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The Apologists  Bible Commentary

 

 

Matthew 25

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46 "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

 

Commentary Jesus teaches that the unrighteous will inherit "eternal punishment," while the righteous inherit "eternal life."  Many have argued that this verse does not teach the doctrine of Hell as a place of eternal suffering and torment apart from God.  Much stress is laid on the translation of "eternal" and "punishment" (see Other Views Considered, below).  However, if these words are translated correctly, this verse must be considered strong evidence in support of the orthodox view.

The word translated "punishment" reflects the common meaning of the word in Koine Greek (see Grammatical Analysis, below, for more details).  The word occurs in over 130 documents contemporary with the Greek New Testament, and in all cases, the translation "punishment" is correct.  We must further stress that the word translated "eternal" in this verse modifies both "punishment" and "life.".  This verse presents a parallel construction.  Jesus is contrasting "punishment" with "life."  If we take Him to mean that our life in Him is eternal - everlasting, without end - then it seems most reasonable to understand Him to be teaching that the punishment of the unrighteous is also eternal - everlasting, without end.

Thus, Jesus tells us that the eternal hope of the righteous is in Him, just as eternal punishment awaits the unrighteous who are apart from Him.  And since we know none are righteous (Rom 3:10), our only hope is in Christ - for our faith alone justifies us (declares us righteous) in God's sight (Rom 3:20 ff.).

Some have argued that this doctrine has turned many people into infidels; but so have other Christian doctrines. The question is not how men respond to a doctrine but what Jesus and the NT writers actually teach about it. Human response is a secondary consideration and may reveal as much about us as about the doctrine being rejected. Nevertheless two things should be kept in mind: (1) as there are degrees of felicity and responsibility in the consummated kingdom (e.g., 25:14-30; cf. 1Cor 3:10-15), so also are there degrees of punishment (e.g., Matt 11:22; Luke 12:47-48); and (2) there is no shred of evidence in the NT that hell ever brings about genuine repentance. Sin continues as part of the punishment and the ground for it (EBC).

Grammatical Analysis kai apeleusontai outoi eiV kolasin aiwnion, oi de dikaioi eiV xwhn aiwnion

 

KAI APELEUSONTAI OUTOI EIS KOLASIN AI‘NION, OI DE DIKAIOI EIS Z‘ N AI‘NION

 

And these will go away into punishment eternal, but the just into life eternal.

 

KOLASIS (2851)

Moulton & Milligan, BAGD, and Thayer list dozens of occurrences of KOLASIS in late classical and early Christian documents, and cite "punishment" as the proper translation in each case.  There are no other meanings listed for KOLASIS in any of these lexicons.  Here is just one example from Moulton and Milligan:  "for the evil doers among men receive their reward not among the living only, but also await punishment (KOLASIN) and much torment" (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 840).

 

AI‘NIOS (166)

  • Without end (BAGD)

  • Without end, never to cease, everlasting (Thayer)

  • Eternal (TDNT, Louw & Nida)

  • In the vernacular as in the classical Greek (see Grimm-Thayer), it never loses the sense of perpetuus (Moulton & Milligan)

Vine suggests that AI‘NIOS may mean either eternal or "duration...undefined but not endless."  However, the verses he cites in support of the latter definition (Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2) all refer to past time, not the future.  BAGD and Thayer both define AI‘NIOS in these verses as "without beginning."  Vine assigns the "eternal" meaning to AI‘NIOS in Matthew 25:46 - no doubt because whenever AI‘NIOS is combined with Z‘  ("life") in the Greek New Testament, it always means "eternal."  Thus, if the second occurrence of AI‘NIOS in this verse means "eternal," it seems reasonable to accept the same meaning in the first usage, particularly given the parallel construction.  

 

In conclusion, the lexical evidence is very strong that "eternal punishment" is the correct translation of KOLASIN AI‘NION in this verse.  Thus, we may confidently conclude that Jesus taught that the unrighteous would be consigned to punishment everlasting, while those who call upon Him as their only Lord and Savior, will receive life everlasting.

