What is the purpose of punishment? Any parent knows the answer to that question. The purpose of punishment is to change behavior. At least, that is how a loving parent uses punishment. What would be the purpose of never-ending punishment? It serves no purpose, other than perhaps revenge. But even if we accepted revenge as a valid motivation for punishment, wouldn't eternal torture--even as the consequence for a lifetime of sin--be overkill on an infinite scale? Does that
punishment fit the crime? Does it sound like a product of the God who told Moses "...eye for eye, tooth for tooth..."? Does it sound like a product of the Son of God who told us to love and forgive our enemies?
In the Old Testament, when we see the words "forever" or "everlasting", it is usually a translation of the Hebrew word olam
. But olam
does not actually mean "forever" or "everlasting". Olam literally means "a period of time whose length is hidden". Thus, when Jonah says he "...went down to the bottoms of the mountains, the earth with her bars was about me forever [olam]: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God." (2:6), we know that "forever" was three days in the belly of the fish. In 2 Kings 5:27 Elisha pronounced that the leprosy of Naaman would cleave to Gehazi "forever" [olam]. Does this mean Gehazi is still wandering around as a leper somewhere? Or did olam
refer to the span of Gehazi's natural life? Isaiah 32:14 says (in reference to Jerusalem being threatened by the Assyrians and destined to eventually fall to the Babylonians) that Israel will be a desolate wilderness "forever" [olam], yet the next sentence says "Until the Spirit be poured upon you from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field..." How can "forever" only be "until"? There are many more examples like this in the Hebrew scriptures, which make it clear that olam
meant "a period of time whose length is hidden."
When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the word olam
translated as the Greek word aidios
--which means "of endless duration"--but instead as aion
. Like olam
(and its derivatives, aionios
) refers to a period of time of indeterminate length. Milligan & Moulton, in their Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, define aionios
as "A state wherein the horizon is not in view." That is very different from "forever"--something which has no end. Strangely though, in the King James translation the word aion
(and its derivatives) is translated seven different ways: age, world, course, eternal, ever, for evermore, forever and ever. What is interesting about this inconsistent usage is that an "age" refers to a finite segment of time with a beginning and end, whereas "forever" is the opposite--infinite! How can one word mean both? The very fact that we use two English words, finite and infinite, indicates the difference.
When Jesus told His disciples He would be with them "to the end of the aion" (Matthew 28:20), He did not mean the end of forever (since forever is without end) but to the end of the age--a finite period of time of indeterminate duration. In this case, Jesus said He would be with the disciples while they were doing the work He was commissioning them to do.
When Paul spoke in Romans (16:25) of "the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages [aionios] past..." It wouldn't have made sense to translate Paul's statement as "long forevers past". Here are some other examples of Paul using the words
aion/aionios/aionion to mean "age" (a finite period of time of indeterminate length): Romans 12:2, Romans 16:25-26, 1 Corinthians 1:20, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, 1 Corinthians 10:11, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Galatians 1:4, Ephesians 1:21, Ephesians 2:2, Ephesians 3:9, 2 Timothy 4:10. In each of these cases (and many others I didn't list for the sake of brevity), to translate aion/aionios/aionion as "eternal" or "forever" would be absurd.
At the beginning of Matthew 24, Jesus and his disciples are discussing the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus says to them, “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (we know from history that what Jesus spoke came to pass in 70 AD). The disciples then ask, "When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age [aion]?” Notice that, in most Bibles, aion
is here translated as "age", since "the end of forever" wouldn't make any sense. Notice also that the disciples are equating the destruction of the Temple with the "coming" (parousia
in Greek, which is better translated as "presence") of Jesus with the "end of the age". Jesus then goes into a lengthy apocalyptic discourse which takes up all of chapters 24 and 25. He tells the disciples what will happen to them and what they will see. He speaks of false Messiahs, of "wars and rumors of wars", of earthquakes and famine, of persecution, of the temple being desecrated, of the necessity to flee from Jerusalem at the appropriate time and of a cataclysm so great it will be like the sun and moon going dark and the stars falling from the sky (in saying this, He is quoting from Isaiah 13
which was a prediction of the fall of Babylon which occurred in 539 BC). The "age" that Jesus speaks of as nearing its end is the age of the Jewish Temple system. This was a monumental event in Jewish history--at the time it occurred (70 AD) it was the worst thing that had ever happened to the Jewish people, with the possible exception of the previous destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC (the magnitude of the events of 70 AD and 135 AD would later be overshadowed by the Holocaust). Please see my post Hell, Part 4
for a quick overview of the events of 70 AD. We know from history that the things Jesus predicted (including false Messiahs, wars, earthquakes and famines) actually did occur leading up to 70 AD.
During His discourse in Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus used several analogies about people being divided into two groups: Wise vs. wicked servants; wise vs. foolish maidens; servants who invest wisely vs. servants who invest badly; and finally, at the end of Matthew 25, sheep vs. goats. By speaking of separating sheep and goats (and especially in the context of a discourse which started on the topic of the destruction of the Temple), Jesus's hearers (and the original Jewish readers of the Gospels) would have understood this as a reference to Ezekiel 34. Ezekiel 34 was written about the fall of Jerusalem (and destruction of the Temple) in 586 BC at the hands of the Babylonians. Here are a few excerpts:
"Woe to the shepherds of Israel [the leaders] who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally...This is what the Sovereign Lords says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves...I myself will search for my sheep and look after them...As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet? Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken."
In Ezekiel's prophecy, God is first speaking out against the religious leaders of Israel for oppressing and exploiting the people. Then he addresses the people (the "sheep") directly and says he will judge between them (the way a shepherd separates desirable sheep from undesirable). Some sheep have grown fat by pushing the weaker sheep away. The strong sheep have plundered the weak and, after drinking clear water for themselves, have soiled it for everyone else. The fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians was a judgement upon those wicked sheep and wicked shepherds.
In Jesus' parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46), He defines what the criteria is for separating the good from the wicked. It has to do with taking care of those in need:
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
Here and elsewhere, Jesus spoke out strongly against the religious leaders of His day--and against the Temple system--for oppressing and exploiting the poor and powerless(and in those days, 95% of the people were poor and powerless).
Jesus's reference to the sheep and goats is not a reference to "Final Judgement" and to Heaven and Hell. If it were, then it would be teaching that one gets into Heaven not by accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior but by doing good deeds! But the parable occurs within the discourse that began way back at Matthew 24:3 with the question about when the Temple would be destroyed. What has caused confusion about the meaning of this parable is that Jesus concludes it by saying that the wicked "will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (25:46).
When Jesus speaks here of "eternal punishment", the word translated as "eternal" is the Greek word aionion
. As we have seen, aionion
means "a period of time of indeterminate length." The word translated as "punishment" is the Greek word kolasin
(sometimes rendered kolasis
comes from the classical Greek word kolazo
which means, literally, "to prune". If you have ever pruned rose bushes or fruit trees, you know what the purpose of pruning is. Thus, kolasin
carries the idea of correction or chastisement in order to bear fruit. It is punishment with the goal of bringing forth life. Aristotle, in his Book I on Rhetoric (1, 10, 17) clearly states that kolasis/kolasin
is corrective and is intended to benefit the one to whom the punishment is applied. Thus, Jesus's words about "aionios kolasin
" can be understood to refer to a time of correction for a positive and redemptive purpose. Perhaps Paul had this understanding of redemptive punishment in mind when he spoke of the work of our lives being revealed with fire: "...and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames." (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).
What Jesus was very specifically speaking about was a span of time which would be understood to be a severe punishment from God. A separation would occur. While many would suffer rejection and chastisement, others would experience life. Each group would attribute their fortune, or misfortune, to God. The events which unfolded from the time of Jesus's resurrection through to 70 AD and even to 135 AD were certainly perceived in this way.
Years later, some early Christian theologians--who were Gentiles and distanced from the events of 70 AD--believed that Jesus was also speaking of a time of post-mortem judgment where some would experience an "age" of remedial punishment while others would immediately experience life. These early Church Fathers were Greek speakers and understood the meaning of aion/aionios/aionion
. Their interpretation echoes back to the debates between Hillel and Shammai about how long the wicked would have to spend in Gehenna before being released and resurrected. Much later, Latin speaking theologians, such as Augustine, interpreted the parable of the sheep and goats as speaking of a final judgement and eternal conscious torment in Hell vs. eternal life in Heaven.
The Greek language is nuanced. There is one other interesting feature of the words aion/aionios/aionion
: They take on different shades of meaning depending on what they refer to. The aion
of a man's life is different from the aion
of an empire. This is similar to the way we use the word "tall". A tall
child is not the same as a tall
building. God has revealed Himself as being outside of time. God identified Himself as "I am." He is ever present. Both the Psalms (90:4) and 2 Peter (3:8) state that, "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day." This doesn't mean that time runs really slow for God, but that God transcends time. So, when John wrote, "Now this is eternal [aionios] life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.", he was saying that to know God is to enter into God's life here and now
life is God's life. And aionion
punishment is God's punishment. Here and now.
