Eternal Punishment or An Age of Chastisement?

It’s Hell Week! And no, there’s no burpies or hazing involved. Unless you consider discussions of ancient Greek a form of hazing. But don’t worry, I’ll make it easy. The only thing going down here are old ideas about hell that we are well rid of.

Our first Hell Week installment showed that nowhere in the bible does it actually say that hell or punishment or torment is eternal. It’s for an “age” – an undefined, but limited period of time. Today we’re going start by looking at just what the nature of this “punishment” is anyways – including examining more closely the issue of fire and the lake of fire. So, let’s go back to where we left off yesterday: aionian kolasin. This is the phrase Jesus used in Matthew 25:46 when speaking of judgment: “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment (aionian kolasin), but the righteous into eternal life (aionian zoen).” *

Punishment vs Chastisement

Yesterday, I quoted the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus who said of both the Pharisees and the Essenes that they taught adialeiptos timoria for the wicked in the after life. Adialeiptos indicates everlasting or unceasing – as opposed to aionian which as we discussed yesterday denotes a limited period of time. Should we then understand that Jesus is saying that the wicked will be sent away until they have suffered enough to pay off their debt for their wickedness? A sort of tit-for-tat, sin for suffering exchange between God and sinners? Not at all. It is significant that both the Pharisees and Essenes speak of timoria while Jesus uses the word kolasin. According to Aristotle (Rhetoric 1.10.17): “kolasis is corrective, timoria  alone is the satisfaction of the inflictor.” We see these words used just this way in other Greek texts of the day – timoria indicates vengeful punishment. Kolasis always indicates correction or chastisement. They are similar in that they both deal in some way with a form of punishment, but clearly not interchangeable. Timoria is for the benefit of the one who inflicts it – generally in repayment for some wrong done. Kolasis is ultimately for the benefit of the one being chastised. So, when Jesus says that the wicked with be sent to aionian kolasis, he is saying that they will be sent for correction, not simply for punishment and suffering. God’s purposes are always redemptive.

The Lake of . . . Divine Consecration?

Believe it or not, this idea of redemptive correction is echoed in one of the most frightful and memorable images of the bible – the infamous lake of fire from Revelation. Yes, really – that lake of fire and brimstone. Now, this is where we need to remember that scripture was given to a particular people in a particular context and it would have a particular meaning to them. If the bible is unchanging, then it can not have been intended to communicate one thing to the people to whom it was originally given and something entirely different today.  If our modern common sense reading of scripture is in conflict with how the ancients would have understood the same verses, then our modern understanding is wrong, no matter how obvious, universally held or apparent it is. In order to understand the lake of fire, we need to drop our “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” ideas about the lake of fire and look at it from the perspective of those to whom it was given.

In the King James versions of the bible, it says that the fire was made of “brimstone”. Most modern translations use “sulphur”. The original Greek word is theio or theion. Look at those words. Does something look familiar about them? Looks a lot like theo – Greek for divine or God – doesn’t it? That’s because sulphur was used in the ancient world to purify and consecrate something to the divine. The incense used in pagan temples was made of theio – sulpher. In the Illiad, a goblet is purified and consecrated using fire and theio. The verb theioo comes directly from theio/theion and according to Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (to site one source) it means “to hallow, to make divine, or to dedicate to a god.” Do you see what’s going on here? God’s purposes are ALWAYS redemptive.

From Is Hell Eternal or Will God’s Plan Fail? by Charles Pridgeon:

To any Greek, or to any trained in the Greek language, a “lake of fire and brimstone”   would mean a “lake of divine purification.” The idea of judgment need not be excluded . . . Divine purification and divine consecration are the plain meaning in ancient Greek.

The Book of Revelation says that being thrown into the lake of fire is “the second death”. What is the first death? It could be the death of our physical bodies. Or it could be the death of Adam and Eve – original sin. But Jesus also tells us in John 12:24: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” 1 Peter 2:24 instructs us to “die to sins and live for righteousness”. The idea of death as a prelude to redemption is well grounded in scriptures.

