In his article “Christian Universalism: Will Everyone Finally Be Saved?” Fr Lawrence Farley invites us to examine Scripture closely, in the confidence that if we do so, we will see that the hope of final reconciliation is false—so perspicuous is the Bible in its literal meaning. For the author eternal damnation functions as a kind of hermeneutical key. Is there a conflict between divine love and eternal punishment? No problem. Hell wins: “A belief in hell may or may not be consistent with love, but what is certain is that it is taught in the Scriptures, and this must be the deciding factor for us.” Is there a seeming conflict between the Apostle Paul’s teaching about eschatological punishment and his teaching on universal restoration? No problem. Hell wins: “Since this teaching about the eternity of hell is so unambiguous, Paul’s other words (which everyone acknowledges contain more ambiguity) must be interpreted in the light of them.” Not to do so, the author tells us, would pit Paul against Jesus.
Here, I suggest, is the critical flaw in Fr Lawrence’s presentation. Instead of interpreting the texts on Gehenna in light of the good news of the Paschal Mystery—Christ’s atoning death on the cross, his harrowing of Hades, his glorious resurrection on Easter morning—the author does the opposite. His fundamental mistake, in other words, is hermeneutical. He begins at the wrong place, namely, with Jesus’ ostensible beliefs regarding divine judgment and everlasting punishment, and then proceeds to read the entire New Testament through this lens. Instead of interpreting the Bible through a hermeneutic of Pascha, the author reads it through a hermeneutic of perdition, with tragic consequences for preaching, evangelism, and the spiritual life. Hell trumps gospel; eternal retribution overwhelms the divine love and mercy; the joyful expectation for our Lord’s return becomes dread; the good news is reduced to conditional promise and law. It’s but a short step to the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the revivalist tent meeting.
The dominical teaching on Gehenna and final judgment can only be properly interpreted when it is comprehended within the entirety of Christ’s saving work, as elaborated in the apostolic testimony. Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, is the hermeneutical principle of all eschatological and theological assertions. Hence if we could establish that St Paul in fact preached apokatastasis in the name of the risen Christ, then we would need to regard Jesus’ judgment sayings as reconcilable with the universalist hope. Pascha overturns our religious expectations and compels us to envision anew our understanding of God. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey so memorably expressed it: “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all, and the glory of God in all eternity is that ceaseless self-giving love of which Calvary is the measure” (God, Christ and the World, p. 41; also see Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God).
We begin with the Old Testament:
In the Old Testament we find the following consistent themes:
1. God loves everyone, even idolatrous Gentiles such as those of Nineveh (e.g. Jonah 4:11);
2. God hates sin and judges sinners (e.g. Psalms 11:5, 34:16);
3. God judges sin with some reluctance, preferring the repentance of the sinner to his destruction (e.g. Ezekiel 33:11).
In all of these themes (the Scriptural citations for each could easily be multiplied) we see that although God loves everyone and judges with reluctance, He does nonetheless judge with severity those who persist in sin because He is implacably hates sin. This binary theme of God as the lover of righteousness and hater of sin runs throughout the Old Testament. God is the judge of all the earth, and His punishing judgment and severity falls upon those who rebel against righteousness.
Fr Lawrence is not, of course, presenting a full portrait of God as revealed in the Old Testament. He is highlighting a dimension of the divine character that he believes Christian universalists downplay or ignore, namely, the divine opposition to immorality and wickedness. The righteousness of YHWH manifests itself in holy wrath, judgment, and retribution; and it is this righteousness, now projected into eternity, that is confirmed in the teaching of Jesus regarding Gehenna.
But before turning to Jesus, a preliminary comment: Fr Lawrence proceeds as if the options are restricted to apokatastasis and eternal damnation; but this is inaccurate. A growing number of biblical scholars have begun to explore a third option, popularly known as annihilationism or conditional immortality. Annihilationists believe that the judgment texts of the New Testament are best understood as teaching the divine obliteration of the impenitent (see David J. Powys, Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question, and Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes). This is the second death, these scholars tell us—nonexistence. Hence we should not too quickly jump to the conclusion that the dramatic dominical imagery of unquenchable fire and wailing and gnashing of teeth obviously refers to everlasting punishment.
Now on to Jesus:
The theme of the age to come of course comes to the fore in the New Testament. And here, Christ speaks quite categorically: the punishments of Gehenna are eternal. He warns of the impenitent being bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), and there is no suggestion that this punishment will be temporary. Indeed, He teaches that in Gehenna, the “unquenchable fire”, the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48). If the Universalists are correct, then the worm will indeed die and the fire will indeed be quenched, but Christ here says the opposite. In His parable about Lazarus and the rich man, Christ explicitly says that there is a great gulf fixed between paradise and the place of punishment, so that none may cross over from the place to punishment into paradise (Luke 16:26). Granted that this is a parable and not a behind the scenes peak at eternity, it remains an odd thing to say if in fact everyone in the place of punishment will indeed eventually cross over into paradise.
