(Mat 25:45-46) “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
(2 Th 1:9-10) They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
Now, notice a couple of things —
First, “everlasting” and “eternal” are the same word in the Greek. Both translate aionios. An aion is an age. Aionios means something like “of the age.” Most of the time, the context causes aionios to mean “of the next age.” And while the next age will last forever, that’s not necessarily the aspect of the next age being referred to.
In the second passage, Paul speaks of aionios destruction. Well, “destruction” doesn’t mean torture. It means, well, destroyed. The same Greek word, olethros, is found in these passages —
(1 Cor 5:4-5) When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
Well, if his Spirit is to be saved, then Paul is hoping he’ll be saved, meaning he wants his sinful nature annihilated, not tortured.
(1 Tim 6:9) People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.
In this passage, olethros is parallel with “ruin” just as “foolish” is parallel with “harmful” and “temptation” is parallel with “trap.” It is clearly being used as synonym for “ruin.”
Now, obviously enough, it’s a contradiction in terms to refer to “everlasting destruction,” other than in the sense that the effect of the destruction is everlasting. If it takes forever to do the destroying, then the person isn’t destroyed. Rather, “aionios destruction” means something like “destruction in the next age,” that is, destroyed at the end of time and so being unable to share in God’s glory.
If this is right, then we have the answer as to Matt 25:46. “Aionios punishment” thus means punishment taking place in the next age, just as “aionios life” (eternal life) means life in the next age. But the nature of that punishment isn’t defined here. We have to find the type of punishment elsewhere.
“Eternal” can refer to a completed action, as in —
(Mark 3:29) But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”
Now, Jesus plainly isn’t saying that this sin is an everlasting sin. Rather, the consequences of the sin will be everlasting. The sin will be with us even into the next age, where it will truly matter. We don’t go on blaspheming forever! Thus, “eternal” does not necessarily refer to the duration of the noun modified. It can refer to the duration of its effect.
None of this proves that aionios punishment can’t mean everlasting punishment. I’ve only shown that other interpretations are possible. Which interpretation is right depends on other passages.
The rich man and Lazarus
There is, of course, one more passage we have to wrestle with, that being the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
(Luke 16:22-31) “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”
Now, “hell” translates haidos, meaning Hades, and refers to the place where the dead live or, more often, the grave. But we’re told that this part of Hades is “torment” and “agony in this fire.” There’s nothing here inconsistent with everlasting torment.
But then, the entire conversation could have taken place in 30 seconds. It’s just as possible that the rich man had been cast into Revelation’s Lake of Fire, was being painfully destroyed, but had not yet suffered utter destruction. In other words, the process of destroying someone separated from God is evidently a painful, agonizing process and not instantaneous.
(Rev 20:12-15) And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Notice that John refers to the lake of fire, surely representative of gehenna, as “the second death.” And surely this means that those who die apart from God die twice, not once. An eternal life of agonizing punishment is nonetheless life. These people are said to die.
(John 8:21) Once more Jesus said to them, “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.”
(James 5:20) remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
(James 1:15) Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
(2 Cor 7:10) Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
(Rom 6:16) Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey — whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?
Now, we’re so used to reading these verses a certain way that we tend to miss the obvious meaning. “Death” is what happens to those apart from God. The saved do not die but have eternal life. Except — in case you haven’t noticed — we all die. Therefore, we aren’t saved from physical death but from eternal death. And those not saved suffer eternal death — that is, they lose their lives, painfully, at the beginning of the new age and so don’t get to live.
Worse yet, they’ll see those who do get to live — such as Lazarus — making their torment all the greater. They will die — a second and utterly complete death — in full awareness of what they’re losing. Or so the theory goes.
Is this right? I’ve not proven the case yet. There are lots more passages to consider.