Other Views Considered

Jehovah's Witnesses

The Watchtower's New World Translation renders KOLASIN AI‘NION in this verse as "everlasting cutting-off."  A number of arguments have been offered by Witness apologists to support this translation.  The following objections are derived from personal discussions with Witness over the past several years.

objection:  The Greek word for "punishment/cutting off" is KOLASIS, which comes from the Greek word KOLAZ‘ which means to cut off or prune.  The Emphatic Diaglott also uses the phrase "cutting off" and it gives the explanation that most versions confuse KOLASIN with BASINOS conveying the meaning of "torment". It goes on further to say that KOLAZ‘ "which signifies ,1. to cut off, as lopping off branches of trees, to prune, 2. To restrain, to repress.....3, to punish, to chastise. To cut off an individual from life, or society, or even to restrain, is esteemed as punishment." p.106 

Response:  It is true that KOLASIS is derived etymologically from KOLAZ‘.  It is also true that in Classic Greek, KOLAZ‘ means "to prune, to cut off."  However, there are several problems with asserting that KOLASIS should be properly translated "cutting off" because of its relationship with KOLAZ‘.  First, determining the meaning of a word by its derivation is an example of the "etymological fallacy."  D.A. Carson states that presuming that a word's meaning is bound up with its root or roots is "linguistic nonsense" (Carson, Fallacies, p. 28).  Words may or may not share semantic range with their etymological forebears.  In many cases, they do not.  The fact that all modern lexicons define KOLASIS as "punishment" and not one lists "cutting off" as a possible definition, suggests that it does not mean "cutting off," regardless of what KOLAZ‘ may mean.

Second, KOLAZ‘ had the meaning "to prune, to cut off" in Classical Greek.  However, as the Liddell-Scott lexicon shows, even in classical times, it began to take on the meaning of chastisement or punishment:

to chastise, punish, Sophocles, Euripides, etc.:óMed. to get a person punished, Aristophanes, Plato:óPass. to be punished, Xenophon. (LS)

While KOLAZ‘ may have originally had the meaning "cut off," it was commonly used in late Classical Greek and in Koine Greek to mean "punish, chastise, restrain."  A quick check of the modern lexicons will confirm this fact:

  • Prop[erly] to lop, prune as trees, wings ... to chastise, correct, punish: so in the N.T. (Thayer)

  • "To cut short," "to lop," "to trim," and figuratively a. "to impede," "restrain," and b. "to punish" ... A common use is for divine chastisement....The NT uses kolazw in Acts 4:18 and 2 Peter 2:9.  Only the latter refers to God's punishment (TDNT)

  • Punish (BAGD) - This lexicon lists dozens of examples from literature contemporary with the NT and lists "punish" as the only meaning for kolazw in this time period.

  • Moulton & Milligan suggest that kolazw retains the meaning "correcting," "cutting down" in later documents, such as Galen, but note that "punish" is the proper translation in the NT, and cite several contemporary sources supporting this meaning.

Thus, we may conclude that there is no lexical support for the NWT translation of KOLASIS in Matthew 25:46.  The NWT offers an anachronistic rendering, consistent with its theology but not with common usage in New Testament times.

objection:  Numerous lexical works support the NWT translation of KOLASIS, such as Young, Robinson, Bullinger, Berry, and Robertson.

Response:  Before we look at each references in detail, I would note that these sources are dated.  All but the last two are 19th Century lexicons.  Berry is fairly recent, but is a classical Greek lexicon, not a New Testament Greek lexicon.  Why is this important?  The discoveries and publication of the various papyri at the end of the 19th century and continuing in the early decades of the 20th brought a new understanding - and appreciation - for the fact that Koine Greek was a developed language, with significant differences from Classic, or Attic, Greek.  Many of the lexicographers of the 19th century simply did not have access to the papyrological evidence, and so their lexicons favored more Classic definitions.  This is why you won't find these lexical sources showing up in many scholarly papers - if any!  The standard works are BAGD, Moulton & Milligan, Louw & Nida, and the TDNT.

