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Matthew 18:8-9 (NIV):

8If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

I have often heard this verse interpreted as talking about eternal life after death, heaven and hell. I have even heard this verse used to defend the position of eternal punishment after death for the unfaithful. A paraphrase of how I typically hear it interpreted would be:

If your hand or foot or eye causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better to go to heaven for eternity maimed or crippled than to spend eternity in hell with two hands or two feet or two eyes.

However, a close reading of the passage doesn't seem to actually indicate anything about "eternal" life or death.

It does mention:

  • "enter life" (twice)
  • "eternal fire"
  • "fire of hell" (or "fire of Gehenna", if I'm not mistaken)

The only direct reference to eternity is the mention of "eternal fire," which doesn't directly mention either life or death (one could, theoretically, be temporarily thrown into "eternal fire", no?).

And the reference to entering life says nothing about an eternal nature of this life. For all I can tell, it may be referring to "entering life" in the same way that Jesus talks about being "born again."

The final reference to hell/Gehenna, whether it refers to an after-death punishment or not, it doesn't seem to explicitly say anything about eternity.

And a final point is that the passage seems to be rather rhetorical and hyperbolic, so is it even meant to be a statement of the literal nature of anything?

Now I'm not trying to refute the doctrines of eternal punishment or eternal reward; I'm only interested in whether this verse speaks to these topics.

So, my question is:

What does this passage actually say about eternity? Does this verse support the concepts eternal punishment and/or eternal reward after death?

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In the greater context of the passage, I'd say that what this passage says about eternity is that it's much better than anything temporal. There are things that seem important to us right now - things that can be spiritually destructive. However, cast in light of eternity, they are relatively unimportant. –  swasheck Jun 14 '12 at 16:34
    
@Flimzy, I think you are on to something. another thought, when in John 3.16 it mentions..."shall not perish". well when ever I've lit a piece of paper on fire and it perishes there is no way that I could ever bring that back again. It's gone. It's perished. Also, Ezek 18. says "the soul that sinneth shall die", Isa 53.12 -speaking of Jesus says "he hath poured out his soul unto death". Also, doesn't Paul encourage us several times to "seek for immortality"...just thoughts... If there is a literal hell who will God put in charge of it? The devil? Would he just let everyone out to make God mad? –  ironman99 Jun 16 '12 at 4:00

7 Answers 7

Apocalyptic Context

Matthew seems to have condensed the parallel passage found in Mark:

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”—Mark 9:42-50 (ESV)

Note, in particular, the reverences to salt (verses 49-50) which Matthew places in the sermon on the mount. Mark also has a more detailed story (beginning at verse 33) that Matthew summarizes in verses 1-4. If we assume Markian priority, this version of the teaching is likely to be closer to the original context than what we read in Matthew.

That's important because Mark includes a direct quotation from Isaiah:

“For as the new heavens and the new earth
    that I make
shall remain before me, says the LORD,
    so shall your offspring and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
    and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the LORD.

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”—Isaiah 66:22-24 (ESV)

Passages such as this are often classified as proto-apocalyptic, which means that it features imagery and concepts that were later used in apocalyptic literature of Daniel and the post-exilic period. This sort of literature explained and foretold momentous events in world history that permanently alter the spiritual landscape. We can see from John the Baptist, the Qumran community, and Josephus that the genre was alive and well during Jesus' time. Jesus himself engaged in apocalyptic teaching in Mark 13 and parallels.

David's Throne

A significant motivation for the apocalyptic genre (at least in human terms) was the desire to explain the failure of the Davidic line to rule from Jerusalem. There can be no doubt that the Jews from the time of Solomon on believed that David's throne would be permanently established. When the Northern Kingdom and, later, Judah were taken into captivity, it became clear that God would have to do something extraordinary in order to fulfill the prophesy.

As illustrated in Isaiah 66, one image commonly used was the idea of a "new heavens and the new earth". In other words, God will reinstate the line of David by returning to the very start of the story in Genesis 1. Only there will be a continuity between the old and the new as indicated in Isaiah 66 (the whole chapter). Those who have remained faithful in this age will be rewarded in the age to come. The new creation will permanently right wrongs and establish true worship of God everywhere.

