[A revised and much expanded version of this article now exists: “Sometimes Eternal Isn’t Forever.”]
When discussing the question of universal salvation, the immediate rejoinder one encounters is appeal to our Lord’s teaching on hell. For defenders of the traditional construal of hell, it is simply obvious that Jesus taught that hell is eternal, everlasting, endless, interminable. Certainly that is how almost all the English translations render the various texts. The classic text is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46). The parable concludes with these words (Matt 25:46):
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (KJV)
And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (RSV)
And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during. (YLT)
And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian (CLNT)
The key word here is aiónios (genitive: aionion), which is the adjectival form of aion (age, eon, era, epoch). Most translations render the word “eternal”—thus “eternal punishment” and “eternal life.” Young’s Literal Translation, on the other hand, gives us a more literal rendering: “punishment age-[en]during” and “life age-[en]during.” The Concordant Literal New Testament delivers an even more literal rendering (more like a transliteration), leaving us the problem of figuring out what “eonian” means. The American Heritage Dictionary offers this definition of “eonian”: “of, relating to, or constituting an eon.”
What does the word aiónios mean? In their book Terms for Eternity, Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan take a comprehensive look at how the word is used in the Greek secular literature, the Septuagint, New Testament, and early Church Fathers and contrast it with the word aidios (also see their article “Terms for Eternity“). Regarding New Testament usage they conclude:
In the New Testament, then, aidios, which is used far less often than aiónios, would appear to denote absolute eternity in reference to God; in connection with the chains of the fallen angels, on the other hand, it seems to indicate the continuity of their chastisement throughout the entire duration of this world—and perhaps too from before the creation of the world and time itself, that is, eternally a parte ante. As for aiónios, it has a much wider range of meanings, often closely related. It perhaps signifies “eternity” in the strict sense—without beginning or end—in reference to God or his three Persons or to what pertains to God, such as his glory or his kingdom; or it may mean “perpetual”—in the sense of “without end,” “permanent,” “uninterrupted”—in reference, for example, to the new covenant mentioned by Christ. Far the most common expression is zoe aiónios, which, we have argued, indicates life in the future aion, in contrast to the present kairos (or chronos, “time,” or kosmos, “this world,” often used in a negative sense), and which is expressly connected with Christ, faith, hope (for the future), the resurrection in the world to come, and above all to grace in numerous passages, especially Pauline, where grace is said to justify, and Johannine, where it is connected with love or agape: for John, God himself is agape, and the aiónios life is directly identified with Jesus. This life, which is the goal or finality of the Gospel, is the true life, and is often designated simply by zoe tout court; and it coincides with salvation. The adjective aiónios is associated too with other nouns (e.g., glory, salvation), always with reference to life in the next world. Although one may infer that life in the world to come is eternal in the sense of unending, it appears that this is not the primary connotation of aiónios in these contexts, but is rather the idea of a new life or aion.
On the other hand, aiónios is also applied to punishment in the world to come, particularly in the expressions pur aiónios: aidios is never employed either for fire or for other forms of future punishment or harm of human beings, and on one occasion (in 4 Macc) olethros aiónios is contrasted specifically with bios aidios. We have suggested that the chains in which the evil angels are bound are called aidia, in one of the two occurrences of the term in the New Testament, because they last for the entire duration of this world until the final Judgment—that is, throughout or across the aiones. With so rare a use and difficult a context, we do not seek to make a strong case. We may observe, however, that whereas the angels live in the dimension of the aidiotes, human beings dwell in that of the aiones, the ages and the generations that succeed upon one another. Human beings are not eternal, and indeed aidios never refers to humans in the Bible, except in respect to their future life, that is their life in the future aion, which will be eternal (not a parte ante, but a parte post), since it will be a participation in the very life of God. (pp. 69-70)
On an internet forum Konstan was asked to provide a short summary of his and Ramelli’s research on aiónios:
Ancient Greek had two words that are commonly translated as “eternal”: aidios and aiónios. The latter of these terms is an adjective clearly deriving from the noun aion, from which we get the English “eon”: it is an old word, appearing already in Homer, where it refers normally to a lifetime, or else some definite period of time. It never suggests an infinite stretch of time, and in later writers it continues to mean, almost always, either a lifetime or some particular period of time.
What, then, about the adjective aiónios? Here is where problems arise, since the adjective seems first to occur in Plato, and Plato adapts it to a very special sense. Plato had the idea that time was a moving image of eternity, with the implication that eternity itself does not move or change: it is not an infinite length of time, but a state of timelessness (think of what time must have been like before God created the universe). This is quite different from the common meaning of aidios, which the presocratic philosophers had already used to express precisely an infinite stretch of time, with no beginning and no end; and this is what aidios continued to mean.
So, we have two adjectives in use: one of them clearly means “infinite,” when applied to time; but the other does not, and what is more, it is connected with a common noun—aion—that means simply a lifetime, with no suggestion of eternity. Aiónios remains relatively rare in classical Greek, and then we come to the Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs very frequently (aidios, by contrast, only appears twice, and those in parts originally written in Greek). Now, aiónios here can refer to things that are very old (as we say in English, “old as the hills”), but by no means eternal—what in this world is eternal? This is a very common usage, based on the Hebrew term. But it can also be used in reference to the world to come, and here we face the fundamental issue.
If one speaks of the next life, or something that happens in the next life, as aiónios, does it mean simply the next era or eon, or does it carry the further implication of “eternal”? Many of the passages in the Septuagint seem to indicate that the meaning is “of that eon”—and after all, it is a very long, but still finite period of time, that elapses between our death and judgment day and the resurrection, and this could be called an era. What is more, there is some reason to think that, after the resurrection, time itself will come to an end. So, saying that punishment in the afterlife is aiónios may just mean “for that eon” or epoch, and not forever.
We argued that this sense was understood by many (or most) of the Church Fathers, and that when they used aiónios of punishment in the afterlife, they were not necessarily implying that punishment would be eternal. Of course, one can only show this by careful examination of specific passages in context, and this is what we tried to do in our book. Very often, the evidence is ambiguous; for example, when God is described as aiónios, it is very difficult to be sure whether the word means “of the other world” or simply “eternal,” since God is both. We hope readers will decide for themselves, on the basis of the evidence we collected and the interpretations we offered.
Except when it modifies the noun “God,” aiónios, therefore, is perhaps best rendered “of the age,” i.e., that which pertains or belongs to to an age or eon. Given its multiple definitions, the specific denotation of aiónios in any specific text must be determined by context and usage. What is crucial to observe is that the word need not signify eternal, as English-speakers understand the word “eternal”: it does not necessarily mean endless time or timeless existence (also see the ruminations of cultural linguist Orville Jenkins on the difficulties of translating aiónios into modern English).
In Matt 25:46 Jesus speaks of “aiónion punishment” (punishment pertaining to the eon to come—the only place in the New Testament where the phrase occurs) and “aiónion life” (life pertaining to the eon to come). Given that the life given to us in Jesus Christ is eternal in the strong sense, does this not mean that the punishment of Gehenna is also eternal in the strong sense? This seems initially plausible given the parallelism; but the inference does not necessarily obtain. Aiónios/aiónion is an adjective: it modifies the noun to which it is connected. The life of the age to come is indeed eternal, because the life of Christ in which believers share is indestructible and everlasting; but we cannot make this assumption about the punishment of the age to come. Jesus is not necessarily addressing the question of duration in Matt 25:46, whether in reference to the punishment of the eschaton or the life of the eschaton. He may only be referring to the punishment and life that properly belong to the coming age (eon) of the kingdom. Hence whether the eschatological punishment is temporary or everlasting cannot be determined by the adjective alone. And this is the crucial lexical point: the adjective by itself does not tell us whether the punishment of Gehenna is timeless, everlasting, or of limited duration—that knowledge would have to be obtained from other texts and sources.
What about the parallelism just noted? New Testament scholar Christopher Marshall insists that we may not infer the eternality of hell from the eternality of the kingdom:
The word “eternal” is used in both a qualitative and a quantitive sense in the Bible. It is sometimes urged that if eternal life in Matthew 25:46 is everlasting in duration, so too must be eternal punishment. But “eternal” in both phrases may simply designate that the realities in question pertain to the future age. Furthermore, inasmuch as life, by definition, is an ongoing state, “eternal life” includes the idea of everlasting existence. But punishment is a process rather than a state, and elsewhere when “eternal” describes an act or process, it is the consequences rather than the process that are everlasting (e.g., Heb. 6:2, “eternal judgment”; Heb. 9:12, “eternal redemption”; Mark 3:29, “eternal sin”; 2 Thess. 1:9, “eternal destruction”; Jude 7, “eternal fire”). Eternal punishment is therefore something that is ultimate in significance and everlasting in effect, not in duration. (Beyond Retribution, p. 186, n. 123)
Note how misleading the English word “eternal” can be as a translation of aiónios. If the qualitative sense is intended by the speaker, then “eternal” is simply the wrong rendering, as it denotes either temporal perpetuity or timelessness. When Jesus spoke of aiónion punishment and aiónion life, he may reasonably be understood as using the adjective to qualitatively qualify the accompanying noun—i.e., the punishment of the eschatological eon, the life of the eschatological eon. Origen interprets aiónios along similar lines.
