"Eternal Punishment" and the LXX: A Brief Note on Matthew 25:46

Matt. 25:46 – καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

“And these ones shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (NRQT).

A sizeable debate exists within certain sections of the evangelical world, and this concerns the doctrine of eternal punishment. While I am slowly growing weary of this debate, I have been translating large parts of the LXX for a potential article and came across the noun κόλασιν in multiple places, and figured: why not write a small article on it?

Because I have a Sunday off and might as well do some more exegesis: why not.

The noun κόλασιν can simply be translated as “punishment.” Of course what this means is up for interpretation, as ‘punishment’ is a largely broad category, but by and large this is what it means. Paul, John and Jude never use the term, and neither do any of the Synoptic writers except Matthew (25:46) and the author of 1 John in 4:18. Luke uses the verb in Acts 4:21 and so does the author of 2 Peter in 2:9.

Κόλασιν in the Old Testament

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible (called the LXX or Septuagint), it carries the same broad connotation. In Jer. 18:20 κόλασιν is used in terms of punishment in a pretty broad and non-specific category. The most concentrated uses of κόλασιν occurs in Ez. 14 (3, 4, 7). These three uses are also extremely broad and there is a pattern of “punishment of the unjust/unrighteous” (κόλασιν τῆς ἀδικίας in both singular and plural genitive), but the punishment itself is never actually specified as torment, pain, or death.

However, later on in Ez. 14 we have uses of violent battle imagery that may be connected to this punishment, though it is fairly far removed—though the context remains the same (the judgment of the elders of Israel as spoken by Jeremiah, 14:1-2). You also have the use of ἀφανισμὸν (destruction, disappearance) in 14:8 and 14:15, and in the context of God’s wrath, the use of ῥομφαίαν (“sword”) suggests that these various uses of κόλασιν means something like “punishment by death” rather than a conscious, painful existence.

The final three uses of κόλασιν in the LXX appear in Ez. 18:30, 43:11 and 44:12. In 18:30, we have a similar phrase used in previous texts: κόλασιν ἀδικίας (“punishment of the unrighteous”), and this context shows us that God desires Israel to “turn” (ἀποστρέψατε) from their “ungodliness” (ἀσεβειῶν), and not suffer this κόλασιν. This κόλασιν is specified specifically as “death” or “dying,” (v.31, 32) as the term ἀποθνήσκω dictates. This term refers to the death of mortals, and its additional use in 18:28 specifies that there are two outcomes of God’s injunction: turn to life (ζωῇ) or die (ἀποθάνῃ). Thus, Ez. 18:30 and the surrounding verses shows that κόλασιν is indeed compatible with the annihilationist interpretation of Matthew 25:46 as an “eternal punishment” that results in death.”

In Ez. 43:11, Israel is said to “cease from” (κοπάσουσιν) their sins, and they will “receive [in an active manner]” (λήμψονται) their ποιήσωσιν. The punishment is not specified. In Ez. 44:12, the punishment is specified as being unable to “approach” (ἐγγιοῦσι) in terms of Jewish offices and priests. They are to work in the temple, but God is merciful and keeps them in Israel. In the Apocrypha, κόλασιν is explained in terms of “death” in Wisdom 19:4-5 and 2 Maccabees 4:38.

So the LXX uses of κόλασιν are generally not specific, but the one instance where it is specific, the context shows that the term refers to “death.” The other instances seem to be too broad to offer any specific conclusions.

Κόλασιν in the New Testament

The two verb uses of κολάζω occur in Acts and 2 Peter. Luke uses the aorist subjunctive (κολάσωνται) to refer to the council being unable to punish Peter and John. The contextual use of the verb suggests imprisonment or death, though it is more likely referring to imprisonment. The second use is in 2 Peter 2:9 suggests that “death” or “annihilation” is in view, as God keeps them unrighteous in punishment until “the day of judgment,” which is clarified in 2:12-14 some of the most vivid and violent imagery we have in the New Testament. The use of ὑπόδειγμα (“sample,” “example”) in 2:6 shows that being “reduced to ash” is a cataclysmic judgment resulting in utter and total extinction. In 2:12-14, we have language of “destruction” and “dissolvement” (φθοράν) being applied to the wicked who are utterly destroyed (φθαρήσονται; v.14).

The contextual use of 2 Peter reveals that κολάζω is compatible with “annihilation,” and the use in Acts is ambiguous and unspecified.

The first noun use of κόλασιν is in 1 John 4:18, and refers to the ambiguous nature of the noun. The near-constant use of ἀγάπῃ (“love”) is meant to show a contrast between “fear” and “punishment” and the goodness of God, for Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν (“God is love”). The punishment is not eschatological, but metaphorical, and all but dissipates within the glory of God’s love and light.

That leaves the final use of κόλασιν in the New Testament, and it stands at the center of a phrase most often proof-texted. As we have seen, the ambiguity of the term makes it difficult to determine the exact nature of κόλασιν, but it is fair to say that it never explicitly occurs in a context of torment or pain. As death is the singular and final offense for sin in the Old Testament, Matthew’s use of κόλασιν αἰώνιον most likely refers to the “eternal punishment” which results in a death from which there is no reversal. In short, “eternal death” makes the most sense of the evidence and works quite nicely in terms of biblical theology.

For example, the “two-ways” of life and death is replete throughout the Old Testament, and is a near universal theme in the epistles. Paul certainly believed in this (c.f. Rom. 6:22-23), and the contrastive nature of ζωὴν and κόλασιν reveal that Matthew has in mind the eternal life of the righteous and the eternal death of the wicked.[1] These are also not strict parallels as αἰώνιον is far more complex than I can explain here. Suffice to say, the quality of the results and the duration of the consequences are two sides of the same coin. The “punishment” of the “coming age” reflects the Jewish belief that the “coming age” was an “eternal age,” and thus a death in the next age would result in, essentially, the utter lifelessness of the person, body, soul, spirit, whatever anthropological combination you want to postulate.[2] Either way, a death that is never reversed is indeed eternal.

In short, Matthew 25:46, in my estimation, cannot be proof-texted as support for the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment,[3] as the term itself offers us no specific context from which to draw such a conclusion. Rather, as many things are, it is clear: life in Christ, or death apart from Christ. In this I say, “choose Christ” and participate in the life he offers because of his resurrection.

NQ

[1] Of course, this question should be unpacked, as the parabolic nature of the one herd makes one wonder about the nature of those who claim Christ and yet fail to feed and cloth “the least of these.” However, this is a question far beyond this post.

[2] For me, “body” is enough.

[3] Or for universalists who interpret the text in support of a ‘corrective’ punishment.