Sometimes Eternal Isn’t Forever

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When discussing the question of universal salvation, someone will immediately appeal to our Lord’s teaching on hell. For defenders of the traditional doctrine, it is simply obvious that Jesus taught eternal damnation. Certainly that is how almost all the English translations render the relevant New Testament texts. The classic passage is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46). The parable concludes with these words (Matt 25:46):

καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (KJV)

And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (RSV)

And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during. (YLT)

And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian. (CLNT)

The key word here is aiónion, which is the the adjectival form, in the accusative case, of aion (age, eon, era, epoch). For ease and clarity, I will henceforth refer to the word in its nominative form—aiónios. While aión can signify endless duration, particularly when referring to divinity, it typically refers to a long or indefinite period of time. In his classic work Word Studies of the New Testament, Marvin Vincent comments:

In the New Testament the history of the world is conceived as developed through a succession of aeons. A series of such aeons precedes the introduction of a new series inaugurated by the Christian dispensation, and the end of the world and the second coming of Christ are to mark the beginning of another series. … The adjective aionios in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective in themselves carries the sense of endless or everlasting. They may acquire that sense by connotation. … Aionios means enduring through or pertaining to a period of time. Both the nouns and the adjective are applied to limited periods. … Out of the 150 instances in LXX, four-fifths imply limited duration. (IV:59)

Yet most English translations of Matt 25:46 render aiónios as “eternal” (“eternal punishment,” “eternal life”), thus eliding the nuances of the word. Young’s Literal Translation, on the other hand, awkwardly sticks close to the Greek: “punishment age-during” and “life age-during.” The Concordant Literal New Testament delivers something more like a transliteration, leaving us the task of figuring out what “eonian” means.

In their book Terms for Eternity, Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan take a comprehensive look at how the word aiónios is used in Greek secular literature, Septuagint, New Testament, and early Church Fathers and contrasts it with the word aḯdios (also see their article “Terms for Eternity“; cf. J. W. Hanson, The Greek Word Aion-Aionios). Regarding New Testament usage they conclude:

In the New Testament, then, aḯdios, which is used far less often than aiónios, 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 aiónios, 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 zoe aiónios, which, we have argued, indicates life in the future aion, in contrast to the present kairos (or chronos, “time,” or kosmos, “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 agape: for John, God himself is agape, and the aiónios 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 zoe tout court; and it coincides with salvation. The adjective aiónios 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 aiónios in these contexts, but is rather the idea of a new life or aión.

On the other hand, aiónios is also applied to punishment in the world to come, particularly in the expressions pur aiónios: aḯdios 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) olethros aiónios is contrasted specifically with bios aḯdios. (pp. 69-70)

Konstan was asked on an internet forum to provide a short summary of his and Ramelli’s research on aiónios:

Ancient Greek had two words that are commonly translated as “eternal”: aḯdios and aiónios. The latter of these terms is an adjective clearly deriving from the noun aión, from which we get the English “eon”: it is an old word, appearing already in Homer, where it refers normally to a lifetime, or else some definite period of time. It never suggests an infinite stretch of time, and in later writers it continues to mean, almost always, either a lifetime or some particular period of time.

What, then, about the adjective aiónios? Here is where problems arise, since the adjective seems first to occur in Plato, and Plato adapts it to a very special sense. Plato had the idea that time was a moving image of eternity, with the implication that eternity itself does not move or change: it is not an infinite length of time, but a state of timelessness (think of what time must have been like before God created the universe). This is quite different from the common meaning of aḯdios, which the presocratic philosophers had already used to express precisely an infinite stretch of time, with no beginning and no end; and this is what aḯdios continued to mean.

So, we have two adjectives in use: one of them clearly means “infinite,” when applied to time; but the other does not, and what is more, it is connected with a common noun—aión—that means simply a lifetime, with no suggestion of eternity. Aiónios remains relatively rare in classical Greek, and then we come to the Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs very frequently (aḯdios, by contrast, only appears twice, and those in parts originally written in Greek). Now, aiónios here can refer to things that are very old (as we say in English, “old as the hills”), but by no means eternal—what in this world is eternal? This is a very common usage, based on the Hebrew term. But it can also be used in reference to the world to come, and here we face the fundamental issue.

If one speaks of the next life, or something that happens in the next life, as aiónios, does it mean simply the next era or eon, or does it carry the further implication of “eternal”? Many of the passages in the Septuagint seem to indicate that the meaning is “of that eon”—and after all, it is a very long, but still finite period of time, that elapses between our death and judgment day and the resurrection, and this could be called an era. What is more, there is some reason to think that, after the resurrection, time itself will come to an end. So, saying that punishment in the afterlife is aiónios may just mean “for that eon” or epoch, and not forever.

We argued that this sense was understood by many (or most) of the Church Fathers, and that when they used aiónios of punishment in the afterlife, they were not necessarily implying that punishment would be eternal. Of course, one can only show this by careful examination of specific passages in context, and this is what we tried to do in our book. Very often, the evidence is ambiguous; for example, when God is described as aiónios, it is very difficult to be sure whether the word means “of the other world” or simply “eternal,” since God is both. We hope readers will decide for themselves, on the basis of the evidence we collected and the interpretations we offered.

Given its semantic range, the meaning of aiónios in any specific text must be determined by context and usage. The critical point is that, except when it modifies the noun “God,” the word need not signify eternal: it does not necessarily mean endless time or timeless existence (also see the ruminations of cultural linguist Orville Jenkins on the difficulties of translating aiónios into modern English). For an interesting example, take a look at Rom 16:25-26. In v. 25, the Apostle speaks of “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages [aioníoisbut is now disclosed,” which clearly refers to a span of time that has ended, and then in the very next verse he speaks of the aioníou theou, the everlasting God.

