Monday, October 5, 2015

A Biblical Universalism - Part 5

In Search of a Coherent Narrative



Introduction

At the beginning of this series, I mentioned trying to reconcile the disparities of two dominant theologies in Christianity - Arminianism and Calvinism - but with little success. This led me down a rather different path to what I had expected. I wanted to know what could be strong Biblically, and hold the logical prowess of Calvinism at the same time as keeping to the Arminian values of a God who has good will towards all men. For me, there were not many options, and I supposed that I must resolve myself to accept paradox and essentially give up. That is, until it crossed my mind to look into “Universalism” - basically the belief that all people will be reconciled with God. 



Photo retrieved from http://gdwm.org/2012/04/reconcile-with-one-another-2/

I had never previously looked into Universalism because I had the idea that it was an obscure, unbiblical belief that people held simply because they wanted to. I thought it was one of those beliefs that tickled people’s ears (2 Timothy 4:3) and nothing more. However on the contrary, after some research, I found that there is evidence that it was a belief widely held by the early church. There is also evidence of Universalism being taught by theological seminaries in the early church, and not only that, but it was not even mentioned as a heresy for the first three hundred years. You can find this information here - (scroll to the end and there is a tidy summary of this book). I would like to find a more recent assessment of the records of Universalism in the early church, though it is still thought provoking. 


I still think that some of the thoughts around Universalism are potentially unbiblical or illogical, especially the idea that all roads lead (in their own right) to God, even roads apparently going in opposite directions. However, what I did find were groups dedicated to scripture such as the “Evangelical Universalists”.


Evangelical Universalism seems to be a belief based on a dedication to scripture. Even though there are various sub groups under this “banner”, it was their way of looking at scripture that caused me to view scripture from a new perspective. I took off my long held Arminian glasses and tried to look at scriptures differently to how I had always read them. Within Universalism there are various points of view and with caution I use the term “Universalism” because of the stigma that it holds. I merely use it as a reference to believing that all people will be saved and reconciled with God. From a Universalist point of view, the only major difference to modern mainstream Christianity is that it anticipates the reconciliation of all people before God at some point in the future.



Basic Framework

To believe that all things are reconciled to God does not mean that the core framework of Christianity is changed. Like Calvinism and Arminianism, my understanding of Universalism believes the core fundamentals of mainstream Christianity and holds to nearly all of the common characteristics of the Christian faith, including:

- God is all-powerful, all knowing, and all loving (and I am sure there are many other characteristics, but these are key).

- God created the universe as He desired it to be.

- Humankind is sinful and is in need of redemption.

- God used the Israelites to bring about his redemption plan for the world. Jesus Christ the Son of God then lived, died and rose again to make atonement for the sins of all humankind.

- Some people will believe in Christ for salvation in this current world, and some will not. Those who put their trust and faith in Christ will be resurrected to life and those who do not, will not be.

- There is a “heaven” and a “hell”. Some people will go to one and some to the other.


So what is the difference between Universalism and mainstream Christianity? The difference is that Universalism posits that all people will eventually be reconciled to God, or in other words, people will not necessarily be in hell forever.


Those ambiguous words

Photo retrieved from http://www.writeawriting.com/academic-writing/literary-criticism/

One of the key areas of confusion for people is around the word “forever”. People read “forever” and instantly think (as I did) that its meaning is clear. However, it is not that simple. Take the Hebrew word for "forever" - olam. In Jonah chapter 2, the prophet is praying in the belly of the fish, and in his prayer he used the word olam to speak of the time he spent in the “pit” (supposedly the belly of the whale or the depths of the sea). God rescued him from this pit by causing the whale to spit him out. Clearly, olam did not mean the “forever” that we normally think of. There are three ways that this could be interpreted to make sense for the use of this word. One is that Jonah was speaking figuratively and taking artistic licence. Secondly, that Jonah, being Jewish, had a completely different understanding of that word than what has been translated down to us in English. Thirdly, Jonah was in this “pit” conditionally, based on his repentance or unrepentance. In other words, Jonah could have potentially been in the belly for “forever” - as long as he was unrepentant. Jonah was not continuously unrepentant and was therefore released. It is interesting that in this passage the use of the word olam seems ambiguous and brings to light the dangers of interpreting English words at face value.

Let us go to the Greek word for forever - aion, which is commonly used in the New Testament. Revelation 14:11 and Matthew 25:46 talk about the “forever” or aion punishment of people. Interestingly, aion is a word that is even more ambiguous than olam. Strong’s provides us with the meaning of aion. Two words are used in those verses - one a noun and the other the adjective derived from the noun. Strong’s concordance states that the noun aion means an age or ages long rather than “forever”. Even the adjective aionious (which is shortly translated “forever”) does not focus on the future per se but on the quality of the age it relates to (according to HELPS Word Studies). The Greek for “forever” or “everlasting” when considering the root word meaning of aion, actually seems to mean an indefinite long period of time with connection to its context. The word is used widely throughout the Bible. As I have generally researched out there, there is much debate about the meaning of the word, which in itself implies ambiguity and requires caution. For example, aion has been interpreted to mean life, world, old, age or forever. Ultimately, aion is not conclusive about its meaning. It would be more helpful to interpret it more as an indefinite period of time, letting the context interpret the word.

Feel free to check out this great resource for the Greek and Hebrew translations as well as commentaries - Bible Hub

Also here is a collection of quotes from scholars that seem to support the notion that aion does not necessarily mean forever but an indefinite period of time - Definition of forever

The ambiguity of aion should throw up warning signs. It suggests that mainstream Christianity potentially has assumed a reality based on theological “group think” passed down through the ages. Some may say that aion has to mean “forever” because it is also used regarding the righteous having “eternal” life. Yes, this is a valid point – however, it is not based on any understanding of the word itself but on a presumed theological worldview. Just because the meaning of the word threatens our current understanding of our time spent in heaven, for example, does not mean that we reject the meaning of the word. If the word means more or less an indefinite period of time, it may be that even the righteous will not live forever. However, there is no real reason to consider that potential reality because being indefinite, it could mean that we do live forever. God seems to desire an ongoing relationship with people, and there is no reason (that we know of) for Him to cut that relationship short. Either way, the word relates to a quality of time and needs to be read with reference to the current context.

Even if aion meant forever literally, there is no reason to think that it could not be interpreted like olam was by Jonah. “Forever” in hell could mean a condition upon continued dissonance with God. I note that there is no verse that I know of that speaks directly about people “getting out of hell” (please share if you do know), but there is much Biblical evidence that suggests that people will, as we shall see in the next post.

Conclusion


As we have discussed, reconciling all people to God does not necessarily mean rejecting the notion of a hell-like existence, but merely asserts that God will be successful in reconciling all people with Himself at some time in the current/future aion/s. There is much discussion out there about the words assumed to mean “forever” in the English. On closer observation, these words have multiple meanings and are interpreted in multiple ways. These interpretations depend on the contexts they find themselves in and the predisposed theological doctrines of the reader. It would be helpful to not be dogmatic about our preconceived realities, but accept that truth may actually look different to what we have always thought.      

Next...

No comments:

Post a Comment