A very thoughtful person recently commented on my blog about how he would like to see me engage in greater depth the question of how one should translate the phrase κολασιν αιωνιον/ kolasin aionion in Matthew 25:46, which Dr. Hart renders as “the chastisement of that Age” and which pretty much everyone else renders as “eternal punishment” (thus, for example, the NASB, NIV, RSV, NRSV, NEB, NAB, TEV, ASV, the Jerusalem Bible, Mounce’s version, and Phillips version. (I apologize for the alphabet soup, but you get the idea.) The KJV and the Douay-Rheims render it “everlasting punishment”. My commenter also asked to see how the term was understood in non-biblical texts—a very sensible question. I deal with the questions in my book Unquenchable Fire, so I trust that dealing with it here too will not detract from future book sales. After all, the book’s 239 pages deals with many other things besides—and yes, this is shameless bit of self-promotion. Anyway, I happily now oblige the commenter and will examine the issue of how to translate and understand the words κολασιν αιωνιον/ kolasin aionion in Matthew 25:46. This involves: 1. how to translate kolasis; 2. how to translate aionion; 3. how the phrase and concept of punishment in the next world was understood by hearers at the time of Christ. This last is particularly important, because it reveals how Christ would have been understood by His hearers. Here the concepts are more important than the words themselves, since of course Christ spoke Aramaic, not Greek.
The meaning of the word kolasis.
The noun kolasis is cognate with the verb kolazo, which in Homeric Greek (my text books tell me) was derived from kolos, mutilated, and meant “to cut short, to lop, to trim”. When used figuratively it meant “to impede, to restrain, to punish, to chastise”. As applied to plants it meant “to prune”; when applied to persons it meant “to punish” or “to maim”, and thus was often used when referring to the punishment meted out to slaves. In the pagan world, certain monuments were inscribed using the word kolasis to threaten divine retribution for those who broke sacred cultic laws.
In Septuagint Greek it was used for divine retribution as well, such as in Ezekiel 14:3 where it described the punishment due to idolaters for their sins, and in the Wisdom of Solomon 11:13, where it is used to describe the plagues upon the Egyptians. In Wisdom 19:4 it described also the final punishment of the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. In 2 Maccabees 4:38 the word described the punishment of a certain Andronicus who was killed for his crime. These examples all referred to punishments that were final, and so show that the word does not simply mean “correction” as opposed to timoria, (which means “vengeance”) as is often asserted. Here kolasis is indistinguishable from timoria, since those suffering punishment were killed for their sins and crimes, and could not benefit from any correction. The sharp distinction therefore made between kolasis and timoria, between correction and vengeance, does not hold in these instances and should be abandoned as the lens for interpreting the meaning of kolasis. That is perhaps why one scholar wrote, “Aristotle differentiates the word [kolasis] from timoria, but in late Greek the distinction is not always observed”—as we see in the Septuagint. In the instances cited above (which are more relevant to the New Testament usage of the word than anything from Aristotle) the word means punishment and retribution.
The meaning of the word aionion.
In discussing the word aionion or its root aion in the Scriptures it is helpful to leave the analytical and philosophical world of Hellenism for a bit and return to the thought world of the Hebrews. In that world the primary fact about man is that he does not live for an aion, but that he is like the grass of the field, a flower which blooms and fades almost overnight (Isaiah 40:6-7, Psalm 90:6). In this world, ten generations were indistinguishable from forever: thus Deuteronomy 23:4—“No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of Yahweh; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of Yahweh forever [Hebrew ad olam]. In this world ten generations were “forever”, ad olam.
The word olam therefore meant “something beyond human reckoning and counting”. The word had some elasticity; some things beyond counting were finite, and some were infinite. It hardly mattered, since both were beyond counting or calculation anyway. Thus in Amos 9:11, the House of David is described as ki mei olam—(rendered in the NASB as “in the days of old”), a very long time, time out of mind, but not infinite. God, on the other hand, is described in Psalm 90:2 as existing meolam ad olam, (in the NASB “from everlasting to everlasting”)—infinite indeed. In Genesis 21:33 Yahweh is described as El olam, “the eternal God”. “Sometimes the olam is doubled up: “olam of olams” as in Isaiah 45:17, where God saves Israel with a salvation olam olamim, “an everlasting salvation”. Sometimes the word is paired with ed, so that God’s throne is described in Psalm 45:6 as olam wa-ed.
