Huddling in Dusty Corners

Author:
Tim Hall

Introduction

We have behind us now an argument not comprehensive, perhaps, but maybe sufficient to illustrate that Universalism is deeply rooted in firm ground. As a reminder, we have seen how Universalism seems either suggested or necessarily implied in:

Thus ends, for my part, the positive case for the Universalism I’m advocating (at least for now).

What remains is to look at texts from opposing quarters--those most commonly offered as evidence of a judgment of irredeemable, pure harm, whether torturous or destructive. What we will try to demonstrate here is that:

  1. Almost none of these texts even begin to seem, even on the surface and in English, to teach such a thing as irredeemable, pure harm.
  2. The few that can be interpreted to teach such a thing don’t have to teach such a thing.
  3. Considering the foregoing (character of God, OT pattern, etc.) operating against such a judgment, an interpretation in which they don’t teach such a thing seems to me preferable: without the character of God as evidence; without a pattern of irredeemable judgment to refer to; without an accounting of human freedom that can make coherent any system of irredeemable, pure harm; without any of these, those who insist on such a judgment must huddle in a dusty, cobwebbed corner comprising exclusively prooftexts. This is not, it seems to me, the stuff of a robust theology.

Judgment Texts

Throughout this series of blog posts, I have grouped together two views--annihilation and what some have called “infernalism” (i.e., the “traditional view”--everlasting, conscious torment) into a monolith. I should be clear at this point that I know there are significant disagreements and distinctions to be made between these two views. Nevertheless, as contrast points with Universalism, they share in common that eschatological judgment consists, in one way or another, in a judgment of irredeemable, pure harm. That is to say, contra Universalism, both of these views see the harm of judgment as a thing that is not serving a purpose other than harm for those who undergo it (i.e. is “purely” harmful) and is the end of the story for those who undergo it (i.e. is “irredeemable”). If there is an annihilationist or a traditionalist out there who doesn’t accept one or both of these things, then his understanding of judgment is perfectly compatible with Universalism. (There may be room here for a synthesis of sorts, but any such syntheses will ultimately redound to Universalism.) The reason this is so important is that there are so very few texts which can even be interpreted as teaching such a judgment. Here, for example, is a sampling of judgment texts commonly marshalled against Universalism:



  • Matthew 5:22 New International Version (NIV) But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, 'Raca,' is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
  • Matthew 10:28 New International Version (NIV) Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
  • Mark 9:43,45 New International Version (NIV) If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. [44]  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.
  • Luke 12:5 New International Version (NIV) But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
  • John 3:16 New International Version (NIV) For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
  • John 3:36 New International Version (NIV) Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them.

To be sure, at least some of these texts do seem to bespeak a fearful judgment of some kind. But so what? So does Universalism. Search though you might, however, there is simply no language here that indicates such a judgment is irredeemable and purely harmful. Look through the list again and ask yourself, “Is there any textual reason here to suspect that the judgment spoken of is the final, irretrievable word?” The answer for all of the above is fairly clearly “no.” And no other sort of judgment can hope to speak so much as a word against the Universalism I am advocating. (I know that the above is not a comprehensive list of judgment texts. I encourage you to do a survey of judgment texts and see how infrequently it even sounds like judgment is irredeemable or purely harmful. The cases are truly vanishingly rare.)

An Argument from Silence

It is fairly common, when Universalists point out the absence of a reason to suspect irredeemable pure harm in most judgment texts, for non-Universalists to point out a similar absence of a reason from these same texts to suspect restoration. And they are right. There is no language in the above to suggest redemption or purification or education is forthcoming. But what are we to make of this? I am certainly not arguing that these texts are teaching Universalism--only that they are compatible with Universalism. To conclude, as some seem inclined to, that if a text doesn’t directly teach recovery from judgment then it implies there is no such recovery is simply a fallacy: lack of evidence is never evidence of a lack. So if these texts were all we had, then the Universalist and the non-Universalist would all and only be making equal and opposite assumptions: the one assuming restoration from judgment, the other assuming none. Neither hand trumps the other in that instance.



But in my estimation, it only gets worse for the non-Universalist from there, for a couple of reasons:

  1. We have already seen that God’s MO in judgment is to restore those who undergo it. If that’s what has happened overwhelmingly till now, then that’s what we ought to suspect going forward.
  2. In other places (Deut. 8:5, Ps. 89:30-34, Prov. 3:12, Heb. 12:6, Rev. 3:19, etc.), God’s judgment is said to aim at redemption and education and restoration. Why assume, then, that when it isn’t specifically pointed out it ceases to be true?

