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

Eternal?

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-goat-standing-on-sheep
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 https://www.facebook.com/SoniaLJohnson/posts/10153734598621328
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