I’m by no means a Greek scholar, but with the inception of the internet, we can find reputable sources to locate and contemplate concordance definitions of what was meant in the original language in a matter of moments.
One such word I’ve felt drawn to know more of the meaning behind is: punishment.
Biblehub has concordance extracts conveniently located on one page where multiple viewpoints can be assessed.
Looking up “punishment” yielded the following results (extracted to simplify):
Strong’s Concordance kolasis: correction Original Word: κόλασις
HELPS Word-studies Cognate: 2851 kólasis (from kolaphos, “a buffeting, a blow”) – properly, punishment that “fits” (matches) the one punished (R. Trench)
NAS Exhaustive Concordance Word Origin:from kolazó Definition: correction
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon STRONGS NT 2851: κόλασις the noted definition of Aristotle, which distinguishes κόλασις(kólasis) from τιμωρία (timória) as that which (is disciplinary and) has reference to him who suffers, while the latter (is penal and) has reference to the satisfaction of him who inflicts
To state it simply, the Greek word for punishment (kólasis) applied as a penalty that fits the crime, a correction, and is for the benefit of the one being punished, not the one doing the punishing. Even in the Old Testament, the punishment fit the crime (i.e. eye for an eye). In other words, if this corrective punishment is for God’s benefit, τιμωρία (timória) would have been used. What sense would it make to have a corrective punishment if the person is never given the opportunity afterwards to live out the correction?
(Note: The word timória is used in Hebrews 10:29 but in a different fashion which would be a different topic for discussion. In short, that passage is directed towards Israel’s rejection of Jesus and the coming destruction via the Romans in 70AD in my opinion. It is speaking of punishment by death in this life, but not a “timória” punishment in the afterlife.)
So this brings up another question, what’s the deal with the word eternal? This is probably where most of the confusion comes in and could be a post or three of its own. It’s easy to understand a corrective punishment, but an everlasting correction is confusing depending on how it’s presented. It can be presented as burning forever in hell or as a corrective and permanent burning away of sinfulness.
The Greek word for eternal, according to the references on Biblehub are:
Strong’s Concordance Original Word: αἰώνιος aiónios: agelong, eternal
HELPS Word-studies Cognate: 166 aiṓnios – properly, “age-like” (“like-an-age”), i.e. an “age-characteristic” (the quality describing a particular age; (figuratively) the unique quality (reality) of God’s life at work in the believer.
To put it in as simplified of a manner as possible, the root word aion means “age” and aionios means age-like. This type of age isn’t defined except in what this adjective modifies. Applied to God it means eternal, but nothing else is eternal unless in God (i.e. eternal life, life that is only eternal inside of God). Applied to punishment, it takes on more of the meaning of “age-of” but not eternal. The corrective punishment will take as long as it takes, relevant to what is being corrected.
To sum up, “eternal punishment” in Matt 25:46, according to the original Greek, would mean more of an age of corrective action for the benefit of that person—but not eternal torment to appease God.
But what about all those other times the Bible talks about “Fearing the Lord?”
Could there be two different meanings or perceptions of fear?
Is fear of God more of a reverent, mouth agape, awe of God’s majesty and beauty or is it a fetal-position-inducing scariness that causes us to be obligated instead of in love?
Can we ever truly love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27) if we are afraid of him?
We may attempt to serve him with everything we are, but is that being in love with him or a performance to attempt to gain acceptance by works and rituals?
If we’re honest with ourselves, is our “love” for God out of fear of punishment and obligation or truly because we are in an ever-joyful love relationship with him?
Is there really no fear in love?
Could we be confusing what fear is and presenting our beloved Father as a monstrosity?
Does our malformed view of God cause us to try to fear others into our man-made kingdoms and hate those that refuse to be manipulated by such a skewed view of him?
Can we blame non-believers for not wanting to believe in such a fear inducing being?
Personally, I could never truly love God with everything I am while simultaneously being terrified of him. As I fell more in love with him, I saw that my terror of him was ill-conceived (Isaiah 29:13). I do “fear” the Lord, but it is because I am amazed by the inconceivable depths of his love, power, grace, and mercy. It’s salvation I work out with reverent awe and excited trembling (Philippians 2:12).
Does obligation grow from a love relationship, or are we trying to obligate ourselves and others into loving God?
Is that the love relationship Jesus presented?
Could we be putting the cart before the horse by trying to “do” before we learn to love (1 Cor 13:1-3)?
Are we pursuing righteous because we are afraid of slipping up and falling away into hell, or are we so in love with God that we have an assurance that we will be with him always (Romans 8:38-39, 2 Cor 1:22)?
Is our service to God out of fear of punishment (1 John 4:18), or because he loves us and that has caused us to fall in love with him?
If the title of this scares you, it’s probably because this term has been used to manipulate for so long by casting our all-loving Father into the role of a vengeful, almost maniacal, being. I was always made to fear this expression, most likely to uphold a conformity based religious performance.
So what can everlasting punishment mean if not what we’ve so often been told as burning forever and ever in hell?
This is something I wondered about for a very long time and God helped me understand this from his perspective of everlasting love and his will being fulfilled in the end (Col 1:19-20).
The first thing I came to better understand was the word everlasting. What could this mean other than continuing on and on without end? I pondered this for some time asking myself and God how he could be so cruel as to create humans that he knew would suffer forever. This didn’t quite jive with the claim of an all-loving Father.
As I began to research this more, I saw the word originally seemed to modify what it was explaining. In this case, the word punishment (I’ll get to that in a minute). In another case, it modifies the word life, as in everlasting life. I don’t want to go through all the iterations but I encourage looking into the original word meanings. For brevity’s sake, I’ll state that I personally came to believe the word everlasting, as it refers to punishment, means that it will last as long as we make it last. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man was still presenting himself as being superior to Lazarus, who was at father Abraham’s side in paradise, by ordering him to do his bidding. Even so, it seems his heart was being changed as he was now concerned with the fate of his brothers still living.
So, if everlasting could mean “age during/age of,” or in other words, a time of punishment, then what does the word punishment mean?
The first question to ask would be: Is punishment for God’s benefit or ours? That being, is God’s punishment to sooth his anger towards us or to correct our actions? Is God so fickle that he has to torture us forever?
Any loving parent wouldn’t punish their child just to appease their own anger. God, being infinitely patient with us, his children, likewise has no need to punish us to appease his anger. Punishment is a corrective action for our benefit.
Another situation that drove this point a little further home for me is as follows:
I was at a gathering with a family who had got a new outside dog. The dog kept wanting to come in the house but wasn’t allowed. The husband stated, “If I pop him on the nose one good time, he’ll know not to try to come in again.” As I thought about this, I realized this would have been an “everlasting punishment.” Now, this isn’t exactly how I would view God’s corrective actions towards us, but the principle here is a corrective action meant to permanently end the dog’s stubborn insistence on getting his way on his terms.
Likewise, fire is presented more as a purifying means of burning away our stubbornness and anything else that would be unfit to enter into heaven.
For example, In Daniel 7:9-10, fire is explained as flowing from The Throne. If this corrective fire comes from God, and God is love, wouldn’t this be a means of purifying us? Further, we see Zechariah and Peter talking about God using fire as a purifying agent, just like it is used to burn away the impurities in silver and gold. Some may go through these fires in this life by following Jesus, others in the next.
All of these are my personal opinions and how I’ve come to experience living with God. You can take what is beneficial to your walk or throw it all out. However, is the good news really good news if it has to be sold under threat of eternal punishment?