At the end of Matthew 25, Jesus presents the righteous as “sheep” and the unrighteous as “goats,” and concludes that the goats “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (25:46). Initially, this statement seems to suggest that the unrighteous will suffer consciously in everlasting torment. However, in the Judeo-Greek of the Gospel, the word for “punishment” (κόλασις; kólasis) does not denote ongoing suffering; instead, this kind of punishment is the equivalent of “death.” In Jesus’ eschatological illustration of sheep and goats, he asserts that the righteous will enjoy eternal life, while the unrighteous will experience eternal death.

In the few times that Matthew’s term for “punishment” (κόλασις; kólasis) appears in the Greek translation of Israel’s Scriptures, it refers to death. God says to Ezekiel that Israelite idol worshipers have enacted their own “punishment” (κόλασις; Ezek 14:3-4, 7 LXX; cf. 43:11; 44:12) of being “cut off” (כרת/ἐξαίρω) and “destroyed” (שׁמד/ἀφανίζω) from the midst of Israel (14:8-9). Later, God asks the Israelites to repent in order to avoid the “punishment (κόλασις; kólasis) of your iniquity” (Ezek 18:30). With reference to this punishment, God says, “Cast away from yourselves all your ungodliness… for why should you die (ἀποθνήσκω), house of Israel? For I do not desire the death of those who die (θάνατον τοῦ ἀποθνήσκοντος)” (18:31-32). In Ezekiel, the potential “punishment” for wayward Israelites is death.

Similarly, the punishment of κόλασις means “death” in Jeremiah. The prophet says that those in his hometown of Anathoth “have spoken words against my life, and have hidden the punishment (κόλασις; kólasis) they [meant] for me” (Jer 18:20 LXX). Jeremiah’s enemies had hoped to punish him with death, but God promises to place that same punishment upon them: “Thus says the Lord concerning the men of Anathoth who seek your life…. I will punish them. The young men shall die (מות/ἀποθνήσκω)” (11:21-22). In light of the few instances of κόλασις in the Septuagint (cf. 2 Macc 4:38; 4 Macc 8:9; Wis 11:13; 16:24), when the Greek translation of Scripture uses the word for “punishment” that appears in Matthew 25:46 it refers to finite death, rather than infinite torment.

Equipped with biblical language and context, a return to Matthew 25:46 shows that “punishment”—just like in Ezekiel and Jeremiah—means death, not continual conscious suffering. Since Yeshua states that the righteous will have eternal “life” (ζωή), the unrighteous should experience the exact and equal opposite: eternal “death.” This idea might be confusing for modern readers; after all, if death marks the end of one’s conscious experience, how can death be “eternal” (αἰώνιος; aiónios)? One of the fundamental beliefs of first-century Judaism was bodily resurrection, which ensured that “death” would not go on forever; rather, the dead would be raised to life. In Matthew, Jesus declares that when he comes to judge the earth, some will continue to live after resurrection and some will die. Thus, the deaths of the “goats” will be eternal.

The same picture of eternal life and death appears at the end of Isaiah. After God creates a new heavens and new earth, the ever-living righteous “go out and look at the corpses of the people (פגרי האנשׁים; phigrei ha’anashim) who have rebelled against [God]. For their worm will not die (תולעתם לא תמות; tolatam lo tamut), nor their fire be quenched (אשׁם לא תכבה; isham lo takhbeh)” (Isa 66:24). This is the prophetic picture on which Jesus bases his sheep/goats metaphor. According to Isaiah, the unrighteous end up in an everlasting fire but they are “corpses” (פגרים; pegarim), not living beings. That is, while their “fire” (אשׁ; aish) is eternal, and their bodies never fully decay—hence the reference to the resilience of their “worm” (תולע; tola)—those in the fire are dead. Likewise, the Son of Man sends the unrighteous to “eternal fire” (πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον; pur tò aiónion; Matt 25:41) that “destroys body and soul” (10:28). In Matthew, as in Isaiah, the fire burns forever but those inside are dead. 

