To me, the debate over the meaning of aionios in Mt.25.46 is a side issue, a rabbit trail. A key point in understanding this verse is the meaning of *kolasis *- remedial punishment. It simply does not make sense to say “endless remedial punishment”, for “remedial punishment” speaks of punishment meant to effect a positive change. When the positive change is made there is no further need for the punishement.
Also, the judgment spoken of is based on works, how one treats others; it is not based on faith. And yet, traditionalists who point to “aionios kolasis” as affirmation of there being a Hell, routinely dismiss that judgment in this passage is based on works and instead they affirm that salvation is based on faith.
The Believer’s Bible Commentary notes:
25:46 Thus the goats go away into everlasting punishment, but the sheep into eternal life. But this raises two problems. First, the passage seems to teach that nations are saved or lost en masse. Second, the narrative creates **the impression **that the sheep are saved by good works, and the goats are condemned through failure to do good. …
As to the second problem, the passage cannot be used to teach salvation by works. The uniform testimony of the Bible is that salvation is by faith and not by works (Eph. 2:8, 9). But the Bible is just as emphatic in teaching that true faith produces good works. If there are no good works, it is an indication that the person was never saved. So we must understand that the Gentiles are not saved by befriending the Jewish remnant, but that this kindness reflects their love for the Lord.
The reason this passage is problematic for this author is because he assumes that the passage is warning of Hell, endless torture. If we recognize though that it is warning of remedial punishment (in this life and possibly the life to come), then the above “two problems” are no longer problems. God deals with individuals and nations, bringing about punishment that is needed to effect a positive change.
Word Biblical Commentary :
Although sometimes understood as confirming a salvation by works, this passage need not be understood as incompatible with the gospel of the kingdom as a divine gift. The apostle Paul, the champion of grace, can also stress the significance of good works (see esp. Gal 6:7–10; 2 Cor 5:10). Matthew does stress the importance of righteousness as good deeds, but as a part of a larger context in which God acts graciously for the salvation of his people (see Hagner, Matthew 1–13, lxi–lxiii and Comment on 5:20). The deeds of mercy in the present passage are symbolic of a deeper reality, and as Gray notes, “the main point of the parable is the acceptance or the rejection of the Christian faith” (353; cf. 359). For a balanced and helpful discussion of this problem, see esp. C. L. Mitton.
The “main point” of the passage is NOT “acceptance or the rejection of the Christian faith”! The “main point” of the passage is how we actually treat others; acceptance or rejection of the Christian faith is not even mentioned! By reading into this passage Hell and endless torture, one looses the whole point of the passage.
This passage is speaking of social maturity, looking out for others who are less fortunate. Those who are selfless, socially mature naturally looking out for the needs of others will be rewarded by God with a blessed life. Those who are selfish, all-about-me, socially immature, who do not even see the needs of others around them, they can expect chastizement from the Lord, punishment meant to help them grow up and become socially mature!
By interpreting aionios kolasis as Hell or endless punishment one is completely misinterpreting this passage, nullifying it’s power to call everyone to righteousness! Believers say, “Well this passage doesn’t apply to me because I have faith in Christ.” And unbelievers don’t care what this passage says anyhow. In fact, if the unbeliever is a selfless, socially mature person, and the Christian who is mis-using this passage to warn them to “turn or burn”; the unbeliever simply need point out the hypocricy of the Christian who disregards that this passage actually speaks of how we take care of the less fortunate.
The traditional interpretation of this passage is a case of not being able to see the forest because of being consumed with trying to use one small limb to beat others over their heads - to try and prove that others are surely going to hell.
Every day I grow increasingly sick of the traditional doctrine of Hell – “I’m saved by grace, but others are damned inspite of grace!” And “Jesus either fails to save (Arminianism) or chooses not to save (Calvinism) most of humanity!” Of course, traditionalists would not actually say this, but these statement do sum up the traditional doctrine!
Judgment is an eternal reality. When we encounter the Lord in judgment, it burns the hell out of us! As mentioned in other threads, I’ve encountered God’s judgment of me and particular sinful patterns of life that I had. It was terrible, but very good for me, working in me awesome changes in my character and in my life-style. God judges us to change us if we’re acting badly, and to encourage us if we’re acting rightly!