More Powerful Texts

So most judgment texts are powerless as defeaters for Universalism. That said, there are a handful of texts which, considered entirely on their own, can sound like they are teaching a judgment of irredeemable, pure harm. In my estimation, there are precisely six. These are Daniel 12:2, Matthew 25:46, Luke 16:26, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Revelation 14:11, and Revelation 20:10-15. As with the texts above, I am not here trying to persuade anyone that any of these texts are teaching Universalism. In fact, I will go further: I believe it is possible to interpret some of these texts as teaching something that would formally contradict Universalism. What I do want to offer, though, is that it is also possible to interpret these texts in such a way that is both perfectly plausible and perfectly harmonious with Universalism.



Daniel 12:2

Text

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (NIV)

The seeming potency of this text comes from the parallel structure, which seems intent on contrasting fates, and on the language of “everlasting shame and contempt.” Many will acknowledge that “olam” by itself does not have to indicate everlastingness. The “olam” for which Jonah was in the belly of the whale (Jonah 2:6) measured three days, for example. Nevertheless, here in Daniel, the contrast is set up against “everlasting life” (chay olam), and surely that life is everlasting, so wouldn’t the everlasting shame and contempt (cherpah/dera’own olam) also be everlasting?

Response

Not necessarily. While it is certainly true that there is a contrast here, and while that contrast does imply some kind of equivalency, it is not clear that the equivalency is in reference to a quantity of time. Here is renowned scholar (not a Universalist, bona fides unimpeachable) N.T. Wright on the word “olam”:

“Some Jews thought of there being two "ages"--ha`olam ha-zeh, the present age, and ha`olam ha-ba, the age to come.”

The fact that “olam” can refer to “the age to come” rather than “a period of time which lasts forever” indicates that Daniel 12:2 can be parallel qualitatively (both the “life” and the “shame and contempt” can belong to “the age to come”) without any reference whatsoever to quantity (i.e. an amount of time).

Further, while shame and disgrace are set up in contrast with life here, there is nothing as far as I can tell which indicates they are formally distinct from life. The infernalist will agree that those who are experiencing the shame and contempt are, in fact, experiencing them, so they are themselves, in fact, alive in at least some sense. Nor are the concepts of restoration and shame Biblically incompatible. Consider Ezekiel 16:63:

"Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign LORD' " (NIV, emphases mine).

Here, we have the idea of everlasting shame in the very context of atonement and restoration. So the contrast at Dan. 12:2 remains a contrast, but doesn't have to be a bifurcation--people can both be saved and experience shame.

To sum up, then, here is a Universalist interpretation of Daniel 12:2 which seems both plausible and perfectly harmonious with Universalism:

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to the life of the age, others to shame and contempt of that age.”

Rendered thus, especially if shame and contempt are compatible with life and restoration, it seems that this text would not countermand Universalism at all.

Matthew 25:46

Text

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

The structure of this text is similar to the structure of the Daniel text, so the argument proceeds similarly as well: the parallel structure implies co-extensiveness of the duration of the life and the punishment, so if the life is everlasting for the one group, then the punishment must be everlasting for the other. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Jesus is actually referencing Daniel here. It’s not obvious to me that he is (although the similarities are clear enough), but if he is, then that makes the Universalist reading of Daniel more plausible, in my opinion. Here’s why:

Response

As the argument is similar to that of the argument for the Daniel text, so the response will sound similar. The language here in Matthew contrasts “eternal life [zoen aionion]” with “eternal punishment [kolasin aionion].” Countless commentators and scholars of international renown have noted the polysemy of the word “aionion.” If your only source is Strong’s concordance, it can look like the only definition for “aionion” is “everlasting.” But that isn’t remotely the case. The first definition offered in Liddell and Scott, for example, is specifically not everlasting. So with Vine’s concordance (lest someone object L&S is somehow less helpful in analyzing New Testament Greek). This might be part of why Young’s Literal Translation renders the text “life/punishment age-during.”