Now, let's consider each work as presented by Witness apologists, followed by my response:

Young's Concise Commentary:

In the note to 2 Pet. 2:9 it says: "has known to free reverent ones out of trial, and to keep unjustness being punished (lit. cut off, mutilated, restrained) with a view to a day of judgment."

 

Young is referring to kolazw, here.  Interestingly, he does not cite "cut off," "mutilated," in his Analytical Concordance for kolasw, though he does cite "restraint."  More on this, below.  I suspect by "lit[erally]," Young is referencing the meaning in Attic Greek - that is, the etymology of the word, and does not mean that it is a viable translation in the NT.  This suspicion is confirmed, I believe, when we look at Young's Literal Translation of this verse:

"The Lord hath known to rescue pious ones out of temptation, and unrighteous ones to a day of judgment, being punished, to keep..."

Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament by Edward Robinson (professor of Biblical Lit. at the Union Theological Seminary NY)

"(Kolasis) a curtailing, pruning" --Page 405

Robinson cites Classic sources for this meaning:  "curtailing, pruning, e.g., Theophr. Caus."  Notice the next clause:  "In NT, punishment - Matt. 25:46" (p. 405).  In the preface to his Lexicon, Robinson writes: "It should be a matter of prominent importance to exhibit each word in its true character and relations, as a component part of the Greek tongue; as compared, on the one hand, with the Hellenistic idiom; and, on the other, with the usage of classic Greek writers" (p. vii).  Thus, his practice is to define the term from Classic sources, then cite the meaning it held in the NT.

In his citation of kolasw, he again cites Classic sources for "curtail, prune;" a later Classic source for "to correct, moderate;" and the NT for "to chastise, to punish."  He translates 2 Peter 2 [4] 9: "to reserve as subject to punishment" (p. 405).

Actually, Robinson supports the contention that kolasw and kolasis had the meaning "pruning" in Classic times, but by the NT era, they had come to mean "punishment."

Analytical Concordance to the Bible by Robert Young

"Restraint" --Page 784

 

Young does cite "restraint" as a possible meaning for kolasis (under the entry "Punishment, #8).  However, in that section, he translates Mat. 25:46 as "Shall go away into everlasting punishem[ent]" (p. 784).  I don't really find it credible that Robert Young believed kolasis meant anything other than "punishment" in the NT, when that's how he translated it here and in his Literal Translation.  I might further inquire how "restraint" supports the rendering "cutting off?"  I can certainly understand "restraint" as a punishment, but not as a variation of "pruning" or "cutting off."  It seems to me "restraint" favors the orthodox view of "eternal punishment" (where the soul is confined or "restrained" apart from God), and not the "second death," as taught by the WT.  The NWTTC certainly knew of this meaning for kolasis, for they translated it "restraint" in 1 John 4:18.  I guess the "context" (that is, the adjective "eternal" immediately preceding) caused them to choose another rendering in Mat. 25:46.

A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament
by E.W. Bullinger

"curtail, dock, prune, but usu. like Lat. castigore, to keep within bounds, check, chastise;...to punish, generally..the future punishment of sin is clearly defined as death and destruction."

This quote comes from the entry for kolasw.  Notice here he says "to be punished, generally." By "generally," he means "commonly," in its most common usage.  His statement regarding "punishment of sin" is interesting with regard to Bullinger's apparent theology, but not with regard to the meaning of kolasw, which he defines as "generally" or "usually" to chastise or punish.  His entry for kolasis is very interesting.  Again, while he lists "pruning," he defines it "generally" as punishment.  Notice what he says in this section about what "punishment" means in the NT: "the nature of which must be looked for in other parts of the Scriptures..."(p. 612, emphasis in original).  Obviously, he believes "punishment" is the correct translation, because he feels he has to qualify the term to suit his theological beliefs.  It seems his statement about "punishment of sin" being defined as "death and destruction" is derived from his interpretation of other parts of Scripture.  Certainly, his definition of kolasis is not used to support his view.