Origen, the greatest exegete of the early Church, was well aware of the polysemy of aión and its adjectival forms. In Hom. in Ex. 6.13 he writes: “Whenever Scripture says, ‘from aeon to aeon,’ the reference is to an interval of time, and it is clear that it will have an end. And if Scripture says, ‘in another aeon,’ what is indicated is clearly a longer time, and yet an end is still fixed. And when the ‘aeons of the aeons’ are mentioned, a certain limit is again posited, perhaps unknown to us, but surely established by God” (quoted in Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, p. 161). And Comm. in Rom. 6.5: “In Scriptures, aión is sometimes found in the sense of something that knows no end; at times it designates something that has no end in the present world, but will have in the future one; sometimes it means a certain stretch of time; or again the duration of the life of a single person is called aión” (quoted in Ramelli, p. 163).

Origen explicitly connects aiónios life to final salvation and apokatastasis. Commenting on John 3:36 he writes: “‘He who believes in the Son has aiónios life.’ For if he who believes in the Son has aiónios life, then when he has been rendered into his hand, he is rendered for his own salvation and betterment” (Fragments on John 50.28; quoted in Konstan and Ramelli, pp. 122-123). “The Savior calls himself a harvester, and the recompense of our Lord is the salvation and reintegration of those who are harvested; the expression ‘And he gathers the fruit for aiónios life’ means either that what is gathered is the fruit of aiónios life or that it itself is aiónios life” (Fragments on John 13.46.299; quoted in Konstan and Ramelli, p. 122). But even the aiónes will come to an end, Origen tells us: “After aiónios life a leap will take place and all will pass from the aeons to the Father, who is beyond aiónios life. For Christ is Life, but the Father, who is ‘greater than Christ,’ is greater than life” (Comm. in Io 13.3; quoted in Ramelli, p. 160). The Father transcends all ages. In the apokatastasis the entirety of creation will participate in the aḯdios life that is the Creator. God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:24-28). The Origenian notion of eschatological stages sounds strange to our ears today. When was the last time you heard a sermon on the Son delivering his kingdom to the Father in cosmic theosis? Origen’s exegesis should at least challenge our default readings of aiónios and the Eschaton. By contrast, the fire that belongs to the world to come, the pur aiónion, most definitely will come to an end. It may last for a long time, but it is not eternal. Evil has no place in the universal restoration. Konstan and Ramelli elaborate:

In this connection, it seems particularly significant that Origen calls the fire of damnation pur aiónion but never pur aḯdion. The explanation is that he does not consider this flame to be absolutely eternal: it is aiónion because it belongs to the next world, as opposed to the fire we experience in this present world, and it lasts as long as the aiónes do, in their succession. It does not, however, endure into the aḯdiotes, that is, in the absolute eternity of the final apocatastasis. (p. 126)

Origen clearly understood the semantic range of aiónios and recognized that it does not compel a reading of eternal.

In Matt 25:46 Jesus speaks of “aiónion punishment” (punishment pertaining to the eon to come—the only place in the New Testament where the phrase occurs) and “aiónion life” (life pertaining to the eon to come). Given that the life given to us in Jesus Christ is eternal in the strong sense, does this not mean that the punishment of Gehenna is also eternal in the strong sense? St Basil of Caesarea appears to have made this inference in his brief rules for monastics: “for if there will be at a certain moment an end of aiónios punishment, there will also surely be an end of aiónios life” (quoted by Konstan and Ramelli, p. 195). The argument seems initially plausible, given the parallelism; but the inference does not necessarily obtain. Aiónios is an adjective: it modifies the noun to which it is connected. Adjectives often vary in meaning when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things or different events. The life of the age to come is indeed eternal, not because it’s aiónios but because the life of Christ in which believers share is indestructible and perduring. Similarly, we cannot assume that the punishment of the age to come is perpetual. Jesus is not necessarily asserting the eternal duration of eschatological punishment in Matt 25:46. He may only be referring to the punishment that properly belongs to the coming age of the kingdom. Whether it is temporary or everlasting cannot be determined by the adjective alone. And this is the crucial lexical point: aiónios by itself does not tell us whether the punishment of Gehenna is of limited or unlimited duration.

What about the parallelism just noted? New Testament scholar Christopher Marshall insists that we may not infer the eternality of Gehenna from the eternality of the kingdom:

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)

Note how misleading the English word “eternal” can be as a translation of aiónios. If the qualitative sense is intended by the speaker, then “eternal” is simply the wrong rendering, as it denotes either temporal perpetuity or timelessness. When Jesus spoke of aiónios punishment and aiónios life, he may reasonably be understood as using the adjective to qualitatively qualify the accompanying noun—i.e., the punishment of the eschatological eon, the life of the eschatological eon. David J. Powys, also a New Testament scholar, concurs:

The general primacy of the qualitative sense of aiónion in N.T. usage, is universally acknowledged. Seen as such it expresses the quality of the promised Age (aión), the age of the kingdom of God. This rather than the duration of the kingdom is the primary stress within the word aiónios. Matthew 25:31-46 is packed with imagery concerning the fulfilment of the kingdom: it tells of the coming of the Son of man (v.31), the coming of the King (v.34) and the gathering of the nations before the throne (vv.31,32).

It is thus natural and appropriate to take ‘eternal’ (aiónios) in each of its three instances in this passage as being primarily qualitative in sense. The point is not that the fire will burn for ever, or the punishment extend for ever, or the life continue for ever, but rather that all three will serve to establish the rule of God. (Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question, p. 292)

It should be noted that neither Marshall nor Powys are proponents of apokatastasis.

Thomas Talbott has proposed that aiónios, both in Matt 25 and elsewhere in the New Testament, should be understood in a causal sense, except when it is used directly to modify “God”:

Whether God is eternal (that is, timeless, outside of time) in a Platonic sense or everlasting in the sense that he endures throughout all of the ages, nothing other than God is eternal in the primary sense (see the reference to ‘the eternal God’ in Rom. 16:26). The judgements, gifts, and actions of God are eternal in the secondary sense that their causal source lies in the eternal character and purpose of God. One common function of an adjective, after all, is to refer back to the causal source of some action or condition. When Jude thus cited the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of eternal fire, he was not making a statement about temporal duration at all; in no way was he implying that the fire continues burning today, or even that it continued burning for an age. He was instead giving a theological interpretation in which the fire represented God’s judgement upon the two cities. So the fire was eternal not in the sense that it would burn forever without consuming the cities, but in the sense that, precisely because it was God’s judgement upon these cities and did consume them, it expressed God’s eternal character and eternal purpose in a special way.

Now even as the adjective aiónios typically referred back to God as a causal source, so it came to function as a kind of eschatological term, a handy reference to the age to come. This is because the New Testament writers identified the age to come as a time when God’s presence would be fully manifested, his purposes fully realized, and his redemptive work eventually completed. So just as eternal life is a special quality of life, associated with the age to come, whose causal source lies in the eternal God himself, so eternal punishment is a special form of punishment, associated with the age to come, whose causal source lies in the eternal God himself. In that respect, the two are exactly parallel. But neither concept carries any implication of unending temporal duration; and even if it did carry such an implication, we would still have to clarify what it is that lasts forever. If the life associated with the age to come should be a form of life that continues forever, then any correction associated with that age would likewise have effects that literally endure forever. Indeed, even as eternal redemption is in no way a temporal process that takes forever to complete, neither would an eternal correction be a temporal process that takes forever to complete. (“A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgement” in Universal Salvation?, pp. 46-47)

I cannot judge the adequacy of Talbott’s proposal; but it at least demonstrates the variety of interpretive possibilities open to the exegete.

Now consider how Matt 25:46 reads when the word kólasis, traditionally rendered “punishment” in English translations, is given an alternative, but possible, rendering—chastisement: God chastises not to exact vengeance (timoria) but to correct, convert, and purify. Although kólasis can certainly be used in a retributive sense (e.g., 2 Macc 4:38), it may also signify remedial punishment. In the late 2nd/early 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria clearly distinguished between kólasis and timoria: “For there are partial corrections [padeiai] which are called chastisements [kólasis], which many of us who have been in transgression incur by falling away from the Lord’s people. But as children are chastised by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish [timoria], for punishment [timoria] is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised collectively and individually” (Strom. 7.16). Yet even if biblical exegetes should determine that kolasis in Matt 25:36 and elsewhere in the New Testament most likely denotes retributive or ruinating punishment, this is perfectly compatible with the doctrine of universal salvation, as long as the punishment is finite and temporary.

I propose the following as a plausible translation of Matt 25:46: “Then they will go away to eonion chastisement, but the righteous to eonion life.” The advantage of this translation is that it leaves open legitimate interpretive possibilities and does not read into the text later dogmatic developments.

The lexical evidence is neither decisive nor probative; but it does indicate that Matthew 25, and by implication the rest of the New Testament, need not be interpreted to support the traditional understanding of an eternal hell. “True,” writes Robin Parry, “the age to come is everlasting, but that does not necessitate that the punishment of the age to come lasts for the duration of that age, simply that it occurs during that age and is appropriate for that age. … Any interpretation of Gehenna must be compatible with the claim that God is love and would never act in a way towards a person that was not ultimately compatible with what is best for that person. Any interpretation of Gehenna as a punishment must be compatible with the claim that divine punishment is more than retributive but has a corrective intention as well (for divine punishment of the sinner must be compatible with, and an expression of, God’s love for that sinner). Any interpretation of Gehenna must be compatible with God’s ultimate triumph over sin and the fulfilment of his loving purpose of redeeming all his creatures” (The Evangelical Universalist, p. 148).

I am no Bible scholar. I am relying completely on the scholarship of others. I offer the above only to suggest that the New Testament can be plausibly read in ways that do not deny the universalist hope. The plain meaning of the Scriptures—the Bible as read according to the criteria of historical-critical exegesis—does not impose the doctrine of everlasting perdition. “Eternal” punishment need not be forever.

* * *

(This is a revised and expanded version of an article originally published in July 2014.)

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41 Responses to Sometimes Eternal Isn’t Forever

  1. Fr Kimel,
    All due respect but isn’t this talk of life eternal and punishment eternal kind of a violation of the ancient teachings of the Church (as well as, and more importantly, the preaching ministry of Jesus) in identifying life eternal as a “now” as in the kingdom of heaven being within us as a “now” as in entering the kingdom of heaven into life eternal via baptism being entering into the divine experience of the Church a “now”?

    It seems more easier to approach the question from what we know scripture teaches about the coming kingdom not just as a future event but also as a “now” which scripture proclaims both. If we emphasize the “now” part, life eternal and punishment eternal make much better sense and are much more clear. For those not partaking in life eternal (that is the sacramental life of the Church) as a “now” they are truly suffering punishment eternal for they are constantly finding themselves in their own misery apart from the life of the Church (even if they dare not acknowledge their true misery). And when they see what they miss out on when the kingdom’s ministry is fulfilled, they will be in more pain that they refused themselves to partake in the “now” part of the kingdom ministry. For instance, Jesus has the enemies of the Christians bow down to them (Rev. 3:9). Imagine the pain and constant suffering of the missed opportunity that those who missed out on the “now” will also feel when no one is bowing before them but they are bowing before others.

    Alas, we cannot know for certain but we do need to focus on the fact that life eternal and punishment eternal are in fact part of the now.

