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Eternal Punishment

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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ETERNAL PUNISHMENT.— Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 of Matthew 25:46 (εἰς κὁλασιν αἰώνιον). The Authorized Version here and in 26 other passages has ‘everlasting.’ The adjective αἰώνιος occurs 70 times in the NT (1 Timothy 6:19 omitted in Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885), and in the Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885, with one exception (Philemon 1:15), is uniformly rendered ‘eternal.’ This is a distinct gain, as it leaves the exact significance to be determined by use. Three passages should be examined: ‘Through times eternal’ (Romans 16:25); ‘before times eternal’ (2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2); in these uses it is clear that ‘eternal’ and ‘everlasting’ are not interchangeable. This agrees with the LXX Septuagint, in which αἰώνιος is used of the rites and ceremonies of Judaism which are done away in Christianity (Exodus 12:24; Exodus 29:9; Exodus 40:15, Numbers 18:19 and others). The suggested use of ‘aeonian’ has failed to find approval notwithstanding its advantages, and ‘age-long’ is inept.

For NT thought the use of the term in the Fourth Gospel should be studied. Excluding parallel passages, ‘eternal life’ is found 21 times in the Gospels, and of these 17 are in John. In this Gospel, as also in 1 Jn., the notions of succession and duration are eliminated, and ‘eternal’ becomes almost synonymous with ‘Divine.’ ‘It is not an endless duration of being in time, but being of which time is not a measure’ (Westcott, see Additional note on 1 John 5:20). See Eternal Life.

In the Synoptic Gospels, to ‘enter into life’ and to ‘enter into the kingdom’ are used interchangeably (cf. Matthew 19:16-17 with Matthew 19:23, Mark 9:45 with Mark 9:47, Matthew 25:34 ‘inherit the kingdom,’ and Matthew 25:46 ‘unto eternal life’). In the Fourth Gospel ‘eternal life’ is the equivalent of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ of the Synoptic Gospels (cf. John 3:3; John 3:5, where ‘the kingdom of God’ occurs, with John 3:15). This suggests a very comprehensive and definite idea. ‘Eternal life’ is the life of the Kingdom of God, forgiveness, righteousness, salvation, blessing, whatever that life is declared to be in the teaching of Jesus. ‘Eternal punishment’ is the antithesis of ‘eternal life,’ the penalties upon all unrighteousness inseparably bound up with the Kingdom, and which, in His new teaching of the Kingdom, Jesus plainly sets forth. As a working principle, then, ‘eternal’ may be accepted as descriptive of things belonging to, essentially bound up with, the Kingdom, and is almost the equivalent of ‘Messianic,’ in the Christian, as opposed to the merely Jewish significance of the term, ‘that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name’ (John 20:31). These deeper meanings of αἰώνιος in the NT should serve to remove the question of the time element in future punishment from the unsatisfactory basis of mere verbal interpretations.

In collating the teaching of the Gospels, full emphasis must be given to the following postulates:

1. The certainty of retribution is inseparably bound up with the revelation of Jesus as to the will and character of God. The Father who ‘seeth in secret’ and rewards unobtrusive righteousness (Matthew 6:1 ff.) will render to the unrighteous the due reward of their deeds (Matthew 7:19; Matthew 10:28; Matthew 12:36; Matthew 15:13; Matthew 18:6; Matthew 18:35, Luke 18:7 [parallel passages omitted throughout]). Hence the urgency of the call to repentance (Matthew 4:17), and to the obedience of righteousness as in the Sermon on the Mount, and, at any cost, to ‘crucify the flesh’ which prompts to sin (Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 18:8; Matthew 18:8). In this Jesus takes His stand with the prophets of old and with the last of their order, John the Baptist (cf. Luke 3:7-14). The revelation of the all-perfect Father never weakens, but ever adds new emphasis to the call to a life of righteousness, and to the certainty of penalty for all unrighteousness.

2. The characteristic teaching of Jesus as to the penalties of sin is bound up with His gospel of the Kingdom.—The incomparable worth of the Kingdom, as the richest ‘treasure,’ and ‘pearl of great price’ (Matthew 13:44-45), and the supreme quest of it as the first duty and sovereign wisdom of life (Matthew 6:33), have, as their converse, the incomparable loss which the rejection of the gospel must inevitably entail. This is the supreme penalty—exclusion from the Kingdom, to be cast into the ‘outer darkness’ (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 25:30), denied by the Lord (Matthew 7:23; Matthew 10:33; Matthew 25:12, Luke 13:25-27), shut out from the glad presence of the King (Matthew 25:41). The use of the figures ‘weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth’ in the sentence of exclusion clearly indicates that remorse is one element in future retribution (cf. Luke 16:25 ‘Son, remember’).

