When discussing the question of universal salvation, someone will immediately appeal to our Lord’s teaching on hell. For defenders of the traditional doctrine, it is simply obvious that Jesus taught eternal damnation. Certainly that is how almost all the English translations render the relevant New Testament texts. The classic passage is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46). The parable concludes with these words (Matt 25:46):
καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον
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 aiónion, which is the the adjectival form, in the accusative case, of aion (age, eon, era, epoch). For ease and clarity, I will henceforth refer to the word in its nominative form—aiónios. While aión can signify endless duration, particularly when referring to divinity, it typically refers to a long or indefinite period of time. In his classic work Word Studies of the New Testament, Marvin Vincent comments:
In the New Testament the history of the world is conceived as developed through a succession of aeons. A series of such aeons precedes the introduction of a new series inaugurated by the Christian dispensation, and the end of the world and the second coming of Christ are to mark the beginning of another series. … The adjective aionios in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective in themselves carries the sense of endless or everlasting. They may acquire that sense by connotation. … Aionios means enduring through or pertaining to a period of time. Both the nouns and the adjective are applied to limited periods. … Out of the 150 instances in LXX, four-fifths imply limited duration. (IV:59)
Yet most English translations of Matt 25:46 render aiónios as “eternal” (“eternal punishment,” “eternal life”), thus eliding the nuances of the word. Young’s Literal Translation, on the other hand, awkwardly sticks close to the Greek: “punishment age-during” and “life age-during.” The Concordant Literal New Testament delivers something more like a transliteration, leaving us the task of figuring out what “eonian” means.
In their book Terms for Eternity, Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan take a comprehensive look at how the word aiónios is used in Greek secular literature, Septuagint, New Testament, and early Church Fathers and contrasts it with the word aḯdios (also see their article “Terms for Eternity“; cf. J. W. Hanson, The Greek Word Aion-Aionios). Regarding New Testament usage they conclude:
In the New Testament, then, aḯdios, 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 aión.
On the other hand, aiónios is also applied to punishment in the world to come, particularly in the expressions pur aiónios: aḯdios 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 aḯdios. (pp. 69-70)
Konstan was asked on an internet forum to provide a short summary of his and Ramelli’s research on aiónios:
Ancient Greek had two words that are commonly translated as “eternal”: aḯdios and aiónios. The latter of these terms is an adjective clearly deriving from the noun aión, 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 aḯdios, 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 aḯdios 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—aión—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 (aḯdios, 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.
Given its semantic range, the meaning of aiónios in any specific text must be determined by context and usage. The critical point is that, except when it modifies the noun “God,” the word need not signify 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). For an interesting example, take a look at Rom 16:25-26. In v. 25, the Apostle speaks of “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages [aioníois] but is now disclosed,” which clearly refers to a span of time that has ended, and then in the very next verse he speaks of the aioníou theou, the everlasting God.
Origen, the greatest exegete of the early Church, was well aware of the polysemy of aión and its adjectival forms. In Hom. in Ex. 6.13 he writes: “Whenever Scripture says, ‘from aeon to aeon,’ the reference is to an interval of time, and it is clear that it will have an end. And if Scripture says, ‘in another aeon,’ what is indicated is clearly a longer time, and yet an end is still fixed. And when the ‘aeons of the aeons’ are mentioned, a certain limit is again posited, perhaps unknown to us, but surely established by God” (quoted in Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, p. 161). And Comm. in Rom. 6.5: “In Scriptures, aión is sometimes found in the sense of something that knows no end; at times it designates something that has no end in the present world, but will have in the future one; sometimes it means a certain stretch of time; or again the duration of the life of a single person is called aión” (quoted in Ramelli, p. 163).
