Category Archives: Eternal Life

Will the Ancient Greeks be Saved?

I love ancient Greece. I adore the stories they told about heroes and gods, and delight in how they displayed these stories in stone works and painted objects. My desktop background on my computer is an image of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt. Admittedly I am far more fascinated by ancient Greece than ancient Israel, my religious forebears.

I should point out that I’m using the phrase “ancient Greeks” rather loosely – to refer to everything from the Mycenaean empire to the classical Greece of the philosophers. What has happened to these people? Where are they now? For atheists the answer is simple: they have gone the way of all flesh; dead and decomposed, leaving only a selection of artworks and old ruins to testify that they ever existed. They have been, as we one day will be, gnawed away by the savage teeth of time.

However, for theists – and Christians in particular – the answer is not so simple. Christians traditionally believe that when we die our soul will (prior to the final resurrection) abide either in the presence of God – Heaven – or a place of punishment – Hell. Some might hold to a belief in some form of purgatory, and others might adhere to the notion of “soul sleep,” whereby the dead unconsciously rest awaiting the final resurrection and judgement at the end of time. Regardless, even if we can’t answer the question “heaven or hell?” now, most Christians would agree that the ultimate fate of every person is either heaven or hell – the presence of God, or His absence (sometimes thought to be annihilation, but more commonly conceived as conscious torment). And so the question remains: what of my beloved Greeks? The Greeks lived long before Christ, so knew nothing of the gospel. Moreover, they knew nothing of Yahweh or the Old Testament covenants. Their world was much smaller than ours. Greeks believed that most people went to Hades after death – a ghostly shadowy existence. If you were a particularly great hero you might make it to the Elysian Fields, or even get promoted to Olympian immortality, a la Heracles. But what should Christians think? Will the ancient Greeks go to heaven or hell?

I want to look briefly at four common Christian answers, (though please note this is far from an exhaustive list).

1. The Strict Calvinist Answer

God has preordained the lives of all people. Some are preordained to everlasting life, others to everlasting damnation. Since the ancient Greeks were not part of God’s elect or his chosen people, they are condemned to Hell. God has chosen, in his sovereignty, not to disclose Himself to them and save them. He has chosen to leave them in their wickedness, their fallen human state, a state we see clearly from the poverty of their religious ideas. This is not unjust, on the contrary God is right to punish them as sinners. I confess I have a difficult time with Calvinist explanations such as this one. That God creates millions of people without any hope of salvation and destined for eternal conscious torment is a rather disgusting doctrine that every fibre of my moral sense resists. Of course, it might turn out to be true, but given how the doctrine flies in the face of our sense of morality and justice I think we are justified in looking at other answers.

2. The Qualified Universalist Answer

This view holds that whilst everyone who hears the gospel and rejects it is hellbound, those who have never heard it – such as the ancient Greeks – get a free pass through the pearly gates by dint of ignorance. This view can be heard often enough at the popular level, but it isn’t one I’ve heard from any Christian theologian, since it suffers from one fatal problem: If it’s the case that ignorance of the gospel gives a free pass to heaven then there seems fairly strong moral case against evangelism. Preaching to those who have never heard the gospel puts them at serious risk. The way to populate heaven would be to keep the gospel to yourself, hide all the Bibles, close the churches, and suppress the gospel message as far as possible.

3. The Liberal Universalist Answer

On this view people such as the ancient Greeks will go to heaven because ultimately everyone does anyway. This obviously avoids the problem with qualified universalism by dispensing with the eternal punishments of Hell, but does it threaten the importance of preaching and mission? Many Christian theologians think it does, but I think that might be hasty. Admittedly, if all religions are equally good paths to God, then the importance of preaching and mission with a view to conversion is unnecessary. However, that idea is not essential to universalism. Perhaps a universalist could hold that whilst everyone ultimately goes to heaven, there are different ways of getting there and some are better than others. Perhaps Christianity is the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation to the world, and perhaps those who embrace it get further along on the journey. This, however, strikes me as speculative and with little basis in Christian tradition, despite the best efforts of excellent thinkers – such as John Hick – to give it a theological basis.

