“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41, 46)

[v. 41] “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire [to pur to aionion] which has been prepared for the devil and his angels….’ [v. 46] And these will go away into eternal punishment [kolasin aionion], but the righteous into life eternal [zoen aionion].”

First let us consider what these texts say about the nature of the wicked’s fate. Then we shall consider what they teach about its duration.

The Nature of Hell From Matthew 25:41, 46. We observe first of all that the wicked share the same fate as Satan and his demonic hosts. Indeed, this text tells us that hell was created specifically for Satan and his angels. As followers of Satan, impenitent men will meet the same fate as he. This is significant, because when we look at other passages in the Book of Revelation that speak of the Devil’s fate (see below), we are fully justified in ascribing this same fate to unredeemed men.

Notice that this passage describes hell as a place of “eternal fire.” Should we understand this to mean literal, material, physical fire? Or should we regard the expression as metaphorical language, designed to convey an awful spiritual reality through physical language? Most conservatives — who affirm the doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment — would say that this is metaphorical language.[1] For one thing, the rich man in Luke 16:24 is described as being in agony in the flames. He is also described as having a tongue, and Lazarus is said to have a finger. But this scene occurs in Hades, during the disembodied state between death and resurrection. It is therefore difficult to see how a nonphysical being could have a literal tongue, much less be tormented by literal, physical fire.[2] The same would apply to the other physical metaphors used to describe hell, such as the undying worm (Mark 9:48) and the chains of darkness (Jude 6).

Some may object that invoking the concept of figurative language is a thinly veiled attempt to evade the force of Jesus’ words. But precisely the opposite is true. The fact is, the horrors of hell are so great that no earthly language can do complete justice to them. By using the figure of unquenchable fire, undying worms, etc., Jesus selected the most horrific descriptions that earthly language would allow. As Robert Reymond observes, “the reality they [the figures] seek to represent should surely be understood by us to be more — not less — than the word pictures they depict.”[3] Likewise, Ralph E. Powell urges, “If the descriptions of hell are figurative or symbolic, the conditions they represent are more intense and real than the figures of speech in which they are expressed.”[4]

In the Matthean texts before us, the final state of the wicked is described as one of everlasting punishment (kolasin aionion).[5] From this it follows that the wicked are not annihilated. William Shedd cogently argues that “the extinction of consciousness is not of the nature of punishment.”[6] If suffering is lacking, so is punishment; punishment entails suffering. But suffering entails consciousness. “If God by a positive act extinguishes, at death, the remorse of a hardened villain, by extinguishing his self-consciousness, it is a strange use of language to denominate this a punishment.”[7]

Consider also the following differences between either cessation of consciousness/annihilation and punishment: (1) There are no degrees of annihilation. One is either annihilated or one is not. In contrast, the Scripture teaches that there will be degrees of punishment on the day of judgment (Matt. 10:15; 11:21-24; 16:27; Luke 12:47-48; John 15:22; Heb. 10:29; Rev. 20:11-15; 22:12, etc.). (2) For those who are experiencing severe punishment, extinction of consciousness is actually a state to be desired. Luke 23:30-31 and Revelation 9:6 talk about the wicked — experiencing the intense wrath of God — begging in vain to have the mountains fall on them. They clearly prefer unconsciousness to their continuing torment. As Shedd observes, “The guilty and remorseful have, in all ages, deemed the extinction of consciousness after death to be a blessing; but the advocate of conditional immortality explains it to be a curse….”[8] (3) Punishment demands the existence of the one being punished. As Gerstner points out, “One can exist and not be punished; but no one can be punished and not exist. Annihilation means the obliteration of existence and anything that pertains to existence, such as punishment. Annihilation avoids punishment, rather than encountering it.”[9] (4) One could argue that annihilation might be the result of punishment. But the Scriptures say that it is the punishment itself which is eternal, not merely its result.

The punishment of the wicked entails separation from God as a key component. Notice that Christ banishes them forever from His presence. As Guthrie observes, “When we penetrate below the language about hell, the major impression is a sense of separation….”[10] Even those who do not follow Christ in this lifetime are still recipients of His goodness (Matt. 5:45), even if they do not acknowledge this. In the final state it will not be so.

The Duration of Hell From Matthew 25:41, 46. The Greek adjective aionion used in these verses means “everlasting, without end.” We should note, however, that in certain contexts the adjective aionios is not always used of eternity. In some passages it refers to an “age” or period of time. Luke 1:70, for example, says that God “spoke by the mouths of His holy prophets from of old (ap aionos).” Clearly, this cannot be a reference to eternity past. A similar construction is found in Acts 3:21.[11] On the other hand, the adjective is predicated of God (i.e., the “eternal God”), as in 1 Timothy 1:7, Romans 16:26, Hebrews 9:14, and 13:8. In these latter passages aionios means “eternal,” as shown from their context and from the fact that God is the subject.

Granting that the term may or may not refer to eternity, how can we be sure of its meaning in Matthew 25? What is particularly determinative here is the fact that the duration of punishment for the wicked forms a parallel with the duration of life for the righteous: the adjective aionios is used to describe both the length of punishment for the wicked and the length of eternal life for the righteous. One cannot limit the duration of punishment for the wicked without at the same time limiting the duration of eternal life for the redeemed. It would do violence to the parallel to give it an unlimited signification in the case of eternal life, but a limited one when applied to the punishment of the wicked. John Broadus, in his classic commentary on Matthew, states, “It will at once be granted, by any unprejudiced and docile mind, that the punishment of the wicked will last as long as the life of the righteous; it is to the last degree improbable that the Great Teacher would have used an expression so inevitably suggesting a great doctrine he did not mean to teach….”[12] (Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell—Part One)

Alan W. Gomes


End notes:

[1] On the use of these metaphors, see Morey, 29 ff.; John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949), 1:200-201; Harry Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1957), 76-77; and Nicole, “Punishment of the Wicked,” 37.

[2] See Nicole, “Punishment of the Wicked,” 14.

[3] Robert Reymond, “Dr. John Stott on Hell,” Presbyterion 16 (Spring 1990):57.

[4] Ralph E. Powell, “Hell,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 953.

[5] Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Literature, 1957 ed., s.v. “kolasis.” (Hereafter cited as BAG.) J. Schneider, “kolazo, kolasis,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 3 (1965), 814-17. (Hereafter cited as TDNT.)

[6] W. G. T. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886; reprint, Minneapolis: Klock and Klock, 1980), 92.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 94.

[9] Gerstner, “The Bible and Hell,” part 1, 38.

[10] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 889-90.

[11] See the discussion in TDNT 1 (1964), 199.

[12] John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), 512.

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