Part V: The Future of the Non-Elect
There are perhaps
only five alternative views regarding the future of the unsaved.
The first of these five is not really a candidate and has not
been countenanced by Christians because it is simply a denial
of any future whatsoever for either the saved or the unsaved.
But it is an alternative. It is well exemplified in a statement
made by Bertrand Russell, who may be taken as representative
of a very large number of thoughtful and intelligent people today
sharing his dismal philosophy of human destiny. Essentially,
these people hold that we are like the beasts that perish, re-absorbed
at death into the material universe of physics and chemistry
as though we had never been. Personal existence results from
an accidental coming together of electrochemical forces that
have no permanent significance. In 1938 Lord Russell was quoted
as saying: (1)
Man is the product of causes
which had no prevision of the end they were achieving: his origin,
his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but
the outcome of an accidental collocation of atoms. No fire, no
heroism, no intensity of thought or feeling, can preserve an
individual life beyond the grave: all the noonday brightness
of human genius, is destined to extinction in the vast death
of the solar system, and the whole temple of man's achievement
must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in
ruins ‹ all these things, if not quite beyond dispute are
yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can
hope to stand.
Such an answer
to the problem appears to many people today to be the only, the
simplest, and the most rational answer: but it is in fact none
of these things. The prospect of absolute personal annihilation
may be faced with some equanimity in youth where it is too remote
to matter, and so is applied to others but not to ourselves.
But later years bring second thoughts for most people, and this
kind of annihilation becomes infinitely sad to contemplate. There
is no doubt that the acceptance of such a fate is not the sign
of a free healthy spirit but of a diseased one. God has set eternity
1. Bertrand Russell: quoted in J. W. N. Sullivan,
The Limitations of Science, New York, Pelican Books, 1938,
1 of 25
heart of man. In every
culture and apparently throughout history it has been normal
for man to assume that he has some continuance beyond the grave.
This modern view of annihilation is a symptom of the malaise
of our society.
So we really have only four alternatives
that require consideration at the end of such a study as this:
1. Annihilation of the unsaved.
2. Universalism ‹ in which all are saved and none are punished.
3. Punishment of the unsaved which will one day terminate in
restoration to fellowship with God.
4. Everlasting punishment and unbroken banishment from the presence
Let us examine
these briefly and then compare the consequences of each as they
reflect upon the justice of God. *
1. Annihilation of the Unsaved
are a number of passages of Scripture which it is claimed support
the concept of annihilation, but at least some of these passages,
taken in their context, do not really seem to warrant such an
interpretation. Among them are the following:
The light of the wicked shall
be put out, and the spark of his fire shall not shine (Job 18:5).
(This suggests that his "substance" is to be utterly
consumed, not even a spark remaining alive.)
The wicked shall perish, and
the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall
consume; into smoke shall they consume away. . . . The
transgressors shall be destroyed together; the end of the wicked
shall be cut off (Psalm 37:20, 38).
When the wicked spring as the
grass. and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is
that they shall be destroyed forever (Psalm 92:7).
As the whirlwind passes, so
is the wicked no more (Proverbs 10:25).
* Throughout the following section
a number of passages of Scripture are listed which are claimed
by supporters of various alternative views. In many cases these
passages have already been dealt with and analyzed to show that
they need not, and probably should not, be interpreted at their
face value since the words employed often have important alternative
meanings. It may therefore prove disconcerting to the reader
to find such passages now quoted in support of a position which
it has been previously suggested they cannot be used to support.
This is inevitable, of course, because these verses are used
in support of these alternative views by certain classes of people.
We have therefore adopted the policy of putting in brackets after
each passage a reference to the pages in this volume where the
more probable meaning is dealt with at some length. It will be
seen that these references relate chiefly to alternative renderings
of such words as saved, all, world, willing. etc.
all they that were incensed against You shall be ashamed and
confounded: they shall be as nothing; and they that strive with
You shall perish. You shallt seek them . . . even them that contend
with You: they that war against You shall be as nothing, and
as a thing of nought (Isaiah 41:11, 12).
All they that know you [the
king of Tyre] among the people shall be astonished at you: you
shall be a terror, and never shall you be any more (Ezekiel 28:19).
For the day of the Lord is near
upon all the heathen: as you hast done, it shall be done unto
you: your reward shall return upon your own head. For as you
have drunk upon my holy mountain, so shall all the heathen drink
continually, yea, they shall drink, and they shall swallow down,
and they shall be as though they had not been (Obadiah 15, 16).
Behold the day comes, that you
shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, all that do wickedly,
shall be stubble: and the day that comes shall burn them up,
says the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root
nor branch (Malachi 4:1).
The Lord Jesus shall be revealed
from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance
on them that know not God, and that obey not the Gospel of our
Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction
from the presence of the Lord. . . (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).
If we sin willfully after that
we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no
more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of
judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries
(Hebrews 10:26, 27).
the most recent presentation of this view is found in a small
but effectively written work by the well-known evangelical Basil
F. C. Atkinson, an English writer who has been described as a
modern Matthew Henry. His argument is formulated entirely by
an appeal to Scripture and he holds that in this context death
means death and destruction means destruction. The second death
(Revelation 20:14; 21:8) is a total cessation of life. Daniel
12:2 seems to speak of the first death, a natural death followed
by a sleep in the dust, awaiting resurrection to judgment. The
second death will not be a sleep but an annihilation. While the
fires of Gehenna are indeed unquenchable, such fires can burn
out when there is nothing left to consume. They did in the Valley
of Hinnom, the garbage dump outside the city walls of Jerusalem;
the fires which were intended to consume the refuse did burn
out, historically, once there was no more dumping of garbage
after the city had been deserted at the time of the Captivity
in Babylon. Similarly the burning of the Lord which was to fall
upon Israel's folds and flocks and orchards as a punishment was
unquenchable in the sense that it was inescapable. Nevertheless,
it too died out when the land was deserted. Sodom and Gomorrah
suffered the vengeance of "eternal fire" (Jude 7),
but it seems likely that this fire burned itself out in hours,
if not in minutes. The effect was everlasting,
for Sodom and Gomorrah
disappeared. Even if they were to be rediscovered and rebuilt,
the old Sodom and Gomorrah so perished as to be still 
undiscovered, for all the searching that has been undertaken.
According to this view, the fire
of hell is not to correct but to consume. When its consuming
is wholly complete, death itself will cease to be a reality,
thus fulfilling in an unexpected way 2 Timothy 1:10, in which
the Lord Jesus Christ is said (prophetically) to have "abolished
death." As a fire goes out when nothing remains to keep
it alive, so death is abolished when there are no dead left,
for the fire will consume them until the place thereof knows
them no more. One might borrow John Owen's famous title and apply
it in a new context, calling this "the death of death."
It is not necessary, as some critics of this view have argued,
that annihilation be instantaneous at the time of Judgment; the
stubble that is consumed and the refuse that is burned take time
to burn, but they are finally destroyed, The end result is not
immediate destruction but final destruction, which
is essentially the argument of the annihilationists.
The annihilation of the wicked
at least frees the universe from the dualism of two hostile kingdoms
co-existing for ever and ever, even if they do so with a great
gulf fixed between them. If it is true that few are chosen and
many are lost, the kingdom of darkness would be larger than the
kingdom of light; and its annihilation would have at least this
advantage, that the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ would ultimately
be unchallenged. Continued co-existence, on the other hand, even
if the kingdom of darkness is very small, indeed if it were only
one single individual, would still demonstrate an incomplete
victory ‹ and in a sense an incomplete victory is really
no victory at all.
In the new heavens and the new
earth of 2 Peter 3:13 which are to be created "wherein dwells
righteousness", would this not require that evil be permanently
eliminated? Indeed the annihilationists argue that either there
must be restitution of all things or the wicked must be completely
consumed. Many earnest Christian people of evangelical persuasion
believe that they are driven by the plain sense of Scripture
to one or the other of these two alternatives. There have always
been a few earnest spirits, from the earliest times to the present,
persuaded that the Scriptures tend towards the annihilationist
view. By removing the wicked altogether, it is felt that a passage
such as 1 Corinthians 15:28 is more likely to be fulfilled completely,
when God will become all in all and every remaining knee in the
universe will bow before the Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of
concept of annihilation may ease the problem of final complete
victory, it does seem to make the creation of so many billions
of individuals purposeless. Yet a naturalist might argue that
such an apparent waste of life is not without parallels in Nature
as a whole. It is pointed out that when a codfish lays several
million eggs, only a few of these eggs (some
authorities say only
two or three) are believed to develop into adults to perpetuate
the species. It is held that in some way the millions that do
not develop provide a special chemical environment for the favoured
survivors without which they would not reach maturity.
The analogy is a harsh one indeed,
for we are not speaking here of mere animals but of living human
beings who are indeed perishing, but surely not perishing according
to the Creator's design as we may suppose is true in the case
of cod spawn. The problem of numerical imbalance remains. G.
C. Berkouwer struggles with this problem of numerical imbalance*
and points out that Herman Hoeksema has actually gone so far
as to suggest that it was necessary for these enormous numbers
of people to be rejected from the Kingdom. He does not hesitate
to say that God "had to" adopt this plan. Hoeksema
proposes that the rejected "are in a sense the price, the
ransom, which God pays for the higher glory of his children."
According to this view, He could not do otherwise for there was
no other possibility for Him. The price had to be paid. Such
a bald statement strikes the mind as wholly unacceptable. And
yet as we have already seen, it may not be altogether irrational.
It seems that God did indeed have to reject some. And by rejection
is not meant that God elected them to reprobation but rather
that He did not elect them to salvation. To save all men would
involve overruling the free choice of all, since man by nature
universally rejects God's offer of salvation. But to overrule
the free choice of all men is to invalidate the plan to allow
man freedom of choice to begin with, and thus to reduce him to
the status of puppet. Alternatively, to save none at all would
rob the creation of any point. If none are to be saved, it were
better not to create man and allow him to make a free choice.
God had no alternative but to elect some and not to elect the
rest. But whether we can go so far as to say with Hoeksema that
the loss of the many is intended as a benefit to the few is another
matter, even though it may seem to be a logical necessity.
It is also important to realize
that death is not necessarily a curse. It comes to many as a
relief. Indeed God seems to have ordained death for fallen man,
not for unfallen man, and did so not as a penalty but as a remedy.
Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden specifically to prevent
their eating of the Tree of Life and so living on forever as
corrupted, sinful people. We may gather from this that unending
life in a sinful condition was, at least in this world, an unthinkable
alternative to dying, and the action taken to secure against
such a contingency was, if we look carefully at Genesis 3:22‹24,
undertaken with great urgency. The Lord "drove them out"
and stationed an angel at the gate of the Garden whose flaming
sword (the instrument of death) turned every way, specifically
to guard the way to the Tree of Life: death was therefore inescapable.
The circumstance has been seized upon by some annihilationists
to support the argument that annihilation
* Berkouwer, G. C.,
Studies in Dogmatics:Divine Election, translated by Hugo
Beker, Grand Rapids, Eerdman's, 1960, p.207.
is at least vastly to
be preferred to unending continuance in a sinful condition.
Such, then, is the first alternative,
and such are some of the problems it poses, and some of the answers
it is believed to provide, and some of the possible reasons which
may make it a not altogether absurd solution to what is admittedly
a profound problem. However, there is one strong argument against
it which has been stated effectively by R. A. Killen. He wrote
recently: "The wicked will not be annihilated by the second
death as judgment for their sins any more than Christ was annihilated
when He paid the penalty for our sins." (2)
The term Universalist
may be applied to two classes of people. There are those who
believe that there is no punishment at all. It is assumed that
everyone will be automatically forgiven by a benevolent Creator
who is loving towards all his creatures and has already made
adequate provision for their forgiveness in the sacrifice of
his Son who died effectively for the sins of all men.* And then
there is a second class of persons who believe that for all who
die unregenerate there will be a period of punishment that is
corrective rather than punitive. When these have paid "the
last farthing" they will be released from the place of punishment
and brought back into fellowship with God.
to deal separately with these two broad classifications, but
there are certain key passages of Scripture which are claimed
by both parties as proof texts in support of their position.
Such a key passage is Colossians 1:20: "And having made
peace through the blood of his cross, by Him to reconcile all
things unto Himself, by Him, I say, whether they be things in
earth or things in heaven." What is here intended by the
word reconciliation is held to be plainly established
by the following verse (21), which reads: "And you [the
saints at Colossae] that were once alienated and enemies in your
mind by wicked works, even now [Greek nuni ] has He reconciled.
. ." Like the saints who are already reconciled, the rest
of the universe will also be reconciled. Indeed as 2 Corinthians
5:19 says: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto
Himself, not imputing their
2. R. A. Killen: quoted in Wycliffe Encyclopedia, editrd
by C. F. Pfeiffer, under "Eternal State and Death" Vol.
I, p. 553.DOC
* For the sake of simplicity in this brief presentation,
the theological views of Karl Barth which bear on this issue,
in which he comes very close to a Universalism of this type,
are not discussed. Nor is the word universal to be confused
with the use made of it by Reformed theologians to describe what
amounts to Unlimited Atonement.
trespasses unto them."
And so also John 3:17: "God sent not his Son into the world
to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be
saved." To this might be added 1 John 4:14: "And we
have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the
Saviour of the world."
There are a number of passages
which Universalists of this first class commonly take literally
in order to prove their thesis:
Therefore as by the offense
of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by
the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto
justification of life. (Romans 5:18).
For God has concluded them all
in unbelief that He might have mercy upon all (Romans 11:32).
For to this end Christ both
died, and rose, and lived again, that He might be Lord both of
the dead and the living (Romans 14:9).
As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall
all be made alive. . . that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians
That in the dispensation of
the fullness of time, He might gather together in one all things
in Christ. both which are in heaven and which are in earth, even
in Him (Ephesians 1:10).
