After talking and talking, I’m left with one question. If the eternal punishment doesn’t last forever, then how can the eternal life last forever? A lot of people ask this, and it makes sense to ask it, given our understanding of words, parallel structure of sentences, and just plain logic. Here’s the verse in question:
‘Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say to you, Inasmuch as you did it not to one of these, the least, you did it not to me. And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.’ (Matthew 25:46 RYLT-NT)
You see the problem, I’m sure. It’s that last sentence. The same word (aionion) is used of the punishment and of the life. If the punishment is finite, then so is the life. Not to give offense, but I think I’d be happier with a limited-time engagement of life for everyone than to gain never-ending life at such a price. Fortunately, that’s not a choice we have to make.
Aionios is a very complex word. Books — long, scholarly books — have been written about it and its cousins. I haven’t read them, but I have read long scholarly articles — does that count? And I’ve read the people who read the books.
Now here’s a phenomenon that (unless you’re a linguist) you probably haven’t noticed. We’ve all been taught that adjectives modify nouns, but have you ever realized that nouns also modify adjectives?
Here’s an example: The yellow dog rolled on the green grass. Now visualize it. Unless you’re a surrealist artist, you probably see a yellow lab or a golden retriever sort of color on the dog. You don’t normally see bright neon-yellow dogs around here. The noun (dog) modifies the adjective. If you were talking about apples, you’d see a different sort of yellow. What color was the grass? Was it the color of pine needles? The color of the Caribbean sea? Probably it was the color of the sort of grass you have around you most springtimes or summers. Again, noun modifies adjective modifies noun.
Aionios is like that. If it is attached to something like remedial punishment (see What to do with the Kids?), then it will be of limited duration. Connected with our eternal Father, it necessarily has a different meaning. Aionios is used in this way throughout the Bible, sometimes meaning a long time, sometimes a fairly short time (Jonah’s time in the whale).
But there’s another way in which aionios can be used. We have adjectives that denote origin: French wine, Belgian chocolate, German beer. Eternal can also be used in this way. “And this is eternal life: that they should know You, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” It is the God kind of life; the kind of life that comes from God. In this way, eternal punishment, such as that suffered by Sodom, needn’t last forever (and God later said it wouldn’t). Eternal fire, such as the fire that consumed that unhappy city, needn’t burn forever (which obviously it doesn’t). It is punishment; it is fire; from eternity.
My conclusion, the aionion in aionion punishment can (and probably does) mean two things. First, that it is punishment of the sort that kolasis is — remedial and therefore limited to the duration of necessity. Second that it is punishment of the sort that comes from the Father.
The aionion life is life that endures for the age (and I’m guessing, but I’ll bet that’s the way Jesus’ hearers understood it — that’s what they would have expected to hear; life during the Messianic age. That was their hope. It can also mean life of the sort that God has and gives, which would be abundant and also never-ending life. The two instances of aionios don’t have to mean the same thing, nor is it reasonable to require or even to suppose that they do.