Sunday, January 01, 2017

Forever Doesn’t Mean Forever Anymore

Universalists are a funny bunch. They’d like everyone, no matter how willfully and resolutely horrible, to be saved in the end. Not a bad desire, in one sense. It certainly appears a loving and even-handed approach, provided we don’t apply a microscope to it and examine its implications too carefully.

So universalists read scripture to conform with their fantasy, redefining words as necessary and explaining the meaning of difficult verses in what seem to me to be very unnatural ways.

Thing is, they’re not always wrong.

Eons and Ages

Lorraine Day, M.D. is a universalist. Among others of her ilk, she points out that the Greek and Hebrew words translated “forever”, “eternal”, “everlasting” and so on do not always mean what we English speakers think they mean. That is to say, “forever” does not always mean effectively “for infinity”, but frequently for some shorter, measurable period. She is particularly concerned with English translations of the much-misunderstood Greek aiōnios. Day insists aiōnios should not be uniformly translated “forever”, but rather “up until the end of a particular period of time, or age”. (The word aiōnios comes from aiōn, meaning an unbroken age or period of time, in English an “eon”.)

So Day divides human history into five “eons” of varying lengths, with eternity before and after.

The End of the Eon

Now, there’s lots wrong with Day’s conclusions. Her theological package is a mess, and orthodox Christians rightly dismiss it. But we are not helped by throwing out her language study, which in itself is quite solid. She’s not wrong about the words, and the argument of those of us who believe in genuinely eternal punishment and reward is not strengthened by dismissing her point. When Jesus says, “The harvest is the end of the aiōn”, the word “eternity” does not work as a translation. The Lord clearly has in view a finite period of time. He means the harvest is at the end of this particular period in God’s dealings with mankind. Again, when he speaks of the shrewdness of the “sons of this aiōn”, in contrast to the “sons of light”, it is evident he means “sons of this world”, or “age”.

So, sometimes “forever” doesn’t mean forever. Some English translations are better at dealing with this issue, others less so.

Genuinely Eternal Eons

Still, even Day has to concede that sometimes “forever” DOES mean for infinity; in fact, most of the time this is the case. When scripture speaks of the “eternal [aiōnios] God”, for instance, it is clear he is not the God only of a particular age or ages. When the ruler asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit aiōnios life?” it is evident he is not merely concerned with milking an extra millennium out of his existence, but rather speaking of eternity in the sense with which Christians are familiar.

Once again we find ourselves looking at a word with a meaning that is context-dependent rather than rigidly definable on the basis of etymology. Which is fine; it happens all the time. We know genuinely eternal life is a thing not because the Greek word for “eternal” has a rigid dictionary definition, but because of how the Lord and the apostles use it.

Contrasts and Comparables

For one thing, we know because of the contrasts the Lord uses:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Here “eternal” life is contrasted with “perishing”, which cannot mean anything other than spiritual death, since human beings have continued to die in the physical sense ever since Jesus said it — not least the Lord himself, exactly as he prophesied many times to his disciples.

We also know genuinely eternal punishment is a thing because the apostles speak of “eternal” life and “eternal” punishment in the very same contexts. Jude, for instance, refers to aiōnios fire in v7 and aiōnios life in v21. What bizarre principle of interpretation might permit us to understand the first one to mean “graciously temporary” and the second “genuinely eternal”? There are many other instances like this.

In short, “forever” in your English Bible may not always mean “for infinity”. One has to examine the context to see whether what is being referred to is eternity or a more limited period. It’s no big deal and it doesn’t change anything about the Christian faith, let alone usher in universalism.

Faith in What Exactly?

Universalists claim to put their faith in a God of love; a God so loving, in fact (by the universalist’s definition of “love”, of course), that he cannot permit a single human being to ultimately and finally perish.

Except it seems to me that the universalist’s faith is really in the innate goodness of man, not the goodness of God. What the universalist believes is that everyone, if given enough information, education, decent treatment or extended torture* will eventually come around. That’s not a belief about the love of God so much as it is about the ultimate tractability or enlightened self-interest of human beings.

I, on the other hand, view the hardened, the unrepentant and the relentlessly self-determined — those who hate the very name of Jesus Christ — more like a pack of rabid dogs that can neither be cured nor killed. The kindest thing to do with such beings is to put them as far away from you and your loved ones as possible.

Which, in effect, is what God has promised to do.

* Many universalists believe in a hell of limited duration that exists for the purpose of purifying souls, along the lines of Catholicism’s purgatory myth.

No comments :

Post a Comment