Q&R with Brad Jersak – “Eternal Punishment”? Oh, those goats
How does Matthew 25:31-46 not contradict the grace and mercy of God and God’s desire that all shall be saved?
- 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…. 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Thanks for this important and well-stated question. In response, I think it best to start with how they DO, in fact, contradict a number of key New Testament passages, including from the lips of Jesus, IF we follow translations that use “everlasting punishment” or “eternal punishment.”
For example, we might ask how Matthew 25 could possibly align with these beautiful promises:
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
Indeed, these texts are just a sample of 32 Scriptures that “dare us to hope,” posted in Winter 2016 CWR magazine HERE:
That raises the thorny question: how can Jesus Christ claim BOTH that he will draw ALL people to himself as Savior of ALL AND that he will send some away to “eternal punishment.” That doesn’t compute.
What we certainly cannot deny is that Jesus repeatedly issues dire warnings of a forthcoming judgment when all people will face the meaning of their lives in the presence of God. There’s no escaping his many references to those who will undergo the “Refiners Fire” (see Malachi 3:1-5, Mark 9:47-50, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15).
But it is important to note that in these cases, the judgment, while thorough and severe, is not treated as “eternal punishment”… it seems to be pedagogical, purifying, and most of all, restorative–which implies that it cannot be eternal. In that sense, all of the judgments of God have as their aim the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21) and reconciliation of all people (Colossians 1:19-20) so that everything is gathered up in Christ (Ephesians 1:8-10), who will deliver the cosmos and all that is in it to his Father, so that God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:25-28).
In other words, the judgments of God are not co-eternal for the wicked alongside the eternal life of the saints. Rather, for the “all are included” texts to be true, the judgment texts must refer to a universal judgment prior to and completed before the final victory of God. That is, the judgment texts are consecutive … “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13) means judgment is surely coming (God’s penultimate act)… but it is a precursor (and even a necessary means) to God’s ultimate act: the triumph of the Savior of the world.
Matthew 25 – “Eternal Punishment”?
In that scheme, where does Matthew 25 fit? How can Jesus speak of “eternal punishment”? Much ink has been spilled debating the translation of those words in recent years. For a very thorough and nuanced examination, I would refer you to an article titled “Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever” by my friend, Aiden Kimel. But for the sake of brevity, I can summarize the issues.
First, this is not a new issue and my response is merely an echo of Clement of Alexandria, who led a theological school (traditionally founded by Mark) about 100 years after the completion of the New Testament. Greek was also his first language, so he knew the type of issues this text had raised.
Cyril addresses the two words in question, often translated “eternal punishment.”
“Eternal” seems to be a theologically hell-biased translation of the Greek word, aiónios, which is the adjectival form of the noun aión (age, eon, era, epoch). What we discover is that the Bible uses that word in three different ways. Aión can relate to:
- a specific era or age of limited length (however long), like when we speak of the “stone age.” Here, aiónios is definite, with a beginning and end.
- an age that extends past the horizon of time, which might be forever or just beyond our vision. Here, aiónios is indefinite but not specifically eternal, and in any case, relates to time, not eternity.
- eternity, in some cases… possibly. But aiónios does not necessitate that translation, and if rendering it that way contradicts Jesus’ or Paul’s anticipation of ultimate redemption, it must not be translated that way in this chapter.
So when Matthew uses the adjective aiónios for the coming judgment, a more careful and conservative translation would identify it as “the judgment of the age” [to come]or the judgment that initiates the age [to come].
In either case, remember that if the age to come is an age (or even ages) long, after that, Paul says, Christ’s victory will bring about the “end of the ages,” when God there is no more death, no more enemies, no more judgment, and “God is all in all.” As I said, it’s consecutive.
Now, back to Cyril. He takes on that second word, “punishment,” from the Greek word kolasis. His explanation is very simple: kolasis means correction, not punishment. If Matthew had wanted to translate Jesus’ Aramaic words to say “punishment,” he could have and would have used the Greek word for that: timoria. But he doesn’t. He chooses a word that is restorative rather than retributive because God’s heart is to restore, not to destroy, and certainly not to torture without reprieve or redemption. David Bentley Hart’s translation uses the word “chastisement,” aligning with the theology of Hebrews 12, where all judgments are expressions of a loving Father whose corrections are remedial.
If Cyril and Kimel and Hart are right, and I believe they are, then Matthew 25 would not contradict the hopeful passages above. It would be an example of how God will save even those who have been cold and calloused to the poor, the sick, the prisoner… but through the fiery correction of divine love. The goats are dismissed, not to everlasting torture, but to a period of rehabilitation.
I hope this is of some help.