There are some Universalists, armed with these data, who will go so far as to insist that the word “aion” CANNOT mean everlasting. I think these Universalists are wrong. It seems clear to me that the word is at least sometimes used to mean exactly “everlasting” (cf. 2 Cor. 4:17-18, for example). And every reputable source, dictionaries and scholars alike, includes “everlasting” among the potential translations of the word. But it seems equally clear to me that the word doesn’t have to mean everlasting. There are texts which will not allow it (cf. Rom. 16:25, 2 Tim. 1:9, Tit. 1:2, etc.), and dictionaries and scholars include other definitions as well (“age-during,” for example, or “pertaining to the age”). The two-age schema of Jesus’s teaching, after all, is not the least bit controversial in New Testament scholarship.

What this leaves us with, I think, is again plausibility. Perhaps the best translation of the text really is the way the NIV and so many others render it. But there is this other way to render it, given the above, which sounds like this:

46 “Then they will go away to the punishment of The Age, but the righteous to the life of The Age.”

And if we render it in this other way, then we have preserved the parallel structure without reference to an amount of time at all, just as we did at Daniel, and we have a text which in no way contradicts Universalism.

But there is more to say. Whereas in Daniel, the “qualitative” reading of “olam” seems to me simply plausible, here in Matthew, the qualitative reading seems actually preferable. Here’s why:

The reason it seems so clear to me in 2 Cor. 4:17-18 that aionios can mean everlasting and the reason it seems so clear to me that in Rom. 16:25, 2 Tim. 1:9, Tit. 1:2 that it can’t is the same: context. And Matthew 25 has its own context. “Aionios” isn’t hanging there in space without reference to anything; it is specifically “kolasin aionion” and “zoe aionion.” And the “kolasin aionion” refers pretty clearly to the “pyr aionion” from v41. But this is not the only time these phrases appear in the New Testament:

Kolasin

According to New Testament scholar William Barclay, “The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment”  (A Spiritual Autobiography). Barclay appears to have been wrong on this second point. Kolasis appears to have evolved to include among its possible meanings a more retributive punishment by the time of Jesus, so it is not unreasonable to translate it the way the NIV and others have. But he’s right about the first part. And I might be sidling along an etymological fallacy here, so I will recommend the following only tentatively, but the idea of a “pruning” kind of punishment fits neatly in the bailiwick of Christ’s motifs: wheat, trees, fields, vines, seeds--these all make appearances in the parabolic discourses of Jesus. In the very context of Mt. 25, the symbols are again bucolic (sheep, goats). Given that background and that context, does it seem outlandish that Jesus might have this sort of remedial “pruning” connotation in mind when he describes the punishment (kolasin) of The Age? After all, there were other words available (e.g. timoria) which would have unambiguously indicated retribution if that were Jesus’s intent. What I think that leaves us with is the following plausible--and Universalist-friendly--interpretation of “kolasin aionion”: “a purgative pruning of The Age.”

Pyr Aionion

The above, as admitted, is speculative. Whether by “kolasin aionion” the author of Matthew means something purgative or something retributive is open to discussion. What is less open to discussion is that whatever he means by “kolasin aionion,” he intends it as synonymous with the “pyr aionion” from a few verses up (v41). The reason this is so important for Universalists is that this isn’t the only time the Bible talks about “pyr aionion”:

Jude 7 "In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire [pyr aionion]." (NIV)

Nor is this the only time eschatological judgment is compared to the judgment of Sodom. Jesus makes this same comparison in Luke 17, and Peter makes it again in his second epistle. But we will recall that Ezekiel has prophesied Sodom’s restoration:

Ez. 16:53 “‘However, I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters, and your fortunes along with them, 54 so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in giving them comfort. 55 And your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before."

So the “kolasin aionion” of Mt. 25:46 is the “pyr aionion” of Mt. 25:41--the same “pyr aionion” Sodom underwent in her judgment, per Jude 7, which Jude and Jesus and Peter all indicate is the very model of eschatological judgment--a model which is fiery, fearful, and destructive, to be sure, but a model in which the judged are subsequently restored, according to Ezekiel. Is it too much to stipulate from this alone that restoration from eschatological judgment should be expected? Perhaps. What we certainly can conclude from all this, though, is that the “pyr aionion” (and therefore “kolasin aionion”) of Mt. 25 are perfectly compatible with restoration.

Zoe Aionion

The contrast point, again, against the “eternal punishment” is “eternal life.” It is a phrase which those of us who’ve grown up in Christianity have grown up hearing as “everlasting life.” Before I take another step, I want to clearly stipulate that I believe this understanding to be correct. I DO THINK “eternal life” lasts forever. That said, we don’t know it lasts forever because of this phrase.

“Zoe aionion” is used several dozen times throughout the New Testament, but it’s almost never framed in a helpful way, so just what it means is largely a mystery--until we get to John 17:3:

3 Now this is eternal life [zoe aionion]: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

Here, we see John explicitly defining the phrase that Jesus uses in Matthew 25 completely qualitatively--it’s a type of life for John (specifically a life in communion with Christ and the Father), not a length of life. (John does this again in his first epistle [1 Jn. 5:11, 20]). So with this qualitative understanding of “zoe aionion,” it seems to me that the parallel structure of Matthew 25:46 should push us toward a similarly qualitative understanding of the “kolasin aionion” with which it contrasts; and this means that there is no good reason to suspect that such punishment should last forever.

Summing Up

To sum up the discussion here of Matthew 25:46, here, finally, is a rendering (with commentary) that seems, due to the above, perfectly plausible (in my opinion even preferable) and seems also harmonious with the Universalism I’m advocating:

46 “Then they will go away to [the perhaps purgative/“pruning,” certainly recoverable] punishment of The Age, but the righteous to the life of The Age [a quality of life defined by communion with God].”

And that, of course, is a rendering perfectly in keeping with a Universalist understanding of personal eschatology.

Luke 16:26

I said above that I thought there to be precisely six texts which seem in any way to teach something formally contradicting Universalism. That was kind of a lie. I really only see five. This one, marshalled against us Universalists though it commonly is, falls utterly to pieces under even mild scrutiny, in my opinion. Nevertheless, it can seem on first glance as though it would be difficult, so let’s take a look:

26 "And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us." (NIV)

The seeming power of this text for the non-Universalist is the language of the uncrossable chasm. If it can’t be crossed, surely that’s it for the one on the wrong side of it, right? But that understanding dissipates like so much smoke when we scratch the surface. The story is almost certainly (1) a parable-- (2) whose purpose has nothing to do with teaching about judgment--and (3) even if it were describing a reality, it can’t be describing an eschatological reality, and that’s the only kind of reality that would begin even to speak to our view.

Parable

It is uncontroversial among New Testament scholars that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable, but there are still lay people around who insist it is no such thing, so to briefly address it:

  1. It has all the earmarks of a parable. Christ’s parables tend to be brief; they tend to center around kingdom truths; they tend to involve reversals of fate or fortune; they tend to have a “punchline” at the end. All these things are true of this story.
  2. It is in a parabolic context. This is the last in a series of five parables delivered to the Pharisees (Lost Sheep [15:1-7], Lost Coin [15:8-10], Prodigal Son [15:11-32], Dishonest Manager [16:1-9], Rich Man and Lazarus [16:19-31]). Note not only that it is preceded by four other parables but also the shared topic--that of money and possessions and how they relate to the kingdom.
  3. It shares some striking similarities with some contemporaneous extrabiblical parables. Presumably these Egyptian, Greek, and Roman folktales didn’t have access to information about the afterlife.

Against this, those who insist it isn’t a parable often point to the fact that it names a character (Lazarus), which is unique. But to conclude from this detail that it is not a parable seems to me a simple and fairly obvious nonsequitur. Why should we assume that there is any connection between that data point and that conclusion? After all, each parable has details peculiar to it (e.g. only one parable mentions mustard seeds), but we don’t presume this means Jesus told no parables. The property of unique details seems an awfully wobbly rack on which to hang one’s exegetical hat.

Not About Judgment

Some may say at this point, “Sure, it’s a parable, but look what it says about hell!” This seems like a mistake to me.

The first two in this string of parables (Lost Sheep, Lost Coin), have an awfully Universalist feel to them. Careful readers will note, though, that in my list of texts teaching Universalism, these are absent (in a way other parables are rarely absent in lists Annihilationists and Infernalists offer). That’s because it is easy--and often tempting--to try to wring too much juice out of figurative language, of which parables are a type. Folks have done this in the past and had their faith shaken when literal mountains didn’t move for them (Mt.  17:20), or died when they handled venomous snakes (Mk. 16:8), or abandoned Christianity when they discovered that the mustard seed wasn’t, after all, the smallest of all seeds (Mt. 13:31). And the rest of us want to say to these folk, as lovingly as we can, “Guys, you’re missing the point.”

