an excerpt from The Triumph of Mercy
“And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:46)
“And these shall be going away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian.” (Concordant Literal Version)
The argument presented by traditionalists is that, if the punishment is not eternal, then neither can the life of the just be eternal, since the same word “eternal” is used of both in the same verse. But aionios does not in itself express “eternity” in the New Testament, even when referring to eternal life. This fact is recognized even by many who hold to the doctrine of eternal punishment. Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible says the following on Matthew 25:46:
“Everlasting punishment - life eternal. The two adjectives represent the same Greek word, aionios. It must be admitted (1) that the Greek word which is rendered "eternal" does not, in itself, involve endlessness, but rather, duration, whether through an age or succession of ages, and that it is therefore applied in the N.T. to periods of time that have had both a beginning and ending.” [i]
Marvin Vincent, in Vincent’s New Testament Word Studies, says the following concerning the eonian life and eonian punishment in this verse:
“Zooee aionios ‘eternal life,’ which occurs 42 times in the New Testament, but not in the Septuagint, is not endless life, but life pertaining to a certain age or aeon, or continuing during that aeon. I repeat, life may be endless. The life in union with Christ is endless, but the fact is not expressed by aionios.
Kolasis aioonios, rendered ‘everlasting punishment’ (Matt 25:46), is the punishment peculiar to an aeon other than that in which Christ is speaking.” [ii]
Also, the duration expressed by the adjective aionios in each instance depends upon the noun that accompanies it and not upon its proximity with another occurrence of the same adjective. For example, if we were to say, “the eonian hills belong to the eonian God” we would not mean by that that the hills have the same duration as God, even as we wouldn’t understand the phrase, “my long legs are going to get uncomfortable on such a long trip,” as meaning that my legs are the same length as the trip.
Apart from Matthew 25:42, we have another instance in Scriptures where aionios is also used two times in the same verse, and yet the duration in each case is different:
“in hope of eternal (aionios) life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began (pro kronon aionion “before the times eonian”).” (Titus 1:2)
In this case the King James Version translators hid the second occurrence of aionios by translating “before times aionion” as before “before time began.” However, in both instances it is the same word aionios; the first in singular and the second in plural, (agreeing with its noun “times”). The Concordant Literal Version translates it correctly:
“in expectation of life eonian, which God, Who does not lie, promises before times eonian.” (Titus 1:2 CLV)
In the first place, we know that “the times” are measurements of time created by God and have no relationship with eternity. Eternity doesn’t have “times,” but rather time was created in eternity. In eternity before creation there were no days. Before the moon existed, there were no months. Before the sun, there were no years. Eternity doesn’t have times and ages. The ages were created by God:
“has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds (aionios, “the ages”).” (Heb 1:2)
In second place, returning to Titus 1:2, it doesn’t make sense to say that God promised eternal life before eternity, since eternity doesn’t have a beginning or end. But it does make sense to say that He promised before the times of the ages. So, the first occurrence of aionios in Titus 1:2 is “eonian life” or “life of the ages,” referring to future ages, while the second occurrence, “before eonian times” or “before the times of the ages,” refers to all past ages since the beginning of time. Aionios doesn’t speak of the same duration (or even the same time period) in both occurrences. Therefore, the argument that “aionios correction” must have the same duration as “aionios life” because it appears in the same verse is not a valid argument.
Although we know that the just will receive immortality in the resurrection, zoe aionios (translated “life eternal”), only means “eonian life” or “the life of the ages.” Everlasting life is expressed by other words such as “immortality,” “incorruptible” or “for the age and beyond,” as we see in Daniel 12:2,3:
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting (olam) life, some to shame and everlasting (olam) contempt. 3 Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever (olam a-ad “olam and beyond”).” (Dan 12:2-3)
A literal translation better expresses the distinction between “age during” or “eonian,” and “eonian and beyond”:
“And the multitude of those sleeping in the dust of the ground do awake, some to life age-during, and some to reproaches--to abhorrence age-during. 3 And those teaching do shine as the brightness of the expanse, and those justifying the multitude as stars to the age and forever (lit. “and beyond”).” (Dan 12:2,3 Young’s Literal Translation)
In these two verses we see that the eonian life of the just continues beyond the shame and self-contempt of the unjust. The same can be said of Matthew 25:46.
