Examining Universalism III: The Meaning of Eternal Punishment
Packer begins this section by making some unsubstantiated claims. First, he says that his survey of universal salvation “has shown the speculative character of this theory in all its forms and has uncovered in passing one of the motives that drives it today, namely, a generous desire to affirm all major religions as highways to the highest human happiness, so that no adherent of a different faith need ever convert to Christianity.”
Second, he states that the universalism that he has set aside with his evaluation shows that universalism is clearly sub-Christian soteriology (study of salvation). I believe I have clearly refuted his position by offering a biblical plan of salvation supported by many texts of Scripture, including not only the New Testament, but the Old Testament as well. I have shown clearly where his translation of key biblical words is at best one of several interpretations, and at worst, just plain wrong! The universalist point of view unifies more of Scripture than any other system I have ever seen. The Arminian (Methodists, Church of Christ, Pentecostals, most Baptists, Charismatics, et al) falls short because in the end, man’s will is sovereign over God’s will. In Reformed theology (Presbyterian, Reformed Baptist, Christian Reformed, Lutheran, et al.) God is sovereign over all things, but His love takes a backseat to the justice He must mete out to all those who are the non-elect, which is most people. Neither system takes into full account God’s nature as love, nor all the verses in Scripture that refer to the salvation of all people. Each system must make, what I will call, excuses for why Scripture seems contradictory at points, and then they have to rely on eternal conscious torment to rescue them in the end.
Clearly I believe Packer has overreached with his beginning comments in this section. We will now follow with his section on The Biblical Teaching.
Beginning this short section, Packer uses Matthew 25:31-36 as his proof-text that the Bible teaches “eternal punishment,” meaning punishment forever and ever. He makes the statement that “one’s profession of faith is validated by the quality of one’s life.” The wicked go to “eternal punishment” and the righteous go to “eternal life.” He then explains the two terms for eternal punishment. First is aionios for eternal. He says this means belonging to the age to come, which will not end, compared to the present age which will come to an end. Second, the Greek term for punishment, kolasis, he says means retribution, “as distinct from causeless, infliction of pain by or on behalf of whoever’s authority has been flouted, as an expression of that person’s displeasure.” He finally states, in these opening two paragraphs on page 183, “So eternal punishment means a divine penal infliction that is ultimate in the same sense in which eternal life is ultimate – prima-facie (at first look, on its face), therefore, everlasting and unending.”
Several issues jump right out. I agree that Matthew 25:31-46 is talking about works (one’s profession of faith is validated by the quality of one’s life = one’s faith is seen in the works he/she does). Whose works is Jesus talking about? Chapters 24 and 25 are being spoken on the Mount of Olives to the disciples (Matt 24:1-3). So these two chapters are a warning to the disciples to watch how they act. Several parables are given explaining that they are to be ready for the end of Judaism. The parables of the fig tree, the ten virgins, and the talents, and the example of those in Noah’s day, show the need for preparation and being ready for the end of Judaism. These passages do not speak of the end of time and cannot speak of the end of time. In 24:34 Jesus says that in no way will this generation pass away before these things take place. This teaching comes right after He explains that knowing these things is easy because it is just like them knowing that when they see leaves begin sprouting on a fig tree, they know summer is approaching.
In this “sermon” on the Mount of Olives, Jesus is showing the believers how God will treat them according to their works. This text (25:31-46) is a warning to the disciples, the believers gathered around Jesus who were gathered privately (Jesus gathered true believers privately, not the masses who were called “disciples” or mere followers, following after Him similar to groupies today, mainly to get something from Him, food, prestige, power, whatever). What is the warning? The warning is to not act like those in 25:41-46. Don’t leave those you can help needing food, drink, shelter, clothing, nor in need of fellowship. leave people who People are either deemed righteous or condemned based on their faith as evidenced by their works. Since the subject here is works, it cannot possibly refer to the immortal world. No one can work there way into heaven, since it is through faith that we are saved! And, Packer certainly does not believe that anyone can evidence their faith after this life through good or bad works. We know good works do not save and therefore cannot enable someone to go to heaven. Immortal life is a gift of God! (Eph 2:8-9) Getting an “end times” declaration of eternal rejection or destruction out of these verses misses the whole point of Jesus’ teaching!
