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.

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Walking through Hell (and back?) with Jerry L. Walls

Recently, Rachel Held Evans interviewed Jerry L. Walls on her blog. I was very impressed, because Jerry L. Walls, representing the “traditional” view of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment (ECT), forthrightly admitted that he hopes that someone debunks all of his research. Wouldn’t it be great, Walls reasons, if universalism was true after all and Jesus Christ ends up saving every last human and devil?

Walls approaches the topic of hell from the perspective of philosophical theology. (He has a Ph.D. from Notre Dame University!) In his 1992 book, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, the first in a trilogy on Christian philosophical conceptions of the afterlife, Walls actually defended the traditional view of hell using an account of divine goodness. Naturally, as a “convinced universalist,” I am eager to learn what account of God’s love might cohere with an eternal hell.

My Suspicion

My suspicion is that Jerry Walls must postulate that the ability to resist grace eternally is a necessary aspect of human nature and a necessary aspect of divine love. This universalist is curious to see how he will pull that off.

Overcoming Fundamentalism

One of the more amusing ideas I’ve learned in the past couple of years is that fundamentalism is not only a “religious” phenomenon. Moderns frequently prefer the arbitrary divide of “conservativism” and “liberalism” to any truly critical thinking; rarely is either group’s moral compass truly reckoned with.

So today, be different. When you disagree with a “flaming liberal,” or find a “conservative” to be banal and backwards, try to think about life through their eyes. Truly engage with the ontology, morality, and outcomes of their world. Mediators are more valuable than ever in divided days like ours.

Exclusivism is Compatible with Inclusivism (and Universalism)

I would just like to say that an exclusivism that allows for post-mortem salvation is practically inclusivistic and potentially universalistic.

To those who might comment that the Bible is not open to post-mortem conversion: Yes, it is not open to it, only given the most wooden and tepid reading possible. Otherwise, does it mean anything at all to say that “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54), or to say that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26)?  And what would become of 1 Peter 3:18-21 and 4:6, which speak of Christ’s descent into a spiritual prison and his proclamation of the gospel to “the dead” (1 Peter 4:6)? If by “the dead,” it is only spiritual death that is in mind (doubtful to my mind), does that not still retain the (for the exclusivist) awkward sense that God can reach even the deepest spiritual lifelessness?

This issue is important to me. Because I am tired of seeing it misrepresented, I have chosen to address it briefly here.

My Journey through The Great Divorce

One of the most beloved Christian intellectuals of the modern era was surely Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis. During WWII, his radio lectures that became Mere Christianity brought considerable hope to a despairing world. His literary works in fantasy, notably The Chronicles of Narnia and the “Space Trilogy” that begins with Out of the Silent Planet, are considered by many to be both meaningful achievements and lovely tales.

C. S. Lewis was also a prominent philosopher of the role of human free will in regards to God’s salvific power (for lack of a better term). Lewis would perhaps say that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God except for our own unbelief. For Lewis, we can separate ourselves from the love of God.

The Great Divorce

Since I currently believe in christological universal salvation, I’ve decided to read The Great Divorce. (Fortunately, it is available at my current institutions library.) Jerry L. Walls, an American philosopher who wrote a notable trilogy concerning about heaven, hell, and purgatory that is quite influential. Walls believes that hell will be freely chosen by some persons for all of eternity, and attributes his belief in the plausibility–even probability–of a hell that is purely self-chosen to C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Now that I am about twenty-six pages into the approximately one hundred and forty page novella, I can see why.

Can God lead a horse to water and make it drink?

Can God lead a horse to water and make it drink?

The Great Divorce sketches the post-mortem state as a divided reality. It is those who are redeemed by Christ who are real, and those who reject grace–which even in Lewis’s hell is available to them on an ontological level should they ask–are mere ghastly shadows. As Jerry Walls suggested, the book is indeed convincing.

I wonder if the whole book itself–I must finish it first, of course–is Lewis’s answer to the question: Can God lead a horse to water and make it drink? Perhaps for Lewis, there is a kind of self-chosen point of no return from which even Christ Himself cannot reach the damned. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37 KJV).

Is this what Lewis believed? Is this what The Great Divorce is all about? Is it an ode to the cosmic rejection of Christ by the damned, the reaction of all hell to the living water should it come as even a torrential rain or a monstrous typhoon?

Thoughts on Universalism: Offending God?

