The God Who Punishes: Universalism & Matthew 25:46

“. . . while to those who have proved of inferior merit, or of something still meaner than this, or even of the lowest and most insignificant grade, will be given a body of glory and dignity corresponding to the dignity of each one’s life and soul; in such a way, however, that even for those who are destined to ‘eternal fire’ or to ‘punishments’ the body that rises is so incorruptible, through the transformation wrought by the resurrection, that it cannot be corrupted and dissolved even by punishments.” 1

Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, Chap. X. Sec. 3.

I’m an odd case in this debate. Though I now lean towards annihilationism, I consider the above quote to be one of my favorites, especially since I consider it a fine piece of patristic literature. With respect to the current debate on the eternality and function of eschatological post-resurrection punishment, all three views must put forth somewhat speculative arguments in support of refinement, torment, or death. Having been immersed in evangelical universalist literature for over a year, 2 I think I’m in a good position to offer the universalist some grist for their theological mills. This post will specifically focus on the singular proof-text 3 containing a statement by Jesus in Matthew chapter twenty-five and verse forty-six. I am not entirely settled on my interpretation of this verse, as I find the narrative-historical interpretation generally offered by Andrew Perriman 4 to be quite compelling. However, for the sake of this discussion, I will assume that this climactic point concerns post-mortem final judgment. For the most part I find the universalist interpretation of this text rather strained so my intent is to offer a constructive critique that will hopefully add some light instead of heat. 5

Matthew 25:31-46 is often the singular proof-text that makes universalism most difficult. 6 The interpretation revolves around multiple arguments, but in the context of hurdles to overcome I will simply give four reasons why I believe there is good reason to doubt universalism based on this passage. 7
The first major hurdle for universalists is that the text is non-redemptive. Nowhere in the context of the entire parable is there any prima facie hint of post-mortem salvation. Included in this is the adjective aionios, which, while it can be limited within certain contexts (e.g., Romans 16:25-27), there is no suggestion of it being limited here. 8 The context itself determines the meaning and there is no reason to reassess the term here. It simply concludes with “eternal punishment” and that is the end of the resolution.
The second hurdle at least for Talbott is that his argument is self-refuting. He cites an example of “eternal” judgment, found in the book of Jude (v. 7). The issue is that the “eternal” judgment was cataclysmic and retributive, resulting in death. His comment about the fire “representing God’s judgment upon the two cities” 9 is correct insofar as it certainly reflects (pardon the term) annihilation. This passage harkens back to the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah in which Yahweh intentionally wiped them all out. Thus Talbott is correct insofar as “eternal” judgment is certainly eternal in the sense that there is no coming back from it, but he seems to miss the fairly explicit point of annihilation. Talbott’s own citation of the tale reveals a God whose decisive intervention in a sordid mess amounts to an irrevocable destruction, not merely some “correction.”
The third hurdle is lexical. Both the Bauer-Danker (BDAG) and Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ) lexicons cite this text as “divine retribution.” 10 This lexical rendering is consistent with Talbott’s use of “eternal” judgment in Jude 7, though it does not fit his interpretation or the range cited in both main lexicons.
In addition to this, 1 Clement 11:1, written maybe 50 years after the gospel of Matthew, cites kolasis in conjunction (kai) with torment. At first we get a sense of a possible outcome that is consistent with eternal conscious torment. However, in the broader context of 1 Clement 11 we see that this example has to do with Lot being saved from Sodom and that the judgment by “fire and brimstone” is showcasing an historical event that is cataclysmic in its totality. It is punishment that only God can enact, and as consistent with the panoply of scripture’s depiction of justice: swift, irrevocable, and final. In short, this is more consistent with annihilationism. 11 Jude 7 is a poor choice for Talbott to use. 12
Moreover, the use of kolasis with torment suggests that kolasis excludes an a priori understanding that Jesus must be speaking only of torment. Uniquely, this explanation renders an eternal conscious torment view unnecessary within its own context. Conscious torment isn’t in view within 1 Clement, and it isn’t in view here because kolasis does not carry an additional meaning that includes torment. It must be read into the text.
The fourth and final hurdle is that universalism and traditionalism must posit that everyone is ultimately given immortality. However, based on this text the only implication is that the righteous will receive eternal life. 13 The punishment, therefore, is most likely not a pruning process, so to speak; rather, those who didn’t treat the poor and the hungry in a consistent manner are, by divine command, denied “eternal life.” Origen of Alexandria argued for a purifying view of hell in On First Principles. 14 This, however, is inconsistent with the text itself. It seems to ignore the way eternal fire is used throughout Matthew and Jude. 15 The eternal fire most likely refers to extinction since the context is usually represented by divine judgment that results in irrevocable death. I cannot exclude a purification interpretation, but it seems to strain the purely retributive context. Finally, this includes an act that only Yahweh is fit and just to give, and a judgment that is ultimately modeled and rooted in visible history—the removal of life, resulting in death.
The parallelism is intentional and stark throughout this parable. Goats and sheep, corporate groups “separated” in vv. 32-33, actions clearly defined and shown to be in opposition in vv. 40 and 45. The actions predicated upon the righteous and the unrighteous are set against each other in stark human terms: hunger, nakedness, poverty. These historical phenomena are no small issue, especially in our times. As a way of simplifying the issue, the parallelism is mandated and must be broken by the universalist to suggest either a universal immortality so-called or a punishment that ends. Both, I suggest, are strained readings of the text. However, the concept of First Testament justice (or what we anachronistically call social justice) is mandated by this. Works, according to this text, are of the utmost importance and must not be down-played.
In conclusion, I am grateful that Tom Talbott and others take this text seriously enough to engage with its complex idea of the afterlife. Unfortunately, I don’t see their interpretation doing consistent justice to the scope of the biblical text and must therefore reject it. I am grateful for the chance to dialogue with a scholar that has not only challenged me but enriched me as well. 16
— Nick

