Friday, March 04, 2011

"The everlasting hills"

It is objected to the argument founded on these passages that the word “everlasting” is sometimes used in Scripture of periods of limited duration. In reference to this objection it may be remarked, (1.) That the Hebrew and Greek words rendered in our version eternal, or everlasting, mean duration whose termination is unknown. When used in reference to perishable things, as when the Bible speaks of “the everlasting hills,” they simply indicate indefinite existence, that is, existence to which there is no known or assignable limit.

Hodge is fielding arguments for annihilationism. While I agree with his overall position, I don’t agree with how he handles this particular argument:

1. It’s important to distinguish the viewpoint of a modern reader from the narrative viewpoint of the Bible writer or his target audience.

Why would a modern reader assume the “everlasting hills” are really perishable? I can think of two reasons.

i) First of all, we’ve been taught by modern geology and orogeny that given sufficient time, mountains and hills erode. Indeed, even a young-earth creationist will grant the life-cycle of mountains, once the cycle is initiated by fiat creation.

a) However, it would be anachronistic to filter Biblical imagery through that perspective. There’s no reason to think the Bible writer, or his target audience, is allowing for millions of years of erosion.

Rather, I assume the Bible writer is simply trading on a commonplace observation: generations come and go, but mountains remain. People have been living in the shadow of mountains for centuries. They live and die. The next generation takes their place. But the mountain remains the same. In human experience, a mountain is a landmark in time as well as space. We don’t see mountains erode. We don’t live that long. And that’s the point of the imagery.

b) Apropos (a), what is intended is not the literal duration of mountains, but the symbolic duration of mountains. In relation to the human lifespan (in a fallen world), mountains are perpetual.

The fact that mountains actually erode over eons is irrelevant to the emblematic of mountains in these passages. The question, rather, is what mountains stand for in Biblical usage, not what mountains are really like.

ii) Secondly, there are eschatological passages that describe the destruction or transformation of mountains. However, that’s irrelevant to the other types of passages.

a) Some passages depict mountains as indestructible to contrast mountains with the fleeting features of human existence. What’s permanent in relation to what’s impermanent. It’s improper to qualify the force of these passages by reference to other passages, for other passages serve a different function. We must respect the intent of each writer. An eschatological passage is meant to make a different point. And, in each case, we’re dealing with the symbolic value of mountains. 

b) In addition, the eschatological passages actually reinforce the inherent perpetuity of mountains. The point is not that mountains naturally erode over time. To the contrary, the point is that mountains are emblematic of something that’s naturally indestructible. That’s what makes the eschatological imagery so arresting. Only divine power can pulverize a mountain. The cataclysmic events of Judgment Day. 

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