After reading two essays, Justice by the Scottish fantasy author George MacDonald and God, Creation, and Evil by Eastern Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart, I became extremely interested in the idea of universal salvation (“universalism”). MacDonald’s case destroyed for me the plausibility of endless punishment, and Hart’s struck a blow to the proposal that even one creature of God–including the devil–could possibly be “cut off from Christ” forever. These two important figures, however, were not the first Christian universalists whom I had encountered. I have also read parts of the debate that took place between John Piper, a prominent American neo-Calvinist, and Thomas Talbott, perhaps the foremost proponent of “evangelical universalism.” Some time after that, I believe, I began to struggle a lot which the concept of particular election. Finding solace in the christological election in Karl Barth’s thought, I was thrilled with his universalism. Indeed, Barth was perhaps the first serious universalist–it is in truth probably not fair to call him a universalist as such; he was, as I understand it, technically undecided in regards to his eschatological beliefs–I had ever encountered. I would put Barth a step above William Barclay, who was particularly difficult for me to trust at the ripe age of eighteen, especially in light of his blatant unitarianism (rejection of the doctrine of Trinity).

I envied universalists deeply for their optimism. All my life, I had been taught that too many biblical comments fundamentally contradicted universalism. Having dabbled a bit in the original languages of the Bible, I strongly believe this claim is mistaken. None of the biblical words used to describe the duration of hell, including Revelation 20:10’s “ages of the ages,” must in my view be taken to mean permanent.

Why Universalism?

Ultimately, I’ve embraced a form of christological universalism because of my sheer confidence in the goodness of God. I sometimes wonder if God Himself might not be a little offended by the suggestion that any devil is beyond the reach of His loving arms.

Book Review: Erasing Hell

Book Review: Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle.

Title of Review: Good Book; Insufficient Contra Universalism

I originally posted this review on Amazon.com. I noticed a few typos there, and have revised as many as I noticed. (Perhaps I will get to revising the typos on my Amazon review of the book as well.) I have also expanded parts of the review in ways I considered useful. Again, maybe I will find time to update the Amazon review, as well. At any rate, questions, comments, and constructive criticisms are welcome, as always.

Begin Review:

I’ve held to a form of what I call “eschatological christological universalism” (“ECU” for short in this review) for almost a year now. A couple of essays, one by David Bentley Hart (God, Creation, and Evil) and another by George MacDonald (Justice) hit me hard enough to make me consider revising entirely my previous two views of hell as eternal conscious torment (ECT) and annihilation, the views that Erasing Hell advocates. Since then, I’ve familiarized myself with the views of Origen, J. A. T. Robinson, Jürgen Moltmann, Robin Parry, Thomas Talbott, William Barclay, and as many other Christian universalists as I could find both in print (such as Moltmann’s seminal work on Christian eschatology, The Coming of God and its argument for ECU on pages 235-255) and on the Internet. Having re-read much of the entire Bible–particularly the parts dealing with hell in the latter Hebrew prophets and the Christian New Testament–I have found no compelling reasons to revise my belief in the ECU position.

One of my friends from college, who does not favor ECU, recommended this book to me about a week ago. He told me that he does not see ECU in the Bible. “If the Bible is an argument,” my friend said, “I don’t see it ending with the salvation of everyone.” He said I should read Erasing Hell to challenge my views. Because I believe deeply that one should seek the truth–which is in Christian thinking synonymous with the figure of Christ (John 14:6)–and follow it, I decided to order the book and let its pages challenge me.

What I love about Erasing Hell is that it is written on a popular level in a way that is well-researched and backed by contemporary scholarly literature. If Love Wins–a similar book by Rob Bell, which I have also read–had an Achilles heel, it was its lack of reference to scholarly literature and its largely superficial interpretation of the relevant biblical passages. (I am not sure that any serious Koine scholar–except perhaps William Barclay–would consider it responsible to give the Attic Greek “kolasis” its classical definition as a remedial punishment.) By recruiting a formal New Testament scholar, Preston Sprinkle, who has a Ph.D. in New Testament from Aberdeen; and by conversing with several other leaders in the field (including no less than Simon Gathercole from Cambridge University!), Chan demonstrated an academic–and indeed, spiritual–eagerness to address the important and emotionally disturbing issues of hell and divine punishment. Indeed, this was the shining strength of the book, and I confess that for this reason, I actually prefer Erasing Hell to Love Wins, even though I’m a universalist. Erasing Hell simply brought more scholarly flavor to the hell debate.

Having said these things, I will briefly discuss what I believe to be the strengths and weaknesses of Erasing Hell.

Strength 1: Erasing Hell is pastoral

I love the very pastoral leanings of Erasing Hell. Chan and Sprinkle are quite forthright about their own desires. They admit to sympathizing with universalism and wishing that all people would be saved. I appreciated this a lot. They also made it clear that the issue of hell is not about “who’s in” and “who’s out.” It’s about where we stand in regards to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Strength 2: Erasing Hell is well-researched

I mentioned this a bit in my introductory statements, and it’s worth repeating. For a popular, entry-level book, Erasing Hell is extremely well-researched. I remember being disappointed that Love Wins did not have any real bibliography. Erasing Hell, on the other hand, had a bibliography of at least twenty sources, including scholarly giants like Richard Bauckham, N. T. Wright, I. Howard Marshall, Douglas Moo, Gregory K. Beale, and Craig S. Keener, all of whom are extremely influential and credible New Testament scholars. These references and names demonstrated to me that Chan and Sprinkle were certainly not fooling around.

