Nerd alert: This post deals with ancient Greek. (In case you were wondering about the title…)
Then they [those who didn’t care for the needy] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [those who DID care for the needy] to eternal life.
Setting aside the REALLY provocative thing about this text (that people are judged based to how they treat suffering believers), what are we supposed to make of the phrase “eternal punishment”?
On pages 91-92, Rob suggests the Greek word translated “eternal” (aionion, from the noun aion) can also mean an age of unspecified duration. And the word translated “punishment” (kolasin) can mean corrective punishment — as opposed to punitive punishment (that is, punishment quite literally for the hell of it).
As you might expect, many think Rob is playing fast and loose with the text. But whether or not you agree with his interpretation of Matthew 25, his definitions of aion and kolasin are both plausible.
Let’s take just one of the major Greek-English lexicons (this one, in case you get a kick out of stuff like this). It lists four possible meanings for aion:
- a long period of time (possibly, but not necessarily eternal in scope)
- a particular unit of history—i.e. an era or an age
- the world
- a guy named Aeon
(We can probably rule out #4 when it comes to Matthew 25.)
The point is, aion doesn’t necessarily mean “eternity.” There are some cases where “eternity” may be the best translation. And Matthew 25 may be one of them. But there are also several instances where it clearly doesn’t make sense to translate it this way. (See Chad Holtz’ blog for a helpful overview.)
So how about kolasin? Rob may be reading too much into the fact that kolasin comes from a horticultural term for pruning (which, I’m told by successful gardeners unlike myself, does not normally involve destroying the plant in question).
But there IS evidence from ancient Greek literature that kolasin meant corrective punishment. (Again, see Chad Holtz’ blog for more, because I don’t feel like turning this into yet another monster post.)
In any case, the passage in Matthew 25 could be translated, “Then they will go away to the age of punishment, but the righteous to the age of life.” (Which at least would leave it more open to a range of interpretative possibilities.)
Now, there’s a lot more to the kolasin aionion debate than this. (Riveting, isn’t it?) And saying that kolasin aionion could mean an “age of corrective punishment” isn’t the same as saying it definitely does mean an “age of corrective punishment.”
But whether you agree or disagree with Rob, understand that his interpretation of this text IS within the realm of possibility.