After lengthy discussions with very intelligent students of the Bible on my Facebook page for this blog, it is clear that the entirety of the doctrine of the eternally burning hell rests upon the assumption that the wicked possess an immortal soul and that Jesus taught in Matthew 25:46 that the wicked will burn forever and never cease burning. When asked where in the Bible the doctrine of the natural immortality of the wicked is taught, the answer is: “Matthew 25:46 says they’ll burn for eternity, therefore they’re immortal.” So it all comes back to this one verse. This is the verse that the entire doctrine rests upon.
So, does Matthew 25:46 unambiguously teach the eternal conscious torment of the wicked? You be the judge. Below is an extensive dialogue on the subject that took place on the Facebook page. Enjoy exploring and thinking for yourself.
You’ll see that the central dispute is over one Greek word: “aionios” – translated as “eternal” in Matthew 25:46, referring to the punishment of the wicked. Interpreting this word as being literally “eternal” is the only leg that the doctrine of the eternally burning hell stands upon. Most of the discussion below is over this one word. You will find that there are lexicons and Greek scholars who explain that the word “aionios” can refer to something eternal or something lasting merely for an undefined yet finite period of time. You will also see biblical and extra-biblical Greek sources where the word “aionios” is used to refer to something that is finite, not eternal. Yes, some lexicons and scholars argue that the word means literally and exclusively “eternal,” but their view is contradicted by actual uses of the word in Greek literature, as well as other scholars and lexicons. It is unwise to construct a doctrine upon one verse. It is very unwise to construct a doctrine that rests upon one interpretation of one word of one verse, a word whose meaning is disputed among scholars.
OK, well that’s my assessment of the situation, but don’t take my word for it. Read the dialogue below and see what you think. SR is me. TJB is a friend who believes in the eternally conscious hell doctrine.
TJB: To say that the eternality expressed in Matthew 25 and Daniel 12 for heaven is to be understood differently than the eternality of hell is to use an improper hermeneutic – one that presupposes that God doest really mean what He says. The argument is a double edged sword. Based on these verses, either hell is eternal in the same way heaven is eternal, OR heaven isn’t really eternal at all, but merely for “a set length of time.” A proper hermeneutic requires us to interpret the word for eternity in the same way both times in each respective verse – either they are both eternal in the same way or they are both limited in the same way.
SR: Tyler, I disagree with your argument that using the same relative adjective next to two different nouns implies the same quantification of the adjective. If I say “I am going to give you either a large hamburger or a large grenade” you don…’t assume they’re the same size even though I used the same adjective. “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” This can be rephrased as “then they will go away to endure a punishment for a complete time period, and the righteous will inherit life for a complete time period.” The adjective modifying the word “life” and the word “punishment” (complete time period) is an ambiguous word. Since it’s ambiguous, to quantify the time period for each we have to go to the rest of the scripture, and the Bible provides abundant evidence. There’s no reason in the verse to assume it’s the same time period, and there’s certainly tons of verses outside of that verse to assume they’re different time periods.
But even if the Greek was firm that the punishment is a literal forever punishment, I’m ok with that, because the consequences of the punishment are indeed eternal. The Greek word for punishment there means “to cut off” as in pruning a branch. Once cut off (i.e. punished/destroyed), there’s no reversing it. It’s an eternal punishment. Viewed this way, the duration can be seen as equivalent to the eternal nature of the eternal life of the righteous. I’m comfortable with either approach because they both harmonize with the rest of scripture. However, viewing the punishment as an eternal punishING experience that never ends is not consistent with the rest of scripture.
TJB: I am not proposing that the two adjectives have the same quantification, however I am saying that they must refer to the same ASPECT of the noun.
In your exa…mple, I wouldn’t think that the cheeseburger is large in its size while the grenade is large in its destructive force, I would assume you were giving me a large sized cheeseburger and a large sized grenade.
In the same way, these two identical adjectives are referring to the same aspect of the nouns which they are describing – their longevity. Its not the longevity of the life but the irreversibleness of the punishment, but rather the longevity of the life and the longevity of the punishment.
