An agitated Christian Church preacher responded as follows to a notice about my book, THE FIRE THAT CONSUMES. “Jesus made a pronouncement of sorts about hell, and I suggest that you and this growing number of ‘scholars’ you mention familiarize yourselves with it. It’s found in Matthew 25:31-46 in the New Testament, a book written by God. What is it about the word aionios [eternal] that you don’t understand?”
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The purpose of THE FIRE THAT CONSUMES (the title comes from Hebrews 12:29 and Deuteronomy 4:24) is to search the Scriptures, and it examines about 1,000 verses from Genesis to Revelation. The longest chapter in the book studies the teaching of Jesus himself, and the text you mention is certainly one of the most important of those passages. Whatever Jesus says we must accept without question, but we must thoughtfully question whether he has been correctly represented by the majority tradition which says that God will keep the wicked alive throughout eternity in order to torture them forever.
Yes, our Lord himself warns of “eternal punishment.” But “punishment” is a very neutral word. While it clearly speaks of retribution imposed by a judge (in this case, God himself through Jesus Christ), the bare word “punishment” does not tell us the nature of that retribution. In our own criminal law system, for example, “punishment” covers quite a spectrum — from a fine, to probation, to jail or prison (for a short or extended term), to the death penalty — which we regard as the ultimate “punishment.”
Jesus says there will be “punishment” which is “eternal,” and Paul amplifies what Jesus left ambiguous. When Christ returns, says the Apostle, he will “punish” the lost with “everlasting destruction” (2 Thes.1:9). This punishment is “eternal” in at least two senses. It is “eternal” in quality because it belongs to the Age to Come. It is also “eternal” in quantity, so to speak, because those who suffer it will remain dead forever. From this death there is no recovery, resurrection or escape.
Indeed “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Not the first, earthly death, but the “second death” (Rev. 21:8) when God destroys both body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28). The wicked will become ashes under the souls of the feet (Mal. 4:3). The final choices are eternal life or death (Rom. 6:23). All will be raised for judgment, but some are raised to eternal life and others to perish (John 3:16).
I challenge you to do as the Bereans and “search the Scriptures whether these things are so” (Acts 17:11). Whatever God says is true, even if it contradicts 1700 years of church tradition. My book says that the tradition is wrong, and it shows how the tradition arose because of presuppositions which crept into the early church via pagan Greek philosophers.