I do not think that everlasting punishment is permanent.
Everlasting life, I believe, is not intended to be meaningful due to its permanence; every prisoner knows that a long life can itself be hell. Likewise, I do not believe that the sting of punishment is in its being “everlasting.” What a mean doctrine of life and punishment we should develop should their significance lie only in their permanence!
Suppose that a person’s sentence for serial murder was prison for life. Punishment that is everlasting (as far as they are concerned) may not be too bad. At least they did not receive the death penalty.
So if you asked me, I’d say that the significance of everlasting life and everlasting punishment is not their duration but their quality. For everlasting life is to know God the Father and God the Son in the power of God the Holy Spirit (John 17:3), and the sting of everlasting punishment is the everlasting fire that does not consume those whom God loves but purifies them. (Hebrews 12:4-11)
So I say. But is the perspective linguistically reasonable?
If it is true that the New Testament usage of the Greek aionios (here “everlasting”) corresponds roughly to the Old Testament usage of olam, then perhaps strict temporal eternity is not in mind when aionios is used. Furthermore, linguistics are far from the only problem. What are the implications of a permanent punishment?
I would argue that everlasting punishment threatens to undo the beauty of the everlasting good news. As Schleiermacher suggested, we would not be able to enjoy the bliss of eternity amid the cries of the damned. As Origen said, Christ remains on the cross so long as one sinner remains in hell. As Christ said, the Father is not wishing that any of “these little ones” should perish (Matt. 18:14).
A permanent and irreversible sentence threatens to reverse the very thrust of the good news, that as in Adam all died, so in Christ all shall be made alive, in order that God may be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:22, 28). The goodness of the gospel is predicated on the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21). In Luke’s gospel, after Christ said not to fear human tormentors but to fear the Divine tormentor, he immediately promised that as it is not in God’s heart to forget the sparrows, so it is not in God’s heart to destroy even a hair of a human’s head (Luke 12:4-7).
I do not pretend to have solved the mystery of the last judgment and the restoration of all things. There is the great mystery of the triumph of Romans 8:30-39 that is followed by the lament of Romans 9:1-3. That Revelation insists that God will wipe every tear from their eyes demonstrates that from here to eternity there will be tears.
As we who claim the name of King Jesus seek to be faithful to his everlasting gospel, let us overflow with the hope that Christ is making all things new and that in the age to come, God will be all in all.
Note: The references to Schleiermacher and Origen come from Jürgen Moltmann’s book The Coming of God.