Sunday, September 19, 2010

'The Inescapable Love of God': Section Two - Context?

Talbott starts section two by setting up a straw man of alleged Augustinian inconsistency.  But then says these significant words about how Christians interpret Scripture: "For as I have said, every Christian thinker must reject a proposition for which there is at least some prima facie biblical support; so as almost a practical necessity, virtually every Christian thinker (who looks to the Bible as an authority) will end up interpreting some texts, some documents, and some authors in light of others." (Talbott, 48)

Talbott is very right, no interpretation of Scripture occurs in a vacuum. You need to stop and reread Talbott's quote, everyone interprets Scripture based on their own set of ideas and assumptions and will always, always be casting one piece of scripture in the light of another.  But Talbott immediately forgets his own observation in the very next example where he bizarrely accuses Augustine of misinterpreting the scope of "all men" in 1 Timothy 2:4, based on get this, a misuse of context!  Hang on Mr Talbott, doesn't every Christian thinker end up interpreting some texts, some documents, and some authors in light of others?

This is where Talbott and I become completely unstuck.  At almost every instance he wants to reserve the right to interpret Scripture in context only as far as he sees fit.  Back on page 48 I agreed everyone interprets Scripture in the light of other scriptures but Talbott refuses to take his own medicine. Although at the end of chapter five he concedes that Romans 5:18 could be read in the light of 2 Thess 1:8-9.  It also should be noted that Talbott makes a lot of the argument that in each of the "all" passages the universalist reading is a possibility. (e.g.Talbott, 79)  Therefore, he claims it cannot be simply dismissed by an appeal to other contradictory texts. This is partially true but not insurmountable for the traditional viewpoint, if you concede, as I've blogged about before, that the collective weight of the whole of Scripture correctly interpreted through church tradition determines which verses have primacy.

I'll blog later about chapters six to nine where Talbott offers his explanation of the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the definition of 'eternal' and the nature of God.

42 comments:

Alex Smith said...

Luke I think he does "take his own medicine", to paraphrase, he says, "We all interpret scripture, so here is how I do it...". Part of laying out one's reasoning is to put forward reasons why you don't think alternate interpretations fit as well. As far as I can tell, we all do that, and that's what he is doing.

Whilst I don't think I'll be able to convince you, I wait on the Spirit to do that :), I at least want to get to the position that we can agree that Universalism is a legitimate biblical position, even if in your mind it doesn't have as much weight as the traditional viewpoint.

Luke said...

It just bothered me that Talbott argued for the literal plain meaning of the "all" passages but wanted to qualify other problem passages.

(It was as though he wanted the "all" passages to be understood just as they are but when it came to passages such as Matt 25:41 he was allowed to qualify them. Why is he allowed to qualify Matt 25:41 but not the "all" passages?)

Alex Smith said...

Aren't we allowed to choose which we qualify? :)

jereth said...

Alex,

As per your request I have move the discussion here from
https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=5331849849874858196&postID=849168774177572405

Jereth, God is all powerful, all loving and has an infinite amount of time to achieve His purposes, so yes I do believe He will even bring the devil to repentance.

Thank you for clarifying this.

1. I'd look at texts like 1 Cor 12:3 "Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit."

I believe that in context this verse is about confessing Jesus as Lord from a position of voluntary submission to him. It does not exclude the possibility that some will one day confess him as Lord from a position of involuntary subjugation.

Compare James 2:9 - "Even the demons believe, and shudder"

2. I'd say that God desires genuine worship from the heart and that "we who are about to die, salute you", is not that. e.g. John 4:23 "true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks."

Yes, and God will most certainly receive genuine worshp from the hearts of his redeemed, just as he desires. But there will be others who will bend the knee to him under compulsion.

4. I'd also point out that while there is any resistance, even if it's in a being's mind, to God, that full submission has not yet occurred. While there are beings in hell gnashing their teeth, I don't see complete peace.

Based on your conception of "peace", perhaps. But that may not be equivalent to the Bible's definition of "peace". Joshua 21:44 says that God gave the Israelites "rest on every side". This is sabbatarian language. Yet we know that there were still many nations on all sides harbouring enmity with Israel, and subjugated Canaanites within Israel working as forced labour.

Whilst I don't expect you to suddenly change your view on this, I hope that you can see that it can at least be put forward as a viewpoint from Scripture.

I disagree. There are too many Scriptures which clearly teach everlasting condemnation. For example,

Daniel 12:2
Matthew 8:12
Matthew 25:41, 46
Mark 3:29
Mark 9:43-48
John 3:36
Gal 1:9
2 Thess 1:9
Heb 6:2
Rev 14:11

I am simply unable to see how these texts can be evaded in order to establish the universalist position.