Jesus' Kingdom

A careful reading of the gospels (including Matthew) reveals that Jesus saw his own ministry as fulfilling the prophesies of the Hebrew scriptures. His favorite title seems to be "Son of Man", which was a clear reference to the prophesy in Daniel 7 of a permanent, universal, and everlasting kingdom that would be given to "one like a son of man". The immediate context to the passage in question, in fact, is the disciples arguing over who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Having just witnessed the Transfiguration, they must have identified Jesus as the King of that kingdom.

Therefore, the disciples would have understood the phrase "enter life" as referring to the beginning of the eternal kingdom in which Jesus would reestablish the throne of David. By analogy, the references to "eternal fire" and Gehenna would almost certainly mean some eternal state. It makes little sense under the apocalyptic framework for the righteous to have an eternal existence yet the unrighteous to suffer temporarily.

Further, the imagery in Isaiah 66 that Jesus quotes highlights the permanence of the state of the rebellious. However, that state is also a state of death and decay; it's not necessarily a state of eternal punishment. Isaiah does not clarify exactly what the wicked will experience. (His narrative is from the viewpoint of the righteous.) However, in Mark's account, Jesus does indicate that those who are thrown into the eternal fire will also suffer forever:

And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire.—Mark 9:47-49 (ESV)

Verse 49 implies that everyone must suffer something whether it is the temporary suffering of resisting sin or the permanent suffering of hell.

Conclusion

While it is possible to argue that this passage is describing something other than eternal punishment for the wicked, it's difficult to maintain that interpretation in the face of Jesus' cultural context. It's almost certain that the disciples understood Jesus to mean that if you don't take steps now to avoid being entrapped in sin, you will be condemned to an existence of everlasting suffering.

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I think Bibleaddict was right. First of all, Quenching means-

  1. satisfy thirst: to satisfy a thirst by drinking something
  2. extinguish fire: to put out a fire or light
  3. suppress feeling: to suppress a feeling completely, especially enthusiasm or desire
  4. cool metal: to cool hot metal by plunging it into cold water or other liquid

Hell fire does not go on forever. If it did the bible would say so.It also says that "there shall be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked."(Acts 24:15) as someone else stated. Meaning that all the fairy tales that we have been told that hell is going on and will be going on forever is just that. When Jesus comes that will be the day of judgement and that will be the day that all sinners get destroyed in hell and the good go to heaven. The fact that hell fire cannot be "quenched" as it says in so many of the scriptures you guys here have quoted means that there is room for all sinners. There is no set number of sinners and God won't say the fire is out so you get to go to heaven.

Read Revelations and yes the dead know nothing meaning that they are not able to do anything but wait till Jesus comes and give them their sentence.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! –  Kazark Jun 30 '12 at 12:51
    
I like your point that an "unquenchable fire" could simply mean that there is "room for all sinners," and not that it will burn forever. That's an interpretation I had not heard before. –  Flimzy Jun 30 '12 at 16:07
    
FYI: "Quenching" doesn't actually appear in the verses in question. Rather, the fire is called "eternal". A parallel passage in Mark does use "unquenchable", but that passage introduces other problems for this interpretation. (Ping @Flimzy) –  Jon Ericson Jul 2 '12 at 19:42
    
@JonEricson: Thanks for clarifying that. –  Flimzy Jul 2 '12 at 21:58

It's the soul that sins

A general NT theme is of the flesh being sinful/the source of sin. E.g.:

KJV: Rom 7:18. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. Rom 8:13. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.

In biological terms, though, it isn't actually the hand, or foot that controls the brain, but vice-versa. It is most likely the mind/will etc. (soul) that causes us to sin, not a part of our body. Ezekiel 18 says it is "the SOUL that sins" which shall die.

There is rather a large body of Scripture (I'm still plodding thru the NT trying to understand this) seemingly about 'salvation of spirit/salvation of soul', where the first is by grace, of faith gifted by God, based on Christ's finished work on the cross. To this, we cannot add anything. The latter is arguably indicated by large parts of the NT commanding believers to stop sinning, and also I Thess 5:23 ("sanctify you wholly"? am I only partly sanctified?), and I Peter 1:9 is quite clear.

