No Retreat on Nouns of Action: TurretinFan's Premature Celebration

Shortly after participating in my second formal debate on final punishment, 1 I wrote an article correcting pseudonymous blogger TurretinFan’s misunderstanding of what I had said in my opening presentation concerning the nature of the word punishment. 2 Nearly a year later TurretinFan responded, contending that my article exhibited a retreat from what I had argued in my debate. “Over at ‘Rethinking Hell,'” he writes, “Mr. Chris Date has retreated a few steps in his discussion of the meaning of the term ‘punishment.’ Recall that the argument that ‘punishment’ in this case was a ‘result’ noun was one of Mr. Date’s first supposedly ‘positive’ arguments for his position. Now, Mr. Date tries to argue for ambiguity.” 3
In fact, I had argued for ambiguity in my opening statement. It is true that I said, “My position, therefore, is that ‘punishment’ in this text is likewise a deverbal result noun referring to the effect or outcome of the transitive verb ‘punish.'” 4 But I was not, as TurretinFan suggests, arguing positively for my position. Rather, I was merely stating my position, and in order to underscore the ambiguity of the phrase “eternal punishment” I had asked the questions, “What is the nature of eternal punishment? Is it everlasting conscious suffering in a body and soul which never die? Or is it the permanent end to the conscious existence of the entire person?” 5 In order to argue positively for the position I had just stated, I did not allege that “punishment” always, or even normally, carries a result reading. Rather, I argued from context, saying, “And the answer is clear from Jesus’ reference to the ‘eternal fire,’ a phrase found in two other places in the New Testament,” 6 at which point I went on to argue for my understanding from the other uses of that phrase.
Putting aside TurretinFan’s mistaken assessment of my article as a retreat, he does try taking me to task on both my treatment of the word punishment as a polysemous deverbal noun as well as my argument in favor thereof from the phrase “eternal fire.” Let us see if his attempt was successful.

The Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns

TurretinFan begins by granting that it is true, as I had written, that many deverbal nouns are polysemous in meaning. And he correctly points out that “the fact that something is a deverbal noun doesn’t make it automatically ambiguous in a particular context.” Moreover, he correctly states that “it’s not true that just because some (or many) deverbal nouns are polysemous, that therefore all deverbal nouns are polysemous.” I agree and encourage our readers to heed his caution not to prematurely assume that punishment is such a deverbal noun.
TurretinFan insists that punishment “nearly always [refers] to a process.” But as evidence for a greater degree of polysemy, I had offered that two of the word’s synonyms carry result readings: amercement (or a fine) and confiscation. TurretinFan agrees that the punishment of being fined is measured in its result, and he does not challenge the result reading of confiscation, but he considers this an “irrelevant tangent.” I’m not sure why he considers this either tangential or irrelevant; if a criminal is punished by being fined or by having his property confiscated, is the duration of his punishment measured in its process or in its result? TurretinFan’s dismissal of my point notwithstanding, his comments suggest that he would agree with me that the duration of the criminal’s punishment is measured in its result. Doesn’t this call into question his insistence that punishment “nearly always [refers] to a process”?
In reality, punishment often carries a result meaning. Sure, when referring to imprisonment or community service or various forms of corporal punishment the duration of the punishment in view might be measured in its process (although in that last example the meaning is questionable, for the intended punishment could be argued to be the pain resulting from being spanked), but if referring to the punitive confiscation of a child’s toy, or the monetary penalty for a misdemeanor crime, or the punishment of death, the duration of the punishment is measured in its result.
At best for TurretinFan’s case, even if it is true that punishment normally carries a process reading, the fact is that the context of any given use of the word and the nature of the penalty in view determines whether it carries its a normative process reading or a less common result reading. The punishment of Matthew 25:46 is said to be inflicted by means of “eternal fire” (v. 41), by which the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were slain (Jude 7) and which Jesus elsewhere places in parallel with the valley of slaughter that was Gehenna (Matthew 18:8-9; cf. Jeremiah 7:32-33, 19:6-7). Therefore, and since this punishment is contrasted with life, the punishment in view is death and its duration is measured in its result, rather than its process.

Capital Punishment

TurretinFan goes on to argue that “it is the modifier that goes with the word ‘punishment’ that determines whether it carries its usual process sense, or this exceptional ‘result’ sense.” But this is simply untrue. What gives a result meaning to punishment when it is in the form of a fine or confiscation or execution is not the term which modifies punishment, for there is no term that modifies punishment in the first two of those three examples of punishment. Rather, what gives it a result reading is the nature of the punishment in view.
Based on his mistaken contention concerning that which gives capital punishment its result reading, TurretinFan writes that “‘capital punishment’ is not a term used in Scripture, and this particular example of the semantic domain of ‘punishment’, therefore, does not have a corresponding expression in Koine Greek.” Once again, it is not the modifier that gives capital punishment its result reading; it is instead the nature of the punishment. But the question might legitimately be asked, Does the Greek word translated as punishment in Matthew 25:46 ever refer to execution in the first place?
The Greek word kolasis is used only twice in the New Testament, in Matthew 25:46 and 1 John 4:18. Excepting the contextual argument for capital punishment as its meaning in Matthew 25:46, execution cannot be confirmed or ruled out in either case. In the Septuagint (LXX) translation of Jeremiah 18:20, however, the word is used to refer to the punishment of being killed. “Because they are saying words against my life and they have hidden their punishment [kolasis] from me.” 7 What punishment is that? Jeremiah goes on a few verses later to plead with the Lord, saying, “And you, O Lord, you knew all their counsels against me for death.” 8 The Hebrew text which the LXX paraphrases further demonstrates that death was the punishment intended for Jeremiah: “they have dug a pit for my life . . . you, O Lord, know all their plotting to kill me.” 9
The word kolasis refers to the punishment of death again in the LXX rendition of Ezekiel 18:30. “Turn around,” God instructs Ezekiel to say to the house of Israel, “and turn away from all your impious acts, and they will not become a punishment [kolasis] of injustice for you.” 10 The Lord continues, identifying the nature of that punishment: “make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, O house of Israel? Because I do not desire the death of the dying.” 11 The Hebrew original confirms that the punishment of death is in view, going on to record God instructing his people to “turn, and live.”
So while the phrase “capital punishment” is not found in Scripture, the concept of capital punishment clearly is, and it is included within the semantic domain of kolasis. The contextual argument for this meaning in Matthew 25:46 is therefore not challenged by TurretinFan’s appeal to the semantic domain of kolasis.

Eternal Nouns of Action

TurretinFan attempts to bolster his case, against capital punishment as the intended meaning of Matthew 25:46 by claiming that the word translated eternal (aiōnios), which modifies punishment, necessarily infuses the modified noun with a process reading. He writes that “it’s a word that unmistakably suggests that ‘process’ or ‘manner’ sense of ‘punishment’ is intended, just as if it had said ‘long punishment,’ ‘lengthy punishment,’ or ‘short punishment.'” Yet, if applied consistently, TurretinFan’s reasoning would lead to borderline—if not outright—heresy when it comes to other analogous uses of the word.
The author of Hebrews uses the word aiōnios to say that “being made perfect, [Christ] became the source of eternal [aiōnios] salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). He uses the word again to say that Christ “entered once for all into the holy places . . . securing an eternal [aiōnios] redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Were TurretinFan’s argument sound, we would be forced to understand these texts as teaching that Jesus will be continuing the ongoing process of saving and redeeming the elect throughout all eternity. It is surely nonsensical to suggest after the elect have been glorified and no longer sin that Christ’s atoning or mediating work must nevertheless continue forever. No, clearly eternal salvation and eternal redemption refer to the everlasting outcome of the verbs save and redeem, respectively.
Other similar uses can be brought to bear. The author of Hebrews writes of eternal [aiōnios] judgment (Hebrews 6:2), and yet scripture tells only of a once-in-time judgment whose consequences are eternal (Revelation 20:11-15). Some manuscripts record Jesus as referring to the everlasting consequences of a punctiliar sin as an eternal [aiōnios] sin (Mark 3:29). Consequently, in his contribution to Hell Under Fire, traditionalist Douglas Moo admits that “where ‘eternal’ describes a noun of action, it is sometimes the results of the action that are indicated,” 12 citing each of the above texts as examples.
Contrary to TurretinFan’s claim, then, the fact that Jesus describes the punishment awaiting the wicked using the adjective “eternal” does not give us any reason to believe that he intends a process meaning over a result meaning.

Augustine and Edwards

Next TurretinFan calls into question the legitimacy of my appeals to two traditionalists from history as support for my understanding of eternal punishment. In my article I had quoted St. Augustine as having written, “As to the award of death for any great crime, do the laws reckon the punishment to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted, or in this, that the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living?” 13 I went on to ask, “Did we not see Augustine explicitly stating that the measure of capital punishment is not in the duration of the punishing, but rather in the duration of the consequent lifelessness?”
TurretinFan attempts to answer that question in the negative: “No, we did not. We saw him explicitly saying that it was not in the duration of the act of killing but in the duration of the exile.” First, this isn’t actually a negative answer to my question, for exile in the sense intended by TurretinFan is the consequent lifelessness, the result of suffering capital punishment. Second, he is simply wrong. Augustine had just referred to exile and capital punishment as being distinct forms of punishment, listing “eight kinds of penalty,—damages, imprisonment, scourging, reparation, disgrace, exile, death, slavery.” 14 Therefore my point remains unchallenged: in Augustine’s view, the duration of capital punishment is not measured in the lasting process of exile (a separate kind of punishment), but in the lasting results of being killed.
After citing Augustine’s understanding of the duration of capital punishment I went on in my article to appeal to Jonathan Edwards who wrote that if “scripture expressions denote a punishment that is properly eternal, but that it is in no other sense properly so, than as the annihilation, or state of non-existence, to which the wicked shall return . . . it answers the scripture expressions as well, to suppose that they shall be annihilated immediately, without any long pains, provided the annihilation be everlasting.” 15 In Edwards’ view, then, while there may be many reasons to reject annihilationism, the phrase “eternal punishment” is not one of them.
TurretinFan objected, writing that “Mr. Date mistakenly takes comfort in this argument, supposing that Edwards is saying that continuing in the state of being annihilated is legitimately viewed as an ‘eternal punishment.’ On the contrary, while Mr. Date cited section 31 of the chapter, in section 1 Edwards explicitly states ‘Eternal punishment is not eternal annihilation.'” But it is TurretinFan who in fact is mistaken. Section 31 says what it says, TurretinFan’s objection notwithstanding. Edwards’ words are clear: everlasting annihilation answers the expression “everlasting punishment,” even if it works against a particular variation of annihilationism—and even if he did not himself believe in annihilationism (and he did not).
When Edwards writes that “eternal punishment is not eternal annihilation,” he is not saying annihilation fails to qualify as a legitimate example of eternal punishment. He’s saying that the eternal punishment warned of in Scripture is not annihilation. I could very similarly write that “eternal punishment is not eternal torment.” Although I do not believe that it is, I can readily admit that eternal torment qualifies as an example of eternal punishment; it’s just not the eternal punishment the Bible says awaits the wicked. Edwards is making the same kind of statement; i.e., he believes that annihilation is not the eternal punishment the Bible says awaits the wicked.

Shadow and Flame

Under the thus mistaken impression that he has proven that eternal punishment must be understood as an everlasting process of punishing, TurretinFan turns his attention to my case from the phrase “eternal fire.” As mentioned earlier, and as I had pointed out in my debate and in my article, eternal fire is not a fire which continues to burn things forever, never fully consuming its fuel. Instead it is that which swiftly ended the lives of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and which was placed in parallel by Jesus to what the Old Testament described as a valley of slaughter where scavengers consume corpses. I contend that this serves as contextual evidence for understanding punishment in Matthew 25:46 as referring to execution. TurretinFan disagrees, writing that “the argument Mr. Date is referring to here attempts to read the shadow into the substance, instead of recognizing that the shadow is just a shadow.”
Upon what basis does TurretinFan assume that the shadows’ antitype consists in fires which, wholly unlike its shadows, does not destroy and instead torments forever? He begins by shooting himself in the proverbial foot, appealing to Isaiah 33:14 as proof that “this concept of fire that burns forever is not a strictly New Testament concept.” That text rhetorically asks, “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” Fellow Rethinking Hell contributor Peter Grice commented on TurretinFan’s article, asking, “Which class of people will dwell with everlasting burnings?” TurretinFan responded, “Those who do not repent of their sins and trust in Christ alone for salvation . . .” He thinks, then, that the unsaved will dwell with everlasting burnings.
But this flatly contradicts the point of the passage. As Peter explains in response to TurretinFan, “God’s answer, according to the Spirit of prophecy given to Isaiah, follows immediately in the next verse. And it’s that other class of people; the righteous. Only the righteous can dwell with the consuming fire. Only the righteous can dwell with everlasting burnings.” The implication is that no wicked person can live with the consuming, everlasting fire that consumes people as so much chaff, stubble, and thorns (verses 11-12). Hence, Peter goes on, “Sinners are afraid because they will be consumed. Not just bodily, so that their soul could somehow still dwell there (an option already excluded by the language). Rather, the fear is about something more serious and definitive: being wholly destroyed, body and soul, exactly as Jesus said (Matt 10:28).”
TurretinFan’s next citations are stranger still. He appeals to Jeremiah 17:4, pointing out that it says “ye have kindled a fire in mine anger, which shall burn for ever,” but noting that “the Babylonian captivity was only for a matter of years.” So the text apparently speaks of fire which burns forever, but its fulfillment did not last forever. I’ll let the reader attempt to decipher how this supports TurretinFan’s contention.
Next he cites Leviticus 6:13, which reads, “The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.” He writes that “the fire on the altar did go out. It was relit by God at the building of Solomon’s temple.” It seems TurretinFan is confusing command for prophecy; Leviticus 6:13 is not a prediction that fire will burn on the altar forever but a command that it should not be extinguished.

Unquenchable Fire

TurretinFan continues to cite texts which work against his own position. Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 both say Jesus will burn up the wicked as chaff in unquenchable fire. Apparently TurretinFan thinks unquenchable means that the fire and its host will burn forever. But this is simply not how the authors of scripture use the idiom of unquenchable fire. Instead, unquenchable fire is consistently used in scripture to speak of fire which, incapable of being extinguished prematurely, completely consumes and destroys. 16
In Ezekiel 20:47, God tells Ezekiel to say, “Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched . . .” Whether to be taken literally or not, although the fire “will not be quenched,” it is clear that the trees which fuel the fire will not burn eternally, for the fire will “consume” them. When the word translated as consume describes what fire does, it means completely burn up. Hence the text of Exodus 3:2 uses it to say that although Moses saw that “the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.” The bush, though burning, was not burned up completely; but the green and dry trees would be, and by the unquenchable fire of God.
Similarly, Jeremiah 17:27 reads, “If you do not listen to me . . . I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.” God did not threaten that the buildings of Jerusalem would burn perpetually forever, but that his fire, incapable of being extinguished, would reduce them to rubble. Amos 5:6 likewise says, “He will break forth like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it will consume with none to quench it.” Other passages in the Old Testament use the idiom in the same way.
The idiom means the same thing in the New Testament. In the parallel verses cited by TurretinFan, John the Baptist says that Jesus “will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12; cf. Luke 3:17). When chaff is separated from wheat and burned, it is completely burned up and reduced to ashes. The Greek word translated “burn up” is katakaiō which, like its Hebrew equivalent, means to completely consume. Hence the LXX renders Exodus 3:2 using katakaiō to say that while the bush was burning it was not consumed. Paul said that the work of some believers will remain but that the work of others will not remain, instead being katakaiō or “burned up” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15).
when the authors of scripture wrote that the fiery wrath of God is incapable of being quenched, they meant that it irresistibly consumes. Like a raging house fire which firefighters are unable to extinguish, therefore burning the building to the ground, the unquenchable fire of God completely destroys. Far from supporting TurretinFan’s position, Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, if they speak of final punishment in the first place, teach the final annihilation of the unsaved.

Eternal Fire

Finally, TurretinFan offers some concluding thoughts on my understanding of the phrase “eternal fire.” He writes, “Trying to reconcile the idea that the ‘fire’ is ‘eternal’ with the claim that it is not unending results in people like Mr. Date having to argue that the fire is only ‘eternal’ in the sense of being from the eternal God.” In point of fact, because Jude calls the fire which destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah “eternal fire,” traditionalists are often faced with the equal challenge of explaining how a fire which isn’t unending could be called “eternal.” John Gill 17 and Jonathan Edwards 18 said it was because the cities it destroyed would never be rebuilt. This is not the position I take, and I suspect I would share some of TurretinFan’s criticisms of this interpretation. Nevertheless, clearly it is not only people like me (by which TurretinFan appears to mean annihilationists) who understand “eternal fire” differently from himself.
Like TurretinFan, contemporary traditionalists Kenneth Boa and Rob Bowman say that Jude called the fire “eternal” because it foreshadowed a truly eternal fire awaiting the wicked. 19 TurretinFan’s argument appears to be that this interpretation must be the correct one, for eternal fire can only sensibly be understood as meaning a fire and its fuel burning forever, and so therefore Jude must be only typologically calling the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah eternal. But this argument is weak and fraught with problems.
First, and most importantly, it’s question-begging. Despite TurretinFan’s incredulity, eternal fire means whatever the authors of scripture, under inspiration from the Holy Spirit, intended it to mean. And we determine what they meant based on context and by comparing scripture with scripture. We don’t have the freedom to assume they would have used language in exactly the same way we would, and then read that assumption into their words. Yet by begging the very question and assuming that eternal fire can mean nothing other than a fire which, along with its fuel, burns forever (the very thing to be proved), TurretinFan is doing precisely that. The reality is that, as we’ve seen, all the biblical evidence we have at our disposal suggests that “eternal fire” does not mean what TurretinFan thinks it does.
Second, if TurretinFan is right, Jude’s type is almost nothing at all like its antitype. The antitype, TurretinFan contends, burns forever, causing long, protracted (indeed, eternal) suffering, and never consumes its fuel. But he contends that the type is one which caused perhaps a few minutes of suffering, and which has long since died out having consumed its fuel. So the antitype is like the type simply because fire is involved? No. The parallel in 2 Peter makes the typology Jude intended quite clear: “By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6).
Third, TurretinFan somewhat mischaracterizes my position as being “that the fire is only ‘eternal’ in the sense of being from the eternal God.” But I believe that eternal fire can properly refer to the fire which destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even if it must mean fire which burns forever. That fire was burning before it ever struck the ground, coming down from heaven already burning for an indeterminate length of time. Its source, while not a literal fireplace hovering in outer space somewhere, was God who himself is the eternally burning, consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29). It is not some loose, vague connection to the eternal God that I think justifies Jude calling it eternal fire. Rather it is the fact that God himself is an eternal fire, and it was that eternal fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, as manifested in the fire which fell upon them from the sky.
Thus TurretinFan’s concluding argument is irrelevant. What he said was, “If we are to read ‘eternal’ as merely ‘from God’ with respect to the fire and the punishment, then we should do so also with ‘eternal life.'” As I explained, my position is not that eternal fire means simply fire from God. Nor is our position at Rethinking Hell that the punishment is eternal in the sense that it is simply “from God.” As TurretinFan well knows, our position is that the punishment is eternal in that it is of unending duration. Therefore, even if Jude is using hyperbole, calling the fire “eternal” because it was no ordinary fire, it is nevertheless “eternal punishment” which Jesus contrasts with “eternal life.” And since we agree that the punishment will be unending in duration, we have every reason to believe that the life of believers, too, will be unending in duration.