3. The hearing of the gospel adds to human responsibility, and increases the severity of the inevitable penalty of disobedience.—This is the burden of much of the teaching of Jesus. Light is come into the world, and with the light a more solemn duty (John 3:19; John 9:41; John 15:22; John 15:24; John 16:9, Luke 12:47-48). It is the apostate disciple who, as salt which has lost its savour, is cast out (Matthew 5:13). To His disciples Jesus gives the warnings of God’s searching judgment (Matthew 5:22 ff.). To those who call Him ‘Lord, Lord,’ and in His name have done ‘many mighty works,’ He utters the dread ‘Depart’ (Matthew 7:21-23, cf. Luke 13:25-27). It is the disobedient hearers of His word who are compared to a foolish builder whose house, built upon sand, is ruined by the storm (Matthew 7:26-27). Those who deny Him, He also will deny (Matthew 10:33); those who are ashamed of Him, of them will He be ashamed (Mark 8:38). It is the unfaithfnl servant (Matthew 24:48-51), the unwatchful (Matthew 25:1-13), the unprofitable (Matthew 25:30), who are cast out of the Kingdom. It is the unfruitful branch of the vine that is cast forth, withered, gathered, cast into the fire, burned (John 15:6). The final condition of hopeless doom, the state of ‘eternal sin,’ is the direct result of self-willed, deliberate resistance to the Divine grace (Mark 3:29; see Eternal Sin). And in the larger issues the severity of judgment falls upon cities and generations ‘exalted to heaven’ in privilege and opportunity, but doomed because of neglect (Matthew 11:20-24; Matthew 12:41-42).

In all this there is no reference to those to whom the gospel has not been made known. The mention of the Cities of the Plain (Matthew 10:15) and that of the men of Nineveh (Matthew 12:41) are too incidental and indirect to yield any determining principle. Even the great Judgment passage (Matthew 25:31 ff.), if indeed it is to be interpreted universally as including all the nations of the earth, may be interpreted also as assuming a corresponding universality of knowledge, the gospel preached throughout the whole world. The judgments Jesus announces are vitally bound up with the message He brings. The problem of those to whom the offers of grace have not been made is not considered, and we are not justified in applying to them the severities of penalty and dread doom which, in the teaching of Jesus, fall only upon those who deny Him and reject His gospel.

4. The final triumph of the Kingdom, and consequent final separation of the righteous and the wicked.—This is again and again solemnly asserted and described. In the parables of the Tares (Matthew 13:24 ff.) and the Drag-net (Matthew 13:47 ff.), the ultimate overthrow, and, as the terms used would seem to imply, the final destruction of evil are decisively declared. From the explanation of the parable it is clear that the wheat and the tares represent persons—‘the sons of the kingdom’ and ‘the sons of the evil one.’ This sharp division of men into two classes entirely distinct is to human vision impossible. The facts of life show the presence of ‘wheat and tares,’ good and evil in every man. The difficulty is unresolved. The end is declared, but not the stages by which it is reached. The Kingdom is to be all righteousness, out of it is to be gathered ‘all things that cause stumbling, and them that do iniquity’ (Matthew 13:41). Every plant not planted by the Father is to be uprooted (Matthew 15:13), and every tree which beareth not good fruit is to be cut down and destroyed (Matthew 7:19).

So far there can be little hesitation in setting forth the teaching of Jesus. The difficulties arise when we seek to determine exactly the nature and duration of the penalties and of the doom. The difficulty is accentuated by the fact that Jesus uses freely the religious symbolism current at the time. Gehenna, the worm that dies not and the fire that is not quenched, the outer darkness, the weeping and the wailing and the gnashing of teeth, were familiar figures, and are clearly used because familiar (see Eternal Fire). If, then, we ask how far Jesus gave His sanction to the popular notions behind the symbols, we are confronted with the difficulty of determining what those notions were. The use of these figures to describe the place of punishment in the world of spirits is admitted, but it is not so clear which of the three doctrines which have divided Christian thought—endless punishment, annihilation, restoration—was held. Support has been found for each opinion, and from the words of Jesus Himself quite opposite conclusions have been reached. In what has been said above, finality would seem to be taught, but other opinions are held.

(1) Especially the great sayings in which the note of the universality of grace rings so clear (John 3:16-17), and the persistent search of the lost (Luke 15:4-8) and the all-embracing work of Jesus are so absolutely declared (John 1:29; John 12:31-32), have been dwelt upon as justifying ‘the larger hope.’ The exact award of penalty, the few and many stripes according to the measure of disobedience (Luke 12:47-48), the completed sentence implied in ‘till thou have paid the last farthing’ (Matthew 5:26; cf. Matthew 18:34-35), the startling symbolism of the phrase ‘salted with fire’ (Mark 9:49), which is said to teach ‘that the destructive element performs a purifying part’ (see Internat. Crit. Com. ‘Mark’ in loco), the use of κόλασις, pruning, ‘suggestive of corrective rather than of vindictive punishment’ (Expos. Gr. Test. on Matthew 25:46), and the use of αἰώνιος as suggesting ‘age-long,’ have all been singled out as leaving room for the hope of final salvation through the fires of judgment.

