Afterlife Punishment in the New Testament and the New Academic Apologetics

Afterlife Punishment in the New Testament and the New Academic Apologetics March 9, 2016


A couple of months ago I wrote a post entitled “‘But If You Look at the Original Greek…’: A Plea for Caution” that criticized increasingly careless appeals to linguistics in Christian theological discourse. More specifically, it explored a few well-known cases where people have argued for non-traditional interpretations—often untenable ones—of certain Biblical Hebrew or Greek words, usually with significant theological ramifications.

I originally decided to split my original post into two parts, but never got around to posting the second one. Yesterday, however, over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, Father Kimel posted an updated version of an old post of his own called “Sometimes Eternal Isn’t Forever,” which looks at the exact subject of my original second part—so I thought it’d be a perfect time to finish it, now in conversation with Fr. Kimel.

The main issue here involves the New Testament’s language of eschatological/afterlife punishment: how it’s to be interpreted; what exact scenario it envisions for the unrighteous¹ at the end of time or the end of their lives. Will they experience genuinely endless torment? Do they face mere annihilation? Or is there hope for a cessation of this punishment, or an avoidance of destruction?

Fr. Kimel’s post begins exactly where mine had: with Matthew 25:46. This verse comes at the end of one of Jesus’ most straightforwardly eschatological discourses (the “parable” of the sheep and the goats), which delivers a sharp condemnation of those who turn away from helping the poor or those otherwise suffering.

The original Greek of this verse reads kai apeleusontai houtoi eis kolasin aiōnion; hoi de dikaioi eis zōēn aiōnion, and Fr. Kimel quotes four different translations:

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 most controversial aspect of this involves the phrase translated (e.g. in RSV) as “everlasting punishment”: kolasin aiōnion. While the last section of my first post had addressed the first word here—in uninflected form kolasis, “punishment”— this post will look at the adjective that modifies this noun: in uninflected form, aiōnios.

For a bit more context here, Fr. Kimel is an outspoken Christian universalist—a theological approach which is often sharply opposed to “traditional” ideas of Hell and damnation, and hopes for the eventual salvation of all humans, not just Christians (though non-Christians are still thought to be saved “through” Christ). Consequently, Christian universalists dispute the endlessness or permanence of afterlife punishment.

In traditional interpretation, this idea of permanent punishment has been greatly influenced by the use of the adjective aiōnios precisely in places like Matthew 25:46, and its interpretation as “eternal.” The typical argument used by universalists and others to open up an alternate understanding of this, then, goes something like this: aiōnios is simply the adjective form of the word aiōn, which means “age” (Fr. Kimel specifies “age, eon, era, epoch”); and so instead of translating this adjective form as “eternal,” it’d be more accurate to choose something closer in meaning to the root noun itself—that is, something that more literally conveys its relation to age: say, “of (an) age” or “pertaining to (an) age” or “eon.”

As can be seen, this strategy is reflected in the latter two translations of Matthew 25:46 that Fr. Kimel quoted above. Consequently, this “aiōnios punishment” is reinterpreted in one of several ways. Perhaps most popularly, it’s understood as something like punishment “in” or “of the age”—that is, punishment that the unrighteous will meet in the “age to come,” the eschatological era following the final judgment. On this interpretation then, there’s actually nothing necessarily being said about how long this otherwise unspecified punishment will last, but rather only when and where it will occur: in the eschatological “age.” 

As for the second alternative interpretation, here “aiōnios punishment” is taken as “punishment lasting for an age”—not truly infinite, but simply lasting however long “age” is understood to last. This suggestion is occasionally bolstered by a sort of appeal to logic itself: that if an age suggests, say, a finite period of time, then it wouldn’t even make sense for what’s simply an adjective form of this word to denote something infinite (eternity). On multiple occasions I’ve seen this expressed as a sort of folk linguistic principle, that “the same word can’t be its own opposite.” 

Unfortunately, though, neither of these reinterpretive strategies withstand critical scrutiny. The appeal to “the same word can’t be its own opposite” here both misunderstands the nature of the word aiōn and its relationship to the adjective form, and even as a more general principle is simply false. (Its errors are so egregious that I’ve relegated discussion of this to a footnote.²)

Yet even beyond this, there are several things that debunk these other claims. When we take a look at all of the occurrences of aiōnios in the relevant Greek literature of the time, nowhere does aiōnios more plausibly mean something like “of the age” than it does something in the territory of “everlasting” or “permanent.” Further, as suggested, the root word aiōn does not just mean “age.” In fact, aiōn has somewhat of a broad range of meanings, several of which suggest something quite like “eternity.” In conjunction with what we learn from actually looking at each occurrence of aiōnios, we can confidently say that it was specifically aiōn‘s denotation of everlastingness—or at least in its connotations of a sort of maximum amount of time—that the adjective aiōnios was built on to begin with: a denotation indeed discernible in each of its uses in native Greek literature (and beyond).³

With that being said, I want to address several things in Fr. Kimel’s post a bit more directly. Near the beginning of the post, he quotes Marvin Vincent’s Word Studies of the New Testament, a popular late 19th century⁴ commentary and lexicon, on aiōn and aiōnios:

Neither the noun nor the adjective in themselves carries the sense of “endless” or “everlasting.” Aionios means enduring through or pertaining to a period of time. Out of the 150 instances in the LXX (Septuagint), four-fifths imply limited duration. (IV:59)

The Septuagint (or “LXX,” for short) is, of course, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, produced some several centuries before the start of the Common Era.

Further on this, Fr. Kimel mentions Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan’s monograph Terms for Eternity—devoted largely to analyzing the use of aiōnios in Greek literature—and quotes a post by Konstan summarizing its arguments. In this post, Konstan writes that in the Septuagint, aiōnios

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.

However, both Vincent and Konstan/Ramelli’s claims, and what they seek to do with them, are highly problematic.

First (especially relevant to Vincent’s comments), it has to be remembered that the Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and as such is from the very outset constrained by its source language(s). That is to say, there’s a sense in which all occurrences of aiōnios in the LXX—and for that matter, all uses of all Greek words in the LXX, too—are used “artificially,” in that they can at best only imperfectly render Hebrew or Aramaic phraseology, words and ideas.⁵

Yet it’s misleading to say, as Vincent does, that “[o]ut of the 150 instances [of aiōnios] in the LXX . . . four-fifths imply limited duration,” which of course he uses as an example of how the word doesn’t ‘in itself carry the sense of “endless” or “everlasting”’.

Counter-intuitive though it may be—though, in truth, it’s really quite sensible—there’s a particular understanding of aiōnios where it does have a primary denotation of something like permanence, and yet can still be employed to refer to things that (normally) are technically finite. This is because the word used in this way suggests the greatest amount of time that could possibly transpire within a given situation or system. (I’ve discussed this in conjunction with Aristotle’s texts on aiōn here.)

For example, when it comes to the Septuagint’s use of aiōnios when translating, say, texts referring to the permanence of a slave’s bondage in particular Old Testament laws (Leviticus 25:46; Exodus 21:6), we say that the permanence here—which really does suggest a true endlessness, at least in potential—is nonetheless naturally limited by the length of the slave’s life. By contrast though, there is no obvious natural or logical limit to afterlife punishment, being a manifestly supernatural phenomenon enacted by an omniscience deity; it could be as short or as long as God ordains—including genuinely endless.

While I’ll return to this later, there’s another kind of reinterpretation of the Septuagint’s uses of aiōnios that’s transparently motivated by a broader type of Christian apologetics, and may also be related to Vincent’s and others’ arguments. To take an example of this: here Old Testament references to the permanent (aiōnios) authority of the Jewish Law are argued to not really suggest a true permanence, because otherwise this would contradict the fact that in Christian theology the applicability of the Law was rescinded.⁶

The problem here, though, is that this reinterpretation obviously presupposes the truth of Christian theology; and it presupposes a very specific mode of Christian theology, at that—one that comes close to accepting a type of Biblical inerrancy, in which, say, the Old Testament could not have simply been mistaken on this, or where this true “permanence” was actually rescinded by God. (For a quasi-academic statement of this erroneous view, see Payne, “The Everlasting Covenant.”)

Turning now to Konstan’s argument: here he suggests the Septuagint often employs aiōnios in a sort of hybrid sense, combining two of the interpretations mentioned earlier—both “of the eschatological age to come” and “lasting for an age” (speaking of the period that “elapses between our death and judgment day and the resurrection”). The major problem here, however, is that virtually nowhere in the Septuagint does aiōnios suggest a next-worldly state—except, say, Daniel 12:2. And in truth, this should come as no surprise, seeing as eschatology proper is virtually universally held to not be represented in the Hebrew Bible at all, beyond these isolated verses in the book of Daniel.⁷

Seemingly similarly conflating these, Fr. Kimel quotes Christopher Marshall that

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)

Marshall speaks in favor of annihilationism here: an ultimate “punishment” with permanent consequences, obviously not itself occurring more than once.⁸ᵃ

