Four Alternative Solutions
There are perhaps only five alternative views regarding the future of the unsaved. The first of these five is not really a candidate and has not been countenanced by Christians because it is simply a denial of any future whatsoever for either the saved or the unsaved. But it is an alternative. It is well exemplified in a statement made by Bertrand Russell, who may be taken as representative of a very large number of thoughtful and intelligent people today sharing his dismal philosophy of human destiny. Essentially, these people hold that we are like the beasts that perish, reabsorbed at death into the material universe of physics and chemistry as though we had never been. Personal existence results from an accidental coming together of electrochemical forces that have no permanent significance. In 1938 Lord Russell was quoted as saying:
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving, his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of an accidental collocation of atoms. No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought or feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave, all the noonday brightness of human genius, is destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. (1)Such an answer to the problem appears to many people today to be the only, the simplest, and the most rational answer: but it is in fact none of these things. The prospect of absolute personal annihilation may be faced with some equanimity in youth where it is too remote to matter, and so is applied to others but not to ourselves. But later years bring second thoughts for most people, and this kind of annihilation becomes infinitely sad to contemplate. There is no doubt that the acceptance of such a fate is not the sign of a free healthy spirit but of a diseased one. God has set eternity in the heart of man. In every culture and apparently throughout history it has been normal for man to assume that he has some continuance beyond the grave. This modern view of annihilation is a symptom of the malaise of our society.
So we really have only four alternatives that require consideration at the end of such a study as this:
1. Annihilation of the unsaved.Let us examine these briefly and then compare the consequences of each as they reflect upon the justice of God. *
2. Universalism--in which all are saved and none are punished.
3. Punishment of the unsaved which will one day terminate in restoration to fellowship with God.
4. Everlasting punishment and unbroken banishment from the presence of God.
* Throughout the following section a number of passages of Scripture are listed which are claimed by supporters of various alternative views. In many cases these passages have already been dealt with and analyzed to show that they need not, and probably should not, be interpreted at their face value since the words employed often have important alternative meanings. It may therefore prove disconcerting to the reader to find such passages now quoted in support of a position which it has been previously suggested they cannot be used to support. This is inevitable, of course, because these verses are used in support of these alternative views by certain classes of people. We have therefore adopted the policy of putting in brackets after each passage a reference to the pages in this volume where the more probable meaning is dealt with at some length. It will be seen that these references relate chiefly to alternative renderings of such words as saved, all, world, willing. etc.
There are a number of passages of Scripture which it is claimed support the concept of annihilation, but at least some of these passages, taken in their context, do not really seem to warrant such an interpretation. Among them are the following:
The light of the wicked shall be put out, and the spark of his fire shall not shine (Job 18:5). (This suggests that his "substance" is to be utterly consumed, not even a spark remaining alive.)I think the most recent presentation of this view is found in a small but effectively written work by the well-known evangelical Basil F. C. Atkinson, an English writer who has been described as a modern Matthew Henry. His argument is formulated entirely by an appeal to Scripture and he holds that in this context death means death and destruction means destruction. The second death (Rev. 20:14; 21:8) is a total cessation of life. Daniel 12:2 seems to speak of the first death, a natural death followed by a sleep in the dust, awaiting resurrection to judgment. The second death will not be a sleep but an annihilation. While the fires of Gehenna are indeed unquenchable, such fires can burn out when there is nothing left to consume. They did in the Valley of Hinnom, the garbage dump outside the city walls of Jerusalem; the fires which were intended to consume the refuse did burn out, historically, once there was no more dumping of garbage after the city had been deserted at the time of the Captivity in Babylon. Similarly the burning of the Lord which was to fall upon Israel's folds and flocks and orchards as a punishment was unquenchable in the sense that it was inescapable. Nevertheless, it too died out when the land was deserted. Sodom and Gomorrah suffered the vengeance of "eternal fire" (Jude 7), but it seems likely that this fire burned itself out in hours, if not in minutes. The effect was everlasting, for Sodom and Gomorrah disappeared. Even if they were to be rediscovered and rebuilt, the old Sodom and Gomorrah so perished as to be still (1978) undiscovered, for all the searching that has been undertaken.
The wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away...The transgressors shall be destroyed together; the end of the wicked shall be cut off (Ps. 37:20, 38).
When the wicked spring as the grass. and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed forever (Ps. 92:7).
As the whirlwind passeth, so is the wicked no more (Prov. 10:25).
Behold, all they that were incensed against Thee shall be ashamed and confounded: they shall be as nothing; and they that strive with Thee shall perish. Thou shalt seek them...even them that contend with Thee: they that war against Thee shall be as nothing, and as a thing of nought (Isa. 41:11, 12).
All they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt thou be any more (Ezek. 28:19).
For the day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head. For as ye have drunk upon my holy mountain, so shall all the heathen drink continually, yea, they shall drink, and they shall swallow down, and they shall be as though they had not been (Obad. 15, 16).
Behold the day cometh, that thou shalt burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch (Mal. 4:1).
The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord...(2 Thess. 1:7-9).
If we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries (Heb. 10:26, 27).
According to this view, the fire of hell is not to correct but to consume. When its consuming is wholly complete, death itself will cease to be a reality, thus fulfilling in an unexpected way 2 Timothy 1:10, in which the Lord Jesus Christ is said (prophetically) to have "abolished death." As a fire goes out when nothing remains to keep it alive, so death is abolished when there are no dead left, for the fire will consume them until the place thereof knoweth them no more. One might borrow John Owen's famous title and apply it in a new context, calling this "the death of death." It is not necessary, as some critics of this view have argued, that annihilation be instantaneous at the time of Judgment; the stubble that is consumed and the refuse that is burned take time to burn, but they are finally destroyed, The end result is not immediate destruction but final destruction, which is essentially the argument of the annihilationists.
The annihilation of the wicked at least frees the universe from the dualism of two hostile kingdoms coexisting for ever and ever, even if they do so with a great gulf fixed between them. If it is true that few are chosen and many are lost, the kingdom of darkness would be larger than the kingdom of light; and its annihilation would have at least this advantage, that the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ would ultimately be unchallenged. Continued coexistence, on the other hand, even if the kingdom of darkness is very small, indeed if it were only one single individual, would still demonstrate an incomplete victory--and in a sense an incomplete victory is really no victory at all.
In the new heavens and the new earth of 2 Peter 3:13 which are to be created "wherein dwelleth righteousness" would this not require that evil be permanently eliminated? Indeed the annihilationists argue that either there must be restitution of all things or the wicked must be completely consumed. Many earnest Christian people of evangelical persuasion believe that they are driven by the plain sense of Scripture to one or the other of these two alternatives. There have always been a few earnest spirits, from the earliest times to the present, persuaded that the Scriptures tend towards the annihilationist view. By removing the wicked altogether, it is felt that a passage such as 1 Corinthians 15:28 is more likely to be fulfilled completely, when God will become all in all and every remaining knee in the universe will bow before the Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of the Father.
Although the concept of annihilation may ease the problem of final complete victory, it does seem to make the creation of so many billions of individuals purposeless. Yet a naturalist might argue that such an apparent waste of life is not without parallels in Nature as a whole. It is pointed out that when a codfish lays several million eggs, only a few of these eggs (some authorities say only two or three) are believed to develop into adults to perpetuate the species. It is held that in some way the millions that do not develop provide a special chemical environment for the favored survivors without which they would not reach maturity.
The analogy is a harsh one indeed, for we are not speaking here of mere animals but of living human beings who are indeed perishing, but surely not perishing according to the Creator's design as we may suppose is true in the case of cod spawn. The problem of numerical imbalance remains. G. C. Berkouwer in his Divine Election (p. 207) struggles with this problem of numerical imbalance and points out that Herman Hoeksema has actually gone so far as to suggest that it was necessary for these enormous numbers of people to be rejected from the Kingdom. He does not hesitate to say that God "had to" adopt this plan. Hoeksema proposes that the rejected "are in a sense the price, the ransom, which God pays for the higher glory of his children." According to this view, He could not do otherwise for there was no other possibility for Him. The price had to be paid. Such a bald statement strikes the mind as wholly unacceptable. And yet as we have already seen, it may not be altogether irrational. It seems that God did indeed have to reject some. And by rejection is not meant that God elected them to reprobation but rather that He did not elect them to salvation. To save all men would involve overruling the free choice of all, since man by nature universally rejects God's offer of salvation. But to overrule the free choice of all men is to invalidate the plan to allow man freedom of choice to begin with, and thus to reduce him to the status of puppet. Alternatively, to save none at all would rob the creation of any point. If none are to be saved, it were better not to create man and allow him to make a free choice. God had no alternative but to elect some and not to elect the rest. But whether we can go so far as to say with Hoeksema that the loss of the many is intended as a benefit to the few is another matter, even though it may seem to be a logical necessity.
It is also important to realize that death is not necessarily a curse. It comes to many as a relief. Indeed God seems to have ordained death for fallen man, not for unfallen man, and did so not as a penalty but as a remedy. Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden specifically to prevent their eating of the Tree of Life and so living on forever as corrupted, sinful people. We may gather from this that unending life in a sinful condition was, at least in this world, an unthinkable alternative to dying, and the action taken to secure against such a contingency was, if we look carefully at Genesis 3:22-24, undertaken with great urgency. The Lord "drove them out" and stationed an angel at the gate of the Garden whose flaming sword (the instrument of death) turned every way, specifically to guard the way to the Tree of Life: death was therefore inescapable. The circumstance has been seized upon by some annihilationists to support the argument that annihilation is at least vastly to be preferred to unending continuance in a sinful condition.
Such, then, is the first alternative, and such are some of the problems it poses, and some of the answers it is believed to provide, and some of the possible reasons which may make it a not altogether absurd solution to what is admittedly a profound problem. However, there is one strong argument against it which has been stated effectively by R. A. Killen. He wrote recently: "The wicked will not be annihilated by the second death as judgment for their sins any more than Christ was annihilated when He paid the penalty for our sins." (2)
The term Universalist may be applied to two classes of people. There are those who believe that there is no punishment at all. It is assumed that everyone will be automatically forgiven by a benevolent Creator who is loving towards all his creatures and has already made adequate provision for their forgiveness in the sacrifice of his Son who died effectively for the sins of all men. * And then there is a second class of persons who believe that for all who die unregenerate there will be a period of punishment that is corrective rather than punitive. When these have paid "the last farthing" they will be released from the place of punishment and brought back into fellowship with God.
* For the sake of simplicity in this brief presentation, the theological views of Karl Barth which bear on this issue, in which he comes very close to a Universalism of this type, are not discussed. Nor is the word universal to be confused with the use made of it by Reformed theologians to describe what amounts to Unlimited Atonement.We propose to deal separately with these two broad classifications, but there are certain key passages of Scripture which are claimed by both parties as proof texts in support of their position. Such a key passage is Colossians 1:20: "And having made peace through the blood of his cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself, by Him, I say, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven." What is here intended by the word reconciliation is held to be plainly established by the following verse (21), which reads: "And you [the saints at Colossae] that were once alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, even now [Greek nuni ] hath He reconciled..." Like the saints who are already reconciled, the rest of the universe will also be reconciled. Indeed as 2 Corinthians 5:19 says: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them." And so also John 3:17: "God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." To this might be added 1 John 4:14: "And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world."
There are a number of passages which Universalists of this first class commonly take literally in order to prove their thesis:
Therefore as by the offense of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. (Rom. 5:18).Now Universalists who foresee no judgment whatever make two basic assumptions. The first is that God is more concerned with exhibiting his benevolence than demonstrating his justice, and the second is that man is essentially good and by nature wants to amend his ways, given the opportunity. He will only have to have his faults pointed out to him in the Judgment to repent immediately and turn from his wickedness and live.
For God hath concluded them all in unbelief that He might have mercy upon all (Rom. 11:32).
For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and the living (Rom. 14:9).
As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive...that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:22, 28).
That in the dispensation of the fullness of time, He might gather together in one all things in Christ. both which are in heaven and which are in earth, even in Him (Eph. 1:10).
[God] Will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth ....[Jesus Christ] gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time (1 Tim. 2:4, 6). (Cf. pp. 162ff.)
For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those that believe (1 Tim. 4:10). (Cf. p. 166.)
He Himself likewise [was partaker of flesh and blood] that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb. 2:14).
He is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). (Cf. pp. 1720.)