Alex Smith said...

Thanks Jereth for making the move :)

1. James 2:9 is about "acknowledging the existence of", I think 1 Cor 12:3 is about offering genuine praise.

2. I think God desires genuine worship from everyone. Having most of the crowd made up of as God's P.O.W.s begrudgingly saying "Jesus is Lord" hardly sounds triumphant, technically a victory but hardly one fit for our glorious God.

4. Aren't we meant to be envisaging ultimate, complete peace that surpasses all understanding? The Bible does use pictures to define peace, e.g. Isaiah 65:17-19 "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth... I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more." Whilst there are still people in hell, this promise has not yet been fulfilled.

I agree Joshua 21:44 isn't a very good definition of the peace to expect in the new creation.

Because you disagree and can't see how these texts can also fit into a Universalist position, I will continue to do my best at explaining each one. By the way, I could also say there are too many Scriptures (see Possum's comments on http://post-apocalyptictheology.blogspot.com/2010/06/five-arguments-against-universalism.html for a long list of examples) that clearly teach salvation for all, and that I'm simply unable to see how these texts can be evaded in order to continue to hold the traditional position. Funnily enough it was one of the long lists of examples that changed my wife's position to the "hoping that Universalism is true" position.

Allan said...

Hi Jereth, You find all those verses difficult to reconcile from a universalist perspective? How hard have you tried? Here are a few quick comments on the first couple of verses:

Daniel 12:2 And the multitude of those sleeping in the dust of the ground do awake, some to life age-during, and some to reproaches -- to abhorrence age-during. (Young's Literal)

I also believe in age-long punishment.


Matthew 8: "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Because they failed to receive their messiah, God's special blessing was about to leave Israel and be given to Gentiles like this Roman centurion. Unless they repented, Israel would be destroyed. The local tip, Gahenna, would be literally filled with bodies, and Israel would go once more into exile, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (The same warning was given in “The Rich Man and Lazarus”, where the rich man represents Israel.)

Matthew 25 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Again, eternal can mean “age-long” or “pertaining to God”. Eternal fire is God's fierce judgment. Since it has the power to destroy evil, this fire must be the goodness of God. We are commanded to overcome evil with good, and God takes his own advice. (Remarkably, Paul says doing good to our enemies is like pouring burning coals on their heads! If this is true, God doing good to us might well feel like being thrown into a lake of fire.)


Mark 3 but whoever may speak evil in regard to the Holy Spirit hath not forgiveness -- to the age, but is in danger of age-during judgment

Again, Jesus is warning Israel of God's impending judgment. If Israel decides God's messiah is possessed by the devil (and therefore crucifies him), this sin against his Holy Spirit would be unforgivable “to the age”, or “age-enduring”. Israel would be exiled from God's presence until the end of the age. ie. until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. (But in the end, says Paul, all Israel will be saved even so because God's promise to the Patriarchs is irrevocable.)


Mark 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.' Everyone will be salted with fire.

Worms and unquenchable fire are both OT metaphors for God's judgment. Sodom was burned with unquenchable fire. This doesn't mean that somewhere in the Middle East a little flame is still burning. Rather, God will finally and utterly cleanse it of evil. Then, remarkably, Sodom will be restored (as prophesied by Ezekiel.)

Note the last verse. Everyone will be salted with fire. Jesus is saying, “I can cure you and I will. It will be painful, chopping off those evil bits you enjoy fondling so much. But the longer you leave it, the worse it will be. So trust me. Let's begin now! Take up your cross and follow me...”

Jereth said...

Alex,

Isaiah 65:18-19 teaches that the sound of weeping and crying will be heard no more inside the New Jerusalem.

"Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. " Rev 22:14, 15

Outside the gates of the heavenly city there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, as our Lord taught repeatedly. Isaiah himself wrote, one chapter after the passage you cited, that in the new heavens and the new earth the redeemed people of God will be able to look out upon those who suffer everlasting condemnation. In Mark 9, our Lord quotes directly from this text in his affirmation that there will be everlasting punishment for sinners who do not repent.

It's actually very interesting to look carefully at Isaiah 66:23-24

"From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.
And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh."

Clearly, it is possible to speak of "all flesh", or "all mankind", in such a way that excludes those who are not redeemed. Isaiah is here saying quite unambiguously that while "all mankind" will worship God for ever, some men will simultaneously be in hell. This demonstrates that many of those New Testament texts which you use to support universalism (eg. Rom 5:18) do not need to be forced to say what universalists wish them to say.

Jereth

Allan said...

Hi Jereth,


Isaiah 66:23-24 "From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.
And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh."

