‘And these will go away into kolasin aionion, but the righteous into life aionion.’ (Matthew 25:46)
Possibly one of the most troubling verses in the entire Bible is Matt. 25:46. In my current favorite English Bible translation, the English Standard Version (ESV), Matt. 25:46 reads in this way: ‘And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ Plain and simple, right? The punishment of the wicked is eternal. It does not end. Therefore, any kind of future universalism cannot be true. So it is claimed. In this post, I am going to evaluate Matt. 25:46 on the basis of its immediate context. I will also investigate the Greek words ‘kolasin’ (translated ‘punishment’) and aionion (translated ‘eternal’) . By going deeper in an attempt to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15), I hope to provide illumination for whatever it is that best represents what the author of Matthew, the Christ whom he quoted, and the Spirit of God whom I believe inspired the verse are all trying to communicate in this undoubtedly troubling passage.
For starters, it seems critical to me to consider what the words translated aionion and kolasin most closely means. Is aionion to be translated eternal in the sense of everlasting, endless, and irreversibly permanent? Or would this kind of translation of aionion actually be somewhat of an oversimplification? Similarly, does kolasin restrict the kinds of punishment that could be referred to? Is kolasin to be understood primarily as a retributive punishment, or perhaps as a kind of punishment aimed at rehabilitation–the sorts of punishments that parents, who are responsible for the existence of their children, give to their children–that should be understood as serving a kind of greater good?
It is indeed true, in my estimation, that many translated words tend to oversimplify the original meaning and context of the word that they are trying to translate. (For instance, there are a good deal of bird names in Hebrew whose meaning are lost to us. We also still have no idea what the urim and thummim are, despite very bold claims to the contrary from a recent 19th century North American religious movement.) For this reason I deem that it is imperative that one understand how any word is used in its original contexts. Perhaps the nature of the word’s use may surprise the avid reader. At any rate, looking to original contexts will do nothing except to bolster a true claim concerning the best translation of an ancient word and to call into question interpretations that are not grounded in reality. Naturally, in the name of this kind of contextual analysis and exegesis, I would like to begin this study with brief exegetical considerations of Matt. 25:46’s immediate context and message.
EVERLASTING KINGDOM: Matthew’s Gospel in its Theological Context
This Gospel of the Kingdom
The Gospel According to Matthew was written sometime in the first century A.D. Gospels scholar Richard Bauckham of St. Andrew’s University believes that Matthew was written between 80-90 A.D, a conclusion he draws in part from the testimony of Papias of Hierapolis, which he also dates to circa 80-90 A.D. [See R. Bauckham Jesus and the Eyewitnesses Personally, I imagine that the gospel of Matthew that we have is not the original book of Matthew. [See Eusebius of Caesarea’s quotaions of Papias of Heirapolis.] I suspect that Matthew wrote down much of the material found in the preaching of Jesus not found in The Gospel According to Mark–most notably, the Sermon on the Mount–in addition to embellishing several familiar Markan stories, such as several Petrine stories that a humble Peter would not necessarily want in a Gospel based on his preaching. I further believe that our Gospel According to Matthew as we have it today was compiled and potentially edited by a Jewish successor of his who expanded upon Peter’s testimony as found in Mark with Matthew’s testimony as found in the original Matthew document that is lost to us today. For ease of comparison, I’m basically saying that Matthew himself wrote something to the effect of a Q document in addition to embellishing several familiar Markan stories, and that a successor of his is probably responsible for compiling Matthew’s gospel as we have it today. He may have known Greek more thoroughly than Matthew as well, and perhaps he is partially responsible for the Greek of the book, provided that it is true that Jesus spoke Greek and that Greek is the original language of the gospels as we have them today.
Of course, there is no way to prove all this, but, as N.T. Wright humorously points out in regards to several of his ideas, there is also no way to disprove these sorts of things. The idea makes sense to me and I believe it fits the data from Papias and the gospels themselves. Therefore, I will work generally from this idea. For our purposes here, the immediate effect of this approach is that Matthew’s gospel becomes reflective of the apostolic tradition concerning the life and sayings of Jesus as well as a generally authentic historical Jesus. I doubt it would be reasonable, therefore, to approach these sayings as reflective of Matthew or his successor rather than Jesus. The sayings of Jesus in Matthew, on my view, must be approached as being authentic to Jesus. There will be no appeal to apostolic exaggeration of any kind in my response to Matt. 25:46. I will treat the verse as I believe it is: that is, authentic to the words and beliefs of Jesus Christ himself.