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  1. There is a gap that follows this sequence, left by Rufinus []
  2. Indeed, I was one before I discovered far more evidence in favor of the eternal death of mortal men and women[]
  3. Usually cited, erroneously, by traditionalists[]
  4. The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church (Wipf & Stock, 2012), 282 pp.[]
  5. There are multiple authors I could engage but since Tom Talbott has the most influence within an evangelical universalist context I will limit myself to engaging with him. Also, many universalist Christians use Talbott as an exegetical and theological springboard[]
  6. I’m excluding other texts, such as 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, as well as those which assert or imply that immortality is conditional and given only to those who are reconciled to God[]
  7. You can read the entirety of Talbott’s argument on this in The Inescapable Love of God (Universal, 1999), pp. 83-92.[]
  8. Due to possible confusion, I take aionios here to mean beginning-but-doesn’t-end, as punishment begins but doesn’t seem to end.[]
  9. Thomas Talbott, “A Pauline interpretation of divine judgment,” Universal Salvation: The Current Debate, ed. Robin A. Parry & Christopher H. Partidge (Eerdmans, 2004), 46.[]
  10. The LSJ does refer to the pruning metaphor which William Barclay and Rob Bell cite, although not for the text in question (Henry Liddell, Robert Scott, Henry Jones, & Roderick McKenzie, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th edition (Oxford University, 1996), 971). The BDAG does not even mention the interpretation. Ironically, none of the authors give any footnote in support of this supposed metaphor.[]
  11. This is not the only place kolasis is used in conjunction with death; see Wisdom 19:4 and 2 Macc. 4:38. Kolasis is used only once by Jesus so we must go outside the New Testament to determine it’s fuller meaning.[]
  12. A brief note: Retribution may include correction. However, the context here seems to strain against such an interpretation since the text is silent on the issue.[]
  13. Regardless of quality or quantity, the punishment is such that those who aren’t given eternal life are denied the only source of life that could sustain them.[]
  14. See the quote above. I am aware that I am only scratching at the surface in regards to patristic universalism. I wish I had the space to devote to this.[]
  15. Matthew 18:8; Jude 7[]
  16. I am aware that Talbott is working on a second edition of The Inescapable Love of God. I look forward to it.[]