Kolasin aionion

Nerd alert: This post deals with ancient Greek. (In case you were wondering about the title…)

There’s one thing especially worth noting from chapter 3 of Love Wins Rob Bell’s take on the “sheep and goats” passage in Matthew 25, where Jesus says:

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:

  1. a long period of time (possibly, but not necessarily eternal in scope)
  2. a particular unit of history—i.e. an era or an age
  3. the world
  4. 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.

7 thoughts on “Kolasin aionion

  1. So where does that leave us? It’d be one thing, like for example to be talking about a grocery store having my item, but then again maybe it doesn’t. It’s quite another thing when talking about our eternal destiny; well maybe it’s a period of corrective punishment, or it’s an eternity of corrective punishment, or it’s a period of penal punishment, or it’s an eternity of penal punishment (eternal torment). Greek is supposed to be such a precise language, but far as I’m concerned it’s an absolute mess—like saying, well “up” can mean at the top but it can also mean at the bottom; or “fat” can mean overweight but it can also mean skinny. What a joke.


    1. Ancient Greek is no more or less precise than any other language. Greek words can have different meanings in different contexts (as is the case with English words). Meanings can evolve…a word can start out meaning one thing but shift over time. Questions about the nature or duration of judgment cannot be settled on the basis of one or two Greek words. You have to look at the context of the whole story in which these words are used. It’s dangerous to hinge an entire argument for EITHER view of postmortem judgment on the meaning of a single word like kolasin or aionion.


  2. I agree with everything you say. The fact that 2000 years and innumerable generations and translations of the holy texts, some good, most bad, separate us from what was originally written—along with the fact that meanings, contexts, usage, etc of certain key Greek words evolve over the millenniums. So for someone seeking the truth about the matter are we more or less out in the cold—unable because of faulty text to arrive at a definitive answer as to which of the three destinies–ET, Annihilation, or UR–Jesus and Paul were trying to tell us was the true destiny of non-believers? Why would God have Jesus and Paul tell us which is the true one, knowing that over the centuries the truth would just become opaque? Or perhaps the truth was deliberately shrouded from the moment Jesus and Paul first talked about it. I mean we have Jesus Himself espousing all three destinies in the Gospels: ET: “And these shall go into eternal damnation…”; Annihilation: Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”; UR: “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to Myself”. Perhaps we were never meant to know a definitive answer to the question. I suspect that to be the case. After all, the best theologians in history could not agree which was the correct one, even after whole Congressional Libraries being written on the topic.


  3. But we have to know what was meant (or at least I do) in order to make a decision about whether or not to be a Christian. If either the annihilationist view or the UR view were true, I could live with that, but I could not worship or love a God that created people knowing they spend eternity in hell. It would have been better not to have created them.


  4. “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matt 25:46
    This verse is probably the most single used verse in Scripture to advocate for eternal punishment. The argument goes something like this: Since believers are said to reap “eternal” life in the second half of the verse, then in order to be grammatically consistent one must conclude that unbelievers also reap “eternal” punishment. Therefore unbelievers are condemned to hell/lake of fire forever and not all are eventually saved which disproves universalism. At first glance this appears logically consistent and a foolproof argument. However this argument fails to take into account the context of this verse. It presumes that the sheep are believers and the goats are unbelievers at the great white throne. Is that premise accurate?
    Different Time: The judgment of the nations occurs at the second coming of Christ (Matthew 25:32); the great white throne occurs following the millennial kingdom (Revelation 20:11-12).

    Different Scene: The judgment of the nations occurs on earth (Matthew 25:31); the great white throne judgment occurs at the great white throne (Revelation 20:11).

    Different Subjects: At the judgment of the nations, three groups of people are mentioned: the sheep, the goats, and the brothers (Matthew 25:32, 40). The great white throne judgment involves the unsaved dead (Revelation 20:12).

    Different Basis: The basis of judgment at the judgment of the nations is how Christ’s “brothers” were treated (Matthew 25:40); the basis of judgment at the great white throne is their works (Revelation 20:12).

    Different Result: The result of the judgment of the nations is twofold: the righteous enter into the millennial kingdom; the unrighteous are cast into the lake of fire. The result of the great white throne judgment is that the wicked dead are cast into the lake of fire (the righteous are not mentioned).

    Resurrection: No resurrection is mentioned in connection with the judgment of the nations. A resurrection does take place in connection with the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:13).

    The goats are those who go into the lake of fire for an age of time. The sheep are those who go on to inhabit the earth also for an age of time – during the millennium age.
    And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during. (YLT)
    Aionios life as applied to the sheep cannot mean eternal life since the age only lasts for 1,000 years. Since aionios life cannot mean eternal life for the sheep then it does not stand to reason that it must automatically mean eternal damnation for the goats either.


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