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Saturday, January 07, 2017

Ask Not For Whom Rob Bell Tolls

Universalists, as I mentioned in a previous post, are people who wrongly believe everyone, no matter how willfully and determinately wicked, will eventually be saved.

Popular pastor/author Rob Bell has been called a universalist, though I don’t believe he describes himself that way. His book Love Wins is arguably the most well-read recent exploration of the subject, stirring up a fair bit of evangelical dust upon its release in 2011. However, if you want to argue fine points of universalist doctrine (or even broad strokes), Bell’s not your guy. Even his most ardent supporters (like Greg Boyd) admit Bell prefers asking questions to providing stringent proofs, and is more of a “poet/artist/dramatist” with a “fantastic gift for communicating in ways that inspire creativity and provoke thought” than an actual Bible teacher.

Too bad, really. Those of us waiting for a well-reasoned, serious defense of universalism from scripture will continue to keep our eyes peeled.

The Eternal Day

The closest I’ve come to finding a credible Bible student with an argument for universalism is Lorraine Day, M.D., whose 2006 study of the Greek aiōnios, frequently translated into English as “everlasting” or “eternal”, may be found here.

Day’s conclusions are perfunctory and mostly in error — she gets occupied with a series of verses that contain the word “all” in English, making sweeping statements about God’s eternal purposes without once pausing to consider what the authors of holy writ intended to communicate by their use of the word. That rather critical issue aside, Day’s examination of the word aiōnios is much better — quite exhaustive, in fact. She claims that in our English Bibles, “forever” doesn’t always mean “to infinity and beyond”, but often a shorter period — an “age” or “eon”.

Turns out she’s correct, not that anything of significance hangs on it. Knowing a few of our readers, I’m confident others here have already noted this feature of aiōnios. I hadn’t done so up until recently, but I’m grateful to be preserved from taking a position on the subject in ignorance. When you find yourself talking doctrine with a universalist over coffee, it’s best not to be the guy shouting “If the Bible says FOREVER, it means FOREVER!” when you haven’t bothered to take a look for yourself first.

Eternity in the Old Testament

Lorraine Day’s study (at least the one I’ve read) is of the Greek New Testament. I only came across it because I’d been, perhaps coincidentally, looking into the Old Testament Hebrew word `owlam, which is also translated as “eternal”, “everlasting”, “perpetual”, “forever”, “ancient”, “always” and even “never”. What became apparent was that, like aiōnios, `owlam may be legitimately translated a variety of ways depending on context, and often has in view a period of time that is quantifiable rather than infinite.

The Mighty Men of Old

For example, early in Genesis we find this verse:
“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old [`owlam], the men of renown.”
I’ve rarely met a Christian that didn’t enjoy speculating about the Nephilim, but sadly they are not our subject! Nevertheless, it should be noted that plugging in the English words “eternal” or “forever” here to translate `owlam will not work. “Eternal men” and “forever men” sound like cool comic book titles, but the ESV’s “men who were of old” is probably more to the point. If “death spread to all men because all sinned”, as Paul tells us in Romans, it seems unlikely the writer of Genesis intended to suggest these “mighty men” were exceptions. While such men may have been unusually long-lived, their earthly lives most definitely had beginnings and ends.

He Shall Be His Slave For ... Er ... A Good Long While

Another clearly time-limited use of `owlam concerns slaves who refuse to leave their masters when given the opportunity, found in the Law of Moses:
“Then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever [`owlam].”
Here “forever” means no more than “as long as he lives”. It would probably be better to say that he will be his slave “in perpetuity”.

Shorter and More Manageable

But whether in Hebrew or Greek, the point of doing word exercises is, at least for the universalist, to persuade their readers that “eternal” punishment is both less final and more rehabilitative than orthodox theologians have traditionally believed, and certainly more palatable to moderns who really dislike the notion that our actions in this life may actually have consequences that ripple out to infinity.

Obviously no mere word study can prove such a thing: at most it may suggest that in certain specific contexts important to the universalist there exists a remote possibility that the word is being used the way they would like.

Calling All Replacement Theologians!

I haven’t looked into it, but I’d be surprised if Replacement Theologians haven’t attacked God’s “everlasting covenant” with Abraham and his seed on much the same basis. If it were possible to demonstrate conclusively that God had some shorter period in view for his covenant with the Jewish people, large numbers of Christians looking to be considered the “Israel of God” would surely enthuse over it.

But such a theological position is made thoroughly untenable by the unfortunate fact that, like aiōnios, `owlam is far too frequently used to describe periods that have no particular terminus in view. Do we really want to insist that the covenant name of YHWH is of limited duration, or that “unto all generations” doesn’t mean precisely that? Are we comfortable suggesting that the Egyptians seen by the nation of Israel at the Red Sea prior to their miraculous demise are about to reappear? Or that when Moses tells the people, “The Lord will reign forever and ever” he actually means for a finite period?

Everlasting Life and Everlasting Contempt

But the kicker for me is Daniel 12:2, which reads:
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting [`owlam] life, and some to shame and everlasting [`owlam] contempt.”
Now, sure, “forever” doesn’t always mean “forever” in scripture. We can see that. But two uses of the very same Hebrew adjective set parallel with one another only a few words apart in Daniel present the universalist with the same interpretive conundrum as Jude’s New Testament use of aiōnios: You can’t very well make the one finite and the other infinite, no matter how much your theological system cries out for it. They very obviously describe two opposite fates of identical duration.

Is it worth cashing in our belief in eternal blessedness for the misplaced hope that the wicked might have their sentences shortened? Because that’s the obvious trade-off, and the only logical, linguistically defensible position for the universalist to take. Perhaps there’s some childish nobility in that, but I doubt it, since at its core it involves presuming ourselves more loving than God himself. In that case, our definition of the “love” that “wins” clearly needs some radical adjustment.

For whom does Rob Bell toll? For everyone or no one, it seems.

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