It comes as a surprise to many that the original text of the bible never uses the phrase “eternal punishment”. How then can we explain this exact wording in our modern bibles? Why would the translators do this?
The problem of translation cannot become part of a doctrinal framework because we have to base our doctrine on what is actually in the biblical text not translation errors. The doctrinal framework for erroneous doctrines like Calvinism and Arminianism are largely rooted in biblical mistranslations not what was actually written. For the purposes of this study we need to understand how and why these mistranslations exist today, where they came from, and why they persist to this day.
Cult groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are famous for producing bible versions that will support their doctrinal views. Alter just a single word and you can support a whole new doctrine with ease, even force it upon your members. One of the oldest Christian cult groups is what I call the Cult of Eternal Punishment. In the earliest centuries of the church there was a minority view that God punishes people eternally but this idea was not overtly in the biblical text.
Eternal punishment was merely an interpretation that some influential Christians had embraced, most notably Augustine of Hippo in the late 4th and early 5th century. In particular his works “The City of God”, XX and XXI. Augustine’s views on eternal punishment were contrary to views of earlier church fathers such as Origin (184-253 A.D.) who actually believed in the apokatastasis, the restoration of all people and all things. Nevertheless Augustine’s views became extremely popular.
Once eternal punishment was popularized in the writings of church fathers like Augustine the doctrine was magnified in Latin translations, the language of the common reader at that time. Latin translations were highly influential, and later were solely used to translate the bible into other languages, including English. In effect Latin translations become more authoritative than the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Ironically Islam later borrowed the erroneous idea of eternal punishment in fire from doctrines popularized by Augustine.
Primarily there are two mistranslated words that the Cult of Eternal Punishment has changed. These are Greek word aiōn and the Hebrew word olam. Both of these words are commonly translated as eternal or forever. The actual meaning of these words are age or era. They literally mean a finite period of time, the complete opposite of eternity. For example,
“These will go away into eternal (aiōnion) punishment, but the righteous into eternal (aiōnion) life.” – Matthew 25:46.
The Greek words aiōnion and aiōnios, are cognate adjectives of the Greek word aiōn, which literally means “an age”, referring to the present age or the age to come. We find the exact same Greek word, aiōn, in a passage that could not possibly mean eternal. Most Christians have read this verse.
“Tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age (aiōnios)?” – Matthew 24:3
Clearly we would not say “the end the eternity.” This is the power of changing a single word in the bible to support a doctrine.
When it comes to punishment by God the word aiōn has been translated as eternal for centuries. But the popularity of Augustine’s views of the afterlife are not justification for changing the bible. This is a fallacy known as argumentum ad populum, or simply an appeal to popularity. The popularity of an idea does not make it true. Translating punishment as being eternal is just a tradition of men and not what is actually in the biblical text. Few bible publishers want to rock the boat and change the word back to it’s original meaning as this could work against their financial ambitions. An honest translation of Matthew 25:46 should actually read,
“These will go away for corrective-punishment (kolasis) in the coming-age (aiōnion), but the righteous will enter life in the coming-age (aiōnion).” – Matthew 25:46 (literal rendering).
The Greek word aiōnion is literally pointing to a coming age not eternity. The Greek word kolasis translated as “punishment” in this passage is derived from the Greek word kolazó, which means, pruning back or corrective punishment (STRONGS NT 2849. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). Literally there will be corrective punishment in the coming age, not eternal punishment. The Rotherham Emphasized Bible actual uses the word “correction” in this passage for that reason.
Many react that this literal rendering of Matthew 25:46 implies we don’t have eternal life. However that passage was not talking about eternal life but the first age to come in the regeneration of all mankind. In fact, if eternal life depends on the Greek word aiōn we are in big trouble because that word does not mean eternal. Eternal life is rooted in God’s nature and the fact that all of mankind will be raised from death into immortality as Paul teaches.
“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this corruptible will have put on incorruption, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then what is written will happen: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:53-54.
The Apostle Paul clearly taught that all people are rescued from the jaws of death by Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-27). The idea that Christ is going to rescue all of mankind from the jaws of death only to punish most people for all eternity is nonsensical. Moreover, this idea is not in the bible. The bible does teach that God will punish sinners, but it does not teach that he will punish without end.
How did the idea of eternal punishment get into the bible in the first place? The doctrine of eternal punishment was greatly magnified in the Latin Vulgate hundreds of years ago. Not only does the Latin manuscripts impose eternal punishment onto the text but they even went as far as calling the realm of the dead an inferno, or literally raging fire. Instead of using the word era, which means an age, they used the Latin word aeternam, or literally forever. This in support of Augustine’s belief in eternal punishment but contrary to the actual Greek manuscripts.
The idea of eternal punishment was first introduced into the Latin manuscripts and then translated into English in the Wycliffe bible beginning in 1382. John Wycliffe was working solely from Latin manuscripts injecting eternal punishment in the English bible. This view was forced upon John Wycliffe by the Latin text and not an idea he created. This tradition inadvertently started by Wycliffe was then continued by the King James translators who had earlier Greek manuscripts they could have leaned on but didn’t in these passages. To the credit of the King James translators they did update the Wycliffe’s rendering of “torment” to read “punishment” in Matthew 25:46. The concept of punishment at least implies a purpose whereas the idea of torment is something a sadist seeks and is without purpose.
When researching this subject I was shocked to find what they did back then. These erroneous translations were radically different than the original meaning of the text and therefore overt and intentional. They were not just supporting the doctrine of eternal punishment they were forcing it upon their readers. The original text of the bible is completely devoid of concepts of eternal punishment, nor is the realm of the dead a raging fire. The entire notion of eternal punishment in fire is merely a contrivance created by the translators. Today just these few mistranslated words by the Cult of Eternal Punishment hundreds of years ago has forced the doctrine of eternal punishment upon us.
Are you a member of the Cult of Eternal Punishment and didn’t know it? This is a false doctrine that is forced upon most Christians today. It’s time come out, God requires that we worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). These ancient translations of the bible echo through the ages and the consequences are still with us. But we are not bound to them, the original Greek meaning of these passages is known and bible translations are catching up, many having completely eliminated the words eternal punishment and hell.