One Like a Son of Man
It goes without saying that as the second longest gospel (only Luke’s is longer than Matthew’s), there are almost invariably quite a lot of sayings, sermons, and discourses given by Jesus throughout the Gospel According to Matthew. In fact, the entire format of the book of Matthew is sandwiched around five major discourses attributed to Jesus. All of these discourses are concerned chiefly with ‘the kingdom of heaven (God)’. In fact, in Matt. 24:14 of the fifth and final discourse of Jesus (in which our verse for today, Matt. 25:46, also appears), Jesus refers to the gospel as ‘this gospel of the kingdom’. It would be impossible to understand the book of Matthew without understanding ‘this gospel of the kingdom’. If Matthew’s gospel, then is to be understood as ‘this gospel of the kingdom’, the question is begged, ‘Who is the King?’ In this light, the Jewish themes in the book of Matthew become far more interesting.
One of the more notable Jewish themes in the book of Matthew–not unique to him, by any means–is what I consider to be one of Jesus’ self-designations, the ‘Son of Man’. Who is the Son of Man? Well, I am convinced that it is most reasonable to believe that this is an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14. I will reproduce the passage below.
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
It ought to be painfully evident–although it unfortunately has recently not been treated as such–that it would be unthinkable to imagine that the author of a gospel with as many references to the Hebrew Bible (the so-called ‘Old Testament’), as much of an emphasis on ‘kingdom’, and so clear a presentation of the authority of Jesus Christ (Matt. 7:29) as Matthew’s gospel did not write from an implicit Daniel 7 frame of reference. There ought to be no mistake: to Matthew, Jesus is no less than Daniel 7’s ‘son of man’, and, therefore, none other than the heir to ‘the kingdom of heaven’ presented to the Ancient of Days. (For ‘extra credit’, compare Dan. 7:9-10 to Revelation 1:12-16.) Make no mistake–the son of man is, despite limitations of imagery and analogy, also the Ancient of Days. (From a Trinitarian perspective, however, I suppose it is also possible–perhaps likely–that the Ancient of Days is more accurately to be understood as a proto-trinitarian reference to the Father, just one of the three persons of the One God, YHWH, than a reference to YHWH as One in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) I will treat the relationship between the Ancient of Days and the son of man as clear enough for our purposes.)
The Sermon on the Mount
Certainly the most famous of the five Matthean discourses is the introductory discourse of Matthew 5-7, now sentimentally familiar to most readers as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. I do not believe that any honest exegesis of Matthew can be considered complete without using The Sermon on the Mount as a hermeneutical key to the rest of the gospel. In my reading, one might honestly be able to say that The Sermon on the Mount is almost by itself the ‘gospel of the kingdom’ about Jesus Christ as Matthew understood it. Therefore, as we proceed to later Matthean discourses, we will try to make sense of them in light of the very important Sermon on the Mount.
Using the kingdom theme of Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 24:14), the kingly, authoritative son of man theme from Dan. 7:13-14, and The Sermon on the Mount as preliminary interpretive signposts for Matthew’s gospel, we are now reasonably equipped to proceed to understanding the fifth Matthean discourse (Matt. 24-25).
Matt. 25:46 appears in the fifth and final discourse of Jesus in the gospel. Matthew 25:46 is, interestingly enough, actually the final statement of the fifth Matthean discourse.
When the Son of Man Comes in His Glory
The final discourse of Jesus in Matthew is concerned with Jesus as the Divine Son of Man who will return to the earth as its just and rightful judge. It includes Jesus’ descriptions of the eschaton (the end) and several parables that encourage his followers to live in the ways that he has thus far described in his previous four discourses, most notably, no doubt, the very famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’, which is itself the first discourse of Jesus in Matthew.
