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.”
A Visit to Sheol: Parsing “Hell” in Scripture
When we talk about hell, there’s a very important question we must ask:
“Hell” is an English word, from the proto-Germanic haljo (“underworld” or “cave”). Its theorized Proto-Indo-European root also gave birth to “cell,” “cellar,” “hole,” “conceal,” the “-calypse” part of “apocalypse,” and much more.
As “underworld,” it can describe two very distinct concepts in Scripture. Neither are literal caverns, of course, but that’s the folk imagery conveyed to best illustrate these spiritual states.
The first is that which most of us immediately think when we hear “hell”: The agonizing torment due the unsaved at the Final Judgment. This “underworld” is described by means of several figures in Scripture:
- “Gehenna,” the notorious valley of flaming garbage in which human sacrifices once took place.
- “Outer darkness,” an area of cutting-off or exclusion.
Note: It is unclear, from passage to passage, whether this refers to the Final Judgment, or merely being excluded from the Kingdom of God under the New Covenant.
- “Lake of Fire.”
- “Second Death.”
But there’s another “underworld” in Scripture. This “underworld” precedes the Final Judgment, and swallows up all who die. The degree to which souls therein are conscious or unconscious is unknown, since the stories thereabout are steeped in figure.
It is “the pit.” It is feared, as “going into it” is equivalent to the first death, i.e., physical death. And yet, one might look forward to ending up near the fallen patriarchs and heroes of old, in the corner nicknamed “Abraham’s Side” or “Abraham’s Bosom.”
The Hebrew word for this “underworld” is Sheol. It is the mysterious “grave” of Hebrew eschatology. The Greek-speaking Jews co-opted the name of the pagan god Hades, likely meaning “the invisible one,” to talk of Sheol when writing and speaking Greek.
So, we have two “underworlds”:
- The First Death. The Pit. Sheol. Hades. Both righteous (Abraham’s Side) and unrighteous.
- The Second Death. God’s wrathful judgment. Gehenna. The Lake of Fire. Only the unrighteous.
And here’s one way of looking at the difference, to borrow some imagery from Minecraft:
Sheol vs. Gehenna: “Underworld” Illustrations of Spiritual States
Here’s the problem:
The English word “hell,” depending on your Bible translation, might be used interchangeably for both concepts, leaving us completely unaware of which of the two the author was writing.
And the biggest hermeneutical fallout of this conflation is a disastrous misinterpretation of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
This takes a moment to set up, so be patient. It’s worth it!
Jesus’s “Welcome” Discourse
Luke 15 and 16 are a single story, which I’m calling “Jesus’s ‘Welcome’ Discourse,” because it tragically lacks a formal or accepted name. Furthermore, it contains such powerful parables that it is often torn apart across several and disconnected sermons and homilies, which ruins the ability to see the forest for the trees.
The scene at the beginning of Luke 15 is that, as Jesus was teaching with his disciples, “the tax collectors [known at the time as skimmers/thieves] and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.” Finding fault with this, “the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
In response, Jesus uses 5 parables to:
- Justify seeking the lost.
- Indict those who would be jealous, demanding charity for the lost.
- Indict the teachers as lost themselves, in need of the Kingdom Gospel.
The first 3 parables are very familiar to most of us Christians:
- Jesus likens the sinners to lost sheep, who need to be rescued and brought back to the fold.
- Jesus likens the sinners to lost coins, who are sought and warrant rejoicing when found.
- Jesus likens the sinners to a prodigal son, who are welcomed back home. Furthermore, a new element is introduced, likening the grumbling teachers to the loyal, but jealous son. Likewise, an element is introduced analogous to the New Covenant Kingdom: a welcoming party for the reconciled son.
That’s when Luke 15 ends, but the story doesn’t end there.
Luke 16 is simply a continuation of the exact same scene: Jesus teaching the group of disciples, sinners, teachers, etc., in response to the teachers’ complaints.
It’s important to recognize this “bad chapter break” because, without it, the next parable makes no sense at all.
The Shrewd Manager
“There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
This parable is completely laughable as a morality lesson. Is Jesus really suggesting that the master would commend his manager for stealing from him?
The solution is to recognize that we’re still talking about the same scene as in Luke 15, and thus should be looking for the same elements as in the previous parables:
- The lost sinners
- The teachers
- The New Covenant Kingdom of God.
And we find these elements.
- The master represents God.
- The master’s debtors represent those sinners and tax collectors.
- The money manager represents those grumbling Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who had been enjoying the blessings and favor of God but who had been “wasting” it, and would soon be “out of a job.”
- So what did the commendable manager do? He began to forgive the master’s debts, using his job to gain friends, since he would soon be among them – no longer “elite” and “privileged,” but a fellow debtor.
Jesus then explained exactly what was happening, and why those grumbling teachers needed to be concerned (Luke 16:16-18):
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Jesus spells it out:
- The Law would forever stand, and indict those under it – even those self-righteous teachers whose behavior had made them adulturers under Jesus’s demanding interpretation.