SR: ”I will give you a long banana or I will give you a long baseball bat.
“I will give you long life or I will give you a long vacation.”
Varying longevity, same adjective.
TJB: Agreed! But they still both deal with the same aspect of the description – the longevity. You don’t think that the life will be long but the vacation will be enjoyable, you think both will be for a long time.
It’s not the length of eternal life but the finality of the punishment. It’s the length of the life in exactly the same WAY as the length of the punishment. Additionally, we’re not merely saying long life, we are saying eternal – and eternal punishment. They are both eternal in exactly the same way.
SR: I didn’t follow that. Let me try it this way: “I will give you a long life in heaven or a long dentist appointment.” Both use the same adjective, an ambiguous adjective dealing with longevity (just like aion), but you don’t assume that the length is the same for each.
TJB: Okay I re-read what I said. Let me re-state to clarify, because I realize that how I phrased what I said is incredibly confusing. Also I realize I’m beginning to split hairs, so allow me to take a step back and deal with the big picture.
The… adjective form of aion, aionios, is used here to describe the never-endingness of both the life for those in Christ and the punishment for the wicked who have not put their faith in Him. It is improper to interpret aionios in the first sense to be forever or never-ending or eternal but to interpret the same word in regards to the punishment to mean irreversible or complete. Now let’s deal with the definition of aion. While it is true that aion can refer to an age, that is not its only, or most common biblical definition. It means forever or eternal.
2 Cor 4 – The things that are unseen are not temporary but eternal
Rom 16:26 – God is the “aioniou theou” the eternal God
Eph 3:11 – God’s eternal purpose
1 Tim 1:17 – The eternal King
Heb 9:14 – The eternal Spirit
1 Pet 5:10 – God’s eternal glory
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon sheds important light on the subject as well, defining aionios as being “that without beginning or end, that which has always been and always will be.”
So. Getting to the big picture. How should we translate anionios zoe and anionios kolasis? The most commonly used definition and the most likely definition is eternal, forever, un-ending life and eternal un-ending punishment.
Now let’s take a look at kolasis. It’s completely true that kolasis has its roots in agriculture! It originally meant to prune or to cut away. But like all words, they did not remain to be understood based on their etymology. Much like when we say something is hysterical, we mean it is funny. The origin of the word, though, has to do with a neurotic medical condition rooted in women’s uterus. After all, thats what hystericus means, “of the womb.” Kolasis means simply punishment. The interesting thing about kolasis is that it is not the only Greek word for punishment. Another very popular word for punishment in the koine Greek was timoria.
According to Thayer’s Lexicon, Aristotle has a historically noted definition of kolasis in contrast to timoria. “Aristotle [...] distinguishes kolasis from timoria as that which (is disciplinary and) has reference to him who suffers, while the latter (is penal and) has reference to the satisfaction of him who inflicts.”
In other words, the specific word Jesus chose to describe the punishment of the wicked in Matthew 25:46 has deep connotations of suffering.
It is completely clear within the context of the verse that the sheep will go away into eternal, un-ending, never-ceasing, life forever, while by contrast the goats will go away into eternal, un-ending, never ceasing, suffering punishment forever.
SR: So your argument is that since most of the time in the New Testament the word is used to mean eternal, that we can conclude it means eternal in this instance? Wouldn’t it have to be unanimous rather than just most of the time?
There’s a major bias in Thayer’s definition; the fact is that the word means simpl…y “a period of time.” Here’s a more honest assessment of the word aionios from the Christian Apologitics and Research Ministry (they’re coming from your perspective): “The Greek word that is translated into eternal is greek aionion”aionion.” It comes from the Greek root “aion” meaning “age.” This fact combined with the various uses of Greek words derived from the root “aion,” are what the universalists use to attempt to show that “aionion” does not always mean “eternal” but can refer to a finite period of time. The truth is, they are right. It can be translated into a temporal sense as it is in Rom. 16:25: “Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages (aionios1) past.”
I’ll translate the verse into our language to help us think cl;early about it. “Then they will go away to punishment for a time period and the righteous to life for a time period.” CLEARLY, the modifier “a time period” does NOT have to be the same length as applied to the life and the punishment, but rather, going from the context, the word being modified will give us the essential clue as to the particular quantity of each modifier. As in my example before, a “long” dentist appointment versus a “long” life in heaven leads the reader to assume the life in heaven is eternal, but the dentist appointment is finite, maybe a couple hours. Applying this to Matthew 25:46. What do we know from the rest of the Bible about the fate/punishment of the wicked? We know dentist appointments are finite, and we also know that the punishment of the wicked is finite. We have to take the whole of scripture, particularly unambiguous passages, not just this one verse with an ambiguous modifier. I guess we can start here on the destiny of the wicked; Rather than eternal existence in hell…
* They will be ashes and stubble (Mal 4:1-3)
* Neither root nor branch will be left (Mal 4:1-3)
* They will be no more (Ps 37:10)
* They will vanish like smoke (Ps 37:20)
* They will perish (Ps 37:20)
* They will be burned up like chaff (Matt 3:11-12)
* They will be stubble (Is 47:14)
* The soul will be “destroyed in hell” (Matt 10:28)
* Their destiny is destruction (Phil 3:19)
* They will be devoured by the fire (Rev 20:9)
* Sin pays its wage, and its wage is death (Rom 6:23)
* The soul will die (Ez 18:20)
* The opposite of eternal life is to perish (John 3:16)
* Everything will melt with fervent heat (2 Peter 3:12-13)
* The fire of God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29)
* They will melt like wax (Ps 68:2)
* They will be blown away like smoke (Ps 68:2)
Now, of course, it is true that some will live in the flames for eternity. Isaiah 33:14-15 asks the question we’re asking, which is about dwelling in the fire. Isaiah asks, “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” The Bible’s answer surprises those who have heard the popular teaching on hell. Most of us would say the wicked dwell in the everlasting burning. The Bible says the following are those who will live in the eternal fires for eternity: “Those who walk righteously and speak what is right” are those who dwell in the consuming fire, the everlasting burning. It is the righteous, not the wicked, who will live forever in the fire. So, yes, the Bible says there will be a group of people who are eternally conscious in the fire; but it is not the wicked, it is the righteous.
TJB: Scott, here is Strong’s Lexicon’s definition of aionios, “perpetual (also used of past time, or past and future as well):–eternal, for ever, everlasting, world (began)” — Strong’s Lexicon is the “Mirriam-Webster” of the Greek language.
The…re is no bias in Thayer’s definition.
The problem is, in Matthew 25, the word being used is not the noun, aion, it is the pronoun aionios. Sure the root word, the noun, aion, can also mean “an age” but the actual word being used here, aionios, can only mean eternal.
So we’re not talking about a “long dentist appointment and a long life in heaven.” We are talking about an ETERNAL dentist appointment and an eternal life in heaven.
In response to the list of verses that you used, I will go through and take a look at each one in context, but how much of these verses you are listing could be describing the first death?
Also, if Jesus intended to say “a period of time” like you interpreted it, he would have used the word chronos meaning “a space of time.” He didn’t. He used the word meaning eternal. Not “long”
SR: I believe Strong’s also has a bias. Does the word mean eternal in Romans 16:25? Clearly not. If it doesn’t mean eternal 100% of the time that it’s used then the door is left open for the word to have other meanings. Again, the Evangelica…l Apologetics and Research Ministry, who believe as you do about hell, admit that the word means eternal OR an undetermined amount of time. For your view to stand, you have to show that 100% of the uses of the word refer to eternal, and it’s just not the case. If the noun form of the word means a period of time, then the adjective form also means that; how is the word completely changing meaning by changing the form of the word?
It’s not the first death that those verses are referring to, because they describe the fate of the wicked versus that of the righteous. The righteous experience the first death also.
