When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred , and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in : Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying , Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty , and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed , into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred , and ye gave me no meat : I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst , or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (St Matthew xxv:31-46)Perhaps we need to look at the last verse in the Greek.
καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
What do we see here? Ought the King James text use the same adjective to translate "αἰώνιον" (aiŌnion)? Is everlasting the same as eternal? We do have to be careful here because we can find ourselves getting rooted too much in a particular philosophy. Platonism would regard Eternity as some timeless existence. St Thomas Aquinas uses this idea of Eternity to prove that God is changeless. If God is perfect then there is can be no change, for any change would either be to a more perfect state which cannot be, or to a less perfect state, which would contradict the existence of God. If Time is a measure of how things change, then we cannot ascribe temporality to God. Except Our Lord makes a mockery of this argument as He comes to exist with us in Time.
What do we know? Well, we do know that God created all things, which must include Time's passage. Thus God is beyond Time and has an existence that cannot be ruled by Time. Clearly the Mystery of the Incarnation shows that God can submit Himself personally to the passage of Time, but as an unfolding revelation of His perfection. Christ was not perfect in the sense that His life was not complete until His last moments upon the Cross. Presumably, His Divine Nature possessed the perfection that was communicated to His Human nature in the unfolding of the Divine Revelation by the Incarnation. In Christ, we do have this union of the time-bound human being with the Eternity of God. It is clearly possible though we don't know how. Entering into this mystery involves speculation that goes beyond Faith. The child that believes this is clearly on the road to greater Divinity than the one who rejects it because "it doesn't make sense."
Yet, Our Lord is clear, the timelessness or duration of the punishment is of the same nature as the timelessness or duration of the life offered by Salvation.
Horrible, isn't it?
I can fully see why folk like Origen balked at the idea and taught that eventually even the Devil would come to Salvation. Others will wonder how it is possible for a finite human being to deserve an infinite punishment. As a consequence, they will see God as a monster for creating this place called Hell and throwing people into it. The Medieval and Renaissance artists are very good at conjuring up pictures of the tortures of the Damned.
Yet, one really has to look at the urgency with Our Lord urges us to avoid Hell. This does not seem to be a place where, once you've paid your debt, you get out. He is clear that He wants to save His children at all costs, even to the Death on the Cross. Hell is not something God wants for us. Clearly eternal means eternal. But punishment?
The word used is "κόλασις" (kŎlasis) which has the sense of pruning. One would "punish" a tree by correcting its growth through pruning. This punishment, then, is meant for correction which might lead us to hope that such an ordeal might not last forever, but then Our Lord qualifies it with "eternal".
We know that we cast ourselves into Hell by rejecting God and refusing to repent of Sin. The existence of God is a direct privation of Evil and sin. Where Sin is, God is not. Where God is, there can be no evil. This limitation that God has effected on Himself is of Love whereby He does not insist on His own way but bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things for the object of His Love which is His Creation. It is clear that He predestined us for Eternity and somehow all that we are has the potential for Eternity. We may need to be pruned for it, and thus repentance allows that pruning to have an effect for us eternally, else why does Our Lord begin His ministry with the word, "repent"?
Yet to refuse to repent must also have an effect on our eternity. Evil deeds are the fruit of this lack of desire to repent, to receive correction. If we all possess some eternity in our nature through bearing the image of God, then who we are on earth affects who we are in Eternity. Accepting the pruning now or in some form of Purgatory fits us for Heaven to dwell with God. Refusing the pruning leads to an existence of utter separation from God, yet still bearing His image which must surely drive the denizens of Hell insane as they possess the very existence of the One Whom they hate and have eternally rejected. Perhaps Charles Dickens' view of Hell as being doomed to carry the weight of one's sins like chains is a good analogy. Only through Christ do we get the bolt cutters that will free us.
Hell must terrify Christians. We must be afraid of Hell, not just for ourselves, but for all human beings. Christ wants all folk to be saved and brought to Him for Eternity. It will scandalise us but it must do so because we still cannot understand the problem Evil poses us. The call is for Faith. We need to trust God, not just that He exists, but that He is fully good despite the image that the opposing forces would want us to believe. The Church must work for the salvation of the whole world. It is possible that Hell may be empty save for the few that the Lord mentions. We must never despair of the love and mercy of God. However, we must work for His righteousness ensuring that every human being knows that they are loved and can be saved from the fate that they can make for themselves. We do bear each other that responsibility.