Also important to the discussion is the fact that Christ describes the two fates awaiting men after the final judgment either as “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”, and “eternal punishment”, or as “eternal life” (Matthew 25:41, 46). Note that the same word “eternal” (Greek aionion) is used in v. 46 to describe both the eternal life of the saved and the eternal punishment of the condemned. One can debate the meaning of the word aionion if one likes, but the word must have the same meaning in both halves of v. 46. It cannot mean, for example, “the unrighteous will go away into age-long punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. If the life of the righteous is eternal, then so must be the punishment of the unrighteous. One may assert that St. Paul proclaims universalism, but no one has ever suggested that Christ did. All of His words about the fate of men in the age to come are emphatic that hell is eternal, and contain not a hint of universalism. One cannot bypass this fact when promoting universalism, as many seem to do, but must rather explain why it is that Christ is so uncompromising in His words about hell.
It all sounds quite black and white. No other exegetical possibilities are deemed plausible. All one needs to do is to pick up one’s Bible, take a look at the relevant perditionist passages, and interpret the symbolic imagery as nonsymbolically as possible. One doesn’t, apparently, even have to ask how Jesus’ fellow Jews might have understood the “eternal” punishments of Gehenna. Did a uniform understanding of the Last Things exist in first century Palestinian Judaism? (The answer is no. Brad Jersak presents some of the historical data in his book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.) Nor does Fr Lawrence attempt to interpret the Gehenna texts in light of the fullness of our Lord’s revelation of the character of God (what about the parable of the shepherd who leaves his flock to search for one lost sheep or the woman who cleans her house looking for a lost coin? what about Jesus’ table-fellowship with tax collectors and sinners or his disclosure of God as his Abba?), yet such interpretive work is essential if one is going to make historical claims about what Jesus did and did not teach about the final judgment. Did our Lord, for example, even intend to teach anything definite about Gehenna in his parables, or was he simply presupposing the popular understanding for purposes of his story-telling? The truth value of a parable does not lie in the details but in its evangelical and moral point. The author fails to acknowledge the exegetical and theological complexities of his position.
I will explore the possible meanings of aionios in a future article, but I do want to briefly comment on one specific assertion in the above passage. Referring to our Lord’s famous parable on the Last Judgment, Fr Lawrence argues: “One can debate the meaning of the word aionion if one likes, but the word must have the same meaning in both halves of v. 46,” the logical implication being that if eschatological life is everlasting, as we all agree that it is, then eschatological punishment must also endure everlastingly. Yet the argument is faulty. Aionion is an adjective, and the meaning of an adjective changes according to the noun it modifies. Thus New Testament scholar Christopher Marshall:
The word “eternal” is used in both a qualitative and a quantitive sense in the Bible. It is sometimes urged that if eternal life in Matthew 25:46 is everlasting in duration, so too must be eternal punishment. But “eternal” in both phrases may simply designate that the realities in question pertain to the future age. Furthermore, inasmuch as life, by definition, is an ongoing state, “eternal life” includes the idea of everlasting existence. But punishment is a process rather than a state, and elsewhere when “eternal” describes an act or process, it is the consequences rather than the process that are everlasting (e.g., Heb. 6:2, “eternal judgment”; Heb. 9:12, “eternal redemption”; Mark 3:29, “eternal sin”; 2 Thess. 1:9, “eternal destruction”; Jude 7, “eternal fire”). Eternal punishment is therefore something that is ultimate in significance and everlasting in effect, not in duration. (Beyond Retribution, p. 186, n. 123; also see David Konstan & Ilaria Ramelli, Terms for Eternity, pp. 57-70)
The translation of aionion as “eternal” prejudges the question before us. As I suggested in my article “From Here to Eternity,” it’s probably best to simply transliterate the term and leave the interpretation to informed readers. Matt 25:56 thus becomes: “Then they will go away to eonion chastisement, but the righteous to eonion life.” Sounds different from the English translations you have read, doesn’t it?
To repeat: the critical flaw of Fr Lawrence Farley’s reading of the New Testament is hermeneutical. He seeks to determine the meaning of the dominical sayings about Gehenna through grammatical exegesis, without reference to the totality of the teachings of Jesus about God and the Kingdom or his saving work in death and resurrection. But more importantly, by failing to read the dominical words through a hermeneutic of Pascha, he has abstracted these sayings from the only context in which they can be gospel for the world.
“For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).