Bible Threatenings Explained Theology

The sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46)

From J.W. Hanson’s Bible Threatenings Explained.

Matt. 25:46 is the great proof text of the doctrine of endless punishment: “These shall go away into everlasting punishment, and the righteous into life eternal.”

  1. That the popular view of this language is incorrect is evident, because those punished are those who have not been good to the poor. Only such are to suffer everlasting punishment. Endless life is the reward, and endless punishment the penalty of works, if this passage teaches the doctrine of endless punishment. Those receive that punishment who have not been kind to the poor.
  2. God’s punishments are remedial. All God’s punishments are those of a Father, and must therefore be adapted to the improvement of his children. Heb. 12:5-11, “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons: for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not: Furthermore, we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence. Shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruits of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” Prov. 3:11-12, “My son despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction: For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son of whom he delighteth.” Lam. 3:31-33. “For the Lord will not cast off forever: But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” See also Job 5:17; Lev. 26; Psalms 119:67-75; Jer. 2:19.
  3. The word translated punishment means discipline, improvement. The word is kolasin. It is thus defined: Greenfield, “Chastisement, punishment.” Hedericus, “The trimming of the luxuriant branches of a tree or vine to improve it and make it fruitful.” Donnegan, “The act of clipping or pruning–restriction, restraint, reproof, check, chastisement.” See Grotius, Liddell, and others. Says Max Muller, “Do we want to know what was uppermost in the minds of those who formed the word punishment, the Latin poena or punio, to punish, the root pu in Sanscrit, which means to cleanse, to purify, tells us that the Latin derivation was originally formed, not to express mere striking or torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering form the stain of sin.” That it had this meaning in Greek usage we cite Plato: “For the natural or accidental evils of others, no one gets angry, or admonishes, or teaches or punishes (kolazei) them, but we pity those afflicted wiht such misfortunes. * * For if, O Socrates, you will consider what is the design of punishing (kolazein) the wicked, this of itself will show you that men think virtue something that may be acquired; for no one punishes (kolazlei) the wicked, looking to the past only, simply for the wrong he has done,–that is, no one does this thing who does not actlike a wild beast, desiring revenge, only without thought–hence he who seeks to punish (kolazein) with reason, does not punish for the sake of the past wrong deed, * * but for the sake of the future, that neither the man himself who is punished may do wrong again, nor any other who has seen him chastised. And he who entertains this thought, must believe that virtue may be taught, and he punishes (kolazei) from the purpose of deterring from wickedness.”
  4. These events have occurred. The events here described took place in this world within thirty years of the time when Jesus spoke. They are now past. In Matt. 24:3, the disciples asked our Lord when the then existing age would end. The word (aion) is unfortunately translated world. Had he meant world he would have employed kosmos, the Greek word for world. After describing the particulars, he announced that they would all be fulfilled, and the aion end in that generation, before some of his auditors should die. If he was correct, the end came then. And this is demonstrated by a careful study of the entire discourse, running through Matt. 24 and 25. The disciples asked Jesus how they should know his coming and the end of the age. They did not inquire concerning the end of the actual world, as it is incorrectly translated, but age. This question Jesus answered by describing the signs so that they, his questioners, the disciples themselves, might perceive the approach of the end of the Jewish dispensation, (aion). He speaks fifteen times in the discourse of his speedy coming, (Matt. 24:3, 27, 30, 37, 39, 42, 46, 48, 50, and 25:6, 10, 13, 19, 27, 31). He addresses those who shall be alive at his coming. Matt. 24:6. “Ye shall hear of wars, etc.” 20, “Pray that your flight be not in the winter,” 33, 34. “So likewise ye when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.”

This whole account is a parable describing the end of the Jewish aion, age, or economy, signalized by the destruction of Jerusalem, and the establishment of the new aion world, or age to come, that is the Christian dispensation. Now on the authority of Jesus himself, the aion then existing ended within a generation, namely, about A. D. 70. Hence those who were sent away into aionian punishment, or the punishment of that aion, were sent into a condition corresponding in duration to the meaning of the word aion, i. e. agelasting. A punishment cannot be endless, when defined by an adjective derived form a noun describing an event, the end of which is distinctly stated to have come.

Therefore, (1) the fulfillment of the language in this life, (2) the meaning of aionion, (3) the meaning of kolasis, and (4) the nature of the divine punishments, demonstrate that the penalty threatened in Matt. 25:46 is a limited one. Prof. Tayler Lewis, (orthodox) thus translates Matt. 25:46: “These shall go away into the punishment (the restraint, imprisonment) of the world to come, and those into the life of the world to come.” And he says “that is all that we can etymologically or exegetically make of the word in this passage.”

But did Christ come the second time as he had said he would before the death of some of his hearers? He did not personally, but spiritually, by the power of his grace and truth. On this subject here is what the most prominent orthodox commentators say:

Archbishop Newcome: “The coming of Christ to destroy the Jews, was a virtual and not a real one, and was to be understood figuratively and not literally. The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus is emphatically the coming of Christ. The spirit of the prophecy speaks particularly of this, because the city and temple were then destroyed, and the civil and ecclesiastical state of the Jews subverted. The Jews also suffered very great calamities under Adrian; but not so great as those under Vespasian; and the desolation under Adrian is not so particularly foretold. But I think that any signal interposition in behalf of his church, or in the destruction of his enemies, may be metaphorically called a coming of Christ.”

Dr. Campbell remarks on the expression, “Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven: We have no reason to think that a particular phenomenon in the sky is here suggested. The striking evidences which would be given of the divine presence, and avenging justice, are a justification of the terms.”

Kenrick observes: “The great power and glory of Christ were as conspicuously displayed at the destruction of Jerusalem, and other circumstances which accompanied that event, as if they had seen him coming upon the clouds of heaven, to punish his enemies. When the prophet Isaiah represents God as about to punish the Egyptians, he speaks of him as riding upon a swift cloud for that purpose. (Isa. xix:i) In that case there was no visible appearance of Jehovah upon a cloud; but it was language which the prophet adopted, in order to express the evident hand of God in the calamities of Egypt. The same thing may be said of the language of Christ upon the present occasion.”

Dr. Hammond interprets Christ’s coming, to be a “coming in the exercise of his kingly office to work vengeance on his enemies, and discriminate the faithful believers from them.” Again he says: “The only objection against this interpretation is, that this destruction being wrought by the Roman army, and those as much enemies of Christianity as any, and the very same people that had joined with the Jews to put Christ to death, it doth thereupon appear strange that either of those armies which are called abominable, should be called God’s armies,or that Christ should be said to come, when in truth it was Vespasian and Titus that thus came against the people. To this I answer, that it is ordinary with God, in the Old Testament, to call those Babylonish, Assyrian heathen armies his, which did his work in punishing the Jews, when they rebelled against Him. Christ is fitly said to come, when his ministers do come, that is, when either heathen men, or Satan himself, who are executioners of God’s will, when they think not of it, are permitted by Him to work destruction on his enemies.”

Dr. Whitby says: “These words, this age or generation shall not pass away, afford a full demonstration that all which Christ had mentioned hitherto, was to be accomplished, not at the time of the conversion of the Jews, or at the final day of judgment, but in that very age, or whilst some of that generation of men lived; for the phrase never bears any other sense in the New Testament, than the men of this age.”

Matt. 13:40-50: “The harvest at the end of the world,” should be “end of this age.” Dr. Wakefield thus comments: “The harvest is the conclusion of this age, and the reapers are the messengers; as therefore the weeds are picked out and burned up with a fire, so shall it also be in the conclusion of this age.” Dr. A. Clarke renders end of the world (vs. 19, 43) “end of the age–Jewish polity.” So also Dr. Macknight. Dr. Campbell translates it the “conclusion of the state.” Bishop Pearce says, on verse 40: “End of this world; rather end of this age, viz: that of the Jewish dispensation.”: And Dr. Hammond translates it, “conclusion of this age.”

The end of the material world is never taught in the Bible. We have no Scriptural evidence that the earth will ever be destroyed. The word rendered world in all passages that speak of the end, is aion, which means age, and not kosmos, which denotes world. The phrase only occurs seven times in the whole Bible, and that in three books, all in the New Testament.

In Matt. 13:36-42, “the field is the world (kosmos) but “the harvest is the end of the age,” (aion, improperly rendered world) that is, the end of the Jewish dispensation. But one passage need be consulted to learn when that event was to occur. Jesus told his disciples when they asked (Matt. 24:3) “What shall be the sign of the end of the world,” (Matt. 24:34) “This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled.” It had almost arrived, a little later when Paul said (Heb. 9:26) “But now once in the end of the world hath he put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” The end of the world in all cases means the end of the age, or epoch then transpiring, that is the Jewish dispensation.


The terms “last days,” “end of the world,” etc. found in connection with judgment, are made very clear to the careful reader of the Bible. The words “last day,” “last days,” etc., refer to the closing of the Mosaic dispensation, and not, as is often supposed, to the final closing up of mundane affairs. Peter demonstrates this, by applying the words of Joel to what was then transpiring, Acts 2:16– 20, “But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel, And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: and on my servants, and on my handmaidens, I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: and I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke: the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come.” Paul testifies to the same idea, Heb. 1:1-2, “God, who at sundry times, and in divers manners spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds,” (1 Peter 1:20). “Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.” See, also, 1 John 2:18, “Little children, it is the last time.” Peter says, 1 Peter 4:7, “But the end of all things is at hand.

