Luke, I’m afraid it wrongly seemed virtually self-evident to me that everyone recognizes that it would not be acceptable to settle the meaning of a statement by simply appealing to a dictionary. Let me use an over the top example. If you said, “Bob, I think you are foolish about this. Indeed, you are a crazy nut,” and I insisted that according to the Oxford Dictionary, it is impossible for you to be saying anything but that I am a ‘hard-shelled fruit’" you might rightly object that the context is a clue to your real intended connotation: that you actually think that I am ‘crazy,’ or have a screw loose.
An English dictionary simply records human observations of what seems to them to be some of the current conventions of language. This could never be used to prove what it is impossible for someone else to mean. That’s why there are competing sources cited for different views of a word’s meaning, and why dictionaries are constantly revised.
In the case of a Koine Greek dictionary, it is even far more problematic to hold that it is the last word. For it is trying to sort out definitions for what is now a dead language, and yet one whose usage spanned many years, and wherein there is much evidence of definitions developing and changing (as well as new ancient documents arising, which often clarifies a difficult term), much less being different for the same word in varying contexts.
I fear that I must be missing something about your assumptions. In my Christian tradition, this question appears to be as simple as our protestant consensus that only ‘God’ is infallible, whereas all human authorities are subject to error. It thereby follows, that no differences in scholarly conclusions can simply be resolved, by one of us citing someone else’s human opinion. Unfortunately many religion discussions instead come down to an exchange of dueling authorities: “My ‘expert’ says this.” “But the one I trust says otherwise…” My bias is that we all grow more in our knowledge when we focus on clarifying the actual data that may have led each of us (or our reference works) to differing conclusions.
We could go round all day in circles Roofus, both accusing the other of begging the question.
Ok Bob, I see your point that sometimes words are ambiguous. I also accept God’s word is authoritative and not BDAG. However all words without context and explanation are ultimately ambiguous, it’s only because of shared assumptions about grammar and meaning that we can understand anything. BDAG is simply a formalized expression of collective research over time about αἰωνιος. And I don’t mind debating the ins an outs of the scholarly consensus (as expressed in BDAG) about αἰωνιος but only after establishing why the universalist community (as expressed in this forum) rejects the standard definition from this particular source.
I see of course that the rejection will based on the larger views about the nature of Hell etc but I’m genuinely interested in why this definition from this reference work is rejected?
I’m looking forward to reading your explanation James but is the same level of explanation consistent across Universalism, so would the “all” passages require just as much qualification and explanation as the “eternal torment” passages?
Luke, thanks, you captured my view of language perfectly! (You also caught by implication to James that all views reject one or another ‘standard definitions;’ so e.g. I could reserve discussing pas’s meaning only after you explain why you reject BDAG’s “all” (the totality of members of the set indicated in context) when e.g. Rom. 5 explicitly says “all men” will be (future tense) justified, or “reconciled” (Col.1), or “made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15)).
You also rightly see that one’s definition will be influenced by one’s “larger view” of what other passages say on connected topics. So I’d say we question BDAG’s standard definition because of many passages and uses of aioniois that appear incompatible with it. First, I’m struck that this word is not like “pas,” whose original root appears to literally refer to an adjective for the totality of its’ indicated set. But aioniois has no root or literal meaning that corresponds to “endless duration.” It is derived from the noun which literally meant an “age.” Thus, if #2, I see that numerous uses of it in the NT & LXX refer to events of explicitly limited duration, then limiting its’ meaning to your citation of BDAG seems incorrect, whereas the literal meaning of the term (pertaining to the age) works well in such contexts. I have further found in the last 5 years in Q & A with those who teach NT Greek at Wheaton, Fuller, and Regent (Vancouver) that all these non-universalist authorities agree that aioniois at least sometimes cannot bear a meaning like “everlasting,” and by implication that your understanding of BDAG’s implications is incorrect.
Thus, I am left asking if there can be a reasonable explanation for BDAG’s popular definition. And my bias is that popular views and translations have often way later been recognized as wrong. Here, I know that the Constantinian Roman Church (I think influenced by pagan Greek concepts) institutionalized the idea of infinitely extending torment as the necessity for sins in finite time as a powerfully motivating way to direct people’s lives. It since has been embraced by evangelicals, who often tell me that challenging this traditional reading of aioniois would remove them from their scholarly livlihood. My bias is that such historically developed traditions of men are able to explain why BDAG and the traditional consensus are maintained that aioniois has such a non-literal meaning. If I’m right that its linguistic derivation cannot bear the weight of such a definition, then we are left to settle it, the way the usage of most words are determined, by wrestling with how the term is used in its total context.