Universalists hold that since God loves all men equally and gave his Son to die for their sins, He cannot conceivably display any vindictiveness or demand that man should also bear the penalty for offending Him. He is so filled with benevolence that He will forgive and dismiss all charges. One reproachful look will be sufficient to break down the recalcitrant, even as the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Men will weep bitterly for their sins and this repentance will validate the Atonement already made for them.
Such a view derives from a very inadequate conception of the disastrous effects of the Fall upon human nature. The assumption is made that man is still essentially good at heart and will feel perfectly comfortable in the presence of an absolutely holy God, no matter how wicked one has been during life. It is taken for granted that despite the testimony of history and personal experience, creatures who all their adult lives have been selfish and rebellious against what they know to be right will suddenly be entirely different kinds of people, capable of contributing to the well-being of a perfect society (heaven) as soon as they are placed in the position of being able to do or be or have whatever they like without restraints of any kind--which of course is their concept of heaven. The possibility that everyone else will also be making precisely the same plans for personal self-satisfaction does not strike such people as any hindrance to the creation of an ideal society.
As to the nature of God, He is seen as a benevolent Father who is never angry at sin or seriously concerned in any way with our failings, which are all perfectly excusable. He will simply forgive. But as Albertus Pieters long ago pointed out, forgiveness is a much more difficult thing from God's point of view than it is from man's point of view.
Disobedience always requires sanctions. Unless there is a penalty for disobedience, obedience becomes a matter of total indifference. * If any law can be broken with impunity, it is an unnecessary law and should be abolished. Sin and penalty are riveted together, or sin is not sin but merely a harmless alternative. But we live in an ordered universe, a cosmos, which has been designed with two governing systems of law, one of which we call natural (or physical) and the other moral (or spiritual). It is difficult for us who are normally far more aware of these natural laws to realize that there really is another balancing system of laws which are of even greater significance because they are eternal and unbreakable, and not merely temporal and variable.
* A. W. Pink wisely observed. "Precept without penalty is simply advice, or at most a request: and rewards without punishments are nothing but inducements" (Gleanings from Scripture: Man s Total Depravity, p. 306).We know by experience that disobeying natural laws involves penalties, but to a surprising degree the consequences are not always fatal. We lose our balance and tumble to our hurt, but we may completely recover. To fall in respect to the spiritual order is a far more serious matter, however, because it is fatal. The penalty of falling over may be a wound which will heal: the penalty of sin is death. In this second world order there are no small slips that are comparatively harmless corresponding to the physical order. The temporal penalty in the natural context becomes an eternal one in the spiritual context.
We observe this fundamental distinction in the fact of miracle. Whenever it pleases Him, God can superimpose on the natural order another set of laws, not hitherto known to us, which we call miracle. The Bible is filled with such instances, as for example when both the Lord Jesus and Peter walked on the water. But we do not have any evidence whatever of the suspension of a single principle altering the terms upon which the moral order of the universe is based. It is clear therefore that the moral order is far more exacting and immutable than the natural order. The moral law evidently cannot be "bent," it is non-adjustable. This implies that it is also far more fundamental, and any tampering with it would be more disastrous for the whole universe than would upsetting the cohesive bonds within the atom or removing gravitational forces, for example. The universe would cease to exist as a system of order, and this apparently would apply equally in the physical world as in the spiritual world. But we give little thought in daily life to the consequences of our moral failures.
The set of laws which we commonly suppose we can violate with least danger are the laws which in actual fact exact the most lasting and inescapable penalties. There are several reasons for the little respect which we pay to this awesome fact. One is that breaking the moral laws of the universe as a rule imposes a slow-acting penalty. In the physical order, if we step blithely over the edge of a cliff we are likely to pay the penalty a few seconds later. In the moral order it may be years before we experience any rebuff. "The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small," as Longfellow said in his poem "Retribution."
In the physical order it appears that with God all things are possible (Matt. 19:26), or to put it slightly differently, an almost infinite variety of adjustments can be made. But in the moral order no such flexibility exists. There are many things that even God is constitutionally unable to do--even if He wanted to. Of course if He wanted to do some of these things, He would not be God. God cannot lie, for example (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). God cannot countenance iniquity (Hab. 1:13). Man can do these things, but God cannot. It looks as though God should be able, if He wishes, to dismiss man's disobedience and rebellion as of little consequence. He would then seem to be magnifying his benevolence by simply forgiving anyone who regrets his sin and admits his faults. But it is necessary to bear in mind that men may be sorry for entirely the wrong reasons. Sorrow is not always "godly" sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10): it may be remorse which is only a form of self-commiseration when it is discovered that things have not worked out as expected. This is not godly sorrow for sin but disappointment over failure where one had anticipated success. Such forms of repentance accomplish nothing towards the reformation of character; they only bear witness to the crumbling of false hopes. In Judas' case it led to suicide (Matt. 27:3-5), which is an illustration of "the sorrow of the world," a sorrow that, as 2 Corinthians 7:10 also points out, "worketh death." P. Carnegie Simpson in his book The Fact of Christ has observed that there is really no comparison between forgiveness in human relationships and the forgiveness of God. "Forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems." (3) The reason for this fundamental difference in the two situations is that we are not responsible for sustaining either the physical or the moral fabric of the universe. When we overlook faults in one another, the fabric of the universe is not fatally disturbed. With God the situation is quite otherwise. If He should deliberately set aside these laws, the universe would collapse.
Pieters speaks of the "oughtness" of things and points out rightly that if God arbitrarily forgave He would destroy his own creation entirely in its most important constituent. To do this just once would be fatal, let alone to do it for millions of human beings who have merely repented when they realized they had "backed the wrong horse." It is no answer to say that the sinner has repented, for what is there about repentance that cancels the oughtness of the penalty? The criminal who maims an innocent man for life cannot compensate merely by repenting and saying, "I'm sorry," no matter how sincere he is.
To preserve the moral fabric of the universe there must be penalty. That is why God sent his Son into the world, that the whole moral fabric might be preserved, while yet providing a proper basis for the remission of sins. The only basis for such remission is that the Lord Jesus Christ bore the penalty in his own Person. But if any individual rejects this sole solution to the problem of forgiveness, then there is no other substitute penalty available. He must pay the penalty himself. Having rejected the only ground for forgiveness which preserves the moral order, there is nothing left for the guilty party except "a certain fearful looking for judgment" (Heb. 10:27). The word rendered fearful in this passage means, more literally, "terrible." The penalty for disregarding the natural laws of the universe is severe enough; the penalty for disregarding the moral laws of this universe is terrible--always.
