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 –
Okay. Take a look at the above passage. The Christmas gift represents a single word or phrase — used twice in the above sentence — whose meaning is unknown. You have to figure it out!
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 –
Oh my! That’s an interesting addition. Does this provide us sufficient clues to “unwrap” the gift in our noggins?
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 –
Yes, that’s more like it! Now we know that my daughter is an impeccable guitarist. Surely that means the gift contains something like “perfect” or “immaculate” or “infallible,” right?
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 –
Now we’re onto something! Given that last sentence, we now know enough to say that the gift contains something like “great” or “awesome” or “impressive.”
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):
Congratulations! We’ve beaten the Gift Game.
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.”
So I’ve read through this a number of times and it’s really helped clear up my understanding of the issue. But now I have some questions.
The logical conclusion you leave us with is that the word “aionos” is ambiguous, though it is certainly not “everlasting” and it’s not implied to mean “not-everlasting.” Are there any other places in scripture (using words other than “aionos”) from which we draw this idea of eternal life? Or do we stop here and say that while the New Jerusalem spoken of in Revelation will be “paradise” or “heaven” and at least last longer than our Earthly lives, we have no indication that it will be unending?
Inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven comes to mind. Being renewed/restored to our creator also does. But in my own looking I haven’t found a comment from Jesus or any of the New Testament writers that speaks to the temporal aspect of these, other than aion/olam.
We get our information about the next-age life being everlasting from other words, like aphtharton (imperishable) and aphtharsia (immortality). See 1 Peter 1:3-5, 1 Corinthians 9:25, and 1 Corinthians ch. 15.
We also see that, in Revelation 22:2, we get the Edenic “Tree of Life” back, which is a symbol for God’s miraculous provision of immortality that we lost in Genesis 3:22.
Ah, thank you. This is very helpful.
Just in the interest of being thorough, how would you address the word aidios used in Romans 1:20 and then in Jude 1:6? This is the only other word I was able to find before your reply.
Aidios is like “ever-during” (from “aei”; “always”) vs. the “age-during” of aionios. Plato and Aristotle, among others, used it to qualify those “aions” that lasted forever.
“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.”
No. ! He made a fatal error in his gift exchange in that he equivocated “aion” with “aionios”. Very bad . . . the adjective “aionios” means “pertaining to an age” no more than the adjective “eternal” in English means “pertaining to an age”, since it TOO is derived from a noun – “aevum” – that means, you got it, “age”.
So . . . he is guilty of misrepresenting his gifts. He assumes that the noun -> adjective relationship is impeccable in establishing meaning, to use one of his words . . . but . . it ain’t.
While we are on it . . . as I document in http://www.corduan.com/human_destiny.pdf . . . secular scholars (Tufts University site) consistently translate Plato’s “aionios” as “ETERNAL”. Which, under the logic provided, is not possible.
None of aion or aionios or aionion came from “aevum” because “aevum” is Latin.
It’s commonly acknowledged that Plato’s use of these words was idiosyncratic. Meanwhile, the other Greek ancients used the word family — all three of aion, aionios, and aionion — to describe things like the duration of the Earth and the lifetimes of mortal individuals. When they wanted to qualify the life of something as unambiguously everlasting, they used Gr. ‘aidios.’
The nounadjective relationship is not impeccable, except that this entire word family (all three words) are used in place of Heb. “olam” in the Septuagint, indicating that the Greek Jews considered them relatively interchangeable.
Now, we’d be in a pickle if (for instance) “aionios” in the Septuagint never referred to something finite, and always referred to something everlasting.
But we are not in that pickle. Two examples:
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. aionios], 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. aionios], shall I also continually keep silent and endure?”
“None of aion or aionios or aionion came from “aevum” because “aevum” is Latin.” True, sorry was not clear. “Aevum” is the root of the ENGLISH word “eternal” . . . meaning . . . a root noun meaning “age” can easily beget an adjective that means . . . forever. And, apparently, typically does.
“When they wanted to qualify the life of something as unambiguously everlasting, they used Gr. ‘aidios.’”
Like in Jude 6? “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting (aidios) chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.”
Genesis 6:4 οι δε γιγαντες ησαν επι της γης εν ταις ημεραις εκειναις και μετ’ εκεινο ως αν εισεπορευοντο οι υιοι του θεου προς τας θυγατερας των ανθρωπων και εγεννωσαν εαυτοις εκεινοι ησαν οι γιγαντες οι απ’ >>>>αιωνος<<<>αει<< σιωπησομαι και ανεξομαι εκαρτερησα ως η τικτουσα εκστησω και ξηρανω αμα"
The word there is αει, which means:
Strong's Number: 104 a¹eið from an obsolete primary noun (apparently meaning continued duration)
invariably, at any and every time: when according to the circumstances something is or ought to be done again
KJV (8) – alway, 4; always, 3; ever, 1;
NAS (7) – always, 6; constantly, 1;
Somehow part of my reply got chopped . . . the part where I turn my attention to Isaiah 42:14 . . . THAT does not have aionios in it in the LXX . . . but rather aeio . . . weird (the chop) . . .