Jereth said: Clearly, it is possible to speak of "all flesh", or "all mankind", in such a way that excludes those who are not redeemed. Isaiah is here saying quite unambiguously that while "all mankind" will worship God for ever, some men will simultaneously be in hell. This demonstrates that many of those New Testament texts which you use to support universalism (eg. Rom 5:18) do not need to be forced to say what universalists wish them to say.

Allan replies: Paul looked at his old self with contempt. Who would deliver him from that rebellious man Saul, that body of death? “Thanks be to God!” says Paul. “Christ will.” In the same way, every created being who has sinned against God (whether in heaven, or earth, or under the earth, or in the sea) will one day gaze upon their old selves with a contempt and loathing that will never end. This will be an act of worship. ie. Their salvation, their love for God and loathing of evil, will fully display God's true worth.

Allan said...

You find all these verses difficult to reconcile from a universalist perspective? How hard have you tried? Here are a few suggestions:

Daniel 12:2 And the multitude of those sleeping in the dust of the ground do awake, some to life age-during, and some to reproaches -- to abhorrence age-during. (Young's Literal)

I also believe in age-long punishment.


Matthew 8: "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

God's blessing was about to leave Israel and be given to the Gentiles. Unless they repented, Israel would be destroyed by Rome. The local tip, Gahenna, would be literally filled with bodies, and Israel would go once more into exile where they would weep and gnash. (The same warning is given in “The Rich Man and Lazarus”, where the rich man is Israel.)

Matthew 25 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Again, eternal can mean “age-long” or “pertaining to God”. Eternal fire is God's fierce judgment. Since it has the power to destroy evil, this fire must be the goodness of God. We are commanded to overcome evil with good, and God takes his own advice. (Remarkably, Paul says doing good to our enemy is like heaping coals on his head! It's no surprise that God doing good to us might feel like a quick dip in a lake of fire.)


Mark 3 but whoever may speak evil in regard to the Holy Spirit hath not forgiveness -- to the age, but is in danger of age-during judgment

Israel committed this sin. She decided God's messiah was possessed by the devil (and therefore crucified him). This sin against his Holy Spirit was unforgivable “to the age”, or “age-enduring”. Israel will be exiled from God's presence until the end of the age. ie. until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled. But ultimately, says Paul, all Israel will be saved because God's promise to the Patriarchs is irrevocable.


Mark 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.' 49Everyone will be salted with fire.

Worms and unquenchable fire are both OT metaphors for God's judgment. Sodom was burned with unquenchable fire. This doesn't mean that somewhere in the Middle East a little bit of Sodom is still burning. Rather, having finally and utterly cleansed it of evil, God will restore Sodom (as prophesied by Ezekiel.)

Note that everyone will be salted with fire. Jesus is saying, “I can cure you and I will. It will be painful, chopping off those evil bits you enjoy fondling so much. But the longer you leave it, the worse it will be. So let's begin! Take up your cross and follow me...”

Jereth said...

Allan, you will have to excuse me, but I find your interpretation of Is 66:24 disingenuous. I do not think you'll find any reputable commentator or theologian who agrees with you that the burning bodies outside the city are the former selves of the people inside the city.

Alex Smith said...

Jereth, according to Revelations, the gates of the New Jerusalem are open so I reckon they would be able to hear the screaming of most of the earth's population. Also given the gates are open, it leaves room for the sinners to repent and come in (something that Revelations also suggests).

The Evangelical Universalist chapter five explains the Isaiah passage really well.

There is also the possibility that some of the "eternal"/"forever" passages are rhetoric or hyperbole (similar to Jesus saying "Hate your father & mother"). Even today we use phrases like "it took forever to get to work in the traffic", however, I wouldn't put too much weight on it, as it's impossible to be certain one way or the other.

Allan said...

Jereth said: I find your interpretation of Is 66:24 disingenuous.

Allan replies: Who are the rebellious? Everyone who has sinned. Who will come to worship? Everyone who once were sinners.

What did Paul gaze upon in horror? The filthy rags of his of old self when he was once the chief of sinners. He said his old self was crucified and dead, and he was now alive in Christ, a new man. Was this realization an act of worship? You bet it was. If this could be true for Paul, it may well be true for us all.

Whatever the commentators might think, one thing is clear. You twist the verse to say the very opposite of its plain meaning. You conclude that everyone couldn't possibly be everyone, yet somehow I am the one being disingenuous. :)

Cheers.

Jereth said...

Allan,

I find your interpretation of "eternal" as "age-long" problematic.

Dan 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Matt 25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

In both of these texts, eternal life is apposed to eternal punishment. If "eternal" actually means a finite period of time, as you propose, then Scripture no longer promises eternal life!

2 Thess 1:9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction
2 Thess 2:16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort

If hell comes to an end, God's comfort will also come to an end.

