Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31ff.) is often cited as the key verse for the idea that there is an eternal hell. But if you look at the verses closely and not just read them superficially, you will discover that this is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true: the verses give hope for a future reconciliation of all people with Jesus.
First, a basic word about parables:
Most scholars agree today that every parable had one main point which the audience understood. This point was what was to be communicated and the parable around it served to illustrate this point. Therefore, with any parable, one must first consider what the main point was and keep that in focus. The details around the core statement can be relevant, but one should not build dogmatic statements on these details, otherwise dangerous false doctrines can arise, as the present parable will illustrate. The core message of the parables Jesus told was mostly a very practical teaching for the here and now (e.g. pray persistently; forgive one another; help when you see people in need, etc.) and not an explanation of what will happen in the future.
What was the core message of the parable of the sheep and the goats?
Did Jesus want to give an insight into the future judgment? Probably not, because then he would not have stopped so abruptly with v.46, but would have explained this statement even further. Furthermore, a theologically big problem arises if this parable is understood as a dogmatic teaching about the future judgment. In the parable, the decisive standard of judgment is not directed at what was believed or who followed Jesus and who did not, but the standard is solely the mercy that was shown and the degree to which the least of these were helped. Whoever wants to understand this parable as a dogmatic statement about the final judgment must then do so consistently. The consequence of this would then be “salvation through works of mercy” and not “salvation through Jesus alone”. The sheep are not those who followed Jesus, but those who showed mercy to the least. This would qualify many people for eternal life who reject Jesus but mercifully help the poor and it would disqualify many Christians for eternal life!
Accordingly, it can be assumed that the core message of the parable is not a teaching about the final judgment. Rather, the point of Jesus is that he identifies with the least of these and makes works of mercy and service to the least the focus of discipleship. Jesus, the King above all kings, does not forget the poor, the sick, the outsiders, those who are considered worthless in this world! He sees them and invites his followers to be his hands and feet and to serve these least ones. That is what this parable is about.
But why does the parable now suggest universal reconciliation?
Verse 46 clearly has more to say than most Bible translations indicate.
The Greek word “aionios” which is mistakenly translated as “eternal” comes from the word “aion” (the Hebrew equivalent is “olam”) which means “age”, “epoch” or “era”. The word “aion” occurs quite often in the Bible and can mean very different lengths of time. The length of the period depends on the context in which the word is used. Here are some examples that make it clear that “aionios/olam” does not mean “eternal”, but describes a period of time of varying length and by no means always means “lasting forever”.
Did God dwell eternally (olam) in the temple of Solomon? No, of course only until the temple was destroyed. (2 Chr.7:16; 1 Kings 8:13; 9:3)
Are animal sacrifices really to be offered to God eternally (olam)? No, of course, only until Jesus’ final sacrificial death (2 Chr.2:4; Heb.7:11-10,18).
Was Jonah eternal (olam) in the fish (Jonah 2:6)? No, only 3 days (Jonah 1:17).
Is it the sons of this age or eternity who marry (Lu.20:34)?
Is Satan the god of this age or of eternity (2 Cor.4:4)?
Is this evil age from which God saved us eternal or temporal (Gal.1:4)?
“Aionios/olam” can therefore describe a very different period of time. The duration of this time period depends on the context; on the word which is described as “eternal” (aionios). The context very often limits “aionios” to a period of time with a beginning and an end.
It is important to note what “aionios” means when God Himself is the context: God, His life and His Kingdom alone are eternal. Therefore, exclusively in connection with God (when it characterizes Him, His life, or His kingdom), “aionios” actually becomes “eternal.”
Back to Mt.25,46: “And these will go away to eternal (=aionios) punishment (=kolasis), but the righteous to eternal life.”
How can we understand this verse?
In the NT there is a Greek word for “retributive punishment”: timōria. This word was deliberately not used here in verse 46. To understand the verse correctly, we must correctly translate the Greek word for “punishment” (kolasis) that was used here. “Kolasis” was originally used for pruning trees so that they would bear more fruit. “Kolasis” was thus a punishment imposed in the interest of the one who was to be punished. A “kolasis punishment” always had the good of the one being punished in mind.
William Barclay* comments that kolasis is used in secular Greek literature without exception for “rehabilitative punishment.”
Kolasis, then, was a rehabilitative punishment. The punishment itself was not the goal, but the way to bring about an improvement. Can such a punishment last forever? No, because then it would be a retributive punishment and not a rehabilitative punishment. We are talking about an “age-long” (aionios) punishment (kolasis), which has a purifying and rehabilitative character. How long this process will last we do not know. But it will have an end when the goal is reached.
Does this mean that eternal life is also limited? No, it doesn’t. As mentioned above, the length of “aionios” depends on the word that characterizes it. A rehabilitative punishment, by definition, cannot be eternal, because then it would not be rehabilitative. But the life that God gives is eternal because it comes from God who is eternal. Titus 1:2 is another verse in which “eternal (aionion) life” is mentioned and aionion occurs a second time and does not mean “everlasting.”
It should be noted that this does not make Jesus’ warning any less significant. Even though it is a temporary punishment, it remains a serious warning of a painful process of purification and rehabilitation!
God will send the “goats” into a temporary punishment so that they will be purified, receive their punishment and come out of it rehabilitated. Thus the “hell”, the punishment, becomes a symbol of his justice, his grace and love. He is the God whose love never ceases.
*Barclay, A Spiritual Autobiography, 66.
More interesting articles related to the topic: