Pressing Chris Date’s Retreat

Over at “Rethinking Hell,” Mr. Chris Date has retreated a few steps in his discussion of the meaning of the term “punishment.”

Recall that the argument that “punishment” in this case was a “result” noun was one of Mr. Date’s first supposedly “positive” arguments for his position. Now, Mr. Date tries to argue for ambiguity. He states: “First, it should be noted that many deverbal nouns are polysemous, ambiguous between a process or result meaning.”

Of course, this is true – it’s something that Mr. Blauser and I already pointed out in our supplement. It’s true, but it’s not necessarily relevant.

Moreover, while it is true, it can be misleading. While – in some cases – a word standing alone can be ambiguous, even words with a range of meaning that includes both process and result can unambiguously express one or the other in context. In other words, the fact that something is a deverbal noun doesn’t make it automatically ambiguous in a particular context.

Mr. Date even admits:

I do not dispute that “punishment” does sometimes—even often—refer to the process of punishing. But since such deverbal nouns are often polysemous, it does not follow that therefore “punishment” carries a process meaning every time it’s used. “Punishment” may often describe “a manner of treatment, not the result of that treatment,” but this is not always the case.

This is similar to the post-modern fallacy of assuming that just because people sometimes revise their opinions – or even often revise their opinions on many things – that therefore there is nothing that should be held absolutely.

Similarly, it’s not true that just because some (or many) deverbal nouns are polysemous, that therefore all deverbal nouns are polysemous. Moreover, there are kinds and degrees of polysemeity. For example, there are words like “punishment” that (in English) nearly always refer to a process, just like there are words like “injury” that almost always refer to a result.

After an irrelevant tangent over whether a fine is a process or result (it’s a result), Mr. Date points out that “capital punishment” is a use of “punishment” that carries a “result” sense.

Of course, the only reason it carries a “result” sense in English is that it is being modified by a term that requires that sense. In other words, it is the modifier that goes with the word “punishment” that determines whether it carries its usual process sense, or this exceptional “result” sense.

In like way, “fine” can refer to the process of transferring the money. For example, “During the fine of Mr. Date, the bank discovered that there were insufficient funds in his account.” In this case, a word that normally refers to a result carries a meaning that refers to a process.

“Capital punishment” is just an example in the opposite direction, where a term that is normally about the process is used to refer to a result. Just as we make result nouns function as though they were process nouns, we can make process nouns function as though they were result nouns. For example, slap “completed” on a process noun, and you now have a usage that refers to result.

Moreover, “capital punishment” is not a term used in Scripture, and this particular example of the semantic domain of “punishment”, therefore, does not have a corresponding expression in Koine Greek (that I could locate – perhaps there’s some use I’m unaware of). In short, this is an exception to the general rule in English – but not one that Mr. Date will find in the Biblical text.

Taking the usage of “punishment” in the King James Version, the only modifiers aside from “everlasting” in Matthew 25:46, are “my” (Genesis 4:13), “no” (1 Samuel 18:10), “strange” (Job 31:3), and “sorer” (Hebrews 10:29). The only other place where the corresponding Greek word is used, the KJV translates it as torment, not punishment.

Moreover, in this case – the word that modifies “punishment” is the word that means “everlasting.” It’s a word that relates to duration. As such, it’s a word that unmistakably suggests that “process” or “manner” sense of “punishment” is intended, just as if it had said “long punishment,” “lengthy punishment,” or “short punishment.”

So, Chris Date has two uphill battles to try to make his supposedly positive case. First, he has to deal with the fact that “everlasting” here suggests a process, and second he has to deal with the fact that “punishment” normally refers to a process.

Chris Date attempted to rely on Augustine.  Regarding his misuse of Augustine, Mr. Date asks:

Did we not see Augustine explicitly stating that the measure of capital punishment is not in the duration of the punishing, but rather in the duration of the consequent lifelessness?

