In the first lecture of the Annual Moore College Lectures Dr Paul Williamson 1 briefly summarised Evangelical Universalism and said that, “a gauntlet has been thrown down”. His last lecture 2 responds to that challenge. So far I’ve engaged with over half of the lecture:
Continuing from where I left off.
Rather than understanding such punishments [in Hell] as lasting forever, Parry and Talbott emphasise that the Greek adjective aionios simply denotes “pertaining to the age to come”. They thus reject the idea that either the life or the punishment “pertaining to the age to come” must necessarily endure forever 3. In doing so, Parry and Talbott interpret the parallelism between eternal punishment and eternal life in Matthew 25:46 consistently.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (57m 21s)
Talbott starts discussing aionios with the above approach 4 but also offers three alternatives. First:
For however we translate aiōnios, it is clearly an adjective and must therefore function like an adjective; and adjectives often vary in meaning, sometimes greatly, when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things.
Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, p. 80
For example, an old planet and an old person are extremely unlikely to have existed for the same duration, even though both are described as “old”. This is because the noun “planet” changes the scope of “old”, and conversely the noun “person” changes the scope of “old” to something much narrower.
Second, Talbott notes that even a non-universalist points out that:
… when an adjective … modifies a noun—in this case a result-noun … the adjective describes the result of the action … , not the action itself … We have seen this in regard to eternal salvation (not an eternal act of saving), eternal redemption (not an eternal process of redeeming), … and eternal punishment (not an eternal act of punishing).
Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, 3rd ed., p. 41
In Pruning the Flock?, I gave reasons why the noun paired with aionios, kolasis, probably should be translated “correction”, rather than “punishment”. Because of that, it could be argued, and Talbott does 5 , that the result of the correction is eternal/permanent.
Third, as Williamson notes:
Talbott possibly alludes to the immortal character of life associated with the age to come, when he describes it as, “A special quality of life, whose causal source lies in the eternal God himself” 6.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (58m 29s)
Williamson then responds to Parry and Talbott’s approaches:
… we could point out that the scholarly consensus is that aionios can—and often does—denote neverending. Granted this observation may cut little ice with those who are climbing out on a theological limb in the first place.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (59m 13s)
First, it isn’t just Universalists who say the literal translation of aionios isn’t “eternal”. As I mentioned in Is Aionios Eternal?, the 250 page Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts is probably the most comprehensive academic analysis of aionios, and it says:
[aiónios] may sometimes [not “often”] mean eternal [e.g. when applied to God] 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:
‘Eternal’ in these phrases [Matt 25:41, 46] is aiónios, meaning, as has often been pointed out, not ‘endless’, but pertaining to the ‘age to come’
J.I. Packer, The Problem of Eternal Punishment, Crux XXVI.3, September 1990, p. 23
[aiónios means] of the Age to Come
N.T. Wright, The New Interpreter’s Bible
a standard formal form of [aiónios] is “of the Age.”
O.B. Jenkins (Linguistics Phd), Time or Character, The Ages or A Time Sequence in aionios
The Hebrew word olam, translated aionios in the Septuagint, also seems to be about something being “beyond the horizon” (a fitting description of the coming age), rather than its duration (see Punishment’s Duration). We also see examples of aionios not being translated “eternal”:
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
Do not move ancientaiónios boundary stone set up by your ancestors.
Proverbs 22:28, NIV
its bars held me with no-end-in-sightaiónios [actually three days]
Jonah 2:6, CEB
Second, while Universalism is novel for Evangelicals, it seems that the dominant view in Christianity (e.g. Catholics, Orthodox, and some Protestants) is:
We hope and pray that everyone will be saved but God hasn’t revealed the outcome.
That they see Universalism as even a possible outcome, suggests it’s not a “theological limb”. Furthermore, from what I’ve read, Universalism was common in the Early Church.
But perhaps more significant is the fact that in Matthew 25:46, and in numerous other New Testament texts, there’s really no obvious reason to assume that aionios means anything less than everlasting.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (59m 29s)
First, I’m not assuming, I’m simply saying given even most non-Universalists admit that aionios means “pertaining to the age to come”, please let’s translate it as such and then let people come to their own conclusions about what that means.
Second, I think there are numerous Bible texts, the biblical metanarrative, and core/orthodox doctrines (e.g. the Trinity, Imago Dei), strongly support Universalism, which puts lots of pressure on not assuming that something that occurs in the coming age is everlasting (particularly if that thing is correction, which by definition is working towards an outcome).
Since the age in question undeniably does endure forever, it’s only logical to infer that the same applies to both the life and punishment so closely associated with it. Accordingly it seems fair to conclude that eternal life and its negative corollary, eternal death, does not really support a universalist understanding of heaven.
Paul Williamson, Heaven, the Ultimate Destination? (59m 44s)
There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about the future—I’ve also read biblical arguments for it being:
- an endless succession of ages .
- one finite age, followed by timelessness.
- a series of ages, which are followed by timelessness.
- immediate timelessness.
If any of these are the case, the punishment need not be interpreted as everlasting, it may only be a feature of a age, or some ages, or all ages but not timelessness, or even if it is a feature of timelessness, then by definition talking about it’s duration is meaningless.
However, even if there will be only one endless age to come, that something occurred in it, wouldn’t necessarily mean it lasted for the duration of it. If I said:
In the morrow there will be breakfast and in the morrow there will be work.
It’s very unlikely that I meant breakfast will take all tomorrow, nor that work would, nor that breakfast will have the same duration as work, even though both are “closely associated” with tomorrow.
