A Failed Attempt to Create a Kinder/Gentler God
Sometime around the end of April, 2008, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), a.k.a. Mr. X, with whom I had previously communicated, delivered an envelope to my door that contained a letter he had submitted to the local newspaper. His letter, which had been written in response to the exchange of letters discussed here, had been rejected by the newspaper. Since he said the letter was really meant for me personally, he took it upon himself to hand deliver it.
The letter was a rehash of some oft-refuted creationist talking points, i.e., the Nebraska man “conspiracy,” the evolutionist’s lack of moral standards, the theory of evolution includes abiogenesis, and the worthlessness of the theory of evolution. Like a good SDA, he also included a plug for attending church on the “proper“ day of the week. He also included an anti-evolution article from "Adventist World-NAD" which basically boiled down to an Argument from Incredulity and assorted Bible passages to support that argument.
Since I had already addressed the evolution issues with him on previous occasions (See here.), I did not respond to those points. However, his claim in the letter that the false notion of eternal torment in hell for unbelievers had encouraged some people to turn to evolution for “a way out” piqued my interest. To support his claim that there will be no such thing as eternal suffering in hell, he included a pamphlet (for which he claims partial authorship) entitled, ”The First Great Deception (Chapter 33 from The Great Controversy).” In addition to containing the typical Bible babble regarding man’s inherent sinful nature, it attempted to disprove the commonly espoused doctrine that unbelievers will suffer endlessly in the eternal flames of hell. It is this issue that I address in the letter which follows.
May 1, 2008
Since your rejected letter to the Bee and the Adventist World article simply rehash oft-refuted creationist claims and offer no new insights regarding the evolution/creation issue, I will confine my comments to a discussion of one of the more contentious subjects addressed in the pamphlet (“The First Great Deception ( Chapter 33 from “The Great Controversy)" that you included with your other material. The subject to which I am referring is the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) denial of the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell. While the imaginary hells and gods who purportedly cast people into them are of no concern to those of us who lack belief in such things, this subject does provide insight into the methods religionists often use manipulate their holy writ to try to make it bend to their own higher ethical standards.
To its credit, the pamphlet expresses abhorrence of the more commonly preached doctrine of never-ending suffering in hell orchestrated by the Bible God. The injustice and depravity of the concept of eternal torment for finite infractions of the rules is eloquently stated on page 4 of the pamphlet - “How repugnant to every emotion of love and mercy, and even to our sense of justice, is the doctrine that the wicked dead are tormented with fire and brimstone in an eternally burning hell; that for the sins of a brief, earthly life they are to suffer torture as long as God shall live.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Indeed, in my opinion, your church’s spin on the fate of “lost souls” in the aftermath of “judgment day” is a significant step in the right direction. Nonetheless, an objective analysis of the pertinent verses reveals that your kinder and gentler interpretation is contextually and semantically untenable.
Matt. 18:8, 25:41, and 25:46 and Mark 3:29 all describe hell in terms of everlasting fire/ punishment/damnation. Similarly, in the context of the final judgment scenario, Heb. 6:2 speaks about an “eternal judgment” and 2 Thess. 1:9 describes the “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord…” The Greek word that is translated as everlasting and eternal in these verses is “aionios.” According to Strong’s Lexicon, this word is used 71 times and is translated 68 times in the New Testament (KJV) as “eternal, everlasting, or forever.” It is used the other three times only in conjunction with the word “chronos” to signify a time period starting at the beginning of the world, i.e., “since the world began.” In its common usage, standing alone, it is never interpreted to delineate a time of limited duration in the KJV. (See here.)
In the New Testament, “aionios” is used extensively to describe such things as the “eternal life,” the “everlasting life,” the “life everlasting,” and the “life eternal” that will supposedly be inherited by those who are “saved” on judgment day. This same word is also used to describe such things as God’s everlasting consolation, God’s power everlasting, God’s eternal glory, eternal salvation, eternal redemption, eternal Spirit, eternal inheritance in heaven, everlasting covenant with God, and the everlasting gospel.
The SDA belief that unrepentant sinners will not be subjected to eternal torment in the flames of hell appears to hang precariously on a self-serving interpretation of Jude 1:7. According to the pamphlet, the fires of hell will not be everlasting because the same word (“aionios”) that is used by the author of Matthew (in Matt. 18:8, 25:41, and, although not mentioned in the pamphlet, Matt. 25:46 and Mark 3:29) to describe the flames/punishment/damnation of hell is also used by the author of Jude (in Jude 1:7) to describe the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah, which are no longer burning. According to SDA hermeneutics, since “aionios” is describing something in Jude 1:7 that is not eternal, it should be interpreted in the non-eternal sense in the other selected passages, i.e., Matt. 18:8, 25:41, and 25:46, and Mark 3:29 (but not, of course, in all the other passages where the True Believers™ want it to actually mean eternal).