Yes, like in Jude 6. Thank you very much for the correction regarding my Isaiah citations. I misread αἰώνος as αἰώνιος and will correct my references. What do you make of the fact, however, that the obsoleted Covenant was called αἰώνιος? (Hebrews 8:13 – “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”)
My computer is fighting me today . . . as I already said (but never got submitted):
The covenant IS eternal. Eternal to the Jews . . . you can see them still working it in Ezekiel’s temple. For us . . . it has been “upgraded”, or “filled up” as Jesus used the word “pleeroo” to speak of what He was doing:
“17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil (“Fill up”, pleeroo). 18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled (“Done”).” (Matt. 5)
He then demonstrates . . . He “fills up” the command against murder to broaden it to now include hate. He “fills up” the command to do justice to broaden it to now include consideration for the individual committing the crime. He “fills up” the law on divorce – i.e. “do divorce right” – to now prohibit it altogether . . . etc.
THIS is what Paul means when he says: “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” (Romans 3:31)
So . . . when God’s Word says it is “eternal” . . . it is “eternal”. Just . . . reborn, new scope, “filled up”. We even have to get “circumcised”, spiritually that is:
“In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (Coloss 2:11)
The key is that we don’t become Jews . . . Jews become believers in the Savior, Christians . . . a one way upgrade.
Do you take a similar approach with a reappropriation of Solomon’s Temple?
“reappropriation” of Solomon’s temple? Help me out . . . I am guessing that should be obvious to me, but it is not.
Thanks for the helpful post, Stan. You have given me something to think about here – that despite discrediting yourself by ascribing brilliance to me. :)
I’m VERY flattered that you dropped by, Dr. Miles! Despite some isolated nitpicks I really enjoyed “A God of Many Understandings?” and saw it as a robust and cogent indictment of those who’d deny the impending Judgment and punishment.
Question here. Ive been reading up on purgatorial universalism a lot now and am starting to lean towards it. One of my questions is about the immortality of the soul, i feel like the annhiliationists have that concept really well, where the soul is not immortal unless Christ is in you. Do you have anything to say about that from a PUR pov? I have my own pet theory that the death talked about is the 1st death, grave/sheol, and that the death of a soul just simply means going to sheol. Another question is that if aoinios is same, does it mean the zoen life believers recieve only lasts temporarily?
PUR is agnostic on the question of whether immortality is innate or whether it depends on exceptional Grace. For my part, I tend to agree with annihilationists that the soul is not innately immortal. It remains benignly true, however, that God can keep-alive anyone as it suits his purposes.
“Body-death and soul-death” are tricky topics because we don’t know precisely what a “soul” is. Is it a superphysical object that floats around inside our bodies? Is it — as Gr. ‘psychen’ — a metaphysical name for our qualitative identities; my “self”? The answer to this question will dictate how one interprets Matthew 10:28. In Matthew 10, Jesus tells his followers, who he is sending to mission, that they will be persecuted. “I bring the sword,” says Jesus, referring to the fact that Jesus’s mission will be a catalyst for the sword of persecution. But standing up for the faith means Christ will stand up for us at Judgment; disowning Christ means being disowned at Judgment. This threat is expressed in verse 28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill [Gr. ‘apokteino’] the body but cannot kill [Gr. ‘apokteino’] the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy/cut-off [Gr. ‘apolesai’] both soul and body in Gehenna [the Lake of Fire].”
Under the “superphysical” view, the interpretation is that you can kill somebody, but their soul keeps floating about, whereas God can kill that, too. Under the “metaphysical” view, the interpretation is that you can kill somebody, but “who they are” continues onward by virtue of being known in the mind of God for later resurrection. He holds ‘the keys of death and Sheol/Hades.’ God, therefore, can obliterate souls through Gehenna, but he can also selectively annihilate through purgation, that is, he can destroy a person’s former qualitative identity by remaking it and salvaging that worth saving from the ruin. This is the fate of the unrighteous under PUR; it is the “major surgery” that follows disownment.
You asked, “Another question is that if aoinios is same, does it mean the zoen life believers recieve only lasts temporarily?”
Ctrl-F for “Does that mean” in the Purgatorial Hell FAQ for my answer to this question: https://stanrock.net/2015/05/20/purgatorial-hell-faq/