(Mat 16:26) For the Son of Mankind is about to be coming in the glory of His Father, with His messengers, and then He will be paying each in accord with his practice.”
(Mat 16:27) Verily I am saying to you that there are some of those standing here who under no circumstances should be tasting death till they should be perceiving the Son of Mankind coming in His kingdom.” (CLV)
Jesus came by the manifestation of his grace and truth, in other words in his kingdom and glory, and in the glory of his Father. The kingdom of God refers to the system of religion that Christ came to establish, the gospel kingdom that was not fully set up until the Jews who persecuted Jesus were humbled by the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem, their power and then put under subjection of the government and dispersed. All the events after Jesus resurrection and leading up to AD 70 were the building up of this kingdom which was then fully established in that year. Jesus’ spiritual kingdom could not have been set up fully before all these events took place. Jesus came to demolish the reign of Judaism and open up salvation to all people everywhere.
In chapter 24 the Apostles asked Jesus when these things would take place. From Matt 24:5-28 we read about all the calamities that will happen before the destruction of Jerusalem. The description is representative of the way calamities were described in those days. Calamities were represented by upheavals in nature. For examples of this refer to Isaiah 13:10, Isaiah 34, Ezekiel 32, and Joel 2.
Then the parable of the fig tree is given to show the nearness of these calamities. And, to cement the nearness in their hearts and minds, he goes even further by stating that some in this present age will not die before this comes to pass.
Then the separation that takes place between believers and unbelievers is talked about. The wise and faithful would inherit the gospel kingdom while those who opposed the gospel and persecuted Christians would suffer under the calamities that were to come upon the nation. The separation of those to the right or left showed the distinction between the two groups. The ones on the left were to suffer age-lasting punishment. This punishment was the physical calamities brought on in this life, in this age (since there is no reference at all to an age to come!) due to not believing the gospel and living under its protection. The ones on the right enjoyed spiritual life in this age as long as they remained faithful. During this life they were brought to the knowledge of the truth in this life and enjoyed that truth in this age knowing that one day they will have true everlasting life. There is no reference here to immortal life but merely to application to this life.
The great thing about this kingdom for the Jew was that even though in this life they (Jews) who did not believe would suffer punishment, (pruning to result in benefit), Paul goes on in his writings to explain to Jews the assurance that one day “all Israel will be saved.” Paul says that even though the Jews were stubborn that God would have mercy on them all (Rom 11:32).
(Mat 25:31) Now, whenever the Son of Mankind may be coming in His glory, and all the holy messengers with Him, then shall He be seated on the throne of His glory, (CLV)
This is figurative language and cannot be taken in a literal fashion, and here is why. The Scriptures clearly show that Jesus’ coming in his kingdom and glory happened in the days of his ministry and the following years of the apostles. We know this because some who were listening to his instruction lived to witness his coming in the spiritual manifestation of his truth, and this especially through the Holy Spirit who was poured out on many during those days and illuminated Jesus’ truth. Look at Matt 16:26-27.
Packer then shows his bias when he says that eternal (Greek aionios, which is an adjective and cannot mean or prove more than its underlying noun aion) means belonging to THE AGE TO COME! The main and best definition of the term, aion, both biblically and extra-biblically is a period of time of indefinite/unknown length. And, since the adjective derives its meaning and force from the noun it stems from, aionios cannot possibly mean MORE than its root. Since aion means an age, age-lasting or a period of time of indefinite length, the adjective aionios cannot mean forever and ever, everlasting, or eternal, in the sense we understand it today. The subject determines the meaning of the word. For example, in the Bible we read of everlasting hills and the everlasting God. Are the hills forever and ever, eternal? No, because they will one day be replaced by the new earth. Is God forever and ever, eternal? Yes, because He has no beginning nor ending, He has always been. He was never caused/created. In one sentence the same word means for a limited period of time and the next it means forever and ever. And when the Scripture writers wanted to emphasize a point, or show significance in size or time, they would repeat the word, such as aions of aions, meaning a very, very long time (literally ages of the ages or ages of ages). See this blogs’ page on Aion / Aionios for more references of this.
