ETERNAL PUNISHMENT

T. PIERCE BROWN

The purpose of this article is to explore in more detail the meaning and implications of the statement in Matthew 25:46, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.” Our primary concern at this time is to determine the scriptural meaning of “everlasting punishment.” First, does it mean, “unending” and second, what is the punishment? Is the punishment merely “death” of the physical body? Is it annihilation, or is it suffering — an ongoing process? We are not writing to defend someone’s “position,” nor merely to defeat some false doctrine, but simply to find or reveal what God says about the subject.

First, we discover that the word “everlasting” is a translation of the Hebrew word “olam” in the Old Testament, and is translated in the following ways in the King James Version: ancient time (1), beginning of the world (1), continuance (1), ever (267), everlasting (64), evermore (15), old (7), perpetual (20), ancient (5). It is equivalent to the Greek phrase “eis ton aiona,” which literally means “unto the age” and is an undefined period, meaning “throughout the age” to which it refers. It may be short or long, depending on the context, and the nature of the age in which and about which it is used. It is the word used in Genesis13:15, where God promised Abram, “For the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever.” It is used in Genesis 17:7-8, “an everlasting covenant — an everlasting possession.” That the covenant was broken is shown in Isaiah 24:5, and Jeremiah 31:32, and other passages. Such passages as Deuteronomy 15:17 where a servant was to belong to his master “forever” and Philemon 15 where the same idea is expressed show it to have reference to an undetermined length of time, but throughout the period — whatever the period was. In these cases, it was all of their lives, but certainly not an unending period.

The word “everlasting” is also a translation of the Hebrew term, ad, which is also translated the following ways; ever (42), everlasting (2), eternity (1), perpetually (1). It is equivalent to the phrase in the New Testament “eis tous aionas ton aionon,” which may be loosely translated “for ever and ever,” and refers to a period of existence without end. It is interesting to note that it is in no case used of the possession ofIsraelinCanaanor of the Old Covenant.

In the New Testament the word “aionios” is translated “eternal” 42 times, and “everlasting” 25 times. In some grammatical constructions it is used to signify an undefined period, but not endless, such as Romans16:25, translated “since the world began” and in 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2, translated “before the world began.” Its basic meaning is “age lasting” and the word itself does not tell whether the age through which it lasts is endless or not. It depends on the construction of the sentence and the context, as in Philemon 15. When it refers to the future state, after Christ’s return, it means “throughout the age,” and since that age is nowhere represented as having an end, or of being superseded by another age, the thing which is spoken of as going on “throughout the age” will have no end. Whenever the construction is “eis tous aionas ton aionon,” translated “for ever and ever,” it refers to events without end.

Another word “aidios” is translated “eternal” in Romans 1:20 and as “everlasting” in Jude 6.

But the word at which we are looking in Matthew 25:46 is “aionion.”  How can we tell how long it lasts? It is “throughout the age,” but what age? If it refers to the age in which we live, then it may come to an end when the age in which we live comes to an end. But it refers to the next age, and since the next age is represented as unending, then if one lives in that age, it will be an unending life, and if one is separated from God throughout that age, it will be forever a separation!

However, that leaves us with a question, “What is the punishment?” Is it merely a cessation of existence, or is it suffering and continuous anguish? All the human reasoning that might say, “God is a loving God, and the idea of his allowing a creature to suffer eternally is contradictory” is of no consequence measured by the revelation of God. It is assumed by some that since the punishment is called “death,” as opposed to “life,” it means a cessation of existence. For example, there are those who think Ezekiel 18:4 and18:20, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” means annihilation. But “death” does not mean “cessation of existence.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (as well as others) are represented in the Bible as “dead,” but still “living” as far as their consciousness, existence and relationship to God is concerned. So “death” merely means “a separation.” That the “punishment” is conscious suffering, and therefore not merely a cessation of existence is abundantly shown by the following scriptures: Revelation 14:9-11 shows that they are “tormented with fire and brimstone, for ever and ever, and they have no rest day and night.” There are three things we note here. 1. The punishment is “torment” — not cessation of existence. 2. It goes on throughout the age. 2. They have no rest day and night. These things could not properly be affirmed of one who was annihilated, or ceased to exist.

Matthew11:24is one of the places where there are degrees of punishment indicated for those who are lost. if all were simply annihilated, or ceased to exist, that could not be so. There would not be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51) if a person did not exist. Luke 12:46-47 represents the judgment as one who is suffering few or many stripes, not cessation of existence.

We look in vain for any verse that suggests that man will ever cease to have a conscious existence, but every verse which relates to the destiny of the evil person suggests torment (kolasis) which is the process of suffering, not merely an instantaneous effect — a burning up or cessation of existence. I would be glad to teach that there is no eternal suffering if I could find the idea in the Bible. But we are not allowed to let human reasoning and fleshly desires take the place of God’s revealed truth.

If one would carefully examine every passage where the soul is mentioned in the Bible, including the context of the verses in Ezekiel we have mentioned, he should be able to see that in many cases the word “soul” simply stands for the person. Surely no one could read thoughtfully Acts 27:37, “And we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls” and assume that he is talking about some immaterial part of man.

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