The other day I was reading through the Book of Isaiah when I came to 34.9-10 where the prophet tells of the judgment to come upon Edom. It says, “Its streams will be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land will become a burning pitch. It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; none will pass through it forever.”
What we have here is elevated speech. The prophet’s rhetoric means “utter destruction”, but the words, if read hyper-literally, indicate that this is something that maybe should be going even today. Well, the land that was Edom is currently under the rule of the nation of Jordan. After this prophecy it does appear that the area has been inhabited by people here and there. Therefore, it is best to not over-read this text.
Then I read a post yesterday by Justin Taylor (read here) quoting Moses Stuart indicating that when Scripture speaks of something as being forever it must be forever. If hell is said to be forever and heaven forever, yet we say hell is temporal in some way, then heaven must be temporal in some way as well. This is not the argument that concerns me (there seems to be decent reason for such an assertion). Rather, I was taken back by the assertion that the lexical meaning of biblical words for forever must means “forever” as we ponder it.
In the LXX translates לעולם as αἰῶνα χρόνον which can be translated into English as “forever”, but it can also convey a very long time. Even if we choose “forever” it is apparent from this text in 34.9-10, and history, that the lexical definition should not be narrowed too much.
What is interesting is how much this text sounds like Rev. 14.10-11 which says of the fiery punishment of the wicked that it will last εἰς αἰῶνας αἰώνων. This does seem to intensify things a bit, but the imagery is still very similar. Both passages speak of the smoke rising and the fire burning “night and day/day and night” (νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας in Is. 34.10 and ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτός in Rev. 14.11).
Now I am not saying that because Is. 34.9-10 uses exalted language that in reality proved to be a temporal punishment that we should transfer this to Rev. 14.10-11, especially because the latter passage has the important qualifier that it is the smoke “of their torment” (ὁ καπνὸς τοῦ βασανισμοῦ αὐτῶν). What must be debated here is whether or not the “smoke of their torment” going up forever means their torment happens forever. I do not know.
What is important is that we must be careful when making proposals like Taylor made that seem to indicate “forever” always means “forever” as we understand the word. I am not saying it does, nor am I saying it does not. I think we must proceed with a bit more caution.
What do you think? Is there a conceptual connection between these two passages? Is the imagery intended to convey something that lexical definitions alone cannot convey? What about biblical words for “forever”? What hermeneutical principles would you apply to determine if the text means for a long, long time or literally “forever”?
For me, the judgments we see in such prophecies are typological (suprise, surprise? /snark) to the final judgment.
The three key elements of typology are texual connection, historicity, and escalation.
Textual connection – I do believe there is a probable intertextual connection here, as you’ve pointed out. Even if we just consider the phrase as a semitic idiom for destruction, John the revelator is more than steeped in Old Testament intertextuality and would understand the use of such an idiom according to its Old Testament usage.
Historicity – the event actually happened. No more Edom. This one’s pretty easy. Yes, we must understand “forever” hyperbolically here (the fires have, by now, been put out as you point out), but it’s quite obvious the meaning of the text has occurred.
Escalation – This means that the antitype is greater than the type. The Final judgment, to which all other historical, temporal judgments point, is greater than the judgments which point to it. I think this comes through clearly in Revelation. The question then becomes, in what way(s) is the final judgment escalated? Temporality? Intensity? etc.
I personally think it’s all of the above. But that is what we must wrestle with.
As for the limitedness of the judgment on Edom – it makes sense to use hyperbolic language. A judgment made in history is necessarily limited by temporality (e.g. smoke will not literally go up forever). But what about judgment after the end of history? There is no limitation there. I believe that the smoke is metaphorical in Revelation, but the intensification, I think, is obvious.
Just working out some thoughts…great catch, Brian!
@Bryan: Thanks! I think you are right. This is an apocalyptic intensification. Like you, I don’t know what is being intensified and I am not sure if the text gives any obvious hints. Maybe we are not meant to know!
I have been resisting the temptation to weigh in on the discussion about hell but can’t resist an observation here. The question is whether hell is “forever” in consequence or as a place. The new heavens and earth are eternal in both because life is the gift of God. Hell may be eternal in consequence but not as a place of suffering immaterial beings because the wages of sin is death. To reduce death to only separation from God seems to me to divide the Adamic consequence for sin which is both physical death and separation from God. To make hell and heaven residences of immaterial beings is to be more Platonic than biblical in our theology of man since we were created as physical beings and Christ was raised as one (though with some different qualities than our current ones.) As an aside, if the punishment for sin is eternal conscious punishing, Jesus did not pay the penalty for our sin.
@Clayton: These are very strong points and interesting insights. I do think you make a good observation that it seems a bit odd to divide death from its physical consequences. When Scripture seems to hint at a resurrection unto life and one unto punishment (I’m thinking the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation) is that in order to make sure their final destruction occurs as a unified being?
John 3 juxtaposes eternal life with eternal death. Should the word “eternal” have a consistent meaning in both places? I’m not sure the context of John’s Gospel gives us an apocalyptic field, or one that hyperbole is (at least) obvious.
You are right to correct Taylor, but what is most obvious in Isaiah.
Good stuff! In fact, earlier I read Boyd and Eddy’s use of this sort of argument to put the traditional view of unending punishment in a sort of tailspin. This certain focuses us to rethink the matter. Yeah, this serves also as a fitting corrective to Mr. Taylor’s post.
What are the doctrinal ramifications of one who believes in UR, but also promotes the preaching of the Cross, proclaims the Gospel as Good News as a way to eternal life, etc… I think there’s a fear that all UR’s will preach licentiousness. It’s the same fears those who have a hard time with justification by faith have.
I would love to look more closely at the implications of understanding or not understanding eternal death/hell.
@James: It should be noted that if one says hell is not eternal this does not equate to universal reconciliation. Clayton (above comment) is advocating a form of annihilationism, which means that the people who are punished do not last forever, not that they are one day “saved”. He makes the point that eternal “death” doesn’t necessitate merely separation from God, but actual death, a separation from life and maybe even being.
That being said, I do think one of the dangers of universal reconciliation is it (1) must overlook much more content from the biblical witness and it turns a complete 180 with tradition and (2) it does take the warning and wrath out of gospel proclamation which, contrary modern sensibilities, does seem to be a real important part.
As to Jn. 3 I don’t recall where it directly juxtaposes eternal life and death. It says one must (A) believe/be born again or (B) not see/visualize/comprehend the Kingdom of God (3.3, 7-8). It says one must (A) believe to have eternal life but leave (B) undefined in 3.15. It says one must (A) believe to have eternal life because (B) we are condemned already and we love darkness in 3.16-21. Finally, it says (A) one must believe in the Son to experience eternal life or (B) one will not experience eternal life and the wrath of God will remain upon him (again, twice now we see we are already being judged in some sense).
Even if it did make a direct juxtaposition between eternal life and death there would be further questions like (1) What is eternal death? and (2) Should we read the Johannine use of “eternal” back into other canonical documents without a evident intertextual echo?
@T.C.: I am not sure if I Boyd/Eddy are right in their conclusion, but as you noted, it seems apparent Taylor is not.
@Brian I guess John 3:16, 18, 36 would be the closest to a juxtaposition. If anything else, there is a implicit question, “if this brings eternal life” what is our condition without it?
Thanks for the correction about UR and Annihilationism and even the varying differences within each system of thought.
To my question of implications, then if someone believed in a form of temporary punishment/retributive punishment, that would still be something to warn people of, yes?
And no, I don’t think we can just carte blanche read the word in one setting/context into any other text and assume it means the same thing… of course not.
@James: I would think so. It wouldn’t be void the threat of a real consequence, namely some form of wrath/hell experience followed by the cessation of existence. It would avoid some of the philosophical problems with the common view of “eternal punishment”. In the end I think the goal is to be faithful to whatever it is that Jesus and the apostles taught about it, at least what is clear. I don’t know if annihilation or eternal punishment is a clear-cut option so I am willing to live with the tension while maintaining their will be a real experience of the wrath of God that will be just and loving.
GC had a good scholarly re-print with a little historical perspective for us neophytes 🙂
Click to access 4.2_Bauckham.pdf
Bauckham is brilliant. I read this a while back but it may be a good time to revisit it!
Pace Clayton’s point:
. . . As an aside, if the punishment for sin is eternal conscious punishing, Jesus did not pay the penalty for our sin.
That’s only if you presuppose that sin is substantialist and not personalist/relationalist in nature. As if sin can be quantified vs. qualified by its ‘relation’ to God’s life — or it’s absence (privatio). If sin is defined through relational terms, then Jesus is the perfect fit; and the dilemma you suggest is resolved.
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