Pieters wrote: "Some people think that because a man ought to forgive another man freely if he repents, therefore God ought to do the same." But the context is entirely different. Man is not responsible for maintaining the fabric of the moral universe; God is. We can forgive offenses when others repent, and we should, because we have similarly offended. But we are both penitents in this context, and forgiveness means little more than agreeing to make allowance for one another. We cannot really forgive in such a way as to cancel the offense from the record as though it had never occurred. Only God can forgive in such a way that the order of the universe remains intact--and He does so only because He Himself in the Person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, paid the penalty required to preserve that moral fabric.
At the same time, how could there be any reward unless there is also punishment? The one is inconceivable without the other. To reward one above another is to inflict punishment on the other by lesser reward and if all are equally rewarded, none are rewarded at all. One cannot plead for a universal amnesty and at the same time promise reward for good behavior, for the concept of good behavior implies a difference between individuals which a universal amnesty would ignore. Universalism which is based on the assumption of a general spirit of bonhomie in which both God and man equally disregard the issues of righteousness and sin is not really a promise of happiness for everyone but a denial of any absolute values of any kind, a heaven that is a moral vacuum and without character. Such a heaven would be meaningless and worse than earthly existence where, for all its tragedies, there are at least recognizable values because there are differences in reward.
Now a subterfuge which is often appealed to by evangelists who are anything but Universalists in their eschatology is to try to separate the sinner from his sin. The same principle has been adopted by Universalists who deny punishment. The idea is that God loves everyone equally and that what He hates is only their sin, which He views as something divorced from their persons. If He loves everyone but everyone is a sinner, then we must assume that the sinner is the object of his love while only the sinner's sin is the object of his displeasure. This looks like a neat arrangement, but is it really so?
In actual fact this arrangement creates an impossible situation whether it is a principle applied to punishment or reward. For when the wicked are punished we have to suppose that they stand aside as spectators watching some kind of substance which represents their sinfulness being punished while they themselves are in no way injured. If this were the case, then obviously the rich man in Luke 16:24 should not have asked Lazarus to cool his tongue but some kind of impersonal something which was outside of himself and associated only with the evils for which that tongue was responsible. But this is not what he actually did; he was himself tormented. It is impossible to conceive of the punishment of a man's sin without the man's suffering the punishment himself, for it is impossible to separate the sinner from his sin. It follows inevitably that God cannot at one and the same time love the sinner and hate his sin. If He loves the sinner it can only be because the sinner has been separated, that is, absolved, from his sin.
And what has been said of the punishment of the sinner manifestly applies with equal force to the rewarding of the saint. It is difficult to see how the redeemed could stand back and watch while his good deeds are rewarded without relation to himself as a person. In what objective sense would the reward be presented? We cannot ask, "To whom ?" If we ask, "To what is the reward presented?" are we asking a meaningful question?
Surprisingly enough, Universalism creates more problems than does annihilation. For one thing our sense of justice is more severely damaged. Annihilation is at least a penalty, and though annihilation seems far more severe, the penalty of the penalty of annihilation is far less than the penalty of Universalism. For as we have seen. bland forgiveness is tantamount to throwing away the operating principle which governs the universe. Moreover, annihilation might be considered a more merciful form of judgment than unending torment. If there must be judgment, and one has the choice of unending torment or annihilation, there is little doubt which would be objectively preferable. Universalism cuts the Gordian knot by eliminating judgment, but only at the cost of destroying the whole--including the concept of reward.
We find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, saving the benevolence of God (by a universal amnesty) at the expense of his integrity, or saving the justice of God (by annihilation of the wicked) at the expense of his wisdom and foresight--for surely to have created untold millions for extinction does challenge the worthiness of the original plan.
3. Limited Punishment
The classic passage which seems difficult to interpret in any way other than by assuming a limited period of punishment followed by release is found in Matthew 5:25, 26:
Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him: if at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.Less unequivocal but with similar implications is Luke 12:46-48:
The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, in an hour when he is not aware [i.e., not expecting] and will cut him asunder and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord's will and prepared not, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will demand the more.There are significant parallelisms between these two warnings. The time of salvation, of escape from punishment for debts, is now. "Now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2), and to delay is to run the risk of being caught in debt and unable to pay, and suddenly cast into prison. Once one is delivered to the judge, the consequences are inevitable. There is no question of amnesty.
Moreover, the penalty is suited to the measure of guilt. Transposing the story into the terms of the present discussion, we note that those who have heard the Gospel and rejected it would appear to be in a more serious position than those who have not heard it (Luke 12:48). There is an adjustment of penalty under the analogy of many or few stripes, a circumstance of particular importance since the number of stripes allowed as a maximum by law was only forty. Forty stripes must have been frightful torment and seemingly endless, since the guilty man appears to have been almost cut to pieces. Clearly, twenty stripes would not only be a less terrible punishment but it would also be shorter--and five stripes even shorter still. To speak of eternal punishment makes this kind of analogy inappropriate. There is the implied assurance that while there can be no shortening of the term it is not interminable, since the offending party by implication is to be released when he has paid the uttermost farthing.
The only alternative is to assume that in both parables the Lord was confining Himself to warnings about civil disobedience and the probable consequences. The Jewish people were at this time particularly grieved by the petty regulations imposed upon them daily by the Romans. These regulations involved such demeaning tasks as being forced to carry the baggage of a soldier whenever the soldier either could not manage it alone or did not feel disposed to do so. The assistance of any Jew could be demanded, and he was required by law to walk one mile. There were many aggravating taxes, the worst feature of which was that they were imposed in order to enable the aggravators to continue their aggravations! Small civil disobediences must have been frequent, a constant source of friction and ill-feeling between the oppressors and the oppressed. Both sides became exasperated finally to the point of open warfare. But was this really the intent of the Lord's words? It seems unlikely in either passage.
We thus have here some potential evidence of a more moderate view of future punishment than is commonly supposed to be reflected in many other passages. Yet the passages used to support everlasting torment are both very specific and very numerous, if we are reading them correctly. It would seem that these two passages hardly carry sufficient weight against so many with contrary implications, but they cannot be ignored. One way to resolve the apparent conflict would be to attach to the more numerous passages a different meaning by reinterpreting the significance of such words as ever, everlasting, eternal, and eternity.
