Mt 25:44 Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not give you whatever you needed?’ 25:45 Then he will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.’ 25:46 And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Verse 46 is thought be some to be decisive in the debate about whether Scriptures teaches everlasting punishment or annihilationism.
Some, such as Carson, assert that ‘pertaining to the life to come’ includes the notion of ‘everlasting’. Mounce concurs:
‘although aiōnios (eternal) is primarily a qualitative word, its temporal aspect should not be overlooked. Verse 46 offers little support for those who would like to think of eternal life as endless and eternal punishment as restricted in some way. That the adjective modifies both nouns in the same context indicates that we understand it in the same way.’
‘In Jesus’ mind, it appears, the extent of each future is identical. If the existence of the righteous is endless, so also is the existence of the wicked. Other statements suggest the same conclusion. Jesus teaches that “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). As long as God’s wrath abides on them, the damned must exist. Jesus’ picture of hell as a place where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48) indicates that this manifestation of God’s wrath is unending.’ (EDBT)
‘The contrast between the unrighteous and the righteous is the contrast between everlasting punishment and everlasting life. And if everlasting as regards punishment means only for a while and then extinction, why should everlasting not mean the same when it describes the righteous and the life that they will inherit?’ (Great Doctrines of the Bible, Vol 3, p73)
‘What is perhaps the most telling argument against the notion that the wicked are simply annihilated but that the righteous continue to live forevermore is the fact that in Matt. 25:46 the same word describes the duration of both the punishment of the former and the blessedness of the latter: the wicked go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.’ (The Bible On The Life Hereafter, p198)
‘In this text, the parallel between “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” indicates that both states will be without end.’ (Systematic Theology, p1149)
‘The parallel between eternal punishment and eternal life makes it difficult to see in the former any kind of annihilationism, even if the word “eternal” can refer to a qualitative rather than quantitative attribute of life and attractive as doctrines of conditional immortality ought to be to anyone with a sensitive heart.’
Mohler puts it more strongly, asking:-
‘Is it not folly to assume that eternal punishment signifies a fire lasting a long time, while believing that eternal life is without end? For Christ, in the very same passage, included both punishment and life in one and the same sentence when he said, “So those people will go into eternal punishment, while the righteous will go into eternal life.” [Matt. 25:46] If both are “eternal,” it follows necessarily that either both are to be taken as long-lasting but finite, or both as endless and perpetual.’ (In Morgan, Christopher W. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Kindle Locations 197-201). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
Augustine expressed the same conviction in colourful terms:
‘“What a fond fancy it is to suppose that eternal punishment means long continued punishment, while eternal life means life without end!” Both destinies, he maintained, “are correlative— on the one hand punishment eternal, on the other hand life eternal”; consequently, to say that “life eternal shall be endless, punishment eternal shall come to an end, is the height of absurdity.”’ (Quoted by Hughes, in Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (pp. 191-192). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
Many others (including Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p736, Packer, The Problem of Eternal Punishment, and Gundry) also see the parallelism as decisive.
But the parallel may not be so exact as these scholars assert. ‘Punishment’ and ‘life’ are not antonyms, after all. So, as France notes, ‘whereas ‘fire’ and punishment might carry within them the idea of annihilation, life by its very nature excludes the possibility of termination.’
According to France, the imagery of fire suggests destruction, rather than everlasting punishment; cf. Mt 10:28; 13:42.
‘An annihilationist theology (sometimes described as “conditional immortality”) does more justice to Matthew’s language in general, and if so the sense of “eternal punishment” here will not be “punishment which goes on for ever” but “punishment which has eternal consequences”, the loss of eternal life through being destroyed by fire.’
It is common to argue that since everlasting punishment is set against everlasting life in Matthew 25:46 and since the life lasts as long as God, so must the punishment. This was the position of Augustine, of which Hughes writes:
Augustine insisted . . . to say that ‘life eternal shall be endless, punishment eternal shall come to an end, is the height of absurdity’ (City of God 21:23) . . . But, as we have seen, the ultimate contrast is between everlasting life and everlasting death and this clearly shows that it is not simply synonyms but also antonyms with which we have to reckon. There is no more radical antithesis than that between life and death, for life is the absence of death and death is the absence of life. Confronted with this antithesis, the position of Augustine cannot avoid involvement in the use of contradictory concepts (p. 203)
To this we might add three further considerations:
(1) It would be proper to translate ‘punishment of the age to come’ and ‘life of the age to come’ which would leave open the question of duration. The Matthean parallel to the aionios of Mk. 3:29 is indeed ‘age to come’ (Mt. 12:32).
(2) We have other examples of once-for-all acts which have unending consequences: eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12), Sodom’s punishment of eternal fire (Jude 7).
(3) Just as it is wrong to treat God and Satan as equal and opposite, so it is wrong to assume that heaven and hell, eternal life and eternal punishment, are equal and opposite. Both are real but who is to say that one is as enduring as the other?
(‘The Case for Conditional Immortality’ in de S. Cameron (Ed.) Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, p177)
In fact, there are several texts which attach the word ‘eternal’ to a definite action that has everlasting consequences:
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”.
Fudge concedes that in this text the word aionios has both qualitative and quantitative connotations. But it is the destruction which is everlasting (i.e. permanent), and not the suffering:
‘This “punishment” can encompass a broad spectrum of degrees of conscious suffering based on varying degrees of guilt, but the essence of this “punishment” is the total and everlasting dissolution and extinction of the person punished (Matt 10:28; 2 Thess 1:9).’ (The Fire That Consumes, Third Edition, p39.)
Many years ago, Atkinson argued on linguistic grounds:
‘Many have relied on this phrase to support the idea of everlasting conscious suffering of the wicked, reading it as if it said, “everlasting punishing.” This is not the meaning of the word. When the adjective aionios 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 and for all by Christ with eternal results. In the same way the lost will not be passing through a process of punishment forever 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.’ in Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (pp. 100-101). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
A ‘soft’ punishment?
The ‘annihilationist’ view has sometimes been regarded as being ‘too soft’ on the wicked. A ‘punishment’ that consists in an individual simply becoming non-existent is no punishment at all (it is argued). But this misconstrues the annihilationist position, which gives full weight to the scriptural teaching that physical death is not the end, either for the righteous or the unrighteous. Just as the righteous will rise to blessedness, and varying degrees of reward, so the unrighteous will rise to condemnation, and varying degrees of punishment. The point is, that this punishment is not everlasting.
Moreover, let it not be thought for one moment that if the punishment of the wicked is essentially a privative punishment (banishment from the presence of the Lord), that this in any way trivialises the seriousness of the end. Nigel Wright argues:
‘Hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment in fire but an ultimate, final encounter with God. The lost do not simply cease to exist when they die physically; they are not quietly liquidated after the judgment when they have been restored to conscious and personal existence. The torment of hell consists in beholding God at the last, looking upon his beauty, majesty, and infinite love and knowing that through one’s own deliberate fault all of this has been made forfeit and lost. In short, hell is the infinite loss of God.’ This, says Wright, ‘is no soft option, no kinder, gentler damnation, but a destiny to avoid, for God’s sake and for our own.’ (Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (pp. 232-233). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
Hughes argues similarly: