Over the years we have written several articles about the meaning of words like “for ever and ever,” and we have read many different articles from the pens of others on the same theme. Each of us has in his own way tried to wrestle with the fact that we have no confidence in The English translations, knowing that “Conscious Everlasting Torment” is an affront to the Divine Nature. However, there has always been a niggle at the back of my mind over the translation. No matter how hard I have tried to justify translating the Greek word AION as something other than ‘ever’, it has always left that slight feeling at the back of my mind that I might have been twisting things for the sake of “correct theology”. Let me say right now that I maintain the theology of Ultimate Reconciliation without a shadow of doubt. There has never been any doubt in my mind for nearly thirty years, that the Lord will eventually reach out to all mankind from all ages of time, and draw them to Himself. Those who respond to Him gladly and willingly will find few problems. but those whose hearts are obdurate, and wickedness seems to be ingrained into their natures, will find many problems with Divine Grace, and all those in this latter category will suffer inner torment as they become more enlightened. Yes, there is indeed a real “hell” in that sense, but to say that it will last “for ever and ever” is utter nonsense, and what is worse, an affront to God Himself.
Back now to this “everlasting problem.” It’s only of more recent times that the whole matter has been simply resolved, so simply that’s its almost laughable to think back to the strenuous efforts of earlier times. In this brief paper I should like to reveal the answer to this knotty problem. I now believe that it doesn’t matter whether ‘for ever and ever’ means just that. In fact let’s start off by believing that the men who used the expression believed in such perpetuity, not theologically, but figuratively, in the usage of language. We might say that its a “gross exaggeration.” (And I wrote extensively about that in P.T.54)
In English today we frequently use gross exaggeration, and nobody takes us literally.
“I’ve had one hell of a day,” says the husband returning from work.
“Dad, that dinosaur was simply ginormous,” says his son over supper.
“I’m tired. Helen spent simply ages on the phone this afternoon,” says his wife.
“We’re simply light years apart in our thinking,” says the daughter, referring to the boyfriend she’s just jilted.
“l’ll not believe that in a million years,” says Aunt Gwen about some news item on the radio.
Ah yes, you might say, that’s how we think today, and nobody takes us seriously. It’s just the way we talk, for the sake of effect, to ram the point home with more force. “But,” I hear you say, “you can’t use that sort of argument on the Bible. When God speaks, He’s serious. He means just what He says. You can’t intimate that the Lord used such hyperbole. If He did, then how could we distinguish between when He was speaking the truth, and when He was exaggerating for effect? No, I don’t think we can make a parallel between Biblical speech and modern hyperbole. The words of God have to be taken literally and seriously.”
On the surface this sounds like good logic. And if I didn’t have proof to the contrary, then I would be accpting their argument. But strangely enough the Bible is as full of hyperbole as modern life, and what is more it flows from the Divine Lips as well as from the lips of mankind!
When I wrote the article on “Gross Exaggeration” I gave numerous examples of this, and I would encourage my readers to look at it again. But in this paper I want to concentrate on one Figure of Speech to the exclusion of the rest. It may come as a surprise to see examples of the way the Lord speaks. We are concerned with the subject of ETERNITY, the“forever and evers“ of the Bible, and what they mean. And so it will be best to look at a similar figure in the Old Testament, and relate it to our present problem.
In Genesis 22:17 the Lord spoke to Abraham in this wise,
“I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand on the seashore.”
But in Genesis 16:13 the Lord said,
“I will multiply your seed as the sand of the seashore, which cannot be numbered”.
The Lord knew, and surely Abraham knew, that nobody could count the grains of sand on the seashore. Anyone who has taken a handful and tried counting will soon be throwing it down in disgust. The problem is too great. So are we to take the word of the Lord seriously? Literally? Of course not! Was God lying to Abraham? If you require that every word spoken by God is LITERALLY true, then you must pronounce Him to be a liar. A very serious charge, which I’m sure nobody would make who has the slightest degree of godly fear in their hearts.
