Challenge for Christians: Defend Christian Universalism—for Charity!

Challenge for Christians: Defend Christian Universalism—for Charity! November 8, 2016

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Christian universalism has become an important player in modern Christian theology, with an increasing number of sympathizers and amount of discussion pertaining to it, both among scholars/theologians and laity.¹

In fact, I think that universalism hits enough theologically attractive notes to possibly make it slated to become one of the most dominant Christian theologies of the 21st century—or perhaps the dominant one, at least among Protestants. (The possibility of a Catholic universalism is much less clear.²)

If anyone’s unfamiliar with Christian universalism, the central tenet of this is that all humans will eventually be saved, with none ultimately damned. Of course, though, this isn’t to be confused with a wider type of universalism in which people are saved with no conditions attached. Rather, Christian universalism affirms what’s also affirmed in every branch of Christian theology: that people are saved through Christ, and only through him. Christian universalism simply posits that, ultimately, everyone will accept Christ (and thus be saved through him), whether it’s in this life or in the next.

And this also shouldn’t be confused with a view that denies the existence of Hell.³ The overwhelming majority of Christian universalists indeed don’t deny something like this. Like an increasing number of others, however, their understanding of how Hell functions differs from that of the “traditional” understanding. For example, it’s often suggested that punishment in Hell is not retributive, but actually purifying in a way—again, much like Purgatory is in Catholic theology. However, in contrast to actual Purgatory, which the damned never attain in Catholic thought, they believe that in fact everyone will undergo this state of purgation and cleansing in the course of their sanctification, and ultimate salvation. (This is often called “purgatorial universalism,” and has a rich pre-history especially among some early interpreters that are particularly revered in Eastern Orthodoxy.)

As might be surmised, then, one of the sharpest contrasts to traditional understandings of Hell here is the idea that humans’ stay in Hell isn’t permanent.

Along with their theology of universal human redemption, however, universalists also oppose another kind of afterlife/eschatological viewpoint: annihilationism. This is the view that some number of humans—presumably those who were particularly “evil” during their earthly life⁴—will simply be annihilated out of existence, as opposed to existing forever in Hell.


My contention, however, is that the language of “eternal punishment,” and other related phrases and concepts used to describe the fate of the wicked/unrighteous through the Biblical texts (and elsewhere in early Jewish and Christian literature), invariably refers either to the unrighteous’ annihilation—a punishment that’s eternal or permanent in effect—or to genuine never-ending torment.

And I think that if what I contend here is true, then this is sufficient to undermine the foundation of Christian universalism—which, again, foresees the end of punishment and an ultimate salvation for all, and not their destruction or truly never-ending punishment. That said, then, the viability of Christian universalism is dependent on its ability to interpret “eternal punishment” in an alternate way here.

The most well-known universalist strategy for doing this is to deny the true force of permanence to the word usually translated as “eternal,” by offering a different explanation and translation of the Greek (or Hebrew) words that underlie this. And this is where my challenge comes in.

The most common word that (outside of universalist interpretation) is usually thought to denote the eternality of “eternal” punishment is the Greek adjective αἰώνιος, aiōnios. And the most common alternative explanation of this word in universalist thought is that, in line with this adjective’s root noun aiōn—which they translate as the simple word “age”⁵—aiōnios thus means something like “age-like” or “pertaining to the/an age.”

From here, then, two different “sub-explanations” are offered: 1) that aiōnios suggests not a genuinely permanent state, but one that only lasts for however long an “age” is thought to last (and thus “long-but-not-forever“); or 2) that the “age” referred to here specifically refers to the eschatological age: the “age to come,” in which all humans will be resurrected and undergo the final judgment. Thus, “aiōnios punishment” is interpreted to mean something like “the type of punishment fitting for humans to undergo during the punishments that are given out in the eschatological age” (which is then argued to be a non-annihilationist or non-eternal punishment)—or, more simply, eschatological punishment.

Before going any further, let me make my own view clear: I believe that in virtually every single occurrence of aiōnios in early Greek literature—prior to its use by Jewish and Christian interpreters who offered their own kind of reinterpretation on the word (the same kind of reinterpretation that I think modern universalists impose on it)—this was used to denote the true permanence of whatever was being talked about.

Now, the reason I say “virtually every single occurrence” is because there are a very small number of idiosyncratic uses of aiōnios that we might consider something like linguistic anomalies. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is its use in Diodorus Siculus, Library 17.112.2, where it means something like “continual within a given time-limit”—though this may in fact be the sole instance of this. (In fact, we might think that this was a poor word choice by Diodorus, where he might have preferred something like διηνεκής, diēnekēs.) But I contend that these have little bearing on the main Biblical uses of aiōnios (especially in relation to the nature of afterlife/eschatological punishment)—which, after all, is the real subject of contention here.