- But the Law is no longer being preached. It stopped with the arrival of John the Baptist.
- Rather, the Gospel is being preached: The Kingdom of God under the New Covenant.
- With this new Good News, the sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, etc. are all “rushing in” – and those self-righteous ministers would be wise to do the same!
Jesus says much the same thing in Matthew 21:31-32:
“[Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders,] ‘Which of the two did what his father wanted? [The son who refused to work but changed his mind, or the one who promised to work but changed his mind?]’
‘The first,’ they answered.
Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.'”
Notice the very same themes are being repeated. The religious elite “made promises, but changed their minds.” As a result, they’ve squandered their blessings and will soon be “out of a job.” John the Baptist came to introduce the coming Kingdom, and the sinners are all rushing in.
The reason why it’s so important to recognize this context is because the next parable is Lazarus and the Rich Man.
A Visit to Sheol
The Rich Man, dressed in fine cloths and linens, is enjoying a bounteous feast. Meanwhile, Lazarus must eat of the scraps falling off the edge of the Rich Man’s table.
Then, suddenly, both Lazarus and the Rich Man simultaneously die and go to Sheol (Gr. Hades) the Hebrew “Grave Zone.” We know that they die simultaneously, and that the Last Judgment has not yet occurred, because the Rich Man still has “living brethren” (v. 28).
In Sheol, it is Lazarus who is blessed: He winds up in the “Abraham’s Bosom” area of Sheol, alongside the patriarchs, while the Rich Man is separated by a “chasm” within Sheol, and in agony.
If we apply the context of the scene – Jesus is still talking to the Pharisees here, still in response to their sneering and grumbling – then the symbols fall into place here as well.
- The Rich Man represents the grumbling teachers, who were enjoying the bounteous blessings.
- Lazarus represents the sinners, surviving on the scraps of that table.
- Then, suddenly, the New Covenant erupts. Lazarus is the “first brother” of Matthew 21, who now enjoys the company of the patriarchs (v. 29). The Rich Man is like the “second brother” of Matthew 21, the one who now suffers separation from the true, but restructured lineage of God and his people.
- Lazarus means “he whom God helps,” a powerful indication of the means by which all sinners might become reconciled: Grace (God-help).(Is it odd that a parable would have a proper identifier? Not if there’s a meaningful reason behind its use, like with Christ’s use of ‘Samaritan’ earlier in Luke.)
In other words, the situation has now flipped. Before the New Covenant, the grumblers were sitting pretty. Now, their own self-righteousness and lack of repentance and submission to Grace has found them on the wrong side of the Covenantal chasm.
This interpretation, which is in full conformity to the Luke 15-16 narrative and context, is only possible when we recognize that this isn’t about the Last Judgment and any punishments therefrom. Rather, it’s a parable that uses the Hebrew idea of Sheol to vividly illustrate the imminent Covenental “paradigm shift.”
Getting “Quiet” on Hell
If we look in a King James Version and some other versions of the Bible, we’ll see “hell” instead of Gr. Hades or Heb. Sheol in Luke 16. This will give us the distinct and erroneous impression that only the Rich Man went there, and not that both figures went there (Lazarus to the “Abraham’s Bosom” beachfront property of Sheol).
This will in turn give us the distinct and erroneous impression that Lazarus must have gone to heaven, and the agonizing heat of the underworld the Rich Man suffers will be misunderstood as the agony of the post-Judgment hell.
You see how disastrous mere semantic and linguistic confusion can be?
The goal of theological quietude is to embrace the “boring” language problems that underpin debates ongoing for centuries. It’s about getting “excited” about the “boring,” since the “boring” isn’t very exciting on its own — which makes it become neglected. Then, over time, natural selection of thought, debate, and written word will more and more neglect it, concretizing and enshrining old blunders.
As you can see, there’s a big fallout to this neglect. It can make the difference between reading a parable how Jesus intended – using Hebrew folk eschatology to paint a picture of the New Covenant Kingdom – versus mistakenly reading it as a literal account of the Christian kolasin aionion (i.e., the hell of Judgment) and wrongly using it to glean details thereabout.
Christus Victor: Existentialism Faces Eternity
Last week, we talked about how meaning is not objective. Every appeal for a rational justification of meaning in turn requires its own appeal.
This is the “infinite reference problem,” and pursuing it in search of some ultimate and rational end-point is a “chasing after the wind.”
We’re given this lesson from Ecclesiastes.
But, for us Christians, the future is not bleak. We have a unique solution, thanks to Jesus Christ.
It doesn’t solve the infinite reference problem, but it creates a practical meaning-fountain that annihilates the “existential monster.”
Everything is Meaningless
First, it’s vital to understand the extremely uncomfortable lesson given to us by Ecclesiastes.
In Ecclesiastes, the assumption is that when a man dies, he’s dead, and that’s it. You go to the grave. Your dust goes into the ground, your breath goes back to God. You’re finished.
