Universal Salvation – an addendum

As we approach the fifth anniversary of this blog’s existence, I am acutely aware that I have written almost nothing during the past year.

Although I sense a sort of wistfulness as I contemplate this reality, my regret cannot be too deep as I believe it is all part of God’s inscrutable plan. I suppose it might sound a bit pretentious to imagine that God has a particular plan for whether or not I write. Still nothing is so small as to escape His notice.

Oddly, I continue to write comments, some rather protracted, in such varied forums as Fr. Stephen’s blog and the New York Times. But, when it comes to writing original pieces, it seems as though there is little left to say.

I know, of course, that this is not true. There is still much that can be said but it seems that my heart is no longer in it. I get an idea and it drifts away like a leaf mozying downstream on a lazy summer afternoon, soon disappearing from sight without any active resistance.

Yet I am altogether obsessed with painting religious icons. God, it seems, has given me another way to proclaim His goodness and beauty.

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However, it has come to my attention that I need write an addendum regarding my ever-evolving awareness of the perfection of the divine economy.

In 2016, I wrote a piece on hell, relating that agony I felt at considering that such a thing could actually be in the plan of my loving God (link to article: Hell?). In one evening, I almost lost my faith over it. But, as usual, God rescued me from myself, hushing my sobs and wiping my tears, reminding that He wants nothing but love.

Two years later, I revisited the topic from a less frantic perspective, justifying the possibility of eternal punishment with the argument that God would never force salvation on anyone, not only because of the gift of free will but because love has to be voluntary in order to be love (link to original article: universal salvation).

Now, as 2019 draws to a close, I am given pause to question why I felt such a need to defend the doctrine of hell. Was it because the Church teaches it? Or was it because Scripture seemed to support it?

Probably the latter carried the greater weight. With other issues, I have been able to consider that the Church might be mistaken about something. Guided as we are by the Spirit, we are still human and can misunderstand what God is trying to tell us. But if Jesus taught it, well then I cannot possibly contradict it.

The only thing is that now I am no longer certain that this is what Jesus taught. In fact, I am becoming increasingly convinced of the opposite. Hence, this addendum.

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Without a doubt, Jesus used much imagery to convey to us that suffering was in store for those who failed to believe and thus did not love God and neighbor as the law commanded.

Indeed, He warned people of being thrown into Gehenna, a valley near Jerusalem which was a fiery garbage dump. The place was considered acursed as it was where kings of Judah had previously offered children in human sacrifice. I think we can safely assume the Jesus did not mean literally that anyone who called his brother a fool was going to end up in this valley. Just as He did not mean literally that we should cut off our right hand if it causes us to sin.

His point, of course, was to communicate that sin has very serious implications for us. We must take even the smallest inclination to sin very seriously. Even though He was bringing the Good News that our sins are forgiven, this was not to suggest that sin is harmless or that we shouldn’t be concerned about it.

Jesus seeks to warn us, with considerable urgency, that suffering is the natural consequence of sin. And He wants to save us from this suffering and so creates dire images that His listeners will take note of. Sin leads to suffering not so much because God has a need to punish us but because it is an incorrect way of living.

It is, I grant, a slippery slope when one declares what Jesus “really meant”. Yet, I do not think it is an unreasonable stretch to say the Jesus often spoke in parables and used metaphors when describing the consequences of sinful living. However, what is more central to the focus of this article is how, if not from Jesus, we came up with the notion of hell – and more specifically, of a hell that was conceived of as everlasting torment.

It seems that this mistaken notion is the result of some rather sketchy translations of the original Greek New Testament. Although David Bentley Hart’s book “That all shall be saved” has recently drawn considerable attention for his argument in favor of universal salvation, he is by far not the first to espouse this belief. Nor is he the only one to question the Greek translation that has led so many to believe that eternal damnation is part of God’s plan.

It is interesting to note that there is only one time in the New Testament that the Greek words rendered as “eternal” and “punishment” sit next to one another. Even more interesting (to me, at least) is that this occurs at Matthew 25: 46, precisely the passage I cited when I wrote my piece called “Hell?” Jesus is speaking of the separation of the sheep from the goats and designates that the uncharitable will go off to “eternal punishment”.

While it is very clear that Jesus is instructing us to be show love for the hungry, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned, it actually is not so clear at all that what He warned of was, indeed, eternal punishment for those who failed to do so.

The translation question that is easiest to understand is that of κόλασις (kolasis). According to a good number of sources, the original meaning of this word was “to prune”, as in a botanical instruction about how to prune a tree so that it would be more fruitful. As the word gradually came to be considered a form of punishment, it largely retained the implication that the action was for the good of the person/tree, i.e. it was a remedial sort of punishment. 

Ancient Greek had another term, τιμωρία (timoria), that was used when speaking of punishment for retribution, i.e. to given “satisfaction” to the injured party without regard for the reformation of the offender.

In this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the term κόλασις was the one used. Without even examining the word translated as “eternal”, we can see the problem for interpreting κόλασις as constituting unending punishment. What would be the point of reforming a sinner if they were to remain in an eternal hell anyway? 

This understanding is also much more consistent with the Judeo-Christian God taught in both Old and New Testaments. As much as the Old Covenant God with His “blazing wrath” could seem rather formidable, He nonetheless was persistent in trying to draw back His chosen people who had strayed from Him, even when they worshipped false gods. He wants all to be saved, even if they do not merit it.

