Code-Words, Justin on Eternal Punishment/Immortal Soul, Destabilizing

1. Peter B. Dirksen, “The Old Testament Peshitta,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 263.

“Other arguments for a Jewish origin concern details. One example is N. Walker’s observation that in the majority of places ‘Aram/Arameans‘ has been rendered by ‘Edom/Edomites‘, the difference in Syriac being only the place of a diacritical point. This, according to the writer, is understandable from a Jewish point of view: the Jewish scribes wanted to avoid the name of Aram, ancient Israel’s adversary, since the Syrians were their neighbors and co-patriots in the second/third century C.E.”

I’ve often heard that Jewish writings speak in code. When I was going through the Book of Judith for my daily quiet time, I read the article about it in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. It said that some scholars see “Nebuchadnezzar” in Judith as a code-name for someone else, such as Antiochus Epiphanes. Some argue that Jewish literature refers to Rome as “Edom” rather than “Rome.”

I don’t understand what the purpose of such code is. Was it so the Jews wouldn’t get in trouble? But the meaning of the code-words is somewhat obvious, don’t you think? The Kittim in the Dead Sea Scrolls means Rome. Captor Edom in rabbinic literature means Rome. The little horn of Daniel refers to Antiochus Epiphanes. If Israel’s enemies were to encounter Jewish literature, they’d undoubtedly recognize themselves, wouldn’t they?

I don’t know. Maybe they would if they probed it deeply. Otherwise, they’d probably react only if they heard their names.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 608-609.

“Justin Martyr teaches that the wicked or hopelessly impenitent will be raised at the judgment to receive eternal punishment. He speaks of it in twelves passages. ‘Briefly,’ he says, ‘what we look for, and have learned from Christ, and what we teach, is as follows. Plato said to the same effect, that Rhadamanthus and Minos would punish the wicked when they came to them’ we say that the same thing will take place; but that the judge will be Christ, and that their souls will be united to the same bodies, and will undergo an eternal punishment…and not, as Plato said, a period of only a thousand years…’ [(Apol. I.8)]. In [Apol. I.21]: ‘We believe that all who live wickedly and do not repent, will be punished in eternal fire…’ Such language in inconsistent with the annihilation theory for which Justin M. has been claimed. He does, indeed, reject with several other ante-Nicene writers, the Platonic idea that the soul is in itself and independently immortal, and hints at the possibility of the final destruction of the wicked, but he puts that possibility countless ages beyond the final judgment, certainly beyond the Platonic millennium of punishment, so that it loses all practical significance and ceases to give relief.”

“In Dial. c.5, he puts into the mouth of the aged man by whom he was converted, the sentence: ‘Such as are worthy to see God die no more, but others shall undergo punishment as long as it shall please Him that they shall exist and be punished.’ But just before he had said: ‘I do not say that all souls die; for that would be a godsend to the wicked. What then? [T]he souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment.'”

These quotes concern the destiny of the wicked and the immortality of the soul. Let’s first tackle the “destiny of the wicked” issue. I grew up in the Armstrongite tradition, which is annihilationist: it believes that God will destroy the wicked rather than tormenting them in hell forever and ever. So how do Armstrongites interpret Jesus’ statements about “everlasting punishment”? For them, that refers to the effects rather than the process of punishment. When God kills the wicked, the argument runs, they are dead forever and ever. As Garner Ted Armstrong liked to put it, the Bible speaks of eternal punishMENT, not eternal punishING. Similarly, Jude 1:7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah underwent a punishment of eternal fire, even though they clearly do not exist anymore. They’ve been annihilated, in short, not tormented eternally.

On my Christian dating site, I came across a Christian universalist perspective. This lady was arguing that the biblical words translated “forever”–Hebrew olam and Greek aion–do not necessarily mean “forever.” Rather, they can connote a very long time, which eventually comes to an end. For example, God in the Bible often says that a city will be a wasteland forever, before he turns right around and promises to restore it. (See my post Me on Universalism: “Forever” for details.)

I’m not sure what to make of Justin’s quote. Obviously, for him, eternal punishment doesn’t mean being dead forever and ever, for he seems to treat it as eternal punishING. So he’s not exactly a second century Armstrongite on “eternal punishment’s” definition. And he also appears to diverge from the Christian universalists who deny that aion means eternal. He contrasts Plato’s view with the Christian one, stating that the Platonic system of punishment lasts for a mere thousand years, whereas the Christian one does not. That would only make sense to me if he’s saying that the Christian hell is unlimited in duration, in contrast to the Platonic hell. After all, if he just thought that aion meant “a very long time,” then how’s he know what “a very long time” is? How would he know that it was longer than the millennium-long Platonic hell?

At the same time, Justin seems to contradict himself when he says that the wicked will exist as long as God pleases, unless, of course, he means that God wills for them to exist forever and ever. He does say that the wicked will not die, meaning they shouldn’t take hope in the prospect of annihilation.

Now let’s look at the topic of the immortal soul. Armstrongites believe in “soul sleep”–the doctrine that the dead will be unconscious before their resurrection. Armstrongites dismiss the immortality of the soul, the notion that the soul leaves the body at death and goes on to experience a conscious existence somewhere (e.g., heaven, hell, purgatory, paradise, et al.). Armstrongites who knew of Justin Martyr liked to name-drop him as someone who did not believe in the immortality of the soul. “Look here! A second century figure who agrees with our doctrine!,” they implied.

But Justin didn’t appear to believe in soul sleep. After all, he said that the soul will be reunited with the body at the resurrection. He obviously thinks that the soul leaves the body at death, something the Amrstrongites deny. When he criticized the immortality of the soul, he wasn’t saying that the soul doesn’t leave the body at death. Rather, he was denying that the soul is inherently immortal. For Justin, the soul is only immortal at the behest of God. It could easily die, but God keeps it alive. Contra Armstrongites, one can believe that the soul goes somewhere at death, while holding fast to the scriptural idea that only God has immortality (I Timothy 6:16).

3. H. Loewe, “Introduction,” A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) lviii.

“And so I hope that what I have to say will be a help to the undergraduate who may feel that his beliefs have been shaken by the criticism of his supervisors. He comes up in the October term in time for the first Sabbath of the Jewish year, when the lesson is read from the beginning of Genesis. And on the following Monday he enters his laboratory or lecture room and is taught evolution, geology, and a heliocentric explanation of the universe. He finds in philosophy, anthropology, comparative religion or in biblical studies views which may, at first, seem to him antithetical to those which he has heard in Synagogue. But when he is brought to realise that all truth is from God and that its parts must be congruent, the knowledge will help him in his efforts to reconcile apparent contradictions.”

H. Loewe is an orthodox Jew, whereas the other author of the introduction, C.G. Montefiore, is a liberal Jew.

I like this quote because it speaks to what I was thinking about last night concerning my education. During my time at various institutions, I saw my education as a way to get spiritual answers. I wanted consistency, meaning, inspiration–in short, God.

But somewhere along the way, I got rather jaded about this search. I started to think that my questions did not have answers, or at least answers that I actually liked. Genesis and evolution contradict each other. The God of Christianity sends to hell those who don’t believe in Jesus. We can’t know for sure that one religion is right and another is wrong. There’s not really any proof that the Bible is true. And there are so many viewpoints within and about the Bible that it’s no surprise that there’s a multitude of denominations.

One of my professors says that education is supposed to be destabilizing. Maybe. But what good am I as a destabilized person? I feel so rootless a lot of the time. Can I ever say that something is true, without a “yes, but” or “on the other hand”?

I believe in the quest for truth, but I also think that being destabilized can make me a better person. I’m more likely to empathize with others once I realize that they have reasons for their beliefs, and I’m not in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” mode. I don’t want that mindset to degenerate into “anything goes,” though.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Code-Words, Justin on Eternal Punishment/Immortal Soul, Destabilizing

  1. Ken Brown says:

    Interesting post, especially the second and third sections!

    Just a bit on the first though: As I understand it, code words and similar practices were and remain common among the oppressed, and there is even some evidence of them in the New Testament (for instance, cf. William Herzog’s interesting article “Disembling, A Weapon of the Weak: The Case of Christ and Caesar in Mark 12.13-17 and Romans 13:1-7). Granted, those who study such writings might pick up the meaning of the code, but it does at least offer a level of distraction, allowing somewhat freer discussion of things that it would be dangerous to admit name. If the authorities don’t hear anything suspicious, they may not waste their time listening closer. Or even if they suspect something nefarious, they can’t pin it down as easily. Besides that, even those who do study such coded writings don’t always pick up on their intent: just think of how many generations of Christians have misread Daniel’s codes, if indeed any of us actually understand them!


  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for your comments, Ken. I have a question for you, and I may do a search on your blog to see if you’ve addressed this: What is the Orthodox view on hell? Does it believe in eternal torment, annihilation, hell as purgatory, or what?


  3. James Pate says:

    I may have misunderstood “orthodox.” You mean right belief, not Greek orthodox. In any case, your blog is cool. I like blogs that bring out the religious dimensions of TV shows, or that uphold Christianity while not necessarily being fundamentalist, yet not going the other extreme.


  4. Ken Brown says:

    Heh, yeah by “orthodoxy” I mean “right thinking,” not Greek Orthodoxy, or even always traditional Christian orthodoxy….

    As for my view of hell (subject to change!) see here, and cf. also this and this. I have to say, though, that I am very attracted to annihilationism, though I’m not sure whether it’s true (nor sure that it is not!).


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