God, Fire and Salvation

Consider also 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

And also Hebrews 12:29:

For our God is a consuming fire.

Nor is the idea of God’s purifying fire at work limited to the afterlife or the time of judgment. In Lamentations 1:13 it says:

“From on high he sent fire, sent it down into my bones.”

Jeremiah (20:9) says:

“His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones.”

Purification through the fire of God’s touch has been a theme found in the writings of many saints. It is one of the central metaphors found in the writing of John of the Cross, for example:

“The fire, though applied, would have no power over them if they had no imperfections for which they must suffer, for these are the matter on which that fire seizes; when that matter is consumed there is nothing more to burn. So is it here, when all imperfections are removed, the suffering of the soul ceases, and in its place comes joy.” (Dark Night of the Soul, Chapter 10.6)

There are reasons that hell and fire are so closely associated and not simply because being burned by fire is horribly painful. Fire is closely associated with God and purification.

Even all that torment which the bible speaks of (list here), is more than simple suffering. The Greek word is basanos or some form thereof. Basanos was actually a stone used to test metals for the presence of impurities. To test if a piece of gold had been cut with some other metal, for example. It became associated with torture because of the idea that torture could be used to get someone to reveal a truth that they would otherwise conceal. It is a test or examination of the person (much like the test by fire from 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, above?).

That’s Still a Lot of Suffering!

I’ve been spending a lot of time these last couple of days getting into technical details of the language of scripture because as someone who holds a high view of scripture, I could not begin to accept a doctrine which was in conflict with scripture. All of the arguments about how unfair it was for people to suffer eternally for finite sins or that there was a conflict between a God of love and God throwing people into a lake of fire might be compelling, but simply couldn’t overturn scripture itself. What was amazing to me was how once you really dug into the language involved, it became possible to say, “you’re right – eternal punishment for finite sins makes no sense. And a God of love throwing people into a lake of fire is really screwed up. But fortunately, that’s not actually what scripture says.”

Some people may assume that I started with what I wanted to see and then worked backwards from there to “discover” that which confirmed my own desires. In fact, I started with scripture and ended up pleasantly surprised to discover that God is far better and far more powerful than I had imagined. It turns out that love really does win. God doesn’t lose anything or anyone. Yes, all this talk of torment and testing and purification aren’t the most pleasant ideas in the world. But if you read through the things I have written about my own spiritual journey, it’s hardly unimaginable. Or unsurvivable. As I said in an earlier post:

One of the church’s failures is that too often it is taught that suffering and feelings of being unworthy are themselves what we need. Which they aren’t. What we need is a really good reason to tolerate them on the way to a better state and way of being. Scripture itself says that Jesus was willing to suffer the pain and humiliation of the cross “for the joy set before him”. Not because it was good for him or for us or holy to suffer but because there was something better on the other side of all that suffering.

Tomorrow: what exactly is this hell place we keep talking about anyways?

This essay contains a (really) in-depth discussion of this verse and “aionian zoen” as it concerns eternal life.

18 thoughts on “Eternal Punishment or An Age of Chastisement?

  1. 1) Jacques Ellul had it that the “lake of fire” in Revelation was for the distruction of fallen spiritual powers, that no actual human soul would be harmed in the performance of this apocalypse: merely the various ‘idols’ (whether literal or figurative) that people worship to their own detriment, in lieu of simply knowing God.

    2) Walter Wink has a nice take: First he points out that throwing Satan into a bottomless pit simply doesn’t do the job: After 1000 years, “As with all unconscious repression, it does not last” ‘He must be loosed….’

    “This time Satan will not be consigned to the pit — which is precisely where repressive Christians have tried to keep him — but to the lake of fire. The question that has not been asked is, Where is this lake? The assumed answer has always been, In the underworld. But that is where Satan was consigned the first time around, and that did not work. A search through Revelation supplies the answer: those who worship the Beast ‘shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.’ And where are they? Right before God’s throne. The lake of fire bubbles and spews in the very presence of God. The lake of fire is nothing less than the sea of glass ‘mingled with fire’ that stands before the throne of God…. [Which in Bruce & Malina’s read a bit differently, as a reference to “the vault of the sky.]