Also, we see that the punishment cannot be eternal because of the meaning of the Word translated “punishment.” The Greek word (kolasis) means “corrective punishment” in contrast with timoreo which often expresses “vindictive punishment or torture.” William Barclay, a Greek scholar, in his commentary, The Daily Study Bible and New Testament Words says the following of kolasis:
“The Greek word for punishment here [Mt. 25:46] 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.” [iii]
Thomas Talbott, professor of Philosophy in the University of Willamette in Oregon and author of “The Inescapable Love of God” explains:
“According to the Aristotle, there is a difference between revenge and punishment; the latter (kolasis) is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer, the former (timoria) in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction. Plato also appealed to the established meaning of kolasis as support for his theory that virtue could be taught: ‘For if you will consider punishment (kolasis)…and what control it has over wrong-doers, the facts will inform you that men agree in regarding virtue as procured.’ Even where a punishment may seem harsh and unforgiving, more like retribution than parental chastisement, this in no way excludes a corrective purpose. Check out the punishment that Paul prescribes in I Corinthians 5:5. One might never have guessed that, in prescribing such a punishment—that is, delivering a man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh—Paul had in mind a corrective purpose, had Paul not explicitly stated the corrective purpose himself (“that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”). So as this text illustrates, even harsh punishment of a seemingly retributive kind can in fact serve a redemptive purpose.” [iv]
The majority of the Pharisees believed in eternal punishment, as does the traditional Church today, but they did not use the phrase “kolasis aionios” (eonian correction) that Jesus used. In order to express everlasting vindictive punishment, they used the phrases “aidíos timoria” (eternal torture), “eirgmos aidíos” (eternal prisons), and “timorion adialeipton” (unending torment). The Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37-100), said of the Pharisees: “They believe that the evil spirits are kept in eternal prisons (eirgmon aidíon). The Pharisees say that all souls are incorruptible, but while the souls of good men are taken to other bodies, the souls of wicked men are subjected to eternal punishment (aidíos temoría).” In another place he says of the Essenes, “…they consign the souls of the evil to a dark and tempestuous place, full of endless torture (timoría adialeipton), where they suffer an “immortal torment” (athanaton timorion).” Josephus always used aidíon (eternal) and athonaton (immortal) and timoría in reference to eternal punishment. In the Bible, however, the word aidíos “eternal” and athonaton “immortal” are not used in reference to the punishment of the unjust. When Jesus spoke of the punishment of the unjust, He said, “correction eonian” (kolasis aionios) which are terms used by Josephus and the Pharisees to refer to temporal and corrective punishments, and He avoided terms then in use to describe eternal punishment. He always spoke of a correctional punishment with a positive end in view. [v]
The renown Greek scholar Archbishop trench in Trench's New Testament Synonyms, also explains the difference between the vindictive punishment timoria and the corrective punishment kolasis:
“Punishment: timoria, kolasis
Timoria… The classical use of timoria emphasizes the vindictive character of punishment. It was punishment that satisfied the inflictor’s sense of outraged justice and that defended his own honor or that of the violated law. The meaning of timoria, then, agrees with its etymology.
Kolasis refers to punishment that is designed to correct and better the offender. Thus, Plato uses kolaseis and noutheteseis together. Several times in one passage in the Protagoras, Plato's use illustrates the distinction we have drawn.” [vi]
This explains why the early Church Fathers who were Greek speaking had no problem understanding that kolasis referred to correctional punishment with limited duration. Clement of Alexandria AD 150 to AD 215 says of God’s punishment of the wicked:
“But God does not punish, for punishment is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised, collectively and individually.” [vii]
“Punishment is, in its operation, like medicine; it dissolves the hard heart, purges away the filth of uncleanness, and reduces the swellings of pride and haughtiness; thus restoring its subject to a sound and healthful state.” [viii]
“God's punishments are saving and disciplinary leading to conversion…and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh.” [ix]
Even when kolasis is used in a context which appears to be purely vindictive and penal, one must keep in mind that the root meaning of the word kolasis is correction. In the judgments of any just society, penalties are not purely vindictive but also correctional in nature. While those condemned to serve a sentence in penitentiaries, correctional institutions, or reformatories are being punished for their crimes, the primary objective is to reform - to produce penitence and correction in order to ultimately restore the offender to society.