In any case, here’s what I’m offering: I’m offering a starting pledge of $100 to whoever can demonstrate that any use of aiōnios in the Old Testament (e.g. in the so-called deuterocanonical literature originally written in Greek: the books of the Maccabees, etc.) or the New Testament can more plausibly be interpreted as “long-but-not-permanent/forever” or “eschatological” than as “permanent” or “everlasting/eternal—especially if it can reasonably be brought to bear particularly on the issue of afterlife punishmentIn fact, I’ll pay $100 to each person who puts forward at least one convincing demonstration of this. And so that this is all for a good cause, let’s say that this money will go to a charity of your choosing.⁶

Now, I’m not relying on some esoteric notion of “more plausible” here. In fact, what I’m going to do is to assemble a small panel of scholars or experts on Biblical Greek, who I’m going to submit all serious proposals to (and if a universalist wants to take part in the selection, to make sure it’s an impartial panel, that’s fine); and I’ll let them be the judge of whether your interpretation of aiōnios is more plausible than the alternative. You yourself are certainly free to do the leg-work in terms of presenting arguments for why you think the “traditional” interpretation is less plausible; but would it be fair if I’m allowed to submit a counter-argument representing the traditional view if I don’t think that you’ve made the strongest arguments for it, and if I’m worried that the panelists will overlook it, too?


I’m going to try to limit the caveats here; but as I mentioned, there’s a certain number of idionsyncratic uses of aiōnios in Biblical literature that I characterized as “linguistic anomalies.” Let me define that category a bit more specifically. I’ve previously described these anomalous uses of aiōnios as

artifacts of Semitic phraseology or erroneous or over-literal Greek translations of Hebrew or Aramaic texts: where either 1) there’s been some actual misunderstanding of the original text—say, some misreading of the original Hebrew—leading to a more-or-less (or actual!) nonsensical translation using aionios; or 2) where the translator did understand the original Hebrew text correctly, but then sort of rendered the translation poorly: for example where some other word would/might have been preferred in a more native Greek idiom over aionios itself.

I’ve previously mentioned several uses of aiōnios in the translations of the Septuagint that clearly stem from misreadings of the original Hebrew: these include LXX Isaiah 54:4 and Job 3:18; and a more comprehensive list can be found here. Clearly, I don’t think anyone is going to appeal to these.

But I want to include one other thing that I think falls into the categories that I mentioned above. This is the anomalous use of aiōnios that we sometimes find in doxological language. By “doxological” language, I refer to the use of formulaic phrases and epithets as we find used in formal liturgy and praise of God.

And it’s certainly no coincidence that the strangest usages of aiōnios that we find in the New Testament are found precisely in doxological language (which, I might add, is notorious for its use of over-literal language or calques, or otherwise conserves non-Greek syntax). In fact, the three most unusual occurrences of aiōnios in the New Testament—listed together in their own small category in BDAG, the premiere academic lexicon of Biblical Greek—are in nearly identical phrases, all referring to the past, and either meaning something like “from long ago”—or, perhaps better, “from time immemorial” (or even “before creation” or “from eternity”).

Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy 2:9 and Titus 1:2 are clearly (artificially) indebted to a “native” Hebrew idiom like מעולם or מימי עולם. (You can see where the parallel phrase/verse to Romans 16:25 in 1 Corinthians 2:7 uses the root noun aiōn instead of aiōnios itself in rendering this; see also the doxological 2 Peter 3:18, clearly indebted to ימי עולם too, but here applied to the future. Interestingly, many interpreters believe that Romans 16:25-27 was not originally written by Paul, but was added later.) I’ve discussed this further in my comments on the Septuagint’s rendering of Habakkuk 3:6, where I’ve suggested that some sort of alternate rendering involving the word ἀρχαῖος (archaios), “ancient,” should have clearly been preferred instead of aiōnios—as indeed some of the early non-LXX Greek translations of Habakkuk 3:6 did.

In any case, as for the three idiosyncratic New Testament uses of aiōnios mentioned above: I think that the specificity and idiosyncrasy of the context in which aiōnios was used here renders these occurrences irrelevant for the wider use of aiōnios in the NT—which, again, is disputed specifically in regard to its denotation in eschatological/afterlife contexts, above all else. (The effect of this on my ground-rules for this contest is described further below.)


