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 and some will die without the hope of resurrection. 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 stop decaying—hence the reference to the resilience of their “worm” (תולע; tola)—the unrighteous are dead, never to rise again. 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” out of 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.