Sarris & Rankin Debate—Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished? part 1

Below is my transcript of George Sarris‘ 15-minute presentation in the above video of the Mars Hill Forum debate titled, “Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished?”

Host: The format for tonight’s forum is each of the speakers will present for 15 minutes, then they’ll have a discussion between two of them for about 20, we’ll take an offering at that point and after that, we’ll have Q&A for half hour or so. So that’s the form and we’re going to start with George Sarris.

George Sarris: I want to start by asking you three questions.

First question is: how much are you worth? And I don’t mean that in a financial sense like how much is your net worth, I mean how much are you worth as a person? How much are you worth to those who love you? How much are you worth to God who created you?

Second question is: I want you to think of some people that you know and love, how much are they worth? Again not in a financial sense but how much are they worth as a person? How much are they worth to those who love them and how much are they worth to God who created them?

The third question: I want you to think of some people you don’t like, or some people that may have hurt you, or whose lifestyles you don’t approve of. How much are they worth? Again how much are they worth—maybe not to you but to others who love them and everyone is loved by someone—how much are they worth to God who created them?

The basic message of my book is that in God’s eyes you and every one of them is priceless. The question John and I are discussing tonight is “Will hell eventually be abolished?” So it would seem appropriate to begin by asking what is hell? That word has been defined in different ways down through the centuries: from a place of literal fire; to a kingdom of darkness ruled by the devil and his demons; to what is the most common definition today: separation from God.

But for most people holding to the traditional view of Hell, two components are primary: First, hell is a place or condition of conscious misery and second that misery will never ever, ever, ever, ever end! I said that a little dramatically because in my experience most people—Christians today—have never really thought through the implications of what they say they believe. Punishment for sin is not the issue. We see sin punished all the time in this life and God has made it clear that there is punishment in the age (or ages) to come. But punishment that never ends is a completely different matter. It brings to mind cruel tyrants who torture their subjects who don’t do their bidding. Endless conscious misery is the most horrific thing you can possibly imagine and if you really believed it was true, you would be weeping almost every moment of every day over the fate of those who are lost and especially those you know personally.

I wrote my book to show that that understanding of Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it is not the teaching of the Bible, and is contrary to what the scriptures reveal about the nature and character of God. What the early Church believed is important because they were closest to Jesus and the Apostles, they read the New Testament in their native tongue, they had the greatest impact on the surrounding culture of any time in history, and they established the faith that we now profess. They were the ones who wrote the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed to explain clearly what true Christians believed. They were the ones who formulated the doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity. And they were the ones who set up or who put together the 27 books that we call the New Testament. During the first 500 years after Christ, the dominant view within the leadership and laity of the church was that God will ultimately restore all of his creation.

Clement of Alexandria was one—born around AD 150. For him to believe that God was unable to save all was unthinkable because that would mean God is weak. To believe that God is unwilling was also unthinkable because that would mean that God is not good. For Clement, God is the Lord of the universe who will ultimately bring about the salvation of the universe.

Another leader in the early Church was Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory added the phrase, “I believe in the life of the world to come”, to the Nicene Creed, and is still revered as one of the greatest of the early Church fathers. Gregory explained that in due course evil will pass away into non-existence, it will disappear utterly from the realm of existence. Divine and uncompounded goodness will encompass within itself every rational creature—no single being created by God will fail to achieve the kingdom of God.

Even Saint Augustine—the most influential supporter of endless punishment in the early Church—acknowledged that in his day some, indeed “very many”, deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. Conscious suffering that never ends was not the teaching of the early Church.

And it’s also not the teaching of Scripture, even though most people today think it is. Four different words in the Bible have been translated to the English word “hell”: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus.

Gehenna is the one most commonly translated that way in modern versions. Gehenna was well known during the time of Jesus as a specific location near Jerusalem that had been associated with child sacrifice in the past and was then most likely used as the common dump of the city. It was a place people could actually visit. And it spoke to Jesus and his listeners of repulsion, shame, and horrible death—instead of experiencing honor like their ancestors whose bodies were treated reverently when they died, those cast into Gehenna would experience the immense dishonor associated with those whose bodies had been thrown out into a dump to become an object of scorn for the masses. In an honor-shame culture like that in the ancient, and even modern Near East, that would be a fate worse than death. Gehenna didn’t mean punishment beyond the grave—endless punishment—in the Old Testament, during the time of Jesus, it didn’t mean that in the literature outside of the Bible, and it didn’t mean that for Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament.