Very interesting post, Bob. It will be interesting to hear Luke’s reply. Luke, thanks for the reply. If and when you have time, could you give me your take on my challenge to your initial post (see that points about a and b). If time is scarce, I’d rather hear you dialogue with Bob Wilson than myself!
So would this particular universalist community reject BDAG’s overall reliability or just its particular definition of αἰωνιος?
In other words Bob (and Roofus) are you saying BDAG is incorrect on just this definition or in general? (Although the fact that a word is derived from another or maybe modified by its context doesn’t prove BDAG’s definition is incorrect.)
Luke, please avoid assuming that any given member of this forum community is a universalist or has the same interpretation of any given biblical verse (or the same opinion of BDAG). Anyway, by the way, I already wrote an article that partially addresses Judgment Day in the book of Revelation, which I suppose has something to do about what you call the “wider NT evidence for a final judgment with equally viable outcomes.”
If you stick around, I think you’ll find that this is a diverse community of believers. Not all here are universalists–though most are at least friendly to the doctrine, but even among the convinced universalists there are differing varieties of belief.
As far as BDAG goes, I’m not personally familiar with it, but it looks like a fantastic resource. I would certainly not throw it out simply because I disagree with their interpretation of a single word. No human work is infallible, and I reserve the right to do my own fact checking and accept or reject any particular definition accordingly.
You asked, “Why is the definition provided by BDAG unacceptable?” Here’s my answer (the short version) to that:
When I was first looking into universalism I spent a lot of time on aion and aionios, and came to the conclusion that these are not words with simple, straightforward definitions. If ‘aion’ simply meant ‘eternity’ (as in: a period without beginning or end) then to translate the corresponding adjective ‘aionios’ as ‘eternal’ (meaning: having the quality of unendingness) would be easy and straightforward. But that’s not the case.
Aion most closely translates to our word ‘age’. An age can be very long, or quite short. My history-teacher husband has all sorts of books on his shelf with names like “Age of Sail” “Age of the Galley” “Age of Calamity” and so forth. You could say we’re now in “the Information Age”. We all know what an age means. It’s a period of of time, set apart by some particular distinguishing and unifying charactaristic.
When a noun is used as an adjective it’s proper or original meaning (speaking in general, since word-meanings are very changeable) is that of ‘being like’ whatever the noun is. Since “aionios” is the adjective form of “aion”, it’s definition cannot, in my opinion, be said to ‘straightforwardly’ have a different quality than the noun it derives from. I would expect such a claim to include explanation for the shift in meaning.
The definition you quoted was:
Given the definition of aion, it would seem that a more fitting explanation of aionios would be “pertaining to a period of any length which has a specific character.”
Having said all that, I know some will argue that ‘aion’ can also mean ‘having no end’. I disagree with that because, while I agree that it is possible for some particular ‘aion’ to have no end, it is not defined by that quality. Here’s a more obvious example of the point I’m making: If I describe myself as: a brown-haired woman, and then go on to describe another person as ‘womanly’, you know I’m not saying she has brown hair. Her hair color is irrelevant because it is not the definition of ‘woman’. In the same way, the length of an aion is irrelevant to the fact of it’s being an aion.
Coming from conservative evangelical experience, I am baffled by your insistence that the focus remain on our trust in BDAG’s reliablity. Perhaps the only consensus on our site would be that trust in any human’s lexicon should not be pivotal to settling different interpretations. Rather the debate should rest on the Biblical date itself.
Of course, most lexicons will be helpful in most of their definitions (and BDAG is as good as they come). Still, their interpretation of any given term is subject to the Scriptural data, and especially when they embody theological concepts at the center of historic traditions. Were you taught that trust in certain reference works is crucial for right beliefs?
Let me try another analogy: If there was a debate about what Stephen Hawking’s references to “God” meant, would you say that the key is confidence in someone’s dicionary definition? Or that the most crucial focus would be in studying how Hawking himself used the word? If #2, should the Bible be the exception, where confidence in other writers of theology and linguistics would be more important than giving oneself to the crucial study of God’s own text and use of words? My bias is that there is no legitimate shortcut to the hard work of studying it for ourselves.
I’m still working on Matthew 25:41 but I’ve preliminary ideas. A literal interpretation of 25:41 indicates a permanent banishment from God and punishment in everlasting fire for (1) the devil, (2) the devil’s angels, and (3) humans who neglected the needs of needy followers of Jesus. This includes images of everlasting torment and annihilation.
Concerning the word aionion, ancient Greek meaning of aionion includes “everlasting” and “an indefinite period of time.” And the use aionion in John 17:3 implies a favorable relationship with God.
I currently don’t have a copy of BDAG on hand, but I would gladly accept a copy as a donation to my humble library. Regardless, if BDAG says that there is no meaning to aionion other then “without end,” then I would think that BDAG needs minor revisions. And I’m unsure what BDAG says about the different forms of aionion, so I’ll withhold judgment until I see another copy of BDAG. However, I definitely agree with BDAG concerning the literal interpretation of Matthew 25:41.
Anyway, NT images of everlasting banishment from God and punishment in everlasting fire are nonliteral and don’t refute the wider NT eschatology about the hope of universalism (Hope Against Hope, Bauckham and Hart, 1999).
Sure I didn’t want to tar everyone with the same brush. I just wanted see why people would generally not approve of the BDAG definition. I persisted because initially people jumped on the definition at first without offering an explanation of why this particular reference work shouldn’t be trusted in relation to αἰωνιος. I see now (and correct me if I’m misrepresenting anyone) that the answers fall into two groups. Some of you such as James and Bob to an extent, reject the definition because of their larger theological framework, others such as Roofus and Bob to an extent reject the definition because of the way BDAG has put the definition itself.
I just wanted to establish that Roofus, before we got into the particulars, I think that’s why we got off on the wrong foot with each other.
If I may ask a further framing question, and this probably goes far beyond this particular thread but what is the argument that is the clincher for universalism? (The argument that makes you go even if BDAG is right, it’s wrong because of x or y argument.) E.g. the love of God, God’s sovereignty, the nature of victory or sin.
Sorry to double post folks, but in reply specifically to James’ question:
BDAG gives the word group as follows (p32-33):
αἰων (the noun) 1. “long period of time without reference to beginning or end” e.g Acts 15:18 or John 6:51 2. “A segment of time as a particular unit of history” e.g. Matt 13:22 or Eph 2:7 3. “the world as a spatial concept” e.g Hb 1:2 or 1 Tim 1:17 3. “Aeon as a person” e.g. Eph 2:2 or Col 1:26
αὠνιος (the adjective) 1. “pertaining to a long period of time” e.g. Rom 16:25 or 2 Tim 1:9 2. “pertaining to a period of time without beginning or end” e.g. Rom 16:26 or Hb 9:14 3. “pertaining to a period of unending duration” e.g. Luke 16:9 or Matt 25:46
(Someone else bought my copy for me, although they say Thayers is almost as good for much less of the price.)
“others such as Roofus and Bob to an extent reject the definition because of the way BDAG has put the definition itself.”
Did I ever say that I “rejected the definition”? NO! I said that it wasn’t saying what you were claiming that it said. For instance, one of the definitions says “pertaining to an unending age”. Something can “pertain to an age” but not last all the way through it, right? And my other take was that it was not to be blindly accepted without reference to how it arrived at its’ decision? What is their argument? Or should we just accept it because they said it?
Luke, thanks for your genuineness and the fuller citation of BDAG. If it says that the #1 definition of Matthew’s term is pertaining to a “a long period of time” (translating Rom. 16:25 that way), on what basis would I be confident in their conclusion that Matthew 25’s reference to such an age to come should be translated differently as endless? Choosing variations among possible definitions for a given text is something that the greatest authorities disagree about all the time. I can’t see that there usually is any clear cut scientific basis that resolves differing opinions in such cases. We are always left to evaluate the actual contextual reasons offered for preferring a particular definition in a specific context.
Of course your question as to what drives universalism bears on such inclinations, though each of us may have different answers. Your two books proffer two things most compelling to me. Talbott’s argument that universalism best resolves the conflict I alway perceived in the Bible’s clearest widely held beliefs, such as that God loves and seeks to save all, and that his power is able to accomplish his ultimate purposes. Second, Mac Donald’s case that the whole direction of the Biblical story makes the most sense, as it pushes in the direction of a God who is constantly expanding the boundaries to achieve a universal victory of his love for the whole creation. That hopeful vision of an ultimate Reality in God that promises a Love and Wisdom that we can trust is able to succeed in reconciling and redeeming the most hopeless resistance is compelling for me. If I’m going to put my faith in the Goodness of God, why not really take a step of trust that appears coherent?
The number one reason I believe in universalism is because it falls precisely in line with the God that I’ve experienced that all good-natured people seem to intuitively feel exists; and because the God of ECT can do nothing but repulsively disgust me, or strike me as horribly cowardly and weak, depending on what theory you rest on. If don’t think that any such god could even hold claim to have been the Creator of the world; if I encountered him I would call him Satan, or at best a fraud.
But there are numerous reasons on every level (historical, scriptural, philosophical) why I believe that God is a universalist. None of those are the clincher, though. I think it only makes sense that the central point is an emotional or spiritual one, if such an issue is a matter of real life and death at all.
A few years ago, I’d have said that was a load of sentimental hogwash. “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked…” so we can’t know on our own what is good and what is bad. The tradition I come from says we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, and must rely solely on Scripture for our knowledge of God. I would have considered what you said as an example of people not ‘enduring sound doctrine’, gathering teachers to satisfy their ‘itching ears,’ and turning from truth to fables. (as per 2 Tim 4)
I’m thankful to be able say I’ve come a long way in the last 5 years. I can appreciate and take joy in what you say.
I would never have come to believe in unversalism if I hadn’t seen it in scripture. But now, having come, it would be very difficult–impossible, I think–to convince me of anything less, for the reasons you stated so well. Having come to know a greater God and a greater Love, what could persuade me to turn my back on Him?
Besides, the fact remains that I do see it in scripture, and I can’t imagine that changing. When I believed in ET, it wasn’t so much that I** saw it myself **in scripture, but that people told me it was there, and I read the verses they pointed at, and I believed what they told me it meant.
Hi Luke, the most compelling evidence to me are the passages of scripture that affirm UR, especially:
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
12Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— 13for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 14Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
15But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
20The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As I studied these passages and others in context they seem to forthrightly say that the sacrifice of Christ ultimately saves, reconciles all of creation, especially all of humanity, to God. I then decided to study Hell to counter these passages but soon found that not one Hebrew or Greek word in scripture correctly interprets as Hell. Sheol and Hades mean realm of the dead; the good, bad, and ugly all go to Sheol/Hades. Tartarus, torturous realm of Hades is only used once and is for sinning angels and they are only held there until judgment. And Gehenna was Jerusalem’s trash dump, which is metaphorical of the judgement/punishment of God but does not equate endless torture.
And then I started studying the passages on Judgment and found that all are judged, and judgment is based on works, how we actually lived our lives. And I came to understand that such judgment was remedial in nature, for the destruction of our flesh so that our spirits might be saved, delivered, purified! And having experienced the judgment of the Lord, I know first hand how terrible and yet how purifiying and delivering such can be. The fire of truth burns the hell (deception) out of all who encounter it.
Well, the more I study, and the more trials I face because of open sharing about my change in beliefs, the more firmly I’m convinced that Jesus truly is the savior of all humanity, especially we who believe (1 Tim.4.10). Jesus does not fail to save anyone He loves, and He loves all humanity! We did not choose to be born into sin, and we do not “choose” to have faith in Christ and be saved. Rather, even faith is a gift from God and a by-product of the revelation of the Lamb!
And concerning the verses being discussed in this thread, I know people get hung up arguing over the meaning of aionios; but to me this is only a side issue. The crux of the verse is seen in the word that is translated as “punishment”, kolasis, which would better be translated as “chastizement” signifying “remedial punishment”. What is being warned is remedial punishment, punishment meant to bring a positive change. It is punishment that flows from a desire to bring about good in the one being punished. And it wouldn’t make sense for such remedial punishment to be endless. Surely, God’s punishment of us is able to bring about positive change in us. It might take a moment or years, but it will ultimately accomplish what God means it to accomplish. Not only that, but time is relative. For example, if one’s hand is stuck in a fire, moments can seem like hours; and if one is enjoying a hot steam bath, hours can seem like moments. It’s not the time that is the point, it’s the purpose of the punishment, the chastizement.
It’s also significant to me that the judgment spoken of in Mt. 25 is related to how we actually live, and is not based on whether we have faith in Christ or not. And this passage was spoken as a warning to the children of God, not the unbeliever. The passage is meant to be a warning to the children of God as to how they treat one another, warning of the chastizement that God our Father will put us through if we are selfish, immature, and treat eachother badly. It is not warning people of endless torture.
Well, that’s my 2 cents Luke. I hope it’s encouraging.