Is everlasting punishment never ending? In Matthew 25:31 and following one will find the Judgment of the Just and the Unjust. When I consider those who, for one reason or another, have not come to Christ in repentance and never received him as Savior, I must ask: “If their reward is everlasting punishment, does this really mean never ending punishment?” Some scholars have concluded that the parable of this judgment in Matthew 25 represents people who have never come to Christ, showing that at least some unbelievers will be able to enter the Kingdom. The ‘just’ don’t seem to have ever known Jesus or have any knowledge of ever having served him, so the conclusion is that this judgment refers to all people who have never become Christian—whether considered ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in man’s estimation. At this time, however, I wish to consider only those who are punished. Jesus says:
“…depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41 NIV – emphasis mine)
The word translated ‘eternal’ is aionios (G166) and fire is pur (G4442). Both are used in Jude 1:7 for ‘eternal fire’ which was the judgment of Sodom and Gomorra (KJV). My question is this: “Is this fire still burning in Sodom and Gomorrah?” Of course it isn’t, and since it is not burning yet today, then the term aionios fire cannot always mean eternal in the same sense that we understand the word to mean in English. At least sometimes the word has a limited meaning with respect to time. If this is so with Jude 1:7, can we be certain that those who are to be punished with eternal fire in Matthew 25:41 are punished eternally?
Someone may say the intent of Jude 1:7 is not that the fire is eternal, but the consequences of that fire are eternal. This understanding, however, is flawed in that the Scriptures elsewhere show the consequence of Sodom and Gomorrah’s judgment will end! Matthew 10:15 says God will raise up Sodom and Gomorrah in the judgment and be more merciful to them than to those cities who rejected Jesus during his earthly ministry (cp. Mark 6:11; Luke 10:12). In fact, Jesus claimed, if he had done his great works in Sodom that he did in the cities of Galilee that rejected him, Sodom would not have been destroyed (Matthew 11:23). In other words, they would have repented!
So, where does this leave us who are seeking how to understand the fate of the wicked? I believe Paul’s advice needs repeating:
Now, brothers, for your sakes I have applied all this to Apollos and myself, that from us as illustrations you might learn the lesson, “Never go beyond what is written,” so that you might stop boasting in favor of one teacher against another (1 Corinthians 4:6 WmsNT – emphasis mine).
I wasn’t always obedient to this Scripture, and, consequently, I placed my trust in a Biblical teacher who seemed to put the Scriptures in a way that seemed good to me. The problem was, if he was wrong, so was I, because I believed him. Paul’s point seems to be: read the word of God and believe God—not necessarily what a man (any man) says **about** what God says.
I need to be reading the Scriptures and trusting what they say, and it is my prayer that I will be guided by what God said through Paul (1Corinthians 4:6) and be obedient by remaining in the teachings of Christ (2John 1:9) and not be found teaching the doctrines of men, thus worshiping God in vain (Matthew 15:8-9). I realize this understanding—that the punishment of the wicked is not eternal—is not received by most Christians, but I want my boast to be in Jesus alone. The traditions of men, such as that of an eternal hellfire, that have come down to us must be proved against the word of God. Whatever we teach must not go beyond the written word of God (1Corinthians 4:6) but remain within the teachings of Christ (2John 1:9).
Whatever God has planned for the wicked, I don’t think we can presume to know what it is or how long they would have to endure their punishment, if all we do is read the parable of the Judgment of the Just and Unjust in Matthew 25. The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is more than this, and we need to learn all of what God says about this subject rather than jump to conclusions that cannot be proved with Scripture. May our Lord and Savior help all of us to understand our responsibility here and give us a desire to know his word more perfectly.