Among the important sections of the fifth Matthean discourse are the Markhan eschatological discourse from Mark 13 appears in the fifth discourse. Several parables, including the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the parable of the talents, also appear in the fifth discourse. The fifth discourse describes the nature of King Jesus’ return and the kind of stewardship, longing, readiness, and loving self-sacrifice that the King expects of his disciples. Jesus proclaims his kingship, lovingly imploring his hearers to be wise people and stewards, and explaining what true piety and religion will look like in his kingdom in a manner that his biological half brother James will later succinctly restate in different words: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27 ESV.) As we delve deeper into the verse and greater context for today, be sure to keep James 1:27 in the back of your mind as a kind of interpretive key to the kind of watchfulness that Jesus is trying to instill in his hearers.
It is not difficult to imagine the risen Jesus smiling from heaven at the written words attributed to his younger brother, words that so beautifully capture what I believe is at the heart of what Matthew has recorded in his fifth discourse of Jesus Christ. It is equally trivial to conceive of the Pharisaic response to Jesus’ fifth discourse, who remains as cold and unflinching in regards to their practice of religion as he was in the fourth Matthean discourse, which includes the ‘seven woes’ spoken against the scribes and Pharisees. King Jesus is uninterested in the kind of religion that the scribes and Pharisees believed Moses to have taught. I believe that this is part of the hermeneutical tool box that we will need to understand the fifth Matthean discourse as well as Matt. 25:46 in particular.
Armed as we are with interpretive guides to Matthew’s gospel, let us now approach Matt. 25:46 as the conclusion to Jesus’ last Matthean discourse.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
The passage is laced with the references we have already noted. The Son of Man from Daniel is the king of the kingdom, none other than King Jesus himself. Who are the people of King Jesus? They are the people of his kingdom not because of their outward piety, but because of their genuine love. As the first letter of John would put it, these are the people who are born of God, who show the love of God by the way that they live. These people live their lives as if there is a loving God who will judge the cosmos. On the other hand, the false piety of the scribes and Pharisees is constantly attacked by the words of Jesus throughout Matthew’s gospel, especially the ‘Seven Woes’ of Matthew 23. For those who failed to practice the religion of James 1:27, the Son of Man is ‘tortuous’, as we will see in Matt. 25:41-46.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
If Matthew or his subsequent interpreter had only had a little more room, they might have included Psalm 18:25-26 as a prophecy concerning the moments that Matt. 25:31-46 capture.
With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.
There we have it. In Matt. 25:31-46, in the Son of Man the Ancient of Days has shown himself merciful to the merciful and tortuous to the crooked. It would not befit YHWH of whom David wrote to reward the calloused evil of those who lived their lives without love, without that cardinal virtue of the gospel of the kingdom. Indeed, it could be argued that YHWH would himself be wicked to offer the kingdom of heaven in response to the crookedness of all who throughout history have not been ‘rich toward God’ (Luke 12:21). Remember that ‘…to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work’ (Ps. 62:12 ESV). The love of God is expressed in his faithfulness to true righteousness and justice, for he will render to people, and to the angels, and to the devil himself according to their works.
On my reading, we cannot divorce the punishment (kolasin) of God from the steadfast love of God. I believe that although God ‘hates evildoers’ (Psalm 5:5 ESV), he ‘shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8 ESV). Indeed, ‘Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love’ (1 John 4:8). That is why he will declare to the evildoers in that day, ‘I never knew you; depart from me…’ (Matt. 7:23, emphasis mine.)
William Barclay adds some insight. ‘The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment.’
Does God begin to hate his enemies on the day of judgment? We cannot deny the love of God for the sinner now, for he died for us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8). The love of God for sinners is written in the blood of Jesus his Son.
I would point out that the same Hebrew root word used for ‘hate’ in Ps. 5:5 is used in contexts where enmity, rather than hatred, is the primary meeting. Therefore, I prefer to translate Ps. 5:5 has saying that God is ‘at enmity with evildoers’. And of course he is, for he is perfect, he is good, he is love, and he is holy. As we come to find a translation for kolasin aionion, we must be faithful to preserve the character of the God who is pure to the pure and tortuous to the crooked, who ‘disciplines’–even ‘scourges’–‘those whom he loves’ (Hebrews 12:6). And who does God not love?
