An Ancient, Unsound Argument in the “Hell’s Duration” Debate
If an argument is unsound, then the claims it makes do not “follow” even though its premises are true.
For example, if I argue, “If pigs cannot fly, then I am the fastest runner on Earth,” the truth value of “I am the fastest” does not emerge “for free” even if pigs are indeed unable to fly.
I’m going to talk about an unsound argument today. The first written evidence we have of this argument is from St. Augustine of Hippo, the most significant (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) early theologian of his time (the late 4th and early 5th centuries).
Augustine and Endless Hell
In his Enchiridion, Augustine wrote much about his views of hell. Augustine was a proponent of the doctrine of endless hell, as are most Christians today. (It wouldn’t be very reckless to posit that Augustine was the person most evidently responsible for the ubiquity of belief in the doctrine, as well as the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin.)
In Augustine’s day, however, there were a bunch of Christians who didn’t believe in endless hell. These were genuine Christians who were purgatorialists, in the vein of St. Gregory of Nyssa, which means they believed fully in hell — an agonizing, humiliating, to-be-avoided destination — but that it was a remedial punishment.
(One of three major views in the ancient Church, alongside annihilationism and “endless hell.”)
St. Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” 4th century:
“… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.
His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.”
… But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”
St. Augustine admitted, in Enchiridion, that there were a great many Christians in his day who were purgatorial universalists like St. Gregory was. He also admitted that they weren’t in outright defiance in Scripture, but opined that their position was driven by soft-hearted “human feelings.”
A purgatorial universalist might ask him, “Why would God blanket-punishment all of the unsaved regardless of their individual infractions?”
Augustine’s answer was that there were a variety of intensities of hell, and that certain folks might get what amounted to “lunch breaks” in hell; “Let them suppose… that for certain intervals in time, the punishments of the damned are somewhat mitigated.”
A purgatorial universalist might ask him, “Why, then, do we pray for the dead, that they might escape a measure of their punishment?” Augustine had some creative eschatology here, and it worked like this:
- Imagine that if you have a “score” of +1 to +10, you’ll be saved.
- If you have a score of -10 to 0, you’ll go to hell forever.
- In life, you merit a score “window” on the bad-good scale like, “-9 to -6,” or “-2 to +2,” or “+7 to +10.”
- Prayers, sacrifices, alms, etc. for the dead could push a person higher in their window.
- If your window wrapped around the midpoint, prayers could potentially push you up into salvation.
- The higher you are, the better off you are, since “hell for -10 people” would be worse than “hell for -1 people.”
“Where they are of value,” Augustine wrote, “their benefit consists either in obtaining a full forgiveness or, at least, in making damnation more tolerable.”
Already, you can probably see how these answers aren’t very satisfying. In my experience, and I think the honest experience even of believers in endless hell, most “creative” formulations of how endless hell might address the difficulties it poses are, indeed, unsatisfying.
Isn’t God, Ultimately, Merciful?
The purgatorial universalist then says, “But Scripture says that he has bound everyone — Jew and Gentile — over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32); he deliberately subjected creation to frustration in the hope of redemption and as part of a creative process (Romans 8:20-22).”
Augustine’s response is that the Bible’s references to God’s ultimate, winning mercy must only be in reference to the few who will be saved from punishment.
This “must” is presented as contingent on the soundness of the following argument, again from his Enchiridion:
“Even so, if they suppose that the text applies to all men, there is no ground for them further to suppose that there can be an end for those of whom it is said, ‘Thus these shall go into eternal punishment.’ Otherwise, it can as well be thought that there will also be an end to the happiness of those of whom the antithesis was said: ‘But the righteous into eternal life.'”
Purgatorial universalists do not translate Heb. olam or Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “eternal” or “everlasting.” Rather, these words mean “age-pertaining,” often with overtones of significant gravity or broad domain.
This determination proceeds from the variety of olams in the Bible that do not refer to everlasting things, and from the fact that many of these olams are brought across, in the Greek Septuagint, as aion/aionios/aionion.
A few examples:
Isaiah 63:11 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “His people of Moses of the old [Heb. olam] days, he remembered.”
- From Septuagint: “And he remembered days of old [Gr. aionion]; the bringing up from the land the shepherd of the sheep.”
Genesis 6:4 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “In those days in the earth were Nephilim, renowned men of old [Heb. olam], mighty men.”
- From Septuagint: “Those were giants, ones from the eon [Gr. aionos], renowned men.”
Isaiah 42:14 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “I have been still for a length [Heb. olam], held my peace.”
- From Septuagint: “I kept silent from the eon [Gr. aionos], shall I also continually keep silent and endure?”
Here’s the unfortunate reality: Because belief in endless hell is nearly universal among Christians, and has been so for 15 centuries, tertiary translations of the Bible feel no impetus to keep their olams and aions vague; when it comes to the kolasin aionion, they nearly all read, “everlasting punishment.”
But not all translations do this. For example, the literal translations of Young and Weymouth are careful to temper themselves on the issue.
Compare Matthew 25:46 from the NIV, from Young’s Literal, and from Weymouth’s Literal:
- (NIV) “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
- (Young’s Literal) “And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.”
- (Weymouth’s Literal) “And these shall go away into the Punishment of the Ages, but the righteous into the Life of the Ages.”
At this point, even staunch believers in endless hell generally admit that the “everlasting” or “eternal” translation is a bit reckless. But they are quick to invoke Augustine’s above argument.
So, without begging the aion question, is Augustine’s argument sound? Does this same-sentence comparison show us that the kolasin and zoen must be of equal time duration?
Can’t Beg That Question? Can’t Reach That Conclusion.
Imagine that “aionion” meant “intense,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
- “Then they will go away to intense punishment, but the righteous to intense life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both intense. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Imagine that “aionion” meant “astounding,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
“Then they will go away to astounding punishment, but the righteous to astounding life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both astounding. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Imagine that “aionion” meant “divine,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
“Then they will go away to divine punishment, but the righteous to divine life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both divine. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Now let’s use “aionion” how it ought to be prudently rendered: “age-pertaining.”
“Then they will go away to punishment of the ages, but the righteous to life of the ages.”
Should a person argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We should say, “This verse says they are both pertaining to ages; it may simply mean that they will both last a long time (finite in one case, infinite in the other). Or maybe it has nothing to do with duration, and simply means that both will take place at the consummation of the ages, the age to come after the general resurrection. Or perhaps it refers to the aionios zoe of the Kingdom of God, the age under which its subjects finally come to know the Father and his Son (John 17:3) and where the self-righteous hold-outs are excluded (Matthew 21:31-32). In any case, it does not suggest that they are of equal time duration.”
Put Very Simply
Here’s a very simple way to understand what’s going on here.
- (1) Given: X has the property A, and Y has the property A.
- (2) Given: X has the property B as well.
- (3) Question: Does that mean that A = B?
- (4) Question: Does that mean Y has the property B?
The answer to both questions is, “No way!”
“Y has the property B” if and only if we have “A = B” as a given.
Thus, Augustine’s argument is unsound, as are unsound all modern repetitions of his argument.
“I Believe the Bible over Xs, Ys, As, & Bs”
Okay. Here’s proof, straight from the Bible, that “forever-ness” does not “pop out” of olam parallelism.
- “He stood and surveyed the earth; he beheld and drove the nations asunder; the everlasting (adah) mountains were scattered, the olam hills bowed low; His ways are olam!”
Keep reading that verse, noble Augustine, until the unsoundness of the argument is ascertained.
(For another exercise that demonstrates this unsoundness, see “The Gift Game & Prudent Hermeneutics.”)