Similarly Barclay wrote:
The simplest way to put it is that aionios cannot be used properly of anyone but God; it is the word uniquely, as Plato saw it, of God. Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give.11
The Gospel writers thought in terms of two ages, the present age and the age to come, and they associated the age to come with God himself; it was an age in which God’s presence would be fully manifested, his purposes fully realized, and his redemptive work eventually completed. They therefore came to employ the term, “αίώνίος,” [aionios] as an eschatological [doctrine of end times] term, one that functioned as a handy reference to the realities of the age to come. In this way, they managed to combine the more literal sense of “that which pertains to an age” with the more religious sense of “that which manifests the presence of God in a special way.” Eternal life, then, is not merely life that comes from God; it is also the mode of living associated with the age to come. And similarly for eternal punishment: It is not merely punishment that comes from God; it is also the form of punishment associated with the age to come. Now in none of this is there any implication that the life that comes from God and the punishment that comes from God are of an equal duration.”12
Likewise, Beecher demonstrates that in the days of the early church the idea was “punishment of the world to come.” The early Church establishes that fact through the ancient creeds. In fact, in none of its creeds did the early Church teach everlasting punishment.13
Arguing that eternal punishment must be of unending duration because it is contrasted with eternal life (Mt. 25:46) misses the point. It fails to recognize that eternal life is a quality of relationship with God (Jn. 17:3), and is an end in itself; while eternal punishment is God’s corrective discipline and a means to an end. In any case, whether aion means “age-abiding,” “of God,” or “of the world to come,” none of these expressions state, imply, or require that the punishment be never-ending.
So then, if aion does not strictly mean eternal, what word does? There are a number of Greek words that imply eternal. They are usually translated “indestructible,” “imperishable,” “unfading,” “immortality,” and “incorruptible.” See Ro. 1:23; 2:7; 1Co. 9:25; 15:42, 51-54; He. 7:15-16; 1Pe. 1:3-4; 5:4; 1Ti. 1:17; 6:16; 2Ti. 1:10. Our hope of immortality does not reside in the word aionios, but in God’s very nature (unfailing love and unlimited power) and promises. (See Appendix I).
This short discussion on the word aion is just an introduction. I highly recommend you read The History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution by Dr. Edward Beecher. I found his research and findings incontestable. You may read it on our website: HopeBeyondHell.net (Church History). So long as we have a flawed understanding of this four letter Greek word, we will remain blinded to the truth in relation to God’s judgments.
The second pillar in support of the doctrine of everlasting punishment is Gehenna. It is one of three words translated “hell” in the New Testament. It is the most common, used 12 times. Hades is used 11 times, and Tartarus only once. William Barclay stated:
Gehenna…means the Valley of Hinnom, a valley to the south-west of Jerusalem. It was notorious as the place where Ahaz had introduced the fire worship of the heathen God Molech, to whom little children were burned.…2 Chronicles 28:2-4. Josiah had stamped out that worship and ordered that the valley should be forever after an accursed place…it became the place where the refuse of Jerusalem was cast out and destroyed. It was a kind of public incinerator. Always the fire smoldered in it, and a pall of thick smoke lay over it, and bred a loathsome kind of worm which was hard to kill (Mark 9:44-48). So Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, became identified in people’s minds with all that was accursed and filthy, the place where useless and evil things were destroyed.14
Hades is the Greek word for the Hebrew, Sheol, which the New Strong’s Concise Dictionary defines as “unseen,” the place (state) of departed souls.15 Throughout the Old Testament, it refers to the state following death for both righteous and unrighteous. The NIV translates it “grave” or “death.” Tartarus is a holding area prior to judgment for angels who have sinned (2Pe. 2:4).
Gehenna is not mentioned in the Old Testament or by John, Paul, Peter, Jude, or James in all their writings (except once indirectly regarding the tongue—Ja. 3:6). Nor is it mentioned in the book of Acts or Hebrews. The New Testament records Jesus as using the term on what seems like only four occasions. How can such a horrible fate—to which most people are destined—not be warned against everywhere? How can we explain this?
[Please read Mt. 5:21-22.] At the very outset of the New Testament, Christ established the limited nature of the Gehenna judgment. This is extremely significant. For in the context of His first mention of it, He confirmed the Mosaic code of justice: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt. 5:38 derived from Ex. 21:24; Mt. 5:17-19). This code established that each crime merits a just and fit punishment, one obviously measurable: “You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex. 21:23-25). If Christ understood Gehenna to be everlasting, He could not have associated it with the Mosaic code. What is measurable about everlasting? And furthermore, He specifically confirmed this by saying that the same measure we use on others will be used on us! (Mt. 7:2). This indicates Gehenna is not eternal. For example, no derogatory remark (raca or “fool”) afflicts everlasting pain, and therefore cannot merit everlasting punishment in return.
[Please read Mt. 5:23-26.] “Prison” here is a metaphor for Gehenna. (This harmonizes with the “prison” of 1Pe. 3:19, and the Father’s sentence of Mt. 18:34-35). It is directly linked to Gehenna in the preceding verse (Mt. 5:22) by the word “therefore,” and it is immediately followed by another Gehenna judgment in the very next passage (Mt. 5:27-32). Thus, Mt. 5:23-26 is “sandwiched” between two Gehenna judgments. The final clincher is that the Lord identifies the Gehenna judgment as a most serious judgment we are all to fear. He says, “Assuredly I say unto you.” That is serious. What other judgment could he possibly be referring to in this context but the Gehenna judgment?
“Truly [Assuredly] I say to you, you will not come out of there [Gehenna] until you have paid up the last cent.” vs. 26 (NAS) The word “until” unmistakably confirms Gehenna is of a limited duration. Once the penalty is exacted, release follows, but not before. Note He addressed these words to a mixed audience of believers and unbelievers (Mt. 5:1; 7:28; 8:1). (See also Mt. 18:34-35).
[Please read Mt. 5:27-30.] Here, He describes the consequences of sinning lustfully. We can all imagine the scene—not pleasant. Nevertheless, these are concepts we can identify with in this physical world. Whatever the lake of
fire entails, we can be
confident it consists of a
judgment that conforms to
the character of our Father. With Gehenna, however, we know little. We have to trust Christ implicitly. So what does He say? It is “more profitable” to lose an eye or a hand, than to experience Gehenna. That’s it. That is all He chose to say. If Gehenna were unending (a concept horrible beyond description), how could He describe it merely as “less profitable”? Is this all He could say to contrast momentary and unending pain? Such a phrase can only describe another finite penalty, though to a degree more severe.
For the complete exposition of Christ’s use of Gehenna, including: “Fire Not Quenched,” “Refining Fire,” “Undying Worm,” and “Lake of Fire,” see Appendix IV.
Whatever the lake of fire entails, we can be confident it consists of a judgment conforming to the character of our Father. Are not His purifying fires inflicted in the presence of the Lamb who was slain for us (Re. 14:10)? He certainly will not rest day and night as He looks on our sufferings with His unchanging heart of compassion (Mt. 9:36; He. 13:8).
Additional passages do not use the word Gehenna, but seem to refer to the same judgment (Mt. 3:10, 12; 7:19; 13:40-42, 49-53; 25:41; Lu. 3:9, 17; 17:29; Jn. 15:6; Ju. 1:7). The strongest language among them is “gnashing of teeth.” In Christ Triumphant, Thomas Allin, D.D., historian, author, and clergyman of the English Episcopal Church North London (late 19th and early 20th centuries), observed: