The idea that the lost will suffer eternal punishment has often been questioned by Christians who doubt that a God of mercy would condone such cruelty. Instead, they often come up with other ideas about the punishment of the lost such as the idea that they will simply be annihilated or that they will only suffer for a period of time before being given another opportunity to turn to God. There are several logical problems with attempting to reconcile either of these views to the accounts of Scripture, but in order to see that, we must actually know what the Scripture says about the punishment of the lost. Unfortunately, I have discovered that very few Christians have ever actually studied this aspect of God’s Word.
The quickest and easiest way to determine how long God said that He would punish the wicked for their sins, is to first ask how long He said that He would reward the righteous. I do not know of any Christian theologian who disputes the idea that God will give the righteous eternal life. That is, He will grant that all those who have accepted the salvation offered by His Son will live forever and never die. This is a central tenet of Christianity, and it is taught throughout the New Testament.
In fact, the phrase “eternal life” appears 26 times in the New Testament. The phrase “everlasting life” occurs 10 times, and the inverted forms of “life eternal” and “life everlasting” are used 4 times each. This gives us a total of 44 times in the New Testament that God spoke of the eternality of the life that He will give to the righteous. In every single one of those 44 statements, God used the Greek word aionios to convey the idea of eternality. There is not a single reference to eternal life in the New Testament in which God used a different word to convey this idea. This establishes for us that when God uses the word aionios, He intends for it to be a reference to an unending period of time.
Now, let’s turn to Matthew 25. In verse 31 of this passage, Jesus began to teach those around Him about what would happen when He returned to judge the world. He began by saying that the righteous would inherit the kingdom of God, and then He said that the wicked would be cast into a fire, but take a moment to consider His summation given in verse 46:
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
Here Christ gives us a direct contrast between the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. The wicked will receive everlasting punishment while the righteous receive eternal life. This seems fairly straightforward in English, but what Greek word do you suppose Jesus used here in reference to the punishment of the wicked? That’s right, He used the word aionios. The exact same word that is used 44 times to speak of the eternality of the life given to the righteous is also used by Christ to speak of the length of the punishment given to the wicked. There can be no doubt that the two are equal in duration. If we know for a fact that the righteous will live forever, then we know with equal certainty that the punishment of the wicked will endure just as long.
Part 2: Other uses of aionios and aion
Part 3: The annihilationist objection
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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