Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 4)

But what about hell? This is the question we all want answered. Did not Jesus and his Apostles explicitly warn us of the dire consequences of disbelief and impenitence? Did they not plainly teach that those who reject the divine offer of mercy will suffer eternal punishment? Universalists must provide plausible readings of the key New Testament texts that speak of Gehenna if they ever hope to persuade their fellow Christians that the omnipotent love of God will triumph in the hearts of every human being.

 

Matthew 25:31-46

What is, Thomas Talbott asks, the didactic point of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats? Did Jesus really intend to convey to his hearers divinely revealed information about the eschatological destinies of the righteous and wicked? Even a cursory reading of the parable compels a negative answer. As Talbott observes, the heart of the parable is its surprising twist—the solidaric identification of the Son of Man with the poor and dispossessed. Like all of Jesus’ parables, its purpose is not to provide details about the afterlife but to elicit a conversion of heart and behavior.

Nonetheless, Jesus did say that the wicked will be condemned to “eternal punishment” (kolasin aiōnion) and the righteous rewarded with “eternal life” (zōēn aiōnion). “Why suppose,” Talbott asks, “that on either occasion of its use in Matthew 25:46 the Greek adjective aiōnios, which many of our English Bibles translate as ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting,’ implies unending temporal duration?”

As many commentators have pointed out, its literal meaning is something like age enduring or perhaps that which pertains to an age; and in some contexts, at least, that literal meaning seems to preclude the idea of unending temporal duration. When Paul spoke of a “mystery that was kept secret for long ages (chronois aiōniois) but is now disclosed” (Rom 16:25-26—my emphasis), he clearly supposed that an age-enduring mystery or a mystery that endures for “eternal times” can come to an end; and if an age-enduring mystery can come to an end, so also, one might argue, can an age-enduring punishment. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 79)

In other words, aiōnion by itself does not necessarily imply eternity, as we typically understand it, yet the overwhelming number of English translations render the word “eternal” or “everlasting.” Why? Many exegetes have been persuaded by an argument attributed to St Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century:

In one place the Lord declares that “these shall go to eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46), and in another place He sends some “to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41); and speaks elsewhere of the fire of gehenna, specifying that it is a place “where their worm dies not, and the fire is not extinguished” (Mk. 9:44-49) and even of old and through the Prophet it was foretold of some that “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be extinguished” (Isa. 66:24). Although these and the like declarations are to be found in numerous places of divinely inspired Scripture, it is one of the artifices of the devil, that many forgetting these and other such statements and utterances of the Lord, ascribe an end to punishment, so that they can sin the more boldly. If, however, there were going to be an end of eternal punishment, there would likewise be an end to eternal life. If we cannot conceive of an end to that life, how are we to suppose there will be and end to eternal punishment? The qualification of “eternal” is ascribed equally to both of them. “For these are going,” He says, “into eternal punishment; the just, however, into eternal life” (Mt. 25:46). If we profess these things we must recognize that the “he shall be flogged with many stripes” and the “he shall be flogged with few stripes” refer not to an end but to a distinction of punishment. (Rules Briefly Treated 267)

If eonian life is eternal and unending, then eonian punishment must also be eternal and unending—and vice versa. Talbott, however, does not find this argument compelling. It forgets how adjectives work. “Adjectives,” he explains, “often vary in meaning, sometimes greatly, when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things” (p. 80); and there can be no question that eonian life and eonian punishment belong to two different categories of things. We rightly believe that eonian life is everlasting because it is life in and with the eternal God; but we cannot simply assume that the same everlastingness is to be attributed to the eonian punishment. A tip-off here is our Lord’s use of kolasis, which typically signifies remedial or corrective punishment, as opposed to a purely retributive punishment (timōria). Whereas eonian life with God “is clearly an end in itself—that is, valuable or worth having for its own sake—the punishment (kolasis) is just as clearly a means to an end” (p. 81). If the reading of kolasis as corrective punishment is correct, then that end can only be reconciliation with God. Talbott, however, recognizes that Christ’s choice of kolasis alone is not decisive. “The language of correction and that of retribution often get completely mixed up in ordinary linguistic contexts,” he remarks (p. 81).

Unwilling to put all of his eggs in the kolasis basket, Talbott returns to the question of aiōnios. Relying on William Barclay’s New Testament Words (1964), Talbott offers the following proposal: “Eternal punishment is simply punishment of any duration that has its causal source in the eternal purposes of God” (p. 83). Consider, for example, Jude 7, which speaks of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by puros aiōniou. Clearly this fire did not burn perpetually—it did end after consuming everything; it is not burning today—yet most English translations of the New Testament render the Greek as “eternal fire.” In what sense, then, can it be said to be eternal? The most plausible answer, suggests Talbott: it is a fire that comes from God. He then applies the same reasoning to the Parable of the Last Judgment:

The point here was not that the fire literally burned forever without consuming these cities and continues to burn even today. The point was that the fire is a form of divine judgment upon these cities, a foreshadowing of eschatological judgment, and that its causal source lies in the eternal God himself. And similarly for the eternal fire and the eternal punishment to which Jesus alluded in Matthew 25:41 and 46 respectively: like the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah, this fire will not be eternal in the sense that it will burn forever without consuming anything—without consuming, for example, that which is false within a person—and neither will it be eternal in the sense that it continues forever without accomplishing its corrective purpose. Both the fire and the punishment are eternal in the twofold sense that their causal source lies in the eternal God himself and that their corrective effects will literally endure forever. For anything that the eternal God does (or any specific action of his in the created order) is eternal in the sense that it is the eternal God who does it. (pp. 83-84)

While I find the above construal plausible, I remain unconvinced and am disappointed that Talbott did not update this section for the 2nd edition of his book in light of more recent scholarship. He relies excessively on Barclay, who claims that in the New Testament “aiōnios is distinctively the word of eternity … it can properly describe only that which essentially belongs to and befits God.” (Words, p. 35). And again:

Aiōnios is the word of eternity as opposed to and contrasted with time. It is the word of deity as opposed to and contrasted with humanity. It is the word which can only really be applied to God. If we remember that, we are left with one tremendous truth—both the blessings which the faithful shall inherit and the punishment which the unfaithful shall receive are such as bits God to give and to inflict. (pp. 36-37)

How reliable is Barclay here? I do not know, but I’m dubious. I have no idea what he means when he says that aiōnios “can only really be applied to God,” when it is used in Greek literature and the Greek Bible in so many diverse ways. Barclay appears to be positing a continuity between Plato (4th century B.C.), who apparently invented the word aiōnios to signify the absolute timelessness of deity, and the New Testament, without however mentioning that Aristotle and many other Greek philosophers did not adopt Plato’s usage and preferred instead to use the term aïdios to signify divine eternity. Reading Plato into the New Testament is a questionable enterprise, as Talbott I think would agree.

Contrast Talbott/Barclay with the semantic analysis of Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan in their recent book Terms for Eternity. The authors survey the use of aiōnios and aïdios in classical and biblical literature, including the Septuagint. They conclude their survey of New Testament usage thusly:

In the New Testament, then, ἀΐδιος, which is used far less often than αἰώνιος, would appear to denote absolute eternity in reference to God; in connection with the chains of the fallen angels, on the other hand, it seems to indicate the continuity of their chastisement throughout the entire duration of this world—and perhaps too from before the creation of the world and time itself, that is, eternally a parte ante. As for αἰώνιος, it has a much wider range of meanings, often closely related. It perhaps signifies “eternity” in the strict sense—without beginning or end—in reference to God or his three Persons or to what pertains to God, such as his glory or his kingdom; or it may mean “perpetual”—in the sense of “without end,” “permanent,” “uninterrupted”—in reference, for example, to the new covenant mentioned by Christ. Far the most common expression is ζωή αἰώνιος, which, we have argued, indicates life in the future αἰών, in contrast to the present καιρός (or χρόνος, “time,” or κόσμος, “this world,” often used in a negative sense), and which is expressly connected with Christ, faith, hope (for the future), the resurrection in the world to come, and above all to grace in numerous passages, especially Pauline, where grace is said to justify, and Johannine, where it is connected with love or ἀγάπη: for John, God himself is ἀγάπη, and the αἰώνιος life is directly identified with Jesus. This life, which is the goal or finality of the Gospel, is the true life, and is often designated simply by ζωή tout court; and it coincides with salvation. The adjective αἰώνιος is associated too with other nouns (e.g., glory, salvation), always with reference to life in the next world. Although one may infer that life in the world to come is eternal in the sense of unending, it appears that this is not the primary connotation of αἰώνιος in these contexts, but is rather the idea of a new life or αἰών.

On the other hand, αἰώνιος is also applied to punishment in the world to come, particularly in the expressions πυρ αἰώνιος: ἀΐδιος is never employed either for fire or for other forms of future punishment or harm of human beings, and on one occasion (in 4 Macc) ὄλεθρος αἰώνιος is contrasted specifically with βίος ἀΐδιος. (pp. 69-70)

The difference between Talbott and Ramelli/Konstan is minor, however. The former interprets kolasin aiōnion to mean “the punishment that comes from God”; the latter, “the punishment that belongs to the age to come.” Both reject the interpretation of unending torment. Talbott, in fact, expresses his agreement with the reading of aiōnion as “belonging to the age to come” as a complement to his own:

The Gospel writers typically thought in terms of two ages, the present age and the age to come, and they associated the age to come with God himself: it was an age in which God’s presence would be fully manifested, his purposes fully realized, and his redemptive work eventually completed. They therefore came to employ the term aiōnios as an eschatological term, one that functioned as a handy reference to the realities of the age to come. In that way they managed to combine the more literal sense of “that which pertains to an age” with the more religious sense of “that which manifests the presence of God in a special way.” Eternal life, then, is not merely life that comes from the eternal God himself; it is also the mode of living associated with the age to come. And similarly for eternal punishment: it is not merely punishment that comes from the eternal God himself; it is also the form of punishment associated with the age to come. Nor is there any implication here that the life that comes from God and the punishment that comes from God are of equal duration. In fact, there is no implication here of temporal duration at all, and this, I might add, in no way threatens the Christian understanding of an unending resurrection life with God. For that idea hardly rests upon the translation of the Greek aiōnios; it rests instead upon the doctrine of the resurrection (see John 6:40) and that of God’s enduring and unchanging love for us. (Inescapable Love, p. 85)

So, brethren, did Jesus really teach an eternal hell?

(Go to Part 5)

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36 Responses to Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 4)

  1. This is a real stretch. I tend to more agree with the view of the Orthodox Church which states that Christ Jesus has saved all men, all mankind, every person in every age, so that all will be with God — but NOT ALL are going to enjoy it.

    The man who has hardened his heart against God, who has made money, sex, or power his idol, are you sincerely trying to tell me that this man is going to have that ontological being, go into eternity, and suddenly change into a being that is willing to have God as its center? The man who has so hardened himself in selfishness and self-centeredness is ontologically going to change once his heart stops beating.

    I don’t believe that for a second. We are here to repent and become like Christ. There is a point in a man’s soul in which he is no longer able to change, having hardened himself into rock against the grace of God. Those are the people who will be no longer able to change, and the presence of God will be for them an eternal torment.

