“the punishment of the age to come.” This is the punishment “in” or perhaps even better, “associated with” or “of” the Age to Come, i.e., the Messianic Age [For the translation “life of the age to come,” see Appendix 2: “Life in the Age to Come”].
The simple understanding of this verse has been obscured by orthodox Christian tradition. The context and scope of Scripture support the translation and primary emphasis of the phrase as it is translated in the REV: “the punishment of the Age to come,” and not “eternal punishment,” everlasting punishment,” or “age-long punishment,” all of which have an emphasis on duration. The primary emphasis of the punishment in this verse is that it will occur in the Age to Come, when Jesus rules the earth. During that future age the righteous will be rewarded and the unsaved will be punished.
People who have died are not being punished “in hell” now as is commonly taught. Right now, when a person dies, they are dead in the ground awaiting a resurrection and judgment. Furthermore, the Bible never says how long an unsaved sinner will be in Gehenna before they are annihilated. While the Bible indicates that some people will be in torment for a long time, no verse says that is true for every unsaved person. In fact, there are reasons to believe that many or most will be consumed very quickly.
When Christ comes to earth and fights the Battle of Armageddon, he will throw the “beast” (the Antichrist) and the false prophet into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 19:20). Those two are the first two people who are thrown into the Lake of Fire. After Armageddon, Jesus will set up his Millennial Kingdom on earth. It is called his “Millennial Kingdom” because it lasts 1000 years (Rev. 20:2-6).
When Jesus sits on his throne in his Millennial Kingdom, one of his first acts will be to gather before him all the people who have survived the Tribulation and Armageddon, and judge them according to their works. This judgment is called by scholars, “the sheep and goat judgment,” because Jesus is said to separate the people into two categories, “sheep” (believers), and “goats” (unbelievers) (Matt. 25:32). The goats are then led off to their punishment.
Another misconception that must be cleared up about this verse is that it does not teach that people burn forever in the Lake of Fire. The “goats” are thrown into the fire and burned up; annihilated. The phrase that has caused the confusion is κόλασιν αἰώνιον, which usually gets translated, “eternal punishment” (kolasis aiōnios literally means, “age punishment,” because in Greek the adjective (aiōnios; age) usually is after the noun (κόλασιν; punishment)). As we stated above, because of the context, which is the start of Christ’s kingdom on earth, we feel that the primary emphasis of this verse is, “the punishment associated with the Age to come.” However, the adjective aiōnios can refer to duration as well as a specific age, so there is a sense in which “everlasting punishment” can be a good translation if it is properly understood—that is, that the “punishment,” not the “punishing,” goes on forever.
The Greek word kolasis, “punishment,” is a noun, not a verb. The phrase is not “everlasting punishing,” as if the “punishing” went on forever and people writhed in pain forever, but rather it is “everlasting punishment,” because the punishment, which is death, goes on forever. For those who are thrown into the Lake of Fire and experience the “second death” (Rev. 20:14), their punishment, death, will never end. They are never given life again; they are annihilated from existence forever.
There are times when the noun “punishment” is used for the process of the act of being punished, so how do we know that this verse does not use “punishment” in the sense of “punishing”? The way to know that is from the scope of Scripture. Does the whole Bible, taken together, teach that the unsaved are annihilated in the fire, or survive in the fire and burn forever? The clear reading of Scripture is that mankind is given a choice between life and death. There is no verse that states that God gives people a choice between living forever in a good place or living forever in a bad place. John 3:16 gives the choice between “perish” or “everlasting life.” Romans 6:23 says the wages of sin is “death,” but the gift of God is “life.” Jesus said the believer has passed from “death” to “life” (John 5:24). The orthodox teaching is that people burn “in hell” forever, but that mostly comes from the unbiblical idea of the “immortal soul,” a concept that does not exist in the Bible.
Here in Matthew 25:46 the Greek text does not have a definite article before “punishment.” The preposition eis is before the noun. In Greek, if a preposition precedes a noun, the noun can be definite without specifically adding the definite article: the subject and context determine whether or not the article should be included, and sometimes it is added because that is the way we would say the phrase in English. Daniel Wallace writes in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (p. 247): “There is no need for the article to be used to make the object of a preposition definite.” A. T. Robertson writes: “...the article is not the only means of showing that a word is definite. ...The context and history of the phrase in question must decide. ...[As for prepositional phrases], these were also considered definite enough without the article.” Robertson then cites some examples that use ek (Grammar of the Greek New Testament, pp. 790-792).
[For the dead being dead now, and not alive in any form, see Appendix 4, “The Dead are Dead.” For more on Christ’s Millennial Kingdom, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more on people being annihilated in the Lake of Fire and not burning forever, see Appendix 5, “Annihilation in the Lake of Fire].
“life in the age to come.” [See Appendix 2, “Life in the Age to Come”.]