DIVINE PUNISHMENT: Aionion and Kolasin in the New Testament
Kolasin as Shame
Kolasin, translated ‘punishment’, only appears twice in the New Testament, once in Matthew 25:46 and once in 1 John 4:18. 1 John 4:18 ESV says: ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with kolasin [punishment], and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.’ The immediate context of 1 John 4:18 is important enough for our study that I include it below.
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
The appropriateness of 1 John 4:7-21 to Matthew’s gospel of the kingdom could not be more self-evident. The mark of the disciple of Jesus the King is love. Indeed, it was evident from Matthew 25:31-46 that those who were gathered to the Son of Man’s dominion had practiced the righteousness of the God who is love. In addition to echoing the theme of the disciples’ love in Matthew 25:31-40, 1 John 4:7-21 also is the single only other place in the New Testament in which the Greek word ‘kolasin’–the word translated ‘punishment’ in Matthew 25:46 and 1 John 4:18–appears. Let us ask ourselves the question: does 1 John 4:7-21 shed any light upon the meaning of kolasin? If so, what effect might it have upon Matthew 25:46?
I am inclined to think that 1 John 4:7-21 does shed light both on kolasin and the day of judgment (see 1 John 4:17). 1 John 2:28-29 also concerns being ready for the day of judgment (the appearing of the Son of Man) in a manner reminiscent of Paul in Philippians 1:20 in regards to thwarting shame. ‘And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming’ (1 John 2:28-29 ESV). Compare this to Philippians 1:20, which says, ‘as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death’ (Phil. 1:20 ESV). See also 2 Corinthians 10:7-8. ‘Look at what is before your eyes. If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. For even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed.’ It appears that for Paul and John, a good deal of the motivation to persevere in the faith comes from the desire not to be ashamed at the coming of the Son of Man. Scores of Jesus’ parables come to mind that all relate to the urgency that right now, in this present age, each person live honestly and as a good steward of the message of reconciliation that has appeared to us in Christ.
To continue with our interaction with Daniel, shame as a theme in regards to the afterlife also appears in Daniel 12:2. ‘And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproach and everlasting shame.’ The word translated ‘everlasting’ is once again, ‘aionion’, our same word from Matt. 25:46. The word translated ‘shame’ is the root word that 1 Jn. 2:28’s ‘shame’ is translated from. To be sure, possibly the most dreadful ‘punishment’ of Matt. 25:46 is actually shame. George MacDonald, one that C.S. Lewis called ‘master,’ had this to say about the ‘mental pain’ of shame upon those who are punished. ‘Physical suffering may be a factor in rousing this mental pain; but ‘I would I had never been born!’ must be the cry of Judas, not because of the hell-fire around him, but because he loathes the man that betrayed his friend, the world’s friend’ . May none of us betray the Son of Man, the friend of the world.
What is the punishment of Matt. 25:46 and 1 Jn. 4:18? I deem that punishment here is no less than the shame of Daniel 12:2 and 1 Jn. 2:28, the shame that no doubt King Saul and Judas felt at the end of their lives when they found themselves to be the very enemies of God.
Aionion as a the Kingdom of God in Relation to God’s ‘Raw Divinity’
Now that we have explored kolasin, which seems to be understandable in its two New Testament contexts as being closely related to or involving great shame, we move on to the second and coincidentally more difficult Greek word. Most of what I do know about this word comes from Strong’s Concordance, and William Barclay.
One Biblical commentator, a Christian Universalist named William Barclay, approached aionion in Matt. 25:46 in the following fashion. To see the quotation in its larger context, click here.
…one of the key passages is Matthew 25:46 where it is said that the rejected go away to eternal punishment, and the righteous to eternal life… The word for eternal is aionios. It means more than everlasting, for Plato – who may have invented the word – plainly says that a thing may be everlasting and still not be aionios. The simplest way to out it is that aionios cannot be used properly of anyone but God; it is the word uniquely, as Plato saw it, of God. Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give.
(Note that aionios is simply aionion in a different adjective form. The Greek letter sigma (‘s’) ending of aionios means that the adjective is in the nominative case. The nu (‘n’) letter ending of aionion means that the adjective is in the accusative case. For the scope of this study, I do not estimate that the distinction is terribly important.)