What then is the alternative? To assume that ONE DAY in the far distant future the seed of Abraham will be so numerous as to be uncountable? Would that satisfy the literalist? In fact the Scriptures won’t allow that construction as will now be shown. In Deuteronomy 1:10 the Lord speaks to Israel in this wise
“You are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.”
Were they? I suppose someone will come forward and argue that since they didn’t possess telescopes in those days, they could only count the naked-eye stars, not knowing just how vast the stellar heavens were. If that’s the case, then Israel must have been quite small, because there are probably no more than 3,000 stars in the sky by this count. Surely the Lord didn’t mean that, when as a rough guide the tally of the hordes that left Egypt at Passover numbered well over 1,000,000.
Let’s take a look at Judges 7:12. It’s not the Lord speaking this time, but the chronicler. However, the language is similar in kind.
“The Midianites and the Amalekites and all the children of the East lay along the valley like locusts for multitude, and their camels were without number, as the sand of the seashore for multitude.”
Isn’t it clear that the figure of speech is used whenever an UNCOUNTABLE NUMBER is in mind? And if that’s true, then we must always understand what the speaker means whenever the figure is used, whether it be man or the Lord Himself. Two more examples will suffice. The Psalmist (139:17-18) says,
“How precious are Your thoughts to me! How great is their sum! If I could count them, they are MORE IN NUMBER than the sand of the seashore”‘
(That seems to be taking it a step further, rather like the boy who combines gigantic with enormous to make ginormous!) But in Jeremiah 15:8 the Lord speaks about the distress of His people in this wise –
“Their widows are increased to me ABOVE the sand of the seas.”
It’s an example of what might be called the “upgrading of the figure of speech” when the normal figure is so constantly used that it begins to lose its force in conversation.
These examples were all in the context of QUANTITY, but the same figure has been used in the Bible in respect of TIME. In Exodus 20:5 the Lord says,
“I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”
But in Deut.7:9 God says,
“The Lord your God keeps covenant and mercy with those who love Him and keep His commandments to a THOUSAND GENERATIONS.”
Here then is the contrast. Iniquity is only allowed to persist in evil families as for as the fourth generation at the most, but merciful blessings are promised to a thousand generations of those who love God. The message is clear enough. God’s love is so rich, so full, so abounding to His creatures that He employs this hyperbole to express it. Those who persist in taking things literally should by now try to measure out the time, by adopting say 40 years to a generation, and then saying that God will keep His covenant for 40,000 years. But that is not the way to interpret God’s words, and the examples given above are adequate testimony to that fact.
In Hebrew one meets the expression L’OLAM VA-ED, which could be translated into modern idiom by “forever and a day.” It is the precursor of the Greek “unto the ages of the ages”, i.e. “for ever arid ever” in the A.V.. Bibles.David says in Psalm 145:1,
“I will bless Your name FOR EVER AND EVER.”
In the next Psalm he speaks about singing praises to God “while I have my being.” In other words “for ever and ever” is hyperbole. In Isaiah 34:10 the Lord speaks about the day of His vengeance, and the land that shall be made like smoking pitch, the smoke of which shall not be put out day or night “for ever.” This is the origin of all the New Testament expressions, from which the literalists have built their traditions about “Conscious Eternal Punishment.” Those who now understand the force of the hyperbolic figure will readily see that the expression suggests force and vigour, of dire punishment to the wicked, but to say that it will last for ever is as unacceptable as the 40,000 years of God’s mercy mentioned above. If the sand of the seashore can represent a few thousand, or even a million people, then “for ever and ever” can represent a most painful time of re-assessment, re-appraisal, repentance and inner torment, but its duration will last only as long as is needed to do its salutary work of re-creation for God’s glory.
Now that I’ve seen the force of this Biblical Hyperbole, and how it applies to QUANTITY and TIME, there’s no further need for argument about the meaning of “unto the ages of the ages”. Let it be translated “for ever” if you wish, but to say that it MEANS THAT IN PRACTICE is an utter absurdity.