Rob Bell in his recent book Love Wins refers to the use of the noun kolasis in Matthew 25:46. He argues that the cognate verb kolazo “is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so that it can flourish” (91). He then interprets the phrase eis kolasin aiōnion to “mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction” (91). He offers this as the preferred alternative to the more usual translation “eternal punishment” and goes on to suggest that in this context Jesus “isn’t talking about forever as we think of forever” (92). Rather “because ‘forever’ is not really a category the biblical writers used” (92), this phrase in Matthew 25:46 does not refer “eternal punishment” people experience because they have not served Jesus.1
Is Bell’s exegesis and lexical interpretation of the noun kolasis in the context of Matthew 25:46 possible? Is it probable? Does it fit what we know of the meaning and use of this noun and its cognate verb? Although the question of the fate of the unsaved does not hinge on the solution to this question, this text does have significant implications because of its location in the teaching of Jesus.
Both the noun and verb occur in Classical Greek material as well as in the materials produced within the Hellenistic Jewish community. The basic sense of the word describes the action of cutting off, maiming. The Greek Classical Dictionary edited by Liddell and Scott lists one usage in several writings of the 4th-3rd Century BC Greek author Theophrastus in which these terms describe “a drastic method of checking the growth of the almond-tree.”2 While other authors may employ this verb and noun similarly, the writings of Theophrastus are the only example cited for this application of the word. So it would seem that Bell is correct in saying that the noun can mean pruning. However, the fact that the noun and verb can be used in horticultural contexts to describe various methods of pruning does not determine the meaning of the noun in Matthew 25:46. Context has a large say in discerning the significance of a particular word. Nothing in Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Mathew 25:31-46 as far as I can see makes any comparison with pruning. Rather the context has to do with a shepherd’s action of separating sheep from goats, as a metaphor of judgment. Once segregated, the “goats” are required to “depart into eternal punishment” (apeleusontai eis kolasin aiōnion), in contrast to the “sheep” who depart “into eternal life” (zōēn aiōnion).
The noun and verb far more frequently have the sense of chastise, punish, or suffer the loss of something.3 It may be as J. Schneider suggests4 that the maiming of slaves as a punishment is the connection between the action of cutting off and punishment. Whatever the explanation, the verb and noun in their figurative sense, i.e. non-literal meaning, come to signify the activity of punishment and chastisement. In Classical Greek usage the noun kolasis describes punishment that may be to the benefit of the one being punished.5 However, a few centuries later the sense that such punishment is temporary and corrective is no longer dominant. For example, Josephus speaks about Herod’s experience of being on trial and in danger of being sentenced to death, but through the intervention of Hyrcanus, the high priest, he was saved “from that danger and punishment (kolaseōs),”6 certainly not a reference to a temporary kind of punishment.
The nature of the punishment depends upon who is the subject, the reason for the action, and who is the recipient. Context then determines these elements. When applied to a tree, the action of cutting expressed in this verb becomes pruning, as an extended meaning. However, for the meaning of “pruning” to be considered the primary sense in Matthew 25:46, in my view, the context would have to indicate this clearly in some fashion. Otherwise the more usual idea of punishment or chastisement would prevail. Given the prior directive by the Son of Man in v.41, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire (eis to pur to aiōnion) prepared for the devil and his angels,” the context certainly suggests the idea of punishment with lasting consequences and administered by a divine agent.
Within the Greek translation of the Hebrew canon, the noun kolasis only occurs in Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the cognate verb occurs once in Daniel 6:12(13). Jeremiah (18:20) complains to God about the plots being made against him. “Is evil a recompense for good that together they spoke utterances against my soul and hid their punishment (kolasin) for me?”7 In Ezekiel this noun represents the Hebrew noun mikshol, which means a stumbling block generated in most cases by idolatry and leading to punishment for such iniquity (14:3,4,7; 18:30; 44:12). In the Supplement to Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon the use of this noun in Greek Ezekiel is rendered as “that which brings about punishment, stumbling block.”8 In Ezekiel 14 and 18 the punishment that Yahweh brings upon Israel for its idolatry is death; in 44:12 Yahweh punishes the Levites for their participation in idolatry by never allowing them to act as priests in the new temple. It also occurs in Ezekiel 43:11 with the sense “receive their punishment” applied to Israel and describing Yahweh’s response to their sin. The prophet describes such punishment in 43:8 as “I wiped them out in my fury and by murder.” The emphasis seems to be upon a punishment that is fatal or results in permanent change, and administered by Yahweh, as divine agent, because of sinful action. The use of the verb in LXX Daniel 6:12a describes the punishment Daniel receives for praying to Yahweh, rather than to Darius, and his punishment is to be executed by confinement in a den of lions.