So what is the point of the story of Lazarus and the rich man? Well, it isn’t about eschatological judgment. Instead, this parable, as mentioned briefly before, is about money in the Kingdom. Heretofore in Jewish history, there has been an assumption that God’s favor revealed itself in prosperity. It’s why Jesus’s disciples expressed so much surprise when Jesus told them, in essence, that it was impossible for wealthy people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 19:23-25; although it is important to note that God makes even this “impossible” salvation possible [v26]). The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, then, is revolutionary in that it turns the idea of wealth as a marker of divine blessing on its head. And if that’s the point, then it seems to me inadvisable to try to insist that there is a message here about the fate of the damned--as inadvisable as it seems to me to handle rattlesnakes.

Not About the Eschaton

There are some, however, who acknowledge that this is a parable, and acknowledge that it isn’t intended primarily to teach anything about the afterlife, but who will offer nonetheless (somewhat feebly to my ears, given the above) that perhaps a secondary teaching is about the nature of the afterlife. All right. Let’s allow it. What then? It still gives us no information about the final fate of human beings. Consider:

  • In Luke 16, the rich man and Lazarus are in Hades (v23). The place of eschatological judgment isn’t Hades, though--it’s the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:10). And Hades isn’t the Lake of Fire; Hades is thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14).
  • Luke 16 describes a present-age reality, not an eschatological one. The rich man’s unbelieving family is still alive and walking around (vv27-28), and no unbelievers remain on earth according to Rev. 20; and if we absolutely must insist, against the evidence, that this is not a parable, then we absolutely must  acknowledge that it’s a thing Jesus talks about as already having happened (v10); Lazarus is dead and buried, not resurrected, as in the eschaton.

So let us pretend for a moment that the “uncrossable chasm” is a reality of the afterlife for unbelievers. The most we could get from that would be that there is an intermediate state during which unbelievers are tormented and unable to escape from their torment. What, though, can an intermediate state hope to tell us about personal eschatology?

So the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is almost certainly a parable from which it is probably inadvisable to cull teaching about the afterlife, and which teaching, if we insist on it, gives us no information whatsoever about the final fate of anyone. This does not seem particularly potent to me.

2 Thessalonians 1:9-10

9 "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you."

This text feels more powerful to me than Luke 16, not suffering as it does from a parabolic context or a present-age declaration. “[O]n the day he comes to be glorified” has a real eschatological feel, and Paul (or whoever the author of 2 Thessalonians is) is not relating a parable; this feels more like a systematic teaching. This is a strength I think this text shares with the more powerful Universalist texts.

It seems to me the language here that makes the text feel so powerfully anti-Universalist is “punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord.” The Universalist response will be to look at all of this language a little more carefully to see if any of it holds up as a formal contradiction to our view.

Everlasting

The word Paul uses here that gets translated “everlasting” is the one we’ve already seen in Matthew 25: “aionios.” There is a little more to say than we have already said, but for now, if it’s not an “everlasting” destruction but rather a destruction “appropriate to The Age,” as is a plausible alternative rendering, then almost all of the problem for the Universalist dissolves: there is nothing inherent in a destruction in The Age to Come that militates against recovery, and recovery from destructive judgment is God’s MO. But I suppose that now is as good a time as any to note that even an “everlasting” destruction isn’t necessarily problematic for a Universalist. And that is to do with the nature of destruction in the New Testament:

Destruction

The word in v9 is “olethros.” It’s used only a few times in the New Testament, but there are a couple of other contexts that can shed some light on the nature of this “destruction”:

1 THESSALONIANS 5:3 "While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape." (NIV)

It seems to me that this simile is telling. There are all kinds of things Paul could have compared the destruction to, but he compared it to “labor pains on a pregnant woman.” Why this comparison? Paul could have compared the destruction to any number of things which happen “suddenly,” so why “labor pains”? Could it be that he intends to relate that this is a destruction that yields in the end to new life? It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. This is, after all, a common Pauline motif--death as the counterpoint to new life (cf. Gal. 2:20, 5:24; Rom. 8:13, Phil. 1:21, etc.). And labor pains are a common metaphor both in the Pauline corpus (Rom. 8:22) and in the gospel writers (cf. Jn. 16:21, Rev. 12:2), where the metaphor portends pain giving way to glory. So if the intention is similar at 1 Thess. 5, as seems reasonable, then perhaps it is a destruction that yields new life, rendering it not only Universalist-compatible, but Universalist-friendly--almost Universalist-teaching.