Finally, to save you some time, I want to mention a few other things, as well as anticipate a few expected proposals where I don’t think anyone is going to make a very convincing case to our panel of experts (in light of the counter-arguments that can be raised against them):

  • There’s a specific reason that I’ve tried to emphasize that I understand aiōnios mainly to denote permanence. What I don’t mean here is that everything that was described as aiōnios was expected to, say, genuinely last forever. Instead, what I mean for aiōnios as suggesting “permanence” is something like “lasting the greatest amount of time that could possibly transpire within a given situation or system.” For example, if the tenure of a gymnasiarch—an official who oversaw ancient Greek gymnasia—was specified as aiōnios, the permanence implied here was “lasting as long as they live.” (Note that this clearly doesn’t mean “long-but-not-permanent” in relation to what it’s talking about. For example, if there were somehow an immortal gymnasiarch, then specifying his tenure as aiōnios would indeed mean that this would genuinely last forever, because obviously the immortal gymnasiarch would live forever.) Similarly, if a monument was constructed and erected to stand aiōnios, there’s little to dispute that the intention here was of its true permanence (though again, we could at least imagine a divinely-protected monument that genuinely last forever). And yet afterlife punishment, as a manifestly supernatural phenomenon, clearly has no natural “rules” or limits like that of a normal human life-span. As such, there’s no reason that aiōnios couldn’t denote a true permanence with regard to afterlife punishment, either a la annihilation or genuine torment.
  • Arguments to the effect that because the New Testament “overturns” something in the Old Testament that was originally described/conceived of (in the OT) as permanent—like the validity of the Mosaic Law—then this must mean that the latter wasn’t really permanent, won’t work. For one, we’re talking about what these words meant in their original context; and certainly non-Christians aren’t going to agree with the Christian interpretation of their not being permanent. Further, if, say, a President pardons someone who was serving a life-long prison sentence (lasting as long as they’ll live, no matter how long this is: viz. “permanent”)—and let’s say they’re released 11 years into their sentence—this certainly doesn’t mean that the original sentence didn’t really mean “life-long”/permanent.
  • Similarly, arguments proceeding from prior theological presumptions relating to the nature of God—i.e. that “eternal punishment” can’t really be eternal because it’s not in God’s nature to punish eternally—are irrelevant to actual linguistic analysis here (and, really, they’re question-begging in the first place).
  • Universalists often greatly misunderstand the meaning and background of Jonah 2:6; I’ve explained the denotation of aiōnios in this verse here.
  • Jude 1:7 is a particularly interesting case. I’ve written more about it here.
  • Any arguments involving the use of aiōnios in John 17:3 are certainly going to be recognized as irrelevant. For one, this verse “defines” aiōnios life so abstractly that it seems to go beyond anything involving ages or eschatology or eternity or anything. It’s almost more like poetry than anything. In any case, John 17:3’s gloss of zōē aiōnios is no less secondary than Philo of Alexandria’s imaginative (and, as I’ve suggested, clearly erroneous) interpretation of aiōnios in Mut. 12 (which I’ve commented on at some length here).
  • I’m sure our panelists are willing to hear arguments to the effect that several uses of aiōnios in the gospel of John (in, say, John 4:14; 6:27; 12:25) might more plausibly denote something like “eschatological.” In fact, John McHugh, in his (bold and fantastic) commentary on John 1-4, writes that throughout the gospel of John, “αἰώνιος does not mean simply unending (ἀΐδιος), though that notion is clearly included, but ‘belonging to that Other World, where God will grant us to share fully in his own life, in another Age'” (John 1-4: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 237-38).But even besides the fact that McHugh might rely on a faulty antithesis between ἀΐδιος (aidios) and aiōnios here—one that Ilaria Ramelli relies on heavily, too, but which I’ve conclusively debunked—I don’t really think there’s much warrant for saying that aiōnios denotes “eschatological” in John. Besides the fact that there are uses of aiōnios in John in which it’s all but inarguable that it denotes mere “eternal, permanent,” even in those particular instances that I mentioned above (again, 4:14; 6:27; 12:25), I think the fact that these all occur in the clause εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον, eis zōēn aiōnion, may be telling.⁷

Finally,

  • You’re certainly free to consult any argument that you find in Ramelli and Konstan’s monograph Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Dïdios in Classical and Christian Texts. However, please don’t just recite an argument exactly as you find it in there. (I mention their book in particular to let you know that I’m pretty intimately familiar with almost all the claims and arguments made in it.) If you use one of their arguments, please let it be just a kind of foundation—one that you expand on or reformulate.

In light of all this, I want to reiterate—and perhaps slightly formulate, too—the conditions here. (Also, let me know if someone wants me to clarify or has a problem with the rules; I’m certainly willing to revise them.)