Heb 5:9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him
Heb 6:12 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment

If judgment is temporary, salvation is also temporary.

Jereth said...

Rev 4:9 to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever
Rev 5:13 To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
Rev 14:11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever
Rev 20:10 and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever
Rev 22:5 They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

If "forever and ever" actually means "age-long" -- in the sense of long but finite period -- then the torments of the wicked will come to an end, the reign of the saints in heaven will come to an end, and even God's life will come to an end.

Jereth said...

Alex wrote:
"Jereth, according to Revelations, the gates of the New Jerusalem are open so I reckon they would be able to hear the screaming of most of the earth's population."

Yes, you are correct. Revelation 19:3 indicates that the redeemed will observe the punishment of the wicked throughout all eternity and sing praises to God for it. Similarly, Is 66:24 indicates that when we are in heaven worshipping, we will be able to look out on the everlasting torments of the wicked.

This is not an easy truth to swallow, even for me. I have relatives and friends who are unsaved, and it does not give me pleasure now to think that one day I will praise God for the judgment he will pour out on them eternally if they do not come to faith before they die.

But I have to accept the truths of Scripture even if they are difficult to stomach, because God is always right and I have a corrupt, fallen mind. And I have to trust that when I am in heaven, I will be closer to God's heart, so that I will appreciate much more than I do now the abhorrence of sin and the rightness of God's everlasting indignation against the wicked.

cheers
Jereth

arthurandtamie said...

Hey gents

I reckon universalism is fine, as long as we're talking about isolated Bible verses.

And on this blog, as elsewhere, it seems to have become par for the course to debate universalism in terms of Bible verses. (Fair?)

But I suspect that this tends to obscure things quite a bit. As long as we're focusing on verses, the universalism discussion will keep drifting into a battle to stockpile biblical-sounding imagery and slogans.

The thing is, the Bible was not written in verses. The Bible is not a phrasebook, or a collection of images, abstractions, or principles that we somehow compile into something. I'd say it's more like the product of God's work with God's people across history, which in and of itself presents a perspective (a multi-dimensional one, to be sure!) that we all interact with.

Instead of discussing theological systems, as Luke and Alex were talking about earlier, I figure the way forward lies in discussing the Bible story.

So, Alex, to your initial suggestion that universalism is a legitimate biblical position, I'd say that this depends not on whether we can read this or that verse in a universalistic sense -- that's easy! -- nor on whether there is a universalist perspective that is based on the Bible, but on the extent to which the Bible at large tells a universalistic story.

I've tried making a start on this over in the other comments...

Cheers

Arthur

Allan said...

Jereth said: one day I will praise God for the judgment he will pour out on them eternally if they do not come to faith before they die.

But I have to accept the truths of Scripture even if they are difficult to stomach, because God is always right and I have a corrupt, fallen mind.

Allan replies: If you have a corrupt and fallen mind, how can you possibly know you have a corrupt and fallen mind?

Don't let a theological construct overwhelm your compassionate intuition. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. He didn't rejoice at the prospect of seeing God's righteous judgment. If God himself can find no pleasure in the death of the wicked, how in heaven can we?

Look. For better, for worse, I believe, "men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men." Lam 3

What will it be? Are men cast off by the Lord forever, or aren't they? Is Jesus “the savior of all men, especially those who believe”, or isn't he? I suspect the ambiguities we find in the Bible (and in the world at large) are there to allow us (even to force us) to choose the sort of God we will worship.

Jereth said...

Allan, I know that I have a corrupt and fallen mind because God in the Bible says so.

Therefore, I am not going to ever trust my own compassionate intuition. Nor will I ever trust my own sense of what is "just", "good", "right", "loving", "fair" etc. I will always let Scripture dictate the truth against my own warped inclinations.

Alex Smith said...

Arthur, half of the book, The Evangelical Universalist (chapters two, three and four), is dedicated to explain the overarching story from Genesis, through to Revelations. It's over 100 pages so I won't attempt to quote it here! Anyone, who really wants to get a good understanding of the Universalist position should read this book.

Jereth, you appear to have missed the contradiction the traditional position has created: One the one hand you have verses saying we won't hear weeping for eternity but on the other hand you have a position where we will hear weeping for eternity...

The Universalist position doesn't have this problem as we acknowledge that there will be weeping, until everyone comes in. Then there will be true peace n quiet, with only the lulling sound of harps :)

We have all eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is one of the reasons why we are held accountable for our actions. Furthermore, the Spirit works within us to make us even more aware of the difference. Taking it further, when portrayed clearly, very few Christians see the traditional view of hell as positive, most I find either try not to think about it or like yourself try to accept it, as you still believe that's what the Bible says. Please don't get me wrong, up until earlier this year, that's exactly the position I was in. I praise God for opening the eyes of our brothers, Keith Derose, Talbott & Parry to enable them to write so clearly on the topic whilst trying to stay within orthodox Christianity. For it has transformed my spiritual life and filled me with joy. Anyway, so I'd be very surprised if something I see as utterly abhorrent (and so many see as not positive) turned out to be absolutely positive and awesome.

The "eternal life"/"eternal punishment" passages can be "solved", but tomorrow, as I have to go to bed now.

Jereth said...

Hi Alex,

I do not perceive a contradiction in the traditional position. To my mind, Is 65:19 and Rev 21:4 refer to the community of the redeemed, living within the heavenly city. There will be no sound of crying from within the city. These texts do not refer to those outside who will be weeping and gnashing their teeth. I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree about this.

The argument that some Christians (or many Christians) do not see hell as positive does not carry much weight with me. I do not believe the Bible exists to feed our small minds with things that will make us emotionally happy. The Bible exists to teach us the truth about God and his purposes. When we think God's thoughts after him, we will hate what he hates, and therefore eternal judgment becomes an intellectually, morally, and emotionally satisfying concept -- as it is for me.

My own source of joy is not in finding every teaching of the Bible pleasant or comfortable, but in knowing that God reigns in heaven and will bring all things to completion in order to advance his own glory.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how a universalist understanding of "eternal" squares with the promise of "eternal life".

arthurandtamie said...

Alex, I've found it at the Ridley library, so I'll read and review it over the summer! I'm looking forward to it, because while I take it that not all universalisms are the same, and that there is such a thing as Christian universalism, my only real experience of Christian universalisms is through bloggy and forumy sort of things -- not necessarily illuminating!

The links I've found (for those unfamiliar with the book, I suggest reading in this order):
• A blogger who has briefly reflected on some of it here
This brief, easy-reading review
Robin Parry's blog for evangelical universalism
Robin Parry's 'real' blog
The forum associated with the author and Tom Talbott

A.

Allan said...

Jereth said: I know that I have a corrupt and fallen mind because God in the Bible says so.

Therefore, I am not going to ever trust my own compassionate intuition. Nor will I ever trust my own sense of what is "just", "good", "right", "loving", "fair" etc. I will always let Scripture dictate the truth against my own warped inclinations.

Allan replies: You choose the Bible over the Book of Mormon because you judge one to be true and the other false, and you trust your judgment. If you say you believe the Bible because God has called you out of darkness, I will reply that you judge that to be the case, and you trust your judgment. You “believe” your judgment is unreliable because the Bible says so. But even here, you judge your interpretation of the Bible to be correct. Again, you trust your own judgment. You can't escape.

Ps 50 says “I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face. Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue.”

Is this true? Is God saying, “Obey me, or I will rip you apart!”

The very next psalm says, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;

Is this true? Is God's love unfailing? Would tearing someone to pieces constitute a failure of love?

We must judge. “Who do you think I am?” asked Jesus. “What am I like? What am I capable of? Why do you trust me?” We can't dodge the responsibility by saying, “Hey. I'll believe whatever the Bible says.” That's too simplistic. We must gird up our loins like men, and choose the God we serve.

Luke said...

Thanks for the links Arthur.

Alex Smith said...

Thanks for the links Arthur.

There are at least 3 approaches that can be taken with passages like Matt 25:46:

1. Contest the translation of the word αιωνιον:

NIV: Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

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

CLV: And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian.

We thrashed that out a bit here:
http://post-apocalyptictheology.blogspot.com/2010/06/eternal-punishment.html

Page 147 of The Evangelical Universalist discusses this further.

2. Consider the meaning of the word eternal:
As a friend has my copy of Talbott's book, I'll have to go from memory which is risky! Given that only God is eternal, he suggests that "eternal" is something that is uniquely associated with God. Therefore, the quality, not the duration, is the intended focus of the verse. He backs this logic up with some biblical and other Greek references.

3. Eternal is hyperbole for a very long time:
As discussed above.


Now the obvious objection is "If eternal actually means a finite period of time, as you propose, then Scripture no longer promises eternal life!". The answer depends a bit on which approach you've taken above:

1. You get "an age of life" but to get the duration use must go to other passages. For example, other passages say the "life" will have no death, rust or decay, i.e. no end.
2. You get "life uniquely associated with God" but again if you want to find out about the duration you need to see other passages.
3. You get a "very long life" but again if you want to find out about the duration you need to see other passages.

I know this grates a little but I think this is partly because "eternal life" is a common slogan we use in a way that might not necessarily be the same as the NT writers intended. i.e. we make a bigger deal of times, dates, durations and the concept of infinity in maths, etc., than they did, as far as I can tell. Anyway, I hope this helps :)

jereth said...