The exact balance of the awards ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal punishment’ (Matthew 25:46) has often been insisted upon as teaching finality. As the life is certainly endless, so, it is urged, must the punishment be. But even this is not conclusive. The terms ‘life’ and ‘punishment’ point to an essential difference. Life is of God, essentially Divine; punishment is from God, a Divine act. It is well also to bear in mind that ‘if good ever should come to an end, that would come to an end which Christ died to bring in; but if evil comes to an end, that comes to an end which He died to destroy’ (Clemance, Future Punishment, p. 65).

But more than upon single texts, reliance is placed upon the revealed character and purpose of God in Jesus Christ.

(2) On the other hand, the strong terms, destruction, perdition, unquenchable fire, and the analogies of consumption of tares and chaff and withered branches by fire, are instanced as indicating annihilation. Two sayings of Jesus are indeed terrible in their severity, and ought not to be minimized: ‘Be not afraid of them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matthew 10:28). Whether the reference be to God as the object of fear (so Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, i. 201, and most commentators) or ‘the tempter’ and ‘the devil whose agent he is’ (so Bruce, Expos. Gr. Test. in loco), the statement as to the destruction of the soul itself remains. The same thought is suggested by the figure used in the saying, ‘He that falleth on this stone shall be broken to pieces; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will scatter him as dust’ (Matthew 21:44). Were utter extinction of being to be taught, it could hardly be in plainer terms.

(3) In close association, and lending support to the theory of annihilation, is the doctrine of ‘conditional immortality’ or ‘life in Christ.’ According to this theory the object of revelation is ‘to change man’s nature, not only from sin to holiness, but from mortality to immortality.’ Many sayings in the Fourth Gospel are pressed to support this theory, especially those where the gift of life is declared to be only through the Son, and to those only who abide in Him by faith (John 3:15-16; John 6:35; John 6:50-58).

It is this evident and apparently ‘insoluble antinomy’ which has led many to conclude ‘that we have not the elements of a complete solution, and we ought not to attempt it. What visions beyond there may be, what larger hopes, what ultimate harmonies, if such there are in store, will come in God’s good time; it is not ours to anticipate them, or lift the veil where God has left it drawn’ (Orr, The Christian View of God and the World, 397). This conclusion, so far at least as the Gospels are concerned, may be accepted. In the teaching of Jesus the emphasis is always upon present opportunity, duty, responsibility. ‘One said unto him, Lord, are they few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in by the narrow door’ (Luke 13:23). ‘Walk while ye have the light, that darkness overtake you not. While ye have the light, believe on the light, that ye may become sons of light’ (John 12:35-36). God’s eternal grace and man’s ‘boundless power of resistance’ stand over against each other. Jesus honours both, but nowhere in His reported sayings does He disclose the final issue.

The teaching of the Epistles does not come within the scope of this article, but this brief reference is necessary. To the present writer, at least, it does appear that St. Paul’s faith reaches a final issue. By him an endless dualism is decisively rejected. ‘That God may be all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:20-28) is the final goal; but what that includes, or how accomplished, is not declared; only of Christ it is said, and we may hold this faith confidently, ‘He must reign till he hath put all his enemies under his feet.’

Literature.—This is very voluminous, and no attempt is made to include even all modern works. The following may be consulted:—(A) In favour of endlessness of punishment: Pusey, What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment?; S. Davidson, The Doctrine of Last Things; Salmond, The Christian Doctrine of Immortality.—(B) Treating the answer as unrevealed: Barrett, The Intermediate State; Beet, The Last Things; Clemance, Future Punishment; Orr, The Christian View of God and the World, Lect. ix.—(C) In support of annihilation: Row, Future Retribution; Stokes, Conditional Immortality; E. White, Life in Christ.—(D) Maintaining the ‘larger hope’: Cox, Salvator Mundi; Farrar, Eternal Hope, and Mercy and Judgment; Plumptre, Spirits in Prison, includes art. ‘Eschatology’ from Smith’s Dict. of Christian Biog.; Jukes, The Restitution of all Things.—(E) On the general question: see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, art. ‘Eschatology’; Alger, Doctrine of a Future Life; also Greg’s Enigmas of Life, ch. vii., for a striking presentation of retribution as determined by the nature of sin; Stephen, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, the Epilogue.

W. H. Dyson.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Eternal Punishment'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​e/eternal-punishment.html. 1906-1918.
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