Recently I posted a blog in which I claimed three things about Christian Universalism–i.e., that it makes sense 1) biblically 2) philosophically and 3) pastorally. Today, I will offer evidence that the αιωνιος (aiōnios) passages do not have to be understood as denoting qualities or states that are irreversibly experienced for those who ‘go away into’ them.
One of my really good friends told me graciously that he thinks my first claim, that universalism has support in Scripture, is highly objectionable. I am relieved that he was slow in the uptake of universalism, because it means that he is thinking through my claims carefully and cautiously. (May we all.) Matthew 25:46 was particularly difficult for him to square with. Although I have posted musings about that verse, thanks to my friend I do not now believe that they are comprehensive enough to answer a Matt. 25:46 objection to universalism. However, I still believe that there *are* good cases for universalist understandings of Matt. 25:46. I will present one of them here.
One of the most convincing lines of argument for me against a non-universalist reading of Matt. 25:46–though there are others–is Jonah 2:6 (or verse 7, depending on the edition) in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, LXX). Basically, the verse says that Jonah descends into the place that God has sealed ‘forever’ (αιώνιοι). And yet, in less than three days, Jonah is delivered from that place that according to Jonah 2:6/7 lasted ‘forever.’ If we apply this to Matt 25:46’s αιωνιον, it would not be unreasonable to imagine that ‘eternal punishment’ for some might last three days. Logically, insofar as I can tell, the interpretation would be grounded on the basis of Jonah 2:6/7
This may especially be true when it is considered that “[the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment.” Eternal punishment, like the eternal barriers of Jonh 2:6/7, must be entered. And so the question is begged: if Jonah–who was quite wicked for a prophet–could be delivered from the eternal barriers, could not the wicked also, at some point in the future, be delivered from eternal punishment by means of faith and repentance? Grammatically, at least in the English translations, it is difficult to imagine why this would be impossible.
So verses with αιωνιος and its derivatives do not constitute a thorough refutation of universalism. (Remember, I am an eventual universalist. I absolutely believe in hell. The disagreement does not lie with hell for me, but in its purpose and duration. I am a universalist not because it is without mysteries, but because its mysteries make more sense to me in light of the character of God. I do believe it has fewer secrets.)
Returning to my claim, it partially rests on the belief that there are understandings of the αιωνιος passages that do not have to mean permanent as in irreversibly experienced without end. If that is true, then the case for my claim that Scripture does not contradict universalism is quite grounded.