One of the problems with Steve Chalke’s book The Lost Message of Paul is that he bites off much more than he can chew. As a result, influential Christian leaders and teachers such as Augustine, Luther and Calvin are dismissed with a wave of the hand, opponents are caricatured, and opinions are advanced without consideration of the reasons and evidence that might be adduced either for or against them.
No doubt the response to such criticisms would be, “But I simply didn’t have time or space in a book of this kind to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’.” But that’s precisely the problem: if you want to claim that in a number of important ways Protestantism has completely misunderstood and misrepresented the Christian faith, then you have to work much harder than this to support your arguments and to rebut the counter-arguments.
Example: Chalke’s interpretation of ‘kolasis’
As a sample of Chalke’s approach, I would like to consider his treatment (in chapter 23 of his book) of one Greek word in Matthew 25:46. This verse comes at the end of Jesus’ teaching on the Judgment (Mt 25:31-46). In the translation offered by the NET Bible:
“These will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The word under consideration is kolasis (translated ‘punishment’).
[By the way, the usual caveat applies: I am not a competent Greek scholar, but I am capable of reading the works of those who are. So here goes.]
Here is what Chalke says:
‘Eternal punishment’ is a well-known cultural term which comes from the Greek kolasis aiónios (κόλασις αἰώνιος), but one which, in my view, would be much more accurately rendered as a ‘time of pruning’. I know that it sounds ridiculous at first, but hear me out. The first word in the phrase, kolasis, originally meant to prune or to lop in order to nurture, to cut back, curb, check or correct. But even when used in an ethical context as a metaphor, it was used to describe suffering which produces improvement. As William Barclay, the influential Greek scholar who was Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University, points out, ‘it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature “kolasis” is never used of anything but “remedial punishment”.’
More than that, kolasis is the only word used in the Gospels for ‘punishment’ in regard to God’s dealings with wrongdoers. But, as Aristotle – who has much to say in his writings about the nature of justice – explains, this is the kind of punishment which ‘is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer’, that is to say, it is always for the betterment or improvement of the person being punished. He contrasts this with timória (τῑμωρῐ́ᾱ), which he says is the kind of punishment that is ‘inflicted in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction’.
There are a number of problems here.
Firstly, the etymology of a word is not a reliable guide to its meaning-in-use. By the same token, it should not be assumed that a later use of a word must be the same as an earlier use. In this regard, it should be noted that Aristotle flourished some 400 years before the time of Christ and the apostles.
Secondly, according to a standard Greek lexicon (BDAG), ‘Aristotle’s limitation of the term . . . to [corrective] disciplinary action . . . is not reflected in gener[al] usage.’
Thirdly, Chalke’s source (Barclay) inexplicably fails to consider how kolasis is used in the Septuagint and Jewish and Christian literature. Here are some instances where the word is clearly used of non-remedial punishment [source]:
2 Maccabees 4:38 (ἐκεῖ τὸν μιαιφόνον ἀπεκόσμησε, τοῦ Κυρίου τὴν ἀξία αὐτῷ κόλασιν ἀποδόντος, “there he [killed] the bloodthirsty fellow. The Lord thus repaid him with the punishment he deserved”);
3 Macc 1:3 (used to refer to someone who was murdered);
4 Macc 8:9 (“you will compel me to destroy each and every one of you with dreadful punishments through tortures”);
4 Macc 18:5 (kolazō parallel with timōreō);
1 Esdras 8:24 (tellingly, in the latter, timōria is a type of kolasis);
The same source cites Josephus, Philo, Plutarch to the same effect.
From early Christian literature comes 2 Clement (17:5-7): ‘And their worm will not die nor their fire be extinguished, and they will be a spectacle for all to see. He calls that the day of judgment, when others see those who have acted with impiety among us and distorted the commandments of Jesus Christ. But those who are upright . . . when they observe those who have deviated from the right path and denied Jesus through their words or deeds are punished [κολάζονται] with terrible torments [δειναῖς βασάνοις] in a fire that cannot be extinguished . . . will give glory to their God.’
‘In Dial. 131, Justin speaks of the persecution that Christians have endured based on their reverence of “the cross” (a metonym for Christian faith itself): that “for such confession, obedience, and piety [we have suffered] punishments, even (to) death [κολάσεις μέχρι θανάτου], by the demons and by the host of the Devil”: hardly positive “corrective” punishment.’
The same source quotes Laurence Malcolm Blanchard: ‘The problem here is that by the time of the first century such a distinction in usage (if it ever really existed) between the two words had essentially become blurred and kolasis … and timōria … had largely become synonymous with one another. This is why we encounter passages such as 4 Mac. 8:9 where kolasis is certainly used of inflicting retributive punishment. It is interesting to note that in this passage the tyrant uses kolasis and not timoria as a warning of severe retribution: “But if by disobedience you rouse my anger, you will compel me to destroy each and every one of you with dreadful punishments (δειναῖς κολάσεσιν) through tortures (τῶν βασάνων).”‘ (My underlining)
It has been said that ‘exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.’ The evidence that Steve Chalke presents in favour of his interpretation of kolasis is not exceptional. In fact, it is simplistic, one-sided, and misleading.
[Note: I have not discussed the meaning of the word aiónios (‘eternal’) here, because I have done so elsewhere.]