But several things that he says are misleading. For one, his distinction of punishment being a process rather than a state is confounding. Also, I think the best interpretation of Jude 7 isn’t that the “eternal” consequences are merely in Sodom’s irreversible annihilation, as Marshall seems to suggest; rather, the verse actually seems to speak of an ongoing state of pyros aiōniou dikēn hypechousai, “undergoing punishment of eternal/continual fire.”⁸ᵇ

Of course, verses like 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which unambiguously speak of an “eternal destruction,” play heavily in favor of annihilationism. Yet although this alleviates the problem of the eternal conscious torment of the unrighteous, it remains the case that universalists who look toward the salvation of all also oppose annihilationism.⁸ᶜ

In any case, however, as for Marshall’s second suggestion—that aiōnios may denote that “the realities in question pertain to the future age”—I’ve already suggested earlier that ‘in the relevant Greek literature of the time, nowhere does aiōnios more plausibly mean something like “of the age” than it does something in the territory of “everlasting” or “permanent”‘, whether the latter be in duration or in consequence.

Returning to where I had left off in the second-to-last section, on the etymology of aiōnios, etc., in his post Fr. Kimel quoted Konstan that

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.

Konstan intimates here at a word, aidios, that can truly lay claim to the meaning “eternal,” unlike aiōnios.

Of course, Konstan must slightly qualify his claim that aiōn “never suggests an infinite stretch of time,” as this seems to be very close to, if not precisely the way that the word is used at several of the high-water marks of ancient Greek philosophy. Konstan simultaneously acknowledges this and avoids it, however, by suggesting that for Plato, aiōn(ios) is “not an infinite length of time, but a state of timelessness.” However true this may be for Plato though, his idiosyncrasies here are not universally shared; and we only need turn to Aristotle to find a clear exception to this. As Keizer writes in her monograph on aiōn, for Aristotle ‘the aiōn certainly is not timeless, since it “contains and encompasses time”’.⁹ (I’ve discussed both Plato and Aristotle’s use of aiōn and aiōnios at much greater length here.)

Most egregiously, Konstan—recalling Fr. Kimel’s earlier gloss of aiōn as meaning “age, eon, era, epoch,” but here even more limited—writes

we have two adjectives in use: one of them [aidios] clearly means “infinite,” when applied to time; but the other [aiōnios] does not, and what is more, it is connected with a common noun—aión—that means simply a lifetime, with no suggestion of eternity.

Here it’s hard to think that Konstan’s argument is anything other than deliberately misleading, as Konstan is well-aware that aiōn has meanings other than “lifetime”—and ones that, as I’ve already suggested, are to be placed squarely in the realm of “eternity.”

In all this, both Konstan and Ramelli set the stage for an argument about a particular type of patristic usage of aiōnios, sharply contrasted with the word claimed to truly denote eternity (aidios)—all of which is then used as primary evidence to read similar distinctions back into earlier Jewish and Christian writings. Thus is accomplished the “dethroning” of aiōnios from its traditional interpretive pride of place, in terms of mitigating the prospect of eternal conscious torment (and/or annihilationism) in early Judaism and—most importantly—in the New Testament itself.

The central player in Ramelli and Konstan’s arguments to this effect is the famous 3rd century Alexandrian Christian theologian Origen. As is done in modern interpretation—in fact, perhaps the original source of this¹⁰—Origen makes much of the derivation of aiōnios from its root aiōn, and that uses of this are in fact oriented to one particular “age” or another.

Although Ramelli and Konstan quote at least one passage that seemingly suggests that Origen is in fact aware that aiōnios does occasionally denote genuinely “endlessness” in the Bible, they don’t press the point,¹¹ as it’s Origen’s usage of aiōnios and aidios that’s of most relevant to their arguments: as Fr. Kimel quotes them,

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)

Ramelli and Konstan find early evidence of a “disparity” between the meaning of these two words in the Hellenistic Jewish book 4 Maccabees, a work written only a few decades before the time of Jesus or the New Testament. (For the record, I’ve discussed the relevant verses in 4 Maccabees here; and in a continued post here.) In turn, they suggest that this “anticipates, or may be taken to anticipate, the usage in the New Testament,”¹² insofar as they suggest that the absence of the use of aidios in conjunction with punishment in the NT suggests an absence of general eternal punishment therein.

