This is part of my Exegetical Compilation Project, which can be found here.
The judgment of the sheep and the goats (usually listed among the parables) from Matthew 25, is one of the most famous and common texts throughout Christian history, for supporting some kind of final hopeless punishment, whether by proponents of some variety of eternal conscious torment, or by proponents of annihilation.
One line of universalist reply has been to interpret this and other such judgment prophecy/parables preteristically, as referring only to the coming fall of Jerusalem, which has already happened. Non-universalistic preterists would answer that this in no way necessarily implies that the results of the judgment are hopeful instead of hopeless! – not unless preterism is combined with an argument to Christian universalism from a common type of penal substitutionary atonement, which has to be made separately, and prior to coming to this parable at all, in which case the question would be how to read the proper doctrines into this parable not from it. At best, trying to argue for hopeful punishment (or at least not hopeless) from this parable has to be attempted independently of the question of whether the parable refers only to something that has already long-since happened by our time.
As it happens I am not a preterist (although I recognize that some of Christ’s prophecies were intended to be fulfilled by the fall of Jerusalem), so for me this is not an issue; I agree with most conservative Christians (although preterists can be theologically conservative, too) that this judgment refers to something still to happen in our future, and/or as a general example of how Christ judges all souls at any time.
We should notice however that the annihilationist must either take this as referring to the lake of fire judgment after the final general resurrection (which I would primarily agree with), or else never refer to this parable as evidence in favor of annihilation, because otherwise the situation described here occurs (in one or more ways) before the general resurrection, meaning the unjust people are not in fact being annihilated as a result of this judgment. (Or the annihilationist must deny the resurrection of the wicked as well as the good, which I understand to be a rare position among annis.)
Anyway, for exegetical purposes, the question is: what do the narrative, thematic and grammatic details of the parable add up to, if we approach the data from a neutral standpoint without begging the question in favor of one or another category?
Christ gathers all the nations together when He comes with His angels to sit on His glorious throne, and separates them from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. That means Christ is acting as the shepherd of the goats as well as of the sheep. The goats belong to Him just like the sheep do, and are part of His flock.
Moreover, the term usually translated sheep, “probaton”, doesn’t exclusively mean sheep. It’s a general term for any small herd animal including goats. It’s also almost always the term used in the New Testament where the English translates as “sheep”. This means in most cases we could just as easily be talking about the Good Goatherd herding His goats, and going out after the 100th goat to save it! (There is an ancient painting of Christ saving the 100th goat, for example.) Sheep are admittedly more numerous than goats, usually, whether altogether or in distinct flocks, but that doesn’t mean the term exclusively means sheep.
On the other hand, the word translated goat here, “eriphos”, does mean goat. But it very specifically means BABY GOAT! (The same term is used in the parable of the prodigal son when the older son complains that his father never gave him and his friends a baby goat to party with.)
If Matthew, or whoever translated Matthew’s Gospel into Greek, or even Jesus originally (in Aramaic or Greek), went to the trouble of calling them baby goats… why haven’t translators usually followed suit?! As we shall see, those baby goats do make an important difference as baby goats!
Meanwhile, if the goats are specifically baby goats, then the “probatons” by contrast are probably mature sheep, or maybe the mature herd in general: either way the difference must be the contrast in spiritual maturity. But is there any evidence in the parable itself that their maturity is being contrasted to the im-maturity of the baby goats?
Christ sends the sheep (let us call them for now) into “eonian life”, with the praise that they have served Him very well. This catches the sheep entirely by surprise: when did they ever serve Christ??? Any Christian (especially one familiar with this judgment parable) ought to know the answer already, and certainly ought to be expecting to have been serving Christ, which indicates that these people are not formally Christian! But Christ counts them as His servants anyway. Why? Because when these people (the “righteous” or “just” ones) were feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty and inviting strangers in, and clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those imprisoned–to the extent they did this “to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
Who are these brothers of Christ He is pointing to? (The grammar in Greek is emphatic that Christ is indicating someone there on the scene.) Some people have supposed it was the righteous angels in disguise, or other sheep, since the only other characters in the scene are the baby goats, who are (in terms of the judgment’s metaphorical construction) literally the least of Christ’s flock.
The baby goats, on the other hand (literally!), are sent by Christ into “eonian kolasis” (whatever we decide from the context that involves). This surprises the baby goats: they thought they had been serving Christ! When did they ever refuse to give charity to Christ??
When they refused to feed, clothe, visit in prison etc., “even the least of these”, to that extent they did not do it to Christ.
The story warns ostensible followers of Christ that they may be revealed to be the least of Christ’s flock. And what constitutes this revelation? The baby goats did not act to bring the least of Christ’s flock (whether really so or in the perception of the baby goats) out of their misery: the way Christ acts. The sheep, or the mature flock, were following Christ; the baby goats were not.