    I don’t agree with this in the slightest, even though I would like to and though I do not like the thought of any soul being tormented forever. God is merciful, loving, kind, and just. It is we who create an eternity of hell for ourselves by hardening our hearts against the work of the Holy Spirit.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Edward. I understand your concern, and it’s one that Tom Talbott must address if he hopes to persuade his fellow Christians. I will be summarizing his proposal soon, probably next week or the week after. Short answer: Talbott believes that God never abandons his children and so has provided a way, through the experience of the outer darkness, to bring people to a point where they cannot tolerate the torment and all illusions are shattered (see “The Secret of the Universalist Hope“).

      You mention the Orthodox view that God will be all in all but not all will enjoy it. This certainly captures a dimension of the Orthodox view, but it does not express the the punitive side of what many of the Orthodox Fathers taught: “What is Orthodox Hell?

      Take a look at these two articles and share with us what you think.

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      • From The Secret of the Universalist Hope: (Do these people actually READ what they write???)

        “And here, I suggest, is the secret of the universalist hope. No matter how deeply we sink into our sin and egoism, no matter how thick the darkness that surrounds and penetrates our hearts becomes, we remain images of the divine Image. We are created for the Holy Trinity and interiorly ordered to eternal communion with him. The thirst for the beatific vision can never be eradicated from our being. Even the damned continue to thirst for God, even while denying the only One who can slake their thirst. “Those who are tormented in Gehenna are tormented by the invasion of love,” declares St Isaac the Syrian. Constituted by God for theosis, we always stand under his grace and universal salvific will. God yearns for us to repent and enter into deifying communion with him. This is our fundamental truth.”

        This is no proof of universalism. It is, in fact, the exact reason that hell and eternal torment are very real — QUOTE: “The thirst for the beatific vision can never be eradicated from our being.” It is that reality, that very thirst which is the burning fire that torments a soul. The soul that cannot change, that has hardened itself against God (do you really thing that a Hitler, Pol Pot, or other such thug will ever love anyone else but himself?) will know what it has missed, will be reminded for all eternity what it did on earth, and will thirst ardently for God — and not be filled. It becomes a tormented nothing, not able to be competed in Christ by its own lack of submission in love while it lived. IT CANNOT REPENT!!!!!

        I will keep on reading, but so far, I am unimpressed.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          “From The Secret of the Universalist Hope: (Do these people actually READ what they write???)”

          Actually, Edward, I do read what I write, and occasionally I even remember what I write. If you wish to participate on this blog, then I insist that you refrain from insulting either me or others.

          If you do not find my articles helpful, fine. Please don’t waste your time on them. I’m sure you have much more constructive ways to spend your life.

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        • Mike H says:

          Edward,

          “IT CANNOT REPENT!!!!”

          As I work through these arguments myself, I think it’s important to present the arguments accurately and to understand where the differences lie.

          In the free-will model that you espouse, what makes you certain that it CANNOT repent? I’d venture a guess that you’d affirm that even the most hardened of sinners could repent in earthly life – no matter how “far gone” they might appear to be in our view. It wouldn’t be hard to find biblical and other support for this. So to say that IT CANNOT REPENT, I’d assume that you believe one of two things (or maybe a hybrid of the 2):

          1 – Something changes at the moment of death so that, ontologically speaking, a person CANNOT repent. Perhaps the God-given gift of the human ability to make “a free decision” is revoked. So a “free decision” becomes ontologically impossible. Or perhaps there is some threshold where, after so many refusals to repent (like 5?) a person becomes so far gone that, ontologically, they cannot repent. This kind of irredeemable state may not happen in life, but it happens post mortem.

          2 – Something changes in God’s disposition towards the person at the moment of death so that even if a person were to repent, God no longer cares. In a sense, this as the point at which God gives up and abandons people to their “self chosen” fate, acknowledging that sin and death will be permitted to consume His creation. In effect, “the door is locked on the inside” but God has taken the key and thrown it away.

          Do you believe one/both of these?

          Perhaps you believe a 3rd option, that a Hitler (for example) will FREELY reject God forever and ever. But if so, can it be definitively stated that a person CANNOT repent? Or is it just an acknowledgement that people are free to reject God indefinitely (which I think many universalists would agree with)? Do you see any difference between the 2 – the terms FREELY repent and CANNOT repent?

          I think this is where the difference lies. (Hopeful) universalists believe neither 1 nor 2 – that God neither abandons his own creation and concedes that sin has destroyed it (no depth to which God can’t go), nor do they believe that, ontologically, God removes the piece of humanity that allows for a “free decision” at the moment of death. And if I’m wrong about this, hopefully someone will jump in and correct me.

          As I’ve thought through these issues and examined how they’ve been presented to me in the past, I’ve discovered that sometimes I’ve put the cart before the horse. From my own standpoint, I’ve assumed hell (because it’s what I’ve been taught), looked for reasons to explain it (free will), and then circled back and used those reasons to “prove” hell. Examining my presuppositions has been hard but is worth it. Just talking about all of this seems like pointless reasoning at times if we separate all of this speculation from the person of Christ. Of course a lot of this is speculation – there is mystery that defies logic and reasoning. But it’s helpful to talk through the things that we do have the ability to constructively talk about.

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          • This is a rather good series of questions.

            I think regarding the question of repentance after death, there is a verse in Scripture which speaks about this. Pro 29:1 He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.

            Now I guess the question becomes this: is this Solomon’s wisdom speaking or does this have the divine imprimatur upon it, aka, the very words of God Himself? If the latter is true, then there really is a fearful point beyond which a soul can go and harden itself eternally against God.

            God’s disposition cannot change. Remember, He is described as “immutable and unchangeable” so that He was, is, and always shall be love. God doesn’t just “love” He IS love, therefore, His disposition to the sinner is unchangeable.

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          • Mike H says:

            Edward,

            I personally don’t think that the Proverb that you referenced really speaks to the matters at hand regardless of whether one believes it’s the unmediated Word of God or not (certainly a worthy discussion on its own). Even if it did, there are other verses when taken in a similar isolated way that could make the exact opposite point. I don’t think that there’s any one verse that’s going to speak directly to this. I’m from a Protestant tradition so I’m quite used to seeing people grab random verses, bunch them all together into a tight little Biblicist doctrine grenade – it can get ugly and can be largely pointless.