In addition to citing these big names in New Testament who do not favor universal salvation, Chan and Sprinkle did an impressive job of addressing the ideas of some scholars who have favored universalist eschatology. Perhaps the biggest names in “evangelical universalism” are Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry. Thomas Talbott wrote The Inescapable Love of God. I also remember reading a debate one time that Thomas Talbott had with John Piper that was very interesting. (For the record, I think that Talbott’s case was better by far.) Talbott has also debated William Lane Craig in the form of scholarly articles, so he’s definitely a loud voice in Christian Universalism. Robin Parry wrote a book called The Evangelical Universalist under the pen name “Gregory MacDonald,” which Chan and Sprinkle also cite. (The pen name is derived from Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald, two figures often claimed to have supported universal salvation.) It meant a lot to me, as a universalist myself, that these prominent figures were cited. I considered it a compliment to my own position.

But perhaps the real academic treat in Erasing Hell is its extensive treatment of the ancient texts of the Bible and the Second Temple Judaism contemporary to Jesus and the early church. Chapter two of the book was completely devoted to painting a first century picture of hell (Gehenna) through the eyes of Second Temple Judaism. Honestly, this chapter was probably my favorite part of the book. Since I’ve believed in universalism (ECU) for a while, I pretty much know what all of the relevant biblical passages regarding hell and divine punishment do and do not say. Nothing that Chan and Sprinkle said in regards to the biblical literature was news to me. (In fact, I will address some of the weaknesses of their position and arguments later in this review.) The really new information that I received came from this chapter about Second Temple Jewish concepts of hell. It was fascinating and enlightening. Thumbs up for Chan and Sprinkle here.

Finally, Erasing Hell did an overall excellent job of addressing the linguistic issues of the original Greek of the New Testament. The words aion and aionios (conventionally translated “age” and “everlasting,” respectively) were both addressed. (They did concede, as was correct and appropriate, that aionios does not always mean “everlasting.”) Kolasis was also dealt with in a way I found to be responsible and convincing. Once again, great job Chan and Sprinkle.

In conclusion to strength 2: with an impressive bibliography, extensive references to the primary and secondary literature, and an excellent treatment of the relevant linguistic issues, Erasing Hell established itself to my mind as one of the finest entry-level treatments of hell out there today.

Strength 3: Erasing Hell is Hopeful

The concluding chapter to Erasing Hell was timely and appropriate. After advocating a dogmatic–I mean “dogmatic” in its formal sense; not whatsoever in a derogatory sense–position in favor of an eternal conscious torment (ECT) or annihilationist perspective on hell (the fact they were open to annihilation is itself worthy of respect), they closed the book with a chapter called “Don’t Be Overwhelmed.” Here, a decidedly hopeful outlook was offered for the reader from 2 Corinthians 5. “Be reconciled to God.” Chan and Sprinkle rightly offer the comfort of God in the face of what is arguably (inarguably?) a cosmic moral evil: the permanent loss of any creature from God. How can we trust a God to be loving who sends people to irreversible punishment, whether ECT or annihilation? (Chan and Sprinkle lead by example here.) I am so glad that they ended this heavy book with a meditation on hope; the Christian God has come to overflow us with hope (Romans 15:13).

Having covered what I believe to be the three most important strengths of Erasing Hell, I will now address some of its weaknesses. To my disappointment and despite its many virtues, Erasing Hell contains dramatic flaws.

Weakness 1: Erasing Hell’s case Contra Universalism is Insufficient

It seemed to me that Chan and Sprinkle could not imagine the possibility that hell and judgment could co-exist with the salvation of all creatures. This reminds me of Emil Brunner’s response to Karl Barth’s universalism, which is cited by Jürgen Moltmann in his essay “The Restoration of All Things” in his book The Coming of God. Brunner insisted that the Bible teaches judgment, but not universal salvation. Moltmann points out (to my mind correctly) that Brunner ignores the possibility that the salvation of every person and demon (including the Devil) could actually result from their judgment. In my opinion, Chan and Sprinkle do not sufficiently engage with this possibility. (Honestly, I really wish they had referenced Jürgen Moltmann. To my mind, Moltmann’s argument for universalism is by far one of the most compelling. Hans Urs von Balthasar also has some very interesting thoughts on universalism.)

I suspect that there are some important reasons, however, why Chan and Sprinkle do not consider universalism seriously as an option. For one thing, the universalists they do cite, like Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry, have espoused some views that even I as a universalist myself would consider strange. Talbott thinks that the Apostle Paul clearly taught universalism in his surviving letters. (If Paul did teach universalism, I do not believe he taught it clearly. The closest he got to it is all too easy to interpret otherwise.) Parry similarly suggests that Revelation teaches universalism. The problem with this is that most evangelical scholars can (and do) easily write these approaches off. (To be honest, I currently do not believe that the Bible teaches universalism in straightforward terms, but that universalism is a logically and aesthetically necessary corollary of the gospel, whose alternatives are by comparison totally incomprehensible.)