Finally, some Universalists (e.g. Conditional Futurism or In the End, God…) do interpret the Matthew 25:46 as “everlasting punishment” because they argue that the Bible is describing a conditional trajectory—that God is still free to help you move onto a different trajectory. Their cases are far more nuanced but just flagging that things don’t hinge on aionios.
1. Williamson lectures in Old Testament, Hebrew and Aramaic at Moore College, has written a number of books, and was a NIV Study Bible contributor.
2. Talk outline.
3. Parry, Talbott, and other Evangelical Universalists still believe the life will never end. However, they primarily get that from other texts, rather than aionios.
4. The Inescapable Love of God p. 79.
5. Ibid. p. 81.
6. Ibid. pp. 83-85.
6 thoughts on “Heaven, the Ultimate Destination?—Williamson at Moore College—part 3”
Thanks for this, Alex. I cannot resist pointing out that I am quite prepared to accept, at least for the sake of argument, any translation of “aiōnios” that Williamson might prefer in Matthew 25:46; and if he wants to translate this Greek word with the English word “everlasting,” that is fine with me, as you in effect point out. For even if we should accept that translation, there remains the rather elementary linguistic confusion that I explain on pages 80-81 and to which you have also alluded in a quotation above. But here is the same quotation in its full context:
“For however we translate aiōnios, it is clearly an adjective and must therefore function like an adjective; and adjectives often vary in meaning, sometimes greatly, when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things. As an illustration of the point . . . consider . . . the English word “everlasting.” I think it fair to say that the basic meaning of this English word is indeed everlasting. But consider also how the precise force of “everlasting” can vary in different contexts. An everlasting struggle, if there should be such a thing, would no doubt be a struggle without end, an unending temporal process that never comes to a point of resolution and never gets completed. . . . But an everlasting change, or an everlasting correction, or an everlasting transformation need not be an unending temporal process that never comes to an end and never gets completed; it might instead be a temporal process of limited duration, or perhaps even an instantaneous event, that terminates in an irreversible state and whose effects thus literally endure forever.
“Nor is there any doubt that the life and the punishment of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 25:46 belong to different categories of things. For whereas the life (zōē), being rightly related to God, is clearly an end in itself—that is, valuable or worth having for its own sake—the punishment (kolasis) is just as clearly a means to an end. . . .”
I then go on to discuss the relevant noun at greater length.
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This remark is probably more appropriate to the “hell” portion of Williamson’s series; I have not yet got to either that online lecture or your commentary on it. But it’s not entirely inappropriate here.
I just finished reading NT Wright’s wonderful “Justification”, and the large point that NTW makes about God’s covenantal intentions toward the world being focused not primarily on the redemption of indivduals but on the entire Creation seems appropriate to the entire topic of this series.
I think that one is not going to make much progress in conversation with traditionalists/infernalists unless one can persuade them to reconsider their favored interpretations of the meaning of the situation in the Garden and the meaning of the Fall and its consequences.
In particular, is the sentence of death in Genesis 3 a punitive sentence or a remedial sentence? Is its purpose to express God’s indignation at the creature’s transgression or is it a corrective measure to keep God’s good intentions for the Creation from going completely off track? Traditionalist theologians are interpreting the entire Bible through the lens of individual/personal destiny when the actual arc of the story, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 might be better understood as the outworking of God’s purposes to bring order to the Creation through His image-bearer representatives on Earth.
If that’s what the Biblical story is about, the death sentence and the expulsion from the Garden (in order to deny access to the Tree of Life) in Genesis 3 might be better understood as God’s limitation on how powerful it is possible for individual disobedient humans yo become. Typically, the denial of access to the Tree of Life is conceptualized in terms of a bad individual outcome (some kind of irreversible sin state should an un-redeemed sinner partake of the Tree of Life); these approaches are dependent much more on the theological system from which they emerge than they are on the details of the text. It is entirely possible that the with-holding of the Tree of Life from Adam and his descendants serves a purpose that is protective of the entire creation as opposed to promoting the interests of the individual. Death prevents people from becoming too powerful. There are hints of this kind of reaction in Genesis 6 and again in Genesis 11, in Deuteronomy, etc. etc. Psalm 82 is a good example of this; it seems to be a principle in Scripture that mis-rule by God’s appointed rulers earns God’s wrath. Perhaps this is what is going on in the famous Romans 1 section about the revelation of God’s wrath against human wickedness. Sin is self-defeating and self-limiting, which is protective of the larger world beyond the individual sinner.
If you think that God’s wrath revealed “under the sun” is fundamentally punitive, for the purpose of satisfying God’s indignation at affronts to His majesty and glory, that is certainly going to carry over to your view of the purposes of God’s wrath in the post-mortem setting. Likewise, if you think that God’s wrath “under the sun” is fundamentally corrective or remedial, for the purpose of keeping God’s purposes for His very good Creation more or less on track, that will naturally shape how you think about post-mortem punishment/chastisement.
NT Wright’s argument in “Justification” is IMO a persuasive case that we should understand God’s redemptive purposes to be focused not primarily on individuals, but on the entire cosmos. And that is going to influence how one thinks about “heaven and hell”.
This is a huge and fundamental disagreement among infernalists and annihilationists on one side and universalists on the other. I don’t know enough about the debate to discern whether it is getting the attention that it appears to me to deserve.
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Great points Samuel! I allude to some of that with my phrases “biblical metanarrative” and “kolasis, probably should be translated “correction”” (I’ve unpacked them more in other series like https://reforminghell.com/the-bibles-overall-story/). Also in the next part of this series (almost finished), Williamson talks about the connection between Creation and New Creation, and so I’ve taken the opportunity to talk about some more of the things you’ve raised.