Some may accuse me here of “wringing too much juice” out of the above simile. That might be fair. And therefore I suggest such an interpretation of 1 Thess. 5:3 only tentatively, despite what seems to me corroborating data. That said, I would like the non-Universalist to consider two things:

  1. Really: why this simile instead of another?
  2. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5: So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord." (NIV)

Here, we see the precise word that appears both in 1 Thess. 5 and in 2 Thess. 1 (“olethros”), and it is a destruction that clearly aims beyond itself toward redemption (“so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord”). Some have opined that it was a strategy that appears to have worked (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5-8). Whether or not this is the same individual Paul recommends destruction for in 1 Cor. hardly matters, though--the point is that “olethros” CAN aim beyond itself at restoration, and there is no particular reason to suspect it doesn’t aim so in 2 Thess. 1. (Some may offer that 2 Thess. doesn’t mention such restoration, but this, as before, is a simple argument from silence. Lack of evidence continues to be no evidence of a lack.)

Shut Out from the Presence of the Lord

I am generally comfortable with dynamic equivalence, but this translation of the NIV seems to me a bridge too far. The word they’re translating “shut out from” is just “apo.” It just means “from.” Other translations render it “away from the presence of the Lord,” but this, too, is suspect, and many will offer a footnote indicating that an (at least) equally viable translation is “that comes from the presence of the Lord.” Annihilationists particularly prefer this latter translation; infernalists generally the former. And it is easy to see why. If it is “away from the presence of the Lord,” then it starts to sound like everlasting separation, which is just what infernalism teaches. If it “comes from the presence of the Lord,” then perhaps the more literal sense of “destruction” which annihilation prefers becomes easier to defend using this text.

For my own part, I suspect the annihilationist has the right idea here--but I do not think it helps her:

Right Idea

When a text is rendered “away from” in the New Testament, it almost always has language--either a verb or another preposition--indicating that “away” (cf. Mt. 9:15, 13:53, etc.; Mk. 2:20, 6:1, etc.; Lk. 2:15, 5:35, etc.; Acts 5:38, 20:6, etc; 2 Cor. 5:6, 8, 13:10, etc.; Gal. 5:4, Eph. 4:31, 1 Thess. 2:17; and, perhaps most tellingly since it comes from the same book by the same author, 2 Thess. 3:6; etc.). Conversely, “apo,” when it appears by itself--as it does at 2 Thess. 1:9--often means “comes from” (cf. Mt. 13:35, 18:7, etc.; Rev. 14:4, 20, etc.). It seems to me, then, as it seems to annihilationists, that a better rendering than “away from” in 1 Thess. 1 would be “that comes from.”

Doesn’t Help

The reason I think this doesn’t help the annihilationist, though, is the reason I think it DOES help the Universalist--if the destruction comes from God, then the destruction comes from Love, because God is Love. (This may seem facile at first glance, but hopefully the fuller discussion at that link will bear me out.) This should cause us to suspect that the destruction we see in 2 Thess. 1 leads, like that of 1 Thess. 5 or that of 1 Cor. 5, toward redemption and new life, as a destruction born of Biblical Love only can.

Putting It All Together

With all of the foregoing, then, I offer the following plausible--and Universalist-friendly--rendering of 2 Thess. 1:9:

"They will be punished with [painful, but redemption- and life-bringing] destruction of The Age that comes from the [Loving] presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might."

Revelation 14:11, 20:10-15

These final two texts seem like obvious parallels of each other, coming as they do in the same book and using such similar language, so I will discuss them together. After all, the language that makes them seem to some like defeaters for Universalism is mostly the same. Here they are:

REVELATION 14:11 "And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

And again:

REVELATION 20:10-15 "And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. 11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire."

The troublesome language for the universalist here is not that of “torment” (Universalists concede that eschatological judgment will be harrowing, even agonizing), but that of “forever and ever.”

Forever and Ever…?

Some Universalists will insist that a better translation of the parallel phrases rendered “forever and ever” in 14:11, 20:10 (εἰς αἰῶνας αἰώνων / εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων) is “to the ages of the ages” or the like. Indeed, this is how a literal translation such as YLT parses it. Nevertheless, this strategy doesn’t seem fruitful or convincing to me. The phrase is largely applied in Revelation to God Godself, and not a few times (1:6; 4:9-10; 5:13; 7:12; 10:6; 11:15; 15:7; 22:5). None of these seems anything less than everlasting. It seems more likely to me, therefore, that these are idioms whose best translation really is something akin to “forever and ever.”