Anyways. What I am trying to say is that evangelical theology, exegesis, and culture is currently framed such that universalism is a contradiction of terms. It is little wonder that Chan and Sprinkle, steeped in the conservative evangelical tradition as they are, cannot take universalism seriously.

In my view, it ought to be emphasized that tradition does not equal authority. (Paul Copan seemed to say something like this in his book on Old Testament ethics.) Just because the Bible does not clearly teach universal salvation–or biological evolution, for that matter–does not mean that they aren’t true.

To borrow one of Chan’s phrases, what if God is far bigger than we ever imagined, with an even better sense of justice? What if God really desires to save all in Christ? Perhaps Paul’s comments in Romans 11 about the pleroma of Jews and Gentiles, about imprisonment and mercy (11:32) ultimately lead to universalism even if Paul himself was not aware of that at the time of his writing the letter to the Romans. What if the Second Temple Jewish beliefs about hell with which Jesus superficially agreed–how are we to presume, as Chan and Sprinkle do axiomatically, whether or not Jesus did in fact agree with the contemporary Jewish concepts of hell’s duration and finality?–are undermined by the gospel of his absorption of hell (Godforsakenness) onto himself on his cross? Did not Jesus say in Matthew 11:19 that “wisdom is justified by her deeds?” (He did not say that universalistic positions on hell are justified by his clarity on the subject.) Wisdom is justified by her deeds, and it is impossible for me to imagine how Christ’s greatest deeds on the cross and in the tomb are not in themselves a total justification for his complete victory over death and the powers that hold sway over all creation and, consequently, all creatures.

Weakness 2: The Axiom of Clarity

As I mentioned above, Chan and Sprinkle assume axiomatically that if there is an element of the 1st Century Jewish belief in hell that Jesus did not share completely, he should have made any divergence whatsoever that he may of had totally explicit. Let us quickly test this axiom.

One might say in passing that Jesus may ought to have made many things he said more explicit. For example, why not explain to the Young Ruler that he is actually God (Mark 10:18)? (This would have spared some disagreements I have had concerning this verse with friends who rejected the Incarnation of God in Jesus.) Jesus could have clarified what his cryptic statement in Mark 9:49 about everyone being “salted with fire” might mean, too. Perhaps he could have also explained the proper meaning of some of his more confusing parables (I’m thinking especially of the two stories–which I interpret as parables–concerning riches in Luke 16). And to continue with Luke 16, maybe Jesus could have justified the fact that in this parable his Sheol (“Hades” in Greek) had torments when literally none of the Old Testament concepts of Sheol include the presence of torments. (How many a good interpreter has been stumped by Luke 16:19-31!) Apparently, Jesus does not mind being a little (perhaps very?) vague every once in a while. That Jesus should be super clear on hell is an axiom I do not feel comfortable–or honest–adopting.

In addition to this, the Gospels indicate that Jesus was clear about some things that weren’t grasped at the time, like his passion and resurrection. Perhaps he was clear about hell, but nobody grasped it enough to present it the way that he did. (Although I consider that unlikely, I think it is nevertheless logically possible.) Furthermore, what if Jesus, much like the Torah (as Paul Copan argues in Is God a Moral Monster?), was okay with using the contemporary moral language to make a divine point, and is not therefore endorsing the moral reasoning of his day for all time but rather using it to support the purposes of the gospel?

The possibilities are almost endless, and none of them should be ignored by axiom alone, as I estimate Chan and Sprinkle have done. In summary then, I think that this axiom of clarity was a fatal flaw for the book’s argument as a whole, and as I said, I am not at all convinced it is proper to adopt it.

Weakness 3: Erasing Hell gets Basic Philosophical Theology Wrong

Perhaps the first siren that went off for me came in their treatment of what I would call God’s ideal will (which they called “moral will”) and God’s permissive will (which they called “decreed will”). They did not say that God’s permissive will is permissive (which is hugely important), but rather called it his “decreed will” which he “makes”–makes!–to happen. In addition to turning Christian theology into an exercise in nihilism, this failed distinction does irreparable damage to the actual biblical testimony to the divine character. Consider, as two examples, 1 John 1:5 and 4:8. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, emphasis mine). “God is love” (1 John 4:8, emphasis mine). If the Bible does not qualify its statements on hell, it certainly does not qualify these statements on the divine essence, either.

This overall critique of poor philosophy can be applied to the book as a whole, in my opinion. (Which is fine, because the book is not really meant to be a philosophical treatise, but rather a biblical and historical exegesis.) I believe that Chan and Sprinkle mean well, but fear that they may be replacing the light and easy yoke of Christ (Matthew 11:30) for something else.

Weakness 4: Erasing Hell gets Romans 9 Wrong

I was quite disturbed that Chan and Sprinkle turned Paul’s question in Romans 9:22-23 into an entire theological premise. (One might indeed say that entire veins of Christianity–such as Calvinism–are built of off treating these two verses as a moral premise. This is of course to nauseating effect.) The whole argument of Romans 9-11 is in my opinion to refute the question that is raised in 9:22-23. By the end of the argument, it is clear that “all” are vessels of wrath and “all” are intended to be vessels of mercy (Rom. 11:32). One might of course argue whether “all” means both Jews and Greeks or every individual Jew and Greek, of course; but it is flirting with theological nihilism to suggest (as Chan and Sprinkle in fact do) that God does not desire the salvation of every individual on at least some level.

Romans 9-11 is a beautiful and christologically informed argument born from Paul’s Christlike desire to rescue all of his “kinsmen according to the flesh.” (God is not the limiting factor in their salvation.) Taken to its conclusion, Romans 9-11 is not a justification for what would otherwise be “the potter’s” repugnant desire to destroy people. Indeed, it is the thief–the Devil–who comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10); it is the Devil, and not God, who is caught in those nasty habits. “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8 NRSV).

Conclusion: Erasing Hell is a Fantastic entry-level book for the Hell Debates

I know I’ve written a lot here (perhaps too much), and that my own position might be confusing in light of some of my comments. In gist, I am still an eschatological christological universalist and this book has not convinced me that it is necessary to leave universalism to find Christ. (In fact, I remain convinced that universalism is a logical corollary of christology.) But what this book gave me was a rich meditation on Second Temple Jewish beliefs on hell and the Bible’s own comments on divine punishment and a beautiful introspective spiritual wisdom from two men whom I trust love God with all their strength. I cannot thank Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle enough for writing this book, and hope that they will not be offended by my criticisms above.

If you’re new to the hell debates, there are a few names you really need to learn. They are:

Jürgen Moltmann (Protestant)
Karl Barth (Protestant)
J. A. T. Robinson (Anglican)
Hans Urs von Balthasar (Roman Catholic)
Karl Rahner (Roman Catholic)
Kallistos Ware (Eastern Orthodox)
David Bentley Hart (Eastern Orthodox) .

Jürgen Moltmann has written the best argument for universalism I’ve ever read in pages 235-255 of The Coming of God. I consider J. A. T. Robinson’s argument for universalism to be one of the best, as well. Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart both have some great thoughts, too. I have not personally read Ware or Rahner, but am aware of their presence in the universal salvation discussion. (The Beauty of the Infinite is David Bentley Hart’s attempt at a miniature systematic theology, and it is excellent.)

Some of these authors are not entry-level. But as far as entry-level books go, I can think of none better than Erasing Hell. Thank you Chan and Sprinkle for being brave, for following the evidence where it led you.

Sincerely,
~ Christopher Thrutchley Jr.

Good News in Strange Places: Matthew 7:21-23

Matthew 7:21-23 used to be some of my most hated verses in the Bible. How could Jesus say that a person who even “cast out demons” (in his own name!) is an “evildoer,” unknown to him? Doesn’t this statement destroy the basis for any assurance of salvation by God?

No. No it does not.

The Heart of God: Mercy, not Sacrifice

Perhaps my favorite verses in Matthew are the ones that say that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice.” I think that is what is behind Jesus’s hard teaching here near the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

Throughout Matthew, Jesus repeatedly criticizes the religious establishment of his day because they “tithe mint, dill, and cumin” but “neglect the weightier matters of the law.” What are the weightier matters?

The weightier things are the little things, the small acts of humility, love, and self-control that are littered throughout Matthew.

Matthew 7:21-23 is good news because God is not interested in lip service and pomp but in love, kindness, and self-control. God is interested in the New Creation more than in spectacular displays of personal competence.

May we, like Jesus, take the form of a slave for the sake of others.

1 Corinthians 6:9 and Universalism

1 Corinthians 6:9 and the Doctrine of Universalism

One of the verses that is often cited as a proof-text against universalism—the doctrine that all individuals will ultimately come to have a faith in Jesus that results in their salvific reconciliation with God—is 1 Corinthians 6:9. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor. 6:9).

On its face, the verse might be taken to contradict universalism. If universalism asserts that all people shall be saved (i.e., inherit the kingdom of God), and 1 Cor. 6:9 states that some people shall not inherit the kingdom of God, then universalism clearly cannot be reconciled with Paul.

In this post, I am going to argue that 1 Cor. 6:9 is actually completely compatible with universalism. Universalism resoundingly affirms with Paul “that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Universalism Compatible with 1 Cor. 6:9

In one sense, 1 Cor. 6:9 is actually quite easy to reconcile with universalism. The kingdom of God is by definition for the just—that is, those who are justified; therefore, unjust persons by definition won’t inherit the kingdom of God. It is in this sense little more than a tautology. Universalism doesn’t teach that unjust people inherit the kingdom of God; universalism teaches that God desires to wash all persons such that they are no longer unjust (1 Timothy 2:4) and is ultimately successful in achieving that desire. “Love never fails,” after all (1 Cor. 13:8).