But it seems difficult to justify the correction of so many passages to bring them into line with such a small number that appear to contradict them. It has often been said that the "plain reader" could not help but conclude from a study of the New Testament that the punishment of the unsaved is to be eternal in the sense of endless. And although certain versions have attempted by a retranslation of these four crucial words to give a different color to the statements in which they occur, the impression remains that only by a form of special pleading can the alternative sense be maintained. The Church as a whole has remained uneasy about admitting such an alternative even though almost every child of God would welcome it if it could be clearly established. It is not merely a kind of natural bias which favors a form of vindictive punishment that creates this resistance, nor is it only long-established habit of thought, though both these factors may play a part. There is some intuitive feeling that to introduce hope of release is to remove much of the sanction of the demand which God makes upon his creatures for obedience. Yet many thoughtful people feel that any kind of obedience which results from fear of the consequences is not the kind of obedience God is seeking.
We might also argue from what we know of the justice of God and his expressed "delight" with the sons of men (Prov. 8:31) even in their rebellious state, that there would be no element of vindictiveness, of penalty imposed without benefit to the offender. Just as we recognize levels of responsibility for misconduct, depending upon the privileges of the offender, and adjust our system of penalties accordingly as Luke 12:46-48 clearly indicates, will not God do the same! But how can He do so if that awful equalizer of punishment, endlessness, is applied to all indiscriminately? * Few stripes or many stripes become meaningless terms. And it seems rather unnecessary for the Lord to have said anything about coming out thence (Matt. 5:26) if no such final release from prison was either contemplated or possible.
* According to A. T. Scofield, in a paper before the Victoria Institute in London, "Endless time was never a part of the Jewish figurative teaching in the Talmud concerning Gehenna (which was the valley of Hinnom). It always included the hope of exit after a longer or shorter period" ("Time and Eternity," Transactions of Victoria Institute, LIX 289).It has been suggested that the rich man who called across the great gulf to Lazarus (Luke 16:22-24) had already experienced some measure of change for the better in his own heart. Did he not, perhaps for the first time, show some concern for his brothers that they should be warned (vv. 27, 28)? It does suggest the emergence of some very slight improvement of character. Is it so very unlikely that the torments of hell, in addition to being punitive, should also be in some measure corrective?
In our culture we do not have much faith in corrective punishment, but in some respects we may be exceptional in this. The Russian people, for example, seem to be very differently constituted. Under conditions of suffering that we find appalling, such as are described by Solzhenitsyn, the Russian spirit is frequently neither embittered nor hardened but only chastened. Perhaps we do not punish severely enough. The more we try to alleviate the aspect of penalty in our prisons, the more rebellious our prisoners seem to become. A good friend of mine in the United States once said to me, "I believe when we punish a child we must make the punishment severe enough to bring real tears. Unless the child weeps, he seems to harden his heart and simply becomes more rebellious." Perhaps this is the secret. We have been heading in the wrong direction. And perhaps the torments of hell, however they are induced, whether by self-accusation or by other means, are not intended to embitter but to chasten. The spirit must not be merely rebuked, it must be broken. "A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise" (Ps. 51:17).
The fire, then, would be both to consume and to purge. Even in Nature there are many circumstances in which fire achieves both purposes at once: the dross being flammable is consumed and removed, and the gold is refined. It may not be without significance that fire, not frost, is the agent of God's chastening because, although both can be equally painful and under certain conditions of test almost indistinguishable, only fire can both purge and refine at one and the same time.
This, of course, looks like the classic Purgatory. But such is not the case. Purgatory was for the redeemed in Roman Catholic view, for those not completely sanctified when they died and who needed this extra cleansing to prepare them for heaven. The believer is only partially covered by the Lord's sacrifice and is therefore called upon to endure some of the penalty himself, the penalty of unconfessed sins which must be atoned for in Purgatory. The heathen were not candidates for Purgatory but for hell, from which there was no hope of release.
But the view we are considering is not this at all. What we are speaking of here is the punishment of those who have rejected the Lord's sacrifice altogether. These must pay the whole price themselves, and will not come out thence till the penalty is paid in full.
But could it be that as one by one these tormented but purified souls come to the end, they like the Prodigal Son arrive once more in the Father's presence as spiritually innocent, not born again but purged of the effects of the Fall and ready to begin a new process of development$in spiritual life? It would not be necessary to assume that the fires of hell have completely neutralized the individual's prior development during life. An individual with the intellectual capacity of an Einstein would retain those capacities, the purging process relating only to spiritual and not intellectual development. For there is no reason to suppose that death will destroy the trained mind of the sinner any more than it will destroy the trained mind of the saint. Perhaps finally the sinner will be willing to bow his knee and acknowledge Jesus Christ not as Savior, but as Lord, to the glory of the Father (Phil 2:10, 11). When the last sinner has paid the full penalty and been cleansed by fire, then God could become "all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28) and the last enemy death will be abolished (1 Cor. 15:26), since there will be no more creatures separated from the Creator.
Would it be altogether improper to suppose that, in the process of purification or perhaps in the process of re-education and rebuilding, the Lord's people will have a work to do, these returned prodigals becoming their spiritual charges? There might well be a divine matching in such a process, the simple caring for the simple and the more sophisticated for the more sophisticated. Each prodigal will then be an appropriate charge of a child of God whose personal history has best fitted him or her to foster that particular individual.
There are passages of Scripture which might be taken to support such a view. For example, in Isaiah 49:8-10 the following words are addressed to the saints:
Thus saith the Lord, in an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages [RSV has here to apportion the desolate heritages]; that thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor the sun smite them for He that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall He guide them.Similarly in Isaiah 57:15, 16 we find the words:
For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. For I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always angry for the spirit should fail before Me, and the souls which I have made.It almost seems as though the Lord was aware of the possibility of the destruction of the soul in despair, and would not have it so. We do not have here the sense of an angry Judge who is vindictive, but a Judge whose perfect justice is nevertheless not without a strain of mercy. Is it possible then that the Lord through the saints will thus make known to principalities and powers in heavenly places the wisdom of God according to his eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 3:10, 11)?