What, then, is the Universalist left with? I believe there are at least two eminently plausible options: the first is to note the daylight between the unrepentant sinner and “forever and ever”; the second is to ask if there is warrant to suspect hyperbole.

The Space Between

Notice first that it isn’t the torment of the sinner that is said to proceed forever and ever--in either text. In 14:11, it is the smoke which goes up forever and ever; in 20:10-11, it is the “unholy trinity,” not the sinners, which are said to be tormented “forever and ever.” Before the infernalist scoffs at these distinctions, let’s look at them one at a time.

Smoke

Revelation 14:11 is not the only place in John’s apocalypse where smoke is said to rise forever and ever. This is also the marker of the destruction of the city of Babylon (19:3). But Babylon isn’t being tormented forever; Babylon is destroyed--“no more” (18:21). The smoke that rises for her, then, is the signpost of her destruction, not an indicator of her ongoing torment. Transposed to 14:11, a similar fate for sinners would be more friendly to annihilationism than to infernalism--or to Universalism, pending a subsequent, post-destruction restoration--a restoration indicated elsewhere, in my opinion (see below).



Unholy Trinity

In a similar way, the sinners thrown into the Lake of Fire in ch. 20 are not said to experience a “forever and ever” torment. They just aren’t. The devil, the beast, and the false prophet are, but not the sinners. It is true that the sinners go to the same place, but to conclude from that datum that their experience in that place will be the same seems to me a very large and an unfounded assumption. There is nothing in the text that suggests it. Perhaps they are tormented, perhaps they are destroyed, perhaps they are purified, perhaps any combination of the three. But none of these militates against their final reunion with God in the New Jerusalem (about which, again: see below).

Hyperbole…?

The above seems eminently plausible to me, but it is not the only potential method for dealing with the “forever and ever” language of the twin texts. It also may be simply the hyperbolic rhetoric of judgment.

I think extraordinary caution is called for here. We do not want to hand-wavingly apply hyperbole where there isn’t significant warrant. That would be a facile treatment of the text, available to anyone who wanted to apply it in any direction. It simply will not do to say that a text is hyperbolic without sufficient evidence to indicate it. So do we have such evidence here? I believe that we very well may, for reason of precedent, of referent, and of consequent.

Precedent

The Bible is rife with warnings of judgment that sound stark, grim, final, and irrecoverable. The clearest example of this might be Judges 10:13. We will recall from our discussion about the pattern of restoration from judgment that here in chapter 10 of Judges, after five iterations of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God declares he is finished saving them:

13 "But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you."

It is hard to imagine language more unequivocal than that. Nevertheless, we will also recall that, despite this declaration, God goes ahead and saves them anyway:

11:32 "Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. 33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon."

Referent

In perhaps a more meaningful way, John’s referent from Revelation 14, 20 appears to come from a pronouncement of judgment on Edom in Isaiah 34. Here are those texts side-by-side:

Revelation 14:11 "And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

Revelation 20:10 "And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever."

Now compare John’s text to Isaiah’s:

Isaiah 34:9

Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch,
her dust into burning sulfur;
her land will become blazing pitch!  It will not be quenched night or day;
its smoke will rise forever.
From generation to generation it will lie desolate;
no one will ever pass through it again.

The linguistic and thematic ties among these texts are, I take it, clear and uncontroversial. But in Isaiah, this is a judgment pronounced on Edom (v9). The reason this is so important is that, in my opinion, the subsequent verses (34:11-35:10) seem to see all of the judgments--burning desert, desolation, land haunted by jackals, etc.--come specifically and explicitly undone, going so far as to link Edom to Zion (35:10), a type of the New Jerusalem.

