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What does the Greek really say in Matthew 25:46?


We are reading Love Wins by Rob Bell. Bell says that in The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the “everlasting punishment” in vs. 46 doesn’t mean that at all, but his critics say it does. What does the Greek say? (7/10/11)

Summary of follow-up questions from others: How are kolasin and aionian used in other contexts? If kolasin is only used twice in the New Testament, how do we know what it means? Are aionion and aion linguistically related? Are they used interchangeably? (7/15/11)

Why am I posting this?
Summary
Introduction
Kolasin vs. Kolazo vs. Pruning
Aionion vs. Aion
Context of Matthew 25:46
Mini Conclusion
Translations Examined


Why am I posting this?

This is neither a review of Love Wins, which I haven’t read, nor a statement about Rob Bell, whom I haven’t met. It is a lengthy discussion of a single phrase in the New Testament, eis kolasin aionion, which is apparently used by Bell in developing his position on hell and punishment.

I checked several sites on the Internet, and I didn’t see any that discussed eis kolasin aionion in the kind of detail that satisfied my readers. This page comments only on eis kolasin aionion, because that’s what I was asked about. (RLH, 3/20/13)


Summary

For those of you who don’t want to read five pages on this topic, here are my conclusions. Also please read the Introduction.

In my initial, short answer to this question on 7/10/11, I said, “it appears that [Richard Francis] Weymouth and [Rob] Bell are on extremely shaky ground when they say that vs. 46 means anything other than “everlasting/eternal punishment” and “everlasting/eternal life.”

The one-page answer generated more questions. After considerably more study and consultation with two Greek scholars, I have modified my conclusion. Weymouth and Bell are clearly wrong in saying that vs. 46 means anything other than “everlasting/eternal punishment” and “everlasting/eternal life.

I can’t tell you why Weymouth and Bell are reading the text as aion, which can mean age. Aion just isn’t there. Instead, the text has a different word, aionion. Aionion means eternal or everlasting.

I see no justification in the context of any verse that includes kolasis, in two dictionaries, or in either of two concordances for the idea that either kolasis (which is the word used in Matthew 25:46) or kolazo (which is the word Bell says is used) has anything to do with pruning, trimming, or correction. In every case, punishment or torment is used in the dictionary and all translations that I consulted, and in context, those appear to be appropriate.

Finally, vs. 46 is part of a parable. A parable is a memorable story with (usually) a single theological point, and vs. 46 is not the point. Taking one sentence out of a parable and trying to interpret it separately is fraught with danger. Here’s a longer discussion of how to interpret
parables.


Introduction

According to the reader who sent the original question, this is what Rob Bell (p. 91) writes: Now, keep bearing in mind that I still haven’t read Love Wins, and I’ve read just enough of the on-line critics to see what’s going on. Neither the book nor the responses are particularly interesting to me, and I currently have no plans to read them.

Nevertheless, it’s reasonably clear to me that the discussion is being conducted on several levels: How to translate certain Greek words, Orthodoxy, Heresy, Theology, and Doctrine.

The differences between these five topics are significant, and it will make the whole discussion easier for you to understand if you can recognize each of them when you see it. Here’s a detailed discussion of the differences among
scripture, orthodoxy, heresy, theology and doctrine.

I can’t and won’t try to tell you whether Rob Bell is right, wrong, or purple in his theology or doctrine, because I don’t know what they are. Without studying his theology and doctrine in detail, I can’t comment on whether his position is orthodox or heretical. I will say that charging another Christian with heresy in a public forum is divisive and unloving and brings the Church into disrepute. I strongly urge you never to do it.

So why I’m I writing this at all? Because I’ve been asked questions by two readers and one non-reader about what the Greek says, and this scriptural question is what I’m going to talk about.

In vs. 46, “into everlasting punishment” is the King James translation of eis kolasin aionion. Now, it is important that “into life eternal” is eis zoen aionion, which means that both the kolasin, punishment – if we decide to go with that, and the zoen, life – about which there is no possible question in the Greek – are aionion. Whatever we say about the punishment, we have to be willing to say exactly the same thing about the life. Furthermore, the New Testament uses aionios to describe God, the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the honor and power of Jesus Christ. Are those “for an age” or “eternal”?

Through the good offices of Father Antony Hughes, whom we’ve heard from before, I received comments on this verse from Dr. George Parsenios, associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, M.A. (Classics) Duke University; M.Div. Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. Yale University. Here’s a summary of his comments:
Kolasin vs. Kolazo vs. Pruning

I looked at 29 translations of kolasin in vs. 46. (Kolasin is the direct-object form of the noun kolasis; it is exactly the same word, not a “related” word.) All but two had “punishment”; one had “to be punished”; and one had “torment.”

The noun form is used twice in the New Testament, here in Matthew 25:46 and in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (ESV). Kolasis is translated “punishment” or “torment” is all translations that I looked at.

The verb form, kolazo, is also used twice and is translated punish or torment: The Arndt & Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon (i.e., a dictionary) has only punish and punishment for New Testament Greek. They cite usages in classical Greek, e.g., Plato and Hippocrates, and various Church fathers and the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek Old Testament) for this definition. There is no indication here that the word has a horticultural background.

Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible gives every Hebrew and every Greek word used to translate every English word in the Bible. (I believe that my edition uses the King James as its basis.) Here also, kolasis and kolazo have to do with punishment or torment. Just to be sure, I checked for prune, e.g., Isaiah 5:6, and that is zamar in Hebrew, which comes into the Greek Septuagint as a number of words, none of which is kolasis or kolazo. When Jesus talks about the Father as the vinedresser in John 15:2, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit,” he uses the word kathairo, which means mainly cleanse, but is also translated purge or prune.

Finally, I checked Hatch and Redpath’s Concordance to the Septuagint (LXX). Kolasis is used seven times in the LXX, the Greek Old Testament: I urge you to look up each of these verses and at least glance at the context for yourself. I think that changing punishment to pruning would be an incredible stretch of the context. It is nearly certain, in my opinion, that the Jewish writers of the New Testament used the word in the same way it is used in the LXX.

Strong’s Greek dictionary says that kolazo is “from kolos (dwarf); properly, to curtail, i.e. (figuratively) to chastise (or reserve for infliction):--punish.” Again, there’s no indication that I see of a horticultural background, and the only definition is punish.

However, I think I’ve found the source that Bell used for his translation, which is The Expositor’s Greek New Testament. Expositor’s is a commentary (that is, a writer’s thoughts or opinions about the text). The commentary on Matthew 25:46 says, without any explanation or reference, that “kolazo = mutilation or pruning, hence suggestive of corrective rather than of vindictive punishment.” Not only does Expositor’s definition not agree with the Lexicon, Strong’s dictionary, either concordance, either context in the New Testament (in my opinion), or the interpretive decisions of 29 translation teams and individuals, but it’s also not even the word that’s there, which is kolasis.


Aionion vs. Aion

Moving on to aionion, it is virtually always translated eternal, everlasting, or forever. Looking at the 29 translations of vs. 46, most have both “everlasting” and “eternal,” like the King James, three have “everlasting” in both places, four have “eternal” in both places, and one has “forever” and “eternal.” Only one, the 1912 Weymouth New Testament, has “Punishment of the Ages” and “Life of the Ages”; however, of the ages is grammatically incorrect.

Aionion is used 69 times in the New Testament, where Dr. Parsenios says it means eternal unless coupled with chronos time, and about 150 times in the Old Testament.

In the LXX, aionios is used only to translate the Hebrew word olam, which, depending on the context, means a variety of things in the general area of time, eternity, duration, and the existence of various dynasties, places, and things. Of most interest to me are verses that apply olam to God’s existence: Ps. 93:2 “You [God] are from olam.”; Gen. 21:33 “God olam,” Isa. 40:28 “olam LORD”; Deut. 32:40 “I [God] live olam”; Dan. 12:7 “the one who lives olam:), or other things to do with God (about 50 verses that I am too lazy to list here). In the New Testament, aionios is used in Romans 16:26 to describe God himself; in 1 Timothy 6:16 to describe Jesus Christ’s honor and power; in Hebrews 9:14 to describe the Holy Spirit; and in 2 Peter 1:11 to describe the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Anyone who maintains that Matthew 25:46 has to do with “a period” is going to have to explain to me why God is God for “a period.” Check these verses for yourself and see what you think.

Now, aion means age, beginning of the world, or eternity, depending on the context, and it is the word that Bell uses. So I looked at the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament to see if any major or minor manuscripts have aion instead of aionion in Matthew 25:46. Apparently not one manuscript uses this word, or indeed has any variant at all in this verse.

The most important point is this. Aion is a noun, and aionion, the word actually used, is an adjective. Let’s try this in English. You say, “This item is made from aged iron.” Now suppose that your friend concludes, “This item is from the Iron Age.” That is not what you said, and it’s a different idea entirely. Introducing the word aion into the discussion of vs. 46 is just grammatically wrong, and the meaning of aion is irrelevant.


Context of Matthew 25:46

Vs. 46 is the final sentence of a well-known parable, The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which begins in vs. 31. The final sentence of a parable is often not the point, and in this parable, the point is in vss. 40 and 45.

William Barclay has this to say about the parable (The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, © 1958 by St. Andrew Press). He doesn’t even mention vs. 46.
Chas. R. Erdman (An Exposition, The Gospel of Matthew, © 1948 by Charles R. Erdman) says,
Parables normally have a single theological point, and it is rarely appropriate to take one sentence and elaborate it into a doctrine.


Mini Conclusion

  • Aion can mean age, but it isn’t used in Matthew 25:46.
  • The verb kolazo isn’t used either, and it doesn’t mean prune.
  • Eis kolasin aionion means into eternal punishment.
  • Translating aionion as of an age here is inconsistent with numerous verses that uses the same word to describe God and Jesus.


    Translations Examined

    The New Testament from 26 Translations, including
    • King James, American Standard, Revised Standard, New American Standard, New English, John A. Broadus, Henry Alford, New Testament in Basic English, William F. Beck, Berkeley, Edgar J. Goodspeed, Ronald Knox, George N. Lamsa, James Moffatt, Helen Bartlett Montgomery, Olaf M. Norlie, J. B. Phillips, E. V. Rieu, J. B. Rotherham, Living Bible, The Twentieth Century New Testament, Richard Francis Weymouth, Charles B. Williams, and The Amplified New Testament.

    Many of these I also checked for myself.

    Other translations that I looked at include William Barclay, Jerusalem, Today’s English, Contemporary English, and James Murdock, God’s Word.


    Copyright 2011, 2013 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.

    Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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