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In the (St.) Clement of Alexandria quotation (Stromata 7.16) I think a typo has crept into the transliteration of the word William Wilson translates as “corrections”: is it not ‘paideiai’? A word meaning primarily (in the singular) ‘education’ and deriving from ‘pais’ primarily meaning ‘child’ (and thence ‘son’, ‘servant’, ‘disciple’).

    Juxtaposing with that passage the one from St. Basil of Caesarea – “for if there will be at a certain moment an end of aiónios punishment, there will also surely be an end of aiónios life” – what is the word translated “punishment” in the latter? I could not readily find a translation of “his brief rules for monastics” online to try to see it in context, but, as it is presented, I can imagine George MacDonald taking it to mean the Source of the “punishment” is ‘aiónios’, being identically the Source “of aiónios life” and/or Aiónios Life Himself (cf. St. John 1:4), but that the experience of that Source/Life as “punishment” would only ‘last as long’ as needful to effect the ‘paideiai’ (to borrow that term) of the one undergoing it as such.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      David, compare J. B. Mayor’s translation of Clement:

      For there are also partial forms of discipline, which are called chastisements, into which most of us, who have trespassed from among the Lord’s people, slip and fall. But as children are chastened by their teacher or their father, so are we by Providence. For God does not take vengeance (for vengeance is a retaliation of evil), but he chastens with a view to the good, both public and private, of those who are chastened.

      For St Basil, here is the wider passage, as translated by Ramelli:

      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)

      Like you, I have not been able to find this work online.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you! A curious last sentence (to my mind)! I can imagine what MacDonald might make of “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”, but I’m not sure it’s what St. Basil is making of it (re. the desire to escape punishment rather than the desire to escape being sinful).

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  3. 407kwac says:

    Reflecting the view that punishment as process cannot be unending, but rather its effects/consequences unending, I’ve noticed that Revelation actually does not state that the torment of the damned goes up forever and ever, but rather that “the smoke of” their torment goes up forever. Even when what is combustable has been completely consumed and burning has ceased, the gases and residue going up into the atmosphere and the ashes remain. We are left to speculate whether in the case of the condemned in Revelation what, if anything, may come up out of those ashes. Will there be anything of eternal worth that remains?

    Karen

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  4. Mike H says:

    Really thorough analysis, thanks for pulling all of the source material together and connecting the pieces.

    I really think that the language in Matthew 25 is THE foundation of the unending eternal torment argument – particularly the life/punishment parallelism.

    When you look to Tradition, there is still the complex historical reality of actual people with brains working through things (not being able to simply refer to what someone else thought in earlier times) and I think Matthew 25 is IT from that standpoint – the weightiest “clobber verse”. So the historical-critical hermeneutic that’s being addressed here is hugely relevant even from that standpoint.

    Still, important and necessary as it is, that hermeneutic taken by itself sort of depresses me. I constantly need to be reminded that it’s more – it’s grounded in the hermeneutic of pascha and divine love, I hope.

    When the cynical and jaded me takes a step back and looks at these debates from 50,000 feet, it just seems so insane that it could boil down to Greek vocabulary, or this verse trumping that verse, this church father trumping that father, God all the while just sort of looking on from heaven watching it unfold. It seems cruel, crushing.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I know what you mean, Mike. It would be nice if we didn’t have to argue about this and pit text against text and father against father. Question: is this not inescapable for historical creatures?

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      • Mike H says:

        Oh, it’s completely inescapable.

        It’s not the general and inevitable ambiguity of life, or even the absence of some magical point in history absent that ambiguity (that a person can infallibly tap into) that bugs me. Well, not only that.

        In this case, if one accepts the viability of this (and other) scholarship, it becomes the question of the real history of Christianity and the question of – “How could this have gone so wrong?”.

        What does that mean? In the end (and leaving ample room for mystery), is it all so fragile that a handful of debated Greek words really have the power to shape and swing the course of eschatological understanding and all the misery or joy that comes from it? Negativity bias is a potent thing.

        Regardless, it’s necessary to simply accept that things unfold over time, and you have to find the points at which paths diverge in order to have productive conversation. Just the way it is.

        I like this quote by DB Hart in “No Enduring City” (which, if you haven’t read it, is a great essay BTW)

        For, if indeed God became incarnate within history in order to reconcile time to eternity, then it only stands to reason that the event of Christ should be one that never ceases to unfold in time, with discernible consequences and in substantial forms.

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  5. Morgan Hunter says:

    I apologize for straying a bit from the main topic, but I’ve always been rather puzzled by the idea (mentioned by Ramelli and, it seems, taught by Origen) that following the Resurrection time will come to an end. I just can’t wrap my head around the idea of embodied beings who presumably exist in space yet don’t exist in time–or of beings who started out existing in time later becoming fixed in timeless eternity, unlike God Who has always been outside of time. Granted, a large portion of this is probably just my immature sense that changeless timelessness sounds rather dull…I’d love to hear other people’s views on the subject.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’m clueless, too. 🙂

      I think we have to admit that none of us know what the general resurrection and a transfigured cosmos will be like. Tom Wright of course knows, but I sure don’t. 🙂

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    • brian says:

      Morgan,

      I think you are making a common mistake. The notion of a static eternity has much more in common with Parmenides and the Eliatic tradition in Greek philosophy. Perichoresis in TriUne life indicates that eternity is actually, in ways we of course cannot comprehend, both peaceful and dramatic, dynamic and a realized plenitude. You should look at Balthasar’s notion of ‘Supertime’ in his theodramatics. (Cf, TheoDrama V in particular.)

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    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      Morgan,

      The most helpful I have found is to consider the Christian revelation of the Trinity – eternally, infinitely without measure of time, yet superabundant overflowing dynamic community of loving Persons giving and receiving, going forth and returning, speaking and hearing, infinite differentiation in unity.This far from a static, changeless abstraction of nothingness. We must put our understanding of the end of time, as everything else for that matter, in the light of the life the Trinity.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thinking in terms of “God Who has always been outside of time”, the Incarnation from the moment of Conception of the Humanitas of Christus Deus Noster, seems to present the same ‘matter’ in full intensity as “that following the [General] Resurrection time will come to an end.”

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Stewart Felker has written a substantive critique of my article. I’m way out of my depth here. Do take a look at this piece and let me know what you think: http://tinyurl.com/jgbhrxj.

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    • brian says:

      Ah, I looked at it. I did not really respond to your blog post, Father, because while I find philological arguments sometimes valuable, I do not think they are definitive and I do not have the specialized knowledge to dispute them at a scholarly level. What I will note from Stewart Felker’s monograph is that he will make a significant assertion, for instance, about the value (or relative lack thereof) of making use of the Septuagint. He implies that the original Hebrew is determinative and that the Greek must be taken as a “second best” that is beholden to the semantic range of the original work it is translating. And I see his point. This is why translations of a poet’s work are always interpretive paraphrases — and one who cannot read a poet in the original must accept the price of mediation. Though — there is always mediation. Even if one knows the poet in the original language, the poem is a negotiation between the poet and his or her readers. The reader cannot help but bring idiosyncratic and individual connotations to language and these will necessarily shape engagement with a linguistic artifact. Further, even the poet does not remain fixed, so the poet can never recapture with identity the original utterance. And even further, the nature of inspiration touches the “passio essendi,” the gifted aspect of our being that transcends understanding and “rational possession” in the manner that discursive discourse and reason as it is conceptualized by the Enlightenment prizes. Hence, original intent does not comprehend all the possible meanings.

      I have used the poet as an analogy for how I think one should approach Biblical hermeneutics. I certainly do not think that the translators of the Septuagint are free (as our friend Brandon Watson might suppose is being asserted here) to “gnostically impose” a radically novel interpretation with no grounding in history or sacred tradition. On the other hand, I can accommodate a greater semantic range allowed to a later “faith community.” If one posits, as I do, for instance, an increase in spiritual awareness about humanity, God, justice, history, etc. from the time of the Biblical patriarchs to the time of the prophets, if one thinks Job a more profound meditation than the rather simple moral metrics of Judges, for example, then one can consider it possible that those who gave us the Septuagint found in the Greek a way to express with greater clarity true insight into the relation between God and Man that the original Hebrew intended.

      And really, some form of this understanding seems to me necessary if one is going to see how Christ both fulfilled and utterly surprised the sages who knew the “Old Testament” backwards and forwards.

      And all of the above is simply to more or less agree with you and Mike H that there is no escaping the ambiguities of life. Regardless of what ecclesial tradition one comes from (or perhaps one is like myself, rather eclectic and drawn to the marginal and eclectic) one cannot escape the risk of interpretation. But I generally come back to my own version of Anselm. I don’t believe I can imagine a God who is better than the reality. And I do think my God is considerably more loving and mysterious than the standard model of infernalist tradition.

      Liked by 1 person

      • SF says:

        Hey, author of the linked post here.

        The thing is that when we talk about the Septuagint’s role on this particular issue, we’re not talking about a sort of big-picture view about how the translators approached broader theological topics (such as the type that “those who gave us the Septuagint found in the Greek a way to express with greater clarity true insight into the relation between God and Man that the original Hebrew intended” suggests).

        In this instance we’re literally just talking about the translation of individual words, and the way the different languages “dealt with” time in their respective lexicons — that is, how both languages had words with unique etymological histories, and used unique idioms to express time-related things, etc.

        We’re talking about the type of thing like the LXX author(s) being thrown off by an ancient Hebrew word/idiom meaning “ancient” and accidentally translating it as “eternal” (where if the true meaning had been recognized, there were perfect Greek analogues for “ancient”).

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        • brian says:

          Stewart,

          As I indicated, I don’t have the expertise to enter into a scholarly discussion on translation. I’ve read books on this subject, but I do not pretend to answer the kind of objections you raise. Since you cast doubt on the credibility of arguments made by other scholars who differ from you, I cannot advert to their authority as a counter that will hold weight with you. I do think that the translation of individual words is not simply a matter of bare fact. An overall interpretation can contextually suggest probabilities, can it not? In any event, it appears to me you do ultimately assume a particular stance on eschatology. How does the non-expert know that one party is unduly prejudiced and the other is simply “neutral”?

          Regardless, my own contribution here was not ultimately dependent upon or aimed at a particular assessment of your argument.

          Tangentially apropos to all this, I do wish David Hart would bring forth his translation of the New Testament. I have no idea if his scholarship would impress Stewart, but I rather trust his acumen on these matters.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Thank you, Stewart, for responding to my article with civility and thoughtfulness. It’s not often that a blogger, at least one like myself, even gets noticed by anyone. 🙂

          It’s impossible for a non-scholar like myself to evaluate your arguments, but I confess that you have not yet convinced me that Konstan and Ramelli, and the other scholars I cited, are wrong. To convince you would need to publish a study comparable to Terms of Eternity and demonstrate that aion and aionios did not have the range of meaning that Konstan and others believe that it had in, say, the Septuagint. Until you have done this, we only have your relatively unsubstantiated claim that this is so. I am in no way questioning your competence. Clearly you possess a competence here that I cannot begin to approach. We simply need more scholarly documentation from you, preferably published in a peer-reviewed journal, than you have so far provided, beyond your series of articles on reddit (http://tinyurl.com/zw3p6a7).

          Your critical claim (correct me if I’m wrong): “there’s a particular understanding of aiōnios where it does have a primary denotation of something like permanence, and yet can still be employed to refer to things that (normally) are technically finite.” Would it be fair to say that you believe this is the primary meaning of aiōnios in the Septuagint? This is a stronger claim than that advanced by Konstan, who more modestly wants to assert multiple meanings of the word in the Septuagint. Given that aionios was used to render the Hebrew ‘olām, clearly we need to know what ‘olām means in the Hebrew Scriptures before we can determine what aionios means, or might mean, in the LXX. As you rightly note: “all uses of all Greek words in the LXX, too—are used “artificially,” in that they can at best only imperfectly render Hebrew or Aramaic phraseology, words and ideas.” At this point I am totally out of my depth, but here I quote from Heleen Keizer’s doctoral study on the use of aion and aionios in Philo of Alexandria: Life Time Entirety. After surveying the use of the term in the Old Testament, she concludes:

          Expressed in more practical terms, ‘olām designates time of which the limit is not known, in the sense either that the limit, though sure, cannot be fixed or that a limit is not to be envisaged. In practice, we may render ‘olām most often by “all time”, “always”, “ever”. … In short, ‘olām denotes time constituting a (temporal) horizon which can be far (e.g. the remote past) and rather near (e.g. the end of one’s life), purposed- but-postponed (life for-‘olām) as well as decided-but-diminished (until-‘olām until…). In its widest sense, ‘olām in the Hebrew Bible describes all time, i.e., time as given with creation.

          Keizer then surveys the the use of aion and aionios in the New Testament. Clearly generalizations here are dangerous, but she offers this generalization:

          To summarize, ‘olām = aiōn in its fundamental sense designates what constitutes the temporal horizon inside of which we, created beings, have our position: it denotes time, always bound up with creation, reaching as far as we are able to envisage. In relation to particular matters, this horizon can be wider or more narrow: the time of a life, the time of a particular condition. As it constitutes a ‘horizon’ and is put by God in their hearts, human beings are aware that there still is more than ‘olām/aiōn. On those occasions where the LXX says “before the aiōn” while the Hebrew has “from/since ‘olām” (usually translated “from/since [the] aiōn”), the LXX utilizes the perspective conveyed by Greek aiōn (sc. a view from outside on a demarcated whole), which is different from that conveyed by ‘olām (a view from inside towards the horizon): “before” (i.e, ‘outside’) “the aiōn” (i.e., all time concurrent with the created world), there was God and his Wisdom.

          How all of this fits in with your own studies, I do not know.

          You write:

          For example, when it comes to the Septuagint’s use of aiōnios when translating, say, texts referring to the permanence of a slave’s bondage in particular Old Testament laws (Leviticus 25:46; Exodus 21:6), we say that the permanence here—which really does suggest a true endlessness, at least in potential—is nonetheless naturally limited by the length of the slave’s life. By contrast though, there is no obvious natural or logical limit to afterlife punishment, being a manifestly supernatural phenomenon enacted by an omniscience deity; it could be as short or as long or as God ordains—including genuinely endless.

          Quite right! This is all anyone who confesses the universalist hope needs. The use of aionios in Matt 25:46 and elsewhere is not alone determinative. The meaning of aionios in a given text can only be determined by careful historical exegesis.

          But what are the consequences for the universalist if in fact you make your historical-critical case? Speaking only for myself, it makes matters a bit more difficult and challenging but not insuperably so—but that takes us into questions of biblical and theological hermeneutics that cannot be a part of our conversation, given your own religious commitments.

          Thanks again for responding to my piece.

          Liked by 1 person

          • SF says:

            Thanks for the reply!

            // To convince you would need to publish a study comparable to Terms of Eternity and demonstrate that aion and aionios did not have the range of meaning that Konstan and others believe that it had in, say, the Septuagint. Until you have done this, we only have your relatively unsubstantiated claim that this is so. //

            I realize that an actual published study is in order — and I also realize that my post series was extremely lengthy, and actually somewhat disorganized in parts (due to later editing) — but in the latter I did go case-by-case in responding to many of their claims about its use in the Septuagint, New Testament, and patristic texts.

            One thing to note, though, is that their original study wouldn’t have passed any sort of moderately rigorous peer review in the first place. Several things stand out in this regard. 1) On a few occasions they’re led to make some extremely erroneous arguments about *aionios* based on their apparent ignorance of the fact that it’s used several times in the LXX merely as a result of scribal error or the translator having misread the Hebrew; and this actually plays a substantial role in several primary arguments they make. (Cf. their discussion/argument about Isaiah 54:4.)

            More damningly, 2) there are times where they actually misquote primary texts (not just mis*translate*, but give a skewed Greek text, too) — and apparently *deliberately* so on at least one or two occasions, in that they *rearrange the order of the Greek text* to better support their argument. (For example, their quotation/discussion of Theophilus, Ad Autolycus 1.14.)

            // Your critical claim (correct me if I’m wrong): “there’s a particular understanding of aiōnios where it does have a primary denotation of something like permanence, and yet can still be employed to refer to things that (normally) are technically finite.” Would it be fair to say that you believe this is the primary meaning of aiōnios in the Septuagint? This is a stronger claim than that advanced by Konstan, who more modestly wants to assert multiple meanings of the word in the Septuagint. //

            I think we should be cautious in even speaking about the “meaning” or meanings of *aionios* in LXX. Again, primarily it’s used to try to *convey* (what the translators thought was the) meaning (of their source texts). That being said, I’ve definitely acknowledged that there are occasions in LXX where *aionios* is used to convey meanings quite atypical or unknown outside the native Greek usage of *aionios* itself. (I think I specifically mentioned its attempt to render Hebrew “ancient” in this regard — whereas Greek *archaios* would have been the real corresponding word.)