Other folks see ch. 35 as a reversal of the fortunes of Israel, however--not as a redemption of Edom--so I will only press the point as far as to note that Israel, unlike Edom, is never said to become a desolate desert or to be haunted by jackals in Isaiah. But no matter. Even if ch. 35 of Isaiah is about Israel, Edom’s restoration is nevertheless foretold elsewhere:

Ezekiel 47:8-12 "He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah,where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. 9 Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. 10 Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. 11 But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. 12 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”

This “Arabah” through which the water flows is the area between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea: this is the land of Edom! So despite the language of “burning sulfur” and “smoke rising forever” and “no one ever” passing through it again, Edom sees the same restoration we have come to expect from God. (Note the parallels in the two nations’ progenitors--Jacob, father of Israel; Esau, father of Edom--whose story, after deception and betrayal and separation and a curse, ends in reconciliation and love and brotherly unity and the very face of God on the face of the previously accursed [Gen. 33]).

The point is this: the “neverending” judgment of John’s referent...ends. Apparently, this is the hyperbolic rhetoric of judgment. Why, then, should we expect the rhetoric John borrows from Isaiah not to operate in exactly the same way?

Consequent

But it is not only in the precedent of recovery from purportedly irrecoverable judgment and not only in the restoration of John’s referent where we see that the “forever and ever” judgment can come to an end. It is also in John’s book itself, where we see actual examples of those going into the Lake of Fire subsequently coming back out again. The clearest example is John’s “kings of the earth,” which is also one of the examples of a post-Lake of Fire restoration hinted at above.

The narrative of the “kings of the earth” is a persistent one, and these characters are persistently wicked. Here are all the references to them that there are in Revelation:

First, we see them trying to hide from judgment:

Revelation 6:15 (ESV) "Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains,"

Then, committing adultery with and getting drunk on the wine of the beast:

Revelation 17:2 (ESV) "with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk."

In subservience to her:

Revelation 17:18 (ESV) "And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth."

More adultery:

Revelation 18:3 (ESV) "For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living."

Mourning her defeat:

Revelation 18:9 (ESV) "And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning."

Marching to war with her against the lamb:

Revelation 19:19 (ESV) "And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army."

At this final battle, they are defeated and eaten by the birds (19:21).

So to sum up so far, the kings of the earth have lived and died in open rebellion against God. No repentance, no confessions of faith. There can be no doubt that their part is in the lake burning with sulfur.

But there is one scene left, after all is said and done and the New Heaven and New Earth have been established, with the New Jerusalem set up as the everlasting temple of God and dwelling of his people. And into that shining city, we see:

Revelation 21:24 (ESV) "By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it."

So despite the language, the judgment does, after all, find its end in blessed reunion with God in his holy city. It would almost be surprising--if this wasn’t who we already knew God to be.

Summing Up

There is quite a lot more that could be said at this point. We could discuss at length the purgative implications of John’s symbology of “lakes” and “fire” and “sulfur.” We could discuss his replacement of Daniel’s “river of fire” flowing from the throne of God with Ezekiel’s “water of life” flowing from that same throne. We could discuss the “nations,” doomed like the “kings of the earth” to that lake of fire, subsequently and similarly entering the New Jerusalem. We could talk about that city’s ceaseless beckoning to those outside her eschatological gates to wash their robes and enter. We could talk about the significance of her never-closing gates that permit and even suggest such entry. And at some future point, we may discuss all of this. But for now, what I want to leave us with is this:

  1. We have before us now what seem to me plausible--and Universalist-friendly--readings of the texts most powerfully inimical to our view.
  2. We also have a list of Universalist texts whose non-Universalist interpretations seem to me markedly less plausible.
  3. Even if someone disagrees that the Universalist readings of these “non-Universalist” texts actually is plausible, we are not thereby left with an unequivocal teaching of irredeemable, pure harm. We are left instead with a tension, if not an outright Biblical contradiction.
  4. If such a contradiction really does exist, we are still not stuck--we can appeal to the character of God, whom all of this is about, we can appeal to God’s stated desires and stated record of restoration, or we can appeal to the nature of human freedom, any of which will also point directly the Universalist’s way.

And when we consider all these things together, it seems to me that Universalism is more than a bare possibility or a thing to be hoped for. It seems to me that when it is all compiled and sorted and fit together, Universalism is the best Biblical accounting of all the relevant data concerning the end of all things. You may disagree, and I may be wrong. God bless us both. Let’s talk.


Tim Hall

Tim is an educator in Texas and a worship leader at his UMC campus. He majored in philosophy at the University of North Texas, minoring in English, and has taught courses in literature, philosophy, and Christian apologetics. Tim resides in North Texas with his wife, children, and pets. He suspects the pets will be with him in the New Jerusalem as well as everybody else. Except maybe the cat.