Matthew 25:46 is typically viewed as one of the clearest statements made by Jesus regarding the fate of the wicked and the nature of their punishment. “46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The plain contrast presented here is a dichotomy between eternal punishment and eternal life. The only question left to ask is how we should understand the adjective aiónios, translated into English as eternal or everlasting. The word can either mean endless time, a quality pertaining to a future age, or a combination of both aspects. Like almost everything, this topic is not without debate and controversy.
Eternal as a Quality
The best starting point for understanding aiónios is to look within the rest of the Bible, with particular emphasis given to the New Testament, to observe how the word is used, since the collective writings share a closer similarity of culture than anything else we might read. First off, there are 51 occurrences of aiónios in the NT that describe the eternal life/joy of the redeemed. The phrase “eternal life”, used widely in the gospel of John, is primarily qualitative. This life is something that can already be possessed by the believer on this side of death, and no time limit applies. A clear example of this usage of aiónios is 2 Thessalonians 2:16, where Paul writes “16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort[…]”. Eternal in this instance refers to a comfort that believers have already received. This comfort is eternal in the sense of its quality, as it originates from the eternal God and will continue on throughout the coming age. In the same way, Mark 3:29 and Matt 12:32 speak of an eternal sin, not a sin that lasts forever but a sin that renders the person guilty of a sin that will not be forgiven either in this age or the age to come.
Eternal as a Quantity
On the other end of the spectrum, there are at least 70 times in the Bible where aiónios describes “objects of a temporary and limited nature.” “The word means “forever,” but within the limits of the possibility inherent in the person or thing itself. When God is said to be “eternal,” that is truly “forever.” When the mountains are said to be “everlasting,” that means that they last ever so long—so long as they can last.” Examples of this can be found in Scripture’s usage of aión, aiónios, and their Hebrew counterparts. The sprinkling of blood at Passover was a rite to be observed forever (Exod 12:24). The Aaronic priesthood is said to be something that will last forever (Ex 29:9; 40:15; Lev 3:17) along with Caleb’s inheritance (Joshua 14:9), Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:12-13), the duration of a slave’s life (Deut 15:17), Gehazi’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:27)—”and practically every other ordinance, rite or institution of the Old Testament system[…]According to this view[…]this is the meaning of aiónios or “eternal” in the Bible. It speaks of unlimited time within the limits determined by the thing it modifies.” Additionally, the possibility remains that aiónios does refer to an endless time period—literally “forever”—as that would be the sense in which those who heard the word would think of it. All these ordinances might have lasted forever until the end of the world to those who heard them first uttered.
Eternal as Qualifying Words of Action
Despite any agreement by both ETCers and Annihilationists on defining and giving meaning to the word aiónios, disagreement quickly arises when it is applied to the final punishment. How are we to best understand eternal punishment? As Fudge asks: “Which is “eternal”—the punishing or the punishment?” Thankfully, we have more information to sort through. In the NT, there are six occurrences, including Matt 25:46, where aiónios qualifies a noun of action. All six of these verses have in mind an action and its outcome. Let us look at these in depth:
- Hebrews 6:1-2 Eternal Judgment “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings,[a] the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”
This eternal judgment is among the elementary teachings of Christ. To make reference to an earlier question, the word used is krimatos—judgment, not judging. Unless one is willing to say that God will continuously judge the same finite amount of people for eternity (which is absurb), this phrase is a direct reference to the final judgment. There will be an act of punishing resulting in a punishment eternal in duration. Eternal then refers to the result of the judgment, not the act of judging itself.
- Hebrews 9:11-12 Eternal Redemption “11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come,[e] then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
Once again, eternal refers to the everlasting result of the act of redemption, not the act of redeeming itself. Jesus secured eternal redemption by entering the holy places once for all (9:12), and he does not have to continuously suffer, for his sacrifice put away sin once for all (9:25-26). Unless one is willing to unbiblically claim that eternal refers to the continuous act of redemption, eternal is describing the result of the action.
- Hebrews 5:9 Eternal Salvation “9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him…”
Eternal here refers to the endless result (salvation) of the act of saving, not the act of saving itself being eternal in duration. The act of saving was, and will be, accomplished once for all. Jesus will not being continuously declaring people to be saved for eternity. That would be weird.
- Mark 3:29-30 Eternal Sin “29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.””
Unless one is willing to say that those who commit the eternal sin will continually act out the sin for eternity, then eternal refers to the result of the sin—the person who commits this sin will never be forgiven. (To commit this sin would be to say the phrase “He has an unclean spirit” over and over again for eternity, which is quite absurd…)
- 2 Thessalonians 1:9 Eternal Destruction “9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from[b] the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day…”
This destruction referred to is an act, an allusion to the final judgment of all people. This punishment of eternal destruction will occur “when he comes on that day.” The eternal then, following the same usage as the rest of the NT, refers to the result of this destruction and its duration. The word for destruction strongly implies a ruining and the consequent loss. In human terms, think of the word as implying the people will lose their original function and consequently suffer loss.
(Some brief exegetical notes: Though it is outside of the scope of the current post, I want to discuss the second half of verse 9 due to its tormenty-sounding word choice. The original Greek phrase is ambiguous. The ESV above adds “away” as an attempt to clarify the ambiguity. It can be interpreted two ways: 1. the eternal destruction comes from the presence of the Lord, or 2. the eternal destruction involves exclusion from the presence of the Lord. Both interpretations make equal sense. And this is the point I want to hammer in: Paul (if he indeed wrote 2 Thess.) is drawing on the wrathful language of the OT to describe God’s wrath. The phrase “from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power” “appears verbatim three times in the Greek text of Isaiah 2 (vv. 10, 19, 21), a context which also discusses the Lord’s exaltation and the wicked’s destruction in the last days.” Isaiah, in 2:10-11, 20-21, predicts all people will flee from the terror of the Lord in an attempt to be away from His presence.)
- Matthew 25:46 Eternal Punishment “46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We have now come full circle back to the original question of understanding this verse. In light of how other NT writers use aiónios, eternal then refers to the duration of the result/consequence of the act of punishment. Likewise, the act of being given life results in an equally eternal consequence. (Think of the act of being given life as putting on the immortal resurrection body described in 1 Cor 15. Though this is not discussed in Matthew, we can assume this knowledge would be a common understanding among those who believed in the resurrection. The act of being given life may also refer to the eternal sentence of the final judgment.) The result of understanding Matt. 25:46 this way is that we really cannot truly gleam anything about the state of final punishment from this sentence. To arrive at a solid conclusion, we will have to look in other places.
I am not, as the opposing arguments claim, performing linguistic acrobatics to arrive at this point. I am simply observing how the Greek writers used the language in normal, everyday situations and applying this knowledge to Matt 25:46. Though this particular way of reading this verse could be wrong, it could also just as equally be correct. Thus, the necessity of inviting the entire Bible into the discussion of final punishment is of the utmost importance for our clarification and understanding.
 Roger Nicole, “The Punishment of the Wicked,” Christianity Today, 9 June 1958, p. 14, as cited in Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, p. 39.
Emmanuel Pétavel, The Problem of Immortality, p. 574, as cited in Fudge, p. 39.
Edward William Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, 2nd edition, p. 40.
Fudge, p. 40.
Fudge, p. 247