            But this multiplicity of meanings would only matter more broadly insofar as these now-crystallized novel meanings of *aionios* — even if they’re very “artificial” — entered into a wider currency of use. But while the New Testament authors and early Christians obviously were greatly influenced by the Septuagint, the evidence doesn’t bear this out; certainly not in the way that Ramelli and Konstan suggest. (I know I did briefly discuss verses like Romans 16:25, however.) Most relevant here, the suggested denotation “of the eschatological age” is absent from LXX, despite their claims otherwise.

            As for Keizer’s comments on ‘olam, for the most part I think they’re highly misleading. I think there’s a lot of eisegesis going on there, or even a creative (and uncritical) theologizing. For example, do comments like “As it constitutes a ‘horizon’ and is put by God in their hearts, human beings are aware that there still is more than ‘olām/aiōn” really belong in academic philology? Even if she means only to characterize what she thinks the *Biblical* view of this was, there’s absolutely no evidence/indication of this in the texts themselves.

            So yeah, above all I think it’s Keizer’s impulse toward philosophical systematization/categorization that leads here into extreme philological eisegesis.

            As for my comment

            // there is no obvious natural or logical limit to afterlife punishment, being a manifestly supernatural phenomenon enacted by an omniscience deity; it could be as short or as long or as God ordains—including genuinely endless. //

            and your

            // Quite right! This is all anyone who confesses the universalist hope needs. The use of aionios in Matt 25:46 and elsewhere is not alone determinative. The meaning of aionios in a given text can only be determined by careful historical exegesis. //

            , perhaps I should have added a clarifying comment. With my comment there, I wasn’t trying to say anything about *aionios* itself. If *aionios* retains a primary denotation as suggesting “permanent,” then this is all we need to know relevant to afterlife punishment. In the absence of any NT authors qualifying that there’s some state *after* eschatological/afterlife *aionios* punishment (which they don’t do), then there should be no debate that for them it either suggests eternal in *consequence* in the sense of annihilation, or genuinely endless punishment/torment. In other words, the use of *aionios* itself stands *against* there being any “obvious natural or logical limit to afterlife punishment.”

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Stewart, may I suggest that you pull together a list of the errors that you believe you have found in Terms of Eternity and send it to Dr David Konstan. He strikes me as a serious scholar and I’m sure he would welcome the corrections. Perhaps that might even lead to an improved second edition of the book.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            If I can speak as an unwissenschaftlich ‘fool’ or whatever who has also not (yet) read Stewart Felker’s series of articles, I don’t see any attention in the clarifying comment to the substantive, ‘kólasin’, and it seems to me there is a lot of eisegesis going on, and/or uncritical theologizing, in speaking in terms of “a manifestly supernatural phenomenon enacted by an omniscient deity”. But perhaps all this falls under Fr. Aidan saying, “that takes us into questions of biblical and theological hermeneutics that cannot be a part of our conversation, given your own religious commitments” (the context of which I do not know).

            Do delete this, Fr. Aidan, if its only something like the effluvium of a a hot mud spring!

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  7. apophaticallyspeaking says:

    Agreed Brian – hence the importance of the “hermeneutics of Pascha” as was brought up in prior conversations. Which lens do we use?

    We must keep in mind the multiple levels of reasoning and discourse – there’s the appeal to authority (texts, tradition) on the one hand, and on the other there’s the metaphysical approach (nature of divine love, creatio ex nihilo, etc.). Unless the former is endowed with unconditional and fixed power (which is highly problematic) it will at best provide an indefinitive contribution, whereas the metaphysical argument, whilst taking into account the contribution of texts and authority but recognizing their provisional nature (the inescapable necessity of a hermeneutic, for one), is much stronger.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. James says:

    “I am no Bible scholar. I am relying completely on the scholarship of others.”
    With all do respect Fr Aidan but relying on the scholarship of others alone and not trying at least to interpret Scripture yourself through scholarly education(preferably through the Biblical languages)seems to be a dangerous path to follow is it not?

    What happens if traditional Orthodox theology is correct to say that indeed the Lake of Fire is eternal punishment and that those who you follow were all this time incorrect?

    I admire those who don’t want the LoF to be a permanent punishment for the wicked and for myself I’m in a road to discover the truth through the lens of the Biblical languages but I can’t escape right now the fact that the last what 1500-1900 years of traditional Orthodox theology of eternal punishment was wrong all this time. It just seems so way out there.

    For some reason though Universalism has been a topic of interest of mine for the last few weeks and I can’t figure out why. I’m hoping that it’s possibly God directing me to it and not Lucifer trying to tickle and whisper in my ear what I don’t want to hear. But it’s still a topic of interest and I’m hoping by learning the Biblical languages I can see clearly and seek the overall truth that I desire the most.

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    • brian says:

      James,

      It’s a little exclusive if one is going to require everyone to have scholarly facility with ancient Hebrew and Greek in order to have a credible theological opinion. Outside of that, which I think is manifestly an exorbitant prerequisite, most avail themselves of multiple translations and the work of scholars who do have competence in these matters. Further, philological competence is not equivalent to theological insight. Figures like Bulgakov and Balthasar, the twentieth centuries’ greatest theologians in my opinion, were not primarily biblical exegetes, though they could and did make use of the scholarly literature. There are orders of insight and degrees of interpretive excellence, comprehension, depth, and, for lack of a better word, beauty. This last may seem mere aestheticism, but if one understands beauty, truth, and goodness as transcendentals that always suffuse reality, it becomes a hallmark of truth. The level of work at which philology functions is important, but it is an ingredient in a much vaster enterprise.

      In any event, there are some good discussions on relevant matters regarding the universalist hope that can be found in the archives of this site. I won’t rehash them here, but do note that the patristic tradition is not monolithic, nor is affirmation of apokatastasis limited to Origen and his epigoni.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. brian says:

    Yes, Father, that’s the one. Thanks.

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  10. brian says:

    Father,

    Stewart’s claims are serious ones. He has real contempt for Konstans. He asserts that the original work is mendacious, full of (deliberate?) misquotation and ignorance. In general, it is evident that he considers the New Testament witness unambiguously committed to a traditional infernalist teaching. Hence, every interpreter who discovers a different meaning, such as Keizer, will be accused of a spurious eisegesis. The initial problem for the non-specialist remains. How does one determine the validity of original scholarship and of critique? Felker clearly implies that a theological a priori is responsible for dodgy translation so bad as to constitute malpractice. Yet the non-specialist is left wondering if his own eschatological convictions are bereft of influence. Hart’s ongoing translation of the New Testament intends to show that it properly witnesses to a universalist teaching — well, I surmise. At the least, one is not left with the supposition that all universalists are corrupt or badly mislead. Should one automatically assume that the scholarship must be shoddy because Stewart Felker has determined that no such possibility is allowed by his philological analysis?

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    • SF says:

      // In general, it is evident that he considers the New Testament witness unambiguously committed to a traditional infernalist teaching. //

      Actually I think that the NT evidence leans heavily in favor of annihilationism.

      And I could be wrong about the theological presuppositions. I suppose it’s entirely likely that the presuppositions that Ramelli/Konstan’s work are built on are merely *philological* and not theological. (Though Konstan’s involvement with so-called “evangelical universalism” might play in favor of the latter.)

      But, I mean, an important point here is that there are many places in their monograph where the foundations of major arguments are demonstrably built on errors. I especially have little tolerance for misquotations of primary sources (esp.l when they’re twisted to support a particular argument).

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      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        I would be interested to know what in your view is the function of tradition in relation to texts.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Stewart, as far as I know, David Konstan has no involvement whatsoever with evangelical universalism. I have no idea what his religious commitments, if any, might be.

        David Konstan is a respected classicist and author of several scholarly books and articles. He is also a past president of the American Philological Society. Ilaria Ramelli is also a respected classicist, whose vitae is about ten miles long. As Brian has noted, you have accused Konstan and Ramelli of shoddy scholarship, if not worse. That’s a serious charge, which you need to back up in detail in a scholarly article of your own. An internet blog like this is obviously not the place for you to do so, but you really do need to document your allegations. Just saying.

        Liked by 1 person

        • SF says:

          Ah, I was thinking about how Konstan had his own (sub-)forum on the EvangelicalUniversalist forum (http://evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=7); but looks like he’s only posted a few times.

          In any case, I’m familiar with Konstan and Ramelli’s other research, and think quite highly of both.

          The reason I haven’t published anything in critical response is mainly because *Terms for Eternity* is almost a decade old at this point — and it hardly elicited any actual academic discussion in its aftermath, for that matter. Yes, Ramelli reiterated a couple of the points from it in her 2013 monograph . But as it currently stands, about the only people who seem to care about their work on *aionios* are confessional universalists.

          (And to be pedantic, I *did* document all my allegations against their claims, in great detail. My response was no less academic just because it happened to not be published in a journal.)

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          • brian says:

            Yes, but when one makes serious charges against reputed scholars, surely it is optimal to make them in a venue where other scholars of competence are likely to comment. If you think highly of the work of Konstans and Ramelli generally, isn’t it anomalous that they should have produced such a dishonest monograph? Did they think no one would notice? Wouldn’t serious scholars feel an obligation to publish work with integrity and to the best of their intellectual lights?

            Thanks, btw, for clarifying regarding your annihilationist understanding.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Like you, Brian, I too am eager for DBH to publish his translation of the New Testament. It’s my understanding that he has been reading biblical and patristic Greek since he was nine years old or so and is fluent in both. I know that he believes that aionios should not be translated as “eternal” or “everlasting” when referring to eschatological realities. It will be interesting to see how he ends up rendering it in his translation.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. James says:

    Fr Aidan
    I apologize for coming off crass. I do believe that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit that works of great theologians can be supplemental to the Bible so as long as the Bible takes precedence over other scholarly work. But I also believe that we also have to be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves and need to be careful on what we read outside the Bible itself.

    So again my apologizes.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      James, no need for an apology at all. I would only point out that you cannot appeal to the authority of the Bible when we are debating the interpretation of the Bible. My article and this thread, I hope, at least shows that reasonable people can disagree about what the Bible says about aionian punishment.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. miltonthomasx says:

    You have bumped straight on to our research at Godtype, com. Biblical evidence that eternity (Mene mene) is both eternal and yet paradoxically measured? Great article….Youngs literally translation teaches us so much…. http://www.godtype.com/2014/02/introduction-godtype-evidence-time-space-encoded-within-bible-human-cognition/

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  13. Nicolas Thomas says:

    One simple solution is to use the plain English word “everlasting” when we are talking about the precise idea of “never-ending-ness”. We can then try to dissuade people using the word “eternal” when they’re really talking about “everlasting-ness” .

    When someone complains “you don’t believe in eternal punishment” — the correct reply is “yes I do, because it’s in Mat 25:46 — I believe in eternal punishment, but not in everlasting punishment”.

    In this way, we should be able to avoid using the word “eternal” in different senses — often within the same sentence. So, if we can clean-up our vocabulary, and standardize our terms, then we’ll make communication a little easier.

    Also, let’s try to get those who believe in “never-ending punishment” to say clearly exactly what they believe: everlasting / never ending punishment. To often, I feel, they prefer to say things like “eternal separation” as a kind of euphemism, to avoid the full force of what they’re saying.

    Hope these ideas are helpful.

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