But what about hell? This is the question we all want answered. Did not Jesus and his Apostles explicitly warn us of the dire consequences of disbelief and impenitence? Did they not plainly teach that those who reject the divine offer of mercy will suffer eternal punishment? Universalists must provide plausible readings of the key New Testament texts that speak of Gehenna if they ever hope to persuade their fellow Christians that the omnipotent love of God will triumph in the hearts of every human being.
What is, Thomas Talbott asks, the didactic point of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats? Did Jesus really intend to convey to his hearers divinely revealed information about the eschatological destinies of the righteous and wicked? Even a cursory reading of the parable compels a negative answer. As Talbott observes, the heart of the parable is its surprising twist—the solidaric identification of the Son of Man with the poor and dispossessed. Like all of Jesus’ parables, its purpose is not to provide details about the afterlife but to elicit a conversion of heart and behavior.
Nonetheless, Jesus did say that the wicked will be condemned to “eternal punishment” (kolasin aiōnion) and the righteous rewarded with “eternal life” (zōēn aiōnion). “Why suppose,” Talbott asks, “that on either occasion of its use in Matthew 25:46 the Greek adjective aiōnios, which many of our English Bibles translate as ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting,’ implies unending temporal duration?”
As many commentators have pointed out, its literal meaning is something like age enduring or perhaps that which pertains to an age; and in some contexts, at least, that literal meaning seems to preclude the idea of unending temporal duration. When Paul spoke of a “mystery that was kept secret for long ages (chronois aiōniois) but is now disclosed” (Rom 16:25-26—my emphasis), he clearly supposed that an age-enduring mystery or a mystery that endures for “eternal times” can come to an end; and if an age-enduring mystery can come to an end, so also, one might argue, can an age-enduring punishment. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 79)
In other words, aiōnion by itself does not necessarily imply eternity, as we typically understand it, yet the overwhelming number of English translations render the word “eternal” or “everlasting.” Why? Many exegetes have been persuaded by an argument attributed to St Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century:
In one place the Lord declares that “these shall go to eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46), and in another place He sends some “to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41); and speaks elsewhere of the fire of gehenna, specifying that it is a place “where their worm dies not, and the fire is not extinguished” (Mk. 9:44-49) and even of old and through the Prophet it was foretold of some that “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be extinguished” (Isa. 66:24). Although these and the like declarations are to be found in numerous places of divinely inspired Scripture, it is one of the artifices of the devil, that many forgetting these and other such statements and utterances of the Lord, ascribe an end to punishment, so that they can sin the more boldly. If, however, there were going to be an end of eternal punishment, there would likewise be an end to eternal life. If we cannot conceive of an end to that life, how are we to suppose there will be and end to eternal punishment? The qualification of “eternal” is ascribed equally to both of them. “For these are going,” He says, “into eternal punishment; the just, however, into eternal life” (Mt. 25:46). If we profess these things we must recognize that the “he shall be flogged with many stripes” and the “he shall be flogged with few stripes” refer not to an end but to a distinction of punishment. (Rules Briefly Treated 267)
If eonian life is eternal and unending, then eonian punishment must also be eternal and unending—and vice versa. Talbott, however, does not find this argument compelling. It forgets how adjectives work. “Adjectives,” he explains, “often vary in meaning, sometimes greatly, when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things” (p. 80); and there can be no question that eonian life and eonian punishment belong to two different categories of things. We rightly believe that eonian life is everlasting because it is life in and with the eternal God; but we cannot simply assume that the same everlastingness is to be attributed to the eonian punishment. A tip-off here is our Lord’s use of kolasis, which typically signifies remedial or corrective punishment, as opposed to a purely retributive punishment (timōria). Whereas eonian life with God “is clearly an end in itself—that is, valuable or worth having for its own sake—the punishment (kolasis) is just as clearly a means to an end” (p. 81). If the reading of kolasis as corrective punishment is correct, then that end can only be reconciliation with God. Talbott, however, recognizes that Christ’s choice of kolasis alone is not decisive. “The language of correction and that of retribution often get completely mixed up in ordinary linguistic contexts,” he remarks (p. 81).