And, if that isn’t enough, then think about this. The context dictates the meaning of words as well. The context cannot mean forever and ever because Jesus is talking about works, which for the saints in the next life, according to Packer’s own beliefs, is only and always good, if they are even done in “eternal “ life. The saints cannot be doing bad works in the next life, or eternal life as he states it. Nowhere do we see reference to the specific things that we will be doing in heaven, in life after all the ages are completed and God becomes all in all. So, is Jesus saying that these are the works of those who are in the life to come, or is He saying that it is works that save us and give us eternal (literally age-lasting) life or eternal (literally age-lasting) death? Packer does make it confusing. However, this is expected based upon his doctrinal stance. For many like him, it is not about letting the text speak for itself, but trying to make sense out of a pre-suppositional doctrine and making scripture fit that doctrine.
Let me just add a little more information for the reader. There are Greek terms used in the New Testament that mean “without end.” One of those terms is aphthar(tos/sia), which means incorruptible, immortal, incorruption, but is never used in conjunction with punishment (see Rom 1:23; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Peter 1:4; 1 Tim 1:17; 1 Cor 15:42, 50; 2 Tim 1:10). Another term, also meaning immortal is athanasia, used in 1 Cor 15:53-54 and 1 Tim 6:16, also never associated with punishment. Another term is akatalutos, translated endless, and used once in the Bible in Heb 7:16, once again, never applied to death or punishment or misery. It would seem that if our Lord desired to teach the apostles about endless, immortal life, that He would have used the specific term aphthartos/aphtharsia, athanasia, or akatalutos, rather than the term aion/aionios, which was understood as an age or indefinite period of time. It would seem that eternal (endless immortal) life or death would be a sufficient subject that Jesus would want to be misunderstood about. And since there are specific terms for it, Jesus would most likely have used one of them to be very clear about the “eternal” destiny of believers and unbelievers!
My conclusion then is that Packer has these verses wrong and comes to the wrong conclusions based on the text itself.
But, let us look also at the word for punishment, kolasis, and see if there is more to it than what Packer has led his readers to believe. For as much effort as I have put into studying the term aion/aionios, I do believe that this term, kolasis is more important to understand in verse 25:46 than aion/aionios is. The reason for this is related to the various meanings of the word and their implications. This term has a range of meanings, as most words do. It can mean punishment, chastisement, correction or the pruning of trees. A frequent meaning was this last definition, the pruning of trees. Why are trees pruned? They are pruned to improve and benefit the tree! Take that idea and overlay it in verse 46, we see that age-lasting or an indefinite period of punishment is for the improvement and benefit of man. This “everlasting punishment” is given for some wise and benevolent purpose, not as retribution as Packer states, but to ultimately benefit those who are being chastened or punished! What about the term chastisement (punishment, penalty, correction)? We have the same connotation with this word as well. The connotation being that of remedial (curative, healing) punishment, not retribution (vengeance, payback).
One last point that I want to make to solidify the understanding I am putting forth here. So then, let’s put all this together and come to an understanding of what Matthew wrote, of what Jesus was truly saying in this passage, Matt 25:31-46. This passage is part of a long discourse spanning chapters 24 and 25. This is the culmination of the parable of the sheep and the goats. There are several illustrations in these chapters as well. Verse 31 tells us when all this takes place, as we read in verse 31, which precedes the parable:
Then, Packer also mentions Revelation 20:10, 15 to show that the unbelievers would experience the lake of fire forever and ever. I treated these verses in a previous chapter review. Hell Under Fire – Chapter 5 – The Revelation on Hell Part 2
Packer next makes the claim that, “eternal punishment is not merely a matter of these two texts [referring to Matt 25:31-46 and Revelation 20:10, 15], however.” He cites Matt 12:32, the sin against the Holy Spirit not being forgiven as another example of the teaching of eternal punishment. After this he also lists the same (tired!) list of Scriptures that other authors have already explained. I have treated all the other texts in previous chapter reviews. Pay particular attention to Chapters 3&4. I will not rehash all those other texts (listed in this chapter under this heading are Mark 9:43-48; Luke 16:24; Matt 8:12; 13:42; 24:51; Luke 13:28; 2 Thes 1:8-9; Rom 2:5-9; Heb 6:2; 9:27; 10:27, 31).