Schneider notes that “the idea of divine punishment and chastisement is widespread in antiquity” and that kolazein and kolasis “were fixed terms in sacral jurisprudence.”9 He notes in this regard inscriptions found on Phrygian and Lydian monuments dated to the imperial period (beginning with Augustus) in which god is the subject who punishes various individuals for impious acts. This perspective is similar to the sense found in other literature contemporary with the New Testament. In 2 Maccabees 4:38 the author recounts how Antiochus, the Seleucid emperor executed Andronicus, his deputy who had murdered Onias, the Jewish high priest. He concludes that “the Lord thus repaid him with the punishment (kolasin) he deserved.” According to the story in 3 Maccabees 7:10 the Jews, upon their miraculous rescue from attempts to by Ptolemy Philopator to annihilate them, were granted permission “that those from the race of the Judeans who had freely disobeyed the holy God and God’s law should obtain their deserved punishment (kolaseōs) through them,…” The result is that three hundred Jewish men are slain.
The verb and noun were used extensively in Wisdom of Solomon. The consistent theme is that Yahweh punishes those who commit idolatry by using the very animals that they worship in their idolatry as the means of their punishment. For example, in 16:1 the writer claims that “they were deservedly punished (ekolasthēsan) through similar creatures” because “they worship the most detestable animals” (15:18). God uses his creation “for punishment (kolasin) against the unrighteous” (16:24). In the case of “the impious and their impiety” the writer is sure that “what was done will be punished (kolasthēsetai) together with the one who did it” (14:10) and this is said in relationship to idolatry. He is also concerned that such punishments might lead people to accuse God of being unjust and so states that no king or prince can “look you in the face concerning those whom you have punished (ekolasas). But being righteous, you manage all things righteously considering it alien to your power to condemn anyone who does not deserve to be punished (kolasthēnai)” (12:14-15). Note in particular that God exercises appropriate judgment using such punishments and often they are fatal or extremely catastrophic (i.e. plagues in Egypt, including the killing of the firstborn).
Josephus, when commenting upon the various beliefs of the Pharisees, notes that they teach that “the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishments (aidiōi timōriai10 kolazesthai).”11 The term aidios means “eternal, everlasting.” Josephus himself was a Pharisee and so knew intimately their religious perspective.
Finally, a few examples from Philo, the Jewish expositor of the Pentateuch and a contemporary of Jesus. His usage of this terminology is too frequent for me to cite every case and so I focus on some of his usage in De Vita Mosis I & II. When commenting upon the plague of gnats, he describes it as “a chastisement (kolazontos) sent by God” (I.108). When God applies the plagues solely to the Egyptians, Philo observes in the case of the frogs, that it was as “though it knew how to distinguish who should be punished (kolazesthai) and who should not” (I.144). When commenting on the story of the Edomites and their refusal to allow the Israelites to pass through their territory (Numbers 20:14ff), Philo has Moses address Israel and dissuade them from seeking vengeance, because even though “some particular persons deserve to be punished (kolasteoi)” Israel may not be the right party to exact such punishment” (I.244). Philo comments on the contents of the books that Moses wrote and says that in these writings he describes how “the impious were chastised (kolazesthai) with the said punishments (timōriais)12” (II.57), as part of a larger motif which demonstrates “the punishment (kolaseōs) of the impious” and “the honouring of the just” (II.47). One other example occurs in Philo’s commentary on the story of the man who violates the Sabbath command (Numbers 15:32-36). Some Israelites arrested the man but did not execute him on the spot lest they take “upon themselves the ruler’s duty of punishment (kolazein).” So they arraigned him before Moses who, after consulting Yahweh, declared that the man should die. This becomes another example of the “punishment (timōrias) of the impious” (II. 214-29). These examples define punishment that results from sinful action and originating primarily with a divine agent. The punishments often are drastic and deadly. The punishment of evildoers is the responsibility of rulers who act for justice under God’s direction.