If one reads Jesus’ reference to “eternal punishment” apart from its literary and historical context, one might assume that the Messiah speaks of eternal suffering in hell. However, an investigation into the world of ancient Israel shows that such “punishment” describes the finality of death. In Jesus’ presentation of eschatological husbandry, it does not end well for the goats—but their fate is not everlasting torment. According to Matthew, the unrighteous die for good, while the righteous continue to enjoy eternal life in the kingdom of God.

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114 COMMENTS

  1. I am dumbfounded. We have always been taught that those who don't believe will suffer torment in flames of fire. That they are "raised", judged, and then thrown into hell. Does this belief come from Dante's Inferno? Does the story of the Rich man and Lazerus contradict this? Or does that story mean something else? Sorry if I come off as confusing... but I am really confused right now. I am hoping you can desipher my ramblings. I have been a beliver for 42 years now and I feel as if everything I have been taught has been a lie.
    • Good questions, Candi. According to biblical thought, it’s correct to say that the unrighteous are "raised, judged, and then thrown into hell." Jesus calls this place Gehenna. However, per the above article, this post-resurrection scenario doesn’t lead to eternal conscious torment according to Matthew 25. Dante’s view of hell is popular but unbiblical. Luke 16 describes "Hades"—in Hebrew, “Sheol” (where everyone goes before resurrection)—not Gehenna/hell. Christian conflation of “Hades/Sheol” with “hell/Gehenna” has led to the misperception that “hell” is a place of conscious torment after death, but this is not the view that Jesus expresses in the sheep/goats metaphor. See https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/happens-death-resurrection/ and https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/does-hell-exist/
  2. Thank you Jesus, You always give the truth of what will happen in the end, no one can ever say they didn't know.
  3. Well stated and understood. A righteous, loving, intelligent, all-knowing God would never create humans where the end result is an eternity of punishment or life without Him for those not granted eternal life. He does what a humane person would do (a sick dog for example) and put it down. Who would want to worship a God who would want some people (irrespective of their conduct) to suffer for eternity. That is not wise but simply cruel and unloving. If that’s how we understand God, we need to relook at scripture to see whether that’s what it is telling us.
  4. This concept has infiltrated Christian understanding from all the many pagan beliefs that have existed. We are dust and no more (Genesis 2:7). That is why the reward or gift is something we have to acquire - eternal life. It is not something we already possess.
    • The word in Ezekiel that the LXX translates with kolasis (punishment) is מכשול, which means "stumbling [block]" or "problem." In Jer 18:20 LXX, the Greek adds "punishment," but the Hebrew doesn't have it.
  5. Great article. However, may I suggest the word picture may be slightly different. If one considers (life, ζωή = union with or existence with) eternal life with Jehovah God is a blessing and reward for those righteous because of Jesus' blood; And, if (die/death = separation) eternal separation from Jehovah God is indeed eternal torture. Those who accept Jesus now have a sealed union guaranteed by the Holy Spirit who lives in them.
    • Thanks for reading, Gene. There's no reason to import "torture" into Matthew's view. The Matthean term is "punishment," which sometimes includes "torture" (a different word; e.g., 4 Macc 8:9) but has a decisive end-point (that is, it's not eternal).
  6. Very interesting! Is there a way to share this? 1 question that I have, though, is even though, their bodies will be corpses what about their eternal soul? The understanding I have had was that the soul doesn't die so that is why their eternal state of physical death and separation from Holy Elohim is the eternal punishment and anguish of their souls. Can you help to explain that?
  7. This article begs for a followup, comparing and contrasting Matthew's "blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13, v42 and v50.
  8. Great exegesis, Dr. Schaser! In order for me to understand the concept of death properly, does it mean that the person that dies just cease to exist and that all there is after the second death? On the other hand, if there is no such thing as punishment, is there any possible explanation in regards to the existence of the state of purgatory as established by the Coptic and Roman Catholic doctrines? Thank you and blessings to all of you!
    • Thanks for your questions, Francis. Purgatory is based (somewhat loosely) on the biblical notion of Sheol/Hades, though there are differences between the two. On Sheol, see https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/happens-death-resurrection/ The "second death" suggests a cessation of consciousness thereafter, though Revelation's view is complex. There is such a thing as "punishment," it's just not "infinite conscious torment" according to Matthew; rather, the post-resurrection punishment is final death.
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