Hi Alex,

I appreciate your attempt to deal with the word "eternal". Nevertheless I find all 3 of your proposed solutions unsatisfactory. In fact, they just confirm to me that universalism forces us to challenge the Bible's teaching about eternal life.

The phrase "eternal life" occurs at least 17 times in John's gospel including the well known John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. I count at least 40 occurences in the New Testament as a whole. This entire weight of New Testament teaching has to be negated (along with texts which talk about "eternal redemption", "eternal salvation", etc.) if "eternal" does not mean "eternal".

You say that we must look to other passages to find out the everlasting duration of salvation. Can you please list some of these other passages?

An even more serious problem is that your redefinition of "eternal" (if it is consistent) must apply to God himself. Eg. Rom 16:26; Heb 9:14.

You have also not addressed the phrase "forever and ever" which occurs repeatedly in Revelation to define the duration of the punishment of the unredeemed (14:11; 20:10), the duration of God's reign (1:6; 11:15), the duration of God's very existence (4:9-10; 10:6), and the duration of our salvation (22:5) -- as I have shown above.

I think you will be stretched to produce any evidence that the Church has historically entertained any other meaning of "eternal life". The final line of the Apostle's Creed, which is accepted in the whole Western Church, affirms that the Church believes in "the life everlasting".

Jereth said...

I also want to pose a conceptual problem with the universalist re-working of the word "eternal".

The universalist argument starts with the theological assumption that people eventually get out of hell. Therefore, when the Bible talks about "eternal" condemnation, the word "eternal" cannot be a descriptor for duration. This also forces the universalist to argue that when the BIble speaks about "eternal" life, this is not a statement of duration either.

But, rather than follow through with the logic, the universalist insists that even though all the texts which mention "eternal life" are not asserting something about the duration of salvation, salvation is nevertheless a never-ending experience. Why? Because of a theological assumption that salvation is everlasting.

So here is the conundrum: the Bible texts teach with equal force that both salvation and damnation are everlasting in duration. Yet the universalist runs with a theological assumption that damnation is temporary, and a theological assumption that salvation is permanent. Can you not see what a grave inconsistency this is? Universalism runs in 2 opposite directions with what is basically the same teaching.

I could pose the following question: if hell is temporary, why can't salvation be temporary? Perhaps people can get out of heaven as well? I suspect you will fight tooth and claw to defend the everlasting duration of heaven, but that would only highlight your inconsistency.

(I hope I'm not being too esoteric here...)

Allan said...

Hi Jereth,

The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge says,

“In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional mortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.”

If the Greek text is unambiguously clear, how did 4 of the 6 theological schools get it wrong? Many of these early fathers spoke Greek as their native tongue. Also note that the school at Rome (they spoke Latin) taught everlasting torment. Perhaps Rome, being the seat of imperial power, had fewer qualms about tormenting enemies... (There's no doubt it was politically expedient to have your subjects fearing hell, especially if they thought you had the power to drop them in...)

It's also instructive to note that it took 600 years for universalism to be officially condemned, and that this Council was convened by the Emperor despite resistance from the Pope.

(A Catholic Archbishop recently said the hope of universal salvation was compatible with Catholic theology.)

Cheers

Allan said...

Jereth says: I know that I have a corrupt and fallen mind because God in the Bible says so.

Therefore, I am not going to ever trust my own compassionate intuition. Nor will I ever trust my own sense of what is "just", "good", "right", "loving", "fair" etc. I will always let Scripture dictate the truth against my own warped inclinations.

Allan replies: I choose the Bible over the Book of Mormon because I judge one to be authentic and the other fake, and I trust my judgment. I also believe the Bible because God has graciously called me out of darkness. I judge this to be the case, and I trust that judgment. I also believe my mind is fallen. But even here, I must interpret the Bible to discern the meaning of “fallen”. Again, I must trust my own judgment (and those commentators I judge to be reliable.) In a word, I can't escape thinking for myself.

Ps 50 says “I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face. Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue.”

Is this true? Is God saying, “Obey me, or I will rip you apart”?

The very next psalm says, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;

Is this true? Is God's love unfailing? Would tearing someone to pieces constitute a failure of love?

If God is love, he may well tear me to pieces if that's what's needed to save me. “He wounds, and he binds up.” But to tear me to pieces and leave me in torment forever, that's not love. That's hate.

We must judge. Is God like a father whose inexorable love is fierce and unfailing, or is God like an angry king who torments his enemies? Which God moves your heart to sing? It's a serious question. By this judgment, we also are judged. “Who do you think I am?” asked Jesus. “What am I like? What am I capable of? Why do you trust me?” We can't dodge the responsibility by saying, “I believe whatever the Bible says.” That's too simplistic. We must gird up our loins and choose the God we serve.

jereth said...