The story is a reversal of expectation, but it’s also set up to test the audience. And the test is this: how are we to regard the baby goats, the least of Christ’s flock?!
Are we to deny the baby goats shepherded by Christ are of Christ’s flock at all? If they are hungry, thirsty, strangers outside, sick and imprisoned, are we to ignore them? Is that what the mature flock does?! Should we expect the good sheep (and the Good Shepherd!) to start behaving like the baby goats now?! Or should we expect them to continue behaving like good sheep and the Good Shepherd?
Because we know from a bunch of other judgment details what’s going to happen to those “baby goats” (whether analogically or literally). They’re going to be hungry now, and thirsty, and outside the gates of the New Jerusalem, and their clothes will be dirty, and they’ll be imprisoned in the lake of fire (along with the rebel angels, the “eonian fire prepared for the devil and his angels” as Matt 25:41 puts it), and be sick at least in mind (fondling their sins impenitently).
That’s the scene set in the final chapter of the Revelation to John.
So: what are the Son and the Spirit, and the Bride (the mature flock), doing there? Are they treating those “baby goats” the way the “sheep” in this judgment would? – are they going out to exhort those strangers outside the New Jerusalem to slake their thirst in the freely given water of life flowing out of the never-closed gates of the city, and to wash their robes, so that they might obtain permission to come inside the city and eat the fruit of the log (i.e. the cross) of life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations?
Or, is the mature flock now acting like baby goats to the baby goats of Christ, who have themselves been condemned to “eonian kolasis” for acting like baby goats to the baby goats of Christ?!
Even if I didn’t have the end of RevJohn, I would still know what to expect, from the narrative and thematic logic of this judgment parable.
I would expect the sheep, and the Shepherd, to keep on acting toward the baby goats like good sheep and the Good Shepherd – on pain of being found, myself, to only be a baby goat.
Compare further with Ezekiel 34 where YHWH sends His servant the Son of David to judge between the rams and the he-goats, between the fat sheep and the lean: the fat sheep and the rams are fed with judgment over-against the lean sheep and goats, but the false shepherds were killing the fat sheep and not feeding the hungry, not bringing back the scattered, not binding up those who were broken, not seeking the lost, not healing the diseased. Consequently the Son of David will be the judge of the sheep and the goats instead, and will chastise those who misbehave in order to bring them to loyal behavior, making a new covenant of peace with all His rebel sheep thereby. (There is no point making a new covenant of peace except with former rebels; which is certainly an occasional theme in the OT prophets!) If the fat sheep and rams are hopefully fed with judgment (even to destruction!) in Ezekiel compared to the pitiful goats, that lends very strong evidence that the “kolasis” the baby goats are being sent into, is intended to be hopeful not hopeless, with a goal of bringing them to be mature goats instead: the most reliable and even actively helpful of an earthly shepherd’s flock, once they’ve been trained out of their immature obstinacy.
(While I am passing nearby, the parable of the ten virgins, which starts chapter 25, involves a situation where the foolish servants of the bridegroom would not be left outside forever, only overnight: they would be picked up the next morning, embarrassed about having been left outside, and wiser for the experience.)
Compare further with Ezekiel 34 where YHWH sends His servant the Son of David to judge between the rams and the he-goats, between the fat sheep and the lean: the fat sheep and the rams are judged in favor of the lean sheep and goats, but the false shepherds were killing the fat sheep and not feeding the hungry, not bringing back the scattered, not binding up those who were broken, not seeking the lost, not healing the diseased. Consequently the Son of David will be the judge of the sheep and the goats instead, and will chastise those who misbehave in order to bring them to loyal behavior, making a new covenant of peace with all His rebel sheep thereby. If the sheep (more specifically the shepherds) are hopefully punished in Ezekiel compared to the pitiful goats, that lends very strong evidence that the “kolasis” the baby goats are being sent into, is intended to be hopeful not hopeless, with a goal of bringing them to be mature goats instead: the most reliable and even actively helpful of an earthly shepherd’s flock, once they’ve been trained out of their immature obstinacy.
Yet again, once the connection of this judgment parable to Ezekiel 34 is noticed, another nearby judgment parable warning synchs up topically: for Jesus starts this sequence, not with the parable of the foolish virgins at (what we now call) 25:1, but with the parable of the abusive chief servant, who says in his heart, “My Lord is delaying” and begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eating and drinking with the drunken! When the lord of that slave, whom he (or of course He) has placed over His household to give them nourishment in season, returns on a day and hour which the wicked administrator does not know and even is hoping won’t be soon, the Lord shall be cutting him apart and appointing him a place with the hypocrites where the lamentation shall be and the gnashing of the teeth!
So in fact at least three out of the four warning parables here are aimed, not only at misbehaving Christians (which the ten foolish virgins also count among), but at misbehaving Christians appointed by Christ as leaders! – and then the connection with the devil and his rebel angels, and the eonian fire prepared for them (25:41), becomes clearer, seeing as how originally they were not only created good but rebelled from being in a high authority assigned to them by God.
This leads to the question of whether the term “eonian kolasis” refers to an inherently hopeless punishment, since if the term allows any leeway for hopeful punishment then the context of the parable of the sheep and the goats anyway would determine the meaning (and the context definitely points toward a hopeful punishment and even a warning against interpreting the punishment of the baby goats as hopeless!)
Everyone agrees that “kolasis” is a term for punishment; and it’s borrowed from an agricultural term for cleaning sick branches from a vine. There is also evidence in the Greco-Roman culture outside the New Testament that “kolasis” was often used for remedial punishment; but the author of GosMatt translating Jesus into Greek (or Jesus if for some reason He was speaking Greek to His disciples in this incident) might have used the term for some other meaning: many foreign words ported into Greek and Hebrew by the scriptural authors are used in significantly different fashions than the surrounding culture did, especially when talking about theology. (The common Greek term for hopeless punishment, “timoria”, is actually used for hopeful punishment elsewhere in the New Testament, to give an especially pertinent example!)
What people disagree on, is whether (analogically speaking) the sick branches are thrown hopelessly into a fire (as Jesus’ imagery at the beginning of His final discourse in GosJohn might mean–although that might be a rather different meaning if the purpose of the unquenchable fire, even in Gehenna, is to salt our hearts so that we will be at peace with one another!); or whether the sick branches can be grafted into the vine of Israel once they are healed (even if they have been cut off previously), as Saint Paul definitely uses the metaphor in Romans 11. Since the concept of the term can, by reference to Romans 11, refer to hopeful punishment, this leaves the question open for context to settle here at Matt 25.
(1 John 4:18 may also count as evidence that the term cannot intrinsically refer to hopeless punishment, though it might still do so in a particular application: “Fear is not in love, but perfect love is casting out the fear, for the fear has kolasis and the one who is fearing is not perfected in the love.”)
In regard to the adjective “eonian”, any student of New Testament (and Old Testament) Greek ought to either know or quickly discover that the authors could use this term to refer to events or objects that are not actually eternal, but which have a beginning and/or an ending. Indeed, strictly speaking, the punishment here cannot be literally eternal, as it does at least have a beginning! Whereas, on the other hand, the “eonian life” from God given to the faithful does not in itself have a beginning, even though at some point the faithful begin to receive it.
To this observation, a proponent of hopeless punishment could reasonably apply the classical objection (going back at least as far as Augustine), that in comparing the life to the punishment the adjectives ought to be considered equally parallel: if eonian means never-ending for the life, then how could eonian not mean (by virtue of the comparison) never-ending for the punishment? Or vice versa, if eonian does not mean never-ending for the punishment, how could it hope to mean never-ending for the life?! So from this direction our hope for the life must be in direct proportion to the hopelessness of the punishment; if the hopelessness is threatened the hope is threatened.
But non-universalists themselves, specifically in order to argue against a universalist conclusion from other scriptures, are absolutely committed to exegeting identical terms in important close topical context, and even in direct comparison, as meaning substantially different things.
One famous example is Romans 5, where direct immediate parallel comparisons of “all” are required not in fact to both mean “all” (and similar comparisons of “many” are required not in fact to both mean whatever “many” means). It is entirely clear enough, that if “many” by contextual comparison to “all” means “all” each time “many” is used there, and if “all” means “all” each time “all” is used there, then Paul would be teaching universal salvation from sin by Christ. Typically, non-universalists appeal to other indirectly related testimony to try to argue against this, rather than to direct context in Romans 5; which I will allow could be proper to do, perhaps. My point here is not to argue Romans 5 (that’s a whole other debate) but to give an example where non-universalists as such must be committed (whatever their reasons may be) to reading identical terms very differently in closely connected context on the topic of salvation.
Similarly, in order to avoid a universal salvation conclusion from exegeting Colossians 1, non-universalists must either deny that the same words used in affirming the utter divine supremacy of Christ over creation do not have the same meaning when talking immediately afterward about the scope (and potency) of God’s action to reconcile all things to Himself through the blood of the cross; or they must deny that the same word for “reconcile” when used immediately afterward to speak of the salvation of enemies of God from sin (namely Paul’s readers in the Colossians congregation) does not mean the salvation of enemies of God from sin when speaking of the scope of reconciliation of all things to God by God through the blood of the cross. My point here, again, is not to argue Colossians 1 (that’s a whole other debate) but to give another example where non-universalists, as such, must be committed (whatever their reasons may be) to reading identical terms very differently in closely connected context on the topic of salvation.
