell” – that humanity gone wrong is all too prone to generate.

Shockingly enough (even to me, someone who has been a Christian for practically my whole life), the rescue that Christianity proclaims is a Middle-Eastern peasant from the first century named Joshua (or, more famously, Jesus) of Nazareth. In Christian thought, Jesus of Nazareth lived his life in the shadow of the cross upon which he died. Some have even remarked that the gospels, the four books in the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus’ life, are really just passion narratives (stories about the cross) with extended introductions. According to Christians, then, Jesus lived his life in the shadow of the cross. But once he got to the cross, what did he do? What was the cross all about?

The New Testament teaches that Jesus “swallowed” the total sin, death, and hell of humanity – and indeed, of the whole universe (Colossians 1:15-20) – in the godless death that was Roman crucifixion. Christianity claims, radically enough, that God was there, in a Jewish peasant’s death on a cross, swallowing death in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54-57, 2 Corinthians 5:19, Philippians 2:5-11).[2] The rescue that Christianity claims to offer is a rescue from the judgment that we proclaim on ourselves by living in our sins, our deaths, and our hells.

Having said all of that, universal salvation is simply the view that Christ’s death on the cross will ultimately be effectual for all creatures. In other words, because of what Christ did, every creature, including even the devil himself, will one day respond with grateful acceptance to the love of God in Jesus the King.

It is due to the idea of universal salvation (“universalism”) that I first heard of Gregory of Nyssa.[3] Gregory taught that evil is finite. It is impossible, therefore, for a creature of God to remain in evil forever. God is infinite. Good is infinite. The infinity of God essentially swallows the limitedness of evil, and with it, hell. Gregory teaches, in line with mainstream Christian tradition, that there is indeed punishment from God; but for Gregory, as for Origen before him, punishment is remedial, and not final.

Gregory of Nyssa’s ideas have helped me come to terms morally with God’s decision to create.[4] Yes, God created a world that now contains numerous forms of evil, but the promise of the Christian gospel (“good news”) is that God will “sum up everything” in Jesus (Ephesians 1:10). Gregory’s moral vision as demonstrated in his protology (theology of the beginning of creation) and eschatology (theology of the consummation of creation) is what, finally, I have most benefited from. Gregory, perhaps more than any other thinker throughout Christian history, understood the goodness of God in creation and the total, cosmic victory of God in rescuing creation. Whether or not we share precisely his views on how this works out, it is a moral principle that I believe is near to the very heart of what it is Christians call “the gospel.”

[1] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, pg 400.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, pgs 250-255 contains one of my favourite meditations on 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 and its theme of death being “swallowed in victory.”

[3] I first learned of universalism in college from reading online about the great 20th Century theologian Karl Barth. Technically, Barth was a kind of open universalist. That is, he did not officially believe that all would be saved, but merely affirmed the possibility and taught it as something to be hoped and prayed for.

[4] Many of my thoughts about Gregory have been inspired by David Bentley Hart’s book The Beauty of the Infinite (particularly the section called “Eschaton”) and essay God, Creation, and Evil. The latter of these two works can currently be accessed online for free.

Wishful Universalism

An obsession of mine ever since I read the sermon Justice by George MacDonald has been universalism, or universal salvation. (Anyone familiar with my blog will be aware of this.) Recently, I’ve come under the impression that universalism has been a major spiritual red herring for me.

I remember reading someone who said that debates about universalism–the idea that in the end, every single person and demon will be reconciled with God in a salvific manner–divert our attention from the kairos of today to the open and as of yet unknown future of God the “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28, Ephesians 1:23). It does not matter whether or not all are saved in the future if I am not willing to suffer for the good of others in the present.

Today, I still believe that universalism is a serious possibility for Christian eschatology. With folks like Origen of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jürgen Moltmann, and David Bentley Hart, I wholeheartedly desire the salvation of every single creature; however, I will henceforth submit the outcome of the future to God and enter wholly into the task of loving the world with Christ now.

The Matthew 18:14 and 2 Peter 3:9 Alternative for All Christians

Every Christian can be a wishful universalist. Unlike “hopeful universalism,” which does not assert universalism but regards it as a possibility (something similar to my position), wishful universalism agrees with the heart of God in Christ as revealed in Matthew 18:14 and 2 Peter 3:9. God is “wishing that none should perish, but that all might reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). It appears that God is a wishful universalist! And we should all be wishful universalists, even if we have not the assurance or epistemic certification to consider it a realized or otherwise serious possibility.

 

Two Interpretations of “aionas ton aionon” in Revelation 14:11 and 20:10

For centuries, universalism has in Christianity been considered at best a minority position and at worst a heresy. This may not always have been the case, however. As early as the third century, one of Christianity’s finest philosophers and most influential fathers, Origen of Alexandria, held to universalism. Given his impact on Christian theology and his devotion to the Scriptures, it is difficult to simply write off his universalism as no more than a basic theological error. Moreover, St. Augustine (fourth century) said that there were many Christian universalists in his day. In light of the early patristic history of universalism, perhaps it is warranted for the modern church to give the doctrine a second thought.

In my view, one critical reason why universalism is considered indefensible by many Christians today is because the doctrine appears to contradict a number of important biblcal statements. Several of these statements depend upon the translation of the Greek word “aionios,” which is traditionally understood to mean “eternal” in most contexts.

However, there is at least one obvious exception to the traditional understanding. It comes from the Romans 16:25-27 fragment, where aionios is translated “long ages.” Aionios must be translated “long ages” there because it describes a time period that is undeniably impermanent: namely, the period of time for which the mystery of the gospel was “kept secret.” (I am not sure whether the fragment can safely be considered authentic, but naturally, the fragment’s authenticity is irrelevant to the linguistics.)

I contend that it is possible that the translation of aionios is not always contextually obvious. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus portrays the righteous as going to “aionios life” and the wicked as going to “aionios punishment.” Many do not feel comfortable understanding aionios to be “eternal” for the life of the righteous but temporary for the punishment of the wicked. Although I am convinced that aionios does not necessarily mean “eternal” for the punishment of the wicked, I can sympathize with readers who feel differently.

As I see it, the question of universalism in the Bible is inseparably tied with linguistic questions. Today, I would like to tackle two of the verses whose vocabulary are among the most difficult for me personally to reconcile with universalism. They come from the book of Revelation.

Ages of the ages

To begin with a contrast with aionios, aionios is, as I understand it, an adjective form of aion. (Aion is usually translated as “age.”) In Revelation, there are at least two instances–14:11 and 20:10–in which a phrase derived from aion appears, namely, “aionas ton aionon.” Here, “aionas ton aionon” is used  as a description for the duration of the punishment that God will inflict upon the wicked. Translated literally, “aionos ton aionon” comes out to something like “ages of the ages.” Apparently, it is meant to describe a very long time.

Recall that aionios does not always need to mean “eternal.” However, the same may not be true for aionas ton aionon. In fact, that phrase is often a description of God Himself, and God is surely eternal. Therefore, when the same phrase is used of the time for which the devil and the wicked will be punished, it is at face value difficult to imagine how the phrase could mean anything other than “everlasting.” I believe that the phrase is difficult, but not impossible, to harmonize with the salvation of the wicked from hell (universalism). I will propose two ways to understand the phrase below. If one or both are reasonable interpretations, then Revelation 14:11 and 20:10 do not in themselves spell a total rebuttal for universalism.

First interpretation: Ages and Ages.

As a first interpretation, we could stick to a purely exact transliteration. “Ages of the ages,” which to be more linguistically correct in English we might render “ages and ages.” This would be similar to how many English translations translate “aionas ton aionon” as “forever and ever.”