The point is that the elasticity of the word olam as referring to something virtually uncountable is reflected in how the word is translated into the Septuagintal Greek. Thus in Amos 9:11 the House of David is from emerai tou aionos, from days of aionos. In Psalm 90:2, God exists apo tou aionos eos tou aionos. In Genesis 21:33 the Lord is theos aionios. In Isaiah 45:17 God saves Israel with a soterian aionion; in Psalm 45:6 His throne endures eis aiona aionos. In Tobit 13:1 God lives eis tous aionas. In Psalm 84:5 those who dwell in God’s House will praise Him eis tous aionas ton aionon, “forever”.
Thus the nuance of the word aion refers not to something of long but limited duration (like a century is long but limited) but to something past human counting, and it is therefore used to describe the eternity of God and His throne. (That is why the word is also used to designate “the world” in Hebrews 11:3, for the world too is immense beyond comprehension.) In the same way the word aionios refers not to a well-defined and limited age, but to something limitless. The theos aionios of Genesis 21:33 is not “the age-long God” or “the God of that Age”, but “the eternal God”.
We also see such usage reflected in Philo: in his work on Noah’s Work as a Planter [in chapter 8], Philo writes of “the unending [aidios] word of the eternal [aionion] God”. Those like Ramelli who insist on making a sharp distinction between aidios (as meaning “unending”) and aionion (as meaning merely “age-long”) have a problem, for here we would then have the situation where God’s word was unending whereas God Himself was merely age-long. Obviously Philo uses the two words as virtual synonyms. The word aionion therefore does not have as its root meaning simply “age long” or “pertaining to an age”—i.e. something long but in principle of limited duration. Rather its usual meaning refers to something essentially unending, eternal, beyond all calculation and comprehension. That is why Philo could speak of the unending word of the aionion God.
Given the usage of the word in the Septuagint, we can see how the default mode of translators is to render the word “eternal” or “everlasting” in Matthew 25:46, for there is nothing in the text itself to limit its meaning in terms of duration (as there is, for example, Romans 16:25-26 or in Amos 9:11 LXX). This is especially apparent when the same word aionion is used in Matthew 25:46 to describe both the life given to the righteous and the punishment given to the wicked, for if the life given to the righteous is eternal and unending (being the life of the age to come), then the punishment of the wicked must be as eternal and unending as well.
To this effect I may quote several N.T. commentators. One commentator (Robert Mounce) writes, “Although aionios (eternal) is primarily a qualitative word, its temporal aspect should not be overlooked. Verse 46 offers little support for those who would like to think of eternal life as endless and eternal punishment as restricted in some way. That the adjective modifies both nouns in the same context indicates that we understand it in the same way.” Another (Gundry) writes, “Though aionion may hyperbolically describe things which by nature last a long time but not forever, the lack of need to make such qualification in the present passage leaves us with the meaning ‘everlasting’. It would be a mistake to exclude the chronological senses of the term from its larger qualitative meaning for the latter includes the former.” Yet another, William Hendricks, writes, “Since the same adjective is used in both clauses, the word to be used in the translation should make clear in which respect the two, namely punishment for the wicked and life for the righteous, are the same. They are the same in this one respect, namely that they last on and on and on, without ever coming to an end.”
How the concept of punishment in the world to come was understood at the time of Christ.
These commentators’ understanding of kolasin aionion as involving endless punishment is confirmed by the writings of the inter-testamental period. We cite three examples from this period as illustrative of the thought of the whole.