    “What do these symbols mean? The satanic energy here burns in a perpetual transformation of satanic libido into heavenly passion (fire.) If Satan is not so much a person, a being, a metaphysical entity, as a function in the Divine economy, then the issue is not the inhuman torture of Satan as a person, but the transformation of ‘Satan’ as an archetype….”

    He goes on to say that evil needs to be recognized [and of course not practiced!], cured by God, “lifted up to God” in the sense of “trusting God to transform even our irredeemable evil into fiery light.

    “[quoting Julian of Norwich]:
    And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    When the tongues of flame are in-folded
    Into the crowned knot of fire
    And the fire and the rose are one.”

    1. “those who worship the Beast ‘shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.”
      Why did you passed by these words “shall be *tormented* with fire and brimstone” and pretended they are not there? And to say that Satan isn’t person is to miss the whole point of the controversy between God and Satan in the Bible. Then we have to spiritualized everything. Jesus was tempted by His own passions. Well, then there are evil passions even in God… Can you see where it lea to?

      1. If a person is “following” God to avoid hell, perhaps they don’t understand spiritual things well enough to understand this – but the process of being purified is its own torment. Even scriptures say that directly: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” ~ Hebrews 12:11

        Also, scriptures vehemently disagrees with your concept of “evil” temptations: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.” ~ Hebrews 4:15 If Jesus experienced temptation just as we do, then that temptation must have come from both within and without. Otherwise scripture is a liar.

        With all due respect, if mainting the revolting idea that there’s no reason to be a Christian if hell isn’t eternal, there’s no reason to be a Christian requires ignoring large portions of evidence to maintain it (“well., what about torment in this lake of divine consecration?”), then it’s probably false. Name a bible verse, I can show exactly how it is consistent with the teachings I outline here. Because scriptures is, in fact, quite consistent once we let go of man made teachings and expectations.

      2. Rumi says that ~’The Wicked are happier in Hell than they ever were in this life, for they see God continually’. He doesn’t say how long they’re there… If you think about it, it makes more sense to think of Satan (& various angels, principalities etc) as closer to a computer program than a sentient being… and so far as human beings are enthralled by such influences, they become less like living beings, more like mechanical things.

        The point of that ‘controversy between God and Satan in the Bible’ is that Satan is God’s undercover secret police agent — the usage of the word ‘satan’ in the Persian Empire which incorporated the Jerusalem Temple state when these documents were getting their final rewrite. & that like a guilty conscience or the modern FBI, he gets in trouble via stirring up crimes that wouldn’t exist without his intervention: “Satan always was a liar” as Jesus says.

        Trying to run down the nature of malice — which the ‘torment’ of anyone helpless seems to imply — I’ve concluded that it’s an extension of the wish to maintain a winning advantage, show the other ‘Who’s boss’ — when there’s some doubt about that. Human legal codes get draconian when there’s a lot of crime and no sign of enforcement, when the authorities use intimidation in a futile effort to restore their disintegrating authority. This is not a weakness I’d attribute to God — whose power is restrained really by limitless mercy. “Seventy times seven” doesn’t mean “On the 491th offense you clobber him!”

  2. Thanks for the Lamentations & Jeremiah quotes – I hadn’t come across them before. When I posted your excellent John of the Cross quote on FaceBook, Keith DeRose liked it 😀

    1. Cool! I don’t know if you’ve read the “What the Hell” post in this series, but I made the connection between Jesus’ use of Gehenna and the Book of Jeremiah myself. I’m sure I’m not the first to notice it, but I haven’t read anyone who did. I’m kind of proud of it. 😉

      1. Yes, just read that last night, and don’t think I’ve seen such an extensive link to Jeremiah before – I thought it was very helpful.

  3. After reading many of your posts I am now aware of just how dangerous your “theories” are to yourself and your readers. I suspect that, due to the traumatic experiences in the past, you have need of closing doors of oppression and deception through prayer a wholesome study of the Bible, and counseling. You seem to relish in your own little “theories” about biblical subjects that are in opposition to hundreds and even thousands of years of proven and accepted sound doctrine.

    Blood sacrifice was man’s idea that God just went along with? Have you ever read Genesis 3:27 and Revelation 13:8 ( as well as many others)? All will eventually be redeemed? The twisting of words in the above post are incredible! Did you know that the lake of fire was originally created for the devil and his angels? How does that fit into your theory? Has it ever occurred to you that some hate God with all of their being and have, by an act of their own will, rejected God’s covenant of redemption? What is God to do with them?

    “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard change his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” Jer 13:23

    “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still:” Rev 22:11

    You have chosen this deception by an act of your own will. Why? I don’t know but again, I think it lies in your past.

    You flatter yourself with all your “new” takes on these subjects which are not new at all but recycled deceptions and false teachings from the past. (Ecc 1:9) I would encourage you to pray sincerely and ask Jesus to give you the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to lead you and guide you into all truth. Ask him for forgiveness for wandering away from the truth of His scriptures. (Prov 14:12) Come completely clean of your past. God will make you free if you call on Him out a pure and sincere heart. Demons enter and entrench themselves in a person’s soul through severe trauma and rejection. They must be commanded by faith to leave in the name of Jesus. Please don’t take this lightly!

    Grace and peace.

    1. Actually my “theories” were well accepted in the early church and many of them are still standard fare in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I consider it quite telling how often the understandings have come to, largely on my own, are actually very old, well established orthodox ideas which are simply not well known to modern Christians who know far more about folk theology than church history, scripture, historical context or any of the other things which I pull on.

      What is not new, however, is people using cruel ad hominem attacks in an attempt to discredit ideas which with one disagrees or which are threatening to the man’s ways/the status quo. Using a person’s past which they have valiantly and faithfully worked to overcome without falling into sin or out of relationship with God is a particularly vile twist on this time-honored, man-made tradition. I’ve done my share of spiritual warfare over the years. I’ve been shown things about myself by God which you know nothing of but which allow me to say with full confidence that I am fully redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. But given your rather twisted and ugly attempt to use my honesty and vulnerability as a weapon against me, perhaps it is not me who ought to be concerned about demonic influences, but yourself.

      By their fruits you will know them. You may disagree with my theology, but nothing I have ever written manifests anything which works in opposition to love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control. Nor I have I ever, ever, ever pointed anyone to any source other than God, Jesus and the indwelt Holy Spirit for their salvation, hope, healing or redemption. Even someone who disagrees virulently with my theology cannot argue against that fact much less produce a shred of evidence of such a claim. But many people have found renewed hope, encouragement, faith and understanding through my writing.

      What is produced by your words? What does your (fabulously erroneous) assumption that I have not and do not daily pray for the Holy Spirit, Truth and faithfulness to be made manifest to, in and through me say about you? I have prayed the prayer of Psalm 139 at least weekly for years: “Search me, oh Lord, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts. And point out if there be any hurtful way in me.” I have written many times about how harmful and pointless our human tendency to resist admitting or facing when we are wrong is. Seeking those things out is a spiritual discipline I have pursued faithfully for decades now. Can you honestly say any such thing, Dean? Do you go to the Lord for correction or do you seek out the doctrine of man for that? I seek correction not from men or human doctrine but directly from the Lord whose ways are as far above the ways of men as the heavens are above the earth. Theology comes from man. Truth comes from God alone.

      And yes, this has lead me to conclusions which seem novel or dangerous to those are unfamiliar with church tradition prior to the Roman Catholic Church and the reformation or who have never sought out the wisdom carried in Christian faith traditions outside of what is common among American Christians. But if you disagree with those conclusions, feel free to do the research, construct an actual argument and leave the ad hominem garbage and the arrogance to the side, please.

    2. And for the record, let’s be clear about what is an ad hominem attack and why your words count as such. An ad hominem attack is an attempt to use something personal about a person making an argument to discredit what they have to say rather than arguing directly against what they have to say. As such, your attempts to grasp onto my past experiences as an explanation for my arguments is an ad hominem attack. Yes, you can construct an interesting theory about someone you don’t actually know much about using ad hominem thinking. But such a theory, aside from being almost inevitably wrong, says nothing about my arguments themselves. (Nor does labeling them “novel” or “new” which falls into the fallacious category of stereotyping.)

      As to what little substance there is in your response, why would you think that God has any less desire to redeem angels and demons than he does to redeem us? And sure, there are people who are vociferously opposed towards God, but I happen to believe that Love wins. Always. And it wins the way that scripture says it wins – without opposing the evil doer, through patience, doing good towards those who harm you, through love which glorifies God and when need be, through turning the sinner over to the fruit of their sin until they come to the point of letting the sin go. Love never fails. Scriptures say that Jesus will be made “all-in-all”. So I believe the promises of scripture that love will overcome and defeat evil – including the evil in the hearts of those who currently hate God.

      As for my rejection of blood atonement through Jesus, please look up Christus Victor which was the churches teaching going back to before the time of Rome and continues to be doctrine among the Eastern Orthodox. Hardly new or novel.

  4. Loved this article- ADORE your spirit-filled response to Dean. Your words are strong and pure and a teacher you indeed are. Every knee shall bow.
    PS – the illustrations are DELIGHTFULLY delicious 😉

  5. I think there is some mistranslation on your part here Rebecca, to do with the words aionian kolasin. I’ll take them in turn.

    1. aionian
    Matthew 25:46 – “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    In Modern Greek it reads “Αυτοί λοιπόν θα πάνε στην αιώνια τιμωρία, ενώ οι δίκαιοι στην αιώνια ζωή”. 

    While in Ancient Greek it reads “Απελεύσονται ούτοι εις κόλασιν αιώνιον, οι δε δίκαιοι εις ζωήν αιώνιον”.

    In Modern Greek (aionia timoria) means “eternal punishment”, whereas in Ancient Greek (kolas aionion) it means “eternal hell”.
    The word used for the time-frame is the same in both: aionia / aionion.

αιώνιος” actually means eternal, everlasting, perpetual. It means something that lasts forever, that never dies.
    It comes from “αἰών” or “αιώνας” which means century. So you can even say it denotes “centuries long”, or “ages long”.

    We see the word in other parts of the Bible, like for example Revelations 14:11: “αιώνες αιώνων” whose literal translation is “for ever and ever”.

    In Greek church they use it a lot in prayer: “Ευλογητός ο Θεός ημών, πάντοτε, νυν, και αεί, και εις τούς αιώνας των αιώνων. Αμήν”. ç
    Which literally translates “Blessed is our God always, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen”.

    I love to think that our God is a merciful and forgiving God, but in this specific sentence, I believe it means something everlasting, and not something that will only last for a limited time.

    2. theio or theion
    Revelation 19:20 – “The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur / These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.”

    In Modern Greek it reads “και οι δύο ρίχτηκαν ζωντανοί στη λίμνη τής φωτιάς, που καίει με το θειάφι”. (Sulfur)

    In Ancient Greek it reads ”εβλήθησαν οι δύο εις την λίμνην του πυρός την καιομένην εν θείω”. (Sulfur)

    When I read about the origin of the word, I see that it could be related to “a Godly or divine element”, or to the verb “θύω” which means smoke/fog, it is unclear however.

    Once again, it seems to me like it’s used in this context as a burning element (to punish), just like it is in Genesis, where the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah. It might be used in a redemptive manner, but I can’t say I can find enough points to prove that point.

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