So far we have looked at 4 terms used in Scripture to convey judgment in the afterlife. In this blog we will look at the term that is found in the most notorious reference to supposed “eternal damnation.” This reference is by far the most well known in Scripture and it is almost universally seized upon as the counterpoint to Universal Reconciliation. I know when I first heard about UR this was the first argument that came out of my mouth.
The verse in question is found in Matthew 25:46 and comes at the end of the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus sums up each one’s fate saying,
“These (the goats) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We have already seen in the 1st series that this word “eternal” does not normally convey the idea of eternity. In fact it rarely, if ever, carries that sense of eternity and if it does it is an exception to the rule. Therefore we already have an issue with this passage being used to condemn U.R. (see my blogs on that issue here)
But there is more. The word “punishment” is the Greek word Kolasis which means to prune. Literally it refers to a pruning in order to cause proper growth in order to produce better fruit. This is highly reminiscent of Jesus’ famous teaching on the Vine and the Branches,
“Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:2b)
Jesus was obviously not referring to the wicked in this passage about vines and branches; b/c in this parable He is the Vine and we are the branches that receive the pruning. However, the principle is clearly seen; pruning is a method that produces greater fruit. That is what this word means in its literal sense.
Figuratively Kolasis refers to correction in order to produce a change in character. It certainly doesn’t carry the connotation of punishment for the sake of punishment as is so popularly thought. In fact, this verse would be better translated in the following way,
“These will go away into character forming discipline for the duration of that Age, but the righteous will enter into the glorified immortal life during that Age.”
Though this Scripture is the banner verse for Endless Tormenters, it does not carry the thought of some horrifying place of unending torment, in fact it presents just the opposite – a place of hope. As we have seen, God is merciful and His judgments are for our good.
Of course I am very adamant about supporting any assertion I may make, whether for the sake of my own statements withstanding scrutiny, or for those who desire to see the proof in order to believe. So I offer the following as support for my assertion that Kolasis means “character forming correction” rather than “punishment.”
The first thing we need to understand is that this word Kolasis is only found this one time in Scripture. So we have no other passages and contexts by which to discern how Scripture applies this word. So we have to look outside of Scripture where it is found in Greek Literature.
To begin, Aristotle used it as correction when he plainly and clearly stated,
“Kolasis aims at correction.” (Rhetric. i. 10.)
He also says later in the same work,
“There is a difference between revenge (timoria) and punishment (kolasis); the latter (kolasis) is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer, the former in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction.” (Rhetoric 1369b,13,)
In other words, Kolasis as a punishment is meant to reform the criminal, whereas timoria as a punishment only serves to appease the sense of revenge in the victim.
Philo, who was a contemporary with Christ, also used the word in this sense.
“It is better not to promise than not to give prompt assistance, for no blame follows in the former case, but in the latter there is dissatisfaction from the weaker class, and a deep hatred and æonian punishment (kolasis) from such as are more powerful.” (De Præmiis and Poenis Tom. II, pp. 19-20. Mangey’s edition. Dollinger quoted by Beecher)
Philo uses the same exact phrase that Christ used here in Matthew 25:46 – aionian kolasis. Yet Philo’s use of it is applied to those who have power and authority in this life (governmental) to exact punishment on those who make a promise and fail to keep it. It is a physical, earthly, temporal chastisement to make sure that such people will be more prompt to keep their promises. It certainly is not referring to a state of endless torment for the petty offense of breaking a promise!
Plato also uses it in this fashion,
“For the natural or accidental evils of others no one gets angry, or admonishes, or teaches, or punishes (kolazei) them, but we pity those afflicted with such misfortune for if, O Socrates, if you will consider what is the design of punishing (kolazein) the wicked, this of itself will show you that men think virtue something that may be acquired; for no one punishes (kolazei) the wicked, looking to the past only simply for the wrong he has done–that is, no one does this thing who does not act like a wild beast; desiring only revenge (timoria), without thought. Hence, he who seeks to punish (kolazein) with reason does not punish for the sake of the past wrong deed, but for the sake of the future, that neither the man himself who is punished may do wrong again, nor any other who has seen him chastised. And he who entertains this thought must believe that virtue may be taught, and he punishes (kolazei) for the purpose of deterring from wickedness.” (Protagoras 323 E) (emphasis mine)
Plato is arguing our very point! That Kolasis is not simply a revenge for wrong done in the past, but a method of correction by which we change the evil doer so that he will not do wrong again!
Finally I want to quote from William Barklay, who is a world renown Greek scholar and translator. After summarizing some of the Greek writings I have quoted above He continues saying,
Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 4.24; 7.16) defines kolasis as pure discipline, and timoria as the return of evil for evil. Aulus Gellius says that kolasis is given that a man may be corrected; timoria is given that dignity and authority may be vindicated (The Attic Nights 7.14). The difference is quite clear in Greek and it is always observed. Timoria is retributive punishment. Kolasis is always given to amend and to cure. (The Apostles’ Creed)
So there we have it. Eternal Punishment as we have translated in Matthew 25:46 is neither eternal, nor retributive. It is remedial, corrective, character forming; and it will only last for the duration of that age to which it belongs.
A Popular Argument
Not only is the verse in question (Matthew 25:46) incorrectly thought to prove an endless punishment for evil doers, but it is also used as a platform for another argument against U.R. The logic (faulty) goes like this, “Since the same adjective (aionios) is used to describe both life and punishment, if eternal punishment isn’t forever, then eternal life also isn’t forever. But if eternal life is forever, then eternal punishment must also be forever.”
I have found this argument lacking, to say the least. Its as illogical as saying that, “If the adjective ‘tall’ is used to describe both basket ball players and sky scrapers then they must both be the same size. Either the basket ball player is thousands of feet tall, or the sky scraper is only 6-7 feet tall.” The fault with such logic is clear.
However, I can somewhat understand why such a logical error is made in our time. For if another culture which had no understanding of either the adjective “tall” nor of what basket ball players or sky scrapers were…they might also form the idea that they were equal. This I think is a good representation of our situation today. We in our modern western mindset are ignorant of both the fact that aionios does not mean endless, as well as what life and punishment really signify.
Dr. Alford Plumer, in his book An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, pp. 351-352 also comments on this issue saying,
It is often pointed out that “eternal” (aionios) in “eternal punishment” must have the same meaning as in “eternal life.” No doubt, but that does not give us the right to say that “eternal” in both cases means “endless.” ”Then eternal life is not endless, for the same Greek adjective qualifies life and punishment.” This does not follow, for the word is used in Greek (Septuagint) in different senses in the same sentence; as Hab. 3:6, “And the everlasting (aionion) mountains were scattered –his ways are everlasting (aionion).” Suppose we apply the popular argument here. The mountains and God must be of equal duration, for the same word is applied to both. Both are temporal or both are endless. But the mountains are expressly stated to be temporal –they “were scattered,” –therefore God is not eternal. Or God is eternal and therefore the mountains must be. But they cannot be, for they were scattered. The argument does not hold water. The aiónion mountains are all to be destroyed. Hence the word may denote both limited and unlimited duration in the same passage, the different meanings to be determined by the subject treated.
I hope that this helps further clarify that we are not dealing with a concept of hell that concerns endless torment. We are finding at every turn that Scripture promotes a temporal judgment that is designed to reform the sinner. I myself find this exceedingly joyous, for the love and greatness of God far exceeds anything that I could ever have hoped or dreamed of.
And if in reading these blogs you have begun to feel a glimmer of hope that God just might actually be THAT GOOD…then you are really going to love the next series! But before we begin that series we have two more issue to look at concerning Judgment. The next blog will deal with God’s Wrath.