$100 will go to each person who’s able to demonstrate an instance in which aiōnios is more plausibly interpreted as “long-but-not-permanent/forever” or “eschatological” than as “permanent” or “everlasting/eternal” in the Old Testament or New Testament; or—when it comes to verses like Habakkuk 3:6, Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy 2:9, and Titus 1:2 in particular, as discussed in the relevant section above—if anyone’s able to make a case that the use of aiōnios in these verses can reasonably be brought to bear on the issue of the interpretation of eschatological/afterlife punishment. (Obviously none of these verses in themselves has anything to do with eschatology/afterlife. I simply mean that if someone can make a compelling case that the use of aiōnios in these verses in particular should compel us to amend our interpretation of aiōnios elsewhere more broadly—including in our interpretation of its eschatological/afterlife usage⁸—then I’ll instruct the panelists to consider this grounds for reward.)⁹

In any case, to wrap up here: obviously, the panelists will all be informed of the ground rules here. You can submit proposals in the comment section of this post, or on a dedicated thread on the subreddit /r/AcademicBiblical on Reddit, which I’ll link to shortly.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


Notes

[1] In the second edition of Gregory MacDonald (=Robin Parry)’s The Evangelical Universalist, he writes

For universalism to become a serious paradigm within Christian theology we need many more thinkers and scholars to take the time to research and publish in the area. And this is beginning to happen. (xiv)

A bibliography of recent works follows this. (In terms of major works released in the time since then, cf. Blanchard’s Will All be Saved?: An Assessment of Universalism in Western Theology; Dennis Jensen, Flirting with Universalism: Resolving the Problem of an Eternal Hell; also the discussion in the second edition of Four Views on Hell in the Zondervan Counterpoints series. And of course, on the philosophy of religion side of things, see the work of those like Jerry Walls and Jonathan Kvanvig.)

Further, after this, Parry notes

In private conversation I have found growing numbers of theologians with universalist sympathies and I expect increasing numbers of books and articles in the coming years. (xv)

[2] For example, if the idea of an eventual escape from Hell is a common part of universalist theology, this has plainly been denied in many authoritative Catholic documents—and to the extent that it looks like this opinion is irreformable in Catholicism. (See my comment here for more.)

Catholic proposals of universalism—the most well-known being that of Hans Urs von Balthasar—simply tend to suggest that no one goes to Hell to begin with (with proposals including things like that everyone will accept Christ in the moments before death proper occurs). Of course, since this suggestion certainly doesn’t intend to deny the existence of a pre-heaven Purgatory, then here Purgatory seems to function much like Hell itself does in Protestant uninversalist thought. In any case, proposals like those of Balthasar don’t enjoy much support among Catholic theologians, much less in “official” ecclesiastical theology.

[3] I use “Hell” simply out of convenience. I’m aware that some prefer to speak specifically of Gehenna, in line with early Jewish and Christian usage.

[4] Perhaps some annihilationists have a less charitable view of the number of people who will be annihilated. By ‘particularly “evil” during their earthly life’, I was thinking particularly of the rabbinic category here, of the רשעים גמורים.

[5] In fact, the root word aiōn does not just reduce to “age,” as is claimed (though it certainly does mean “age” in particular instances). As with many other words, aiōn has somewhat of a broad range of meanings; and several of these suggest something quite like “eternity.” And in conjunction with what I’ll go on to suggest, with what we learn from actually looking at each occurrence of aiōnios, we can confidently say that it was specifically aiōn‘s denotation of everlastingness—or at least in its connotations of a sort of maximum amount of time, as discussed—that the adjective aiōnios was “built on” to begin with.

[6] And can we please be reasonable here about which charity this goes to? So not something like some super homophobic charity or whatever. (I doubt anyone would do that.)

[7] If aiōnios specifically suggests future reality at all here (John 12:25?), I think it’s only with zōē aiōnios as a metonym for this. (More plausibly, in my view, eis zōēn aiōnion here means something like “yielding immortality.”) So even if this were true, the fact that these clauses can only be taken as a whole—or at the very least, if this is indeed a sort of metonym here, it only works with zōē aiōnios together, and not aiōnios by itself—makes it so that there’s really no way that these can be brought to bear on the wider usage of aiōnios in the New Testament.

[8] I don’t think this is going to be compelling though—for one, because (to my knowledge) the closest sort of semantic opposite of these adverbial clauses is εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, eis ton aiōna, which almost always denotes permanence. The only potential exceptions to this—at least the ones I’m familiar with vis-à-vis eschatology—appear in a couple of verses in 1 Enoch or possibly Revelation. Funny enough though, even if there’s any sense at all in which this attains a more literal denotation of something like “until the end of the world age” in these instances, those punished eis ton aiōna are still destined for annihilation or even a continued (eternal) punishment after this. However, any interpretation here is invariably complicated by the highly disputed issues relating to the redaction history of these texts.

Besides, despite their close conjunction, this challenge is about aiōnios, not eis ton aiōna. (I’m open to including the latter in this at sometime in the future, but I might need a bit more time to more precisely formulate it.)

[9] Again, I want to limit the caveats here. I’m reasonably sure, having looking through every use of aiōnios in the Septuagint, that

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