[God] will have all men
to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth . . .
[Jesus Christ] gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified
in due time (1 Timothy 2:4, 6). [For further discussion, see
Part II, Chapter 8, p.??]
For therefore we both labour
and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who
is the Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe (1
Timothy 4:10). [For further discussion, see Part II, chapter
8, p. ??]
He Himself likewise [was partaker
of flesh and blood] that through death He might destroy him that
had the power of death, that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14).
He is the propitiation for our
sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole
world (1 John 2:2).
[For further discussion see Part II, Chapter 8, p. ???]
who foresee no judgment whatever make two basic assumptions.
The first is that God is more concerned with exhibiting his benevolence
than demonstrating his justice, and the second is that man is
essentially good and by nature wants to amend his ways, given
the opportunity. He will only have to have his faults pointed
out to him in the Judgment to repent immediately and turn from
his wickedness and live.
that since God loves all men equally and gave his Son to die
for their sins, He cannot conceivably display any vindictiveness
or demand that man should also bear the penalty for offending
Him. He is so filled with benevolence that He will forgive and
dismiss all charges. One reproachful look will be sufficient
to break down the recalcitrant, even as the Lord turned and looked
at Peter. Men will weep bitterly for their sins and this repentance
will validate the Atonement already made for them.
a view derives from a very inadequate conception of the disastrous
effects of the Fall upon human nature. The assumption is made
that man is still essentially good at heart and will feel perfectly
comfortable in the presence of an absolutely holy God, no matter
how wicked one has been during life. It is taken for granted
that despite the testimony of history and personal experience,
creatures who all their adult lives have been selfish and rebellious
against what they know to be right will suddenly be entirely
different kinds of people, capable of contributing to the well-being
of a perfect society (heaven) as soon as they are placed in the
position of being able to do or be or have whatever they like
without restraints of any kind ‹ which of course is their
concept of heaven. The possibility that everyone else will also
be making precisely the same plans for personal self-satisfaction
does not strike such people as any hindrance to the creation
of an ideal society.
As to the nature
of God, He is seen as a benevolent Father who is never angry
at sin or seriously concerned in any way with our failings, which
are all perfectly excusable. He will simply forgive. But as Albertus
Pieters long ago pointed out, forgiveness is a much more difficult
thing from God's point of view than it is from man's point of
Disobedience always requires sanctions.
Unless there is a penalty for disobedience, obedience becomes
a matter of total indifference. * If any law can be broken with
impunity, it is an unnecessary law and should be abolished. Sin
and penalty are riveted together, or sin is not sin but merely
a harmless alternative. But we live in an ordered universe, a
cosmos, which has been designed with two governing systems of
law, one of which we call natural (or physical) and the other
moral (or spiritual). It is difficult for us who are normally
far more aware of these natural laws to realize that there really
is another balancing system of laws which are of even greater
significance because they are eternal and unbreakable, and not
merely temporal and variable.
We know by experience
that disobeying natural laws involves penalties, but to a surprising
degree the consequences are not always fatal. We lose our balance
and tumble to our hurt, but we may completely recover. To fall
in respect to the spiritual order is a far more serious matter,
however, because it is fatal. The penalty of falling over may
be a wound which will heal: the penalty of sin is death. In this
second world order there are no small slips that are comparatively
harmless corresponding to the physical order. The temporal penalty
in the natural context becomes an eternal one in the spiritual
**Pieters, Albertus, Divine Lord and Saviour,
London, Fleming, Revell, 1949, p.117.
* A. W. Pink wisely observed. "Precept
without penalty is simply advice, or at most a request: and rewards
without punishments are nothing but inducements" (Gleanings
from Scripture: Man s Total Depravity, Chicago, Moodly Press,
We observe this fundamental distinction in the fact
of miracle. Whenever it pleases Him, God can superimpose on the
natural order another set of laws, not hitherto known to us,
which we call miracle. The Bible is filled with such instances,
as for example when both the Lord Jesus and Peter walked on the
water. But we do not have any evidence whatever of the suspension
of a single principle altering the terms upon which the moral
order of the universe is based. It is clear therefore that the
moral order is far more exacting and immutable than the natural
order. The moral law evidently cannot be "bent," it
is non-adjustable. This implies that it is also far more fundamental,
and any tampering with it would be more disastrous for the whole
universe than would upsetting the cohesive bonds within the atom
or removing gravitational forces, for example. The universe would
cease to exist as a system of order, and this apparently would
apply equally in the physical world as in the spiritual world.
But we give little thought in daily life to the consequences
of our moral failures.
The set of laws which we commonly
suppose we can violate with least danger are the laws which in
actual fact exact the most lasting and inescapable penalties.
There are several reasons for the little respect which we pay
to this awesome fact. One is that breaking the moral laws of
the universe as a rule imposes a slow-acting penalty. In the
physical order, if we step blithely over the edge of a cliff
we are likely to pay the penalty a few seconds later. In the
moral order it may be years before we experience any rebuff.
"The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding
small," as Longfellow said in his poem "Retribution."
In the physical order it appears
that with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26), or to
put it slightly differently, an almost infinite variety of adjustments
can be made. But in the moral order no such flexibility exists.
There are many things that even God is constitutionally unable
to do ‹ -even if He wanted to. Of course if He wanted to
do some of these things, He would not be God. God cannot lie,
for example (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). God cannot countenance
iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13). Man can do these things, but God cannot.
It looks as though God should be able, if He wishes, to dismiss
man's disobedience and rebellion as of little consequence. He
would then seem to be magnifying his benevolence by simply forgiving
anyone who regrets his sin and admits his faults. But it is necessary
to bear in mind that men may be sorry for entirely the wrong
reasons. Sorrow is not always "godly" sorrow (2 Corinthians
7:10): it may be remorse which is only a form of self-commiseration
when it is discovered that things have not worked out as expected.
This is not godly sorrow for sin but disappointment over failure
where one had anticipated success. Such forms of repentance accomplish
nothing towards the reformation of character; they only bear
witness to the crumbling of false hopes. In Judas' case it led
to suicide (Matthew 27:3‹5), which is an illustration of
"the sorrow of the world," a sorrow that, as
2 Corinthians 7:10 also
points out, "works death." P. Carnegie Simpson in his
book The Fact of Christ has observed that there is really
no comparison between forgiveness in human relationships and
the forgiveness of God. "Forgiveness is to man the plainest
of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems." (3) The reason for this fundamental
difference in the two situations is that we are not responsible
for sustaining either the physical or the moral fabric of the
universe. When we overlook faults in one another, the fabric
of the universe is not fatally disturbed. With God the situation
is quite otherwise. If He should deliberately set aside these
laws, the universe would collapse.
Pieters speaks of the "oughtness"
of things and points out rightly that if God arbitrarily forgave
He would destroy his own creation entirely in its most important
constituent.* To do this just once would be fatal, let alone
to do it for millions of human beings who have merely repented
when they realized they had "backed the wrong horse."
It is no answer to say that the sinner has repented, for what
is there about repentance that cancels the oughtness of the penalty?
The criminal who maims an innocent man for life cannot compensate
merely by repenting and saying, "I'm sorry," no matter
how sincere he is.
To preserve the moral fabric of
the universe there must be penalty. That is why God sent his
Son into the world, that the whole moral fabric might be preserved,
while yet providing a proper basis for the remission of sins.
The only basis for such remission is that the Lord Jesus Christ
bore the penalty in his own Person. But if any individual rejects
this sole solution to the problem of forgiveness, then there
is no other substitute penalty available. He must pay the penalty
himself. Having rejected the only ground for forgiveness which
preserves the moral order, there is nothing left for the guilty
party except "a certain fearful looking for judgment"
(Hebrews 10:27). The word rendered fearful in this passage
means, more literally, "terrible." The penalty for
disregarding the natural laws of the universe is severe enough;
the penalty for disregarding the moral laws of this universe
is terrible ‹ always.
Pieters wrote: "Some people
think that because a man ought to forgive another man freely
if he repents, therefore God ought to do the same."** But
the context is entirely different. Man is not responsible for
maintaining the fabric of the moral universe; God is. We can
forgive offenses when others repent, and we should, because we
have similarly offended. But we are both penitents in this context,
and forgiveness means little more than agreeing to make allowance
for one another. We cannot really forgive in such a way as to
cancel the offense from the record as though it had never occurred.
Only God can forgive in such a way that the order of the universe
3. P. Carnegie Simpson: quoted by Albertus Pieters, Divine
Lord and Saviour, London, Fleming Revell, 1949, p.117.
* Pieters, Albertus, ibid., p.??
** Ibid., p. ???
intact ‹ and He
does so only because He Himself in the Person of his Son, the
Lord Jesus Christ, paid the penalty required to preserve that
moral fabric. Love is not the basis of God's forgiveness.
At the same time, how could there
be any reward unless there is also punishment? The one is inconceivable
without the other. To reward one above another is to inflict
punishment on the other by lesser reward and if all are equally
rewarded, none are rewarded at all. One cannot plead for a universal
amnesty and at the same time promise reward for good behaviour,
for the concept of good behaviour implies a difference between
individuals which a universal amnesty would ignore. Universalism
which is based on the assumption of a general spirit of bonhomie
in which both God and man equally disregard the issues of righteousness
and sin is not really a promise of happiness for everyone but
a denial of any absolute values of any kind ‹ a heaven that
is a moral vacuum and without character. Such a heaven would
be meaningless and worse than earthly existence where, for all
its tragedies, there are at least recognizable values because
there are differences in reward.
subterfuge which is often appealed to by evangelists who are
anything but Universalists in their eschatology is to try to
separate the sinner from his sin. The same principle has been
adopted by Universalists who deny punishment. The idea is that
God loves everyone equally and that what He hates is only their
sin, which He views as something divorced from their persons.
If He loves everyone but everyone is a sinner, then we must assume
that the sinner is the object of his love while only the sinner's
sin is the object of his displeasure. This looks like a neat
arrangement, but is it really so?
In actual fact this arrangement
creates an impossible situation whether it is a principle applied
to punishment or reward. For when the wicked are punished we
have to suppose that they stand aside as spectators watching
some kind of substance which represents their sinfulness being
punished while they themselves are in no way injured. If this
were the case, then obviously the rich man in Luke 16:24 should
not have asked Lazarus to cool his tongue but some kind of impersonal
something which was outside of himself and associated only with
the evils for which that tongue was responsible. But this is
not what he actually did; he was himself tormented. It is impossible
to conceive of the punishment of a man's sin without the man's
suffering the punishment himself, for it is impossible to separate
the sinner from his sin. It follows inevitably that God cannot
at one and the same time love the sinner and hate his sin. If
He loves the sinner it can only be because the sinner has been
separated, that is, absolved, from his sin.
And what has been said of the punishment
of the sinner manifestly applies with equal force to the rewarding
of the saint. It is difficult to see how the redeemed could stand
back and watch while his good deeds are
rewarded without relation
to himself as a person. In what objective sense would the reward
be presented? We cannot ask, "To whom ?" If we ask,
"To what is the reward presented?" are we asking a
enough, Universalism creates more problems than does annihilation.
For one thing our sense of justice is more severely damaged.
Annihilation is at least a penalty, and though annihilation seems
far more severe, the penalty of the penalty of annihilation
is far less than the penalty of Universalism. For as we have
seen. bland forgiveness is tantamount to throwing away the operating
principle which governs the universe. Moreover, annihilation
might be considered a more merciful form of judgment than unending
torment. If there must be judgment, and one has the choice of
unending torment or annihilation, there is little doubt which
would be objectively preferable. Universalism cuts the Gordian
knot by eliminating judgment, but only at the cost of destroying
the whole ‹ including the concept of reward.
3. Limited Punishment
We find ourselves on the horns
of a dilemma, saving the benevolence of God (by a universal amnesty)
at the expense of his integrity, or saving the justice of God
(by annihilation of the wicked) at the expense of his wisdom
and foresight ‹ for surely to have created untold millions
for extinction does challenge the worthiness of the original
passage which seems difficult to interpret in any way other than
by assuming a limited period of punishment followed by release
is found in Matthew 5:25, 26:
Agree with thine adversary
quickly, while you are in the way with him: if at any time the
adversary delivers you to the judge, and the judge delivers you
to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Verily I say unto
you, tyou shall by no means come out thence, till you have paid
the uttermost farthing.
but with similar implications is Luke 12:46-48:
The lord of that servant
will come in a day when he isn't looking for him, in an hour
when he is not aware [i.e., not expecting] and will cut him asunder
and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that
servant, which knew his lord's will and prepared not, neither
did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.
But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes,
shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is
given, of him shall much be required; and to whom men have committed
much, of him they will demand the more.
There are significant
parallelisms between these two warnings. The time of salvation,
of escape from punishment for debts, is now. "Now
is the day
of salvation" (2
Corinthians 6:2), and to delay is to run the risk of being caught
in debt and unable to pay, and suddenly cast into prison. Once
one is delivered to the judge, the consequences are inevitable.
There is no question of amnesty.
Moreover, the penalty is
suited to the measure of guilt. Transposing the story into the
terms of the present discussion, we note that those who have
heard the Gospel and rejected it would appear to be in a more
serious position than those who have not heard it (Luke 12:48).
There is an adjustment of penalty under the analogy of many or
few stripes, a circumstance of particular importance since the
number of stripes allowed as a maximum by law was only forty.
Forty stripes must have been frightful torment and seemingly
endless, since the guilty man appears to have been almost cut
to pieces. Clearly, twenty stripes would not only be a less terrible
punishment but it would also be shorter ‹ and five stripes
even shorter still. To speak of eternal punishment makes this
kind of analogy inappropriate. There is the implied assurance
that while there can be no shortening of the term it is not interminable,
since the offending party by implication is to be released when
he has paid the uttermost farthing.
