Does Matthew 25:46 Teach Unending Punishment?

 james.goetz wrote:

May I ask you how you handle Matthew 25:41, 46?

    Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; (Matthew 25:41 NASB)

    These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:46 NASB)

    Thank You.

Hi Jim,

Let’s begin with Matthew 25:46 because so many have appealed to this text in support of the following egregiously fallacious argument: If, according to Jesus, eternal life is literally unending life, then eternal punishment must also be unending torment (or at least unending separation from God). We can illustrate the fallacy in such reasoning, moreover, without entering into any controversy concerning the correct translation of the Greek “aionios” (whether, for example, it should be translated as “eternal,” “everlasting,” or simply “age enduring”). So let us simply grant, at least for the sake of argument, whichever of these translations a given person might prefer.

Whatever its correct translation, “aionios” is clearly an adjective and must therefore function like an adjective, and it is the very nature of an adjective for its meaning to vary, sometimes greatly, depending upon which noun it qualifies. For more often than not, the noun helps to determine the precise force of the adjective. As an illustration, set aside the Greek word “aionios” for a moment and consider the English word “everlasting.” I think it safe to say that the basic meaning of this English word is indeed everlasting. So now consider how the precise force of “everlasting” varies depending upon which noun it qualifies. An everlasting struggle would no doubt be a struggle without end, an unending temporal process that never comes to a point of resolution and never gets completed. But an everlasting change, or an everlasting correction, or an everlasting transformation would hardly be an unending temporal process that never gets completed; instead, it would be a temporal process of limited duration, or perhaps simply an instantaneous event, that terminates in an irreversible state. So however popular it might be, the argument that “aionios” must have exactly the same force regardless of which noun it qualifies in Matthew 25:46 is clearly fallacious.

Accordingly, even if we should translate “aionios” with the English word “everlasting,” a lot would still depend upon how we understand the relevant nouns in our text: the nouns “life” (zoe) and “punishment” (kolasis). Now the kind of life in question, being rightly related to God, is clearly an end in itself, even as the kind of punishment in question seems just as clearly to be a means to an end. For as one New Testament scholar, William Barclay, has pointed out, “kolasis” “was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better.” Barclay also claimed that “in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment”--which is probably a bit of a stretch, since the language of correction and the language of retribution often get mixed together in ordinary language. But in any event, if “kolasis” does signify punishment of a remedial or a corrective kind, as I think it does in Matthew 25:46, then we can reasonably think of such punishment as everlasting in the sense that its corrective effects literally endure forever. Or, to put it another way: An everlasting correction, whenever successfully completed, would be a temporal process of limited duration that terminates in the irreversible state of being rightly related to God. Certainly nothing in the context of Matthew 25 excludes such an interpretation.

This would not be my preferred interpretation, however, because the English word “everlasting” does not accurately capture the special religious meaning that “aionios” typically has in the New Testament. Here is how I expressed my own understanding of this matter in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, p. 46:

    The first point I would make is that on no occasion of its use in the New Testament does ‘aionios’ refer to a temporal process of unending duration. On a few occasions--as when Paul spoke of a ‘mystery that was kept secret for long ages (chronios aioniois) but is now disclosed’ (Rom. 16:25-26)--the adjective does imply a lengthy period of time. But on these occasions, it could not possibly mean ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’. On other occasions, its use seems roughly Platonic in this sense: Whether God is eternal (that is, timeless, outside of time) in a purely Platonic sense or everlasting in the sense that he endures throughout all of the ages, nothing other than God is eternal in the primary sense (see the reference to ‘the eternal God’ in Rom. 16:26). The judgements, gifts, and actions of God are eternal in the secondary sense that their causal source lies in the eternal character and purpose God. One common function of an adjective, after all, is to refer back to the causal source of some action or condition. [Endnote: A selfish act, for example, is one that springs from, or has its causal source in, selfish motives.] When Jude thus cited the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of eternal fire, he was not making a statement about temporal duration at all; in no way was he implying that the fire continues burning today, or even that it continued burning for an age. He was instead giving a theological interpretation in which the fire represented God’s judgement upon the two cities. So the fire was eternal not in the sense that it would burn forever without consuming the cities, but in the sense that, precisely because it was God’s judgement upon these cities and did consume them, it expressed God’s eternal character and eternal purpose in a special way.

So, even as the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah was eternal in the sense that it expressed God’s eternal character and purpose in a special way, the same is true of the fire to which Matthew 25:41 alludes. That fire is eternal in the sense that, despite the harsh sounding language, it expresses God’s eternal love for us in a special, albeit especially severe, way. For as we read in Hebrews 12:29, the eternal God is also a consuming fire, one that will eventually consume all that is false within us. In no other way could God perfect all of us and express his eternal love for all of us. And similarly for eternal punishment: Like any of God’s eternal actions in time, it should be interpreted theologically as a process or event that has its causal source in the eternal God himself. Or, as William Barclay put it, “Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give” (A Spiritual Biography, p. 66).

A lot more could be said about the way in which Jesus typically expressed himself. But perhaps we can take up some of that in subsequent discussion.

Thanks, Jim, for raising an important issue.