How Eternal is Eternal?—Matthew 25:46

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.[1] 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.”[2] “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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] All six of these verses have in mind an action and its outcome. Let us look at these in depth:

  1. 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, 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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…)

  1. 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.”[6] 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.)

  1. 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.

[1] Roger Nicole, “The Punishment of the Wicked,” Christianity Today, 9 June 1958, p. 14, as cited in Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, p. 39.

[2]Emmanuel Pétavel, The Problem of Immortality, p. 574, as cited in Fudge, p. 39.

[3]Edward William Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, 2nd edition, p. 40.

[4]Fudge, p. 40.

[5]Joseph Dear, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2014/01/matthew-2546-does-not-prove-eternal-torment-part-1/

[6]Fudge, p. 247

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6 thoughts on “How Eternal is Eternal?—Matthew 25:46

  1. Hello Ty,
    I also have been dealing with the word eternal and I’ve come up with a little quiz article to try to better understand eternal. I think it can work but some objections were about the state of being punished… anyway would not mind any suggestions. Enjoy and may the Lord bless you!

    I agree that Hell/eternal torment is a critical issue that needs explanation. In fact, think of renowned people for whom Hell was a big factor alongside Evolution and suffering (in one direction Charles Templeton -Farewell to God and Brian Baker -From Faith to Reason, and in the opposite direction ex-atheist Anthony Flew -There IS a God and Greg Boyd’s ex-skeptic father – Letters to a skeptic). Note that although the logic of Creation eventually convinced Flew, he could not believe in Jesus because of eternal conscious torment. As we can see, Hell is therefore a life and death very important subject. Although an oversimplification, please consider what is the Eternal Punishment by answering 6 questions:
    1-How long do you believe the judging goes on in the “eternal judgment”? Heb 6:2
    A- Basically Judged & Re-Judged each & every day every moment Forever, for the rest of eternity
    B- Or finally judged just once…but last judgment is permanent, eternal, for the rest of eternity
    2-How long do you believe the saving goes on in the “eternal salvation”? Heb 5:9
    A- Basically Saved & Re-saved each & every moment Forever, for the rest of eternity
    B- Or fully/finally saved once…but it is permanent/irreversible, for the rest of eternity
    3-How long do you believe the redeeming goes on in the “eternal redemption”? Heb 9:12
    A – Basically Redeemed/re-redeemed each and every moment Forever, for the rest of eternity
    B- Or fully Redeemed once… but it is permanent, irreversible, for the rest of eternity
    4- How long do you believe the destructing of Hell goes on in “eternal destruction”?2Th1:9
    A – Basically Destroyed/Re-destroyed each & every moment Forever, for the rest of eternity?
    B- Or finally DESTROYED ONCE… but it is permanent/irreversible/for the rest of eternity
    5- How long do you believe the condemnation goes on in “eternal condemnation”? Mk3:29
    A – Basically Condemned/Re-Condemned each & every moment Forever, for the rest of eternity
    B- Or finally CONDEMNED ONCE… but it is permanent/irreversible/for the rest of eternity
    6- How long do you believe the punishing of Hell goes on in the “eternal punishment”? Matt 25:46
    A – Basically Punished/Re-punished each and every moment Forever, for the rest of eternity?
    B- Or finally PUNISHED ONCE… but it is permanent/irreversible/eternal/for the rest of eternity


    Were you consistent? Think! Unless you can answer A to #1-3 (for the just), you are inconsistent to answer A to #4-6 (for unjust) because these sentences with word “eternal” are exactly the same. So, if B to #1-3, then you should at least consider B for #4-6. If not, why not? The point of 6 questions is to show that our view and understanding of eternal comes from outside ideas/texts – not the word itself.

    Now, note powerfully that the DURATION can be exactly the same – i.e. all 6 imparted ONCE (redeemed/ destroyed/punished once) but all permanent, irreversible, for the rest of eternity, hence all ETERNAL. WOW! It would appear that the eternal punishment is not necessarily equal to eternal torment, when looked at consistently for both just & unjust. Now I think that both the typical cruel monster arguments arguments against God and the free will arguments for God (chose to be separated) both try to explain a misinterpretation of the word eternal.

    Could I prove this? Could this be the plain consistent meaning for eternal in entire scriptures including Mt 25:46 and especially for all “eternal life“ texts. I`d have to say Yes! Although we have a measure of life now, Scripture indicates that eternal life is fully GIVEN ONCE at the applicable resurrection/ judgment… when mortality is swallowed up, when we will be MADE ALIVE (finally/fully ONCE but only) at His coming (1Cor 15:22-23), when we receive (once)… in the AGE TO COME, ETERNAL LIFE (Luke 18:30). Notice that in Lk 18:30, Jesus was asked “what” to do to inherit eternal life and Jesus answered “when” – in the age to come. So let’s spell out eternal in Mt 25:46 in a more consistent manner (i.e. the same for both just/unjust).

    “And these shall go away into eternal punishment (a just complete permanent horrific destruction imparted once at the just judgment – as per example of judgment of wicked at flood and at Sodom), but the righteous into eternal life” (a permanent life also imparted once at His coming, in the age to come).

    Again, WOW! Once it is understood that the gift of eternal life is basically imparted ONCE in the age to come (per John 6:40 at last day when raised to life from the dead), we can see that the eternal punishment is also a last day everlasting destruction FROM GOD’s CONSUMING APPEARING IN GLORY, a second but permanent/eternal death.
    With the above I have shown that eternal conscious torment is not necessarily found in Mt 25:46 (#1 verse quoted in support of eternal torment), unless we want the meaning of eternal to be inconsistent between the just and unjust, based on outside inputs, or verses, most of which are quite figurative.

    In closing, since Hell is such a big issue for many people like Flew, I think we Christians should make sure it is fully re-studied with a proper understanding of the word eternal, starting with studying the 6 questions above to see our inconsistencies.

    Finally, let’s think about justice: Just like before Flood, evil and injustice is now everywhere (downtown, ISIS, Boca Haram), and our Creator will have once again to restrain us by cleansing this earth and make it completely new, where there will be no more pain, suffering, evil, death, sin, and no sinners writing in pain in Hell. Earth will be re-created “very good”, just like it was in Eden with no traces of evil, death or sufferings, or Hell once the punishment is imparted. Just like the ark, there is again only one way to live on. The wages of every sin (big or small) is death. The choice is ours: repent & life in Christ or permanent death. Choose to live – it’s pretty simple – love your neighbor (created in His image) and love Jesus Christ the Creator and Savior.

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    1. Hi Christian! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It is nice to see someone else questioning the concept of hell. I know there are more of us out there, but I unfortunately have not met very many!

      I really like your quiz approach to eternal. It seems like a great way to frame the discussion. I might take it further and amend the quiz to where if a person can answer A to only one of the examples, then we can no longer assume “eternal punishment” means a punishment that is dealt out continuously for eternity without greater scriptural and/or contextual support.

      You said that “some objections were about the state of being punished”. I am assuming you mean that people objected to this understanding since they do not view death as an actual punishment (compared to an eternal torment which is considered a punishment)? If this is what you mean, then I have received the very same objection from someone before. My answer to this would be that the punishment set forth by God is death, not pain for eternity, and we have no right to define what a true punishment involves. Besides, has the justice system since the advent of western civilization ever not considered capital punishment the ultimate punishment? Here, the punishment is not the pain endured but the loss of potential life.

      Continuing the previous idea, I think we can actually turn these objections around to support annihilationism as a true punishment. Think of it this way. If punishment is to be framed by love, it serves two purposes. The first is corrective and the second is preventative. A hell that lasts for eternity could very well be preventative for not sinning in this life; however, it ceases to be preventative once one arrives there. This would be similar to receiving a life sentence in jail. The main difference lies in that a life sentence in jail assumes a corrective/protective purpose. The hope at best is that those who endure the life sentence will perhaps experience repentance. At worst, they are at least separated from those they might harm. An eternal hell takes this to an extreme. It is a life sentence, but with God continuing to keep those in hell alive simply for the sake of punishment. Unless the potential for a future reconciliation is kept open (think universalism), then this punishment serves no purpose. It is not corrective in any sense, and it does not protect those living in the new earth in any sense, since God could just as easily remove the life-sustaining breath from those being punished and they would cease to live and be a threat. It seems senseless and purposelessness and ultimately goes against what we know about justice.

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