The only alternative is to assume
that in both parables the Lord was confining Himself to warnings
about civil disobedience and the probable consequences. The Jewish
people were at this time particularly grieved by the petty regulations
imposed upon them daily by the Romans. These regulations involved
such demeaning tasks as being forced to carry the baggage of
a soldier whenever the soldier either could not manage it alone
or did not feel disposed to do so. The assistance of any Jew
could be demanded, and he was required by law to walk one mile.
There were many aggravating taxes, the worst feature of which
was that they were imposed in order to enable the aggravators
to continue their aggravations! Small civil disobediences must
have been frequent, a constant source of friction and ill-feeling
between the oppressors and the oppressed. Both sides became exasperated
finally to the point of open warfare. But was this really the
intent of the Lord's words? It seems unlikely in either passage.
We thus have here some potential evidence
of a more moderate view of future punishment than is commonly
supposed to be reflected in many other passages. Yet the passages
used to support everlasting torment are both very specific and
very numerous, if we are reading them correctly. It would seem
that these two passages hardly carry sufficient weight against
so many with contrary implications, but they cannot be ignored.
One way to resolve the apparent conflict would be to attach to
the more numerous passages a different meaning by re-interpreting
the significance of such words as ever, everlasting, eternal,
But it seems difficult to justify
the correction of so many passages to bring them into line with
such a small number that appear to contradict them. It
has often been said
that the "plain reader" could not help but conclude
from a study of the New Testament that the punishment of the
unsaved is to be eternal in the sense of endless. And although
certain versions have attempted by a retranslation of these four
crucial words to give a different colour to the statements in
which they occur, the impression remains that only by a form
of special pleading can the alternative sense be maintained.
The Church as a whole has remained uneasy about admitting such
an alternative even though almost every child of God would welcome
it if it could be clearly established. It is not merely a kind
of natural bias which favours a form of vindictive punishment
that creates this resistance, nor is it only long-established
habit of thought, though both these factors may play a part.
There is some intuitive feeling that to introduce hope of release
is to remove much of the sanction of the demand which God makes
upon his creatures for obedience. Yet many thoughtful people
feel that any kind of obedience which results from fear of the
consequences is not the kind of obedience God is seeking.
We might also argue from what we
know of the justice of God and his expressed "delight"
with the sons of men (Proverbs 8:31) even in their rebellious
state, that there would be no element of vindictiveness, of penalty
imposed without benefit to the offender. Just as we recognize
levels of responsibility for misconduct, depending upon the privileges
of the offender, and adjust our system of penalties accordingly
as Luke 12:46-48 clearly indicates, will not God do the same?
But how can He do so if that awful equalizer of punishment, endlessness,
is applied to all indiscriminately? * Few stripes or many stripes
become meaningless terms. And it seems rather unnecessary for
the Lord to have said anything about coming out thence (Matthew
5:26) if no such final release from prison was either contemplated
It has been
suggested that the rich man who called across the great gulf
to Lazarus (Luke 16:22‹24) had already experienced some measure
of change for the better in his own heart. Did he not, perhaps
for the first time, show some concern for his brothers that they
should be warned (verses. 27, 28)? It does suggest the emergence
of some very slight improvement of character. Is it so very unlikely
that the torments of hell, in addition to being punitive, should
also be in some measure corrective?
In our culture we do not have much
faith in corrective punishment, but in some respects we may be
exceptional in this. The Russian people, for example, seem to
be very differently constituted. Under conditions of suffering
that we find appalling, such as are described by Solzhenitsyn,
* According to A. T. Scofield, in a paper
before the Victoria Institute in London, "Endless time was
never a part of the Jewish figurative teaching in the Talmud
concerning Gehenna (which was the valley of Hinnom). It always
included the hope of exit after a longer or shorter period"
("Time and Eternity," Transactions of Victoria Institute,
vol.LIX, 1927, p.289).
spirit is frequently
neither embittered nor hardened but only chastened. Perhaps we
do not punish severely enough. The more we try to alleviate the
aspect of penalty in our prisons, the more rebellious our prisoners
seem to become. A good friend of mine in the United States once
said to me, "I believe when we punish a child we must make
the punishment severe enough to bring real tears. Unless the
child weeps, he seems to harden his heart and simply becomes
more rebellious." Perhaps this is the secret. We have been
heading in the wrong direction. And perhaps the torments of hell,
however they are induced, whether by self-accusation or by other
means, are not intended to embitter but to chasten. The spirit
must not be merely rebuked, it must be broken. "A broken
and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm
The fire, then, would be both to
consume and to purge. Even in Nature there are many circumstances
in which fire achieves both purposes at once: the dross being
flammable is consumed and removed, and the gold is refined. It
may not be without significance that fire, not frost, is the
agent of God's chastening because, although both can be equally
painful and under certain conditions of test almost indistinguishable,
only fire can both purge and refine at one and the same time.
This, of course, looks like
the classic Purgatory. But such is not the case. Purgatory was
for the redeemed in Roman Catholic view, for those not completely
sanctified when they died and who needed this extra cleansing
to prepare them for heaven. The believer is only partially covered
by the Lord's sacrifice and is therefore called upon to endure
some of the penalty himself, the penalty of unconfessed sins
which must be atoned for in Purgatory. The heathen were not candidates
for Purgatory but for hell, from which there was no hope of release.
But the view we are considering
is not this at all. What we are speaking of here is the punishment
of those who have rejected the Lord's sacrifice altogether. These
must pay the whole price themselves, and will not come out thence
till the penalty is paid in full.
But could it
be that as one by one these tormented but purified souls come
to the end, they like the Prodigal Son arrive once more in the
Father's presence as spiritually innocent, not born again but
purged of the effects of the Fall and ready to begin a new process
of development in spiritual life? It would not be necessary to
assume that the fires of hell have completely neutralized the
individual's prior development during life. An individual with
the intellectual capacity of an Einstein would retain those capacities,
the purging process relating only to spiritual and not intellectual
development. For there is no reason to suppose that death will
destroy the trained mind of the sinner any more than it will
destroy the trained mind of the saint. Perhaps finally the sinner
will be willing to bow his knee and acknowledge Jesus Christ
not as Saviour, but as Lord, to the glory of the
2:10, 11). When the last sinner has paid the full penalty and
been cleansed by fire, then God could become "all in all"
(1 Corinthians 15:28) and the last enemy death will be abolished
(1 Corinthians 15:26), since there will be no more creatures
separated from the Creator.
Would it be altogether improper
to suppose that, in the process of purification or perhaps in
the process of re-education and rebuilding, the Lord's people
will have a work to do, these returned prodigals becoming their
spiritual charges? There might well be a divine matching in such
a process, the simple caring for the simple and the more sophisticated
for the more sophisticated. Each prodigal will then be an appropriate
charge of a child of God whose personal history has best fitted
him or her to foster that particular individual.
There are passages of Scripture
which might be taken to support such a view. For example, in
Isaiah 49:8‹10 the following words are addressed to the saints:
Thus says the Lord, in an acceptable
time have I heard you, and in a day of salvation have I helped
you and I will preserve you, and give you for a covenant of the
people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate
heritages [RSV has here to apportion the desolate heritages];
that you may say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are
in darkness, Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and
their pastures shall be in all high places. They shall not hunger
nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor the sun smite them for
He that had mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs
of water shall He guide them.
in Isaiah 57:15, 16 we find the words:
For thus says the high and lofty
One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the
high and holy place with him that is of a contrite and humble
spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the
heart of the contrite ones. For I will not contend for ever,
neither will I be always angry for the spirit should fail before
Me, and the souls which I have made.
seems as though the Lord was aware of the possibility of the
destruction of the soul in despair, and would not have it so.
We do not have here the sense of an angry Judge who is vindictive,
but a Judge whose perfect justice is nevertheless not without
a strain of mercy. Is it possible then that the Lord through
the saints will thus make known to principalities and powers
in heavenly places the wisdom of God according to his eternal
purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians
But, of course, this is far beyond what
Berkouwer calls the "boundaries" of Scripture as presently
understood, and must be treated with great caution until (and
if) God confirms or repudiates it by fresh illumination on the
matter from some hitherto unsuspectedly relevant portion of his
Word. For the Word of God continually expands our understanding
and is in turn
broadened in its relevance
as we bring forth out of its treasures things new and old (Matthew
One of the most godly of the early
Greek Fathers was a man named Origen (c. 185‹254), who, as
far as we know at the present time, was probably the first Christian
to write a commentary on any extended portion of Scripture. He
was also one of the first to set forth any form of systematic
theology. He was a most prolific writer and the number of works
credited to him ranges from six thousand reported by Epiphanius,
two thousand by Pamphilus, to eight hundred reported by Jerome.
The decline in reported numbers may reflect the progressive loss
of manuscripts. One of his most important works is titled De
Origen addressed himself to the
present issue in De Principiis (III. vi. 3) as follows:
I am of the opinion that the
expression by which God is said to be "all in all"
means that He is "all" in each individual person. Now
He will be "all" in each individual in this way: when
everything that any rational understanding, cleansed from the
dregs of any sort of vice, and with every cloud of wickedness
completely swept away, can either feel, or understand, or think,
will be wholly God; and when it will no longer behold or retain
anything other than God, but when God will be the measure and
standard of all its movements; then God will be . . . "all,"
for there will no longer be any distinction between good and
evil, since evil nowhere exists: for God is all things, and to
Him no evil is near nor will there be any longer a desire to
eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on the part
of him who is always in the possession of good, and to whom God
So then, when the end has been
restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared
with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established
in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat
of the tree of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness
has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed,
He who alone is the one good God becomes to him "all"
and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable
number, but He Himself is "all in all." And when death
shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any
evil at all, then verily God will be all in all.
Origen tended to be speculative, but his devotion and scholarship
were unquestionable and he remained for twenty-eight years the
head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria. His father was
martyred in 202, during the persecution of Septimus Severus,
and Origen wishing to follow his father was prevented from doing
so only when his mother took all his clothes and hid them! We
thus have the interesting situation in which a young man in the
heroic devotion of his spirit was willing to throw away his life,
but not his dignity. At any rate, it is clear that the problem
of the final destiny of the non-elect troubled the more thoughtful
in the Church of God then as it still does today.
So we have yet to consider the final alternative.
It is the alternative which has always seemed to re-assert itself
in the end. One reason perhaps is that those who adopt any one
of the other three alternative views have in the long run tended
to depart steadily from the faith. Yet these alternatives may
not have been the cause of their departure but a symptom of a
certain attitude of mind which places more confidence in common
sense than in Revelation. In his book Probation and Punishment,
S. M. Vernon, without specifying which kind of Universalism he
is referring to, quotes an anonymous writer, with approval, as
The history of Universalism
shows that it began in this country [USA] with an acceptance
of orthodoxy on all points but that of the eternity of future
punishment, and that gradually it proceeded to reject the deity
of Christ, the Trinity, vicarious atonement, and the entire evangelical
scheme. Is it wise to leap into a gulf until we know how deep
is one we do well to heed, yet not perhaps to the extent of being
entirely discouraged from constantly re-examining the issue,
for there are surely yet many things to be discovered from the
Word of God. And it could be, after all, that the everlastingness
of punishment belongs to its effects, not its duration, as Dean
4. Everlasting Punishment
majority of Christian readers have to depend upon a translation
of the New Testament, being unable to follow the original
Greek. Merely to set forth the many passages of Scripture in
which the concept of everlasting punishment is predicated on
the use of such words as ever, everlasting, and eternal,
all of which are translations of the original Greek word aion
in some form or another, serves no useful purpose, since the
meaning of this word aion is still a matter of dispute
among scholars. To refer to these translations begs the issue,
for these translations reflect a theological bias and it is possible
that they may not have genuinely captured the intent of the original.
All the translations that have achieved general acceptance whether
in English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Latin, or any other
Indo-European language (with the exception of Greek, of course),
have assumed that the pejorative words in the original convey
the idea of everlastingness.
To make the assumption of everlasting
punishment is natural enough because the same qualifying term
is used for life. The saddest thing about life is its
transitoriness. Indeed, since all things seem to grow old and
die, permanence becomes a virtue in itself in most cases. Not
to die seems naturally to be an essential characteristic of any
ideal existence anyway. So whatever the nature of the life that
the Lord promises, it must at least have
endlessness or it is
not ideal at all. A more perfect kind of life that is nevertheless
transitory would be far from ideal. Endlessness is a sine
qua non. When the Old Testament speaks of God as eternal,
commentators have often pointed out that the writer's object
was to comfort the reader with the assurance that while man is
like the grass of the field in the brevity of his existence,
God remains. God is always there. It is not so much that God
has endless existence as it is that He abides unchanged (Hebrews
13:8) through all the changing scenes of personal life and human
When the word eternal is
applied to life in the same sense that it is applied to the being
of God, we must surely have something much more in mind than
simply its everlastingness. While it is essential that such a
life should not be transitory, it is even more important that
it should have the right quality and depth to distinguish it
from the shallowness of our present life. The Lord's promise
that it would be life abundant (John 10:10) seems to outweigh
the implications made elsewhere that it will never end. It is
perhaps our preoccupation with length rather than depth that
makes us equate the word eternal with endlessness. All
our lifetime we live in fear of death, so that it seems essential
in our view that eternal life should be endless, and undoubtedly
it is. We need only remind ourselves of the Lord's words, "He
who lives and believes in Me shall never die" (John 11:26).
But mere continuance cannot be the chief characteristic of the
life which is in Christ Jesus. Indeed, continuance may not be
the essence but the result of the quality of that life. So long
as it is perfect it is endless. Endlessness inheres in its perfection,
not its perfection in it endlessness. What is perfect in the
sight of God is imperishable. It is not perfect because it is
imperishable, but imperishable because it is perfect. It is only
the imperfect that must be perishable in the very nature of things
‹ from God's point of view.