4. The Standard Answer

Here the notion is that those who have never received the gospel are simply judged by the light that they do have, and thus some of the ancient Greeks are bound for heaven, whilst others bound for hell. What is it to be judged by the light one has? Well, it means that each person is held to a standard suitable for their moral and spiritual knowledge and awareness. Has some given person done well with the knowledge he or she had available? Take some ancient Greek – perhaps a priest of Apollo. He believes in the gods, has a sense of right and wrong which he seeks to live by, desires to worship the gods in the way he sees as proper and fitting, and in particular wishes to see Apollo exalted and honoured and the people who come to worship him blessed. He does not know Yahweh, but he does have some religious or moral awareness which he seeks to follow as well as he can. Is it not plausible that such a man will be saved? I cannot of course say that he will or he won’t – humans are poorly placed indeed – morally and epistemologically – to make such judgments, but I don’t see that we can rule it out and it strikes me as a solution to the problem which should satisfy most believers.

Perhaps then one day I might just shoot the breeze with Plato or have a good laugh with Aristophanes.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Nature of Hell: An Examination of the Traditional View

During the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553AD the Emperor Justinian issued 9 anathemas against Origen, the last of which reads: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary and will one day have an end. . . let him be anathema.”

In defiance of his excellency Emperor Justinian, fellow blogger, tweeter, & Christian thinker, Elijiah Thompson has written the first installment of a series of articles explaining his rejection of the traditional notion of Hell as eternal conscious torment. Instead, Elijiah defends a version of conditional immortality – the doctrine that those who die outside of Christ will at some point simply go out of existence, leaving eternal life to those who have been saved. You can read his article here:

https://elijiaht.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/annihilationism-101-an-introduction-to-conditional-immortality/

I adhere to neither the traditional concept, nor to conditional immortality; nor do I reject either. My own view is that I can’t really be sure about the fate of unbelievers: maybe they will go out of existence (Stott), maybe they will experience eternal punishment (Craig), or maybe God will somehow win them all (Hick). In a nutshell I adhere simply to this: will not the perfectly good and flawlessly just Judge of the earth do right? I agree with the American theologian Charles Hodge who comments that we mortals are incompetent judges concerning the penalty that sin deserves; or of just how supreme is the being against whom we commit it. Nor do I think we have much grasp as to the depths of God’s love and mercy.

One of the problems with writing about Hell is that the word “hell” comes to us laden with all kinds of literary and artistic associations. In fact, I suspect that there is a significant portion of people – from evangelicals to their staunch atheist critics – whose idea of Hell is influenced more by medieval art than the biblical text. Sometimes it’s thought of as the realm of Satan, as if he rules there like the Greek god Hades rules the underworld in Greek mythology. Typically, though, Hell is conceived as some kind of cosmic torture chamber for the damned, and such understandings are well worth challenging.

In this article I want to address the biblical case for the traditional understanding of Hell as a place (or state) of eternal conscious torment, hopefully showing why I think the traditional doctrine is not as strongly supported as is often claimed.

First of all we turn to the Old Testament. Within the pages of the OT we find a plethora of metaphors used to describe the end of the “wicked” – and they always suggest destruction (for a small sample see Elijiah’s article). One passage – Isaiah 66 – is sometimes thought to teach more than this in its language of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire; imagery which Christ himself uses. However, the passage doesn’t speak of souls surviving in pain. It’s a passage speaking of rotting corpses which suffer the shame of having no burial and the horror of being eaten by maggots and destroyed by fire. As Fudge says: “The final picture is one of shame, not pain.” The OT seems to give very strong testimony to a fearful end for “the wicked,” but doesn’t lend any weight to the doctrine of endless misery.

Advocates of the traditional view typically draw their proof-texts from the NT. However, once again we find that the language used is almost always of destruction, not unending torment or misery. John Wenham provides a great breakdown of the verses in his book “The Enigma of Evil,” and I owe the next section largely to him (% are approximate).