            Either way though, I think it’s helpful to recognize that a view that a person CANNOT repent necessitates that there is somehow a place in which Christ cannot or will not go – that people become “too hardened”, whatever that looks like. Focusing on that point by itself – and without assuming it and therefore reading it into places where it isn’t there – I have a tough time coming to that conclusion just by looking at Christ or any individual bible verse. Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but it seems like that’s the real underlying difference in views – does God give up/is God helpless to save us from ourselves?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Mike, in case you haven’t read it yet, you may find this article of interest: “The Active Passivity of the Afterlife.”

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        • tgbelt says:

          Fr Aidan, that particular quote of your that Edward shared (from “The Secret of the Universalist Hope”) is wonderful. Love that whole post. What you say there (based on Maximus and Staniloae) is precisely the metaphysical argument I’ve referred to often with respect to this debate. (Believe it or not it’s exactly the argument Boyd makes in Trinity & Process, without even knowing it predated him in the Fathers–but that’s another conversation). Give the nature of human being (as created/sustained by an unconditional and unfailing divine love which is the ground and interiority of our God-given natural capacities), it’s simply impossible for us in turn to employ those capacities to irrevocably foreclose upon ourselves all possibility of Godward movement. That itself makes annihilation and irrevocable conscious torment metaphysically impossible. Only God can be an irrevocable final resting place for human being. I would not be dogmatic about it of course, but I don’t see any way to avoid (Maximus’) logic here.

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      • QUOTE: “Those who die enslaved to the passions remain enslaved in the next life. This is their hell. They are sundered from the goods of creation and thus unable to satisfy their disordered desires. Like the addict who is cut off from his drugs when he enters detox, the damned are cut off from anything that might, even momentarily, assuage their cravings. Thus St John of Damascus:

        The righteous, by desiring and having God, rejoice forever; but the sinners, by desiring sin and not possessing the objects of sin, are tormented as if eaten by the worm and consumed by fire, with no consolation; for what is suffering if not the absence of that which is desired. According to the intensity of desire, those who desire God rejoice, and those who desire sin are tormented. (Against the Manicheans [PG 94:1573])”

        This is the UNIVERSALIST HOPE?????

        They are making MY POINT, not theirs, MINE!!!

        Look at that quote. How is this a defense of anything other than the unending torment of the wicked in eternity? St. John of Damascus states the same thing — there is no change on the other side.

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      • I apologize for the offense, even though that was neither direct to you, nor was my intention. I must say that I still find it odd to publish something that appears to state something that actually teaches against what is the point of the publication. Wouldn’t you agree that such is rather strange?

        Actually, because I have had a lot of wrestling with the subject of eternal torment, I find this blog and all the links you have given well worth reading, just as I read Protestant blogs to see what their latest issue is.

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  2. Ryan says:

    Father Aidan, I’ve been following your blog with interest. Please keep the articles coming. Speaking generally on the theme of universal salvation, I’ve encountered a few things that piqued my interest in church literature. One noteworthy case that sprang to my mind, from the lives of the saints, is that of St. Thecla praying for the soul of the dead pagan Falconilla. St. Thecla actually manages to secure Falconilla’s salvation by her prayers. This episode is found in the Acts of Paul and Thecla and can also be found in the life of St. Thecla collected by St. Demetrius of Rostov. There is also the story of St. Gregory the Great securing the salvation of Trajan. I’ve also come across episodes of saints securing temporary reprieves for various tormented sinners. St. Brendan the Navigator, for instance, comes across an island where Judas is being tormented by demons, and forbids them to do it so long as he is on the island. There is another text, entitled “The Descent of the Virgin into Hell,” mentioned in the Brothers Karamazov, and collected in Zenkovsky’s anthology of medieval Russian literature. It tells how the Mother of God, on seeing the torments of hell, secures a reprieve for Christians souls there from Holy Thursday to Pentecost every year. Also, there is the prayer from Pentecost Sunday to release those in Hell (not sure if you’ve covered this already).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, Ryan. A Fr Ambrose, who lives in New Zealand, used to contribute to various forums, regaling the folks about the stories of the saints praying people out of hell/hades.

      Take a look, e.g., at this thread at the Byzantine Forum.

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      • I find this entirely problematic. If the prayers of another sinner can take one from hell, then why would ANYONE be in hell, seeing that Christ has an entirely pure love for the sinner that even the best of us has. If mere prayers can remove a sinner from hell, then Christ, who is pure love, would be praying throughout all eternity until hell was emptied.

        It also does not address the issue of ontological change in the sinner. How does a prayer have the effect of changing the sinner who has rejected God, spurned his grace, and is filled with selfishness and self-centeredness. Are you really trying to tell me that a prayer can get a hardened God hating sinner out of the hell that he has freely chosen for himself? Are you telling me that somehow, an external application of prayer affects an internal change in being? I don’t see it, Maybe you could explain it to me.

        And the other problem I see with this whole idea is that if universalism is true, then all the “seers” of the Roman Rite, along with the saints, mystics, and the Virgin Mary at Fatima cannot be right, for they saw sinners “falling like snowflakes into hell.”

        You know, I converted to the Catholic faith 14 years ago, but the longer I am in the Church, the more I find so many stories to be illogical and fatuous nonsense. I think I have enough trouble with my own soul and trying to stay out of eternal fire with dredging up these stories.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Given your reference to the Orthodox Church in your first comment, I thought you were Orthodox. If you were, you would know that we Orthodox do not believe that hell, in all of its permanent, irredeemable horror, yet exists. It will only exist after the Last Judgment. Hence the Orthodox prays for the souls of all the departed, even the most wicked, trusting in the mercies of God. For a popular presentation of the Orthodox understanding, see “Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife.”

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          • As a Byzantine Catholic, I am much more interested and in sync with Orthodox thought than Roman thought. This quote is what I believe is the proper understanding of the afterlife:

            “What is it that causes this same place to be experienced differently by the righteous and the wicked? According to the Jews (and by inheritance, the Christians as well) it is the very presence of God. Since God fills all things and dwells everywhere in the spirit world, there is nowhere apart from Him. Moreover, evil sinners, the enemies of God, experience His presence, His Shechinah glory, as punishment. Yet the righteous bask in that same glory, and experience it as the love and joy of God, as Paradise.”

            So the question for me becomes whether or not a soul can be ontologically changed after death? From what I have read so far, the writers seem to indicate that the soul after death can come to a point where it realizes the futility and sorrow of holding onto trying to find fulfillment in itself and is able to repent and turn to God in submission.

            That is the only thing that could give the universalist point of view hope — the possibility of change after death. The question then becomes how this idea is provable.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Edward, the Orthodox conviction on the efficacy of prayers for the departed is proven by the fact that we pray for the departed with full conviction:

            “O Christ our God … who, also, on this all-perfect and saving Feast, art graciously pleased to accept propitiatory prayers for those who are imprisoned in Hell, promising unto us who are held in bondage great hope of release from the vileness that doth hinder us and did hinder them; and that thou wilt send down thy consolation. Hear us, thy humble ones, who make our supplications unto thee, and give rest to the souls of thy servants who have fallen asleep, in a place of light, a place of verdure, a place of refreshment whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away: And speedily establish thou their souls in the mansions of the Just; and graciously vouchsafe unto them peace and pardon; for the dead shall not praise thee, neither shall they who are in Hell make bold to offer unto thee confession. But we who are living will bless thee, and will pray, and offer unto thee propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls” (Third Kneeling Prayer at Pentecost).

            Or as Met Hilarion Alfeyev writes:

            Is it possible at all that the fate of a person can be changed after his death? Is death that border beyond which some unchangeable static existence comes? Does the development of the human person not stop after death?

            On the one hand, it is impossible for one to actively repent in hell; it is impossible to rectify the evil deeds one committed by appropriate good works. However, it may be possible for one to repent through a ‘change of heart’, a review of one’s values. One of the testimonies to this is the rich man of the Gospel we have already mentioned. He realized the gravity of his situation as soon as found himself in hell. Indeed, if in his lifetime he was focused on earthly pursuits and forgot God, once in hell he realized that his only hope for salvation was God. Besides, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the fate of a person after death can be changed through the prayer of the Church. Thus, existence after death has its own dynamics. On the basis of what has been said above, we may say that after death the development of the human person does not cease, for existence after death is not a transfer from a dynamic into a static being, but rather continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his lifetime.

            While there are no doubt some Orthodox who would disagree with Hilarion’s view, it certainly is a legitimate, and perhaps even mainstream, Orthodox view. This is how we pray.

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  3. Mike H says:

    Apologies up front if I mix up aion, aionion, aionios. One of the things that Tom T’s book does so well is identify the major “pivot points” – the main points at which Christian believers differ and thus lead them down different paths and create different hermeneutical lenses that lead to VERY different views of the nature and character of God and human existence. “Aionian” is one of these major pivot points, if not THE major one IMO. And this is where I remain unconvinced. I think that non-universalists take it as THE starting point (at least in the western tradition that I’m familiar with), while universalists have a different hermeneutical starting point and thus (necessarily) see the word differently.

    Even within the debates over the meaning of “aionion” one notices a few “pivot points” that are highlighted by St. Basil’s quote. These are the reasons that, as it goes, “aionion” MUST refer to an endless period of time as it’s “plain meaning” even though it’s quite clear that it’s root “aion” seems to almost exclusively be translated as the equivalent of “an age” – not an endless period of time. They seem to be:
    1. Other scriptures seem to speak of an unending punishment outside of the use of the word “aionion”.
    2. There is a parallel usage of the word between life and punishment. Since the “life” part must be unending, so must the “punishment” part.
    3. People would “sin the more boldly” if they knew there was an end to punishment.

    Personally, I dismiss #3 rather quickly. #1 is relevant, but I’m no Biblicist and don’t necessarily look at OT proof-texts to resolve the complexities. #2 is where I have problems.

    Are the arguments as presented in Talbott’s book plausible? Sure, I guess. Barclay may be onto something, but I’m just not convinced. And I’m not able to easily dismiss the parallels of #2 by qualifying it away in saying that it’s an adjective describing very different realities. It seems forced to me. The parallel nature of the “all” statements from the previous post seemed apparent, and the parallel nature seems pretty apparent to me here as well. The parallel nature/usage of the word then forms the definition, and that definition is then applied to nearly all occurrences of the word. We define the word as “unending”, then read that into innumerable passages and theological arguments, and then over time those theologies reinforce the definition because the theologies or ecclesial authority crumbles without it – it becomes circular.

    Honestly, what I most struggle with is the complexity of all of this. Will honest theological ambiguities and confusion destroy us? Are we really forced to creatively reconcile all apparently contradictory biblical texts? An average layperson, like myself, does not possess the knowledge, skill, or time to work through original languages, cultural context, ultra complex theology, etc. I have to rely on others, and the church as a whole. As the post says, most English versions translate this as “eternal”. What am I to make of the thought that something SO important, something around which all modern western theology revolves around IMO (escape from eternal punishment) is based on a mistranslation that the vast majority of “experts” have missed for 1500 years? If the Holy Spirit is guiding humanity into all truth, not about all matters of knowledge but about Christ, then how is it that we’ve mistakenly perceived him as a cosmic torturer for 1500 years? Looking at this paradigm, one of analyzing texts, language, council rulings, etc. all the while wondering what’s infallible and what isn’t, one has to ask – is this the reality that God has put us in? There is a psychological aspect to this that’s hard to look past. Outside the scope of Talbott’s book though.

