I’m blogging my way through Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. The biblical and theological case for the first of the views, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT), was written by Denny Burk. In this post I’ll look at the next passage he examines, Matthew 18:6-9.
6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternalaiónios fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hellgeenna.
Matthew 18:6-9, NIV
Burk states that the penalty for causing a believer to completely fall away is:
complete destruction in “eternal fire” (v. 8) and “fiery hell” (v. 9)Denny Burk, page 26
He explains that the word geenna, translated “hell”, literally means the “Valley of Hinnom” but that intertestamental literature and the New Testament used it as an image of final judgment. I recently read Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, which made a compelling case that Jesus actually used geenna much more like Jeremiah did (e.g. warning of imminent destruction in this world). However, for the sake of the argument, I’ll assume it’s also about the final judgment.
Burk says that “life” in Matthew is always “eternal” life of the next age, so it must be that in v8. His next step is to say that because the life is everlasting, then the punishment in the fire is also everlasting. I tried to demonstrate in my last post that just because both things occur in the next age doesn’t imply they must be of equal duration.
That aiónios is often translated as “eternal” or “everlasting” in mainstream English bibles, also doesn’t settle the matter. Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts is the most comprehensive academic analysis of these particular words that I know of 1. As it is far more in depth than any lexicon entry, it seems to be the logical starting point 2.
[aiónios] may sometimes mean eternal but also bears many other meanings … [such as] pertaining to the next aion [aeon/eon]
Ramelli & Konstan, Terms for Eternity, vii
This is supported by other respected scholars:
[aiónios means] belonging to the age to come
J.I. Packer, The Problem of Eternal Punishment, Crux XXVI.3, September 1990, 23
[aiónios means] of the Age to Come
N.T. Wright, The New Interpreter’s Bible
Some examples of the range of meanings:
in the hope of eternalaiónios life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginningaiónios of time
Titus 1:2, NIV
the mystery hidden for longaiónios ages past
Romans 16:25, NIV
in the ancientaiónios paths
Jeremiah 18:15, NIV
the age-oldaiónios hills collapsed—but he marches on foreveraiónios
Habakkuk 3:6b, NIV
the years of long-agoaiónios
Psalm 77:5, NIV
as in ancientaiónios ruins
Ezekiel 26:20, NIV
Do not move ancientaiónios boundary stone set up by your ancestors.
Proverbs 22:28, NIV
its bars held me with no-end-in-sightaiónios [ended up being 3 days!]
Jonah 2:6, CEB
Burk sort-of acknowledges the range of meanings (although he adds a disclaimer, which I’ll look at later):
[aiónios] means “a long period of time” in a handful of New Testament texts.Denny Burk, page 27-28
Surely if God had wanted to unambiguously convey to everyone the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment, He would’ve used less ambiguous words (example below) and phrases. Conversely, because He used the polysemous aiónios, it’s reasonable to infer that He wasn’t trying to convey the idea of eternity.
We have seen that the term aïdios has its roots in the earliest Greek philosophical vocabulary, and more or less consistently refers to a strictly eternal stretch of time, without beginning or end, or at least endless. This use obtains in later pagan as well as Christian writers.
Terms for Eternity, page 237
God is a responsible Creator (many would also say loving Father), so if there was Eternal Conscious Torment, there would be clear support for it in every book of the Bible. That we don’t find anything that could even vaguely suggest it in most of the OT (and much of the NT), seems to suggest He really wasn’t warning us of it.
Similarly if Conditionalism is true, that God only gives people limited chances, I would expect to find no hint of Universalism anywhere in the Bible because God wouldn’t want to give people false hope and potentially lose them forever. That thousands (millions?) have, often independently, interpreted the Bible as promising Universalism seems to indicate it’s at least a real possibility.
An example of the Bible giving us hope is in the very next verse in Matthew, which is the famous Parable of the Lost Sheep―widely recognised as illustrating God’s grace that persists until all are rescued.
In the sentence after Burk says aiónios is sometimes a long period, he adds this disclaimer:
But its [aiónios] use in Matthew’s Gospel routinely means a “period of unending duration” or a time “without end”
Denny Burk, page 28
However, aiónios only appears in Matthew five other times (see below), that’s hardly routinely, especially when the word appears a total of 163 times in the Greek OT and 77 times in the NT.
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternalaiónios life?”
Matthew 19:16, NIV
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternalaiónios life.
Matthew 19:29, NIV
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternalaiónios fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Matthew 25:41, NIV
“Then they will go away to eternalaiónios punishment, but the righteous to eternalaiónios life.”
Matthew 25:46, NIV
If each aiónios above was translated, say “belonging to the age to come” as Packer suggested, each verse would still make just as much sense—it is not necessary to translate any of them as “eternal” or as Burk suggests. Sure we believe the life “belonging to the age to come” is also unending but that’s not because of aiónios but because it is:
- in the sustaining/renewing presence of God (Rev 21:23, 22:5).
- immortal (2Tim 1:10).
- without death (1Cor 15:26; 2Tim 1:10; Rev 20:14).
- without rust and decay (Matt 6:20).
- tied to our relationship with God (John 17:3).
So far I’ve been arguing that it’s unlikely that the word pivotal to Burk’s case, aiónios, means “everlasting”, but let’s say it does. There are a few different responses that can be given 3 but I’ll just look at one based on this comment:
It is best not to take the eternal fire as literal but as a metaphorical expression that is drawn from Old Testament antecedents (e.g., Isa. 66:24) and that expresses the pain that must be endured by those in hell.
Denny Burk, page 28
I agree we should interpret the fire as metaphorical. So, given that we’re talking about non-literal things, shouldn’t the fuzzy aiónios also be considered non-literal??
1. 250 pages covering almost every instance in the texts of the period. A helpful review.
2. For much longer discussions see Sometimes Eternal Isn’t Forever or Talbott on Matthew 25:41, 46.
3. Others point to examples in the OT where we see that statements about the future are conditional, in that God’s punishments are everlasting/perpetual/no-end-in-sight, until the group or person repents (because God has been working in them) and God saves them. James Goetz makes a good case for this in his book, Conditional Futurism. Others take the dual-selves approach, which I explained at the end of Immortal Worms & Unquenchable Fire―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 2.