In the New Testament the verb occurs in Acts 4:21 and 2 Peter 2:9, while the noun is used in 1 John 4:18.13 In Acts 4 the Sanhedrin has held a trial for Peter and John because they are proclaiming Jesus as Messiah and doing miracles in his name. They cannot decide what to do so they threaten the apostles and do not punish (kolasōntai) them. What punishment might have been assigned is not stated, but it could have involved execution (as happened to Stephen a few chapters later in Acts 7). In 2 Peter 2:9 the writer declares that “the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment (kolazomenous).” Between the present and the future day of judgment the impious experience God’s punishment, perhaps in the light of their final destiny. As the review of usage demonstrates, the use of this verb in 2 Peter conforms to what we have discerned. The more difficult text to fathom is John’s statement in 1 John 4:18 that “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment (kolasin). The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The previous verse assures that “we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.” Raymond Brown comments that “To be afraid of God is already to be suffering the punishment of a negative judgment.”14 Plainly John is describing a consequence of present behaviour that is serious and only avoidable in a proper love of God.
To conclude, the claim that Matthew’s use of kolasis in 25:46 describes a temporary punishment that is designed to be corrective, i.e. a kind of pruning to stimulate a more appropriate response, does not seem to be borne out by the evidence of usage in the century before and after Jesus, given the context of Jesus’ teaching in that section of Matthew’s Gospel. The noun and verb both are used to describe divine punishments meted in accord with God’s judicial sense and in response to human impiety, both in this life and in the life to come. The usage in Wisdom of Solomon, Philo and Josephus is particularly telling, along with the Phrygian and Lydian inscriptions, I would suggest. Further the context of Matthew 25:31-46 is a judgment scene in which a divine figure, the Son of Man, from his “throne of glory” delivers divine justice to the righteous and the sinful. This context suits well the employment of kolasis in v.46. Lastly, the event described by Jesus seems rather climactic. Once the judgment is rendered, the outcomes proceed without any sense of re-ordering in the future. This may be an argument from silence, but it does recognize that Jesus in this story gives us no hint at future reversal of the judgment once given.
In my view Bell’s attempt to exegete this phrase and its context in Matthew 25 do not take into account the evidence of current usage in Jesus’ or Matthew’s day, nor the sense of the context and thus does not convince. Jesus’ message is clear – those who live in the category of “goats” will “go away to eternal punishment,” as harsh and difficult as this teaching might be to our ears. Thanks be to God that “goats” can become “sheep” through the atonement, grace and hope displayed in the cross and resurrection, if they will accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
- We have only touched upon one small exegetical detail in the great debate about the meaning of Hell in the teaching of Jesus. While Jesus is not fixated on the topic, he does teach its reality and warn people that gaining the world is insufficient compensation for losing one’s life in eternity. It is a tough message to communicate with care, respect, and integrity, but the Gospel is incomplete without it. How do you deal with the urgency that Jesus’ teaching expresses about this reality?
- There is mystery in the character and actions of God that we cannot grasp. How mercy and justice find resolution in the grotesqueness of the crucifixion is a wonder created by God’s love. Is the idea of eternal punishment inconsistent with God’s love and God’s justice? How can we say this when Jesus, the God-man himself affirms a Gospel in which eternal life and eternal death are fundamental principles?
- 1Bell treats the noun phrase kolasin aiōnion in a rather unusual fashion, i.e. “an aion of kolazo” in which he combines the noun aion with the first person singular indicative verb form kolazo. He then wants to interpret the adjective aiōnion in the sense of “age” or “period of time” or some idea of “intensity of experience.” He says that “the phrase (sic) ‘aion of kolazo’ gets translated as ‘eternal punishment.’” Now Matthew did not use that un-Greek ‘phrase’ and so Bell’s criticism of this usual translation becomes suspect.
- 2Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1966), 971.
- 3J. Schneider, “κολάζω,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Volume III edited by Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1965), 814, indicates the verb essentially means “maiming, cutting off.”
- 5Richard Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), 24-26.
- 6Josephus, Antiquities XV,16.
- 7This is the translation provided in A New English Translation of the Septuagint. The Greek text is somewhat different from the Hebrew text in this verse. However, the sense of “punishment” for this noun seems warranted from the context.
- 8H.Liddell and R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 2083.
- 9J. Schneider, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. III, 814.
- 10The noun timōria describes retribution or vengeance.
- 11Josephus, Bellum II.163.
- 12Note the same conjunction of terms here as in Josephus, Bellum II.163 cited above.
- 13There is a variant reading in 1 Peter 2:20 where in some manuscripts kolaphizomenoi (being beaten) is replaced by kolazomenoi (being punished). Both make sense in the passage. The advantage of the first is that it links back to Jesus’ experience of being beaten at his crucifixion. While supported by papyrus 72, the alternative reading is probably due to misreading, i.e. the omission of the two Greek letters ‘phi and iota’.
- 14Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1982), 562.