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    • brian says:

      Mike H:

      I appreciate your reflections and striving for understanding in a non-polemical spirit.

      If one “sees” the parallel nature of the “all” statements previously discussed — and one wishes to claim that a univocal interpretation follows from a similar interpretive sense, one is presented with a difficulty. The “all” statements indicate a parallelism between Adam and Christ. One may discover a reason to complicate or repudiate the conclusion, but it is hard to resist the notion that if through Adam all experience death (not only mortality, but life as full of death, anticipating it, anguish of loss, confusion, alienation, the many ways that death infects our experience), then through Christ all are destined to experience life (in its fullness, flourishing, beyond our words and concepts, apart from death.)

      Yet if one thinks the same hermeneutic leads one to conclude the traditional understanding of hell as an unending eternity is “the obvious sense”, one has at the least an antinomy. “All” seems to conflict with “eternal.” I would suggest that one reading must be equivocal. The tradition tends to equivocate on the all, but why not equivocate on the language of the eternal? There is philological room for such.

      In a post in a thread devoted to part 3 of this review, I remarked that plausible readings of any view can be offered. One must discern what global view of God is consistent with the Gospel. I don’t think one can avoid this wrestling if one wishes to pursue wisdom — or be pursued by Wisdom.

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      • Mike H says:

        Brian,

        Yes, I completely understand your point. It seems to come down to one’s starting point – as you said, “what global view of God is consistent with the Gospel”. I believe that, in my modern western protestant tradition at least, that an assumption of “eternal hell” – due to the simple horror of it and the desire to avoid it which seems natural and understandable – has become the default starting point. It’s become the filter through which one sees God and shapes the Gospel. And so it self perpetuates.

        This is where Tom T’s booked has been helpful to me – it helps me see outside of that paradigm.

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      • Mike H says:

        “This is where Tom T’s booked has been helpful to me – it helps me see outside of that paradigm.”

        Maybe “outside” of it isn’t the right way of framing it. More like, seeing my presuppositions and overarching perceptions of God and the Gospel in ways that I previously could not – or in ways that I couldn’t previously identify and articulate.

        Similar to reading George MacDonald for the first time years ago – his articulation of things that I sought the words for was life changing and has made me perennially uncomfortable in my own faith tradition.

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      Hi Mike,

      Concerning the correct interpretation of Matthew 25:46, you note the following widely accepted argument. In your own words, “There is a parallel usage of the word [aiōnios ] between life and punishment. Since the ‘life’ part must be unending, so must the ‘punishment’ part.” And concerning my own suggestion that this is a misguided argument, you write:

      Are the arguments as presented in Talbott’s book plausible? Sure, I guess. Barclay may be onto something, but I’m just not convinced. And I’m not able to easily dismiss the parallels of #2 [the argument just quoted above] by qualifying it away in saying that it’s an adjective describing very different realities. It seems forced to me.

      Here I find myself wondering whether you might find the example I provide in the book helpful. I understand that you may already have thought about this; but even if you have, I would be most interested in your response to it. In the book I ask my readers to set aside the Greek word aiōnios for a moment and to focus on the English word “everlasting.” I then write:

      I think it fair to say that the basic meaning of this English word is indeed everlasting. But consider also how the precise force of “everlasting” can vary in different contexts. An everlasting struggle, if there should be such a thing, would no doubt be a struggle without end, an unending temporal process that never comes to a point of resolution and never gets completed. The Manichaean idea of an everlasting struggle between good and evil illustrates the point nicely. But an everlasting change, or an everlasting correction, or an everlasting transformation need not be an unending temporal process that never comes to an end and never gets completed; it might instead be a temporal process of limited duration, or perhaps even an instantaneous event, that terminates in an irreversible state and whose effects thus literally endure forever.

      Suppose, then, that someone should insist upon the following parallel. If an everlasting struggle would be a temporal process that is never completed and thus never comes to an end, then an everlasting correction must likewise be a temporal process that is never completed and thus never comes to an end. My point is that we are here talking about a very familiar aspect of language: a small brick is not small in the same sense that a small number is small, because bricks and numbers belong to different categories of things. Similarly, whereas everlasting life would presumably be an end in itself, an everlasting correction might be a means to an end, perhaps even a means to the end of everlasting life; hence, in the latter case, but not in the former, we can meaningfully speak of the noun describing a process of limited duration, one that terminates in an irreversible state and whose effects thus endure quite literally forever. Does that still seem forced to you?

      Anyway, thanks for some excellent contributions, here and elsewhere, to this discussion.

      -Tom

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      • Mike H says:

        Hi Tom,

        Yes, I’ve come across this way of thinking about the English term “everlasting” – I think in some discussion of Edward Fudge’s work (so it wasn’t necessarily in relation to universal reconciliation). I forget about it sometimes – it’s not a natural read for me.

        I think the argument makes sense. It’s more clear when looking at something like Hebrews 9:11-12 where there is a reference to “eternal redemption”. I guess it’s possible, but I don’t know of anyone who contends that this reference is referring to some eternally ongoing process of redemption. It’s read rather as a reference to some action (redemption) that has everlasting results. But if one assumes that “everlasting” is indeed the correct English translation, there is still the inference of something irrevocable and permanent. You seem to agree with that when you say “one that terminates in an irreversible state and whose effects thus endure quite literally forever.”