The passage most often used as the clearest statement in the entire Bible that punishment in hell is endless is Matthew 25:46. In that verse, Jesus himself says that the wicked will go away to “eternal punishment” but the righteous to “eternal life”.

The first thing to point out in that passage is that the word translated “eternal”, doesn’t mean “never-ending”. It actually means “the end is not known”. It refers to a period of time longer or shorter, past or future, the boundaries of which are concealed, obscure, unseen, or unknown. For example, numerous times the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament that Jesus and the Apostles used—the same adjective in this verse, “eternal”, is used to describe the statutes governing the sacrifices and offerings made by the priests. They were said to be “eternal statutes” but they didn’t last forever, and were never intended to last forever. The Old Testament sacrificial system was designed to be replaced one day by the new covenant in Christ. In Micah chapter 4 verse 5 (and 17 other places in the Septuagint), the phrase “forever and ever” literally means “to the age and beyond”.

The second thing to note is that when the same adjective is used twice in the same sentence it does not necessarily mean the same thing each time. For example, if an NBA basketball player we’re standing in front of one World Trade Center in New York City, you could honestly say, “a tall man is standing in front of a tall building,” but no one would think you thought that the man in the building were the same size! The adjective tall derives its meaning from what it refers to. In the first instance to a man, in the second to a building. In Matthew 25:46, the adjective that Jesus used [aionios] “eternal” refers to two completely different things: life and punishment. Eternal life is the divine life that comes from God—that life never ends. Eternal punishment is the divine punishment that comes from his hand—the duration of that divine punishment may certainly be temporary, lasting as long as it’s necessary until it accomplishes its purpose. The verse should be translated, “the wicked shall go away to the punishment in the age to come and the righteous to the life in the age to come”.

So what does the Bible actually teach about the salvation of mankind? We’ve been so accustomed to thinking that only a few will ultimately be saved that we often completely overlook the message that is at the heart of Christianity. Jesus Christ is the savior of the world not just the savior of part of the world. The angel who appeared to the shepherds on the night of Jesus birth did not say, “I bring you good news of great joy there will be for some of the people,” he just said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” When speaking to the crowd after his triumphal entry, Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” In Romans, Paul said, “as in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive.” The Apostle John told his readers that, “Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” The message at the heart of Christianity is that Jesus Christ came to redeem all mankind. Endless conscious suffering in Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it’s not the teaching of Scripture, and it’s also contrary to what scripture reveals about the nature and character of God.

It’s not uncommon to see a bumper sticker on a car or graffiti on a wall that says, “God loves you”. They’re so common that it’s almost become a cliche but is it true? Does God really love you? The religious leaders of Jesus day didn’t think so. They thought God only loved people like them. So Jesus told them three parables to show them God’s heart. The Good Shepherd is not satisfied with the restoration of 99 percent of what is his, he seeks until he finds the one lost sheep. The woman with ten silver coins is not satisfied with 90 percent of her wealth, she searches until she finds the lost coin. The prodigal son’s father waited until his son returned after completely messing up his life. He welcomed him joyfully and his son was restored. “God is not willing that any should perish but desires that all will come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Scripture says there is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord. No plan of his can be thwarted—nothing is impossible with God. What Scripture reveals about God that his love is unconditional, his power is irresistible, and he never gives up.

Let me close by making a few observations about free will, since that’s a major focus of John’s position. Only God has absolute free will, only he is free to accomplish all that he desires. He gives each person some free will but always within limits and in the context of his absolute free will. For example, none of us was given the freedom to choose when we were born, where we were born, who our parents would be, what our physical stature or mental capacities would be, whether we’re male or female, or even when and how we will die. We have no control over many of the factors that directly impact the situation and decisions that we make every day. Joseph didn’t choose to be made second-in-command in Egypt, God arranged the circumstances for that to happen. Jonah ran away from God but God’s will prevailed and Jonah found himself in Nineveh proclaiming the message that God had given him. Scripture is clear when it says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, he directs it like a watercourse wherever he wishes. The mind of man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps. Many are the plans in a person’s heart but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” God is not helpless in the face of mankind’s free will. God specifically said that “he desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” God specifically said that “one day every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will freely and joyfully confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Will hell eventually be abolished? Yes, it will. When all is said and done, all those who were created by God will walk through Heaven’s doors and “God will be all in all” after “the restoration of all things” the final word will once again be, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good!”

Thank you.

God willing, I’ll get an opportunity to transcribe the rest of the debate over the next week or so…

How Long is Forever?