It seems that the believer's spirit probably has eternal security, since whatsoever* is born of God does not sin, and cannot sin, for 'born of God' (I John 3:9). (* STRONGS: G3956 pas includes the possible meaning "whatsoever"). Since the wages of sin is death, and the spirit born of God's Spirit (John 3:6) does/can not sin, it seems the spirit is assuredly saved. "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." (Eccl 12:7) This is, to my simple study, borne out by Christ Himself, Who commended His spirit into the hands of the Father (Luke 23:46) but His SOUL suffered for the world's sins that He bore: (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?(Ephesians 4:9, KJV) KJV: Acts 2 [25] For David speaketh concerning him [...] [27] Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

Why should the soul "die"? Because it makes the decision whether to sin or not -- in fact, can sin without the body committing a physical act. In Matt 5:28, the Lord clearly says the sin is ALREADY committed in heart/thought/soul, before the man has even had a chance to "make a pass" at the woman. In Matt 23:25-26, again: cleansing should be of/from the soul inside, and it will automatically result in clean "exterior" behavior. Merely eliminating physical acts of sin won't excuse us from judgment if we go on sinning in mind/heart without even trying to renew our minds. Judgment will include "the counsels of the hearts" (1 Cor 4:5, KJV).

Not literal amputation

Thus, it seems hardly likely that the Lord meant physical amputation of limbs, since: a) They don't govern our actions; b) It's still possible to sin the very worst sins in mind and heart, even if limbs were physically amputated.

So then we look for figurative or spiritual interpretation of the Lord's command. Some of my ideas follow.

Parts symbolic of specific sins?

Could it be various sins that are symbolically represented by particular body parts? Scripture mentions an "evil eye". Considering 'works of their hands', idolatry (II Kings 22:17, II Chron 34:25, Jer 1:16, Acts 7:41 etc.); violence (Isaiah 59:6, Jonah 3:8). As for feet, Proverbs 1:16, Isaiah 59:7, Jeremiah 14:10. Perhaps the Lord is parabolically telling us to seek out especially such sins and repent from them?

Church members -- parts of Christ's Body?

Rom 12:5. So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. (Also I Cor 12, Eph 5:30).

We note in 1 Cor 5 the Spirit's rebuke to the Corinthians, concerning the man who "had his father's wife". Verse 2 says they should rather have mourned and prayed that this member be "taken away from among you". Verse 13 commands, "Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person".

Clearly, then, we have here a cutting off/throwing away of a member/part of the body of Christ, because of his flagrant sin.

Why?

a) To avoid the spread of poison to the rest of the body (1 Cor 5:6) "a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump". Was the Lord, in Matt 18, telling the church to cast out obvious sinners, to "cut them out of the body", lest the body be corrupted by the apparent acceptance of the sin by the elders/those who had the rule over them?

b) To avoid their own condemnation. "For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?" (I Cor 5:12, ESV) and "[...] Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth."(Rom 14:22, KJV)

If so, then (Matt 18:9) it is better to cut out one, or three flagrant sinners, even if functioning/vital members of the assembly like an eye/hand, rather than risk corrupting the body and/or earning condemnation.

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Welcome to the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! That is quite an answer! It might be a bit hypocritical of me to say, but could I persuade you to edit this answer down a bit to address the question a little bit more directly? At the moment, it's a big wall-o-text that's kinda hard to get through. Part of the problem is that you wander just a little too far from the topic at hand, which makes your argument hard to follow. Does that make sense? –  Jon Ericson Jun 19 '12 at 20:26
    
Thanks for the welcome :) I have tried to edit it to make it more readable, though it's still huge :(. I hope that it's now closer to the topic, and that the headings help make smaller chunks. –  Elihu Jun 20 '12 at 13:37

I think it's obvious that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. For example, you won't have "eyes" or "hands" in hell, so Jesus could not have been being literal. Even more, if you cut off your hand or plucked out your eye on Earth, that wouldn't affect your soul which would be in hell.

The Bible says that "The lake of fire is the second death." (Revelation 20:14). No Where in the Bible does it say "eternal suffering in hell" (try a Google search if you don't believe me!). Moreover, 2 Peter 3:7 says "...the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men" - note that Peter does not say "eternal suffering", but rather destruction.