But, of course, this is far beyond what Berkouwer calls the "boundaries" of Scripture as presently understood, and must be treated with great caution until (and if) God confirms or repudiates it by fresh illumination on the matter from some hitherto unsuspectedly relevant portion of his Word. For the Word of God continually expands our understanding and is in turn broadened in its relevance as we bring forth out of its treasures things new and old (Matt. 13:52).
One of the most godly of the early Greek Fathers was a man named Origen (c. 185-254), who, as far as we know at the present time, was probably the first Christian to write a commentary on any extended portion of Scripture. He was also one of the first to set forth any form of systematic theology. He was a most prolific writer and the number of works credited to him ranges from six thousand reported by Epiphanius, two thousand by Pamphilus, to eight hundred reported by Jerome. The decline in reported numbers may reflect the progressive loss of manuscripts. One of his most important works is titled De Principiis.
Origen addressed himself to the present issue in De Principiis (III. vi. 3) as follows:
I am of the opinion that the expression by which God is said to be "all in all" means that He is "all" in each individual person. Now He will be "all" in each individual in this way: when everything that any rational understanding, cleansed from the dregs of any sort of vice, and with every cloud of wickedness completely swept away, can either feel, or understand, or think, will be wholly God; and when it will no longer behold or retain anything other than God, but when God will be the measure and standard of all its movements; then God will be..."all," for there will no longer be any distinction between good and evil, since evil nowhere exists: for God is all things, and to Him no evil is near nor will there be any longer a desire to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on the part of him who is always in the possession of good, and to whom God is all.Admittedly, Origen tended to be speculative, but his devotion and scholarship were unquestionable and he remained for twenty-eight years the head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria. His father was martyred in 202, during the persecution of Septimus Severus, and Origen wishing to follow his father was prevented from doing so only when his mother took all his clothes and hid them! We thus have the interesting situation in which a young man in the heroic devotion of his spirit was willing to throw away his life, but not his dignity. At any rate, it is clear that the problem of the final destiny of the non-elect troubled the more thoughtful in the Church of God then as it still does today.
So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him "all" and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is "all in all." And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be all in all.
So we have yet to consider the final alternative. It is the alternative which has always seemed to reassert itself in the end. One reason perhaps is that those who adopt any one of the other three alternative views have in the long run tended to depart steadily from the faith. Yet these alternatives may not have been the cause of their departure but a symptom of a certain attitude of mind which places more confidence in common sense than in revelation. In his book Probation and Punishment (p. 273), S. M. Vernon, without specifying which kind of Universalism he is referring to, quotes an anonymous writer, with approval, as follows:
The history of Universalism shows that it began in this country [USA] with an acceptance of orthodoxy on all points but that of the eternity of future punishment, and that gradually it proceeded to reject the deity of Christ, the Trinity, vicarious atonement, and the entire evangelical scheme. Is it wise to leap into a gulf until we know how deep it is.The warning is one we do well to heed, yet not perhaps to the extent of being entirely discouraged from constantly re-examining the issue, for there are surely yet many things to be discovered from the Word of God. And it could be, after all, that the everlastingness of punishment belongs to its effects, not its duration, as Dean Farrar suggested.
4. Everlasting Punishment
The great majority of Christian readers have to depend upon a translation of the New Testament, being unable to follow the original Greek. Merely to set forth the many passages of Scripture in which the concept of everlasting punishment is predicated on the use of such words as ever, everlasting, and eternal, all of which are translations of the original Greek word aion in some form or another, serves no useful purpose, since the meaning of this word aion is still a matter of dispute among scholars. To refer to these translations begs the issue, for these translations reflect a theological bias and it is possible that they may not have genuinely captured the intent of the original. All the translations that have achieved general acceptance whether in English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Latin, or any other Indo-European language (with the exception of Greek, of course), have assumed that the pejorative words in the original convey the idea of everlastingness.
To make the assumption of everlasting punishment is natural enough because the same qualifying term is used for life. The saddest thing about life is its transitoriness. Indeed, since all things seem to grow old and die, permanence becomes a virtue in itself in most cases. Not to die seems naturally to be an essential characteristic of any ideal existence anyway. So whatever the nature of the life that the Lord promises, it must at least have endlessness or it is not ideal at all. A more perfect kind of life that is nevertheless transitory would be far from ideal. Endlessness is a sine qua non. When the Old Testament speaks of God as eternal, commentators have often pointed out that the writer's object was to comfort the reader with the assurance that while man is like the grass of the field in the brevity of his existence, God remains. God is always there. It is not so much that God has endless existence as it is that He abides unchanged (Heb. 13:8) through all the changing scenes of personal life and human history.
When the word eternal is applied to life in the same sense that vvit is applied to the being of God, we must surely have something much more in mind than simply its everlastingness. While it is essential that such a life should not be transitory, it is even more important that it should have the right quality and depth to distinguish it from the shallowness of our present life. The Lord's promise that it would be life abundant (John 10:10) seems to outweigh the implications made elsewhere that it will never end. It is perhaps our preoccupation with length rather than depth that makes us equate the word eternal with endlessness. All our lifetime we live in fear of death, so that it seems essential in our view that eternal life should be endless, and undoubtedly it is. We need only remind ourselves of the Lord's words, "He that liveth and believeth in Me shall never die" (John 11:26). But mere continuance cannot be the chief characteristic of the life which is in Christ Jesus. Indeed, continuance may not be the essence but the result of the quality of that life. So long as it is perfect it is endless. Endlessness inheres in its perfection, not its perfection in it endlessness. What is perfect in the sight of God is imperishable. It is not perfect because it is imperishable, but imperishable because it is perfect. It is only the imperfect that must be perishable in the very nature of things from God's point of view.
We ought to expect, therefore, that if a single word is used to describe life and punishment, this single word must have two different meanings, since the two modes of existence are fundamentally different. We cannot properly speak of eternal life and eternal punishment if the word in both cases has the same value, for what is perfect cannot be equated even antithetically with what is imperfect. * If only one word is available (aion) and it must be applied to the being of God, to the nature of the new life in Christ, and to the torments of the wicked in hell, it must of necessity have several different meanings. It is therefore a word which is colored by the noun it qualifies, and not the reverse as we tend to assume.
