I have a confession to make. I am now utterly confident in the exegetical case for a universalist reading of the Bible as a whole, and I have a special confidence in my own critique, as set forth in The Inescapable Love of God and elsewhere, of the standard arguments against such a reading. But given that I am neither an expert in the languages of the Bible nor an expert in the historical background of its various documents, how can I so confidently (or at least reasonably) reject so many arguments of so many distinguished scholars who read the Bible very differently than we Christian universalists do?
Behind that question lies the more basic question of just what it might mean to interpret the Bible as a whole. Some scholars (especially those of a more liberal persuasion) are understandably suspicious of any such effort; some would even dismiss it, though I do not, as an incoherent project. For as even religiously conservative scholars typically acknowledge, the Bible is not a single text with a single (human) author; it is instead a rich and diverse set of documents that appeal to the religious imagination in a variety of complex ways. Given the diversity of interests and writing styles of its various authors, the history of some of its documents, and the variety of perspectives that it includes, a fertile imagination can almost always find a congenial way of putting things together. And for that reason alone, a theological interpretation of the Bible as a whole is as much an art, as much a work of the imagination, and as much a product of theological reasoning as it is of historical and linguistic study. Just as proponents of the geocentric theory of the solar system found many ways to account for the anomalous behavior of planets, so those who interpret the Bible from the perspective of a given system of theology inevitably find many ways to account for anomalous texts in the Bible.
Now I have the greatest respect for scholarly expertise and for the work of specialists in every recognized field of study. But just what constitutes expertise in the matter of putting biblical ideas together in a coherent and imaginative way? Can you not find experts in the languages of the Bible and in the historical and cultural background of its various documents on both sides of the larger theological issues that divide, let us say, Calvinists, Arminians, and universalists? Of course you can, and the reason is that any theology extracted from the Bible as a whole will take you well beyond those details of history, culture, and linguistic usage that specialized scholarly researchers might reveal to us. I no longer find it surprising, therefore, when a naïve reader of the English Bible—a reader who may acquire along the way many misconceptions in matters of detail—nonetheless seems able to read the text with far greater spiritual insight than a first rate scholar who manages to twist the good news of the gospel into a message of fear and condemnation. Because experts in New Testament Greek, for example, disagree on so many of the larger theological issues, we have no reason to defer to them, particularly when we disagree with them, on matters that lie outside the narrow range of their expertise.
Mind you, I would never minimize the contribution of Bible scholars to our understanding of the text. To the contrary, I have always tried never to challenge an expert on any specific point in his or her specific area of expertise, and this is true even when the acknowledged experts disagree with each other on some particular matter. In the latter kind of case, my normal strategy is, first, to consider the implications of each of the conflicting views respectively, and second, to argue that no substantive theological issues require that the dispute be resolved in one way rather than in another.
The two occurrences of “aiōnios” in Matthew 25:46 (often translated as eternal or everslasting) illustrate the point nicely. For the experts do not all agree on the best translation of this term in the context. My own strategy, therefore, is simply to accept, at least for the sake of a given discussion, whatever translation a given expert might want to endorse. If someone wants to translate this adjective as eternal or even everlasting, I will go with that; and if someone wants to translate it as age enduring or perhaps that which pertains to an age, I will also go with that. But then comes the important step, where I argue that the former translation, no less than the latter, is quite compatible with a universalist interpretation of the text. For as I have explained elsewhere, “aiōnios” is an adjective and must therefore function like an adjective, and it is the very nature of an adjective for its meaning to vary, sometimes greatly, when the nouns it modifies signify different categories of things. [For how this works with the English word “everlasting,” see willamette.edu/~ttalbott/Mat … 25-46.html]
So if I am right about this, then one of the most common exegetical arguments concerning why Matthew 25:46 supposedly supports the idea of unending punishment is quite fallacious. All of which raises a further question. Are not all of us, whether experts in some specialized discipline or not, entitled to challenge a demonstrably fallacious inference? I’ll take up that question in Part II of this discussion, which may not appear until after the holidays.