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.