Origen explicitly connects aiónios life to final salvation and apokatastasis. Commenting on John 3:36 he writes: “‘He who believes in the Son has aiónios life.’ For if he who believes in the Son has aiónios life, then when he has been rendered into his hand, he is rendered for his own salvation and betterment” (Fragments on John 50.28; quoted in Konstan and Ramelli, pp. 122-123). “The Savior calls himself a harvester, and the recompense of our Lord is the salvation and reintegration of those who are harvested; the expression ‘And he gathers the fruit for aiónios life’ means either that what is gathered is the fruit of aiónios life or that it itself is aiónios life” (Fragments on John 13.46.299; quoted in Konstan and Ramelli, p. 122). But even the aiónes will come to an end, Origen tells us: “After aiónios life a leap will take place and all will pass from the aeons to the Father, who is beyond aiónios life. For Christ is Life, but the Father, who is ‘greater than Christ,’ is greater than life” (Comm. in Io 13.3; quoted in Ramelli, p. 160). The Father transcends all ages. In the apokatastasis the entirety of creation will participate in the aḯdios life that is the Creator. God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:24-28). The Origenian notion of eschatological stages sounds strange to our ears today. When was the last time you heard a sermon on the Son delivering his kingdom to the Father in cosmic theosis? Origen’s exegesis should at least challenge our default readings of aiónios and the Eschaton. By contrast, the fire that belongs to the world to come, the pur aiónion, most definitely will come to an end. It may last for a long time, but it is not eternal. Evil has no place in the universal restoration. Konstan and Ramelli elaborate:
In this connection, it seems particularly significant that Origen calls the fire of damnation pur aiónion but never pur aḯdion. The explanation is that he does not consider this flame to be absolutely eternal: it is aiónion because it belongs to the next world, as opposed to the fire we experience in this present world, and it lasts as long as the aiónes do, in their succession. It does not, however, endure into the aḯdiotes, that is, in the absolute eternity of the final apocatastasis. (p. 126)
Origen clearly understood the semantic range of aiónios and recognized that it does not compel a reading of eternal.
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? St Basil of Caesarea appears to have made this inference in his brief rules for monastics: “for if there will be at a certain moment an end of aiónios punishment, there will also surely be an end of aiónios life” (quoted by Konstan and Ramelli, p. 195). The argument seems initially plausible, given the parallelism; but the inference does not necessarily obtain. Aiónios is an adjective: it modifies the noun to which it is connected. Adjectives often vary in meaning when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things or different events. The life of the age to come is indeed eternal, not because it’s aiónios but because the life of Christ in which believers share is indestructible and perduring. Similarly, we cannot assume that the punishment of the age to come is perpetual. Jesus is not necessarily asserting the eternal duration of eschatological punishment in Matt 25:46. He may only be referring to the punishment that properly belongs to the coming age of the kingdom. Whether it is temporary or everlasting cannot be determined by the adjective alone. And this is the crucial lexical point: aiónios by itself does not tell us whether the punishment of Gehenna is of limited or unlimited duration.
What about the parallelism just noted? New Testament scholar Christopher Marshall insists that we may not infer the eternality of Gehenna 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 aiónios punishment and aiónios 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. David J. Powys, also a New Testament scholar, concurs:
The general primacy of the qualitative sense of aiónion in N.T. usage, is universally acknowledged. Seen as such it expresses the quality of the promised Age (aión), the age of the kingdom of God. This rather than the duration of the kingdom is the primary stress within the word aiónios. Matthew 25:31-46 is packed with imagery concerning the fulfilment of the kingdom: it tells of the coming of the Son of man (v.31), the coming of the King (v.34) and the gathering of the nations before the throne (vv.31,32).
It is thus natural and appropriate to take ‘eternal’ (aiónios) in each of its three instances in this passage as being primarily qualitative in sense. The point is not that the fire will burn for ever, or the punishment extend for ever, or the life continue for ever, but rather that all three will serve to establish the rule of God. (Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question, p. 292)
It should be noted that neither Marshall nor Powys are proponents of apokatastasis.
Thomas Talbott has proposed that aiónios, both in Matt 25 and elsewhere in the New Testament, should 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 cities. So the fire was eternal not 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 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 adequacy 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 possible, rendering—chastisement: God chastises not to 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. In the late 2nd/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 determine that kolasis in Matt 25:36 and elsewhere in the New Testament most likely denotes retributive or ruinating 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 Matthew 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” punishment need not be forever.
(This is a revised and expanded version of an article originally published in July 2014.)