My transcript of the above:

Eric: Hey there folks. It’s Hell Week on The Eric Metaxas Show. Chris Himes it’s Hell Week.

Chris: Yeah, I thought it was just the thermostat but no, it’s the theme.

Eric: We’re talking about hell. It’s such a serious topic that I have to joke around. We’re talking to George Sarris. George, we just have a few minutes left in this program, we’re going to have you back for a second program because there’s just so much talk about. So tell us—people are listening all over America, all around the world—what else do we need to know about hell?

George: The biggest issue that most people have relates around Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 25 verse 46, where it says, “Those who are following God will go into life everlasting and those who are not will go into punishment everlasting.” So the real issue is the word of “everlasting.”

Eric: Okay. And, by the way, you’re Greek, I’m Greek, just so happens the New Testament was written in Greek.

George: Amen.

Eric: So what is the word?

George: The word is aion. It does not mean never-ending. What it means is, “the end is not known”. Not never-ending, the end is not known. For example, if you’re in the middle of the ocean and you look around, you say, “Wow, there’s no end to this ocean, it just goes on and on.” There is an end, you just don’t know where it is.

Eric: So it means “seemingly endless”?

George: Well, not necessarily even “seemingly endless”, it just means “the end is not known.” For example, Jonah, when he’s in the belly of the great fish, he says, “The earth beneath him barred him in forever” (according to the English versions) but what it means is “The earth beneath barred me in for, I don’t [know], for this extended period but I don’t know what it was.” It was only three days—that’s how long he was in the belly of the great fish.

Eric: Right.

George: It talks about the sacrifices in the temple of the Lord will go on forever. No, they just went on until there’s no more need for them—when Christ came there was no more need for those sacrifices at all. In fact, if aion actually meant “never-ending”, the Jews of Jesus day would have had an unanswerable objection to Christianity because they were told, according to their scriptures, that the sacrifices in the temple were to last “forever” but they didn’t, they lasted only until Christ came. The reason [they didn’t make this objection] is because the word “forever” didn’t really mean forever in the original language.

Eric: Now that’s the Hebrew obviously.

George: That’s correct—that’s olam. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, they used aion in place of olam in just about every single place. So they’re pretty much synonymous at that point. It means “an age”. What Jesus is saying, by the way, in Matthew chapter 25 verse 46, is that, “There will be punishment in the age to come, there will be life in the age to come.” But they don’t have to be the same. If I said to you, “Dwight Howard is a tall man he’s standing before the Empire State Building, which is a tall building.” Does that mean the Dwight Howard and the Empire State Building are the same height? No, the word “tall” is a relative term relating to what it’s modifying. The same thing with aion, it’s a relative term, depending on what it’s referring to. If you’re referring to God it’s referring to something everlasting.

Eric: So it doesn’t necessarily mean “infinite”?

George: That is correct. It means “the end is not known.”

Eric: Okay. Wow! Speaking about the end, this is the end of this program. We’re going to do a second program with George Sarris. The book is Heaven’s Doors: wider than you ever believed. Thanks for listening.

Engaging Dickson & Smart: Loving Judgment, Shalom, & Eternal Proportionality?

Simon Smart introduces the second half of the Life & Faith hell series and asks John Dickson what he thinks.

Image result for john dickson and simon smart
John Dickson & Simon Smart (filming For the Love of God documentary)

John starts by acknowledging that there’s a lot of unhelpful non-biblical baggage around the topic of hell, and that’s partly the reason it’s now often mocked by pop culture. It’s a shame because it means Jesus’ serious warnings about the consequences of evil, particularly violence, are often totally ignored.

John: … the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.

I explained in my first post why I find the Justice Commissioner metaphor helpful but I guess the big question is, what does “right the wrongs” mean and involve?

John: … it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time.

Loving victims involves the perpetrator being judged—accountability and reparation are important. But justice and love don’t stop there. For a victim to be healed, they need an opportunity to forgive (see Michael Jensen’s, When Thordis Elva forgave her rapist, she broke a curse), they need to see the perpetrator genuinely transformed, so that there can be authentic reconciliation of the relationship (see Engaging Shumack). This has a positive, flow-on effect, rippling out. First to their immediate loved ones, then the surrounding community, and eventually all humanity. I love the way Keller puts it:

God created the world to be a fabric, for everything to be woven together and interdependent. … Threads become a fabric when each one has been woven over, under, around, and through every other one. The more interdependent they are, the more beautiful they are. … God made the world with billions of entities … He made them to be in a beautiful, harmonious, knitted, webbed, interdependent relationship with each other.

