Surprised by Hell: Eternal Punishment

The favorite proof text of the everlasting-torment position is Matt 25:46 —

(Mat 25:46) “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

As I’ve previously noted, “eternal” translates aionios, the adjective form of aion, meaning age and being the root of the English eon or aeon.

The question thus becomes whether aionios necessarily means “everlasting,” and it certainly can. But it can also mean “with everlasting effect.”

Consider —

(Mark 3:29) “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”

Does “eternal” mean “sin that is everlasting” here? Consider the parallel in Luke —

(Luke 12:10) And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

Luke defines “eternal sin” as “will not be forgiven,” not “will be tortured in perpetuity.” The sin is “eternal” because its effects will last forever.

Next consider —

(Heb 6:1-2) Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

“Judgment” is over and over referred to in scriptures as an event. Now, it’s plainly an event with consequences that last forever, but the judging happens and is over.

Similar is —

(Heb 9:12) He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.

To “redeem” is to pay a ransom. The saved had their ransom paid when Jesus died. The effect lasts forever. The event didn’t last nearly so long.

Therefore, “eternal” can refer to everlasting consequences of the noun modified. Clearly, “eternal punishment,” in parallel with “eternal sin,” “eternal judgment,” and “eternal redemption,” can refer to punishment with consequences that last forever, that is, punishment by death.

Fudge notes (The Fire that Consumes, p 122 ff) that Matthew 25:46 is parallel with Daniel 12:2 and John 5:29 —

Daniel: awake to everlasting life / awake to shame and everlasting contempt

John: rise to live / rise to be condemned

Matthew: go away to eternal life / go away to eternal punishment

The New Testament theology of the end times derives heavily from Daniel, and the parallels certainly suggest that the consequences of the punishment are everlasting, not the punishment itself.

Here’s another way of looking at it. What’s the antithesis of eternal life? Clearly, eternal death. Hence, “punishment” = “death,” which is, of course, a very common scriptural description of the fate of the damned.

Jesus said “eternal life,” not living eternally. Thus, he is speaking of eternal death, not dying eternally.

“Life” is a gift given at Judgment in the next age to the saved (John 17:2) . Death (or “punishment” ) is the penalty meted out at Judgment in the next age to the lost.

(John 17:2) For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.

“Give” is aorist, meaning there’s a point in time at which God gives the gift of eternal life. The quality of the life is that it doesn’t end. You receive life aionios – for the age.

Just so, death or punishment is given at a single point in time. The quality of this death, unlike the first death, is that it doesn’t end. You receive death aionios – for the age.

Normal human life life is temporary. It’s finite. Like this age, it doesn’t last. But the second life is forever. It’s eternal life.

Normal human death is temporary. It’s finite. Like this age, it doesn’t last. But the second death is forever. It’s eternal punishment.

Does this cinch the case by itself? Certainly not. Rather, the weight of all the evidence must be considered. But Matthew 25:46 certainly doesn’t make the conditionalist position impossible.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Surprised by Hell: Eternal Punishment

  1. Alan says:

    Does this cinch the case by itself? Certainly not.

    Not even close to cinching the case. At best, you've shown that this passage *might* mean what you say. But that's pretty shaky, because in the same sentence Jesus used the same word to describe eternal punishment and eternal life. He was saying the same thing about both.

    I still stand by my original point: It is nonsense for us to talk about something being temporary in a realm where there is no time.

  2. Alan says:

    Just wanted to add the following quote from the Albert Barnes commentary on Matt 25:46:

    The original word – ????????? aionion – is employed in the New Testament 66 times. Of these, in 51 instances it is used of the happiness of the righteous; in two, of God's existence; in six, of the church and the Messiah's kingdom; and in the remaining seven, of the future punishment of the wicked. If in these seven instances we attach to the word the idea of limited duration, consistency requires that the same idea of limited duration should be given it in the 51 cases of its application to the future glory of the righteous, and the two instances of its application to God's existence, and the six eases of its appropriation to the future reign of the Messiah and the glory and perpetuity of the church. But no one will presume to deny that in these instances it denotes unlimited duration, and therefore, in accordance with the sound laws of interpretation and of language itself, the same sense of unlimited duration must be given it when used of future punishment.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    I agree that the two references to "eternal" in Matt 25:46 are parallel (antitheses, actually). Jesus speaks of "eternal punishment" and "eternal life."

    What's the antithesis of eternal life? Clearly, eternal death. Hence, "punishment" = "death," which is, of course, a very common scriptural description of the fate of the damned.

    He said "eternal life," not living eternally. Thus, he is speaking of eternal death, not dying eternally.

    "Life" is a gift given at Judgment in the next age to the saved (John 17:2) . Death (or "punishment" ) is the penalty meted out at Judgment in the next age to the lost.

    (John 17:2) For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.

    "Give" is aorist, meaning there's a point in time at which God gives the gift of eternal life. The quality of the life is that it doesn't end. You receive life aionios — for the age.

    Just so, death or punishment is given at a single point in time. The quality of this death, unlike the first death, is that it doesn't end. You receive death aionios — for the age.

    Normal human life life is temporary. It's finite. Like this age, it doesn't last. But the second life is forever. It's eternal life.

    Normal human death is temporary. It's finite. Like this age, it doesn't last. But the second death is forever. It's eternal punishment.

  4. Kevin says:

    My question through all of this is what is meant by Luke 12:47. Could that mean the duration of time that someone burns in hell. After someone has been in hell for a billion trillion millenniums will God"s wrath STILL abide on them? I know that salvation is real and that Jesus gives LIFE through his death on the cross for eternity, but this is a horrific thought that men. Will burn in fire, away from God, not for. 10 minutes, or 10 days, but for billions and billions of years. Dear Jesus please save me!!!!!

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Kevin,

    Luke 12:47 certainly suggests degrees of punishment. But all the many verses referring to the fate of the damned as "death" or "destruction" must be given their full weight as well. Therefore, I figure Luke 12:47 speaks to the painfulness of the destruction promised. I discuss this at http://oneinjesus.info/2008/08/14/surprised-by-he….

    This post is part of series indexed at http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/s…. You might enjoy the rest of the series.

    Thanks for your comment.

  6. Leon Maiolo says:

    Jesus said fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell fire. Those who refuse to except Jesus sacrifice are destroyed in the lake of fire. Check out my blog. God and eternal punishment.

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