Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Eternal punishment and eternal life

In yesterday's post I argued that the phrase "eternal punishment" in Mt 25.46 should be interpreted along the lines of "the punishment of the world to come/the age to come," which is a reference to its location in time and its quality, rather than its quantity or duration.

Some persons argue against this interpretation on the grounds that, if the punishment is not eternal, then neither is the life. Ilaria Ramelli quotes such an argument in her The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013) as it is used in a work ascribed to Basil the Great:

. . . for a deception of the devil, many people, as though they forgot these and similar statements of the Lord, adhere to the conception of the end of punishment, out of an audacity that is even superior to their sin. For, if at a certain moment there is an end to αἰώνιος punishment, αἰώνιος life will certainly have an end as well (Regulae 267).

(Ramelli argues convincingly that this passage is probably an interpolation and a misattribution to Basil, who highly respected Origen, a universalist, and whose sister Macrina and brother Gregory were universalists. It is unlikely that he would have considered them under the deception of the devil.) Augustine, if I am not mistaken, makes use of a similar argument.

This argument is actually a very poor one, however, as I will try to show.

In the first place, we may argue that we already know from other passages that the life will be eternal. Paul emphasizes in 1 Cor 15, for instance, that The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable (v. 42). Elsewhere he speaks of the resurrected Christ as no longer subject to death: since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him (Rom 6.9). Consequently the eternity of the life cannot be undermined by the interpretation proffered for Mt 25.46, since it is already well established elsewhere in the scriptures.

But more importantly, we understand the eternity of life is grounded in the salvific purposes of God. Jesus Christ said that he has come to give life in abundance (John 10.10), and that he gives his body for the life of the world (6.51). God's purposes are good, and he wants us to have life, and everything he does is for the sake of accomplishing this end. Likewise Paul says that God's goal is to be all in all (1 Cor 15.28), which cannot occur if we do not live forever. Even within Mt 25.46, we understand that the life and the punishment are not on a par, even though the same adjective us used of both. The punishment is not retribution (τιμωρία) but correction (κόλασις), and obviously a correction is aimed at life.

Interestingly, the ancient universalists such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa would have agreed that the eternal life -- that is, the life of the coming age -- will have an end as well. But the end is not annihilation or an annulment of salvation! The end is the ultimate apokatastasis in which God is all in all (1 Cor 15.28), something which is not αἰώνιος because it is not within any age at all; it is something beyond the ages. Origen has a passage wherein he speaks of life after the aeons, when the universal restoration will occur. Then all things will be in God and God will be in all things, and so after the age to come, we will be brought into something that transcends history. We won't be annihilated; rather, it is only then that we will truly have reached our goal of union with God.