The “last days” always refer to the end of Judaism, and the establishment of Christianity, and not to the closing of human affairs on


Objectors sometimes say, “Then eternal life is not endless, for the same Greek adjective qualifies life and punishment.” This does not follow, for the word is used in Greek in different senses in the same sentence; as in Hab. 3:6. “And the everlasting mountains were scattered, his ways are everlasting.” Suppose we apply the popular argument here. The mountains and God must be of equal duration, for the same word is applied to both. Both are temporal or both are endless. But the mountains are expressly stated to be temporal–they “were scattered,” –therefore God is not eternal. Or God is eternal and therefore the mountains must be. But they cannot be, for they were scattered. The argument does not hold water. The aionion mountains are all to be destroyed. Hence the word everlasting may denote both limited and unlimited duration in the same passage, the different meanings to be determined by the subject treated.

The phrase “everlasting” or “eternal life” does not usually denote endless existence, but the life of the gospel, spiritual life, the Christian life, regardless of its duration. In more than fifty of the seventy-two times that the adjective occurs in the New Testament, it describes life. What is eternal life? Let the Scriptures answer. John 3:36, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” John 5:24, “He that believeth on Him that sent me hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation. but is passed from death unto life.” John 6:47, “He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.” So verse 54. John 17:3, “This is life eternal to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”: Eternal life is the life of the gospel. Its duration depends on the possessor’s fidelity. It is no less the aionion life, if one abandon it in a month after acquiring it. It consists in knowing, loving and serving God, regardless of the duration of the service. How often the good fall from grace. Believing, they have the aionion life, but they lose it by apostasy. Notoriously it is not, in thousands of cases, endless. The life is of an indefinite length, so that the usage of the adjective in the New Testament is altogether in favor of giving the word the sense of limited duration. Hence Jesus does not say “he that believeth, in this life, shall enjoy endless happiness in the next, but hath everlasting life,: and “is passed from death unto life.”

Clemence in his work on “Future Punishment” observes, correctly, that aion and aionion are “words that shine with reflected light,” i.e., says Canon Farrar, “that their meaning depends entirely on the words with which they are joined, so that it is quite false to say that aionios joined with zoe must mean the same as aionios joined with kolasis. The word means endless in neither clause.” Clemence continues: “If good should come to an end, that would come to an end which Christ died to bring in; but if evil comes to an end, that comes to an end which he died to destroy. So that the two stand by no means on the same footing.”


Besides, the endless life is described by words that are never applied to anything of limited duration. This appears from the following passages:

Heb. 7:15-16, “And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchizedek there ariseth another priest, who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless (akatalutos, imperishable) life.” 1 Pet. 1:3-4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, (aphtharton) and undefiled, and that fadeth not (amaranton) away.” 1 Pet. 5:4, “and when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not (amarantinos) away.” 1 Tim. 1:17, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal (aphtharto), invisible, the only wise God be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen.” Rom. 1:23, ‘And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man.” 1 Cor. 9:25, “Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.” 1 Cor. 15:51-54, “Behold I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, (aphthartoi) and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, (aphtharsian) and this mortal must put on immortality (athanasian) So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, (aphtharsian) and this mortal shall have put on immortality, (athanasian) then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.” Rom. 2:7, “To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality (aptharsain) eternal life.” 1 Cor. 15:42, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption (aphtharsian).” See also verse 50. 2 Tim. 1:10, “Hath brought life and immortality (aphtharisan) to light, through the gospel.” 1 Tim. 6:16, “Who only hath immortality (athanasian).

Now these words are applied to God and the soul’s happiness. They are words that in the Bible are never applied to punishment or anything perishable. They would have been affixed to punishment had the Bible intended to teach endless punishment. And certainly they show the error of those who declare that the indefinite word aionion is all the word, or the strongest one in the Bible, declarative of the endlessness of life beyond the grave.


If it be said “all nations were not gathered, we reply that the terms of this parable are not to be understood as literal, but as they are used in the New Testament. Matt. 24:9, Christ says the disciples are to be hated by all nations. The Gospel was to be preached to all nations before the destruction of Jerusalem. Paige says, “The terms nation and kingdom were sometimes applied by the Jews to any state, province, or even a separate municiple district.”

Is it objected that the fire was prepared for the devil and his angels. We answer wicked men are called devils in II Tim. iii:3, (diabolos) translated false accusers. Rev. ii:10, “Behold the devil shall cast some of you into prison.” Judas was called a devil, John 6:70. Titus 2:8, Aged women are exhorted not to be devils (diabolos, rendered false accusers). The devil and his angels were wicked people.

The events in Matt. 25 have all taken place; the life and the punishment were both limited, and neither the reward promised nor the punishment threatened was to be in the future life. There is no reference to a “General Judgment” in any part of the language.

Note: This chapter is taken from J.W. Hanson’s “Bible Threatenings Explained” from 1883. Some points made by the author may not be perfectly in sync with modern scholarship.