“I also said to myself, ‘As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same spirit/breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit/breath rises upward and if the spirit/breath of the animal goes down into the earth?’
So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?”
His early conclusion is to “just stop” on the axial value of enjoying your toil and lot.
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them — for this is their lot.”
The essential premise of Ecclesiastes is that we’re not going to be around after we die.
Leaving a legacy still leaves uncertainty.
- Our bequests?
- Our treatises?
- Our progeny?
We cannot be certain in any of it.
“For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?”
Thus, the “just stop” existential conclusion:
“Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun — all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”
Additionally, investments (though uncertain) are lauded (11:1-6), and obedience to God is demanded (11:7-10) because it’s our duty, and because we’ll risk his judgment — in life.
Many mainstream Christian teachers would like Ecclesiastes not to exist, or to say something other than what it does.
They’d prefer that it conclude with a rejection of “everything is meaningless,” as if teeing up a ball earlier only to finally smash it out of the park.
But that’s not what happens.
“Remember [the Creator], before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit/breath returns to God who gave it.
‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’ Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.”
Even though everything is ultimately meaningless, we still create meaning since we’re beings with innate and/or molded interests. Each one of us is a “meaning fountain” — as is God himself.
It’s not about what simply is meaningful in a vacuum. It’s about what is regarded meaningful, according to the interests of beings with interests.
The writer of Ecclesiastes recognized that we generate meaning in this way through the provisions of life that we enjoy. We find meaning in food, drink, our projects, our families, our investments, and our thankful obligation to our Creator.
But, for us, that “generation” dies. In the end, we all go kaput.
That’s the sad and bleak part of all of this.
Then Comes Christus Victor
Paul tells us that man’s physical death is a consequence of his having sinned:
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.”
Through the appeal of baptism, we can voluntarily die to our sins. We are “baptized into his death,” which has a real and profound result:
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
In Paul’s scathing first letter to the Corinthians, he calls out those who would deny the down-the-road resurrection of the dead.
He makes an argumentum ad absurdum in support of that general resurrection, which is this: Why the heck would we risk life and limb without a prospective purpose?
1 Corinthians 15:30-32a
“And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour [if there is no resurrection of the dead]? I face death every day — yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?”
And then 32b:
“If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'”
That’s technically a quote from Isaiah — but it reminds you of another book, doesn’t it?
Without these resurrections, our faith is useless says Paul (v. 13-14).
Instead, we have a hope in that down-the-road resurrection, because of victorious Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:54,57b
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In other words, we’re back in Ecclesiastes-Land without the general resurrection.
The general resurrection doesn’t make Ecclesiastes false. Ecclesiastes was correct — “upright and true” — when it said that there was no objective underpinning of meaning, and that meaning is generated by interests and experience.
But the sighing sadness of Ecclesiastes has been eliminated. “Where, O death, is your sting?” writes Paul quoting Hosea.
The Limitless Future
We’re in a pickle when we demand, for every statement of meaning, an appeal to a higher justification.
But what if we simply demand a future justification?
And what if our future keeps going?
Suddenly, while the infinite reference problem still exists (and can never be solved), it can at least be made practically moot by the fact that we’ll always have new and novel prospects — forever — after the advent of that “New Earth.”
Really, Really Limitless
Some folks are afraid that we’ll get bored.
While we have a sacred hope that being in the presence of God will be overwhelmingly satisfying, it’s a hope impossible to convey or even conceptualize.
So let’s also say: “Actually, eternity probably won’t ‘run out.'”
- First, our material brains don’t store things very well. Can you recall what you were doing exactly one year ago? No, you can’t. You even find new enjoyable elements in movies you’ve seen dozens of times. You take pleasure and satisfaction in that “weakness” of perception and memory.
- Second, God’s universe is likely stocked with innumerable things to discover. And the time it would take to discover even a miniscule fraction of that universe would represent a period under which innumerable new potential discoveries would be born.
- Finally, however God’s universe is brimming with things to discover, it’ll be brimming over exponentially more with things we’ll be building ourselves for his glory.
No “Objective Meaning”; Rather, Endless Meaning
Many apologists rely on the idea of “objective meaning” in order avoid existential anxiety. They also use it as a logical wildcard in service of a rubber sword “Godproof” — often, they’ll threaten the listener with existential emptiness if they don’t accept the “objective meaning” they’re selling.
This is a very, very common tactic. But it’s not Biblical.
The Biblical message is that meaning is not objective. It’s generated by subjects with interests.
The writer of Ecclesiastes didn’t say, ‘Everything is meaningful, because it is grounded on some objective source of meaning.’
Rather, he said, ‘Everything is meaningless, and this is an upright and true teaching.’
We attain our hope by means of Christ, by whom death is conquered and obliterated. This grants us a beautiful device that allows us to generate meaning forever — and it has an infinite-year warranty.
This is our grand and overwhelming “happy non-ending.”
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.
Purgatorialism; “hell is a purging fire.”
(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.”)