The Gift Game & Prudent Hermeneutics
Let’s play the Gift Game! It’s the hottest new game around.
The Gift Game tests your ability to extract the meaning of an unknown term by means of investigating the surrounding context.
But beware! The Gift Game can be sneaky, and if you’re not careful, you could end up practicing reckless hermeneutics.
– Round 1 –
So, can you do it? Are you able to discern the contents of those gifts?
The correct move in the Gift Game, at this juncture, is to say, “I don’t know yet. I don’t have enough information.”
Okay, that round was easy. Let’s try the next one.
– Round 2 –
Unfortunately, as might be apparent to you, we still don’t have enough information. The gift might contain “perfect,” as we Christians say that our God is perfect. But it might also just contain, “great.”
If it contained “great,” that wouldn’t mean that God lacks something. It just means that he is great. And that’s great! Lots of things are great across various metrics of measurement, finite and infinite.
– Round 3 –
No, I suppose not.
We’re still lacking vital information. The gift still could contain just “great.” What a challenging game the Gift Game is!
– Round 4 –
WE KNOW It does not contain “perfect,” because my son makes mistakes occasionally.
HOWEVER… This admission does not mean that we’re saying God is imperfect. That would be a non sequitur from the above admission.
Let’s open the gift box and see if we were right:
Excellent. “Hermeneutical Hero” achievement unlocked!
Round 5 presents us with a new set of sentences.
– Round 5 –
Watch out now! Remember what we learned before. It might be tempting to rush into assuming that the gift box contains “forever,” but that’s a trick of the Gift Game. It included the third sentence so that you would jump to that conclusion.
If we’re to be prudent sleuths, we need to recognize how much we know and how much we don’t. The gift box could, for example, contain “a long time” or “the future.”
– Round 6 –
Look at that! We were right not to make our guess just yet. Now, with these new sentences, WE KNOW that the gift box does not entail “forever.” HOWEVER… we can say this even as we believe that God’s dominion will endure forever. This is because God’s dominion will also endure for a long time and into the future, two softer statements that are nonetheless true.
When we examine these sentences, it looks like each of the gift-boxes contains something that means “age-related” or “of an age” or “of ages.” We also notice that it has certain overtones of significance (as in the case of the age of Moses) and perhaps long domain (like Isaiah’s patient silence or God’s dominion).
Let’s open the box (containing a lexicographical proposal):
The Real Gift Box
The latter gift box corresponds to a real word family we find in Scripture.
- The Hebrew word is olam.
- The Greek words are aion, aionios, and aionion. In the Greek Septuagint, likely the Bible with which Jesus and the Apostles were familiar, these words are often used in verses where the Hebrew was olam.
The Hermeneutical Error
There are intelligent, rational scholars today — and indeed scholars in ancient Christendom — who when confronted with Round 5 of the Gift Game, proclaimed, “The gift box contains ‘forever.'”
This is because the Gift Game’s tricky way of telling them that the life was forever, and contrasting the “life” destination with the “punishment” destination in the very same sentence.
We’ve talked about this problem before, when we covered St. Augustine’s dispute with the theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa. If you remember, St. Augustine wrote in 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 [of punishment] for those of whom it is said, ‘Thus these shall go into [aionion] 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 [aionion] life.’”
In this case, St. Augustine — obviously an intimidating intellectual — nonetheless “lost the Gift Game.”
Here’s theologian Dr. Todd Miles, from his book, A God of Many Understandings? (emphasis mine):
“Since the biblical testimony is clear that the life granted by faith in Christ is eternal, the only possible interpretation of Matt 25:46 is that the punishment of the wicked is likewise eternal.”
Here’s pastors Dr. Francis Chan and Dr. Preston Sprinkle, from their book, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up (emphasis mine):
“While it is true that aionios doesn’t always mean ‘everlasting,’ when used here to describe things in the ‘age to come,’ it probably does have this meaning. Think about it: Because the life in this age will never end, given the parallel, it also seems that the punishment in this age will never end.”
As you’ve seen, each of these brilliant men were nonetheless caught off-guard when it came to the Gift Game.
WE KNOW olam (and aion/aionios/aionion) does not ever mean “everlasting,” just as “great” never means “perfect,” and “broad” never means “infinite in broadness.” (EDIT: Perhaps a better way to say this is, “These are not automatically limited, in their range of meaning, to ‘everlasting.'”)
HOWEVER… this fact does not imply that olam means “not-everlasting,” just as “great” doesn’t mean “not-perfect,” and “broad” doesn’t mean “limited in broadness.”
And the parallelism tells us literally nothing beyond this, just as “The great king Solomon owed his wisdom to his great God” would not imply that Solomon was perfect, or of equal greatness to God.
To win the Gift Game on olam (and the Biblical usage of aion/aionios/aionion), the answer is to stick to the only definition we can derive. If it leaves us with ambiguity, then so be it; theological quietude demands that we boldly embrace the boring ambiguity and not use it as a platform for reckless conjecture.
This is why I applaud Dr. Chan and Dr. Sprinkle for the following:
“What about the word aionios? Bible scholars have debated the meaning of this term for what seems like an eternity, so we’re not going to settle the issue here. It’s important to note that however we translate aionios, the passage still refers to punishment for the wicked… The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty. I encourage you to continue researching, but don’t get so caught up in this debate that you miss the point of what Jesus was trying to communicate…. I believe His intention was to stir a fear in us that would cause us to take hell seriously and avoid it at all costs.”