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.


  1. In the typical logical trickery of the devotees of eternal hell, you have to finish off by describing everyone in hell in a way that portrays them as two points shy of Adolf Hitler. The problem is that there are multitudes who die in peaceable little villages yet unreached with the gospel. Do they worship idols? Probably. Do they shake their fist at the one true God and tell Him they hate Him? How can they hate someone they never met?
    Why do we think that Christs sacrifice is sufficeint to save us from hell while our heart is beating, but the moment the buzzer goes off, the love of God goes dark, the cross is powerless and he can never love them again? The rich man in hell cared for no one in life, yet after tasting the flames of hell he cared deeply for his brothers who were still alive. Seems that love can arise in hell from a sinners heart. How much more repentance? Or is God no longer willing that ALL come ro repentance? Abraham may have acknowledged the gulf between them was impassable but that was only a reference to his and the rich mans own abilities. But can not He who invented hell cross that gulf or should we beleive that God created something too big even for Himself to conquer?
    For as the scripture says, “Sheol and Apollyon are open before the Lord, how much more the hearts of the children of men?” God watches hell and he watches the hearts of those who dwell there.” For what purpose is this? To punish yes, and also to purify. For some shall be beaten with fewer blows and some with many depending on their offenses and condition. The general consensus is that there are varying degrees of punishment in hell. If that is the case then we are faced witht he reality that God does not want to give the ignorant idol worshipper the same punishment as the mass murderer. But why should God have any system of measure
    ing justice in hell that differentiates between bad and terrible? If sin is sin and if and unbeleiver is an unbeleiver why worry about one person getting more pain than they deserve? It sounds like God still cares about people in hell.
    And again, “For great is thy mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell.” Pslams 86:13 Who has gone down to the lowest hell? The righteous or the worst of sinners? To be delivered is to be rescued from the enemy that has you. To be protected is to be kept from the enemy that wants you. It sounds like a prophecy of people being taken from hell. Or shall we say hell is just a metaphor now in this passage?
    Jonah was burning in the stomach acid of the great fish because he rebelled and ran from God. Was this a metaphor of hell? Consider Jonahs words. “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” Is hell literal here? Or is this i proper use of the word hell in translation? Or did God bring a unrepentant sinner out of hell because he cried out to God? Maybe this was only about Jesus in the grave 3 days? Not only though because Jesus was not rebellious and did not run from God in hatred of His Word. Jonah did. check out for much deeper reasoning and study on Universalism. This article doesnt begin to touch the full spectrum of ideas and objections to eternal conscious torment.

    1. Anon, my post was primarily intended as commentary on some of the ideas raised by Lorraine Day in her own post. To "touch the full spectrum of ideas and objections to eternal conscious torment" is well beyond anything I am likely to attempt here anytime soon.

      Regarding the the "multitudes in peaceable villages" though, you may find this post is more on point.

      Concerning the rich man in hell, there is nothing in the Lord's story in Luke 16 to suggest that he cared for nobody in this life, or that his affection for his brothers arose in his heart in Hades in response to the torments he encountered there. 1 Timothy 5:8 implies it is not unusual for unbelievers to care for their families, and I believe this is true. I'm quite confident a man can love his family and still deserve hell; it's someone much more important and deserving whom we ought to love above all. As Paul tells the Corinthians, "If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed." That surely includes many people who exhibit numerous positive qualities.

      I note that the rich man in Hades does not beg for his release. He definitely does not ask to be allowed to join Abraham and Lazarus. He asks only for a tiny moderation of his own conditions. I find that curious. Also, Abraham has to tell him about the "great chasm". Was the rich man unaware of it? Had he never thought to try to leave?

      There's a lot we don't know about that story, and we are better to stick to the things that are clear, one of which is that it gives us no hint that escape from Hades is even a remote possibility. If torment produces genuine repentance, the Lord might have indicated that in some way. I suspect producing repentance is not the purpose of torment at all; in fact, the apostle Paul tells the Romans it is God's goodness (meaning his forbearance and long-suffering, rather than the outpouring of his righteous wrath) that are intended to lead to repentance (2:4).

      The scripture indeed says, “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord." This is certainly a powerful way to communicate the truth that the Lord sees everything everywhere, but the proverb does not teach that the "hearts of the children of man" that the Lord watches are in either Sheol or Abaddon. That is simply not present in the text, and neither is your suggestion that the Lord watches these places to punish and/or purify. Further, I see no good reason to conclude from Luke 12 that the Lord's parable about the servant being lightly or severely beaten has anything to do with either Hades or Hell.

      I read Psalm 86 to say that David faced tremendous earthly opposition, to the point where he despaired of life itself, and yet the Lord had brought him through. Yes, I believe he is using Sheol metaphorically in that Psalm, since he was demonstrably alive to write it. David certainly wrote prophetic Psalms, but none I know of that speak of men being taken from a literal Hell. And I'm afraid I can't quite get my head around the point you're making about Jonah: are you suggesting he literally went to Hell and was brought back?

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.