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.
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.