Responding to Universalists
A couple of months ago I began a conversation with someone who believes in Universal Reconciliation through Christ. Up until then I had never really heard or read anything about it, so I started asking questions and doing some research of my own. In short, Universal Reconciliation is the belief that the Bible teaches that all men will ultimately be reconciled back to God, and that no one will spend eternity in hell. The purpose of this series of posts is to discuss three major fallacies that many (if not all) Universalists have:
- The Greek words derived from “aion” are mistranslated in our English Bibles. These words do not mean “eternal, everlasting” but in fact refer to “an age.” This means that eternal torment is really just age-during chastisement, and thus some will only be in hell temporarily.
- There are numerous passages in the Bible that teach us that God will save all men – meaning all men without exception. For example, 1 Timothy 4:10 says that God is “the Savior of all men, especially those that believe.”
- We have mistranslated “hell” in our Bibles. For example, the Greek word ”Hades” is mistranslated “hell” in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. The parable has nothing to do with hell or eternal torment. Also, the “hell fire” mentioned in the sermon on the mount is mistranslated from the Greek word “gehenna,” which referred to a burning garbage dump in a valley in Jerusalem.
Part 1 – Eternal (aionios)
Since I do not know very much about Biblical Greek, I want to refer to something that Robert A. Peterson wrote in an article featured on equip.org. He wrote, “The word ‘eternal’ (aionios) does not of itself mean everlasting in duration, but rather indicates a long period of time with limits set by the context.”
The same is actually true for the Hebrew word “olam” (which is translated to some form of “aion” in the Septuagint). Although most dictionaries define this word as “eternal, everlasting”, most if not all Hebrew scholars agree that the word itself does not mean eternal. The word most likely refers to a time in the distant past or distant future that is difficult to know or perceive. In ancient Hebrew thought the word “olam” applied to something “beyond the horizon” that cannot be seen. This does not mean that the object it describes must have limits, but simply means that the limits are unknown. We believe that God is eternal, so when “olam” is attributed to God we know that it is referring to the infinite limits of His existence (i.e. Genesis 21:33). So “olam” in and of itself does not mean eternal, but in certain contexts it does. I believe that the Greek words aion and aionios are no different. It is the context that determines their limits.
I hope that Universalists would disagree with me if I tried to argue that God is not eternal. I hope they would disagree if I concluded that since God’s existence is “aionios”, and since aionios only means “age-during”, it must mean that God will one day not exist. When aionios is attributed to God nobody questions whether or not it could mean that He is finite. Universalists do not claim that:
- God is finite – “And [Abraham] planted a grove in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the everlasting God” (Genesis 21:33, notice that this verse uses the Hebrew word “olam” and is translated to “aionios” in the Greek Septuagint).
- God’s glory is finite – “but the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus…” (1 Peter 5:10).
- God’s dominion is finite – “To him [be] glory and dominion for ever and ever” (1 Peter 5:11).
- God’s Spirit is finite – “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14).
- God’s kingdom is finite – “For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly in the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11).
All of these passages use some form of the Greek word “aion.” Regardless of how a Universalist interprets these passages, their interpretation never implies that any of these things are temporal. Yet when we read those same words in the context of hell the Universalist argues that it is strong evidence that hell is temporary. Since aionios is used to describe God’s existence, and since God is infinite, it is only fair to say that there does not have to be any limits to aionios or to that which it is attributed.
Any argument that tries to prove that hell is finite based solely on the definition of aionios can be twisted to argue that God is also finite. Any explanation based solely on the definition of aionios used to show why it does not make God finite can be used in a similar way to show that it does not make hell finite either.
The limits to the torment in hell should be set by the life of God and His worth. Take the following passages:
- “And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer.” (Revelation 10:6)
- “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, [be] honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:17)
- “…blessing, honour, and glory, and power, [be] unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.” (Revelation 5:13)
Compare those to:
- “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” (Revelation 14:11)
- “And again they said, Alleluia. And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” (Revelation 19:3)
- “And the devil that received them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet [are], and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (Revelation 20:10)
Passages like these should teach us to understand the limits of hell by understanding the limits to the existence of God and His worth. The “age” of torment lasts as long as God and His worth will last, and God and His worth will last forever. We know that God’s promise of salvation is eternal because He is eternal. We know that believers will obtain everlasting life because we serve the everlasting God. Likewise, we can know that the smoke from the torment will be for ever and ever because God will be glorified for ever and ever. The unrepentant will be tormented for ever and ever because God is Holy and lives for ever and ever.
In the same way, Scripture teaches us that eternal life will last as long as eternal torment will last. “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matthew 25:46). And eternal life and eternal punishment will last as long as God lasts. “But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of fatih” (Romans 16:26).
While “aionios” in and of itself might not mean “eternal”, I believe that the context in which it is used is what makes it eternal. I believe that “aionios” means “eternal” when attributed to God, His worth, eternal life, and eternal torment in hell.