Has this praiseworthy attempt to transform the God of the Bible into a more compassionate arbiter of justice been successful? I don’t think so for the following reasons:
First, even if the author of Jude intended for “anionios” to mean a period of limited duration in Jude 1:7, why would this unconventional definition only apply to Jude 1:7, Matt. 18:8, 25:41, and presumably Matt. 25:46 and Mark 3:29, and not to any of the other many instances where it is used in the New Testament? The most reasonable answer is that those who established SDA doctrine thought they had found a loophole for mistranslating the word in Jude 1:7 and selectively applied that same meaning to the other verses to justify their revulsion of the notion of never-ending punishment in hell. They did not apply this unconventional meaning to any of the other verses because that would conflict with their belief in the eternal nature of God and would ruin the fantasy that they will someday enjoy an everlasting afterlife. In other words, they cherry picked the few verses to which they wanted the unconventional meaning to apply and retained the standard definition everywhere it was supportive of their preconceived beliefs. Such a self-serving approach can be described in various ways, but consistent and objective are certainly not two of them.
Second, it should be noted that the author of Jude uses the same word, “aionios,” in both Jude 1:7 and Jude 1:21. In the former, it is used to describe the eternal fires of Sodom and Gomorrah, and, in the latter, it describes the eternal life that one can expect to receive through the “mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Assuming for the sake of argument that the author did use the word “aionios” to indicate a time of limited duration in Jude 1:7, why would he then use the same word in Jude 1:21 to describe something that he would clearly want to distinguish as being eternal? If the author did intend the two different meanings, it puts him in the position of purposely introducing a needless source of ambiguity. It would be like using the word “hot” to warn about the dangers of putting one’s hand on a stove shortly after having used the same word to describe the temperature of snow.
Third, and even more damaging to the SDA premise, in Matt. 25:46, the author of Matthew uses this same word “aionios” in the context of both “everlasting punishment” and “life eternal.” (Matt. 25:46 – “And these [the unrighteous] shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”) “Here the same word is used in the same verse to describe the duration of both the punishment in hell and the afterlife. It is inconceivable that the author would use the same modifier in the same verse if he intended for it to have distinctly different meanings. If he had intended to describe something other than everlasting punishment, he could have used the phrase “hora kairos” (as in 1 Thess. 2:17) or “oligos kairos” (as in Rev. 12:2) which are translated as “short time.” Or if he wanted to indicate a longer duration, he could have used “polus chronos” (as in Matt. 25:19 and John 5:6) which is translated “long time.” If he did not intend to convey the meaning “everlasting” in reference to punishment in hell in Matt. 25:46, why would he have used a word that is translated virtually everywhere in the Bible (and only six words later) as eternal or everlasting when there are other more appropriate phrases he could have used? (It is telling that, as far as I could determine, the pamphlet never mentions Matt. 25:46, most likely because it provides such a troublesome obstacle to the premise it is trying to defend.)
Fourth, in order to use the nonstandard meaning of “aionios” in Matt. 18:8, 25:41, and 25:46, and Mark 3:29 (or anywhere else for that matter), there must be some justification for favoring this variant translation in Jude 1:7. If there is no compelling reason for adopting this anomalous definition in Jude 1:7, there is no logical justification for using it in the three verses in Matthew and the one in Mark. As the enclosed commentary elucidates, the most logical and consistent explanation is that the author of Jude actually did think that the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah were eternal. (See here.) As the historical evidence attests, at the time of the composition of Jude, smoke and “brimstone” were still present in the area. Therefore, it would be entirely reasonable for the author to use “aionios,” with its standard meaning of eternal, to describe the situation. As a consequence, since Jude 1:7 cannot be used to rationalize the SDA’s unorthodox translation of “aionios,” there is no logical justification for using the same time-limited meaning in either Matt. 18:8, 25:41, or 25:46, or Mark 3:29 (Other than the obvious desire to make God look less like the demented psychopath that Bible portrays Him to be.)