Probably the most detailed and thorough examination of the words aion/aionions/aionion ever undertaken was the work of J.W. Hanson, a 19th Century minister. You can read it here: http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Aion_lim.html
Another Greek word we ought to take a closer look at is apollumi
. In Matthew 7:13, Jesus is quoted as proclaiming "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction [apollumi], and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." Perhaps the most well-known Bible verse of all, John 3:16, states "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [apollumi] but have eternal life."
The meaning of apollumi
seems pretty clear: destruction and death. But take a look at these verses:
Luke 15:3-6 "Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses [apollumi] one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost [apollumi] sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost [apollumi] sheep.’
Luke 15:8-10 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses [apollumi] one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost [apollumi] coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Luke 15:22 "But the father said to his servants, `Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is
alive again; he was lost [apollumi] and is found.' So they began to celebrate."
Jesus gave three parables about lost [apollumi] things: a sheep, a coin and a man. In each case the lost thing was not irrevocably destroyed. The sheep, the coin and the man were lost but--due to the relentless searching of the shepherd, the woman
and the father (all of whom represent God), they were restored.
What if John's intent in 3:16 was to say "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not remain lost [apollumi] but will experience eternal [aionios] life."? Doesn't that have a more immediate flavor? Later in his Gospel, John explains what he means by "eternal life": “This is eternal [aionios] life; that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." (17:3). To know God is to expience the life of God--here and now. John presents eternal life (aionios zoe
) as something that happens during this life. As we enter into Christ, we partake of the life that is in Christ here and now. His life becomes our life--in this aion
and in the aion
What if we re-read Matthew 7:13 in this light? "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that causes one to be lost [apollumi], and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."Apollumi
refers to the idea of something that "is not". This could mean "is not" intact or "is not" alive or "is not" locatable, etc. That brings to my mind Romans 4:17, where Paul refers to "...the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were." When we wander through life lost--not knowing who we are, why we're here or where we're going--we experience great existential pain. We damage ourselves and others. We suffer deeply. But we have the opportunity to enter into God's life during this life (as well as in the life to come)--thus minimizing the damage and pain. We receive clarity, purpose, vision, meaning, redemption, restoration, healing and comfort. In a sense, we have an opportunity to "get in on the ground floor" of experiencing God's presence and God's life right now rather than coming into it later after we've suffered (and inflicted) so much pain and loss and have to deal with the consequences.
It is worth reiterating that the Greek language of the New Testament was a very rich and robust language. There were Greek words which specifically meant eternal
. These words were not chosen by the writers of New Testament.
The misery of wandering through life lost, without God, suffering the consequences of our sin, is very much a reality we experience here and now. The Good News is that Jesus came to rescue us from all that. He offers us life--abundant life--here and now!
I'll close this post with a series of questions:
In the book of Genesis, why did God pronounce Adam's punishment for eating the fruit to be only exile and (eventual) physical death rather than eternal punishment?
In Genesis, why did God pronounce Cain's punishment for murdering Abel to be exile (with a mark of protection) and not eternal punishment?
Why is the entire Old Testament utterly silent about eternal punishment?
Why didn't Peter bring up eternal punishment in his Pentecost speech in Acts 2?
Why isn't Paul recorded as warning of eternal punishment in the Book of Acts, for example when he spoke to the pagans at the Areopagus?
If sin is so horrible to God the he must separate Himself eternally from sinners, why did Jesus (God incarnate) spend so much time with sinners?
Why didn't Paul teach about Hell in any of his epistles?
If God is omniscient, wouldn't He have known prior to ever creating the universe that sin would be such a horrible problem as to require the endless torment of most of the souls He would create?
If a person who led a moral life (such as Gandhi) but never accepted Christ will suffer for eternity in Hell and the person who led an extremely wicked life (say, Hitler or Stalin) will also suffer for eternity in Hell, where is the justice?
Based on this "all or nothing" logic, if I'm a sinner destined for Hell, I might as well go all the way and commit the most heinous crimes imaginable, since the end-result will be the same!
Where does it say in scripture that as soon as one dies the opportunity to accept Christ is rescinded? (Hint: Nowhere)
If God is omnibenevolent (all good), would He want all people to freely accept Christ?
If God is omniscient (all knowing), would He know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ?
If God is omnipotent (all powerful), could He cause all people to freely accept Christ?To Part 7To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents