Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
The Reign of Christ
“And these will go away into eternal punishment,
but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25)
In April of this year, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, parishioner Anne Lane wrote a poem, called “The New Neverland.” It goes like this:
People I never see.
Places I never go.
Things I never do.
Truths I never hear.
Lies never corrected.
Clothes never worn.
Love never requited.
Kindness never extended.
Trips never taken.
Gifts never delivered.
Medicine never available.
Remedies never offered.
Illness never treated.
Misery never eased.
Joy Never shared.
Death always waiting.
Liturgically speaking, we are today in the end times: celebrating the reign of Christ at the end of the church year, before we begin to tell the story of Jesus all over again next week on the First Sunday of Advent. And so it is a day when the theme of judgment runs through our lessons—especially the proverbial separation of the sheep from the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew, the former to go into eternal life, but the latter into eternal punishment.
Now, whenever I hear words in scripture that seem to draw such stark and even alarming contrasts, I’ve learned to suspect that something more is going on underneath the surface than we might at first think.
Take the phrase, “eternal punishment.” At first, it conjures up images like Michelangelo’s painting of the last judgment in the Sistine Chapel: human figures wailing in terror and pain at the punishment inflicted upon them. And goodness knows there have been plenty of fire and brimstone sermons preached like that as well.
But hold on. It turns out that “punishment” is not nearly so unambiguous a word as you might think.
True, there is one kind of punishment which takes the form of violence inflicted as a form of revenge upon an enemy or a wrongdoer. But somehow, such retributive punishment doesn’t square in my mind with a God whom we otherwise know to be full of mercy and loving kindness. So there is another kind of punishment—the kind that is administered as a corrective, the kind that makes a teachable moment out of a mistake. It’s the kind of punishment a loving parent gives to a child, not by way of retribution, but by way of encouragement to be and to do better. “Go and tell your friend you’re sorry for what you said.” “Let’s see how we can fix what you have broken.” “Why don’t you take a time out?”
And sure enough, when you go back to the original Greek text of Matthew 25, the word used by Jesus for “punishment” is kolasis, meaning corrective punishment, rather than timoria, which is the word for vengeance. And not only that, but the origin of the word kolasis is actually a gardening term, referring to the pruning of trees. It’s a taking away of what impedes growth and maturity. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle put it, kolasis is for the sake of the one who suffers it; timoria is for the sake of the one who inflicts it.
Early Christian writers made a similar distinction between these two kinds of punisment. The second-century theologian Clement of Alexandria, for instance, wrote to the effect that “God does not punish (timoria), for such punishment is retaliation for evil. Rather God offers chastisement (kolasis), as children are chastised by their teacher.”
So, if we plug that idea back into the “eternal punishment” at the end of Matthew 25, we get a rather different reading, don’t we? Instead of God exacting vengeance on those who have not shown compassion, it reads that God will intervene to correct and redirect them toward the good. Those who have already learned to show compassion, will enter into the “eternal life” that comes from having already discovered the true meaning and dignity of being human. For others—which really means most, if not all of us—well, we still have a ways to go.
But what about the word “eternal” in the phrase, “eternal punishment”—is there no end to how much we have to learn, or how long it will take to learn it?
Sorry, but to tease that out, we’ll we have to go back once again to the Greek. The word used there is “aionion,” which comes from the word aeon, or age (and from which we get the word “eon”). In the Judaic understanding of Jesus’ time, there were two such aeons: the current time of human failing and corruption, and the messianic time to come when God would intervene to set things right. The thing is, in Jesus these two ages begin to come together—as we heard in Thursday’s Morning Prayer reading from Luke, “the kingdom of God is within us.” This age, and the age to come, converge in Christ to become a part of who we already are in him.
So eternal (aionion) does not just mean limitless time, but something more like the convergence in time of all things into union with God, even things which in this age seem to be incompatible—much like railroad tracks, that at our feet are parallel, but at the horizon come together in a point.
The “eternal punishment” of God, then, is more properly understood as the corrective instruction given by God to us human beings so that we might gradually mature into the fullness of who we were created to be—or as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians (from which we read today), to “mature personhood” which is the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
I began with a poem written back in April, “The New Neverland,” which was full of the disappointment and longing of the times we live in. But in July, Anne also wrote another poem, “The New Holyland,” which is full of hope and anticipation. The two poems, read together, strike me as a vivid illustration of this interweaving in Christ of both the current age and the age to come, of the eternal life for which we are destined and the eternal growth through which we come to it.
The second poem goes like this:
People who care.
Places of peace.
Chances to learn.
Clothed in grace.
Life always celebrated.