Ramelli reiterates all of this in her own recent monograph, writing

These parallel but antithetical expressions, βίος ἀΐδιος [bios aidios, “eternal life”] and ὄλεθρος αἰώνιος [olethros aiōnios, “aiōnios destruction”], are particularly notable and inaugurate a distinction that will return again and again, not only in the NT, but also in many [Church] Fathers. Retributive punishment and destruction is described simply as αἰώνιος, that is, belonging to the αἰών to come, or “long,” but not strictly “eternal,” whereas otherworldly life, seen as a reward for the just, pious, and martyrs, is rather characterised as ἀΐδιος, which means “eternal” proper. (The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena, 28)

Here then we again encounter both of the suggested denotations of aiōnios: ‘belonging to the αἰών to come, or “long,” but not strictly “eternal”’. Importantly, however, we should note that here Ramelli suggests that this qualified use of aiōnios applies when it describes both “[r]etributive punishment and destruction” (emphasis mine).

What, then, are we to say about this “destruction”?

To the extent that this is mentioned in eschatological contexts, for Ramelli and some of her sources, this is taken to be merely of a metaphorical or selective type of destruction/annihilation: Ramelli writes that “the annihilation of the wicked for Origen is not ontological, but spiritual” (142); and elsewhere this eschatological destruction is taken to refer specifically only to the unrighteous’ sinfulness.¹³

More broadly speaking, one of Ramelli’s main arguments is that aidios, the true word for “eternal,” is not often conjoined with punishment and destruction. But there are certainly exceptions to this—and they can be found in Greek, Jewish, and other early Christian texts: cf. Pseudo-Plato, Axiochus 372; Josephus, BJ 2.163; AJ 18.14; Hippolytus, Adversus Graecos 1. For that matter, a host of other synonyms of aiōnios and aidios are used in this way, too. (See the section beginning “In addition to the adjective aiōnios…” in my post here.)

It might be noticed that, in a major way here, Ramelli and Konstan’s arguments depend on an argument from silence—inferences made from the absence of usage of a particular word from a certain corpus of texts. Yet there are other ways to explain this particular phenomenon.

Even beyond this, though, their work on this issue as a whole diverges from normal standards of critical analysis in an alarming number of places, frequently lapsing into a kind of ad hoc anachronism and special pleading.

In fact, there’s a sense which in many ways here, their work seems to be built on one large etymological fallacy. Ramelli and Konstan ostensibly try to preempt this charge by appealing to early Jewish and Christian exegesis—like the type done by Philo of Alexandria and Origen—to suggest that a similar type of analysis was roughly concurrent with the time of the composition of the New Testament itself. But however near these figures were in time, the type of analysis done by Philo and Origen is at many points far removed from the actual world and intention of the Bible authors; and at least the former clearly lapses into a type of fallacious folk philology in their exegesis here.¹⁴

The frequent critically unbridgeable gap between the original intention of the Biblical authors and the often highly allegorical or otherwise uncritical exegesis of those like Philo and Origen is regularly recognized in all other areas of critical scholarship on early Judaism and Christianity, which makes Ramelli and Konstan’s errors all the more egregious.¹⁵ (Especially because if we were to accept the sort of argumentative methods they appeal to here, we could very easily turn it the other way around, too: for example when Aristotle “etymologized” aiōn as aei einai, “existing forever” / “always existing”; or when others followed suit, as aei on or aei ōn.)

When we put it all together, even what looked to be a critical academic study starts to look more and more like it was in fact a (theologically?) rigged project from the beginning—that it started with a predetermined conclusion, and everything encountered along the way was going to be reshaped in order to fit the original thesis, all actual critical analysis be damned.¹⁶

And there are still ways around the implications of the criticisms I’ve put forth here. For example, we could suggest that aiōnios really does mean “eternal,” but is used in the New Testament only in an exaggerated sense, not too far off from the way we might say “it took an eternity to find a parking spot.” But when we encounter phrases like “eternal destruction,” and are forced to reinterpret both elements here—as a “not-really-eternal not-really-destruction”—doesn’t this start to strain credulity? (And more problematically, if actual “eternal” and this sort of exaggerated “eternal” are otherwise identical, what exactly is the basis for interpreting one over the other?)

Ideally, we should all have the honesty to not just bank on possibilities of interpretation—which, again, can always be conceived and then defended by all sorts of special pleading—but to look toward probabilities.

A simple point of confusion here, often overlooked, is that no one is under any obligation to think that God or anyone else actually doles out endless torment or annihilation of his beloved creations.

This is not what the critical analysis I’ve put forth asks. Instead, it asks us only to imagine that some ancient Jews and Christians (not to mention Greeks and other cultural groups) believed this to be so¹⁷: a position much more palpable to both skeptics and believers.