We ought to expect, therefore,
that if a single word is used to describe life and punishment,
this single word must have two different meanings, since the
two modes of existence are fundamentally different. We cannot
properly speak of eternal life and eternal punishment if the
word in both cases has the same value, for what is perfect cannot
be equated even antithetically with what is imperfect.* If only
one word is available (aion) and it must be applied to
the being of God, to the nature of the new life in Christ, and
* With reference
to everlasting punishment. A. T. Scofield, in "Time and
Eternity," a paper presented before the Victoria Institute
of London in 1927 (Transactions of the Victoria Institute,
vol.LIX), suggests that the idea of eternity is not duration
but changelessness. Thus in relation to everlasting or
eternal punishment the essential feature is not one of endlessness
but of unchangingness. The idea will appeal to those who see
such punishment as endless, for although changelessness is not
to be equated with endlessness it seems to include it. On the
other hand, it is conceivable that something might be changeless
only while it lasts, as the note held by a violin or a trumpet
or a piano. In fact it seems almost impossible to settle this
issue on the basis of the meaning of the word which is normally
considered to be the key.
the torments of the
wicked in hell, it must of necessity have several different meanings.
It is therefore a word which is coloured by the noun it qualifies,
and not the reverse as we tend to assume.
A study of the Hebrew and
Greek words which are often translated ever, everlasting,
and so forth, tends to support the view that these translations
are more in the nature of interpretations. Now the original words
in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New ('olam
and aion) are undoubtedly equivalents in every way, so
that the meaning of the New Testament aion must be determined
not from Classical Greek usage but from the Hebrew usage of the
word 'olam. We have in certain respects a much better
knowledge of the nuances of meaning in ancient Greek than we
do in ancient Hebrew. But this knowledge can be misleading because
the Greek of the New Testament had its meaning stamped upon it
not from ancient Greek but by the Jewish scholars who somewhere
around 250 B.C. undertook to make an authoritative translation
of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. By the time of our Lord
this translation had in fact achieved something of the stature
of the King James Version in the English-speaking world, and
it had a profound influence on the literary forms and vocabulary
of the New Testament.
One of the greatest authorities
on this Jewish-Greek authorized version known to us as the Septuagint
was Henry B. Swete (1835‹1917). He considered that the New
Testament phraseology had a Hebrew rather than a Classical Greek
source, the Greek of the Septuagint which clearly underlies it
being a special kind of Greek created to reflect Hebrew thought
transposed into a Greek tongue. The New Testament is full of
Hebraisms spelled out in Greek in a way that is foreign to Classical
Greek, even as many of the common Greek words received new and
highly specialized meanings.
As we have noted, the Hebrew word
frequently translated everlasting is 'olam. It
occurs approximately 420 times in the Old Testament. Of these
occurrences it is translated some 350 times as ever, everlasting,
and so forth (267 times as ever, 64 as everlasting,
15 as evermore, and less often eternal, forever
or always, etc.). The Septuagint used the Greek aion
to represent 'olam 372 times, and employed circumlocution
for the remainder. It is clear therefore that 'olam and
aion are genuine equivalents in the Scriptures. Aion
is the word employed throughout the New Testament to convey the
same basic concept as 'olam. The meaning of aion
in the New Testament, whether applied to life or to punishment,
hinges therefore in the final analysis not upon Classical Greek
usage, where we might follow either Plato or Aristotle who expounded
upon its use and came to antithetical conclusions, but upon the
Hebrew, where the concept of everlasting seems to be almost,
if not quite, absent.
The nearest approach in Hebrew
to the idea of eternity, of time stretched to infinity, is not
in the Hebrew word 'olam per se but in 'olam followed
the compound le (to)
and 'adh which is approximately equivalent to the English
word beyond. Whenever the Septuagint translators met in
the Hebrew text with the compound form olam le 'adh, they
tended to use the intensive form of the Greek word aion, which
is achieved by repeating it, a device coming through into English
as for "ever and ever." Comparatively few occurrences
of this Hebrew compound form appear in the text, a circumstance
which appears to reflect the relative disinterest of the Jewish
people in so distant a subject. The Hebrew mind was experience-oriented
and very practical in its religious aspirations.
As to the precise meaning of the
word 'olam, there is still no certainty. According to
Brown, Driver, and Briggs (Hebrew and English Lexicon of the
Old Testament), its root is dubious. Basically it appears
to mean an age of indefinite length, indefinite but not infinite,
though as a rule long, or "of old." In so far
as a man may make a covenant to last as long as he lives, a covenant
of a lifetime, so the word came to mean essentially (as far as
the individual was concerned) a covenant for ever. But this was
understood in the practical framework of a single life. It meant
essentially unbreakable, not to be cancelled, perpetual in this
sense. Applied to divine things it achieved an expanded meaning
and has the sense of lastingness. Yet the concept of eternity
does not seem to be consciously explicit in such usage. A compact
lasts as long as there are two partners to it. If one of them
should die, it is automatically terminated. There are many situations
in the Old Testament in which for historical reasons permanence
was not in view, yet the word olam was used as though
it were. A city which was to be utterly destroyed was to be punished
for ever. Again we are reminded of Dean Farrar's statement that
punishment might be terminated but the effects could be everlasting.
In many cases the idea of a specific
period of time is clearly intended. The Book of Daniel was particularly
important for its influence on later Jewish eschatology, especially
in so far as it carried the promise of the coming Messiah and
the Kingdom He was to establish, the Golden Age to come. Those
who were to take part in this Golden Age were encouraged to look
forward to the "life of the age to come," a hope which
was translated in the Septuagint as aionian life; and
this phrase appears in the New Testament where it is rendered
into English as "eternal life." If a distinction is
allowed between the words eternal and everlasting,
such life is more accurately termed eternal than everlasting,
for eternal is more qualitative, and is nearer to the original
than is everlasting which places the emphasis upon quantity.
It is perhaps significant that in Matthew 25:46, which employs
the same word aion twice, first with reference to punishment
and then with reference to life, the King James Version has nevertheless
made a distinction by rendering this passage thus: "And
these shall go away into everlasting punishment but the righteous
into life eternal." In many modern translations
Matthew 25:46 is not
translated this way, the word eternal being used in both
connections. One has the feeling that translators are shying
away from the word everlasting. According to the concordance
the Revised Standard Version has not employed the word
in the New Testament at all.
In their rendering of Matthew 25:46
it seems the translators of the King James Version made a distinction
between punishment and life, applying to the first a quantity
(everlasting) but to the second a quality (eternal).
Consciously or unconsciously many people feel happier with the
word eternal, simply because it avoids placing the emphasis
on the time element. But by adopting the word everlasting
instead of the word eternal in Matthew 25:46 an effort
seems to have been made to lay emphasis on the lastingness of
punishment as though to distinguish it from the quality of life.
This shows in a small way how differently we tend to view the
two destinies, yet very few people reading this passage are aware
of this inconsistency.
In the non-canonical books the
word 'olam is often used with a clearly limited meaning
even in connection with life. Thus in Enoch 10:10 we read of
certain rebellious men whose vain hope was to enjoy "eternal
life," which is then spelled out more specifically as being
life for five hundred years. In the same chapter a man who is
to be punished "forever" (verse 5) is, in verse 12,
more specifically to be punished for a period equivalent to seventy
generations. In Enoch 14:5 this is spelled out as being "for
all the days of the world."
Now the same
uncertainties meet us when we examine the Greek equivalent
aion. (4) Classical
Greek usage doesn't help us. Commonly the Greeks distinguished
between aion and kronos by saying that kronos
was "time" as such, whereas aion was "a
fragment of time." However, Plato disagreed and deliberately
reversed the two meanings, holding that aion meant timelessness,
eternity in which there were no divisions into days or weeks
or years, while kronos was divisible into measurable units.
As a matter of fact Plato elaborated his understanding of the
word aion by saying that it stood for three ideas: (1)
timelessness; (2) what is unchanging; and (3) what is perfect.
But then Aristotle came along and said that the opposite was
true: kronos was the abstract concept time, whereas aion
was a fragment, that is, a time.
The translators of the Septuagint
do not seem to have been guided at all by any such refined distinctions.
And in the New Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
the two were sometimes combined, as in Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy
1:9, and Titus 1:2, where we read of "the ages of time,"
which is rendered into English as "before the world began."
One has the feeling that what is intended is a sense of the dim
and distant past, but there is little or no precision in the
use of these terms that would justify
4. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.
edited by G. Kittel, Grand Rapids, Eerdman's, 1972, vol.1, pp.197
dogmatism. The general
sense when such phrases are applied to the future seems to be
much the same: time stretched-out indeed, but not necessarily
As Hermann Sasse of Erlangen points
out in his treatment of aion in Kittel's Theological
Dictionary of the New Testament, the use of reduplication
merges the idea of a fragment of time "into that of a long
but limited stretch of time. . . . At this point we are confronted
by the remarkable fact that in the Bible the same word aion
is used to indicate two things which are antithetical, namely,
the eternity of God and the duration [transitoriness] of the
That the word often has a clearly
defined sense of restricted time is amply demonstrated by its
use with such prepositions as before and during,
by qualifying words such as the former, this, the future,
and by phrases such as "the end of the age(s),"
and so on. Indeed, there are many verses in which the word aion
cannot mean "eternity." For example, the mystery of
the Church was not hidden from eternity (Ephesians 3:9),
nor have the prophets been speaking since eternity (Luke
1:70), nor can one suppose that a man who had just received his
sight would say, "Since eternity was it not heard
that any man opened the eyes of one born blind" (John 9:32).
In each case the intention is clearly not "eternity,"
but "within the memory of man" or "for a very
long time" or simply "since the world began."
On the basis of such references quite elaborate schemes of ages
have been devised by various commentators, each age being viewed
as distinct and having a beginning and an ending, some of which
are already past and at least one of which is yet to come, equated
with the millennium.
It is not unnatural with such flexibility
of meaning that the word should sometimes appear to be used in
a contradictory way. In the apocryphal Testament of Issachar,
the phrase hypnos aionios is translated as "an eternal
sleep" from which nevertheless the sleepers are to be awakened
in due course. (6)
If when referring to the past the word aion cannot really
mean everlasting, it appears unwise to assume it does
when referring to the future, even though it seems obviously
to do so when we find it used to qualify life in Christ or the
nature of God Himself.
But if the meaning is not one of
quantity but quality, the situation is clarified in that the
time element may not be the writer's concern. That God is everlasting
is certainly true but if his existence is to be described solely
in those terms, the Hebrew needs some form of expression other
than merely the use of the word 'olam, and correspondingly
the Greek needs some word other than aion. It may be that
the New Testament writers wanted chiefly to emphasize the essential
difference between the tentative and iunsatisfactory
5. Ibid., p.202.
6. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology,
edited by Colin Brown, Grand rapids, Zondervan, 1975, vol.1,
nature of this life
on one hand, and the quality of the life that is in Christ Jesus
on the other. Accordingly, following Jewish interpretations of
the Old Testament prophets, especially Daniel, these New Testament
writers associated the life in Christ with the life of the Messianic
age to come and thus adopted the same terminology as used in
the Book of Daniel ‹ aionian life, which we have translated
In many ways these ancient people,
both Jews and Gentiles, thought more deeply than we commonly
do about the nature of existence in the world to come, and about
the being of God in relation to the passage of time. Though Augustine
stood at the intellectual pinnacle of his age, his wonderful
thoughts on these matters were not entirely without precedent.
Although that age seemed barbarous enough, it was by no means
an intellectual vacuum. The Jewish philosophers like Philo often
came quite close to a position similar to that adopted today
regarding the nature of time as we now have begun to understand
it. But Augustine's conception of the eternity of God is certainly
remarkable enough in present light. He wrote for example (Confessions,
Thy years stand together at
the same time . . . nor are some pushed aside by those that follow,
for they pass not. . . . Thy years are one Day and thy Day is
not like our sequence of days but is Today.. . . Thy Today
means with respect to the being of God is not unendingness so
much as "now-ness," what Luther termed totum simul,
"the whole at once," or "total immediacy."
(7) What we experience
as now and, furthermore, is experienced without hope of future
change, is to all intents and purposes experienced as unending.
Although such matters are certainly beyond our comprehension,
we must surely suppose that God does not experience the present
with any consciousness of an ending to it. It is this absence
of consciousness of the end that seems to be the nearest we can
get to eternity. Yet in times of intense suffering which in anticipation
we know will come to an end, there may at the time be no conscious
hope of an end so that it becomes unbearably endless while it
lasts. The present is then all that we experience and since we
carry the present with us there is no conscious passage of time
and suffering becomes timeless. To all intents and purposes it
becomes unending. Perhaps in some such direction as this we must
go if we are to understand in any meaningful way what eternal
punishment really means. And the more severe the punishment,
the more endless it must appear to be.
If the word olam determines
the meaning of the word aion in the New Testament, we
may note only that it has apparently a basic meaning of
7. T. F. Torrance, Space, Time, and Incarnation,
Oxford University Press, 1969, p.34.
which when applied to the passage of time means only undefined
as to its length. Perhaps the word eternal is to be preferred
to the word everlasting because it leaves us a little
more free of the connotation of endlessness as its chief characteristic.
Whether 'olam and aion mean everlasting is a matter
which we cannot determine with certainty. When the Hebrew le
adh is appended to the word 'olam we probably come
very close to the idea of time so extended as to reach beyond
any conception of its magnitude. Remembering that the Septuagint
translators adopted the policy of rendering this Hebraism into
Greek form as "unto the ages of ages," a phrase which
comes into our English versions as "for ever and ever,"
we can suppose only that the mind of the Spirit is conveying
to us that punishment is just as lasting as the Hebrew 'olam
le adh suggests to our minds ‹ awful enough, whether
everlasting or not, and beyond conceiving.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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