However, in spite of this, I am in this post going to offer several biblical reflections on universalism, suggesting that it is more biblical than we might first think.

There is Hope After Death: 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6

I do not think it can be denied that in the Bible there is hope after death, even for the wicked. 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6 seem to insist that when Christ died, he actually “preached the gospel to dead men” (1 Pet. 4:6). If it is true that the gospel can be preached to the dead at all, then it is difficult to avoid the apparently necessary conclusion that death does not mark the end of God’s ability to wash the unjust.

There is Hope After the Last Judgment: Revelation 21:5; 22:14

Biblically speaking, I believe that there is even hope after the last judgment. On the throne, the same person who says that the wicked will have their place in the second death says that he is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:8, 5). Would it make sense that God would make all things new, except for the damned?

Furthermore, Rev. 22:14 blesses those who “wash their robes.” Shall we imagine that God, who “devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast” (2 Samuel 14:14), whose mercy is said to endure forever, who promises a “restoration of all things” (apocastasis; Acts 3:22); shall we imagine that this God’s restoration not include even the most persistently wicked in his restorative kindness, particularly considering that it was said, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13)? Would denying such a grace not render meaningless the beautiful Pauline statement, that “where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more?” (Rom. 5:20). Shall it be said of anyone, “Where grace reigned, sin abounded all the more?” No. Indeed, I do not think that such an outcome is possible. Rather, it was said by Paul, “But where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20; emphasis mine)!

These are several brief meditations that to me warrant further investigation into Paul’s concept of the kingdom of God. We will explore them below.

The Kingdom of God in Paul

To give the quintessential exposition of Paul’s view of the kingdom of God as a future advent, “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father…” (1 Cor. 15:24). For Paul, the kingdom of the Messiah has not yet been given to God; they are presently separate domains (Ephesians 5:5). The central Pauline eschatological hope is for the day when the kingdom of the Messiah is ready for delivery to the Father. On that day, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

One thing that comes to my mind that would prevent me from taking the logic of “the unjust can’t inherit the kingdom; there are people who are unjust, so they won’t inherit the kingdom” too far is 1 Cor. 15:50. 1 Cor. 15:50 says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” But of course, as 1 Cor. 15:51 explains, we are all flesh and blood.” Does this mean that none of us will inherit the kingdom of God? Of course not. Paul says that “we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51). Is it possible, that the very same people who in 1 Cor. 6:9-10 are unjust “will all be changed” between now and the arrival of the consummated kingdom of God?

More Biblical Thoughts on Universalism

I do not think that we can discredit such a possibility. And I would be very hesitant to insist on the basis of 1 Cor. 6:9-10 alone that there is no hope for those who die in sin as unjust people. This is especially true light of the revealed character of the Christians God. Of God, it is said, “all things are possible” (Mark 10:27); “his love endures forever” (Psalm 136, repeated many times elsewhere); “his anger is for a moment and his favor is for a lifetime” (Ps. 30:5); “if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8); and the ever famous “God is love” (1 John 4:8). On the basis of these texts at least, I propose that there is reason to doubt that Paul’s comments are intended to eradicate hope for the dead unjust. It seems more likely to me that Paul is trying to deal pastorally with the rampant immorality in his Corinthian church. It would not be very pastoral to say, “Don’t worry about this guy sleeping with his mom, or about all the people messing around with the prostitutes. They are all going to be saved anyways!” It would not be pastoral of Paul to say that, even if it is true. Remember that in another of Paul’s letters, he criticizes those who ask, “Why not do evil that good may come?” (Romans 3:8).

Baptizing the Unjust with Fire and the Holy Spirit

So what is Paul trying to say, if he is not trying to say that those who die as unjust people will not inherit the kingdom of God? I think he’s trying to say something like what he says in Rom. 14:17, where he says that “the kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The application of the kingdom of God can never be, “Phew, I was worried that our actions would actually matter. I was worried that I would actually have to make a personal effort in this whole sanctification thing! Good thing God is going to save everyone anyways, that there’s “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!”” The application of the kingdom of God is rather always, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

To the doctrine of universalism, that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God means that God in the Messiah will—must, on the grounds of his personal character—continue to cleanse and to wash those who are unjust until they become just, that as just folk who are “washed,” those who were once “unjust” may inherit the kingdom. It was Paul who quoted Hosea saying that the one who was called “not beloved” will later by God be called “beloved.” He even said that those who were once called “not my people” by God become called “children of the living God!” (Romans 9:25-26). Paul is in truth in the right: “…the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God.” God will not have it that anyone without a wedding garment shall enter into the wedding (Matthew 22:12-13). He will dress the prodigals in the best robes—fit indeed for the nuptials of a King! (Luke 15:22).