You’ve insisted that the word unambiguously means eternal, and we could continue to debate how different Greek scholars define a particular word. We’ll find disagreement out there among scholars, which leaves the jury out on Matthew 25:46 …for now. I’ve shown that some on your side of the fence believe the word to mean a period of time, so I don’t see how you’re so certain, but I think we’ve covered that verse; I believe it’s debatable enough to make it unwise to build a doctrine upon. Moving on to those other verses, I want to challenge you to take the Bible as it reads, which is something I know you believe in doing. The Bible does not say the wicked can or will live in the everlasting fires, but it explicitly states that only the righteous will live in the fire. Nowhere does the Bible say the wicked are immortal and live forever in hell, but it explicitly states that they are mortal and will die, perish, be destroyed, etc. And the Bible explicitly states that the righteous, not the wicked, will put on immortality and live in the fire for eternity. You said you’d look at those scriptures, so I’ll be quiet and listen. =)
OK, I lied, I have to say a couple more things. =) Sorry to continue the discussion on Matthew 25, but a few thoughts…
First, Hebrews 6:2 is a good parallel to the Matthew verse that might help us understand Matthew 25:46. It refers to …the “eternal” judgment, just as Matthew refers to the “eternal” punishment (both use aionios). I don’t think anybody believes that judgment day lasts for eternity, therefore we have to interpret the “aionios” in Heb 6:2 as one of the following ways: 1) either the judgment scene lasts for an “age”, for a time period until complete. Or 2) judgment day has literally eternal CONSEQUENCES even thought the experience of the judgment scene is not literally eternal. Approaching Matthew 25:46 the same way would make sense.
Also Hebrews 9:12 refers to the “eternal” redemption. But we’re not going to be experiencing continual redemption for eternity. We will be the redeemed (past tense) living in the kingdom perfectly restored. So here again we see the use of “aionios” to refer to eternal consequences rather than an eternal experience. Here we can see how Matthew 25:46 can mean that the consequences of the “cutting-off”/ “punishment” (Kolasis) are eternal, but the experience of it is not unending.
And I looked up in the Septuagint (the O.T. translation into Greek shortly before the time of Jesus) how the word “aionios” is used and we find additional examples of the word being used in reference to something that is not literally eternal (e.g. the hills and the levitical priesthood system.) I was also planning to scour other ancient Greek literature to see how the word is used, but just a couple examples show that the Strong’s/Thayers’ definition of the word is incomplete, and clearly the word can be used to describe something of limited duration, just as the noun form of the word, aion.
TJB: Matt Slick is a brilliant apologist but hardly a Greek or Hebrew scholar who has devoted his life to the studies of the Biblical languages…like the… scholars who actually developed lexicons…you can’t just dismiss everyone who disproves your point as having a bias – especially when every lexicon points to the same conclusion.
In response to your question, YES they do mean different things in the different forms of the word. Its a poor hermeneutic to always go back to the root word in order to give definition in a verse.
In response to the Hebrews passage, the greek word for judgement is krimatos. Strongs defines krimatos as meaning damnation or condemnation. In that way, its completely proper to add a third definition to your list: 3) the condemnation is eternal. Based on the original language, I am confident that this is the most proper way to interpret the passage and the way intended by the writer of Hebrews.
In discussion of the Hebrews 9:12, as you see from both the Thayer’s and the Strong’s definition of aionios, it can mean perpetual, having no beginning. In that way, or redemption is eternal, having no beginning, since we know from Revelation 13:8 that our names were written in the Lamb’s book of life from before the foundations of the earth.
Thus your logic does not follow to Matthew 25:46 dealing with the “consequences” of the kolasis.
SR: And the hills and the levitical priesthood were eternal?
I’m not dismissing those that disagree, but I’m showing actual examples of how their definition is incomplete. Let’s do a survey of Greek scholars and see what they think. Question…: is it true or false that while aion can mean eternal or finite, the descriptive form of the word, aionios, means exclusively eternal ?