It is also noteworthy that native Greek speaking people of the ancient world, both Christian and secular, made quite distinct the difference between κόλασις (kolasis) and τιμωρία (timoria). Aristotle and Plato were among the secularists. An example for our purposes, however, is an excerpt from St. Clement of Alexandria,

“But as children are chastised (kolazo) by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish (timoreitai), for punishment (timoria) is retaliation for evil.” (Note: in Greek, the endings of words change when there is a different form of the word.)

And what about the word for “eternal”? We might wonder what it does mean, if not eternal, as it sits there next to κόλασις. 

This is more complicated to explain, especially given that I have extremely limited personal understanding of Greek. But it seems to boil down to the root word, aiōn, which means “age”. When two plural forms of this root appear (aiōnas and aiōnōn), it has commonly been translated into “forever and ever”, an idiomatic expression in English that would be incomprehensible to the ancient Greek speaker. To us, this means “eternal” but it is not so clear what it meant in the Greek of the New Testament.

Hence, it is the scholarly opinion of some, though not without controversy, that “aionas ton aionon” is better translated as something like “ages of ages” or “eons to eons”. An age or an eon is a limited period of time, though it may be a long time. Some apparently fret that translating “aionas ton aionon” in this way when referring to God would suggest that God Himself is not eternal. However, this is not so. Indeed, it tells us that God is the God of all ages, from the age of Moses to King David to today.

Of course, there are those who would argue that if aiōnas doesn’t mean eternal punishment neither does it mean eternal life for the righteous. (It is at points such as this that my head begins to buzz and I reaffirm that theology is not the field of study for me.)

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For this addendum to be complete, I suppose I should return, at least briefly, to my previous argument that God would not “force” anyone to be saved. He wants us to love and, for love to be love, it must be freely chosen. Having given us free will, we do, at least hypothetically, have the option to refuse salvation.

I say “hypothetically” because it is hard to comprehend that any human being, having been show the fullness of God’s goodness and love would refuse it in favor of eternal torment. There is no denying, of course, that people do evil things – sometimes very evil. As far as we can tell, there are also many who die unrepentant or at least not accepting of Christ. How can I resolve this with my growing acceptance of universalism?

David Bentley Hart makes far more intelligent arguments than I ever could. However, as a psychologist, I certainly cannot deny that there are many limits on every human being’s freedom to choose. From our genetics to our early childhoods to the sinful world into which we are born, can any of us really make a totally free choice about love and God?

I could counter my own argument, however, by noting that, while we are not all equally free, God knows exactly what degree of freedom each person has and can thus judge their personal culpability for sin with complete fairness.

Yet this is not about “fairness”, is it? As I have been considering this topic, it occurred to me that I have never worried greatly about eternal damnation for myself. My concern has been more for others – and for my understanding of God as all-loving. I have always assumed that God would be merciful to me. Why have I not assumed He would be equally merciful to others?

There is an odd notion in our culture that has also infiltrated the Church and that is the notion that justice and mercy are antithetical to one another. While sadly this may be true in the secular world where we define terms differently, it is surely not consistent with Christianity. We act as though God’s mercy must always be tempered by the opposing force of His justice but that cannot be.

Yet it is easy to be lured into this manner of thinking. God would necessarily be merciful to me, supposedly a small-time sinner, but His justice would require Him to damn the Stalins and Hitlers of this world. How could He not? We allow ourselves to think this way because that is what the world would consider “just”.

But the reality is that God’s justice is nearly the opposite of ours. His justice is one that forgives the sins of people who do not even ask for forgiveness (e.g. Matthew 9: 1-8). He welcomes into His kingdom a public sinner whose repentance is vaguely stated moments before his death (Luke 23: 40-43). He loves and pours out mercy on the undeserving – and that is all of us.

Could anyone resist this love, this mercy, for an eternity? I cannot imagine. But, of course, all things rest in the hands of God.

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I will say but a few more words. It may be concluded from their writings that a number of the early Church Fathers, including native Greek speakers, assumed that salvation was universal. Among these were Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa.

While this does not prove anything (God forbid that I try to prove anything about the meaning of Scripture), the notion that all are to be saved in the end is neither recent nor radical. Nor does it mean that sin is without painful consequence to the unrepentant sinner. I should want to avoid “pruning” as much as possible.

And yet, sinner that I am, if God deems that I need some burning “κόλασις” is order to know Him fully, I long for it with all my heart.

To Him be glory…

2 thoughts on “Universal Salvation – an addendum

  1. albert

    Hi Mary, Good to read your words again. But I hesitate to comment. . . So much here that has troubled me for “ages and ages.” For now, the only thing I can find in my confusion is,

    your long silence, together with your image-welcomiing/producing, must have given God the time to inspire some of your richest and most beneficial (to me at least) thoughts. This piece is truly a source of support and renewed faith. And for me that includes trust that God truly loves.

    Grateful to you, and prayers, Al

  2. mary Post author

    Thanks, Al. If I can be sure of anything in my weak faith, it is that God is love. I cannot always decipher what that means in human terms but I must trust that it is pure good. It is upon this truth that I build my life. May His love embrace us as we “trouble” over the confusing aspects of our faith.

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