41% speak of judgement without specifying any further penalty.

22% use the word “apollumi,” which suggests eternal ruin, destruction and loss.

10% speak of a “burning up” – 3 verses of which refer to a lake of fire; an image suggesting destruction.

10% refer to “death,” and in regular parlance death is a cessation of life, not an unending miserable life.

8% speak of a separation from God. This is significant if God is omnipresent, sustaining in existence all that is. Such verses therefore naturally suggest the cutting off of a person from the source and sustainer of life, which plausibly means destruction.

6% speak of anguish without any mention of duration.

4% speak of Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom – which gives the image of corpses consumed by maggots and fire that we noted in Isaiah.

0.5% – 1 verse – speaks of no rest day or night, and the smoke of torment going up forever (Rev 14:11).

Let’s look closer at the specific passages traditionally used to support the doctrine of endless conscious punishment or torment. There are 14:

7 of these 14 passages contain the word “aionios:”

Everlasting punishment – Mt 25:46
Everlasting fire: Mt 18:8 & 25:41
Eternal sin: Mk 3:29
Everlasting destruction: 2 Thes 1:9
Everlasting judgment: Heb 6:2
The punishment of everlasting fire: Jude 7

There are a number of points worth considering before we jump to the traditional conclusion. Firstly, aionios can take a qualitative sense, not just a quantitative one. Secondly, what are we to make of the Matthean contrast between everlasting life and everlasting punishment? Is he really making the point that since the life is everlasting that the punishment is everlasting? That’s far from certain. We also have the contrast between everlasting life and everlasting death. John Wenham comments that “It would be proper to translate ‘they will go away into punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into life of the age to come.’” And if Wenham is correct here then the question of duration is not settled. Thirdly, we have several examples of other once-for-all events which have unending consequences: for example, “eternal redemption,” or Sodom’s punishment of “eternal fire.”

Other passages refer to “unquenchable fire:” Mt 3:12, Lk 3:17 & Mk 9:43. But the idea presented here is pretty clearly a figure of speech – chaff is burnt up by irresistible fire, suggesting destruction. Mark 9:48 speaks of the “undying worm” with echoes of Is 66:24, but we have already noted that the picture here is of death and shame, not of living beings in torment. There is, therefore, really very little here in these texts that suggests (let alone demands) the traditional interpretation, especially given the overwhelming picture presented of destruction in a great mass of other texts.

This leaves 4 passages. Jude chiefly concerns the issue of godless men infiltrating and corrupting the church and perverting the gospel message. Jude is concerned to point out that for such there is a judgement coming, and then he gives three examples of judgement: (1) How God destroyed those Israelites who did not believe after their release from Egypt; (2) That God has kept certain fallen angels in darkness, bound with everlasting chains, for the judgement on the “great day;” and (3) the archetypal example of OT judgement: God destroyed Sodom with burning sulphur, here referred to as “eternal fire.” Just as God’s judgement was revealed in these cases, so it will be revealed in the case of these godless men, “for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” What’s of particular note here is that we have a range of different pictures and metaphors used with respect to God’s judgement. The point here, however, is not to teach eternal conscious punishment, but rather the theme is the certainty and finality of judgement. Jude, following biblical tradition, presents a range of pictures and symbols which point to the reality of God’s final judgement and victory over evil. I would caution against accepting any one picture as the whole literal truth of the matter, as it seems to be the case that they are intended to point beyond themselves.

Then we have three passages in Revelation, which are probably the most explicit. There’s just one problem: it’s the Book of Revelation. Revelation is ancient apocalyptic writing, and as such is something of an interpretative nightmare. It is full of figures of speech, pictures, and symbolism. With this in mind, let’s look at the three verses:

14:11: “And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

Rev 19:3 “And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her [the “great prostitute”] goes up for ever and ever.”