Initially, it might be objected that this threatens to limit God’s eternality, since “ages and ages” are also used to describe God. Shall the punishment of the wicked be limited and God’s eternality not be limited? But recall that “ages and ages” is only a potential limit. God is not suddenly temporal just because the doctrine of divine eternality does not rest upon either the word “aionios” or the phrase “aionas ton aionon.” We know that God is eternal from other considerations. He is “the Living God” (Psalm 42:2, Jeremiah 10:10, Luke 20:38). Shall the living God die? Of course not. Therefore, God’s eternality does not depend upon the phrase “aionas ton aionon,” and “ages and ages” would not necessarily be an irresponsible translation.

Second Interpretation: Hyperbole

For the second interpretation, we grant the possibility that “aionas ton aionon” as a phrase strictly must means something like the usual translation, “forever and ever;” however, this interpretation posits that the phrase “forever and ever” is used as a hyperbole. “Forever and ever,” then, would function much in the same way that lovers might speak to one another, a book might portray a happy ending, or an impatient person in an amusement park ride might speak. I will present a couple of examples of what this interpretation might look like.

First, imagine that you are looking into the eyes of your beloved. Perhaps your lover or might ask you, “For how long will you love me? Will you love me forever?” If you were a romantic person, you might reply, “I will love you forever and ever. Forever and ever I will always be yours.”

Second, think about the ways that many fairytales end. Suppose that a certain fairytale ended like so: “And Amelia went to live in Meddletonn Castle with her beloved forever and ever.” Did the woman truly live in the Castle “forever and ever?” No. Should we then say that the author of the fairytale misled the readers with deceptive rhetoric? Absolutely not. Although the phrase “forever and ever,” taken literally, would imply an eternal life in the castle with her beloved, here, “forever and ever” refers to the quality of the story’s ending. Even casual readers will not sit back and imagine that the author proposes a sudden discovery of immortality for the lovers, but rather will understand the rhetorical use of the “forever and ever.”

For a third anecdote, picture yourself at Disney World waiting in a very long line. You might say to a friend, “We’ve been standing in line forever now!” “Yes,” your friend replies, “It’s would take forever and ever for the line to move only three feet!”

Do you really mean “forever and ever” in the above phrases? No, of course you don’t. You are simply highlighting your of being in love, reading a fairytale romance, or waiting in line. Jesus said that marriage between humans is only temporary. There will be no more intermarriage in the kingdom of heaven. (Speaking from a pragmatic perspective, there is no marriage in heaven because there is no need to procreate in heaven because there is no death in heaven.) So when you tell your lover that you will be hers or his “forever and ever,” you clearly don’t (read: can’t) mean that in the context of a temporal marriage. If your beliefs did not involve any sort of afterlife, then if you said that you would love your partner “forever and ever,” you definitely couldn’t mean it literally.

Likewise, in the fairytale romance, “forever and ever” in the context of a happy ending does not intend to fix an eternal state even though “forever and ever” might be understood to imply such a state. And waiting in line makes the point even more clearly. “It’s going to take forever and ever to get to the ride!” No, it isn’t going to take eternity to get to the ride. Otherwise, you would never make it to the ride. At most, it make take an hour or two for the wait in line to be over. What you really mean by “forever and ever” is that it is taking what feels like a very long, but not necessarily eternal amount of time.

My proposal is that if “forever and ever” is indeed a good translation of “aionas ton aionon,” the use of the phrase concerning the punishment of the wicked is still compatible with universalism. In the same way that one cannot literally belong to a lover in a marital sense forever and ever and does not wait in line (even at Disney World) forever and ever. But those are still phrases that we might use; and they would be entirely appropriate to use, rhetorically speaking. Perhaps something similar might be going on in Revelation. At any rate, we certainly should not rule out such a possibility without critical examination.

Conclusion

If one of my proposals above is sound, then “aionas ton aionon” does not represent a final defeat for universalism as a Christian, biblical doctrine. The question of universalism remains potent and ought to be subjected to further investigation.