Unwilling to put all of his eggs in the kolasis basket, Talbott returns to the question of aiōnios. Relying on William Barclay’s New Testament Words (1964), Talbott offers the following proposal: “Eternal punishment is simply punishment of any duration that has its causal source in the eternal purposes of God” (p. 83). Consider, for example, Jude 7, which speaks of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by puros aiōniou. Clearly this fire did not burn perpetually—it did end after consuming everything; it is not burning today—yet most English translations of the New Testament render the Greek as “eternal fire.” In what sense, then, can it be said to be eternal? The most plausible answer, suggests Talbott: it is a fire that comes from God. He then applies the same reasoning to the Parable of the Last Judgment:
The point here was not that the fire literally burned forever without consuming these cities and continues to burn even today. The point was that the fire is a form of divine judgment upon these cities, a foreshadowing of eschatological judgment, and that its causal source lies in the eternal God himself. And similarly for the eternal fire and the eternal punishment to which Jesus alluded in Matthew 25:41 and 46 respectively: like the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah, this fire will not be eternal in the sense that it will burn forever without consuming anything—without consuming, for example, that which is false within a person—and neither will it be eternal in the sense that it continues forever without accomplishing its corrective purpose. Both the fire and the punishment are eternal in the twofold sense that their causal source lies in the eternal God himself and that their corrective effects will literally endure forever. For anything that the eternal God does (or any specific action of his in the created order) is eternal in the sense that it is the eternal God who does it. (pp. 83-84)
While I find the above construal plausible, I remain unconvinced and am disappointed that Talbott did not update this section for the 2nd edition of his book in light of more recent scholarship. He relies excessively on Barclay, who claims that in the New Testament “aiōnios is distinctively the word of eternity … it can properly describe only that which essentially belongs to and befits God.” (Words, p. 35). And again:
Aiōnios is the word of eternity as opposed to and contrasted with time. It is the word of deity as opposed to and contrasted with humanity. It is the word which can only really be applied to God. If we remember that, we are left with one tremendous truth—both the blessings which the faithful shall inherit and the punishment which the unfaithful shall receive are such as bits God to give and to inflict. (pp. 36-37)
How reliable is Barclay here? I do not know, but I’m dubious. I have no idea what he means when he says that aiōnios “can only really be applied to God,” when it is used in Greek literature and the Greek Bible in so many diverse ways. Barclay appears to be positing a continuity between Plato (4th century B.C.), who apparently invented the word aiōnios to signify the absolute timelessness of deity, and the New Testament, without however mentioning that Aristotle and many other Greek philosophers did not adopt Plato’s usage and preferred instead to use the term aïdios to signify divine eternity. Reading Plato into the New Testament is a questionable enterprise, as Talbott I think would agree.
Contrast Talbott/Barclay with the semantic analysis of Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan in their recent book Terms for Eternity. The authors survey the use of aiōnios and aïdios in classical and biblical literature, including the Septuagint. They conclude their survey of New Testament usage thusly:
In the New Testament, then, ἀΐδιος, which is used far less often than αἰώνιος, 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 αἰώνιος, 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 ζωή αἰώνιος, which, we have argued, indicates life in the future αἰών, in contrast to the present καιρός (or χρόνος, “time,” or κόσμος, “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 ἀγάπη: for John, God himself is ἀγάπη, and the αἰώνιος 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 ζωή tout court; and it coincides with salvation. The adjective αἰώνιος 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 αἰώνιος in these contexts, but is rather the idea of a new life or αἰών.
On the other hand, αἰώνιος is also applied to punishment in the world to come, particularly in the expressions πυρ αἰώνιος: ἀΐδιος 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) ὄλεθρος αἰώνιος is contrasted specifically with βίος ἀΐδιος. (pp. 69-70)
The difference between Talbott and Ramelli/Konstan is minor, however. The former interprets kolasin aiōnion to mean “the punishment that comes from God”; the latter, “the punishment that belongs to the age to come.” Both reject the interpretation of unending torment. Talbott, in fact, expresses his agreement with the reading of aiōnion as “belonging to the age to come” as a complement to his own:
The Gospel writers typically thought in terms of two ages, the present age and the age to come, and they associated the age to come with God himself: it was an age in which God’s presence would be fully manifested, his purposes fully realized, and his redemptive work eventually completed. They therefore came to employ the term aiōnios as an eschatological term, one that functioned as a handy reference to the realities of the age to come. In that way they managed to combine the more literal sense of “that which pertains to an age” with the more religious sense of “that which manifests the presence of God in a special way.” Eternal life, then, is not merely life that comes from the eternal God himself; it is also the mode of living associated with the age to come. And similarly for eternal punishment: it is not merely punishment that comes from the eternal God himself; it is also the form of punishment associated with the age to come. Nor is there any implication here that the life that comes from God and the punishment that comes from God are of equal duration. In fact, there is no implication here of temporal duration at all, and this, I might add, in no way threatens the Christian understanding of an unending resurrection life with God. For that idea hardly rests upon the translation of the Greek aiōnios; it rests instead upon the doctrine of the resurrection (see John 6:40) and that of God’s enduring and unchanging love for us. (Inescapable Love, p. 85)
So, brethren, did Jesus really teach an eternal hell?