Matthew 25

Matthew 25 is the primary passage that most evangelical scholars have concluded supports the doctrine of an eternal hell. Other passages have been determined as simply assumptions and through further scrutiny are admitted as shaky evidence for eternal conscious torment. So Matthew 25 seems to be the one that everyone zeros in on to “prove” the existence of an eternal hell. We will start off with this discussion by Professor Thomas Talbott. We will be adding to this page (soon) additional insights to the question of whether Matthew 25 supports the traditional view of eternal punishment of most of humanity (the “goats”).

Here is Thomas Talbott:

Let’s begin with Matthew 25:46 because so many have appealed to this text in support of the following egregiously fallacious argument: If, according to Jesus, eternal life is literally unending life, then eternal punishment must also be unending torment (or at least unending separation from God). We can illustrate the fallacy in such reasoning, moreover, without entering into any controversy concerning the correct translation of the Greek “aionios” (whether, for example, it should be translated as “eternal,” “everlasting,” or simply “age enduring”). So let us simply grant, at least for the sake of argument, whichever of these translations a given person might prefer.

Whatever its correct translation, “aionios” is clearly an adjective and must therefore function like an adjective, and it is the very nature of an adjective for its meaning to vary, sometimes greatly, depending upon which noun it qualifies. For more often than not, the noun helps to determine the precise force of the adjective. As an illustration, set aside the Greek word “aionios” for a moment and consider the English word “everlasting.” I think it safe to say that the basic meaning of this English word is indeed everlasting. So now consider how the precise force of “everlasting” varies depending upon which noun it qualifies. An everlasting struggle would no doubt be a struggle without end, an unending temporal process that never comes to a point of resolution and never gets completed. But an everlasting change, or an everlasting correction, or an everlasting transformation would hardly be an unending temporal process that never gets completed; instead, it would be a temporal process of limited duration, or perhaps simply an instantaneous event, that terminates in an irreversible state. So however popular it might be, the argument that “aionios” must have exactly the same force regardless of which noun it qualifies in Matthew 25:46 is clearly fallacious.

Accordingly, even if we should translate “aionios” with the English word “everlasting,” a lot would still depend upon how we understand the relevant nouns in our text: the nouns “life” (zoe) and “punishment” (kolasis). Now the kind of life in question, being rightly related to God, is clearly an end in itself, even as the kind of punishment in question seems just as clearly to be a means to an end. For as one New Testament scholar, William Barclay, has pointed out, “kolasis” “was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better.” Barclay also claimed that “in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment”–which is probably a bit of a stretch, since the language of correction and the language of retribution often get mixed together in ordinary language. But in any event, if “kolasis” does signify punishment of a remedial or a corrective kind, as I think it does in Matthew 25:46, then we can reasonably think of such punishment as everlasting in the sense that its corrective effects literally endure forever. Or, to put it another way: An everlasting correction, whenever successfully completed, would be a temporal process of limited duration that terminates in the irreversible state of being rightly related to God. Certainly nothing in the context of Matthew 25 excludes such an interpretation.

This would not be my preferred interpretation, however, because the English word “everlasting” does not accurately capture the special religious meaning that “aionios” typically has in the New Testament. Here is how I expressed my own understanding of this matter in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, p. 46:

The first point I would make is that on no occasion of its use in the New Testament does ‘aionios’ refer to atemporal process of unending duration. On a few occasions–as when Paul spoke of a ‘mystery that was kept secret for long ages (chronios aioniois) but is now disclosed’ (Rom. 16:25-26)–the adjective does imply a lengthy period of time. But on these occasions, it could not possibly mean ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’. On other occasions, its use seems roughly Platonic in this sense: Whether God is eternal (that is, timeless, outside of time) in a purely Platonic sense or everlasting in the sense that he endures throughout all of the ages, nothing other than God is eternal in the primary sense (see the reference to ‘the eternal God’ in Rom. 16:26). The judgements, gifts, and actions of God are eternal in the secondary sense that their causal source lies in the eternal character and purpose God. One common function of an adjective, after all, is to refer back to the causal source of some action or condition. [Endnote: A selfish act, for example, is one that springs from, or has its causal source in, selfish motives.] When Jude thus cited the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of eternal fire, he was not making a statement about temporal duration at all; in no way was he implying that the fire continues burning today, or even that it continued burning for an age. He was instead giving a theological interpretation in which the fire represented God’s judgement upon the two cities. So the fire was eternal not in the sense that it would burn forever without consuming the cities, but in the sense that, precisely because it was God’s judgement upon these cities and did consume them, it expressed God’s eternal character and eternal purpose in a special way.

So, even as the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah was eternal in the sense that it expressed God’s eternal character and purpose in a special way, the same is true of the fire to which Matthew 25:41 alludes. That fire is eternal in the sense that, despite the harsh sounding language, it expresses God’s eternal love for us in a special, albeit especially severe, way. For as we read in Hebrews 12:29, the eternal God is also a consuming fire, one that will eventually consume all that is false within us. In no other way could God perfect all of us and express his eternal love for all of us. And similarly for eternal punishment: Like any of God’s eternal actions in time, it should be interpreted theologically as a process or event that has its causal source in the eternal God himself. Or, as William Barclay put it, “Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give” (A Spiritual Biography, p. 66).

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    1. There is another way to tackle this text that does, in my opinion, greater honor to the context in which the passage is found. The specific citation (Matt 25:46) is part of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. That parable is the last portion of a sermon our Lord delivered on the Mount of Olives, commonly called the Olivet Discourse. The sermon takes up nearly the entire content of Matthew chapters 24 and 25.

      If we identify the purpose of this sermon, we can also discover the reason for the parable and its relevance to the purpose of the sermon. In fact, its safe to say that any interpretation of the parable that does not relate to the purpose of the sermon would be out of context and therefore wrong.

      That being said, we should ask, what is the purpose of the sermon? The answer is, that Jesus was predicting the coming judgement upon the Jewish nation for its apostasy and its rejection of his ministry. It should be noted that the Olivet Discourse comes directly upon the heels of Jesus’ strongest denunciation of the religious leaders (Matt 23) and his declaration of the immanent doom that was approaching them.

      Therefore, the parable is not a prophecy about a future day of universal judgement coming upon the souls of all individuals at the end of time, commonly referred to as the Last Judgement. Rather, it is a prophecy about the imminent judgment soon to descent upon the nation of Israel for its rejection of his ministry.

      If the disciples had asked him to tell them about the final fate of all souls at the end of the world, then the common interpretations might have some merit, but that question was never asked. The question that was asked was, when would Israel be juedged. Specifically, when would the temple be destroyed and what signs would tell them that the end of the Jewish age (which the temple’s destruction would signify) was about to come.

      The answer he gave to that question was the Olivet Discourse. And the answer was not that some day countless millennia after they were all dead God would resurrect every single human being and pronounce judgment upon them in a massive cosmic tribunal in which he would bless or damn each and every individual exclusively based on how well they treated Christians.

      The true purpose of the sermon was to inform the disciples as to when the Temple would be destroyed, signifying the judgement coming upon the leaders of the nation of Israel that he had just warned of in chapter 23. It was to occur before that generation had passed away. Thus the parable in question was a metaphor for the impending judgment that would come upon all the nations (tribes) of Israel within that generation.

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