Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats: A Study on Matthew 25:31-46 (Part One)

Note: In addition to certain quotations from Scripture, I've also placed links to other articles I've written on my blog in blue font. 

Matthew 25:31-46 (Concordant Literal New Testament)

31 "Now, whenever the Son of Mankind may be coming in His glory, and all the holy messengers with Him, then shall He be seated on the throne of His glory,
32 and in front of Him shall be gathered all the nations. And He shall be severing them from one another even as a shepherd is severing the sheep from the kids.
33 And He shall be standing the sheep, indeed, at His right, yet the kids at the left.
34 "Then shall the King be declaring to those at His right, 'Hither, blessed of My Father! Enjoy the allotment of the kingdom made ready for you from the disruption of the world.
35 For I hunger and you give Me to eat' I thirst and you give Me drink; a stranger was I and you took Me in;
36 naked and you clothed Me; infirm am I and you visit Me; in jail was I and you come to Me.'
37 "Then the just will be answering Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we perceive Thee hungering and nourish Thee, or thirsting and we give Thee drink?
38 Now when did we perceive Thee a stranger and took Thee in, or naked and we clothed Thee?
39 Now when did we perceive Thee infirm, or in jail, and we came to Thee?'
40 "And, answering, the King shall be declaring to them, 'Verily, I am saying to you, In as much as you do it to one of these, the least of My brethren, you do it to Me.'
41 "Then shall He be declaring to those also at His left, 'Go from Me, you cursed, into the fire eonian, made ready for the Adversary and his messengers.
42 For I hunger and you do not give Me to eat; I thirst and you do not give Me drink;
43 a stranger was I and you did not take Me in; naked and you did not clothe Me; infirm and in jail and you did not visit Me.'
44 "Then shall they also be answering, saying, 'Lord, when did we perceive you hungering or thirsting, or a stranger, or naked, or infirm, or in jail, and we did not serve you?'
45 "Then shall He be answering them, saying, 'Verily, I am saying to you, In as much as you do it not to one of these, the least, neither do you it to Me.'
46 And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian."

Introduction: Concerning the Greek words αἰών and αἰώνιον

It is a widely-held belief among Christians that our life on earth is probationary, and that God has suspended the final destiny of all people on something that we must do or undergo before we die. Insofar as most people fail to meet the necessary conditions of salvation before they die, it is believed that such people will never be saved. The majority of Christians throughout church history have believed that the final state of the unsaved will consist of unending conscious torment (of course, there’s no consensus among Christians on just how bad the conscious torment of the lost will be; this is something that is largely left to the imagination of those adhering to this doctrine). For other Christians, the final state of the unsaved – following some period of judgment, perhaps - will be one of endless death (i.e., non-existence). Still others – while agreeing that many people will never be saved – are more-or-less agnostic concerning the exact nature of their fate, preferring to simply view the final condition of the unsaved as one involving “separation from God.” Regardless of the differences in these positions, however, what each of them has in common is the idea that some will never be saved; at some point, it is believed that the “unsaved state” in which some are presently in will become final and unchanging.

Of all the passages of scripture that are thought to support the view summarized above, Matthew 25:31-46 is, perhaps, the one that is most commonly appealed to. Despite its popularity as a “proof text” for this position, I don't recall this passage really being taught or discussed - at least, in any real depth - at the church in which I grew up (and if it was, it obviously left no lasting impression on me!). In any case, for much of my life, my thoughts concerning this passage never really went beyond the expectation that I would be among the “sheep” that would be placed at Christ’s right, rather than among the “goats” on his left (and I can only assume that this is also the case for the majority of those “brought up” in the institutional church). As simplistic as these thoughts on this passage may have been, they were at least consistent with what Jesus “clearly stated” in my trusted NIV Bible: it was the “sheep” that would be entering into “eternal life,” while the “goats” had the doom of “eternal fire and punishment” awaiting them. And these two “eternal” destinies were, of course, as good and as bad as things could possibly get!

As should be obvious from what has been said above, the primary reason that Matthew 25:31-46 is seen by most Christians as supporting the view that some will never be saved is the use of the word “eternal” in most English translations of this passage. It is this word in particular that gives the “fire,” “punishment” and “life” referred to in this passage a sense of finality that would not be otherwise present. In his 2009 article, “The Importance of Hell,” Christian author Tim Keller begins his brief scriptural defense of the traditional view with a reference to this passage. After stating that Jesus “taught about [the doctrine of hell] more than all other Biblical authors put together,” Keller informs his readers that “Jesus speaks of ‘eternal fire and punishment’ as the final abode of the angels and human beings who have rejected God (Matthew 25:41, 46).” It is undoubtedly the word “eternal” which led Keller to see this passage as having to do with the “final abode” of those who “rejected God”; apart from this word, Keller would have little to no reason to view this passage as having to do with the “final abode” of anyone.

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a more in-depth explanation for why the word “eternal” doesn’t belong in Matthew 25:31-46 (for that, see my seven-part study, “Eternal or Eonian?”), there are a few points that I would like to make before examining this passage in greater detail. The Greek word translated “eternal” in the most popular English translations is the adjective αἰώνιον (or “aiónion,” as it’s usually transliterated), and should best be understood as the adjectival form of the Greek noun αἰών (transliterated aión and meaning “age” or “eon” – i.e., a relatively long but temporary measure of time). As the adjectival form of the noun aión, aiónion should be understood to mean “lasting for, or belonging to, an eon or eons,” and would be better translated as “age-abiding” or “eonian” (as it is in more literal translations of scripture).

Scripture affirms that there have been past eons (Col. 1:26), that there is a present eon in which we’re now living (Gal. 1:4), and that there will be future eons (Eph. 2:7). We also know that there was a time before the eons began (2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2), which means that time was not always measured by eons. It is also revealed that the eons will eventually end (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26), which means that time will one day cease to be measured by eons. Since the adjective aiónion (eonian) pertains to one or more of the eons, anything that continues to exist or occur after the eons have ended will cease to be “eonian.” When time is no longer measured by eons, the adjective “eonian” will cease to be an accurate way to describe anything. For example, God will always exist, but he will cease to be “King of the eons” (1 Tim. 1:17) when the eons over which he is king have ended.

Significantly (and as I noted in my aforementioned study), there are a number of contemporary, evangelical Christian scholars who’ve acknowledged that the expressions commonly translated as “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46 should best be understood to mean “the life of the age to come” and “the punishment of the age to come,” respectively (with the “age to come” being the age that will, at Christ’s return to earth, succeed the present age).[1] This is an important concession on the part of these Christian scholars. If they’re correct concerning the meaning of aiónion, then it would have to be acknowledged that the English word “eternal” is not, in fact, an accurate translation of this word. The adjective “eternal” corresponds to the noun “eternity” rather than the noun “age” (and eternal duration is not an idea that is inherent in the word “age”).

In light of this belief, why do these and other Christian scholars still maintain that “eternal” is a valid translation of aiónion in their Bibles of choice? Well, in accord with the belief of most Christians, these scholars understand the “age to come” to be a span of time that will be endless in duration.[2] In other words, they see the “age to come” as being a never-ending age. Because they see the age to come as being “eternal” or “everlasting” in duration, they’re able to justify their belief that anything referred to as “aiónion” in scripture (such as the “life” and “punishment” referred to in Matthew 25:46) will also be “eternal”/“everlasting” in duration. This view, however, is inconsistent with the facts.

In Ephesians 2:7, Paul stated that God will be “displaying the transcendent riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus,” and that this display would be taking place “in the oncoming eons.” Paul used the plural form of aión in this verse (aiósin)[3], and in nearly every English Bible I’ve checked this fact is reflected by the use of the plural “ages” or “eons” to translate it. Since an unending eon cannot precede another eon, we can conclude that the eon to come will - like the eons preceding it - have both a beginning and an end. And based on the fact that we read of the conclusion, or consummation, of the eons, we can infer that the last eon will also eventually end. This means that neither the “fire” of Matthew 25:41 nor the “life” and “punishment” (or “chastening”) of v. 46 refer to experiences that anyone will be having in “eternity.” Instead, everything that we read about in this passage concerns events that are “eonian” in nature, and which pertain specifically to the eon to come – i.e., the first eon of Christ’s reign. As I hope to make clear by the end of this article, the scope of Matthew 25:31-46 does not take us beyond the end of this future eon.

The upshot of these introductory remarks concerning the words aión and aiónion is that, no matter how good or bad the eonian destinies of the “sheep” and the “goats” turn out to be for them, it is not their final state. As important and worthy of our consideration as this passage is, Christ’s words in Matthew 25:31-46 do not reveal the “end of their story.” They weren’t intended to. There is more – much more - to come for both groups. And I believe that Christ knew this full well at the time he spoke the words recorded in this passage. In fact, it was with regard to the final state of all mankind that I believe our Lord ultimately went to the cross and died for us. But that’s a topic for another article. Suffice it to say that, because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, the “worst-case scenario” for those who will fall into the “goat” category will, I submit, involve the following: a time of severe but corrective judgment, a return to death (and an eon-long period of being dead), and then - as the final outcome of Christ’s death for our sins - a state of endless life and perfect fellowship with God (or, as we read in 1 Cor. 15:20-28, a state in which all who are dying in Adam have been "vivified in Christ," and in which God has become “All in all”). Although the "goats" have a relatively rough road ahead of them, our good and sovereign God is in just as much control of their life and destiny as he is of everyone else's.

Part two:

[1] See, for example, C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the First Gospel, pp. 144-50; George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 290-292; J.I. Packer, "The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Crux XXVI.3, September 1990, 23; "Evangelical Annihilationism in Review," Reformation & Revival, Volume 6, Number 2 - Spring 1997; John Painter, 1, 2 and 3 John (Sacra Pagina), p. 195; Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, pp.73-74; John G. Stackhouse, Jr. "Jesus Christ," The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, p. 151; N.T. Wright, Romans, p. 530.

[2] It should be noted that this belief – even if it were correct - would not justify translating aiónion as “eternal.” For once it’s admitted that the adjective aiónion – as used in Matthew 25 – pertains to a certain aión or “age,” consistency demands that one’s translation of aiónion take into account the meaning of the word aión. And since the idea of “endless duration” is not inherent in the word aión (at least, as the word is used in scripture), the decision to translate aiónion as “eternal” would be based entirely on the translators’ own doctrinally-based belief concerning how long they think the “age to come” will be.

Thus, if any of the Christian scholars referred to above were to argue that “eternal” is a valid translation of aiónion simply because this translation reflects how long they believe the age to come will be, they’d essentially be admitting that their own doctrinal/theological beliefs can and should influence the translation of scripture. But the job of interpretation – of seeking to come to a correct understanding the meaning of the text - is one that should be left to the reader rather than to the one whose job it is to provide the reader with as accurate a translation of scripture as is possible. Scripture interpretation is challenging enough as it is; the reader shouldn’t have to be concerned about whether or not what they’re reading has been heavily influenced by someone else’s doctrinal views.

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