TurretinFan’s Premature Celebration

And so when TurretinFan pressed what he mistakenly took to be my retreat, his celebration was premature. Punishment, whether in English or in Greek, is polysemous. And it is context and the nature of the punishment that determine whether it carries a process or result reading. The modifier “eternal” does not give it a process reading, anymore than it does “salvation” and “redemption” in the epistle to the Hebrews. And the texts TurretinFan cited in support of his position work against it, and in favor of annihilationism. Everlasting burnings, unquenchable fire, and eternal fire are all phrases scripture uses to refer to God’s fiery and consuming wrath which, incapable of being extinguished, completely destroys—which is precisely what it will do to the risen wicked.

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  1. “Episode 88: Death Eternal,” Theopologetics

    , hosted by Chris Date, June 16, 2012, (accessed May 27, 2013). This episode contains part one of the debate, including my opening presentation. Parts two and three are available here and here, respectively.[]
  2. Chris Date, “‘Punishment’ and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns,” Rethinking Hell [blog] (posted June 19, 2012), (accessed May 27, 2013).[]
  3. TurretinFan, “Pressing Chris Date’s Retreat,” Thoughts of Francis Turretin [blog] (posted April 9, 2013), (accessed May 27, 2013).[]
  4. Date, 00:16:54.[]
  5. Date, 00:17:55.[]
  6. Date, 00:18:05.[]
  7. R. Brannan, K. M. Penner, I. Loken, M. Aubrey & I. Hoogendyk, eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Logos Bible Software, 2012).[]
  8. Ibid., v. 23[]
  9. vv. 20-21; unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.[]
  10. Brannan et al., 2012.[]
  11. Ibid., vv. 31-32.[]
  12. Douglas Moo, “Paul on Hell,” Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds. Christopher Morgan & Robert Peterson (Zondervan, 2004), 106.[]
  13. The City of God, enhanced (2011, October 4), Kindle edition, locations 16804-16805.[]
  14. Ibid., Kindle locations 16791-16792; emphasis mine.[]
  15. Jonathan Edwards, Sereno Edwards Dwight, & David Brainerd, The Works of President Edwards: With a Memoir of His Life (G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1830), 8:401.[]
  16. Chris Date, “The Fire Is Not Quenched: Annihilation and Mark 9:48 (Part 2),” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted November 20, 2012, (accessed May 27, 2013).[]
  17. John Gill, “Commentary on Jude 1:7,” The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible (1999), reproduced at Commentaries, (n.d.), (accessed May 27, 2012).[]
  18. Edward Hickman, ed., The Works of Jonathan Edwards, A.M.: With an Essay on His Genius and Writings, (W. Ball, 1839), 2:65.[]
  19. Kenneth Boa & Robert Bowman, Sense & Nonsense About Heaven & Hell (Zondervan, 2007), 111.[]