Rev 20:10: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

With respect to the last two we note that they refer to non-human or symbolic figures. Moreover, the writer of Revelation is clearly a mind that is steeped in the OT, which perhaps gives some clue about the interpretation of these passages. One of the quintessential examples of divine judgement in the OT is Sodom & Gomorrah (which is cited over and over again in the OT), upon which was cast burning sulphur, leaving irreversible desolation and smoke rising from the land. It’s far from an exegetical stretch to interpret the images in these two verses in light of the archetypal example of Sodom – which concerns destruction, God’s final and irreversible judgement, with smoke left as a reminder of God’s triumph over evil.

I think the same arguably applies to Rev 14:11, which is perhaps a more difficult passage. But again, in light of the difficulties of basing doctrines on clearly symbolic and figurative passages and in light of the overwhelming scriptural testimony to God’s final triumph over sin and evil and the destruction of the wicked, it’s ill-advised, I think, to hang a doctrine of eternal conscious punishment on texts like this.

None of what I’ve said refutes the traditional doctrine, but that wasn’t my intention. For all I know the pictures of Revelation are indeed literal. My point is simply that the traditional doctrine does not have the sort of obvious biblical warrant that is typically claimed for it.

One thing we do know: the fate of the lost is entirely in God’s hands. And will not the Judge of the earth do right?

Stephen J Graham

*****

Postscript:

The creed of my own denomination, the Westminister Confession of Faith, cites one further proof-text: the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Firstly, however, there are well-known exegetical difficulties with this passage. Secondly, the passage probably doesn’t mean to represent the final state of the lost, since Hades itself is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation. Thirdly, there is no reference to the duration of this punishment. Finally, the story is primarily a chilling satire on Pharisaic piety, not a guide to the world to come.

*****

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Eternal Life: Meaningless & Boring?

The full text of a reflection (for a popular Christian audience) on the common charge that eternal life would be boring and meaningless. Text awaiting publication.

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A friend of mine once quipped that eternal life would never get boring, since his wife would always find something for him to do.

But not everyone is so optimistic. In his essay, “The Problems of the Self,”[1] philosopher Bernard Williams argues that eternal life is not desirable and death is something we should welcome and appreciate. If we never died life would become one big bore-fest, and would, reckons Williams, ultimately be meaningless. Williams cites a story by Karel Copec (1890-1938), in which the character Elina Makropulos drinks an elixir of life. The story joins her at 42 years old, the “age” she has now been for 300 years. Her life is presented as having become meaningless and boring.

Such a complaint is often found on the lips of unbelievers, and I must confess that often we Christians have spoken of eternal life in ways which make it a less than thrilling proposition. One preacher speaks of “singing one glorious hymn after another for all time.” Does that excite you? For many folks this sounds as thrilling as flossing for all eternity. Presenting eternal life as one never-ending church service has done the notion of eternal life incredible damage in the eyes of an unbelieving world, most of whom struggle with an hour on a Sunday a few times a year. How then should we speak of eternal life?

I should point out straight away that reflection on eternal life – even for us Christians – will always be somewhat speculative, and we can really offer little more than some imaginative suggestions (hopefully more imaginative than singing one glorious hymn after another). We do after all only see through a glass darkly and cannot possibly fathom what God has prepared for those who love him. But I think reflecting on this is still worthwhile, if only to help change the popular perception that life eternal would be a meaningless bore-fest.

It might be useful to start with what we do know: our own earthly existence. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Elina Makropulos. Would life really become boring and meaningless, even after a mere few centuries?

I want to deal with the charge of boredom first. I find it almost unthinkable that eternal life would become boring. Firstly, this world, as the creation of God, is an amazingly fascinating place. If I lived 300 lifetimes I couldn’t imagine anything other than barely scratching the surface of the riches God has made and given us access to.

Take just a few simple examples. My son loves the museum, and when we visit I find myself overwhelmed with interest in so many different things. I’d love to know more about things like the dating of fossils or to be involved in finding and studying them. How fascinating are Egyptian hieroglyphics! How wonderful it would be to study archaeology and head off to exotic locations on a “dig” (complete with Indiana Jones hat, of course). If you visit a museum and don’t come away with a sense of how fascinating and wonderful our world is then you haven’t opened your eyes!

Or consider all those places you see from the air as you pass over in a plane en route to your destination, places you just don’t have time to visit. The earth is full of fascinating places, most of which we’ll never see in one – or even 100 – lifetimes. Think of the wonders of the world both natural and manmade: Niagara Falls, the Taj Mahal, Mt Everest, the Grand Canyon, the Sinai desert, the Great Wall of China, and the Amazon rainforest. The earth is full of such glorious riches! And we’re not even off the planet yet! Consider the immensity of the cosmos, the stars and the galaxies. Physics is constantly bringing us face to face with new wonders, and showing us all the time how incredibly awesome – and often wonderfully weird – the cosmos is.

Imagine having lived from the time of Christ until today – 2000 years. There are so many fascinating and amazing events you could have witnessed or been a part of. This life, our planet, the biological world, the cosmos, is far too wonderful and immense to grow bored with if we view it with open minds and open eyes. And that’s before we consider all the great books we could read, plays we could watch, campaigns to fight, and people to meet. Or I think of one of my own loves: philosophy. One of my great frustrations is having to skip over ideas and personalities simply because I just don’t have time for indulging such curiosities and heading down every intellectual rabbit hole that takes my fancy.

Lastly, I should also mention what I call the “joy of mere being.” This has nothing to do with doing anything or going anywhere or striving for any goal. It’s the joy we derive simply from being alive. I’ve experienced this profound sense of joy on several occasions: gazing at a mountain range on a bright morning, or lounging on a beach and watching the sea, or holding my son for the first time. These are moments we wish could last “forever.” Ironically, we don’t have so many of these experiences due to being so busy getting things done before our time runs out.

I think if we can say all this about an eternal earthly life, we can certainly say it about eternal life in a new heaven and new earth. We can’t say precisely what such an existence would be like, but we do know that it will far outstrip what we do know. Moreover, we know that we will experience the presence of God himself in a wonderful way that currently eludes us. And this brings me to the charge that eternal life would be meaningless.

It is true that eternal life by itself may well be meaningless. One story tells of an astronaut hopelessly lost in space. He has two vials: one containing a poison and the other containing an elixir that will give him immortality. Seeing how hopeless his situation is he decides to drink the poison, but mixes the vials and ends up drinking the potion that makes him immortal. Thus he is doomed to spend eternity floating aimlessly through the cosmos; a life without meaning.

However, we mustn’t think that death or dying is what gives meaning to our existence. The ultimate source of meaning for our life is God. Consider briefly the very bad news that follows if atheism is true. William Lane Craig writes, “On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental by-products of nature who have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called planet Earth – lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe – and are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.”[2] Or Richard Dawkins, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”[3] This doesn’t sound like a very meaningful existence to me. Nor does it sound like much fun.

Over and against this Christian theism holds that God is the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.”[4] Christ came “that you may have life and have it to the full.”[5] And if we remember nothing else of our catechism, we do know this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[6] We mustn’t make the mistake then of conceiving of immortality as simply never-ending existence. That in itself may not be very meaningful or joyful. But rather we must always keep in mind that our eternal life will be of a certain quality too, a quality based on the very being of God Himself. Theologians refer to the beatific vision – the enjoyment by the saints of the full revelation of God himself, in all his glory and perfection, directly to them.

Such is difficult for us to grasp in this life. After all, as Paul puts it, we merely “see through a glass darkly.”[7] But we can know for sure that eternal life for the saints in heaven will be the fulfilment of existence and more joyful than we can possibly imagine.

I suspect, therefore, that there will be far more to do and enjoy than singing one glorious hymn after another; and eternal life will certainly be more joyful and meaningful than the never-ending list of chores my friend envisions.

Stephen J. Graham

NOTES

[1] Cambridge University Press, 1973

[2] William Lane Craig, “Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org 2012

[3] Richard Dawkins River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic, 1996)

[4] Acts 17:28

[5] John 10:10

[6] Westminster Shorter Catechism

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:12

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