* With reference to everlasting punishment. A. T. Scofield, in "Time and Eternity," a paper presented before the Victoria Institute of London in 1927, suggests that the idea of eternity is not duration but changelessness. Thus in relation to everlasting or eternal punishment the essential feature is not one of endlessness but of unchangingness. The idea will appeal to those who see such punishment as endless, for although changelessness is not to be equated with endlessness it seems to include it. On the other hand, it is conceivable that something might be changeless only while it lasts, as the note held by a violin or a trumpet or a piano. In fact it seems almost impossible to settle this issue on the basis of the meaning of the word which is normally considered to be the key. (See Transactions of Victoria Institute, LIX:287).A study of the Hebrew and Greek words which are often translated ever, everlasting, and so forth, tends to support the view that these translations are more in the nature of interpretations. Now the original words in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New ('olam and aion) are undoubtedly equivalents in every way, so that the meaning of the New Testament aion must be determined not from Classical Greek usage but from the Hebrew usage of the word 'olam. We have in certain respects a much better knowledge of the nuances of meaning in ancient Greek than we do in ancient Hebrew. But this knowledge can be misleading because the Greek of the New Testament had its meaning stamped upon it not from ancient Greek but by the Jewish scholars who somewhere around 250 B.C. undertook to make an authoritative translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. By the time of our Lord this translation had in fact achieved something of the stature of the King James Version in the English-speaking world, and it had a profound influence on the literary forms and vocabulary of the New Testament.
One of the greatest authorities on this Jewish-Greek authorized version known to us as the Septuagint was Henry B. Swete (1835-1917). He considered that the New Testament phraseology had a Hebrew rather than a Classical Greek source, the Greek of the Septuagint which clearly underlies it being a special-kind of Greek created to reflect Hebrew thought transposed into a Greek tongue. The New Testament is full of Hebraisms spelled out in Greek in a way that is foreign to Classical Greek, even as many of the common Greek words received new and highly specialized meanings.
As we have noted, the Hebrew word frequently translated everlasting is 'olam. It occurs approximately 420 times in the Old Testament. Of these occurrences it is translated some 350 times as ever, everlasting, and so forth (267 times as ever, 64 as everlasting, 15 as evermore, and less often eternal, forever or always, etc.). The Septuagint used the Greek aion to represent 'olam 372 times, and employed circumlocution for the remainder. It is clear therefore that 'olam and aion are genuine equivalents in the Scriptures. Aion is the word employed throughout the New Testament to convey the same basic concept as 'olam. The meaning of aion in the New Testament, whether applied to life or to punishment, hinges therefore in the final analysis not upon Classical Greek usage, where we might follow either Plato or Aristotle who expounded upon its use and came to antithetical conclusions, but upon the Hebrew, where the concept of everlasting seems to be almost, if not quite, absent.
The nearest approach in Hebrew to the idea of eternity, of time stretched to infinity, is not in the Hebrew word 'olam per se but in 'olam followed by the compound le (to) and 'adh which is approximately equivalent to the English word beyond. Whenever the Septuagint translators met in the Hebrew text with the compound form olam le 'adh, they tended to use the intensive form of the Greek word aion, which is achieved by repeating it, a device coming through into English as for "ever and ever." Comparatively few occurrences of this Hebrew compound form appear in the text, a circumstance which appears to reflect the relative disinterest of the Jewish people in so distant a subject. The Hebrew mind was experience-oriented and very practical in its religious aspirations.
As to the precise meaning of the word 'olam, there is still no certainty. According to Brown, Driver, and Briggs (Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament), its root is dubious. Basically it appears to mean an age of indefinite length, indefinite but not infinite, though as a rule long, or "of old." In so far as a man may make a covenant to last as long as he lives, a covenant of a lifetime, so the word came to mean essentially (as far as the individual was concerned) a covenant for ever. But this was understood in the practical framework of a single life. It meant essentially unbreakable, not to be canceled, perpetual in this sense. Applied to divine things it achieved an expanded meaning and has the sense of lastingness. Yet the concept of eternity does not seem to be consciously explicit in such usage. A compact lasts as long as there are two partners to it. If one of them should die, it is automatically terminated. There are many situations in the Old Testament in which for historical reasons permanence was not in view, yet the word olam was used as though it were. A city which was to be utterly destroyed was to be punished for ever. Again we are reminded of Dean Farrar's statement that punishment might be terminated but the effects could be everlasting.
In many cases the idea of a specific period of time is clearly intended. The Book of Daniel was particularly important for its influence on later Jewish eschatology, especially in so far as it carried the promise of the coming Messiah and the Kingdom He was to establish, the Golden Age to come. Those who were to take part in this Golden Age were encouraged to look forward to the "life of the age to come," a hope which was translated in the Septuagint as aio-nian life; and this phrase appears in the New Testament where it is rendered into English as "eternal life." If a distinction is allowed between the words eternal and everlasting, such life is more accurately termed eternal than everlasting, for eternal is more qualitative, and is nearer to the original than is everlasting which places the emphasis upon quantity. It is perhaps significant that in Matthew 25:46, which employs the same word aion twice, first with reference to punishment and then with reference to life, the King James Version has nevertheless made a distinction by rendering this passage thus: "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment but the righteous into life eternal." In many modern translations Matthew 25:46 is not translated this way, the word eternal being used in both connections. One has the feeling that translators are shying away from the word everlasting. According to the concordance the Revised Standard Version has not employed the word in the New Testament at all.
In their rendering of Matthew 25:46 it seems the translators of the King James Version made a distinction between punishment and life, applying to the first a quantity (everlasting) but to the second a quality (eternal). Consciously or unconsciously many people feel happier with the word eternal, simply because it avoids placing the emphasis on the time element. But by adopting the word everlasting instead of the word eternal in Matthew 25:46 an effort seems to have been made to lay emphasis on the lastingness of punishment as though to distinguish it from the quality of life. This shows in a small way how differently we tend to view the two destinies, yet very few people reading this passage are aware of this inconsistency.
In the non-canonical books the word 'olam is often used with a clearly limited meaning even in connection with life. Thus in Enoch 10:10 we read of certain rebellious men whose vain hope was to enjoy "eternal life," which is then spelled out more specifically as being life for five hundred years. In the same chapter a man who is to be punished "forever" (v. 5) is, in verse 12, more specifically to be punished for a period equivalent to seventy generations. In Enoch 14:5 this is spelled out as being "for all the days of the world."
