Category Archives: last things

7 Things for Universalists to Consider

Some have claimed that all people will be finally saved, even after torment in hell. However, there are all sorts of inherent problems with that view. Here’s a brief list of problems to consider.

Consider…

1. There Is No (Clear) Scripture That Teaches Universalism

The doctrine of universalism goes against the clear teaching of Scripture and finds no clear teaching supporting what it argues. Yes, I understand that there are a few passages that if you pull out of context and place into a certain system of thought, can seem to support the doctrine but it is not the texts natural meaning in context.

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The Day of the LORD and the Decisiveness of the Present Life

What we do in this current life has an eternal impact. The New Testament insists on the decisiveness of this life.[1] In the early church, the “idea that the coming judgment will be based on deeds done in this life was widespread.”[2] For example, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

All through Scripture it talks about the Day of the LORD (sg.).[3] The Bible does not talk about judgments starting at the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20:11ff) and going from there on into eternity where people have multiple chances to repent. That’s why it says, “Behold [ἰδοὺ], now [νῦν] is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2; cf. Ps. 32:6; Is. 55:6). Acts 17:31 says God “has fixed a day [sg.] on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him [i.e. Jesus] from the dead.” Hebrews says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment [sg.]” (9:27). Thus in Scripture, we do not see that people can repent after the Judgment. Actually to get the idea of repentance after the Judgment you would have to add to Scripture. Yet, listen to Revelation: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (22:18-19).

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Texts Espoused to Teach Universalism

The goal here is not to give an exhaustive commentary on each passage but merely to show that there are very viable interpretations that are faithful to the whole of Scripture and do not lead to universalism.

Is. 45:22-23

“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. [23] By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’”

In the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) απιστραϕητε is an imperative and means “turn around.” It has to do with changing ones beliefs and ways. It translates the Hebrew word (פָּנָה) meaning “turn” which is also in the imperative. So God here is not asking people to turn to Him, He’s commanding it. And it says that all people (from the farthest stretches of the earth) who turn to Him will be saved. But it implies that all who don’t turn to Him (in space in time before the Judgment) will not be saved. So we see precedence for “all” being saved here, that is, if any turn to the Lord from all over the earth they will be saved. Whosoever believes will be saved, Jew or Gentile. It was (in the OT and NT) an amazing thing for Paul for example that Gentiles can now be welcomed in (he called it a mystery). All the uncircumcised, the Egyptians that enslaved Israel, the Babylonians, all people that turn to the Lord (in space in time before the Judgment) will be saved. They will be saved from the terror of the Messiah’s Second Coming and the Final Destruction.

In the context, this passage would strike fear into the hearers, not comfort. This passage is saying, “repent and turn or else!” Further, v. 25 says “all the offspring of Israel shall be justified,” i.e. all those who have faith (see e.g. Rom. 2:28-29; 4:1-16; 9:6), not all without exception. “Yahweh’s speech ends with a prediction of destructive fire for those who do not submit to his reality and reign (Isa 47:14-15)… There is voluntary submission for some and involuntary submission for others.”[1]

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The Eternality of Hell

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When we interpret “forever” in English, as well as in Greek, context is king. For example, when someone gets back from the DMV and says to us, “that took forever,” what do we interpret that phrase to mean? We take a number of things into account in our interpretation. We understand that it takes a relatively long time at the DMV and we understand that people very often joke about how long it takes at the DMV. We also take into account that the person is standing in front of us saying, “that took forever” which clearly demonstrates that it did not in fact literally take forever.

The person that said “forever” was using it as an expression for “a long time.” However, if that same person said, “God is forever” we would understand that we need to interpret that “forever” differently. Why? Because context is king. And context is telling us that the referent in this case is “God,” not the DMV, and that fact changes the meaning of the word “forever.”

The Bible tells us that certain things are eternal/everlasting. For instance, God is eternal (Rev. 4:9-10), Jesus is alive forevermore (Rev. 1:18), heaven is eternal (Jn. 3:16), and judgment in hell is eternal. If we say judgment in hell is not eternal then we lose grounds for saying that God, Jesus, and heaven are eternal since the same words are explicitly and very intentionally used to express the eternity of each subject under question (and the eternality of hell and heaven are even paralleled in Matthew 25:46).

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Two Humanities

All throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, we see two distinct groups.[1] God has called particular people from all nations. As James Hamilton has said, “People are either seed of the serpent, on the side of the snake in the garden, or seed of the woman, on the side of God and trusting in his promises.”[2]

The careful reader of Scripture can see the enmity between the two seeds in Genesis[3] and in fact through the whole Old Testament. There are physical decedents of Eve that are spiritually seed of the serpent.[4] This is not just something we see in the Old Testament though. We see it through the whole of Scripture (cf. e.g. Matt. 13:38; Jn. 8:44; 1 Jn. 3:8). We see two distinct seeds with two distinct ends from the beginning of Genesis (cf. esp. Gen. 3:15) to the end of Revelation (cf. e.g. Rev. 21).

Notice that in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 there are two groups: 1) those who did not believe and thus receive judgment and 2) those who do believe and thus enjoy the presence of God and marvel at Him. And notice Jesus separates the goats from the sheep based on what they did in their earthly lives (Matt. 25:32ff). People are gravely either goat or sheep, wise or fool, darkness or light, faithful or faithless, in Christ or damned.

As I have said, the Bible shows to different humanities, one lost and the other saved, one in heaven and one in hell. This is what we see throughout the story of Scripture and this is what we see reflected in other places in the early church’s teaching. For instance, the Didache (50-120AD) says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways” (1:1).[5]

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Universalism and Historical Confessional Christianity

As a protestant who believes in sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), I believe that tradition and confessional Christianity does not hold a place above Scripture. However, I do believe it is important and helpful to consider what church history has to say on theological issues. So let’s look briefly at the question of whether or not universalism has been accepted in historical confessional Christianity.

Harold J. Brown makes an interesting point that we should consider. He says,

“curiously enough, it is heresy that offers us some of the best evidence for orthodoxy, for while heresy is often very explicit in the first centuries of Christianity, orthodoxy is often only implicit. If we hope, today, that the orthodoxy we believe is the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude v. 3), then it is necessary to assume that it is older than heresy. But heresy appears on the historical record earlier, and is better documented, than most of what the church came to call orthodoxy. How then can heresy be younger, orthodoxy more original? The answer is that orthodoxy was there from the beginning and heresy reflected it. Sometimes one catches a glimpse of another person or object in a mirror or a lake before seeing the original. But the original preceded the reflection, and our perception of it. The same, we could argue, is true of orthodoxy—the original—and heresy—the reflection. The heresy we frequently see first, but orthodoxy preceded it.”[1]

False teachings call into question the pillars of Christianity and so teachers and creeds rise up in protection of the church’s foundational teaching. The doctrine of the Trinity has always been orthodox but there has not always been a creed stating such. The reason for this is because false teaching gives rise to defensive of orthodox teaching. Thus, in history we often see heresy argued before we see orthodoxy defended. Greg A. Allison says that the “issue of the continuation of punishment for the wicked became a point of debate with the theology of Origen”[2] (c. 185-254) so it makes sense that universalism was not formally acknowledged as heresy until later on.

Everett Ferguson says that

“apart from Origen, who entertained the possibility of universal salvation after a period of purification and education of souls in the afterlife, those who spoke to the subject understood an ultimate division of humanity in heaven or hell. The expectation of eternal reward sustained Christian endurance in the face of persecution and other hardships.”[3]

W. G. T. Shedd wrote:

“The common opinion in the Ancient church was, that the future punishment of the impenitent wicked is endless. This was the catholic faith; as much so as belief in the trinity. But as there were some church fathers who deviated from the creed of the church respecting the doctrine of the trinity, so there were some who dissented from it in respect to that of eternal retribution. The deviation in eschatology, however, was far less extensive than in trinitarianism.”[4]

Allison demonstrates in his book Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine that

“from its inception, the church has believed that there will be a final judgment of both believers and unbelievers… On the one hand, this judgment will usher believers into the presence of Christ and the blessedness of heavenly reward forever. On the other hand, following the judgment of condemnation, unbelievers will experience eternal conscious punishment in hell. Only a few Christians deviated from this understanding of the last judgment and eternal punishment.”[5]

A few more examples:

“As regards the fate of the wicked… the general view was that their punishment would be eternal, without any possibility of remission.”[6]

“Everlasting punishment of the wicked always was, and always will be the orthodox theory.”[7]

“The punishment inflicted upon the lost was regarded by the Fathers of the Ancient Church, with very few exceptions, as endless.”[8]

“Church creeds from the early Middle Ages through the Reformation and into the modern era regularly affirmed the eternal punishment of the wicked… The reality of hell and eternal punishment was thought to be as basic to Christian belief as the Trinity and incarnation.”[9]

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Is Punishment in Hell Restorative?

Universalists sometimes claim that punishment in hell is restorative. They use Matthew 25:46 as a proof-text and translate kolasin aiōnion (κόλασιν αἰώνιον) as agelong chastening or correction. Below I list four reasons why I do not believe in restorative punishment in hell.

First, the noun kolasis (κόλασις) only occurs two times in the NT (Matt. 25:46; 1 Jn. 4:18)[1] and the verb kolazó (κολάζω)[2] also only occurs two times in the NT (Acts 4:21; 2 Pet. 2:9). The majority of English translations translate Kolasis and kolazó as “punish,” “punishment,” or “torment,” (see KJV, NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NET Bible). In fact, Francis Chan “checked ten commentators from different theological backgrounds and fifteen Bible translations in five different languages on the word kolasis… they all translate kolasis with the word ‘punishment.’”[3]

Second, the term kolasis is used by other literature of the period to mean (non-restorative) punishment. For example, Josephus talks about Herod being on trial and in danger of being sentenced to death, but through the intervention of the high priest, he was delivered from that danger, and all punishment (kolaseōs) (Josephus, Antiquities XV, 16). “Punishment” in the case above does not seem to be used in the “pruning” sense because he is being saved from death[4] (cf. e.g. 2 Macc. 4:38; 4 Macc. 8:9-11). Further, BDAG,[5] one of the most respected dictionaries of Koine Greek, lists all sorts of examples where kolazó and kolasis means “punish” or “punishment” in the non-restorative sense. TDNT[6] also a widely respected dictionary says that the meaning of kolasis is “punishment” and the meaning of kolazó is “punish.”[7]

Third, there are other terms that the NT uses to refer to the concept of punishment. Apollumi (ἀπόλλυμι) occurs ninety-two times and means to “destroy” (e.g. Matt. 10:28; 21:41). Olethros (ὄλεθρος) occurs four times and it means “destruction” (see 2 Thess. 1:9). Timória (τιμωρία[8]) occurs just one time and means “punishment” or “vengeance” (see Heb. 10:29). Ekdikésis (ἐκδίκησις) occurs nine times and means “vengeance” (see 2 Thess. 1:8). Orgé (ὀργή) means “wrath” (see Rom. 2:5; Rev. 14:10) and occurs 36 times.[9] William V. Crockett, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and University of Glasgow, has said, “when we examine orge in Paul we find no reason to assume that it has reformative elements.”[10] He goes on to say, “orge in Paul excludes any notion of divine love.”[11]

Fourth, there is a lot of imagery in Scripture of God’s wrath being poured out that does not look like restorative punishment. This is the type of imagery we see: “So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia [i.e. about 184 miles]” (Rev. 14:19-20 see also Ps. 110:5-6; Is. 66:24; Ezek. 39:17ff; Matt. 24:51; Rev. 6:15-17; 19:11ff; 20:11ff; 21:27). Continue reading


Cosmic, Corporate, and Individual Reconciliation through Union with Christ (Part 3)

life
Individual
In Christ we are “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) but interestingly we also progressively become new creations (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:16; Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24)[1] and ultimately this new creation does not happen until the parousia (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49). The work that God does in individuals does not merely concern their standing before Him but has also to do with who the person is here and now. God’s reconciling and re-creation work starts here in this life; it is not just eschatological but has an ethical impact on our present mode of existence. After Paul’s conversion his outlook was changed, he saw Christ and others differently (2 Cor. 5:16-17).[2] When by the Holy Spirit our view of Christ changes, our view of others and even all things changes. The regenerating work generates new ways of viewing things. We view things differently and we live differently (2 Cor. 5:14-15). In fact, Paul indicates that Christ died for the purpose of bringing an end to man’s self-centered existence.[3]

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The Contradiction that is Humanity

East of Eden, this trance in which were caught. Serpents all around, lies within, lies without. Death, death, unspoken though it be, prevails. Prevailing misery, wrapped in supposed ecstasy. Whisper, whisper; slither near, they speak the lies into my ear. Sell it all, the order built tall, fails. Embrace it all, accept all, end null. Trudge on and live and die, for what do we expire? Only all we desire. Endless cycle of misery, never free. Eat the apple, embrace the noose. Slither near, oh yes, my dear. Come here, constrict me. Worthless cycle, the viper of this world, strikes fast yet the venom kills slow. How strange, but the hand that feeds me, bites me. Diluted profit, fruitless field, this the futility that we yield. Strive for the Garden, yet we embrace the curse; oh, the contradiction that is humanity.

East of Eden, for a season, the King will soon return. Every foe vanquished, for every thorn a rose. The King, He soon shall reign! Then, the refrain, forever remain, “life, life!” The serpent is gone, we sing a new song forever of our Savior. We ate of the tree, He died on a tree to be the curse we created, and with His death, death’s defeated.


The Storyline of Scripture

Spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know the resolution to all the twists and turns of the plot line of the Bible do not read on!

Jesus is the hero of the story. He saves the day. As Michael Emlet says, “If you read the Bible from cover to cover you realize that it narrates (proclaims!) a true and cohesive story: the good news that through Jesus Christ God has entered history to liberate and renew the world from its bondage to sin and suffering.”[i] He goes on; God “pursues the restoration of his creation at the cost of his own life. He is making all things new (Rev. 21:5)! That’s the simple and yet profound, life- and world-altering plotline of the Bible.”[ii]

The Bible is chiefly a story about God’s glory being displayed through the recompense of all things wicked, redemption of those made righteous, and finally, the reconciliation of all things in Christ.[iii] The Bible is a true story about God making the world, man messing it up, and God becoming a man to fix the world by not messing up. It is a story of Eden—exile—repeat. It is not until the true Adam, the true and righteous Son of God comes that this process is put to an end. All of Christ’s predeceases fell short; Adam, Noah, Abraham, Saul, David, Solomon, and the lambs, priests, and prophets could not fill Christ’s role.

From the beginning of time and the beginning of God’s word, the Word has been a prominent character in the script (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1). At first, the promised offspring (Gen. 3:15) is vague, in fact, Eve rejoiced because she thought she had the offspring (4:1) but it was all for naught for Cain was of the offspring of the serpent and killed his brother. However, now we have seen that which even the prophets longed to look (Matt. 13:17), we know that all Scripture finds its fulfillment in Jesus who is the long awaited Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

When Jesus came the first time, He had no beauty or majesty. When He comes again His face will shine like the sun in full strength (Rev. 1:16). We were cast out of the garden in the beginning but as Jesus said to the thief on the cross, we will be with Him in paradise in the end. Jesus is the linchpin among all the cogs of Scripture. “The trajectory of the arrow shot from the Hebrew Scriptures finds its target (fulfillment) in Jesus of Nazareth.”[iv]

The storyline of the Bible can be understood as creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. We can see the gospel in the storyline of the Bible. God loves us even though we have rebelled against Him. He has provided forgiveness for us through Jesus Christ and if we repent of our sin and trust in Him we will enjoy Him forever in heaven.

Through the creation part of the narrative we see that God made everything (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1-3) and it was good (Gen. 1:4; 10; 12; 18; 21; 25; 31). There was no sin, no death, and no problems before man sinned. Man had perfect fellowship with God.[v]

However, the plot thickens. A cosmic problem is introduced. Through Adam’s fall, we see the collapse of the creation, which explains why everything is no longer good. Man disobeyed and rebelled (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:6) and this brought spiritual and physical death (Gen. 2:17; 3:19), pain (3:16-17), difficulties (3:18-19), and separation from God (3:23-24). This is the bad news. We deserve death and hell.

But there is good news. This is not the end of the story. Even at the beginning of the story God promised that He would send someone (that is, the Messiah/Christ) to defeat the “bad guy” (that is Satan) of the story (cf. Gen 3:15). In a similar scene, seen throughout the Bible, man’s nemesis is once again at it with him. Satan is tempting not Adam but the second Adam in the wilderness (Luke 4). However, unlike Adam in paradise the second Adam does not give into the serpent’s temptation although He is in the desert. Jesus was tempted in every way that Adam was, and we are, yet He did not sin (Heb. 4:15) and still He bore our sin upon Himself.

Jesus became man so “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power over death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Jesus’ heel was “bruised” at the cross but through that same cross, where He received the bruising, He struck the serpent with a definitive death blow to the head (cf. Gen. 3:15). From the cross, Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” In Jesus’ death, the devil, and death are defeated! He has delivered us from the domain of darkness (Col. 1:13). He disarmed the demonic rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them through the cross (Col. 2:15).

Jesus is the promised one (Luke 24:27, 44-46; Acts 13:23, 27; 17:3; Rom. 1:2-4; 1 Cor. 15:3-4;) who brings the redemption of all things (cf. Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:20; Titus 2:14; Gal. 3:13; Eph. 1:7, 10). He secures for us an eternal redemption by means of His own blood (Heb. 9:12). Jesus Christ is the solution to the problem; He takes our sin, our problem, upon Himself on the cross. This is the good news; Jesus is the good news! Jesus reversed the curse of sin by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Jesus was cast out of the garden so that we could be welcomed back in. Through the one man Adam we all have condemnation yet through the one Man Jesus Christ the grace of God has abounded for many (Rom. 5:12-21).We deserved to be crushed under God’s wrath because of our sin but instead Jesus was crushed in our place (Is. 52:13-53:12). Jesus is the solution to our problem of sin, the sole solution (Jn. 14:6; Act. 4:12). Jesus is the Lamb of God, without blemish, that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; Heb. 9:14)!

Jesus is the good news but the good news is not static it goes on and on and on; those in Christ live happily-ever-after. In contrast, God “will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers” (Matt. 13:41) and cast them into the pit of eternal fire (Rev. 20:14-15). “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). However, for those in Christ the story of history will have a happy ending (Rom. 8:29-39).

I concur with what C.S. Lewis says in The Last Battle,

“We can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”[vi]

I believe we, upon arrival to the new Eden, will exclaim with Lewis’ Unicorn:

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it to now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia [“old creation”] is that it sometime looked a little like this.”[vii]

Through Jesus the Christ we have the unwavering hope of a new creation (2 Peter 3:13). “The creation was subjected to futility” in Adam (Gen. 317-19) but in Christ “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-21). As Isaac Watts put it in “Joy to the World,”

“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found.”

The problem (all of them!) will be fixed and there will be no more sin (Rev. 21:27; 22:3; Matt. 13:41). Everything will be more right than it was ever wrong. We will see that God did, in fact, work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). Christ will make a new creation and we will be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2; Rom. 8:29; 2 Peter 1:4). “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49). God will fulfill our deepest desires and we will finally love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength when we receive our glorified bodies (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33-34; 32:40; Phil. 3:20-21)! There will be no more pain or problems and God will wipe away all our tears (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). We will once again be in Paradise, the New Jerusalem, and we will have fellowship with God (Rev. 21:3)!

However, this story by its nature, by the fact that it claims to be true, does not leave us alone but calls for a response. We can receive this story or we can reject it outright. God can rewrite us, as it were, into His marvelous script or He can cast us, the unruly “cast,” into hell. We must respond to this story, will we respond rightly? Will we strive to obey the God who reveals Himself?

This is the gospel, the story of all the woes of existence finding there solution in Christ.

____________

[i] Emlet, CrossTalk, 41. A true and cohesive story contained within sixty-six books written by numerous people (with one divine author) in various languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) over thousands of years! God’s word about the world being reconciled through the Word is truly amazing!

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] James M. Hamilton Jr. says that “in the broadest terms, the Bible can be summarized in four words: creation, fall, redemption, restoration” (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 49) but the “ultimate end” of everything is “God’s glory in salvation through judgment.” He goes on to say, “The created realm (creation) is a spectacular theater that serves as the cosmic matrix in which God’s saving and judging glory can be revealed. God’s glory is so grand that no less a stage than the universe—all that is or was and will be, across space and through time—is nescessary for the unfolding of this all-encompassing drama” (Ibid., 53). See also John Piper’s book The Pleasures of God and Jonathon Edwards’ The End for Which God Created the World.

[iv] Emlet, CrossTalk, 47.

[v] Perfect in sense but not like it will be in the new creation; Adam and Eve related to God as creation to Creator and we will relate to God in the new creation as the redeemed to the Redeemer. So we will enjoy a consummated perfect fellowship with God.

[vi] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: NY: Harper Collins, 2002), 228.

[vii] Ibid., 213.


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