Bullinger's view of kolasis is largely influenced by the Attic Greek meaning (as were all lexical works prior to the end of the 19th Century).  Certainly no modern scholar has cited Bullinger to my knowledge, though the literature is replete with references to BAGD and TDNT, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) M&M, Louw & Nida, and Thayer.

The Classic Greek Dictionary - Sixteenth Edition 1962, by George Ricker Berry, PhD

"kolazw - To prune, retrench: ... metaph. ... confine: then to chastise, correct, punish."

 

We do not dispute that kolazw originally meant "to prune."  We agree with Berry that the meaning "then" became "to chastise, correct, or punish."  Berry supports the view that the NWT has offered an anachronistic rendering of kolasis in Matthew 25:46.

Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament 

"Eternal punishment (kolasin aiwnion). The word kolasin comes from kolazw, to mutilate or prune. Hence those who cling to the larger hope use this phrase to mean age-long pruning that ultimately leads to salvation of the goats, as disciplinary rather than penal."

 

Let's complete the quote:

 

"There is such a distinction as Aristotle pointed out between moŰria (vengeance) and kolasis. But the same adjective aioŰnios is used with kolasin and zoŰeŰn. If by etymology we limit the scope of kolasin, we may likewise have only age-long zoŰeŰn. There is not the slightest indication in the words of Jesus here that the punishment is not coeval with the life. We can leave all this to the King himself who is the Judge. The difficulty to oneís mind about conditional chastisement is to think how a life of sin in hell can be changed into a life of love and obedience" (RWP).

 

Robertson translates kolasin aiwnion as "eternal punishment."  His remark about "age-long pruning" does not reflect his own views, but "those who cling to the larger hope:" I.e., universalists.  We do not dispute that kolasin "comes from" kolazw, nor the original meaning of the latter.  We do dispute that kolasis meant "cutting off" in NT times, and Robertson supports this view completely.  He certainly cannot be legitimately used to promote the NWT translation.

objection:  "Eternal punishment" does not mean "eternal punishing." Basil Atkinson writes: "When the adjective aiwnios meaning 'everlasting' is used in Greek with nouns of action it has reference to the result of the action, not the process. Thus the phrase 'everlasting punishment' is comparable to 'everlasting redemption' and 'everlasting salvation,' both Scriptural phrases. No one supposes that we are being redeemed or being saved forever. We were redeemed and saved once for all by Christ with eternal results. In the same way the lost will not be passing through a process of punishment for ever but will be punished once and for all with eternal results. On the other hand the noun 'life' is not a noun of action, but a noun expressing a state. Thus the life itself is eternal."

 

Response  There is not a single Greek lexicon that makes the distinction Atkinson makes.  If the meaning of aiwnios changed depending on the kind of noun being modified, surely such a change in connotation would be noted by at least one of the major lexicons we have examined. Further, it is unclear what a "noun of action" is, given that verbs denote action or states of being, not nouns.  His distinction seems forced, given the contrast between "eternal life" and "eternal punishment" Jesus is drawing in this verse.  It would seem more reasonable to consider the terms parallel in their meaning in both phrases - if life in Christ is an eternal state, so to punishment for the lost is also an eternal state.

 

objection:  Noted evangelical scholar John Stott asks if eternal punishment means eternal conscious suffering and torment.   "No," he answers.  "That is to read into the text what is not necessarily there. What Jesus said is that both the life and the punishment would be eternal, but he did not in that passage define the nature of either. Because he elsewhere spoke of eternal life as a conscious enjoyment of God (John 17:3), it does not follow that eternal punishment must be a conscious experience of pain at the hand of God. On the contrary, although declaring both to be eternal, Jesus is contrasting the two destinies: the more unlike they are, the better" (David L. Edwards and John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, p. 317.)

 

ResponseAs much as I respect John Stott, I do not believe his annihilationist views are well-supported by Scripture.1  We must first note that Stott does not argue that kolasis should be translated "cutting off."  He affirms that "punishment" is the correct translation, but suggests that this punishment is only eternal with respect to its results.