Is Barclay right about aionios? I do not want to accept his proposition without putting it to the test. Therefore, I googled the word ‘aionion.’ My top three results listed in order are one, two, three, and four. The first two pages belong to Matt Slick of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM). The third belongs to Gary Amirault of Tentmaker Ministries, and the fourth belongs to God’s Kingdom Ministries (GKM). Of the four, I am personally most convinced by GKM, that aionios does not necessarily mean ‘infinite’ in the philosophical sense, although it does denote something or someone pertaining to eternity. For example, in Jonah 2:7 of the Septuagint, Jonah claimed to have more or less fallen into an aionioi abyss. If we translate aionioi as lasting for eternity, like Matt Slick et al. thinks that we should in the New Testament, that is problematic because Jonah is brought back out of the fish in just three days, a far cry from eternity. Here, I will do no less than to agree with the following from GKM’s website.
Charles H. Welch, editor of The Berean Expositor, wrote in An Alphabetical Analysis, Vol. I
(Page 52) What we have to learn is that the Bible does not speak of eternity. It is not written to tell us of eternity. Such a consideration is entirely outside the scope of revelation.
(Page 279) Eternity is not a Biblical theme.
If Barclay and Welch et al. are right, which I suspect they are, it would create a dramatic–in my view necessary–philosophical reworking of Christian Eschatology as it is often preached in many circles.
However, I want to do more than quote others here, so I will bring to the table an insight from John 17:3. ‘And this is aionios life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ It would be an unfortunate detraction from the beauty of John 17:3, primarily concerned with the oneness of God with Christ and his people, to render aionios ‘everlasting’. An immortal life by itself, as we learn from the Elves Luthien and Arwen in the mythos of J.R.R. Tolkien, is not valuable. What makes life in the Bible so precious is the fact that it is life in ‘the kingdom of heaven’. It is the ‘abundant life’ of John 10:10, the ‘joy’ of Psalm 4:7, and the actualization of the ‘great and precious promises of God’ that comes from partaking of the ‘Divine nature’ in Christ (2 Peter 1:4). In this context and in my view, it would be sickening to translate aionios ‘eternal’ in John 17:3, for God has come to offer us so much more than an everlasting life. He has come to offer us an abundant life, and, if Jesus is to be believed, the abundant life begins in The Sermon on the Mount with poverty of Spirit (Matt. 5:3).
There we have it. Aionios neither must mean nor even appears to mean ‘eternal’. So what does it mean, then? Well, based on my suggested approach to John 17:3, I propose that aionios means something to the effect of ‘earthly kingdom of God in its Divine glory, presence, and rawness’, with the connotation of the kingdom of God that Matthew 6:10 commands us to pray will come to earth. With that understanding, we could think of God as having not yet brought to completion the reconciliation with all of creation in his raw Divinity (see Romans 8:21). All of creation is not yet complete with the ‘partakers of the Divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4). Therefore, we can abbreviate the completeness that the earthly kingdom of God will represent as meaning ‘raw Divine’.
As a litmus test, we will first apply this definition to 2 Tim. 1:9, a difficult passage for any translation of aionios. ‘[God] who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before Divine rawness began…’ (2 Tim. 1:9 ESV). The word translated ‘ages’ is yet another form of aionios. This time, it is in the genitive case. According to my translation, we would render 2 Tim. 1:9 thus: ‘[God] who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the earthly kingdom of God began’. This would make sense, because we are praying for the kingdom of God to be ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. We are praying for it because it has not been brought to completion yet.
If I could only tell you how much sense that this would make of so many difficult texts in the New Testament. One of the dramatic benefits of translating aionios as ‘Divine rawness’ is that it explains the consistent use of ‘eternal fire’ in the New Testament, such as in Jude 7. In place of ‘eternal fire’, ‘raw Divine fire’ makes more sense of verses like Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29. ‘For YHWH your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God’ (Deut. 4:24). Hebrews 12:29 appears to quote this verse. ‘Eternal fire’ in parts of the New Testament like Matt. 25:41 then becomes, more strongly so, a reference to God as a consuming fire. ‘Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the raw Divine fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt. 25:41). Additionally, according to this translation, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, one of the most explicit eschatological statements found in Paul, reads like this:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of raw Divine destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
Since I am having way too much fun with this translation aionios, I would like to use it in the book in which it appears most often, The Gospel According to John. Below I offer John 3:13-16, 36 ESV with my proposed translation.
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have raw Divine life. For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever trusts in him should not be lost, but have raw Divine life… Whoever believes in the Son has raw Divine life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
It would not be possible for someone like me to continue without including a passage from Jude, one of my personal favorite books of the Bible (even if only because I can go around saying that I have half of it memorized) ‘…just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of raw Divine fire.’
Raw Divine Fire in Gehenna
The gehenna passages of the New Testament have garnered considerable exploration, perhaps most infamously by Pastor Rob Bell in Love Wins. Could we correlate the raw Divine fire of Matt. 25:41 with the gehenna of the gospels and James 3:6? Personally, based on my personal reading of the word ‘gehenna’ (commonly translated ‘hell’) in James 3:6, I found it somewhat difficult at first to correlate gehenna with any kind of Divine fire. The Greek word ‘gehenna’ itself a reference to the human sacrifices that were conducted by some of the heathen Kings of Israel and Judah, such as Manasseh, in the valley of ‘Hinnom.’ (See 2 Kings 16:3 and 2 Chronicles 34:4-5, for example. Also look at this online commentary.) James 3:6 uses gehenna in the genitive form ‘gehennes’ in this context (James 3:5-8).
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by gehennes. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
It seems difficult to me to attribute to God a quality that drives a ‘restless evil, full of deadly poison.’ Therefore, I think it is fairly reasonable to believe that gehenna, used only twelve times in any form in the New Testament, can be used to refer either to the ‘raw Divine fire’ that we have already encountered in today’s post. It seems to me that this is approximately how Jesus uses it in the gospels, because the Father has authority over it. However, I would be slow to attribute this kind of Divine relationship to the gehennes of James 3:6, for it seems wrong to me to attribute ‘restless evil’ to a Divine quality; however, I suppose it is also true that we as humans are made in the image of God. Even bearing God’s image, we have certainly committed restless evils.
To evoke Old Testament themes, God reportedly ‘regretted that he had made people on earth’ (Genesis 6:6), although just five chapters ago God had made people on earth and called them ‘very good’. It is an important to make the theological distinction between an act than God has enabled and an act that God has approved. It is possible that the tongue is set on fire by gehennes, an apocalyptic expression of God’s raw Divine fire even though God clearly is not approving of ‘restless evil’. Furthermore, it may be that when James uses the word gehennes, he is invoking a ‘restless evil’ reminiscent of Manasseh’s rituals of human sacrifice, rather than necessarily the raw Divine fire itself.
One might paraphrase James as saying, ‘The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by gehennes [raw Divine fire] in the sense that raw Divine fire is necessitated by evil. At any rate, to any Jew, gehenna at the very least evoked the wickedness of Manasseh that drove them into exile. Saying that the tongue is ‘set on fire by gehennes’ was not at all, on James part, a poor way of evoking images of iniquity in the minds of his readers, who were probably Jewish Christians.
In conclusion then, gehenna is probably as a symbol closely related to the expression of the aionios pyre (raw Divine fire) that will be given to the Devil, his angels, and his children–that is, those who by their unbelief and actions harbor relationship with the Devil rather than fellowship with God, who is good and holy.
Difficult Translations for Raw Divine Fire
I do not suppose that it would be fair to the readers nor to the word aionios itself to translate it above as ‘raw Divine’ only where it immediately makes sense. There are of course verses like Philemon 1:15 that say ‘For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him [the runaway slave, Onesimus] back raw Divine‘ (Phile. 1:15). Recall however, that the reason I chose ‘raw Divine’ as a translation of aionios in the first place is because we noted that aionios appears to be tied to the coming of the kingdom of God as revealed through the life, ministry, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In any case, we would do well to deviate slightly from my usual translation ‘raw Divine’ in Philemon in order to make the sentence flow somewhat better. ‘…that you might have him back as [being of the] raw Divine kingdom‘. The translation is still somewhat rough, but even here I perceive that it captures the spirit of the word aionios in the New Testament to a nuance that I do not think exists with ‘eternal’ as in ‘everlasting’.
