Is everlasting punishment never ending? In Matthew 25:31 and following one will find the Judgment of the Just and the Unjust. When I consider those who have not come to Christ in repentance and never received him as Savior, I must ask: “If their reward is everlasting punishment, does this really mean never ending punishment?”
…’Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41 NIV)
Matthew 25:41 says: “…depart you cursed from me into everlasting fire…” The word translated ‘eternal’ is aionios (G166) and fire is pur (G4442). Both are used in Jude 1:7 for ‘eternal fire’ which was the judgment of Sodom and Gomorra (KJV). The question is this: Is this fire still burning in Sodom? Of course not, and since it is not burning yet today, then the term aionios fire cannot mean eternal in the same sense that we understand the word to mean in English. If this is so with this Scripture, how can we be so certain that those who are to be punished with eternal fire in Matthew 25:41 are punished eternally?
Someone may say the intent of Jude 1:7 is not that the fire is eternal, but the consequences of that fire are eternal. However, the Scriptures show the consequence of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah are not eternal at all! Matthew 10:15 says God will raise up Sodom and Gomorrah in the judgment and be more merciful to them than to those cities who rejected Jesus (cp. Mark 6:11; Luke 10:12). In fact, Jesus claimed, if he had done his great works in Sodom that he did in the cities of Galilee that rejected him, Sodom would not have been destroyed (Matthew 11:23). In other words, they would have repented!
Now, brothers, for your sakes I have applied all this to Apollos and myself, that from us as illustrations you might learn the lesson, “Never go beyond what is written,” so that you might stop boasting in favor of one teacher against another (1 Corinthians 4:6 WmsNT – emphasis mine).
It is my constant prayer that I will be guided by this Scripture that I may be obedient to God and not be found teaching the doctrines of men or worshiping God in vain (Matthew 15:8-9). I realize the understanding that the punishment of the wicked is not eternal is not received by most Christian denominations, but my boast is in Jesus alone. The traditions of men, such as that of an eternal hellfire, which have come down to us through the centuries must be proved against the word of God. Whatever we teach must not go beyond what is written in Scripture.
Hebrews 6:8 tells us of ground that “bears fruit of thorns and briers” and is “rejected… whose end is to be burned.” It is interesting to note that, when this is done by the farmer, he not only gets rid of the unwanted fruit, but the carbon makes the ground he burned more fertile for the good seed he plants later. In the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-25; Luke 8:4-15) Christ indicated that the ground is a man’s heart. The ground in Hebrews 6 is not destroyed by the fire, but its fruit, the thorns and briars, are destroyed. These are the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches (Matthew 13:7, 22), and are identified in Hebrews 10 as the adversaries. In 1Corinthians 3:12-15 we find it is our works or our fruit that will be burned. What remains after the fire is the basis of our reward, but the fact of our eternal life is never brought into question. Indeed, it is emphasized in 1Corinthians 3:11 that though we may have worked all our lives for wood, hay and stubble and lost all, the one thing we cannot lose is Christ who is the only foundation that can be laid and cannot be destroyed (1Corinthians 3:15). The point is, if the fire cannot destroy us (nor is it meant to do so), how can we be sure it will destroy the wicked?
Kolasis (G2851) is the word for punishment in Matthew 25:46. It can be found only here and in 1John 4:18 where it is translated torment, which is the result or fruit of fear. The verb form of this word is Kolazo (G2849). It is found in Acts 4:21 and 2Peter 2:9 where it is translated punish or punished. The context of 2Peter 2:9 elaborates on the destiny of the goats of Matthew 25:31-46. In 2Peter 2:9 and following we find the punishment of false teachers and false prophets (2Peter 2:1), while Matthew 25 speaks of the punishment of the goats, which the Scriptures reveal are the leaders of the people (Zechariah 10:3).
Instead of everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46), 2Peter 2:17 tells of a mist of darkness reserved for the wicked forever (cp. 2Peter 2:4). The words translated darkness in verses 4 and 17 are zophos (G2217) in verse-4, and skotos (G4655) in verse-17. The words zophos (G2217) and skotos (G4655) are both translated into the word darkness elsewhere in Scripture, but they are used together in 2Peter 2:17. Here, they are translated mist (G2217) of darkness (G4655). Both of these words are used together once more in Jude 1:13 and are translated blackness (G2217) of darkness (G4655), to describe the fate of the angels who sinned. Thus, whoever we imagine these angels or messengers to be, their fate is the same as that of men. Furthermore, according to Jude 1:6, this darkness has and end! All things culminate in the Judgment of the Great Day (cp. 1Corinthians 15:24-25). The point is, if forever in 2Peter 2:17 has an end, how can we be so certain that everlasting or eternal in Matthew 25 doesn’t have an end?
More information concerning this darkness can be found in Job 10:21-22 where Job looks upon it as his own death. He calls it “a land of darkness … where light is darkness.” This was the fate of all men before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; but the righteous had rest (Job 3:13). Their death was precious to the Lord (Psalm 116:15), an end desired by those who were unrighteous (Numbers 23:10). The wicked have a different fate in death, as revealed in Job 27:19-23. Here we are told of terrors being the end of the wicked, and “a tempest steals him away in the night.” This night or darkness as in Matthew 25:46 is a punishment or torment likened to that produced by fear. The Scriptures don’t describe this state in other terms, except that there is no consciousness in the grave (Psalms 146:4). Therefore, this terror would have to be the process of death itself. Since many wicked men have gone to the grave without fear, I can only conclude that the process of death takes a bit longer than the actual cessation of breath. He will not be able to gather his thoughts and strengthen himself (Job 27:19). Something terrifying grabs hold of him and violently removes his life from his place (his body), and God will not comfort him (Job 27:21-23).
The idea that God punishes men for their iniquity forever is certainly not supported in his word here in Matthew 25. His love and mercy is testified throughout the Bible, but especially in the person of Jesus Christ upon the cross. Man’s sins are certainly terrible, but the price Jesus paid is greater than the debt that was owed (Romans 5:15). The work of Christ swallows up the work of Adam, justifying all men (Romans 5:18). Considering our fate from this point of view, how could we believe that Christ’s death is not precious enough to pay for all sins, including the sins of unrepentance and unbelief? If this is an offence to anyone, wouldn’t that be an offense in the cross itself? Which is greater, the wickedness of man or the cross of Christ? Our Lord came to save the world (John 3:16-17), and he says that he finished the job (John 19:30; cp. John 17:4 & 1Timothy 1:15). May the God of all mercy grant us repentance to believe the Gospel to the glory and honor of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.