It is this severe teaching—of God’s eternal “no” to the wicked—that I believe forms the backdrop of John the Baptizer’s eschatological sayings. “The chaff [i.e., the unjust] he [Christ] will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). God cannot accept unjust people “as they are,” but will burn them—that is, will salt them with fire (Mk. 9:49) and baptize them with the Holy Spirit—until the evil that they once were is consumed and the good that is left—even if as insignificant as ashes!—is traded for beauty (Isaiah 61:3) and made with the equally inorganic stones to cry out in praise of the God for whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk. 19:40, Mk. 10:27)!

Conclusion: 1 Corinthians 6:9 and the Doctrine of Universalism

In 1 Corinthians 6, I believe that what Paul proclaims is no less than the doctrine of universal hope. The saying that “…the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God” is not a terror for the unjust but a hope! It is hope that God’s eternal “yes” to the sinner is an eternal “no” to their sin. It is the hope that the love that never fails (1 Cor. 13:8) and believes and hopes “all things” (1 Cor. 13:7) believes for the unbeliever. The proclamation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is the promise of God’s eternal kingdom of goodness, justice, and joy, and not a terror. Its only true application can be one not of fear of punishment (1 Jn. 4:18), but of perfect love for the fire that does not consume, put purifies. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid!” (Rom. 6:1-2).

Paul once wrote elsewhere that God has kindness and severity (Rom. 11:22). I suppose that it is because that to be severe is kind, and that to be kind is severe.

Having explored one of Paul’s own most severe statements, I propose that it is a deeply pastoral reminder to us that the application of the universal hope of the kingdom of God is to live now as we shall be made to be then. The unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9), but shall be “changed” (1 Cor. 15:51) and shall be “washed” (1 Cor. 6:11) “by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The Son must reign until he has put all enemies in subjection under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). But after the enemies are put in subjection to the Son, the Son himself becomes subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28). The enemies are subjected to the Son, and the Son is subjected to the Father, that God may be all in all. This is, to me, the doctrine of universalism.

“But where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more… What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!” (Romans 5:20, 6:1-2)

The Unpardonable Sins

A Word Against the Holy Spirit: The First Unpardonable Sin

The unpardonable sin–a synoptic tradition of Jesus Christ–has long puzzled Christian theologians. The statement in the gospel according to Matthew seems to reflect the most extreme reading of it.

Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32 NRSV)

For starters, the idea of an unpardonable sin seems to stand in direct contrast to a gospel predicated on the forgiveness of sins. Could there be a sin that God could not forgive? Does not that seem to destroy the basis of the gospel for anyone who commits such a sin?

Of course, it could be argued that a truly unpardonable sin does not destroy the thrust of the gospel. Yes, it can be argued that although there is one sin that God cannot forgive, almost no one will commit that sin anyway, and the ones who will are the sorts of people that we should not want to have forgiveness. The unpardonable sin is the sort of sin committed by the Hitlers of the world, and the Pharisees and the serial killers. We don’t want those people to be reconciled to God, anyhow; it does not undermine the gospel just because there is a sin that cannot be forgiven. In this post, I will challenge such a response.

Failing to Forgive: The Second Unpardonable Sin

One of the most challenging ideas that I learned from George MacDonald was that the New Testament does not teach only one unpardonable sin. Jesus Christ appears to have taught not one, but two unpardonable sins. In the gospel of Matthew, the same gospel that to me seems to most emphasize the seriousness of the unpardonable sin, Jesus twice alludes to another sin that apparently cannot be forgiven: the sin of failing to forgive (Matt. 6:15, 18:23-35).

“…but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:15 NRSV)

Wait a minute. In Matt. 12:32, Jesus says that there is a sin that God cannot forgive: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But earlier in Matt. 6:15 and later in Matt. 18:23-35, Jesus talks about another sin that God cannot forgive: failing to forgive! God cannot forgive the failure to forgive. So then, there are two unpardonable sins.

There’s more. If God cannot forgive someone for not forgiving someone else, is God Himself committing the second unpardonable sin? By failing to forgive the first unpardonable sin, is God guilty of the second?

What is going on here?

At any rate, I would say that the issues of the two unpardonable sins are not immediately straightforward. There is a sin that God cannot forgive; but God says that refusing to forgive is also a sin that he cannot forgive. At first, it seems as though God is committing one of his own unpardonable sins. Forgive me if I point out that on its face, this seems at best inconsistent. However, if properly understood, I believe that we can make sense of these apparent difficulties.

The Real Point of the Unpardonable Sins

N. T. Wright, easily my favorite interpreter of the Bible, points out that it is exceedingly dangerous to base entire theological positions off of any one of the brief stories, statements, and parables of Jesus. Some of the parables end with their characters getting thrown into outer darkness, or cut into pieces. These parables are intended to tell brief stories and offer simple glimpses at God, but to say that God is a judge who cuts the wicked into pieces would be to offer too shallow a glimpse at God’s character.