No, we did not. We saw him explicitly saying that it was not in the duration of the act of killing but in the duration of the exile (“As to the award of death for any great crime, do the laws reckon the punishment to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted, or in this, that the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living?”).

Mr. Date turns from there to a rebuttal argument extracted from Jonathan Edwards.  Jonathan Edwards argues that if the Biblical descriptions of punishment in the afterlife all refer simply to a state of annihilation, and if being in that state eternally meets the description of “eternal punishment,” then there is no reason for a lengthy period of suffering prior to such annihilation.

Mr. Date mistakenly takes comfort in this argument, supposing that Edwards is saying that continuing in the state of being annihilated is legitimately viewed as an “eternal punishment.”  On the contrary, while Mr. Date cited section 31 of the chapter, in section 1 Edwards explicitly states “Eternal punishment is not eternal annihilation.” (get the book, here)

Finally, Mr. Date uses an argument worth laying to rest here, although perhaps it could be addressed anywhere.  He writes:

The phrase Jesus uses a mere verses earlier, “eternal fire,” carries a certain meaning elsewhere, which along with the rest of Scripture must be the lens through which we interpret “eternal punishment,” rather than the other way around.

The argument Mr. Date is referring to here attempts to read the shadow into the substance, instead of recognizing that the shadow is just a shadow.

Thus, in this example:

Matthew 25:41
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

There is that fire that lasts forever.  It’s the same fire that whose smoke will rise up forever (as we discussed here).

It’s also referred to earlier in Matthew:

Matthew 18:8
Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.

Chris Date’s argument is to rely on the fact that the fire sent against Sodom and Gomoorrha is also called “eternal fire.”

Jude 7
Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.

The argument is that the fire and brimstone against Sodom was not eternal in the duration of its burning.  But Sodom is just an example – a shadow or type of future punishment.  Similarly, Gehenna and Tophet/Topheth are types of the future burning, but the fires there were not literally unending.

And, I should add, this concept of fire that burns forever is not a strictly New Testament concept:

Isaiah 33:14
The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?

I should note that a similar thing occurs when the “read the limitations of the shadow into the substance” hermeneutic encounters similar types:

Jeremiah 17:4
And thou, even thyself, shalt discontinue from thine heritage that I gave thee; and I will cause thee to serve thine enemies in the land which thou knowest not: for ye have kindled a fire in mine anger, which shall burn for ever.

Yet the Babylonian captivity was only for a matter of years.

Or to take another example:

Leviticus 6:13
The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.

Nevertheless, the fire on the altar did go out.  It was relit by God at the building of Solomon’s temple, and then went out again, at the latest at the time of the captivity (but probably significantly before then).

The fire on the altar, like the fire that consumed Sodom, are pictures of the unquenchable fire that is coming:

Matthew 3:12
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

Luke 3:17
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.

Trying to reconcile the idea that the “fire” is “eternal” with the claim that it is not unending results in people like Mr. Date having to argue that the fire is only “eternal” in the sense of being from the eternal God.

If we are to read “eternal” as merely “from God” with respect to the fire and the punishment, then we should do so also with “eternal life.”  But surely Scripture makes it abundantly clear that eternal life is forever.

All this to say this verse:

Matthew 25:46
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

makes it perfectly clear that both hell (i.e. the lake of fire) and heaven are eternal.


2 Responses to “Pressing Chris Date’s Retreat”

  1. Ed Says:

    Hi there, I'd like to point you and your readers to a good book on the subject by Robert Govett, titled 'Eternal Suffering of the Wicked and Hades' –

    (or click my name)

    I referred Date to the book on twitter, but he seemed to be able after less than a minute to conclude that the book probably was a rehash of already refuted material … which according to me is a rather subjective attitude.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Eternal is the quality of the life, not just the duration. Do people in Hell have eternal life in torment according to traditionalism? Does eternal simply mean never ending? Obviously not.

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