Thomas Talbott has proposed that aiónios, both in Matt 25 and elsewhere in the New Testament, be understood in a causal sense, except when it is used directly to modify “God”:
Whether God is eternal (that is, timeless, outside of time) in a Platonic sense or everlasting in the sense that he endures throughout all of the ages, nothing other than God is eternal in the primary sense (see the reference to ‘the eternal God’ in Rom. 16:26). The judgements, gifts, and actions of God are eternal in the secondary sense that their causal source lies in the eternal character and purpose of God. One common function of an adjective, after all, is to refer back to the causal source of some action or condition. When Jude thus cited the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of eternal fire, he was not making a statement about temporal duration at all; in no way was he implying that the fire continues burning today, or even that it continued burning for an age. He was instead giving a theological interpretation in which the fire represented God’s judgement upon the two fires. So the fire was eternal in the sense that it would burn forever without consuming the cities, but in the sense that, precisely because it was God’s judgement upon these cities and did consume them, it expressed God’s eternal character and eternal purpose in a special way.
Now even as the adjective aiónios typically referred back to God as a causal source, so it came to function as a kind of eschatological term, a handy reference to the age to come. This is because the New Testament writers identified the age to come as a time when God’s presence would be fully manifested, his purposes fully realized, and his redemptive work eventually completed. So just as eternal life is a special quality of life, associated with the age to come, whose causal source lies in the eternal God himself, so eternal punishment is a special form of punishment, associated with the age to come, whose causal source lies in the eternal God himself. In that respect, the two are exactly parallel. But neither concept carries any implication of unending temporal duration; and even if it did carry such an implication, we would still have to clarify what it is that lasts forever. If the life associated with the age to come should be a form of life that continues forever, then any correction associated with that age would likewise have effects that literally endure forever. Indeed, even as eternal redemption is in no way a temporal process that takes forever to complete, neither would an eternal correction [i.e., remedial punishment] be a temporal process that takes forever to complete. (“A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgement” in Universal Salvation?, pp. 46-47)
I cannot judge the viability of Talbott’s proposal; but it at least demonstrates the variety of interpretive possibilities open to the exegete.
Now consider how Matt 25:46 reads when the word kólasis, traditionally rendered “punishment” in English translations, is given an alternative, but quite possible, rendering—chastisement: God chastises not to punish retributively or exact vengeance (timoria) but to correct, convert, and purify. Although kólasis can certainly be used in a retributive sense (e.g., 2 Macc 4:38), it may also signify remedial punishment:
The Greek word for punishment is kólasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kólasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment. … Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give. (William Barclay)
In the late 2nd century/early 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria clearly distinguished between kólasis and timoria: “For there are partial corrections [padeiai] which are called chastisements [kólasis], 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” (Strom. 7.16).
Yet even if biblical exegetes should definitively determine that kolasis in Matt 25:36 denotes retributive punishment, this is perfectly compatible with the doctrine of universal salvation, as long as the punishment is finite and temporary.
I propose the following as a plausible translation of Matt 25:46: “Then they will go away to eonion chastisement, but the righteous to eonion life.” The advantage of this translation is that it leaves open legitimate interpretive possibilities and does not read into the text later dogmatic developments.
The lexical evidence is neither decisive nor probative; but it does indicate that Matt 25, and by implication the rest of the New Testament, need not be interpreted to support the traditional understanding of an eternal hell. “True,” writes Robin Parry, “the age to come is everlasting, but that does not necessitate that the punishment of the age to come lasts for the duration of that age, simply that it occurs during that age and is appropriate for that age. … Any interpretation of Gehenna must be compatible with the claim that God is love and would never act in a way towards a person that was not ultimately compatible with what is best for that person. Any interpretation of Gehenna as a punishment must be compatible with the claim that divine punishment is more than retributive but has a corrective intention as well (for divine punishment of the sinner must be compatible with, and an expression of, God’s love for that sinner). Any interpretation of Gehenna must be compatible with God’s ultimate triumph over sin and the fulfilment of his loving purpose of redeeming all his creatures” (The Evangelical Universalist, p. 148).
I am no Bible scholar. I am relying completely on the scholarship of others. I offer the above only to suggest that the New Testament can be plausibly read in ways that do not deny the universalist hope. The plain meaning of the Scriptures—the Bible as read according to the criteria of historical-critical exegesis—does not impose the doctrine of everlasting perdition. Eternal need not be forever.