In the book of 2 Esdras (a composite work, with its core dating from about the close of the first century, making it roughly contemporaneous with Christ and the apostles) we read the following:
“The earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it, and the chambers [of Hades] shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment and compassion shall pass away and patience shall be withdrawn…And recompense shall follow and the reward shall be manifested; …Then the pit of torment shall appear and opposite it shall be the place of rest, and the furnace of Gehenna shall be disclosed and opposite it the paradise of delight. Then the Most High will say to the nations that have been raised from the dead, ‘Look now and understand whom you have denied…Look on this side and on that: here are delight and rest and there are fire and torments!’ (7:32f)… “I [God] will rejoice over the few who shall be saved, because it is they who have made My glory to prevail now, and through them My name has now been honoured. And I will not grieve over the multitude of those who perish, for it is they who are now like a mist, and are similar to a flame and smoke—they are set on fire and burn hotly and are extinguished’” (7:60- 61).
It is clear from these passages that “the pit of torment” and “the furnace of Gehenna” are eternal, for no ultimate restoration of the wicked is in view. On the contrary, their fate is to be “set on fire and burn hotly and extinguished”.
We cite next from The Book of Jubilees written in about the second century B.C.
In it, the author represents Isaac as exhorting his sons Jacob and Esau to love each other, and requires them to take an oath that they will do so. And then he adds:
“If either of you devises evil against his brother, know that from henceforth everyone that devises evil against his brother shall fall into his hand and shall be rooted out of the land of the living and his seed shall be destroyed from under heaven. But on the day of turbulence and execration and indignation and anger, with flaming devouring fire as He burnt Sodom, so likewise will He burn his land and his city and all that is his, and he shall be blotted out of the book of the discipline of the children of men and not be recorded in the book of life, but in that which is appointed to destruction, and he shall depart into eternal execration, so that their condemnation may be always renewed in hate and in execration and in wrath and in torment and in indignation and in plagues and in disease forever” (36:9-11).
Once again we see the presupposition that the day of final judgment, described as a day of turbulence and execration and indignation and anger for the wicked, is the time when they shall “depart into eternal execration, so that their condemnation may be always renewed in hate and in execration and in wrath and in torment and in indignation and in plagues and in disease forever”. A more complete expression of unending punishment could scarcely be imagined.
Finally we quote from The Book of Enoch, which dates from the first and second centuries B.C. In one place we read: “I looked and turned to another part of the earth and saw there a deep valley with burning fire. And they brought the kings and the mighty and began to cast them into this deep valley. And there my eyes saw how they made these their instruments, iron chains of immeasurable weight. And I asked the angel of peace who went with me, saying, ‘For whom are these chains being prepared?’ And he said to me, ‘These are being prepared for the hosts of Azazel, so that they may take them and cast them into the abyss of complete condemnation…And Michael and Gabriel and Raphael and Phanuel shall take hold of them on that great day and cast them into the burning furnace, that the Lord of Spirits may take vengeance on them for their unrighteousness” (54:1- 6)… I looked until a throne was erected in the pleasant land and the Lord of the sheep sat himself on it and the other took the sealed books and opened those books before the Lord of the sheep…And those seventy shepherds were judged and found guilty and they were cast into that fiery abyss” (90:20, 25).
In these passages we not only read of the “complete condemnation” of the wicked with no hint of future restoration, but also a throne set up whereon the Messianic Lord of the sheep sat to administer final judgment—the image perhaps in our Lord’s mind when He told the parable of the sheep and the goats, and something that clearly would have been in the mind of His audience when they first heard that parable.
These three passages (more could be cited) reveal how those who first heard Christ speak of the punishment of the wicked in the age to come would have understood Him. The concept of a punishment of limited duration functioning only to correct the wicked prior to their ultimate restoration is alien to the mindset of this inter-testamental Judaism. For this reason alone the words kolasin aionion must be rendered “eternal punishment”. Dr. Hart’s rendering of “ the chastisement of that Age” is forced and idiosyncratic. It stands opposed to the usual meanings of the words themselves, their cultural context, and the translations of almost all the versions. His insistence upon finding universalism in the New Testament is done in spite of this text’s clear meaning.