Fifth, “aionios” is not the only word in the New Testament that is used to describe the perpetual flames of hell. Matt. 3:12, Mark 9:43 and 45, and Luke 3:17 use the Greek word “asbestos” (unquenched, unquenchable) in conjunction with “pur” (fire) to denote the unquenchable nature of hell’s furnace. And Mark 9:44, 46, and 48 use “sbennumi” (extinguish, quench) in conjunction with “ou” (not) to denote the same thing. Rev. 14:11, in speaking about the fate of sinners on judgment day, says “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up ('ies aion aion') for ever and ever." Furthermore, Rev. 20: 10, using the same Greek phrase, says that the Devil will be tormented for ever and ever in the lake of fire. And verse 20:15 says that “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life” will be cast in the same pool of flames. The duration of the flames of hell is described in the Bible using four different words/phrases. When translated using their normative and commonly accepted meanings, these words/phrases all connote a form of punishment involving exposure to eternally burning fires.
In consideration of the above, one can either suspend all objectivity and arbitrarily apply a self-satisfying, artificially-concocted definition of “aionios” (and the other words/phrases discussed above) to a few selected verses to try to obscure their undesirable connotations. Or one can adopt a more scholarly approach and conclude that the words/phrases have commonly recognized and consistent meanings throughout the New Testament. I suppose one could also possibly interpret the scriptures to mean that those who are “saved” will not inherit eternal life, that God’s power and glory are not eternal, that the Holy Spirit is not eternal, and/or that salvation is not eternal, etc. I suspect, however, that SDA apologists would not be so willing to mistranslate “aionios” to infer any statute of limitations in those instances.
In the question answering section on the last page of the pamphlet, reference is made to several Old Testament passages, i.e., Jonah 2:6, Deut. 23:3, 1 Sam. 1:22, Psalms 48:14 and Exod. 21:6, in which a word is translated “forever” even though the time intervals involved are of limited duration. This, of course, is irrelevant as far as the translation of Jude, Matthew, and Mark is concerned because the word used in these Old Testament verses is the Hebrew word “owlam.” Not only is the word completely different from the one used in the New Testament, but Strong’s Lexicon gives one definition of the word as “long duration.” Unlike “aionios,” “owlam” has a much broader scope of meanings, ranging from a long time to an eternity. To use these Old Testament verses to try to justify an idiosyncratic translation of “aionios” in the New Testament is disingenuous, to say the least. (I would imagine spending three days in the belly of a whale, as the folktale claims, would seem like a period of rather “long duration” to Jonah. Don’t you think?)
So, as much as I would like to concur with your church’s more humanistic outlook regarding the fate of the “unsaved,” my evaluation of the pertinent texts leaves me no choice but to conclude that its attempt to paint God’s torture chamber in a better light is a failed exercise in special pleading. In my opinion, those who have established SDA doctrine have not made a sincere effort to arrive at the best substantiated and most etymologically consistent interpretations of the passages noted above. Instead, they have glommed onto an esoteric meaning of the word “aionios” and applied it very selectively only where it is needed to soften the image of eternal punishment in hell. At the same time, they have retained the normal meaning in all other instances where they will not accept anything other than the notion of eternality. The only rationale for doing so appears to be their desire to force scripture to conform to their doctrine, rather than the more objective approach of having scripture inform the doctrine. Such a self-serving, selective, and clearly biased modus operandi is not at all persuasive in my estimation. Nonetheless, I compliment them for adopting a more compassionate stance on the subject. Too bad the same cannot be said for their God.
On the last page, the author of the pamphlet intones, “The teaching of eternal torment has done more to drive people to atheism and insanity than any other invention of the devil.” In my experience, most people are atheists because of what they consider to be a serious lack of convincing and verifiable evidence for the existence of any supernatural beings, be they gods, fairies, or leprechauns. Be that as it may, the pamphlet itself has done absolutely nothing to dispel the biblical threat of eternal torment in hell which, according to the author, has driven substantial numbers of believers to insanity. (Finally an explanation why many of them act so deranged!) However, not all Bible thumpers find this whole idea of eternal torment so distasteful. I have encountered a good many Christians who appear to derive perverse pleasure from contemplating the unending agonies unbelievers will purportedly suffer for failing to acknowledge their superior insight and heed their dire warnings. In this they appear to have much in common with their God who, as is claimed in Deut. 28:63, rejoices over his destruction of those who displease him.
For my take on this whole salvation debacle, see the enclosed, “Salvation – A Dilemma of Biblical Proportions.” If you want to access the links therein, you will have to visit my website.
P.S. - Still working on that Easter Challenge I presented you with some time ago? I expected that a studious Christian such as you would have whipped it out in no time.
Lastly, thank you again for providing me with some new material to include on my website, “Evolution/Creation Dialogues.” I plan on eventually including a copy of this letter in the section entitled, “A Taste of Their Own Medicine.”