If you’ve read any of my writings you probably know the great respect I have for many Bible scholars, including Dr. Ann Nyland who translated The Source New Testament. But I came across an explanatory note on one familiar passage that brings out an important principle: that sometimes the correct “parts” don’t add up to the correct “whole”.
The passage in question is Matthew 25:46: “These people will go off to eternal rehabilitation, but the people who are right with God will go off into eternal life.”
The first thing that jumps out at us is the unusual translation “rehabilitation” where we’re used to seeing “punishment”. Dr. Nyland gives extensive documentation for “rehabilitation” being the correct meaning, further adding that it focuses on the offender, as opposed to restoring the honor of the one who was offended.
While she doesn’t go on to express the implication of this (I won’t put words in her mouth), the usual argument by Universalism* is that this proves it is not a statement about the need to be punished eternally due to the eternal and infinite honor of God, so it therefore defeats the argument for the unrighteous dead being punished eternally. Rather, it should prove that God will only rehabilitate the unrighteous dead and then restore them to himself.
Combined with that is the word translated “eternal”. In her notes, Dr. Nyland argues for the equally possible meanings of “eternal” and “a set period of time”. The reasoning seems sound and even includes references to Old Testament instances where it could easily mean the second one. Together, it seems to add up to “temporary rehabilitation”.
But of course, there are problems with that argument.
In that verse we see the word “eternal” twice: in regards to “rehabilitation” and also to “life”. The Greek word endings indicate that “eternal” is tied to each, meaning it refers directly to the word (rehab. or life) and nothing else, so there is no question about exactly what is “eternal”. But here is the glaring rebuttal to the “temporary rehab” theory: whatever “eternal” means, it means the same for both words! That is, if “rehab” is only temporary then so is life!
Think about what a pickle this puts the “temporary rehab” interpretation into. To say that there is no eternal punishment is to say that there is no eternal life. So what happens to everyone after this “temporary eternity”? There is no conceivable answer. Not even the annihilationists believe that the righteous will be destroyed, so where do they go? Whatever they can come up with has to be pulled from thin air, because the Bible never even hints at something better than or beyond eternal life. To be sure, nobody would claim everyone is annihilated, for it strips all meaning from existence and makes God’s plans look like a mere puff of smoke for entertainment.
Curiously, there are no notes at all for Rev. 20:10 which has the term “for ever and ever”, the same word translated “eternity” here but stated twice (“for eternity and eternity”). The word translated “rehab” in Matthew is different than the word translated “tortured” in Revelation, but both refer to the same situation, and the word in Rev. is unambiguous. Revelation gives no hint of release or relief at all, and both passages refer to the same final judgment.
So when we look at the “parts”— the sound and thorough scholarship that gives the possible meanings of the words— it clearly does not fit with the “whole” teaching of scripture. But just as clearly, we see that our scholarship did not keep us from knowing what the Bible teaches about people’s eternal destinies. And I do mean “eternal”.
What lesson have we learned here? Definitely NOT to just throw out the scholars! We would be hard-pressed to understand the Bible at all without them. Instead, we should always do what we did right here: study things from every angle, and let scripture have the final say in any disputable matter.
* Universalism basically teaches that all the souls who were ever created will eventually wind up in eternal bliss, in heaven with God. Others teach Annihilationism, meaning the unrighteous dead will be destroyed completely instead of going to heaven. But both have in common the rejection of eternal conscious suffering for the unrighteous dead, while the righteous dead live eternally in heaven.