Allan,

The depravity of the human heart and mind is taught very clearly in Scripture. EG. Gen 6:5
The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.

Mark 7:21-23
For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'

There may be another time and place to discuss our conceptions of God and his love. For now I'd like to concentrate on exegeting the texts since it is the text of Scripture which must determine what we believe.

Allan said...

Hi Jereth :)

Please don't take offense, but why isn't your belief in total depravity also totally depraved?
I mean it. Seriously. And why aren't your choices of holy book and religion also depraved?

"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said."

How did Mary (in her depravity) know it was a true message from God? Can I suggest she was far from depraved. Rather, she was a righteous woman who recognized the voice of God. Her intuition was good because her heart was good.

Or this? "When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.""

Nothing false?? Doesn't Jesus know there is none righteous, no not one? And that we're worms, not men, whose hearts are full of bitterness and cursing?

Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."

Again, this man's intuition was good because his heart was good.

Rant Alert!

TULIP is so very depressing. Total depravity. Salvation by lottery. Eternal hell predestined and preheated for the unlucky losers... What pustulent notions.

When it comes to sinning against the beautiful Spirit of God, these doctrines go mighty close. It's no wonder the miserable folk who believed them wore black and burned abbeys.

jereth said...

Allan, in answer to your question, my "choice" of which God to worship is, I believe, not a choice that I myself made, but the result of the effectual calling of God and regeneration by the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 2:10-15) which overcomes my inborn depravity. The same goes for Mary and Nathaneal.

But I think we'll just have to agree to disagree about these matters. I don't think it will be fruitful to get onto a tangent about TULIP/Calvinism when the topic of discussion here is universalism.

jereth said...

An attempt to get things back on track: here is my summary of 3 major issues that I have with universalism

1. "eternal" and "forever and ever"; if this is re-defined, what does that mean for eternal salvation, eternal life, God's eternal existence, glory to God forever and ever etc. Alex has had a go at dealing with this but not satisfactorily in my opinion

2. The idea that God's universal victory, universal peace, and universal acknowledgement of Jesus' lordship must mean universal repentance (including of the devil and his angels). This is unconvincing.
- there is nothing in Scripture to even remotely suggest the devil will repent
- it cannot be proven that peace cannot be established through involuntary subjugation of God's enemies
- involuntary subjugation of God's enemies is in fact taught in several texts, eg. Psalm 110:1; Heb 10:12-13; 1 Cor 15:24-28.

3. Hell has an exit door that leads to heaven
- there is not a single Scripture text that teaches that people will one day leave hell, or that repentance will occur in hell
- Luke 16:26 makes it clear that no one can cross over from hell to paradise, and vice versa

Luke said...

Hi Allan,

I can't let that comment about church history past without rebuttal.

The early church taught retributive judgement and Hell. (see my earlier blog post) The quote from New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge is very misleading.

(For those interested this is the full link:
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc12/Page_96.html)

The only legitimately orthodox Universalist in the first several centuries was Gregory of Nyssa. Although I notice Origin is being rehabilitated. If Universalism really was the majority view in the first few centuries then it would show up in the Church Fathers, instead of the Traditional doctrine. Even Robin Perry's new book about Universalism and church history only has Origin and Gregory of Nyssa.

I don't know why the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia fails to provide any evidence for the claim five of the six theological schools taught Universalism. If that assertion is the only secondary source then that's pretty thin evidence.

Sorry to jump on you about that, Allan, but I couldn't let you go unchallenged on that point.

Allan said...

Jereth said:

my "choice" of which God to worship is, I believe, not a choice that I myself made, but the result of the effectual calling of God and regeneration by the Holy Spirit...

Allan replies: Perhaps the reason you believe as you do is because Allah (the ever merciful) is the true God, and he has destined you to hell in order to reveal his glory. I'm being quite serious. Once you entertain predestining gods who choose some (before they're born) and damn the leftovers, you have no way whatsoever of knowing where you stand. (I find such gods utterly repulsive, but that's my intuition speaking.)

Suppose, instead, we entertain a God who elects himself, who rolls up his sleeves and reaches into the shit, who chooses in love to share our desperate fate. This God-with-us is lifted up first on a cross and then into heaven, and promises to draw all men to himself. In Christ the Elect, the whole universe is (and will be) glorified in conformity to God's gracious plan from Before the Beginning.

I don't know if this is good theology. I don't know if it's true. But it does make my heart sing. Here is a God worth loving.

“Gentlemen,” as Pascal might say. “Place your bets.”

Allan said...

Luke said: I can't let that comment about church history past without rebuttal

Hi Luke :)

Rebut away! (BTW, in case you haven't noticed, I really don't know what I'm talking about here. I use forums as sounding boards, so take all I say with the proverbial grain of NaCl. It follows that if I become too loud or too annoying (I'm more annoying than I know), please say so.)

To business. I found nothing in that page that presents a problem to me (except the size of the print).

"Under the instruction of these great teachers, many other theologians believed in universal salvation, and indeed the whole Eastern Church until after 500AD was inclined to it. In the West, the doctrine had fewer adherents and was never accepted by the church at large. In the first 5 or 6 centuries, there were 6 known theological schools of which four were universalist etc."

As for the veracity of the history, I really can't comment.

Let me restate my main point. If the Greek is clear, if the case is cut and dried, how could Greek native speakers of unassailable Christian integrity and colossal intelligence have got it so wrong? How could the entire Eastern Church have "inclined towards universalism" for 500 years? It would make no sense whatsoever.

And why was Rome different? Was purgatory an attempt to have the best of both? ie. a universalism that comforts the law-abiding citizen, plus a hell kept hot for heretics. ie. for anyone who annoyed the Emperor.

jereth said...

Like Luke, I find those claims about ancient theological schools highly dubious and would like to see some evidence.

But one way or another, it matters little what ancient Christians thought. Christians have always gotten things wrong, and it is even possible that the majority of Christians in a particular time and place may have gotten something wrong. For example, the majority of the Church in Luther's time believed a lot of wrong things about saints and indulgences. A majority of (protestant) Christians in the modern West believe that it is permissible for women to lead churches.

What really matters is what the Bible teaches, and hence I am not going to spend too much time and energy on debates that are not about the Bible.

Luke said...

Allan,

Given the fact the encyclopedia is over 100 years out of date and general in scope I'd take what it says about Universalism with a grain of salt. Furthermore what on earth does " inclined towards Universalism" really mean? With source or footnote whatsoever, I suspect Mr Herzog is generalizing based on hearsay and speculation.

For a different modern and more reliable perspective:
http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/journal-issues/4.2_Bauckham.pdf

Luke said...

I should have added, that edition of the encyclopedia is out of date, perhaps the modern one would show how and why they arrived at such a surprising conclusion.

Allan said...

Luke said: For a different modern and more reliable perspective...

Allan replies: This article moves very quickly over the first few centuries, but the essential point remains: Many Greek-speaking theologians of enormous intelligence and integrity had no problems with the word we translate "eternal". Their universalist views were pronounced heretical centuries later by a dubious Council convened by a Roman Emperor. I'm surprised you can't smell the rat.

Allan said...

Jereth said: What really matters is what the Bible teaches...


Allan replies: Clement, Origen and Gregory would agree :) They also expounded the Bible. What's more, they spoke Greek, some as their native tongue. And they rejected the doctrine of Hell as preached (in Latin) by imperial Rome.

jereth said...

Allan,

You speak of "Many Greek-speaking theologians of enormous intelligence and integrity" (emphasis added) but you can only actually name 3. Were there any others?

Clement and Origen came from the highly suspect Alexandrian school which taught unusual (and often unbiblical) views on numerous doctrines because of their allegorizing approach to Scripture. Origen tried to mix neoplatonism with Christianity and he was declared heterodox by the majority of the Church. Origen taught all kinds of strange things, including that our souls pre-existed our births. Do you agree with that?

Some people are always going to interpret the Bible wrongly.

The Eastern Orthodox church still reads the Bible in Greek and honours the Greek fathers; yet they believe in eternal condemnation.

The fact that a certain heresy may be condemned at a late date is not evidence that the heresy may be truthful. It may simply be because up until that date, only a fringe minority believed the heresy, and this minority was not vocal, and therefore the Church was willing to tolerate it. Arianism was condemned 300 years after Jesus and Nestorianism was condemned even later; does that make you think these teachings may be correct?

Luke said...

Allan said
Clement, Origen and Gregory would agree :) They also expounded the Bible. What's more, they spoke Greek, some as their native tongue. And they rejected the doctrine of Hell as preached (in Latin) by imperial Rome.

Your making it too simplistic, the East and the West weren't as monolithic as your presenting them to be. Of course there were differences but the massive complexity of history can't be reduced to a conspiracy to silence the Universalists.

I could say things smell fishing in Robin Perry's new book were suspiciously he has lots universalists from the Medieval period onwards but only Origin and Gregory from the first few centuries. If there were all this universalist early church fathers, where are they all? Why don't DeRosa, Talbott and Perry parade them for us? (I think the jury is still out on Clement.)