Your response to Hebrews 6:2 is plausible and is consistent with your view, (although, it doesn’t jive with the list of verses we’ve yet to discuss). However, I think your interpretation of Hebrews 9:12 is weak, because the passage talks about Jesus having obtained something new; while it’s true that our redemption was in the mind of God for eternity past, the writer of Hebrews is not talking about that this context; he’s talking about the historical events of Jesus in a temporal sense. Our redemption was attained at the cross and will be completed at the resurrection; eternal redemption – eternal consequences following a completed event.
“In response to your question, YES they do mean different things in the different forms of the word. Its a poor hermeneutic to always go back to the root word in order to give definition in a verse.” I understand that the meaning of words sometimes changes as they evolve and new words are formed out of old. But this is not that kind of a situation. It’s simply the descriptive form of the noun. The word aion is “time period (eternal or finite)”, so the word aionios literally just means “for the length of an aion.”
TJB: Also Romans 16:25 falls under the same interpretation of aionios – perpetual without beginning.
SR: Regarding Romans 16:25, I don’t think it was kept hidden before the fall, do you?
How about the Septuagint? Levites? Hills?
TJB: In regards to the Septuagint, I understand that you are pointing to how the Greek words are used, but I have a lot of trouble commenting on a translation of a translatio…n. It’s like me using the Latin Vulgate in a hermeneutic argument in the NT. It’s not something that you would do. Always go to the Hebrew.
Regarding Romans 16:25, yes it absolutely was. Do you think that the gospel message of redemption from sin was revealed before sin even entered into the picture????
SR: I think you misunderstood why I brought up the Septuagint. It’s not in pursuit of the truth of the Hebrew, it’s just to show the meaning of Greek words by seeing how they’re used in ancient Greek literature.
Romans 16:25 doesn’t say redemption from sin. It says obedience that comes from faith. I believe the good news about a life of obedience and trust in God existed before sin, yes.
Schleusner’s lexicon defines aionios as “a definite and long period of time, that is, a long enduring, but still definite period of time,” adding this: “Duration determined by the subject to which it is applied.”
So, study out the subject in the rest of the Bible to determine the meaning of aionios in Matt 25:46.
I realized I was a little confusing above, when I said that the descriptive form of the noun will inevitably have the same meaning as the noun. So here’s a good example. Noun: “sweetness”, Descriptive form of the noun: “sweet.” They have the same essential meaning; they’re two forms of the same word. Same with aion and aionios.
A few more uses of the Greek word aionios where it means something other than eternal:
Plato also uses the term aionios to refer to something of finite duration, namely, “aionios intoxication” where souls temporarily go and then return to ea…rth.
Jeremiah 18:16 where it says “again and again” (in reference to people making fun of a wicked land) is rendered by the Greek Septuagint as “aionios.”
It’s also used to refer to the ordinances of the Mosaic law. (i.e. “an ordinance forever” or a “forever-ordinance” or ‘eternal’ ordinance). These came to an end. Same with the possession of Canaan. And Solomon’s temple. (Numbers 10:8, Lev 24:8-9, 1 Chron 17:12)
Already mentioned the levitical priests and the hills. It’s very common.
Also see: Gen. 9:12-16; Gen. 17i:8,13,19; and Num. 25:13; Ex. 12i:14,17; 27:21; 28:43; 29:28; 30:21; 31:16,17; Lev. 6:18,22; 7:34,36; 10:15; 16:29,31,34; 17:7; 23:14,31,41; Num. 10:8; 15:15; 18:8,11,19,23; 29:10,21; II Sam. 23:5; I Chron. 16:17; Isa. 24:5; Ezek. 16:60; Jer. 6:16; 18:15; Job 21:11; 22:15; Ezek. 26:20; Prov. 27:28; 28:10; Ezek. 36:2; 35:5; Jer. 5:22; 18:16; 25:9,12; Ezek. 35:9; Jer. 20:17; 23:40; Micah 2:9.
Also, we haven’t even really talked about the Hebrew word for everlasting. You cited Daniel 12:2 as evidence of literally eternally burning hell. The Hebrew word for “everlasting” in that word CLEARLY refers to things that are not everlasting.
Josephus and Philo also use the Greek word in its finite sense.