Although dictatorships have existed which administer vindictive punishment without reformative motives, they are rightly considered to be primitive, barbaric and unjust by any civilized society. How much more can we say of God’s own judgments that they are good! (Ps 119:39). Even the best correctional institutions often fail to reform some of the most obstinate individuals, but contrary to the traditional doctrine of eternal reprobation for the majority, God’s judgments will ultimately restore even the most obstinately rebellious:
“Say to God, ‘How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power Your enemies shall submit themselves to You. 4 All the earth shall worship You and sing praises to You; They shall sing praises to Your name.” (Psalm 66:3-4)
Contrary to what traditionalists would have us believe, every biblical example of God’s judgments are for correction and end in restoration. Fiery wrath and perpetual desolations are declared upon Israel and Judah, only to be followed up by their final restoration (Jer 25:9, cf. Jer 29:10; Ezek 22:17-23,31 cf. Ezek 36:24-26; Jer 30). This is not only true of God’s elect, but also of the nations. From Jeremiah 45 thru 51 we see apparently irremediable destruction declared against nations such as Egypt, Moab, Ammon and Elam followed up by promises of restoration (cf. Isa 19:22). The very nations in Revelation which come up against Christ in His coming will walk in the light of the New Jerusalem in the post White Throne Judgment new earth (Rev 21:24-26). If even Sodom and those who were disobedient in the days of Noah are restored, how can we still insist that the judgment of the nations and the White Throne Judgment will not finally result in restoration? (Ezek 16:53-54; 1Peter 3:19-20).
All nations whom You have made
Shall come and worship before You, O Lord,
And shall glorify Your name. (Ps 86:9)
If God’s punishment were purely vindictive and for His own benefit and pleasure, then one might argue that His punishment could last forever, although eternal vengeance would still be unjust, excessive and contrary to God’s loving nature. However, seeing that the word Jesus used is “correction” (kolasis), it is evident that it could not last forever. A punishment for the purpose of correction only lasts until the desired result has been achieved – the correction of the offender. Once corrected, the eonian correction ceases. It may last a very long time or a rather short time, depending upon the time necessary to accomplish its purpose. In Jonah’s case it lasted for an eon of just three days. Justice always suspends punishment when the correction has been achieved. According to the meaning of the word kolasis, we see that the punishment in Scriptures is always a measured punishment, according to the works of each one. Even in the eschatalogical lake of fire, each one receives only that which is his part:
“But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part (meros) in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Rev 21:8)
The expression “their part” (meros) does not correspond with an infinite punishment. That which is “a part” is a measured punishment. The prodigal son said to his father: “Father, give me the portion (meros) of goods that falls to me” (Luke 15:12). The same Greek word meros is used in each instance. We get our English word “merit,” which refers to that which one deserves; a portion or part pertaining to someone. Their part is limited to what corresponds to each one – no more, no less. If the punishment were infinite, then it couldn’t be said to be a part or portion. Jesus said of the evil servant: “and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:45-51). Again, we see that it is a portion and not infinite. Here the phrase “will cut him in two” simply means “cut or lacerate.” It was common practice to scourge disobedient servants, leaving them lacerated, but they didn’t normally dismember them. If a master were to cut his servant in two for disobeying, what benefit would it be to him? He would just have one less servant. Kenneth Wuest’s translation gives the more logical meaning: “and he shall scourge him severely and shall appoint his part with the actors on the stage of life who play the role of that which they are not.” [x]
There is another phrase utilized in the Scriptures for punishment which also limits the duration of punishment. “Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny” (Matt 5:26 cf. Luke 12:59). In the context of this parable Jesus is speaking of “hell (Gehenna) fire” (v. 22), and He said that one will not get out till. A punishment cannot be forever and at the same time last until, but it can be an eonian or age during punishment, lasting until. Forever does not have an end, but an age or ages last until the purpose for the age or ages has been fulfilled – whether it should be three days or millenniums. Another example we find is in Matthew 18:34-35:
“And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. 35 So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (Matt 18:34-35)
If we do not forgive others their debts against us, then our Father will deliver us to torments, however, not eternally, but rather until. Nor is it without significance that Jesus refers to God in this instance as Father, emphasizing His paternal correction. Also, in the Lord’s Prayer we see that the forgiveness is paternal and not penal or judicial (Matt 6:14-15). What father among mankind would continue punishing beyond that which is necessary for the correction of his child? Didn’t Jesus say that we are evil fathers in comparison to Him? The traditional Church has degenerated to the point of presenting our Father God as infinitely crueler than the worst earthly father. Jesus, in contrast, said that every sin will be forgiven men (Matt 12:31). Also, we see in Scriptures that the wrath of God is not eternal as tradition teaches, but rather “until”:
“The anger (wrath) of the Lord will not turn back Until He has executed and performed the thoughts of His heart. In the latter days you will understand it perfectly.” (Jer 23:20)
On still another occasion Jesus made it clear that correction only lasts as long as necessary. It is found in Matthew 21:31:
“…tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.” (Matt 21:31)
Here Jesus presents two groups of individuals: 1) Those who already knew they were sinners, (tax collectors and harlots) and 2) sinners who thought they were holy (self-righteous, religious scribes and Pharisees). Many would say that neither category would ever enter the kingdom of Christ, but Jesus said that both groups will enter, but those in the first group enter before those of the second group for the obvious reason that those of the second group are slower to recognize their need for the Savior. Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14), but the correction only lasts until one comes to repentance, faith and holiness.
Another important consideration is the morphology of the noun “punishment,” (kolasis). According to the Greek scholar A.T. Robertson, when Greek substantives end in –ria, -ma, or –sis as in kolasis, they are nouns which lay emphasis upon the result of an action rather than the action itself. [xi] These Greek result nouns are translated into English with the endings –ment and –ion. Words like “punishment,” “judgment,” “atonement,” “salvation,” “redemption,” “destruction,” etc., all lay emphasis upon the result of an action. Although it includes any action necessary to its accomplishment, the emphasis is always upon the end result. Christ’s redemptive work was completed within hours, but the abiding result is eternal redemption. A father’s punishment of his child results in his child’s having been corrected. Therefore, the morphology of the noun kolasis implies a punishment with a final result or end. This is not compatible with “eternal punishing” or “eternal destroying,” as traditionalists understand it. Eonian correction does not mean eonian action but eonian results. How can we speak of the results of an action which continues for eternity without ever coming to completion? There are no results unless the action completes its purpose.
Returning to our consideration of Matthew 25:46, it is important to understand that Jesus isn’t referring to the Great White Throne Judgment mentioned in Revelation 20, which will take place at the end of the 1,000 year millennial reign of Christ, but rather he is referring to a separation of those of the nations who will be alive on the earth at the time of the Second Coming of Christ, when He begins His reign on the earth:
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matt 25:31-34)
Here we see that those who treated the brothers of Jesus kindly are the sheep that will be permitted to enter into the kingdom of Christ (35-40), while those who did not treat his brethren kindly are the goats who will not be permitted to enter alive into the kingdom but will go into eonian correction. He is not talking about eternal salvation but rather about the separation of the nations which will take place right after His Second Coming. The entrance isn’t based upon having put one’s faith in Christ, but upon their treatment of His brethren. And who are the brothers of Jesus? Many think they are the persecuted Jews living during the great tribulation. Without discounting the probability that it includes them, [xii] we see that those who are actually called the brethren of Jesus are those who make up His Church; those born in His likeness:
“For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Rom 8:29, cf. Heb 2:11)
The “brethren” of Jesus, therefore, are those of the new creation – Christ Jesus being the first-born among them. We become His brethren and enter the kingdom of heaven through the new birth - not for our treatment of the brethren. This passage only has reference to those of the nations who will be alive in the time of the Second Coming; they are not Christians (the brethren) who have already been born again and possess eternal life. The brethren will have already been caught up to meet Christ in the air in His Second Coming. Those being separated here are living individuals of the nations who will either be permitted to enter into the life of the age/s or sent into eonian correction, depending upon their treatment of believers. Matthew 24 and 25 is a response of Jesus to the question made by the disciples concerning the end of the age (Matt 24:3). Jesus is speaking specifically of a separation of those who are alive after the great tribulation when Christ returns (Matt 24:29, cf. 25:31). Nor does He say that they will be transformed in that moment, receiving glorified bodies. It simply says that the sheep will be granted entrance into the kingdom of Christ – “the eonian life” or the “life of the age/s.” John 3:36 says that those who have believed in Jesus already, in this present age, have the eonian life for having believed in Him. In 1John 5:11,12 it says:
“And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1John 5:11,12)
We who have believed don’t have to wait until Christ comes to know whether or not we will enter into eonian life because in Christ we already possess it. We are no longer of the nations but rather the Church of the firstborn ones, the brothers of Jesus.
[i] Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Matt. 25:46)
[ii] Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament - Additional note on aion and aionios in 2Thessalonians 1:9
[iii] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible and New Testament Words
[iv] from Gerry Beauchemin, Hope Beyond Hell
[v] Hanson, J.W. (2014-09-16). Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First 500 Years (Kindle Location 585). . Kindle Edition.
[vi] Trench's New Testament Synonyms: Punishment
[vii] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2, Chapter 16
[viii] Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 1.8 as cited in Thayors Léxicon.
[ix] Clement of Alexandria, Hanson, John Wesley, Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years. p. 117
[x] The New Testament: An Expanded Translation by Kenneth S. Wuest Copyright © 1961 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[xi] Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p.152.
[xii] see my book “Focusing in on End Times Events”.