2 Peter 1:4 as related to the Raw Divine
There is one passage of the New Testament in particular that I believe may shed light upon the concept of aionios, namely, 2 Pet. 1:1-4. I have already alluded to it.
Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
Although the word ‘aionios’ itself does not appear in 2 Pet. 1:3-4, the passage, in addition to including one of the most explicit verbal declarations of the deity of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, simply resounds with themes of aionios life. Jesus’ ‘…divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life… so that through [his promises] you may become partakers of the divine nature…’ That sounds exactly like the gospel! ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…’ (Acts 16:31). I estimate that this mystical and esoteric passage in 2 Pet. 1:1-4 may actually be a key to understanding aionios. To be aionios is to be derived from the ‘divine nature’. It would seem by inference, then, that the very rough translation of aionios (though certainly better than ‘everlasting’) that I am proposing has some ready support in the New Testament, especially in Matthew’s ‘the kingdom of heaven’, Peter’s ‘divine nature’, and Jude’s ‘fire’.
A Modest Proposal for the Translation of Kolasin Aionion in Matthew 25:46
Having examined things in brief, I now propose an alternative translation for Matt. 25:46. ‘And these will go away into raw Divine punishment, but the righteous into raw Divine life.’ How should we then understand the conclusion to the five Matthean discourses of Jesus in Matthew?
In my humble opinion, it is time that we as evangelicals seriously reevaluate the doctrine of hell. It is time that verses like 2 Samuel 14:14; Psalm 103:9; Luke 15:4; John 12:32; Romans 5:20-21, 11:26, 11:32; 1 Timothy 4:10; 1 Jn 2:2, 4:8; and Revelation 21:25-27 to move into center stage. I think that it is worth our time to cast serious doubt on an eschatological issue that has for centuries caused both believer and unbeliever alike a heartache that renders phrases like ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness’, ‘God is love’, ‘love your enemies’, and ‘be anxious for nothing’ nearly unintelligible and without any real analogy. ‘Maybe every analogy fails’, wrote Eastern Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart in a recent essay. Along these lines, perhaps some of the success of Calvinistic theology in recent years is owed in part to the fact that as a deterministic philosophy, it prevents us, to a degree, from having to worry about the fate of those who do not believe.
If my translation of aionion in Matt. 25:46 is correct, then it becomes possible–at least in Matthean theology–for the punishment of the wicked not to be perpetual. Annihilationists, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Gregory Boyd (lol), who believe that after the second resurrection and raw Divine punishment the souls of the damned will be eternally put out of existence, may actually be closer to the truth than many modern Evangelicals. However, I have become singularly convinced that there is still a more excellent way.
1 Corinthians 13 and the God Who is Love
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
(1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV) According to 1 Jn 4:8, God is love. If love does not insist on its own way, its possible that although God ‘desires all people to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), he does not insist on his own way. As C.S. Lewis said in the great divorce, the raw Divine Fire is in a manner of speaking God’s way of ultimately saying to the sinner, ‘Thy will be done’. Although C.S. Lewis did not appear to be an annihilationist, 1 Cor. 13:5 could be read through the eyes of an annihilationist, understanding that God will ultimately not ‘insist on his own way’ and lovingly allow the impenitent to be utterly consumed by the raw Divine fire. Such an approach would certainly find support in Matthew 3:10-12, in which the word ‘burn’ bears the connotation of ‘consuming’.
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
On the other hand, 1 Cor. 13:7 says that ‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ In this case, it is entirely possible that God is willing to bear the hate of the unrepentant, believe in the possibility of their ability to exercise faith and find grace and salvation with his people in the New Jerusalem, expectantly hope for their eventual return and the end for the need of his Divine judgment, and endure the pain of incomplete reconciliation between Creator and sinful creature. 1 Cor. 13 does not, therefore, directly narrow down possibilities as to the nature of the loving God’s judge, but does entertain possibilities. At any rate, ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God’ (1 Jn. 4:7 ESV). We can rest absolutely assured that whatever God does on that day when according to our gospel he judges the secret thoughts of men, whether it be annihilation or something else, it will be loving.
Themes from Genesis, the Psalter, Lamentations, and Ezekiel
There are six, even seven (Hebrew linguistic joke, for my Hebrew-savvy friends) Old Testament passages that have never ceased to stun me in regards to the love, justice, and mercy of God come not from the New Testament, but from the Old. They are Genesis 22:18, Genesis 50:15-20, Psalm 103:8-9, Lamentations 3, Ezekiel 37, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, Ezekiel 18:23, and 2 Samuel 14:14. In my opinion, these verses present some of the most beautiful expressions of God’s character in the entire Bible.
In Genesis 22:18, God proclaims that through Abraham ‘All the peoples of the earth will be blessed’. In Genesis 50:15-20, Joseph declares to his brothers, who years earlier had sold him into the slavery that resulted in his wrongful imprisonments and afflictions, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today’ (Genesis 15:19-20). David declares in the Holy Spirit, ‘YHWH is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever’ (Ps. 103:8-9). The Prophet declares in Lamentations 3:31-33, ‘For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.’ Ezekiel 37, the beautiful ‘Valley of the Dry Bones’ passage, unabashedly states that the same bones that God resurrects are the bones of the ‘whole house of Israel’ (Ezekiel 37:11), and that God will pour out his Spirit into them as an act of grace.
So we see from these verses that God is in the business of thwarting evil by working good out of it. This is different than saying that evil represents something that God desired. It would not be right, you see, to say that God desired for Joseph to be sold in to slavery, or even to say that God desired for Satan to enter into Judas. These were genuine evils that undoubtedly caused the God who is love to mourn profusely. However, God is not so weak that he is unable to take an abominable situation and bring good from it. The cross is one of the best illustrations of this concept. God took a cursed instrument (Galatians 3:13) of torture and transformed it into an altogether lovely symbol of love. ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). God is always expressing his love and working ‘righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed’ (Ps. 103:6). To say that God does not express his love in any of his actions, is, according to my gospel, a monstrous blasphemy. It is the love of God that binds him to ‘render to a person according to his work’ (Ps. 62:12), and no less, unless I am gravely mistaken and the Bible either tragically dishonest to me or profoundly misunderstood by me.
Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God
The deeply philosophical Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes expounds upon a host of topics, focusing mainly on the shortness of human life, the twisted realities of living ‘under the sun’, and the practice of working with joy. Ecclesiastes concludes on a note that I think is worth our attention. ‘The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh’ (Ecc. 12:11-12 ESV). No kidding, much study does lend to weariness. As a Ph.D. student I think I can say that fairly. Lol. That joke’s on me. Here is the really interesting part. ‘The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil’ (Ecc. 12:13-14 ESV). Would it not be dramatically anticlimactic for the true meaning of these verses to translate like so: ‘Okay guys, there’s a lot of books out there to read, and it can get really exhausting trying to figure out the truth. But hey, things are simpler than that, fortunately. Just fear God and do the things that are right. This is the point of our existence. You really should take care to live rightly, too, because God will bring every deed into judgment. Pressure’s on, guys. If you live an evil life, you will burn for all eternity in hell. So turn or burn!’ I hope it is apparent how silly that this kind of thinking would make Ecc. 12:13-14 seem.
I suggest, then, that in a potential reworking of Christian Eschatology, we out to make room in our hearts for a will of God that may once more express itself in an unfathomably resilient steadfast love that is ‘patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance’ (2 Pet. 3:9 ESV).
Yes. That is what I am suggesting. I believe it is entirely possible that the true message of Scripture is an eventual, final, and universal reconciliation and salvation.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and scourges every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:6-11)
He Invents Means so that the Banished One will not Remain an Outcast
I close with the verse that led me to reconsider my understanding of eschatology and the gospel. ‘We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast’ (2 Samuel 14:14 ESV). If God is really the kind of God who will not take away life, if he actually devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast, then it is entirely possible that the only way for universal salvation not to come to pass is if God himself does not desire it.
I will close with writings from those more poetic than I.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
…I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. (Jeremiah 31:3)
Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to raw Divine life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)
Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.