Instead I will tackle Matt 12:32, since I have not done so in previous chapter reviews as I recollect.
(Mat 12:31) Therefore I am saying to you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be pardoned men, yet the blasphemy of the spirit shall not be pardoned.”
(Mat 12:32) And whosoever may be saying a word against the Son of Mankind, it will be pardoned him, yet whoever may be saying aught against the holy spirit, it shall not be pardoned him, neither in this eon nor in that which is impending.” (CLV)
First, as I read verse 31, I became aware of something I hadn’t seen before. Jesus says every sin and blasphemy shall be pardoned men. This makes more sense to me today, from the standpoint of universalism, than ever before. Every sin, all men will be saved. Through one man came condemnation for all men and through the one God-man comes the salvation of all men. All men sinned in Adam, all man’s sins shall be pardoned. Interesting, isn’t it? Isn’t it also interesting that Jesus was talking to Jews when he commented on this subject. I agree that their will be a judgment for this sin, for those who have committed it (who that is I shall save for another time!) in this eon (the time in which Jesus was speaking). And I believe what Jesus said about the impending age in verse 32. But there is at least another age after that where all sin will be forgiven and death is done away with and God becomes all in all, with everyone worshiping God. But, Paul taught that in the end, all Israel will be saved. No contradiction between what Jesus taught and what Paul taught! How wonderful! Jesus said all sins will be forgiven man and Paul teaches that very thing. Therefore, the Jews who Jesus was talking to, even if they had committed this sin, will one day still be saved! So, we must be misunderstanding Jesus’ point about the blaspheming of the Holy Spirit.
Second, Jesus said in verse 32, “neither in this eon nor in that which is impending.” The only thing not pardoned is blaspheming the Holy Spirit, in this age or the age to come. Whoever says something against Jesus (Son of mankind) will be forgiven and whoever says something against the Spirit will not be forgiven. There is a parallel here. If this age is the only time we have to get things right, then how can someone commit this unpardonable sin in the next age. His destiny, according to most of Christianity is already settled, so it is a moot point and nonsense for Jesus to mean that only the unpardonable sin could be committed in this life and the next life, and not have the other group be forgiven either in this life or the one to come.
Next, let me pose a question that was posed to me. How can a person sin against the Father, and not have that sin be against every member of the Godhead? I know, they are distinct in themselves yet one. Can a sin be committed against one and hidden from the others? When Jesus said if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father, and I and the Father are one, did He mean it? Are our sins multiplied against us if we commit a sin against Jesus, but then the Father gets offended that His Son was sinned against and now the sin is against Him too? How could a sin be against only one member of the Godhead and not against the whole Godhead? I wold love to hear an explanation of this. I have never encountered nor read of an explanation of this situation. I would love some help trying to understand this.
There was a mode of speech among the people of Jesus’ day that when two things were held up in distinction from one another, and one of the two was much more difficult to be done than the other, it was common for the Jews to say that one should be, and the other should not be. The Pharisees had rejected the best and strongest evidence that could be presented to prove who Jesus is and that He was/is God. It was improbable then that they would ever be convinced by or for Jesus. Basically what is happening in Jesus’ talk is Jesus is saying that even though some may sin against Him they will be more easily or sooner be forgiven than the one who attributes the things of God to Satan. It is easier to repent of sins against Jesus, all manner of sin and blasphemies, than it is for someone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit to repent of their sin against the Spirit.
Therefore, based on this evidence, it is highly doubtful that this has anything to do with “eternal punishment” as Packer believes. The evidence points toward Jesus referencing this present wicked generation of His day, and also the age to come; all the people that would live after Jesus’ time. And that Jesus was using a common Hebraism, saying one thing was easier to accomplish than something else.
I will stop here for now and take up the next section, The Universalist Thesis in the next part of Chapter 8’s review. Help me understand a few of those things I brought up that I would like some clarification on or your thoughts on what has been said here. Also, if you have questions that need clarification I would love to hear them as well. As always, may god richly bless you in Christ Jesus our Lord.