In a previous study, Everlasting Punishment, I pointed out that the Greek word used in Matthew 25:41 that we translate into our English words ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ cannot always be used to convey the meaning we draw from those words in our own language. In this blog post I would like to take a little more time addressing the method of punishment, while still concentrating on the Greek word we translate as eternal or everlasting. Since God has not spoken to us in English, as far as the Scriptures are concerned, it behooves us to take care in how we translate Scripture in order that we might know the teaching in our native tongue that God offers to all mankind.
In Matthew 25:41 it is said that the wicked will be punished with eternal fire. Are we to take this literally, or should we understand the Scripture metaphorically? Hebrews 6:8 tells us of ground that “bears fruit of thorns and briers” and is “rejected… whose end is to be burned.” It is interesting to note that when this is done by the farmer, he not only gets rid of the unwanted fruit, but the carbon makes the ground he burned more fertile for the good seed he plants later.
The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-25; Luke 8:4-15) has Christ showing us that the ground is a man’s heart. The ground in Hebrews 6 is not destroyed by the fire, but the fruit of the ground (the thorns and briars) is destroyed. According to Matthew 13:7, 22, the thorns are the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches. The same fruit is identified in Hebrews 10 as the adversaries. In 1Corinthians 3:12-15 we find it is our works or our fruit that will be burned. What remains after the fire is the basis of our reward, but the fact of our eternal life is never brought into question. Indeed, it is emphasized in 1Corinthians 3:11 that though we may have worked all our lives for wood, hay and stubble and lost all, but the one thing we cannot lose is Christ who is the only foundation that can be laid and cannot be destroyed (1Corinthians 3:15). Peter writes of our faith being tried by fire (1Peter 1:7, 4:12), and Jesus advises his complacent people to buy gold tried in fire (Revelation 3:18). The point is, these things have a metaphorical meaning, and if the metaphorical fire cannot destroy us (nor is it intended to do so), how can we be sure the fire so many believe will destroy the wicked is not intended to be metaphorical as well?
Kolasis (G2851) is the word for punishment in Matthew 25:46. It can be found only here and in 1John 4:18 where it is translated torment, the result or fruit of fear. The verb form of this word is Kolazo (G2849). It is found in Acts 4:21 and 2Peter 2:9 where it is translated punish or punished. The context of 2Peter 2:9 elaborates on the destiny of the goats of Matthew 25:31-46. In 2Peter 2:9 and following the context concerns the punishment of false teachers and false prophets (2Peter 2:1). While Matthew 25 speaks of the punishment of the goats, the Scriptures reveal goats have a metaphorical meaning, pointing to the leaders of the people (Zechariah 10:3) who have erred.
Instead of everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46), 2Peter 2:17 tells of a mist of darkness reserved for the wicked forever (cp. 2Peter 2:4). The words translated darkness in verses-4 and 17 are zophos (G2217) in verse-4, and skotos (G4655) in verse-17. The words zophos (G2217) and skotos (G4655) are both translated into the word darkness elsewhere in Scripture, but they are used together in 2Peter 2:17. Here, they are translated mist (G2217) of darkness (G4655). Both of these words are used together once more in Jude 1:13 and are translated blackness (G2217) of darkness (G4655), to describe the fate of the angels (or messengers) who sinned. Thus, whoever we imagine these angels or messengers to be, their fate is the same as that of men. Furthermore, according to Jude 1:6, this darkness has and end! All things culminate in the Judgment of the Great Day (cp. 1Corinthians 15:24-25). My point is, if forever in 2Peter 2:17 has an end, how can we be so certain that everlasting or eternal in Matthew 25 doesn’t have an end? Do we have a right to impose our own meaning upon this Greek word?
More information concerning this darkness can be found in Job 10:21-22 where Job looks upon it as his own death. He calls it “a land of darkness … where light is darkness.” This was the fate of all men before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; but the righteous had rest (Job 3:13). Their death was precious to the Lord (Psalm 116:15), an end desired by those who were unrighteous (Numbers 23:10). The wicked have a different fate in death, as revealed in Job 27:19-23. Here we are told of terrors being the end of the wicked, and “a tempest steals him away in the night.” This night or darkness as in Matthew 25:46 is a punishment or torment likened to that produced by fear. The Scriptures don’t describe this state in other terms, except that there is no consciousness in the grave (Psalms 146:4). Therefore, this terror would have to be the process of death itself. Since many wicked men have gone to the grave without fear, I can only conclude that the process of death takes a bit longer than the actual cessation of breath. He will not be able to gather his thoughts and strengthen himself (Job 27:19). Something terrifying grabs hold of him and violently removes his life from his place (his body), and God will not comfort him (Job 27:21-23).
The idea that God punishes men for their iniquity forever is certainly not supported in his word in Matthew 25. His love and mercy is testified throughout the Bible, but especially in the person of Jesus Christ upon the cross. Man’s sins are certainly terrible, but the price Jesus paid is greater than the debt that was owed (Romans 5:15). The work of Christ swallows up the work of Adam, thus justifying all men (Romans 5:18). Considering our fate from this point of view, how could we believe that Christ’s death is not precious enough to pay for all sins, including the sins of unrepentance and unbelief? If this is an offence to anyone, wouldn’t that be an offense in the cross itself? Which has the greater power, the wickedness of man or the cross of Christ? Our Lord came to save the world (John 3:16-17), and he says that he finished the job (John 19:30; cp. John 17:4 & 1Timothy 1:15). May the God of all mercy grant us repentance to believe the Gospel to the glory and honor of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.