        You said “Similarly, whereas everlasting life would presumably be an end in itself, an everlasting correction might be a means to an end, perhaps even a means to the end of everlasting life”. So in this way of looking at it, punishment (even punishment with eternal consequences) is a necessary step that finds it’s ultimate and permanent meaning in relation to life and redemption – it’s punishment to that end. Is this a plausible argument? I suppose it is, and it’s necessary if one came in with a hermeneutic of universal reconciliation already in place. Bottom line for me though – getting back to the “everlasting” references in Matthew 25, it just seems an extremely ODD way of making a point that everlasting punishment finds it’s everlastingness or permanence not in relation to punishment but in relation to life. If this is the case, doesn’t the risk of misunderstanding this and creating a completely false doctrine of unending retributive punishment seem extremely high?

        This, to me, is a where a hermeneutical starting point and approach to scripture is simply essential. In my experience, this parable serves as one of THE (unspoken) starting points for modern western theology that forms the lens of who God is, the cross, the “gospel” as fire insurance, etc. And I simply believe that to be the flat out wrong starting point.

        As it relates to the parable of the sheep and the goats as a whole (interesting that my bible doesn’t call it a “parable” in the section header) I’m quite comfortable with the idea that the main point is NOT some kind of clean, unambiguous 2 sentence summary of heaven and hell eschatology. It seems like the parable gets broken down into 3 parts – 1)the reference to serving and loving the “least of these” 2)the clear contrast between sheep or goat and 3)the clear contrast between eternal life or eternal punishment. In my own experience, most people that use this as the eternal hell clobber text are prepared to take parts 2 & 3 at face value, but explain away part 1 because it simply doesn’t fit (particularly in the Evangelicalish tradition that I was raised in). If one looked at part 1 (which I take to be the main point) as parts 2 & 3, one would have to see the failure to serve “the least of these” as some kind of unforgiveable sin, and it would perpetuate an endless cycle of “who exactly are the least of these” and “what does it mean to serve them” and “how many times do I have to do it?” Is it just a “balance the scales” type thing where one hopes that they’ve served “the least of these” more than not served them. The questions could go on and on.

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        • Tom Talbott says:

          I find it very interesting, Mike, that you should have mentioned Edward Fudge, perhaps the leading evangelical defender of annihilationism; and as you have rightly discerned, he makes essentially the same point I did concerning the adjective aiōnios. In fact, his statement of the point is so good that, even though you have no doubt already seen it, or something like it, I thought I would share with others here the following quotation from the 3rd edition of The Fire That Consumes:

          Finally, when an adjective … modifies a noun—in this case a result-noun, recognizable by its form, or morphology, the adjective describes the result of the action (which is what the noun names), not the action itself … that produced the result. We have seen this in regard to eternal salvation (not an eternal act of saving), eternal redemption (not an eternal process of redeeming), eternal judgment (not an eternal act of judging), eternal destruction (not an eternal act of destroying), and eternal punishment (not an eternal act of punishing).

          But whereas, according to Fudge, the result of eternal punishment is a completed act of an individual’s annihilation, it is, according to a universalist, a completed act of correction, as the word kolasis already implies. For it is surely suggestive, to say the very least, that the Gospel writer would choose a common Greek word for remedial punishment or correction to translate Jesus’ teaching here. (Yes Jeremy, Jesus taught in Aramaic, not Greek.)

          I do not, by the way, accept “everlasting punishment” as an appropriate translation of kolasin aiōnion in Matthew 25:46; my remarks about the English term “everlasting” were intended merely as an example of a fallacious argument. So I also appreciate, Mike, why you would write:

          Bottom line for me though – getting back to the “everlasting” references in Matthew 25, it just seems an extremely ODD way of making a point that everlasting punishment finds it’s everlastingness or permanence not in relation to punishment but in relation to life. If this is the case, doesn’t the risk of misunderstanding this and creating a completely false doctrine of unending retributive punishment seem extremely high?

          Still, I wonder whether you would find it equally odd if the King James translation represented more clearly a contrast between those who immediately receive everlasting life, on the one hand, and those who are subjected to an everlasting and permanent correction, on the other. But in any case, your stress on the need for a proper hermeneutic is no doubt the most important of all.

          Thanks again,

          -Tom

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          • Jeremy says:

            Regarding the language(s) Jesus spoke and taught in, here is a very interesting article: “What Language Did Jesus Speak?

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          • Tom Talbott says:

            Thanks for that Link, Jeremy. Though I haven’t read the entire article, I read enough to learn that what I was taught during my own seminary days (and thus took for granted) has become more controversial during the past six years than I had realized. So that was a very valuable link.

            Note: Because there was no reply button under your post, I posted this as a reply to my own comment, so that it wouldn’t be too far away from your own post.

            Thanks again,

            -Tom

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  4. Jeremy says:

    Well said brian!

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  5. Jeremy says:

    Regarding the used of aionion in Matthew 25 meaning both “of God” and “of the age to come” or age-enduring, perhaps this was a bit of a double entendre (intentional or unintentional by Matthew.

    I wonder, if Jesus taught primarily in Aramaic, what words Jesus would have used and if this would have held the same potential double entendre.

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  6. Edward De Vita says:

    Just a word about the parallel nature of aionian life and aionian punishment. First thing to note is the non-parallel structure of life and punishment. Surely any strict parallelism would have required the use of the term “aionios death.” Yet we do not find it here. Clearly, the enjoyment of life with God has no end beyond itself. We cannot say the same thing about punishment. Punishment must have some end or purpose, either retributive or corrective, or some combination of the two. Now a purely retributive punishment that goes on forever can never, by the very definition of “forever”, attain its end, whatever that might be. For if, at some point, it were to attain it, there would be no need for further punishment. Corrective punishment, on the other hand, could, in principle, fail to attain its end. Hence, I’m inclined to think of the aionian punishment as not in itself eternal (witness the case of those whom St. Paul says will be “saved by fire.”), though it can possibly become so in the case of the hardened sinner who refuses correction.
    I put the above thoughts together rather quickly while at work, so they may be way off base. Please feel free to thrash me if you feel the need.