Now the same uncertainties meet us when we examine the Greek equivalent aion. (Ref. 4) Classical Greek usage doesn't help us. Commonly the Greeks distinguished between aion and kronos by saying that kronos was "time" as such, whereas aion was "a fragment of time." However, Plato disagreed and deliberately reversed the two meanings, holding that aion meant timelessness, eternity in which there were no divisions into days or weeks or years, while kronos was divisible into measurable units. As a matter of fact Plato elaborated his understanding of the word aion by saying that it stood for three ideas: (1) timelessness; (2) what is unchanging; and (3) what is perfect. But then Aristotle came along and said that the opposite was true: kronos was the abstract concept time, whereas aion was a fragment, that is, a time.
The translators of the Septuagint do not seem to have been guided at all by any such refined distinctions. And in the New Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the two were sometimes combined, as in Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy 1:9, and Titus 1:2, where we read of "the ages of time," which is rendered into English as "before the world began." One has the feeling that what is intended is a sense of the dim and distant past, but there is little or no precision in the use of these terms that would justify dogmatism. The general sense when such phrases are applied to the future seems to be much the same: time stretched-out indeed, but not necessarily endless.
As Hermann Sasse of Erlangen points out in his treatment of aion in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the use of reduplication merges the idea of a fragment of time "into that of a long but limited stretch of time....At this point we are confronted by the remarkable fact that in the Bible the same word aion is used to indicate two things which are antithetical, namely, the eternity of God and the duration [transitoriness] of the world." (5)
That the word often has a clearly defined sense of restricted time is amply demonstrated by its use with such prepositions as before and during, by qualifying words such as the former, this, the future, and by phrases such as "the end of the age(s)," and so on. Indeed, there are many verses in which the word aion cannot mean "eternity." For example, the mystery of the Church was not hidden from eternity (Eph. 3:9), nor have the prophets been speaking since eternity (Luke 1:70), nor can one suppose that a man who had just received his sight would say, "Since eternity was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one born blind" (John 9:32). In each case the intention is clearly not "eternity," but "within the memory of man" or "for a very long time" or simply "since the world began." On the basis of such references quite elaborate schemes of ages have been devised by various commentators, each age being viewed as distinct and having a beginning and an ending, some of which are already past and at least one of which is yet to come, equated with the millennium.
It is not unnatural with such flexibility of meaning that the word should sometimes appear to be used in a contradictory way. In the apocryphal Testament of Issachar, the phrase hypnos aionios is translated as "an eternal sleep" from which nevertheless the sleepers are to be awakened in due course. (6) If when referring to the past the word aion cannot really mean everlasting, it appears unwise to assume it does when referring to the future, even though it seems obviously to do so when we find it used to qualify life in Christ or the nature of God Himself.
But if the meaning is not one of quantity but quality, the situation is clarified in that the time element may not be the writer's concern. That God is everlasting is certainly true but if his existence is to be described solely in those terms, the Hebrew needs some form of expression other than merely the use of the word 'olam, and correspondingly the Greek needs some word other than aion. It may be that the New Testament writers wanted chiefly to emphasize the essential difference between the tentative and unsatisfactory nature of this life on one hand, and the quality of the life that is in Christ Jesus on the other. Accordingly, following Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament prophets, especially Daniel, these New Testament writers associated the life in Christ with the life of the Messianic age to come and thus adopted the same terminology as used in the Book of Daniel--aionian life, which we have translated "eternal life."
In many ways these ancient people, both Jews and Gentiles, thought more deeply than we commonly do about the nature of existence in the world to come, and about the being of God in relation to the passage of time. Though Augustine stood at the intellectual pinnacle of his age, his wonderful thoughts on these matters were not entirely without precedent. Although that age seemed barbarous enough, it was by no means an intellectual vacuum. The Jewish philosophers like Philo often came quite close to a position similar to that adopted today regarding the nature of time as we now have begun to understand it. But Augustine's conception of the eternity of God is certainly remarkable enough in present light. He wrote for example (Confessions, XI. 13):
Thy years stand together at the same time...nor are some pushed aside by those that follow, for they pass not....Thy years are one Day and thy Day is not like our sequence of days but is Today....Thy Today is eternity.What eternity means with respect to the being of God is not unendingness so much as "now-ness," what Luther termed totum simul, "the whole at once," or "total immediacy." (7) What we experience as now and, furthermore, is experienced without hope of future change, is to all intents and purposes experienced as unending. Although such matters are certainly beyond our comprehension, we must surely suppose that God does not experience the present with any consciousness of an ending to it. It is this absence of consciousness of the end that seems to be the nearest we can get to eternity. Yet in times of intense suffering which in anticipation we know will come to an end, there may at the time be no conscious hope of an end so that it becomes unbearably endless while it lasts. The present is then all that we experience and since we carry the present with us there is no conscious passage of time and suffering becomes timeless. To all intents and purposes it becomes unending. Perhaps in some such direction as this we must go if we are to understand in any meaningful way what eternal punishment really means. And the more severe the punishment, the more endless it must appear to be.
If the word olam determines the meaning of the word aion in the New Testament, we may note only that it has apparently a basic meaning of "hiddenness," which when applied to the passage of time means only undefined as to its length. Perhaps the word eternal is to be preferred to the word everlasting because it leaves us a little more free of the connotation of endlessness as its chief characteristic. Whether 'olam and aion mean everlasting is a matter which we cannot determine with certainty. When the Hebrew le adh is appended to the word 'olam we probably come very close to the idea of time so extended as to reach beyond any conception of its magnitude. Remembering that the Septuagint translators adopted the policy of rendering this Hebraism into Greek form as "unto the ages of ages," a phrase which comes into our English versions as "for ever and ever," we can suppose only that the mind of the Spirit is conveying to us that punishment is just as lasting as the Hebrew 'olam le adh suggests to our minds--awful enough, whether everlasting or not, and beyond conceiving.
1. Quoted in J. W. N. Sullivan, The Limitations
of Science, p. 175.
2. "Eternal State and Death" in Wycliffe Encyclopedia, ed. C. F. Pfeiffer, Vol. I, p. 553.
3. Quoted in Albertus Pieters, Divine Lord and Saviour, p. 117.
4. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 1, pp. 197 f.
5. Ibid., p. 202.
6. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 442.
7. T. F. Torrance, Space, Time, and Incarnation, p. 34.