It may be replied that “all” and “many” are common general terms–although I don’t know how far that reply would stretch to include the terms in Colossians 1! But those terms aren’t the important word “eonian”. Maybe it’s theoretically possible for “eonian” to mean two superficially similar but also importantly different things in close context, but are there any Biblical examples of such usage?
In fact there are a few such times!
In the final blessing address of his epistle to the Romans, Paul writes in verse 25 of that 16th chapter that a secret hushed in times eonian has now been revealed which it is our responsibility as Christians to proclaim. Now, those times did not continue but are in the process of ending, and so in a sense have already ended, and will certainly end (one way or another) when Christ Jesus is finally heralded to all creation. Nor did those times stretch without beginning into the past. So those times had a beginning, and are having an end, and will someday be completely ended, and yet are described as “eonian”.
But in the very same sentence, only a few words later, Paul talks about this secret of eonian times having been manifested both now and through prophetic scriptures thanks to the injunction of the eonian God! The same word absolutely cannot mean only never-ending or only ending in both cases. It has to be talking about something that never ends in one case (God) and something that (sooner and later) definitely ends (the times of the secret).
But it may be replied again that Paul does not here directly compare the eonian God with the times eonian. No, that’s true. But the prophet Habbakuk makes such a comparison!
Habakkuk 3:6, “He (speaking of JEHOVAH in the Day of the Lord to come) stood and measured the earth; He beheld and drove asunder (or startled) the nations. Yes, the perpetual mountains were shattered, the eonian hills collapsed. His ways are eonian!”
Here we have an example of a primitive word, AHD, originally similar in meaning to another word used here in this verse, oLaHM. Both refer to the horizon, but AHD means the line of the horizon (or any similar line beyond which something still exists) and oLaHM refers to that which is beyond the horizon. Either way both words by metaphor are often employed to talk about the absolute everlasting greatness of God; but both words are also occasionally used for things which aren’t actually everlasting. This verse might have been expressly designed to contrast those two concepts! For not only are the AHD mountains shattered but the oLaHM hills collapse (using a verb which has a double-meaning of bowing down), when faced with the true oLaHM of God.
oLaHM is the same word usually translated “eonian” in Biblical Greek (although AHD sometimes could be, too.) And this is in fact how the Jews translated this verse for the Greek version of the scriptures, the Septuagint.
So this is a direct example of eonian (both in Greek and in its underlying Hebrew) meaning two similar but ultimately also very different things, not only in close proximity, and not only in close topical proximity, but in actual direct immediate comparison. In this case the context immediately clarifies the distinction; I argue that in the judgment of the sheep (or the mature flock) and the baby goats, the nearby context also clarifies a similar distinction. Both the life and the kolasis (or punishment) are from God, and both can go on for a long time, but the similarities end there. The eonian life goes on forever, by God’s intention; but God intends an end to the eonian kolasis.
So, such a different double-usage of eonian in immediate context may not happen often. But it does happen to various degrees, including at least once in the closest possible comparison of things described by the term eonian.
Of course, if we go with my preferred interpretation, where “eonian” is used to describe things that come especially from God (yes, even God from God as Romans 16:26 may thereby be rendered!–which no one affirming “very God of very God” will dare deny the propriety of!), then there is no problem at all: the life and the punishment are both equally and especially from God. But that usage is entirely neutral as to the question of whether the punishment is unending. It might or might not be. But then so much for using the term in itself as definite evidence that the punishment will be unending.
And, if the issue is pressed that this means eonian life might or might not end, well yes that’s true based on God’s intention: our lives are always derivative of God anyway. I have less than no problem trusting that God will continue to give His life to those who continue in fellowship with Him; just as I have less than no problem noting that unfallen angels also have eonian life from God. Including Lucifer and his allies!–before they fell!
So, unless we’re talking about the actively self-living self-existent God Himself, having eonian life is not in itself a guarantee of its own continuation–which maybe Lucifer was expecting!–but rather God gives eonian life or withdraws it according to His love and justice. He grafts branches into the Vine and breaks branches off; and those He grafts in may be cut out, and those born by God’s decree natural to the Vine may be broken off – but those broken off by God may easily be grafted back in by God when-if-ever God so deems it proper to do so.
As you might expect, these verses get talked about a lot, so members are encouraged to add further comments or alternate interpretations below, and add links to other discussions of these verses (whether here on the forum or off-site).
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