    By the way, after reading Ilaria Ramelli’s comments on the St Basil passage quoted by Father Aidan in his post, I would that its authenticity is highly unlikely.

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  7. Tom Talbott says:

    Once again, Father Kimel, I doubt I could ever thank you enough for initiating this series of discussions on my book. And I thought I would register my agreement, possibly to your surprise, with your criticism of William Barclay. You wrote: “I have no idea what he [Barclay] means when he says that aiōnios ‘can only really be applied to God,’ when it is used in Greek literature and the Greek Bible in so many diverse ways.” Indeed, just prior to quoting Barclay, I cited three places in the New Testament (i.e., Rom. 16:25, 2 Tim 1:9, and Titus 1:2), where this term clearly applies neither to God nor to the gifts, possessions, or actions of God.

    So what, you may ask, is going on here? Well, I don’t think I ever took literally Barclay’s statement that you have quoted above (and I also quoted in my book); he surely knew, after all, that aiōnios does not apply to God in the three texts cited above. Instead, I took him to be saying something like this: in any context where the New Testament use of aiōnios is roughly Platonic and thus correctly translated with the word “eternal,” it applies paradigmatically to God and secondarily to the gifts, possessions or actions of God. Nor do Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan appear to disagree with Barclay, given this looser interpretation. For in the very passage you cite, they write: “As for αἰώνιος … [i]t perhaps signifies ‘eternity’ in the strict sense—without beginning or end—in reference to God or his three Persons or to what pertains to God, such as his glory or his kingdom” or, I might add, the gifts, possessions, and actions of God.

    Incidentally, with respect to the Ramelli/Konstan book, I was surprised, to say the least, when I read the opening paragraph of a section entitled “C) THE NEW TESTAMENT.” After quoting my friend Tom Johnson, a New Testament scholar who wrote the New International Biblical Commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John, they began quoting me in the following way:

    So too, T. Talbott comments that … in the New Testament αἰώνιος is used “in contexts where it could not possibly mean ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’.” … Talbott allows that αἰώνιος means “eternal” when it refers to God or what comes from God, but remarks that “nothing other than God is eternal in the primary sense…. The judgements, gifts, and actions of God are eternal in the secondary sense that their causal source lies in the eternal character and purpose God.” In a number of cases, αἰώνιος “came to function as a kind of eschatological term, a handy reference to the age to come.” As for αἰώνιος life and αἰώνιος punishment, “neither concept carries any implication of unending temporal duration” (pp. 58-59).

    So given that they opened this crucial section with quotations from me, I naturally wondered whether they did so in order to agree with me, to disagree with me, or for some other purpose. And I have found no evidence of disagreement. For in addition to the text I cited previously, they write the following in their conclusion of the book: “Aiōnios may also acquire the connotation of strict eternity, particularly when it is applied to God or divine things: here, the sense of the adjective is conditioned by the subject it modifies” (p. 237). [Note: I’m not sure why they sometimes use Greek characters and sometimes English transliterations.]

    Accordingly, as one who is in no way a classics scholar, here is my own impression of the history of the term aiōnios. As Barclay pointed out, Plato may have invented the term in connection with his theory of Forms; and as Ramelli and Konstan point out, Aristotle, for his part, seems never to use the term” (p. 28), which is hardly surprising given his rejection of Plato’s understanding of the Forms. But it was Plato, not Aristotle, who had such a profound influence on Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists during the Hellenistic period. According to Hermann Sasse’s entry on αἰōν in Gerhard Kittel’s massive Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “In the Hellenistic Age the word acquires religious significance in virtue of the fact that Aἰōν becomes the name of a God of eternity whose mysteries are known to have been celebrated in Alexandria from c. 200 B.C.” And this roughly Platonic sense does seem to have influenced the New Testament writers to some extent, as Paul illustrated when he wrote that “what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

    With respect to the use of aiōnios in Matthew 25:46, moreover, I am quite prepared to accept, at least for the sake of argument, whatever translation a traditionalist may wish to adopt. For in the end, I believe, it is not the translation of a single word, but a set of fallacious inferences that have led to so much misunderstanding about the correct interpretation of this text.

    Anyway, thanks again for initiating these discussions.

    -Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      And I, Tom, cannot thank you enough for reading this extended review and for engaging both it and the comments.

      Regarding Barclay, Plato, and aionios, I remain skeptical about Plato’s influence on NT usage, though I do not know enough even to have an opinion. I suspect, though, that the NT authors are simply following the usage of the Septuagint.

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      • Father — Going back to Post 1 to start from the beginning (thank you for the links!) I have come to this most important section. The use of aionios leads me to a question which regards Matthew 25 and the section which has always been translated as the Last Judgment.

        What if the Sacred Scriptures describe the Fall, the promised Redeemer, His coming, His Redemption, and the END OF THE AGE IN REVELATION? Why do I say this? Because Jesus speaks of the end of the aion in His discourse in Matthew 24, a passage which has been widely misinterpreted by Rapturists as having some sort of yet to be fulfilled promise. But AD 70, for those of us who structure our understanding of God around the covenant of God and His dealings with mankind through that covenant, is the end of an age — the age of the Old Covenant, now fulfilled in and replaced by the New Covenant. For those in the Preterist camp, Revelation is also the description of the end of the aion with the destruction of Jerusalem, not some mythological “rapture of the church” yet to take place.

        As such then, could the punishment aiōnion be that which is “age long” and have to do with the current age we are in? What “age” do the dead experience? These are questions that come to my mind.

        Could it be “eternal” or “age-long” in the sense of the “age” of an individual coming to an end when he repents of His rebellion and accepts God’s most merciful offer of pardon?

        Just thinking out loud this evening.

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