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Welcome to BH.SE! While we do appreciate personal interpretations, we prefer answers be clear and supported by references if possible. Your opinion could be right, but you need to be able to persuade folks who disagree. I'm downvoting this answer, but I encourage you to edit and ping me so I can change my vote. Thanks! –  Jon Ericson Jun 19 '12 at 19:10
    
I'm sorry I offended you. That was not my intention. It was probably harsh to vote down your first answer. I'd assumed you were familiar with the Stack Exchange format, but perhaps not. I'll edit some things in the answer so that I can revert my vote. I'm still hoping you take my advice to improve the answer, however. If you'd like to discuss it, please meet me in chat sometime. (It seems I inadvertently deleted your comment. Please forgive me.) –  Jon Ericson Jun 20 '12 at 9:51

It would help to read these passages with a good concordance like Strong's or Young's and see that the words "eternity" and "everlasting" or "for ever" are not really Biblical terms. My website has some links to lead you on a long study of the matter. The King James Version boxcures many good teachings God has revealed to us but you can't see them until you uncover them. The word translated "eternal" is the Greek word eon <165>. You can read many articles on this topic of unending things. There is a lot more to God's love and correction that people know.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

    
Welcome to the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Just so you know, it's perfectly ok to just link to your own material on the 'net as long as you disclose your association and take a few moments to answer the question directly. It sounds like you agree that Matthew 18 isn't really talking about eternity. But what does the passage mean by "eternal fire"? How do you fit the pieces together? –  Jon Ericson Jun 18 '12 at 23:17
    
Jesus was clearly being metaphorical. –  Bibleaddict Jun 19 '12 at 13:29

I think the verse you quote is similar to this, in terms of the specific question:

In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.(Jude 1:7)

This confirms that there is a fire ever-burning. Yet this does not prevent the idea of a destruction of the soul, for fire consumes its fuel, leaving nothing left.

Unfortunately, "there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked."(Acts 24:15) It seems therefore that God will make the wicked capable of enduring an eternal fire without dissolution. Why else would God give spiritual bodies to the wicked? Why not just cast the souls into an oven for termination? Does that not seem more humane?

Furthermore, to add woe to the sad thought,

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.(Matthew 25:46)

Now the eternal state of fire, has switched to an eternal state of punishment. ‘Punishment’ is not an entity all on its own, like fire, but it is what one undergoes in that fire. Furthermore, in the context, this ‘eternal punishment’ is made to be a negative reflection of ‘eternal life’.

So to answer the question, it seems through comparison of scripture, the phrase “thrown into the fire of hell” must be both an eternal fire and an eternal state in that fire.

Personally, this seems all too much for me! I can only conclude, I am so blind I can’t recognize how sinful - sin is. Even of a greater mystery is how the infinite God of ‘eternal joys’ and self-sufficiency, has such great sorrow for those who will be cast there. I gave up a long time ago trying to understanding eternity, or how God so very much loves sinners. I just believe it.

Looking at the way Jesus approached people! With so very much mercy, empathy and compassion, helps me a lot.

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Here is a good definition of gehena:

Gehenna:

(originally Ge bene Hinnom; i.e., "the valley of the sons of Hinnom"), a deep, narrow glen to the south of Jerusalem, where the idolatrous Jews offered their children in sacrifice to Molech (2Ch 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:31; 19:2-6). This valley afterwards became the common receptacle for all the refuse of the city. Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and all kinds of filth, were cast and consumed by fire kept always burning. It thus in process of time became the image of the place of everlasting destruction. In this sense it is used by our Lord in Mat 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luk 12:5. In these passages, and also in James 3:6, the word is uniformly rendered "hell," the Revised Version placing "Gehenna" in the margin. (See HELL; HINNOM.)

I think Jesus' point wasn't so much about Gehenna, but what can keep you from the Kingdom. His points about hands, feet, etc are things that are very valuable to us. When in our life - even if we see the objects as valuable as our hands, feet, etc - if they are preventing us from entering into the Kingdom then it would be better if we cut them off and get rid of them. Sometimes this may include friends, family, education, etc.

Basically, Jesus is saying do what ever it takes.

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