In the same way, to latch on to one of Jesus arguably most archaic sayings ever and to develop a whole theology of forgiveness based on it would be in my opinion to commit a category mistake. And the alternative is not to submit to relativism, but to understand the point that Jesus was trying to make.

In this way, I think the unpardonable sin tradition is like the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31). The point of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is probably not to offer a total theology of post-mortem damnation, but to make the more pertinent and immediate suggestion that a person who ignores the Prophets is the kind of person who will ignore just about everything that God says and does even if it includes someone rising from the dead, someone like Jesus.

Likewise, I submit that the point of the unpardonable sin tradition is not that if you say or do something against the Holy Spirit (or commit suicide, as the older churches teach), it’s over for you and you’re screwed for eternity. If that was what Jesus was teaching, I think we would have even bigger theological problems to deal with.

I suggest that the meaning of the first unpardonable sin (Matt. 12:32), like the second unpardonable sin (Matt. 6:15, 18:35), is not that if you commit these sins, you are screwed forever. It is to say that if you are committing these sins now, then stop it–stop committing these sins, because until you do stop, you will never experience the reality of God’s healing presence and forgiveness in the Holy Spirit, “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32).

Applying the Unpardonable Sins

If you are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit in persistent unbelief, then stop it, because whoever is not for Christ is against him. If you are failing to forgive your sister or brother, then stop it, because if you fail to forgive your sisters and brothers, neither can God forgive you.

A person who stands against the Holy Spirit can never come to forgiveness, since the Holy Spirit is himself the means of forgiveness.

Back to N. T. Wright again. One of my favorite of his many illustrations is that of breathing. Wright thinks that forgiveness is like breathing. In order to continue inhaling God’s forgiveness, you’ve got to keep exhaling God’s forgiveness to others. I would like to apply this image to the other unpardonable sin, that of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. In order for the forgiveness and the oxygenating life of the Holy Spirit to indwell you, you’ve got to stop blaspheming him with your words and in your heart and start submitting to him with your words and in your heart. (Words and heart matter a lot in Christianity, as Romans 10:9 demonstrates.)

A Hypothetical Interpretative Story

Suppose that there was a rich man named Cliff. Cliff was a bitter man. He frequently held grudges, and rarely extended forgiveness to any of those who vexed him. Cliff also had the unique opportunity to meet C. S. Lewis. Lewis offered the most convincing arguments in favor of Christianity that Cliff had ever heard. But, despite the almost certain conviction that struck Cliff of Christianity’s truthfulness, Cliff rejected it. In his mid-forties, he even committed suicide, dwelling in his unwillingness to forgive and believe in Christ to the very end of his life.

In our short story here, Cliff has committed both unpardonable sins. He has failed to forgive others, and he has also blasphemed against the Holy Spirit in unbelief (as the Protestant churches teach) and committed suicide (as the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches teach).

Now suppose that in hell, Cliff has an experience of faith. He remembers in his god-forsaken post-mortem existence the story that Lewis told him, of a God who is with us even should we make our bed in hell (Psalm 139:8).

Suddenly, Cliff begins to cry. He remembers all of the faces in his life that he loved in his own sort of egotistical way. He remembers the many opportunities he had had to forgive others. He remembers the gospel of Christ that he heard from C. S. Lewis.

In my short story, Cliff has repented of both unpardonable sins. In his misery, he has ceased to speak a word against the Holy Spirit. In his pain, he has remembered the pain that he caused others through his grudges, and offers forgiveness in his heart of hearts to those he had once never forgiven.

God now receives Cliff. God did not “forgive” Cliff for blaspheming the Holy Spirit or for failing to forgive others. As long as Cliff was blaspheming and holding grudges, God did not–could not–forgive him, but surrendered him to destruction in order that he might be saved (1 Corinthians 5:5). But now that Cliff has been made new, God receives him and welcomes him.

In this way, then, I would say that the unpardonable sins are not pardonable in that while one commits them, one cannot in an ontological fashion experience God’s forgiveness. But, suppose that a person who did not forgive his brother comes to forgive him. Suppose that someone who once spoke a word against the Holy Spirit now confesses with her mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in her heart that God raised him from the dead. These, I contend, though they have technically committed the unpardonable sins, will be saved.

Conclusion

We have visited one of the most intense sayings of Jesus ever: that of the “word against the Holy Spirit.” We have compared this to another challenge of Jesus’s, that of forgiving others from the heart. We have considered N. T. Wright’s analogy of breathing and applied it to both of these sins. Using a brief hypothetical narrative, I suggested how committing the unpardonable sins might play out in a person’s life, what it means that those sins cannot be forgiven (as long as the person is the sort of person that commits these sins, he or she cannot experience forgiveness), and how we may still proclaim hope to those who are now committing these sins. I hope that we also consider how even today we might be committing these sins, and how we might by the power of God be forever rid of them.