Monday, August 29, 2011

Christianity's Platonic Origin: Tertullian and the Philosophy of Language

“‘I may use, therefore, the opinion of Plato,’ writes the ancient apologist from Carthage, ‘when he declares, ‘Every soul is immortal.’ But what of Jesus’ warning to fear God who can destroy both soul and body in hell? How is that possible, if the soul is immortal?

In light of Tertullian’s presupposition, the answer is obvious. ‘Destroy’ does not mean ‘destroy.’ When Jesus says that God can destroy the soul, explains Tertullian, he really means that God will torment the soul forever. ‘We, however, so understand the soul’s immortality as to believe it ‘lost,’” Tertullian concludes, ‘not in the sense of destruction, but of punishment, that is, in hell’” (Tertullian, quoted by Edward William Fudge, “Interaction: No Platonic Influence?”, from The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011).

I am back once more to tackle conditional immortality and make the case for the traditional view of the immortality of the soul and the traditional view of hell. In this post, I desire to spend some significant time on the philosophy of language and the role it plays in this debate. Often, believers can naively think that debates over Scripture are just matters of interpretation...but do they realize that such “interpretations” consist of philosophical reasoning? Very few seem to know this; and yet, there are so many debates in the world that are conducted over philosophical discussion. I think that if we intend to have a philosophical theology, a “queen” that is aided by the “handmaiden” of philosophy, then we must begin to see that philosophy and theology are closely intertwined. It will prove to be key in debates such as this (annihilationism vs. immortalism).

I for one agree with Tertullian when he says that “destroy” does not take on the literal meaning when Jesus refers to humans. Why? I am convinced that the philosophy of man is distinguished from the philosophy of objects. The Scriptures indicate rather heavily in Revelation (not to mention other places) that man will be “tormented” in the lake of fire and brimstone. Therefore, if one places words like “destroy both soul and body in hell” against the rest of Scripture, which claims conscious torment, one cannot come out with an annihilationist definition of “destroy.” Man is created distinct from things. Man has consciousness, while objects do not. Man can talk, while objects cannot. Man can build and plant, while objects cannot. Man cannot be subjected to objects; objects are always subjected to man. The objects that are on the earth have been given by God for man’s disposal, so that man would benevolently exercise the dominion over the earth that God has given (Genesis 1:26-28).

Country music singer Steve Wariner once performed a song called “Two Teardrops.” The song is all about a conversation between two teardrops about the reason why they are falling from the faces of certain individuals. One of the teardrops falls from the face of a woman who just got married. “She was so happy she just got married/I was on her cheek when she wiped me away with her glove/ I could tell by the look on her face, she didn’t need me/so I drifted on down and caught me a ride to the sea,” the tear responded. “The other tear said, ‘We’ve got a connection/I’m a tear of sorrow, born of rejection/I’m from the sad brown eyes of her old flame,’” the song goes. The chorus begins with, “Oh the ocean’s a little bit bigger tonight/two more teardrops somebody cried/ one of them happy and one of them bluer than blue...” It’s obvious that people often cry tears of joy or tears of sorrow, and this song capitalizes on both “tearful” emotions.

I didn’t use the country song “Two Teardrops” just to introduce country music or make most of my readership feel uncomfortable (since very few individuals likely know of my affinity for some of the genre), but to demonstrate that when it comes to inanimate objects such as tears, humans often use personification. With inanimate objects, we tend to give them human characteristics or human traits---speaking, crying, screaming, walked, danced, etc. For instance, someone in a poetic mood could write, “the sun danced across my window this morning.” In such a scenario, we wouldn’t assume that the sun literally danced across the window. If the sun started grooving outside my window, I would throw myself in my bed and hide in fear! By using personification, we are consciously aware that the sun, moon, stars, and other parts of creation (and inanimate objects) are not human. Otherwise, ascribing human language to them would be like saying “I talked.” One has a visual image of me talking but there’s nothing deeper than conversation indicated by such a statement. Saying “I talked” certainly isn’t as poetic as saying “the sun danced” or “the waves roared,” etc.

And this type of language brings me to the discussion of the philosophy of language. One of the things I think Fudge fails to understand is that, according to the philosophy of language, words have context. That is, a word can mean two different things in two different contexts. Take the word “bad” for example: in the sentence “Hurricane Irene will be a bad storm,” one would not believe that I am saying “Hurricane Irene will be cool.” I don’t think most individuals with common sense would make such a statement. There is certainly nothing cool about a storm that has 65 million Americans in its path, destined to wipe out a great deal of the peaceful life of the North Carolina coast and produce massive amounts of sand erosion. When I say, “Hurricane Irene will be a bad storm,” I am saying that the hurricane will be terrible, that it will be destructive, that it will uproot homes, wipe out sand on beaches, hide highways, etc. All of the destruction just described does not sound “cool” to me.

The need to place words within their literary context was also a concern of Jesus. The Lord often utilized various meanings of words to show the Jews how little they really understood. For example, in his overturning the tables in the temple (because of the moneychangers polluting the house of God), the Jews asked Him about His authority to overturn tables. Jesus then replies,

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19, NASB).

The Jews respond, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and You will raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20)

Notice that Jesus uses the word “temple” and the Jews use the word “temple,” but both parties mean totally different things. This is why John says in Jn. 2:21, “But He was speaking of the temple of His body.” John 2:21 clarifies for us what Jesus was saying. The temple was not the physical building structure, but His flesh, the same flesh He took on to come into the world as a man. The Jews, however, do not understand this...and end up deeming Jesus as foolish. In reality, they were the ones that did not understand what Jesus was saying.

Perhaps the problem the Jews had with Jesus was over the philosophy of language; and perhaps annihilationists err in the philosophy of language when interpreting the word “destroy” in Jesus’ statement that He could “destroy both body and soul in Hell.” Even the word “destroy” has different meanings in different contexts. To destroy a piano is not the same as destroying sand on a beach; to destroy sand on a beach is not the same as destroying a human, etc. To destroy an object is not the same as destroying a human, and vice versa.

Last but not least, let’s hypothetically assume that the word “destroy” does mean “annihilate.” If it does, this still does not destroy the traditional view of hell because God is “able” to do many things that He does not choose to do. For example, the Lord could make $125,000 pop into my hand in this very instant...but He will likely not do this (although, if He did, I would truly rejoice!). So God can annihilate body and soul, but Scripture does not teach that He does annihilate anywhere else...which leads me to believe it is only a possibility, not a probability. It is only potentiality and not actuality.

As we’ve seen in this post, not only do verses mean what they mean in their correct contexts, but words have significantly different meanings in their correct contexts as well. When words are misplaced or misunderstood, it can lead to much difficulty. I think this is why “destroy” as “annihilate” cannot hold as a sufficient definition for the word in the biblical text. God bless.

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