And when we see the New Testament using the exact same sort of language (in reference to afterlife punishment) as is used outside the NT , and yet somehow the former is supposed to have an entirely different meaning—even though there’s no real warrant for this other than to retain a kind of theological comfort—it’s precisely the improbability of this that comes into view.

Again, in the end, it’s always possible for someone to persist in their original interpretations, as demanded on theological grounds (of Biblical inerrancy, etc.). But is it then possible to enter into dialogue that can truly be called honest and critical at all?

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] For convenience, I use “unrighteous” as a blanket term for “all those who won’t be saved.”

[2] The sort of folk logic underlying claims like “the same word can’t be its own opposite” simply does not apply in actual linguistics. For one, we even have a term for words that have come to develop one meaning that’s in opposition to another one of its meanings: auto-antonyms. But, as noted elsewhere above, aiōn does not in fact mean “age” in the way this is understood here, and it’s in no way the “opposite” of aiōnios as “eternal.” Further—and ironically here—the English word “eternal” itself is precisely an exception to the same principle that revisionists have insisted on so strongly for aiōn and aiōnios: it ultimately derives from Latin aetās or aevum, “age,” “period of time.”

[3] I’ve discussed the fuller range of how exactly aiōnios is used in various literature in more detail in the second paragraph here and elsewhere. I specify “native Greek literature” here because of some of its idiosyncratic uses in translational literature—something that I discuss more in the section on the Septuagint here.

[4] One might ask why severely outdated lexicons that have totally fallen out of academic use are being used here, because this is precisely part of the problem.

[5] I’ve illustrated this at length in my analysis of LXX Habakkuk 3:6. This almost certainly explains the idiosyncratic uses in Romans 16:25 and 2 Timothy 1:9 as well, as I talk about a bit here here.

[6] Remember that the force of the Law was rescinded not just for Gentile Christians but for (Christian) Jews, too.

[7] See recently Huddleston’s Eschatology in Genesis, though this actually isn’t relevant to our particular topic here. Now it’s true that the word “eternal” is associated with death at several points (cf. also “eternal sleep”). I’ve discussed these in quite some detail here, which give us some of the best exaples of “eternal” as truly suggesting a permanent state.

[8a] The paragraph quoted by Fr. Kimel is the footnote to Marshall’s saying

to punish the wicked, God withdraws the gift of life, and they cease to exist; they are literally “destroyed.” Such punishment is still “eternal” (Matt. 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:9), but it is eternal in consequence or character, not in duration.

[8b] Note the use of present tense in both prokeintai and hypechousai. As for the continual burning of Sodom, see Wisdom 10:7; Josephus, BJ 4.483; Philo, Mos. 2.56.

[8c] As Marshall writes, “[a]nnihilationism faces fewer moral difficulties than eternal suffering, but it still encounters the problem of how an eternal punishment can be regarded as a just and proportionate recompense for temporal, finite sins” (217-18).

Also, I’ve discussed Hebrews 6:2 further here.

[9Life-Time-Entirety: A Study of ΑΙΩΝ in Greek Literature and Philosophy, the Septuagint and Philo, 89; cf. also Harry, Chronos in Aristotle’s Physics: On the Nature of Time, 37 n. 15.

[10] Origen exercised greater influence here, though see also my comments on Philo here.

[11] Ramelli quotes/translates Origen, Comm. in Rom. 6.5, as “[i]n 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…”

The irony here is that Ramelli’s translation, in which Origen appears to admit Biblical use of “eternity” in the sense of “something that knows no end,” might be better rendered that he is saying that eternity is used here to suggest that “the end is not known.” (Cf. quod aeternitas in scripturis aliquando pro eo ponatur ut finem nesciat. I’m actually not sure how pro eo functions in this context.)

[12] See Terms for Eternity, 48-49.

[13] Cf. also Clement of Alexandria, Protr. 11.115.3?

[14] For more, see again my comment here (esp. toward the end).

[15] This isn’t to say that allegoresis or otherwise uncritical exegesis isn’t unknown to, say, the New Testament authors themselves. But while scholars universally acknowledge the occasional presence of this therein, this only has “legitimacy” insofar as actual confessing believers accept the authority of intra-canonical exegesis. Although there’s much apologetics defending this, fewer people are willing to bring the uncritical philology of early exegetes into actual critical analysis.

[16]  I’ve critiqued their monograph in exhaustive length starting here. I link to the subsequent part in the series at the end of each post. It’s especially in the final couple of parts in the series where I point to several instances where it’s hard to argue that some things are not presented in a deliberately misleading way.

[17] I discuss broader ancient Near Eastern, Greek and Jewish beliefs in afterlife punishment here.

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