Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)
These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power. (2 Thessalonians 1:9 NKJV)
In my last post, I talked about Hell and the Restoration of All Things and presented a view known as Universal Reconciliation or Christian Universalism. Though it was the dominant view for about the first 500 years in the Church in the East, it is largely overshadowed in the modern Western Church by the view of hell that has been called Eternal Conscious Torment. It is no surprise, then, that there is much pushback to Christian Universalism as well as misunderstandings about what it teaches. Before I address some of the objections, let me first clear up a common misunderstanding: The restoration of all things in heaven and on earth does not happen apart from Jesus, apart from the blood of the cross, or apart from turning to God through faith in Christ.
Now to the objections: There are a couple of passages in the New Testament that are used in an effort to disprove Christian Universalism. One speaks of “eternal punishment” and the other of “eternal destruction.” It is assumed from the English translations of the underlying Greek words that, since the punishment and destruction are described as “eternal,” ultimate reconciliation is thereby excluded.
In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus says this concerning the “goats” (the wicked) and the “sheep” (the righteous): “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). The words usually translated as “eternal punishment” are kolasin aionion. The words for “eternal life” are zoen aionion.
Let’s look at aionion first, since it is the common denominator. Though it is often translated as “eternal” or “everlasting,” it is not actually about eternity or everlastingness. The word comes from aion, which is about an “eon” (you can even hear “eon” in the pronunciation of aion). It is about an age or ages. The Bible knows of many ages — for example, Paul speaks of ages past (Romans 16:25 and Ephesians 3:9) and ages to come (Ephesians 2:7).
Of itself, aionion is not about eternity, or everlastingness or endlessness. As is true of all words, its meaning and how it is used depends upon the context. When used to speak of God, it can have the connotation of eternity, since God is without beginning or end and encompasses all ages. It can also indicate eternity when it is used of the immortal, incorruptible life God imparts to those who turn to him in faith. But in those instances, the meaning “eternal” derives not from the word aionion itself but from its object: God or the life of God that is imparted. In the Gospel of John particularly, zoen aionion is not about a quantity of life but about a quality: that it is the life that comes from God. In general, then, aionion is not about eternity but about an age, usually the age that is to come. In that sense, zoen aionion is about the (divine) life pertaining to the age to come.
Now let’s look at kolasis, the word that is translated as “punishment” in Matthew 25:46. It is from the word koladzo, which has to do with chastisement, or curtailment. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon gives the first meaning of koladzo as “to lop or prune, as trees and wings.” It began as a horticultural term. The purpose of pruning a vine or tree was not in order to exact retribution on the tree or to destroy it but, rather, that it might bear fruit. So the words koladzo and kolasis are used in the sense of chastisement or correction.
However, there is a Greek word that is used for punishment as retribution or retaliation for evil, and that is the word timoria. Clement of Alexandria (circa AD 150-215), one of the early Church Fathers who taught universal reconciliation, demonstrates the difference in one of his miscellaneous writings:
For there are partial corrections which are called chastisements [kolasis], which many of us who have been in transgression incur by falling away from the Lord’s people. But as children are chastised by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish [timoria] for punishment [timoria] is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised collectively and individually. (Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 16)Timoria is not the word Jesus used in Matthew 25:46 (or one that is found anywhere else in the New Testament, for that matter). The word Jesus used is kolasis. So kolasin aionion, in Matthew 25:46, is not about endless retribution exacted upon the “goats” but about chastisement of the “goats” in the age to come. How long will this chastisement last? There is no reason to suppose that it must last longer than is needed for correction.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul speaks of olethron aionion, which is not about endless or eternal destruction but about destruction in the age to come. Olethros, the word for “destruction,” does not necessarily indicate finality. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, for example, Paul speaks of a man who committed adultery with his father’s wife: “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction [olethron] of the flesh,” Paul instructs them, “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” The purpose was not that the man would be ultimately destroyed but that he would be saved on the day of the Lord.
Neither Matthew 25:46 nor 2 Thessalonians 1:9 disprove Christian Universalism or preclude the final reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth through Jesus Christ. Indeed, as I showed in my last post, Paul affirms elsewhere in several places that the ultimate reconciliation of all things is God’s plan and purpose in Christ.
For more on this, see Dr. Marvin R. Vincent’s notes on Olethron Aionion, from his Word Studies in the New Testament.