Tim Keller, The Beauty of Biblical Justice

Another implication of God’s love and justice for victims is that it extends to everyone because, in our fallen world, everyone’s a victim at some stage. But hasn’t everyone also mistreated others at some stage, and therefore needs to be judged? How does God respond when everyone is both a victim and a perpetrator? Thankfully, Jesus showed us (particularly on the Cross) that God even loves perpetrators. Indeed I’d go as far as saying that God judges perpetrators for both the sake of the victims and the ultimate good of the perpetrators. Through this He will bring shalom, a concept explained here by Keller:

Neil Plantinga, a theologian, puts it like this: “The webbing together of God, [all] humans, and all creation in equity, fulfillment, and delight”—[this] is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We translate it “peace,” but in the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.

Tim Keller, The Beauty of Biblical Justice

Moving on.

Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?

Before I look at John’s answer to Simon, I’ll give my two cents:

I don’t think anyone can earn salvation, which is a free gift from God, received by the gift of faith. So without Jesus, everyone would be judged and face their sentence, no matter what kind of life they had lived. However, the Bible says Jesus has acted, has atoned, and therefore:

… will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:4, KJV

If God can’t save everyone, and instead they continue rejecting Him (which is evil), there would be no end of evil—no complete victory, which seems to imply some sort of disturbing eternal dualism.

John takes a different angle to Simon’s question:

John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds.

I’ve never come across the phrase “eternal judgment” in the Bible but I’m guessing Matthew 25:46 is in mind? If so, Is Aionios Eternal? explains why J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright, and other scholars, think aionios should be translated “pertaining-to/belonging-to/of/in the age to come”, and Pruning the Flock? explains why I think that translation is reinforced by the verse’s use of kolasis (the word aionios, an adjective, is describing). Put together, I think “correction (or pruning) from God in the age to come” is more accurate. But even if that isn’t the case, parables are known for hyperbole, which makes basing a doctrine on a detail unwise.

I think God’s correction will be proportional both in severity and time.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.

Luke 12:47-48a, NIV

However, maths shows us that “eternal proportionality” would be problematic because infinity times anything is infinity. For example, if I received a dollar every day for an infinite number of days then I’d end up with an infinite amount of money. But even if I only received a cent every day for an infinite number of days I’d still end up with an infinite amount of money. Likewise, if I received ten blows every day for an infinite (eternal) number of days then I’d end up with an infinite number of blows. But even if I only received one blow every day for an infinite number of days, I’d still end up with an infinite number of blows—which certainly isn’t the few blows we find in the parable. John says he doesn’t know how “eternal proportionality” works—neither do I—but I think the apparent oddness of it should prompt him reexamine his previous steps (e.g. translating aionios as “eternal”).

(Note: this post was originally titled, “Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 2”. Full transcripts of the episodes: CPX Interview the Director of Hellbound and John Dickson & Simon Smart discuss hell)

Heaven, the Ultimate Destination?—Williamson at Moore College—part 3

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 aionioskolasis, 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:

  1. an endless succession of ages .
  2. one finite age, followed by timelessness.
  3. a series of ages, which are followed by timelessness.
  4. 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.

(Part 4)

Dr Paul Williamson
Dr Paul Williamson

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.

Summary of Parry’s Response to Burk’s ECT

I spent 11 posts carefully engaging Denny Burk’s entire case for Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. I’m now summarising the responses of the co-contributors―my last post was Stackhouse’s―now for Robin Parry’s Universalist response.

Parry and Burk
Parry and Burk

Before raising his concerns, Parry commends Burk for the clear, biblical case for judgment, followed by division.

Methodological Concerns

Parry is concerned that Burk ignores the “canonical framework”, in particular the texts about God’s desire and ability to save everyone, and simply sees the debate settled by his ten passages.

The critical hermeneutical aspect to the hell debate is how one deals with the fact that some biblical texts seem to speak of annihilation, some of everlasting conscious torment, and some of universalism. The issues for evangelicals is how to affirm all of these texts as sacred Scripture, how to interpret them in relation to each other, and how to hold their teachings together.

Robin Parry, page 48

Parry suggests Burk―despite criticising opponents of prejudice―gives the impression that all texts must be compatible with ECT.

With regard to the ten texts, we might even agree that, other things being equal, some of the texts appear at face value to teach ECT. But other things are not equal—I have argued in my paper that there are important biblical factors that weigh against such a view of hell. I cannot ignore these when considering the ten texts and their relevance.

Robin Parry, page 49

Two Destinies?

Parry explains how divorce and remarriage is an example of affirming what an author (Mark) wrote while being aware of the qualifications from other authors (in this case, Matthew and Paul). He applies this logic to Burk’s passages:

Burk is correct that most of the two-destinies passages do not suggest any salvation after the division of people into two groups. … [However, in other passages we find] grounds for universalism. So how can we affirm the truth of both of the two-destinies texts and the global salvation texts (both of which can be found side-by-side in Paul, John, and Revelation—who presumably thought they belonged together)? The typical universalist proposal, embraced by many in the early church, is that we can do so by understanding the condemnation as qualified by the ultimate salvation texts and thus as a penultimate fate. The failure of the two-destinies passages to mention post-condemnation salvation … does not in itself rule out such salvation any more than Mark’s failure to mention an exception to the ban on divorce and remarriage rules one out.

Robin Parry, page 50

Parry also points out that:

the lack of qualification of the two destinies may play an important rhetorical function. Think of a policeman warning a criminal: “If you do that, you’ll go to prison!” He doesn’t add, “But don’t worry, you’ll get out eventually.” Such mitigation would serve to undermine the impact of the warning, even if it is true. In the same way, there may be good reasons in certain speech contexts why God would not want to undercut the seriousness of two destinies by qualifying them.

Robin Parry, page 50


Like Is Aionios Eternal?, Parry discusses the translation “eternal” from the Greek aionios.

I was pleased that Burk notes that aionios “is an adjective that means ‘pertaining to an age,’” and, as Stackhouse observes, “often means ‘of the age to come.’” This is correct, and it is part of the reason that I don’t think we can “be confident that kolasis is a punishment… that is unending.”

In the case of kolasin aionion (Matt. 25:46), we cannot settle the question of the duration of the punishment from this word, even if the age to come (in which the punishment occurs) is everlasting. The need for caution is illustrated by the “eternal fire” (puros aioniou) of Sodom’s punishment (Jude 7), which—contra Burk—did not burn forever.

We also do well to note the numerous examples in which universalists among the early church fathers would happily speak of eschatological punishment as aionios and consider such biblical terminology as fully compatible with their universalism.

Robin Parry, page 50-51

Thinking Biblically

Burk was concerned that some objections to ECT are “based on human estimations of the way God ought to behave” instead of “specific passages of Scripture”. Parry responds:

[T]hinking theologically is not simply about explaining “specific passages of Scripture,” but of indwelling the Bible and allowing the Bible to indwell us, such that our mind and emotions are reshaped in biblical ways. … [The objections] arise when Christians are trying to think biblically. … If the lack of a specific proof text was considered enough to exclude such concerns, then along with them would go other matters for which specific proof texts are lacking—doctrines such as the Trinity. There be dragons!

Robin Parry, page 51-52

Rejoicing in Damnation?

Like Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 1, Parry is also disturbed by Burk’s suggestion that ECT would be a source of joy:

We will look upon the damned, which will include people we love deeply, and see them in desolate turmoil of soul, with absolutely no hope, and our hearts will overflow with happiness. No thanks. God does not delight in the death of sinners, even if it is just (Ezek. 33:11)

Robin Parry, page 52

The Happiness of the Redeemed

Parry explains how ECT would cause another problem:

Can the saints ever be fully happy in the new creation if those they love are suffering ECT (or are annihilated)? In the resurrection, how could a mother ever find perfect joy if her beloved daughter is burning in hell? The God-given love she has makes her yearn for her daughter’s entry into divine life. But this can never be. So it is not only the daughter who has no hope—the mother has none either. And how can this do anything but diminish her heavenly joy?

Robin Parry, page 52

The Parable

Burk’s parable was meant to show that God’s infinity makes any sin against God “worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment” (see Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 1 for details).

Burk is telling us about the principle underpinning his essay. … However, this kind of argument did not make an appearance before St. Anselm (1033-1109), and it is certainly not found in Scripture. … in the Bible sins are differentiated in degrees of seriousness [“determined not only by the status of the one sinned against, but also by the nature of the sin itself (the motivation, the intentions, the effects, etc.).”] … [and] not all deserve the same punishment. There is certainly no suggestion that they all deserve “an infinitely heinous punishment.”

Robin Parry, page 52-53

Parry suggests it’s also logically problematic because:

All sins are sins against God, and on this argument, as God is infinitely glorious, they all incur infinite demerit. You cannot get worse than infinite demerit, so it seems that all sins are as bad as each other—infinitely bad. If you steal a sheet of paper from the office, you have committed a sin that is worthy of infinite punishment in just the same way that you have if you torture and kill children.

Robin Parry, page 53

Parry concludes by explaining why this suggests ECT would be unjust, or that it implies:

God ends up perpetuating sin and an evil world without end. It is true that he is forever balancing them out with the appropriate amount of punishment, but it remains the case that instead of removing sin from creation, God actively keeps unreconciled, sinful wills around forever in hell. I find that theologically problematic.

Burk says that the question of ECT comes down to the question of who God is and that “our emotional reflex against the traditional doctrine of hell reveals what we really believe about God.” I agree. But this is precisely the problem for ECT! The very reason Christians struggle with it is that it seems incompatible with divine goodness, love, and—yes—justice.

Robin Parry, page 54

Is Aionios Eternal?―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 4

Denny Burk
Denny Burk

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

Jesus’ Parable of The Sheep & The Kids

I think there’s more to the parable of The Sheep and the Goats than an illustration of Judgment Day. Jesus really seems to be focusing on our treatment of others, and His reason is startling. Jesus is so intimately connected to humanity, that:

as you [cared for] one of the least of these my siblings, you did it to me

Matthew 25:40

as you did not [care for] one of the least of these, you did not do it to me

Matthew 25:45

I’m guessing that even if we had perfect empathy for others, we still wouldn’t be as connected as He is!

Additionally He:

  1. incarnated into our earthly experience.
  2. spent His earthly life being an exemplar of empathy and caring for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned, and urged (commanded) His followers to do likewise.
  3. gave His life to redeem the whole world (1John 2:2).
  4. mercifully continues to sustain and care for everything (Matt 5:44-48).

After all the above, is He really going to leave some of us eternally hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned in hell?? Will He cease to have empathy and compassion?

I think this context should make us wonder why kolasis aionios (Matt 25:46) is often translated “eternal punishment”? Especially given translating aionios as “eternal” is an interpretive leap compared to “eon-ian” (“pertaining to the aion/aeon/eon/age to come”), which is a more literal translation. Here are three more reasons.

First, Jesus’ role in the parable is that of the shepherd, an analogy that He often used positively:

I am the living God, The Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his flock [not just the sheep].

John 10:11, Aramaic Bible in Plain English

The Lord is my Shepherd

Psalm 23, HCSB

Kid standing on a mature sheep (source)

Second, the Greek word eriphos/eriphion, which gets translated in the parable as “goats”, is translated as “young goat” in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the only other occurrence in the NT but as there are about 100 occurrences in other ancient texts, most Greek dictionaries say the word means “young goats” or “kids”. Even the conservative Pulpit Commentary acknowledges that, “The goats (eriphion or kids) [in this parable are] on the left.” Because of this, I think Jesus is deliberately contrasting mature sheep with kids who need a lot of maturing.

Third, it’s likely that “maturing” is associated with the Greek word kolasis, which gets translated “punishment” in the NIV. It only appears in one other place in the NT (1John 4:18) but it appears in a few hundred other ancient texts, so according to Perseus (online dictionary used by Logos―most widely used Bible software in the world) it means “checking the growth”.

Barclay, a theologian and author of popular NT commentaries, came to a very similar conclusion:

The word was originally a gardening word, and its original meaning was pruning trees. In Greek there are two words for punishment… kolasis is for the sake of the one who suffers it [i.e. correction to mature someone]; timoria is for the sake of the one who inflicts it [i.e. retribution]

William Barclay, The Apostles’ Creed

Some definitions include “maiming, cutting off”, probably as the correction can be severe (e.g. a surgeon may need to remove a gangrenous or cancerous limb to save someone’s life). Reminds me of Paul’s description of God cutting the Jews off for awhile, before grafting them back on again once the Gentiles had come in.

So in summary, I think it is fair to interpret Matthew 25:46 as:

And these [the immature] shall go into [God’s severe] eonian correction [until they are mature], but the just [the mature] into [God’s blessed] eonian life.

Updated 22/12/2015:

A friend made a helpful observation, “The other thing I like about this passage is that the kids are not creatures who don’t belong in the herd―they are the young of the herd. The word translated “sheep” can be a general word for small herded livestock―usually sheep and goats.”1

So maybe it should be called “The Parable of the Mature and Immature Goats”!

1. For the rest of the conversation see
My friend Cindy also did a more thorough unpacking of this parable:
The Sheep and The Kids
What To Do With The Kids
Eternal Punishment & Eternal Life