Recently, I have been reading and watching video lectures and debates over the concept of eternal punishment. I am still waiting on a few books that I’ve ordered to come in to read on the subject of Conditionalism/Annihilationism, so I will refrain from specifically dealing with that topic in detail until a future date. That being said, I am fairly confident that there are a few peripheral issues that I can delve into until that time.
I should add that this topic will be something that I will return to at various points in the future. What I mean is that this process will probably months in the making. There are other things that I have an interest in besides this topic, but I do think this subject is important enough to wrestle through from a possible research standpoint.
Coming to See the Communication Barrier
As I have mentioned in the past one of the common focal points in arguments and debates is in regards to language. There is a communication barrier that exists when people do not share the same foundation. We see this specifically in the use of words or phrases.
Dr. James R. White has called this “baggage” that we lug around with us that infers our understanding on how key terms are to be interpreted. Walter Martin, the author of the gold standard volume on various religions entitled, the Kingdom of the Cults, wrote that the Christian
“…must be prepared to scale the language barrier of terminology. First, he must recognize that it does exist, and second, he must acknowledge the very real fact that unless terms are defined when one is either speaking or reading…the semantic jungle that…[has been] created will envelope him, making it difficult, if not impossible, [to offer] a contrast between the teachings…” of the two opposing sides.
This can be extremely frustrating to people in dialogue. The use of the same words, but opposing definitions, leads to gross misunderstandings. This causes people who may speak the same language (say English) to talk right past another.
Knowing the Cause…
The reasons for this can be many. For example, “words change their meaning over time.” Or it could be our traditional understanding that hinders us from seeing what is truly being said. What needs to be remembered is that words in and of themselves are merely symbols, linguistically speaking, used to convey meaning to concepts in our world.
Language is Symbolic…
That final point is an important one. Think of language as a whole. What are letters? In the English alphabet there are 26 (A-Z). Have you ever considered that letters, which make up our words, are symbolic representations of abstract concepts applied to the world in which we live?
Take for example the word “day.” What is a day? Ah, here is where the semantical range of a word is helpful. There are varying ways in which the term “day” can be described (defined). To illustrate this, I’ll borrow a sentence that I’ve heard from Ken Ham on various occasions.
“In my grandfather’s day, it took three days to travel to that city during the day.”
Understanding Semantic Range…
The word day is used three different ways in that sentence. That is an example of its semantic range. First, “In my grandfather’s day…,” the term day means an age of time (i.e., a generation). Second, “…it took three days to travel to that city…,” day means an approximate 24-hour period of time. Third, “…during the day” we see that day is being used in the sense of a period of daylight (approx. 12 hrs). But the word “day” made up of the letters “d,” “a,” and “y” is a symbolic representation of what we experience in reality. We assign meaning to the symbols, and the manner in which they are used together (a word), and the context in which that word is spoken. Boring I know, but nonetheless important.
By the way this is why it is incumbent upon us to carefully define our words when speaking to other individuals. Even if we share the same language, and embrace a similar worldview, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we have the same intention with similar words or phrases. We need to be aware of potential communication barriers in conversation.
I say all of that to caution those who like to use the argument against metaphoric language. There is no question that the Bible is full of imagery. Its pages are littered with various symbolic representations. There are two key responses that I have witnessed to this truth.
Two Sides of the Same Coin…
There will be those who fear the use of metaphors (now you know why I called this section meta-phobia) in the sense that they will be taken seriously. The argument presented will be something akin to “those are just symbols, not be taken literally.” What I’ll call now the belittling fallacy. Trying to make light of what is written by saying “it’s just symbolic.”
Now this makes those on the other side, who take a “literal understanding” of the text, reactively kick back. A fear that the teachings of the Bible will not be taken seriously or accurately (a converse of the meta-phobia above) begins to ensue when this kind of talk is used. Banners are raised and a call to arms is sounded!
Often you can identify this concern when you hear the phrase about “spiritualizing the text.” Which in and of itself I find a bit amusing since we are told in Scripture that it is “God-Breathed” (2Tim 3.16) and men wrote as they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pet 1.21). The whole text is spiritual, since it claims to come from God who is Spirit (John 4.24), and yet its language pertains to all of life.
The real issue…
The issue is not whether or not we spiritualize the text, but whether or not we draw from it the correct meaning. Which means what? That we derive the author’s original intention at the time of its writing. Deconstructionists claims that this is impossible, since from their point of view there is no way to derive an author’s original intention from the words written on a page. Which, if that were true, then you should automatically dismiss the conviction(s) of the Deconstructionist since we can’t really know what their intention is.
Literal Should Mean Exegetical…
Confusion over what “literal” means is the problem. The best and easiest way to understand the meaning of “literal” is according to the literature. Which harkens back to reading the author in context (historically, culturally, linguistically) and then pulling out the meaning intended at the time of its writing (a.k.a., process of exegesis). Only then will you be able to properly interpret and apply the text in your current context.
Sounds easy enough, but commitments to the contrary hinder this process. For example, in regards to eternal punishment I have noticed a trend by advocates from one side attempt to dissuade a likely conclusion being drawn from the text by stating that the language is symbolic or metaphoric. To some, I suppose this is impressive. However, I disagree. Actually, I think it is a bit disingenuous. Perhaps, it is just blatant ignorance on their part, but I’m not so sure.
The Use of Parables
Take the literary teaching method Jesus employs quite often in the gospels. Time and time again we see him speaking in terms of parable. He uses illustrations from every day life to discuss deeper, even hidden, spiritual truths. Are we to look at those stories and walk away saying, well His language was metaphoric, it was laden with symbols, therefore, I can’t take him literally?
An Example Given…
Let’s briefly look at one to help what I’m saying sink in.
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt 13.33).
What is being taught in this parable? In short, that the kingdom of heaven starts out small, almost imperceptibly so, but grows until it is quite large. Of course, “kingdom of heaven” is a symbolic reference to the rule and/or dominion of God, specifically Christ who is King. “Leaven” and “flour” are symbolic references to the Spirit’s work being sown in men’s hearts. Obviously, though spoken in terms of symbolic imagery (metaphoric), the language has a literal meaning.
To somehow argue that symbols are to be taken lightly because they are not to be taken literally is an absolute farce. Wooden-ism, which is often meant when a person says something shouldn’t be taken “literally,” would be to say that the kingdom of heaven is leaven, it is something a woman took and hid in flour, and then it grew. Symbols represent literal truths, but they are not literal truths.
But a genuine connoisseur of the biblical text does not dismiss a teaching because its symbolic (use of metaphor), nor do they try to make a wooden chair out of spiritual truths. There is a necessary balance that guides the reader, student, preacher/teacher of the Scripture, and this is drawn from exegeting the text not hem-hawing on either side of the meta-phobia fence.
As Pastor Douglas Wilson explains, “the symbol is always less than reality. What is greater—the nation or the flag that represents that nation? …What is greater—the marriage or the ring on the finger that represents the marriage?” Or to apply what I did earlier in this post: Which is greater—the yeast hidden in the dough that grew, or the kingdom of Christ that the gates of Hades cannot overpower? The answer as to the greatest in all three examples is what? Is it the symbol that is greater or the thing that the symbol represents? Obviously, Wilson is right, it is that which is represented by the symbol that is the greater of the two.
No difficulty here…
There is little difficulty in understanding what is beyond the symbolism of teenagers/adults who draw an eyeball, a heart, and the letter U. When the symbols are understood the concept, they point to are clearly comprehended. The symbols put together mean “I love you.” And in the case of the symbology used, it is the statement behind the symbol’s being made that is far greater in meaning and impact.
We will draw this out further in future posts, but for now I’ll let this little lesson settle in your minds.
 James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2012), 25, Kindle, loc 254.
 Walter A. Martin, the Kingdom of the Cults: The Definitive Work on the Subject, Rev. ed., Ravi Zacharias, ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2003), 28.
This teaching by Dr. Martin has been adapted and applied to the current material, as language barriers exist not only when one has two opposing religions meeting head-to-head, but also when one apparently shares much of the same common ground within a similar worldview—i.e., Christian faith.
 D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic,  2004), 36.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 32. See Eugene A. Nida, Exploring Semantic Structures (Munich: Fink, 1975), 14.
 The same thing could be said of numbers. Take for example the number “1” the Arabic symbol we use to identify one is not actually the number, but the symbol that give meaning to our understanding of the concept of “1.”
 Douglas Wilson, “Mere Hellfire,” Blog & Mablog: Theology that Bites Back, December 3, 2018, https://dougwils.com/the-church/s16-theology/mere-hellfire%ef%bb%bf.html. Wilson is a wonderful teacher that is ironically disliked by a great number of his household (i.e., the Christian community). We shall return to some of his teaching on the matter at hand in future posts. Until then, I would recommend you check him out if you’ve never had the pleasure before.