Sorry about the multiple posts. Some new insight on Romans 16:25… the KJV renders it “since the world began.” The mystery was hidden for earth’s inhabitants for 6000 years. Not literally eternal.
TJB: Scott, talked with Dave (Greek teacher). He said that aionious and aion are two completely different words. Aionions, according to him, means eternal or perpetual.
I brought up with him that aion can mean age. He explained to me that the Jewish understandin…g of ages is that there is the age up until this point, and the age perpetually afterwards (with no definite end point). So even if the word aion were used and not aionious, it still would not mean a period of time with a definite end.
He also made the point that aionious is used often to describe God. So, is God just the god of this age or a specific length of time? Curious.
In response to the ordinance forever…interesting that you brought that up. While in Israel I became good friends with a Philly-born Messianic Jew who lives in Jew-rusalem (as he calls it) :D named Steve Ben-Yishai. Steve holds a PhD in Comparative Religions of the Trans-Jordanian Region and believes whole-heartedly that every “perpetual ordinance” is just that for the Jews! That for Jews (not Gentiles) these must still be held to as eternal (given his understanding of the Hebrew language and the Jewish understanding of the eternality of these commands!!)
SR: I’m not suggesting that EVERY use of aionios is finite, but that the word allows for either infinite or finite. The word when applied to God clearly means eternal. The word when applied to something else will have another meaning, which I’ve shown above.
So the Jews are going to be killing lambs for eternity in heaven?
Here’s an email exchange with a Greek professor friend of a friend.
Me: “I’m in a discussion about Matthew 25:46 (“eternal punishment”) and the argument has been made that while “aion” can mean a finite period of time, “aionios” must mean …infinitely eternal. Strong’s and Thayers’ back that claim up. But it makes no sense to me that the adjective form of the word would anything other than derive its meaning entirely from the noun form. What is the consensus out there among Greek scholars on this and what’s your opinion?
Greek Prof: The adjective derives its meaning from the noun, and the noun from the verb. So you are perfectly correct on that. In Matt. 25:46 the adjective is use attributive, meaning it attributes a characteristic to the noun punishment/life. But the meaning is not changed because it is an adjective. As you correctly state the noun shows to mean also a finite period of time (Exodus 21:6).
TJB: I wasn’t saying that you don’t interpret the word within the context of the sentence as the Prof is saying. He is not stating (as I read it) that the adjective aionious derives its meaning from the noun aion, but rather that the adjective a…ionious derives its interpretation from the noun kolasis.
I guess given the circumstances I don’t know how else to bring it to the table. I’ve offered the consensus view from Lexicons, I’ve offered conservative unbiased opinion on the definition of aionious without bringing into question the debate at hand until after the expert opinion was laid out, while I don’t believe in “agreeing to disagree” it has come to my attention that this argument may have dwindled into futility. Neither of us is clearly going to be swayed.
I appreciate, as always, you undaunted quest for Truth and pray that God blesses you in it!
SR: I’m pretty certain he’s saying that adjective aionios derives it meaning from the noun aion, since that’s the question I posed. I’ll clarify with him. Yeah, I think we can wrap it up on a very extensive discussion on one Greek word, lol. … I’ve also cited a credible lexicon whose author is coming from your point of view, a Greek prof, an apologist from your point of view, many primary source examples-scriptural and extra-biblical of the use of aionios as referring to something finite. After discussing and further digging I’m much more convinced of the position I see as the correct one; I agree, it seems we’re both pretty firmly in our camps, but it’s a good dialogue to get all the evidence and reasoning out there for folks to read.
I also appreciate your thirst for understanding!
While I feel a high level of certitude on the matter, I suspect that many objective observers of this conversation would conclude that there is considerable, legitimate debate over this particular word, and would thus conclude that it would be imprudent to use this verse to construct a doctrine.
Clarification from above:
Me: Wow, thanks for the quick reply! When you said the adjective derives its meaning from the noun you were referring to aionios (adjective) and aion (noun), correct?
Greek Prof: Yes.