 

Alan W. Gomes, PhD (Associate Professor and Chair, Dept. of Theology, Talbot School of Theology) has responded to Mr. Stott:

Stott is incorrect in asserting that the passage "does not define the nature of either [eternal life or eternal punishment]." As we observed in Part One, the mere fact that the wicked are said to experience "punishment" (Greek: kolasin) proves two inescapable facts by the nature of the case: the existence of the one punished, and the conscious experience of the punishment. If either of these two are lacking, then punishment is not occurring -- at least not in any meaningful sense of the term

Someone cannot be punished eternally unless that someone is there to receive the punishment. One can exist and not be punished, but one cannot be punished and not exist. Nonentities cannot receive punishment. Now, it is possible that one could receive punishment for a time and then be annihilated. In that case, we would have a finite time of punishment followed by a finite process of annihilating (i.e., the actual time it takes to accomplish the annihilation), followed by an unending result of the annihilating process. But the Bible uses the adjective "eternal" to describe the punishment itself, not merely the result of the punishment.

But mere existence is not enough either. One cannot "punish" a rock or a tree, even though these might exist. Annihilationists (e.g., Pinnock) sometimes complain that traditionalists "smuggle" the word "conscious" into their descriptions of punishment. But really, the traditionalist need not "smuggle" anything into the description. Once we have said the word "punishment" we have also said, at least by implication, the word "conscious." Punishment, per se, is conscious or it is not punishment. A punishment that is not felt is not a punishment. It is an odd use of language to speak of an insensate (i.e., unfeeling), inanimate object receiving punishment. To say, "I punished my car for not starting by slowly plucking out its sparkplug wires, one by one," would evoke laughter, not serious consideration.

Stott's axiom, "The more unlike they [i.e., heaven and hell] are, the better," actually harms his own case. If heaven represents unutterable joy, then hell should be unutterable sorrow. Yet, the whole point of the annihilationist's argument is to mitigate the horror of eternal suffering for the lost, not to increase it (Evangelicals And The Annihilation of Hell, Part Two, Alan W. Gomes. Christian Research Journal, 1991: summer: p.8).

objection:  The NWT rendering of KOLASIS as "cutting off" reflects the frequent Old Testament phrase "shall be cut off from his people"   See, for example, Gen 17:14; Ex 30:33, 38; Lev 7:20, 21, 25, 27; Num 9:13. The NWT translators choose the alternative reading with the best evidence internally.

ResponseWe must first note that this is really not an issue of "alternative readings."  There is no lexical evidence supporting the alleged alternate translation "cutting off."  KOLASIS in Koine Greek means "punishment."  We may also consider that none of the Old Testament passages listed speak of "eternal" cutting off, nor contrast the cutting off with an eternal reward.  Thus, any parallel one may wish to draw between Matthew 25:46 and these Old Testament passages is superficial at best.

Further, if KOLASIS or KOLAZ‘ actually meant "cut off" in Koine Greek, we may ask why it is that the Hebrew word karath ("to cut off, to cut down") in these verses is never translated in the LXX by one of these words?  Instead, the LXX translators rendered karath with forms of EZOLOTHREU‘ ("utterly destroy") or APOLLUMI ("to perish").  These verses, then, do not demonstrate that KOLASIS should be rendered "cutting off," but rather offer indirect evidence that it did not have that meaning.

 

Notes

1.  In an interview in Christianity Today, John Stott clarified that his views on annihilationism are tentative.  He asserts that annihilationism is a possible position within Evangelicalism, but is not dogmatic on the issue:  

In Evangelical Essentials, I described as "tentative" my suggestion that "eternal punishment" may mean the ultimate annihilation of the wicked rather than their eternal conscious torment. I would prefer to call myself agnostic on this issue, as are a number of New Testament scholars I know. In my view, the biblical teaching is not plain enough to warrant dogmatism. There are awkward texts on both sides of the debate  (Christianity Today, January 8, 1996).

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