Pruning the Flock?―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 5

I’m blogging through Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. Denny Burk wrote the theological and biblical case for the first view, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). This post will look at the next passage he examines, Matthew 24:31-46.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Matthew 24:31-32, NIV

Burk helpfully notes how this fulfills one of Daniel’s visions:

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlastingaiónios dominion that will not pass away 1, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14, NIV

Burk points out that everyone receives justice:

This Son of Man rules over the nations as the world’s true king, and he will render justice to every individual who has ever lived.

Denny Burk, page 28

But Daniel’s vision goes further, stating that everyone worshiped God (v14). Burk might respond that the reprobates’ worship is because of their subjugation. However, I think that’s very unlikely for two reasons:

First, in the vision’s interpretation we are told:

The kingdom, dominion, and greatness of the kingdoms under all of heaven will be given to the people, the holy ones of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will serve and obey Him.

Daniel 7:27, NIV

The only way for these rulers and kingdom folk to serve and obey God is to receive a new heart from God―to repent and willingly join His kingdom.

Second, God isn’t interested in mere forced lip service 2, He rightly requires and deserves wholehearted worship, which can only come from a renewed, Spirit-filled person.

Burk moves on to Jesus dividing “the sheep from the goats”:

The Son of Man separates them from one another because he intends to treat them differently based on what they are.

Denny Burk, page 29

Last year I gave reasons why I think Jesus wasn’t comparing adult sheep with adult goats but rather mature and immature animals within the Good Shepherd’s flock. If this is correct, this changes “what they are” and therefore the interpretation of how “he intends to treat them”. That doesn’t mean it will be easy for the immature but it seems to imply His aim is maturity―particularly Christlike empathy in this parable.

Baby goat
Young goat

Yes, Burk is right that aiónios fire is mentioned but I think this evocative language highlights the severity not the unlovingness of the process. For example:

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger. Then I will purify the speech of all people, so that everyone can worship the Lord together.

Zephaniah 3:8 (NIV), 3:9 (NLT)

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.

Malachi 3:2-3, ESV

their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day [of Jesus’ Judgment] will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.

1 Corinthians 3:13, NIV

Burk discusses how some people translate kolasis aiónios (Matt 25:45) as “correction in-the-next-age” rather than “eternal punishment” as he does. He goes as far as saying:

kolasis never means “correction” or “pruning” anywhere in the New Testament or related literature.

Denny Burk, page 30

I’m puzzled by his certainty because I’ve found evidence to the contrary. For example, according to Perseus 3 kolasis appears in a few hundred ancient Greek texts, and they’ve summed it up as:

checking the growth.

Perseus, Greek Word Study Tool

Barclay, a theologian and author of popular NT commentaries, came to a very similar conclusion:

The word was originally a gardening word, and its original meaning was pruning trees. In Greek there are two words for punishment… kolasis is for the sake of the one who suffers it [i.e. correction to mature someone]; timoria is for the sake of the one who inflicts it [i.e. retribution]

William Barclay, The Apostles’ Creed (see also 

Furthermore, the NAS Exhaustive Concordance says kolasis comes from kolazó, which includes:

1. properly, to lop, prune, as trees, wings.

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon

Another word that comes from kolazó, is kólon, which means:

a limb of the body (as if lopped)
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance

However, given correction can be severe (like chopping off a gangrenous leg) it’s understandable that it also became associated with punishment.

kolasis: maiming, cutting off.
J. Schneider, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Volume III

All this reminds me of Paul’s description of God cutting the Jews off for a time (which has been unpleasant for them), before grafting them back on again once the Gentiles have come in.

Burk comments that:

The term is used one other time in the New Testament, in 1 John 4:18 where it clearly means punishment.

Denny Burk, page 30

I think “clearly” is a bit strong as some translations don’t translate it that way (e.g. Douay-Rheims BibleWeymouth New Testament, 1599 Geneva Bible, and Wycliffe Bible translate it as pain, and Aramaic Bible in Plain English translates it as suspicion). Also if the word is translated “correction” it seems to link better with teleioó in the last sentence:

God’s love doesn’t contain fear, rather His perfect love removes fear―the fear of correctionkolasis. That we still fear means we haven’t yet been fully correctedteleioó (indeed filled) by His love 4.

In any case, universalism doesn’t hinge on the definition of kolasis as there are plenty of examples of God even restoring people who appear to have experienced retributive punishment 5.

Lastly, Burk says that the fate of demonic creatures is ECT, and that therefore ECT is the fate of the people sent into the fire “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). However, Universalists, such as Gregory of Nyssa, the father of orthodoxy, maintained that even “the originator of evil himself will be healed” 6 ―that he will be reconciled because he is part of all things that God has created (see Col 1:15-20).


1. It’s interesting how translating aiónios as everlasting makes an unnecessary tautology, whereas translating it eonian would not. See also Is Aionios Eternal?.
2. See Everyone Repents & Rejoices for examples of what He requires and what He says is unsatisfactory.
3.  An online dictionary used by Logos, the largest and most widely used Bible software in the world.
4. I like the way the Amplified Bible, Classic Edition puts it.
5. e.g. restoration of Sodom in Ezekiel 16:53.
6. Thanks to Robin Parry for pointing this out in Origen on the Salvation of the Devil.
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Jesus’ Parable of The Sheep & The Kids

I think there’s more to the parable of The Sheep and the Goats than an illustration of Judgment Day. Jesus really seems to be focusing on our treatment of others, and His reason is startling. Jesus is so intimately connected to humanity, that:

as you [cared for] one of the least of these my siblings, you did it to me

Matthew 25:40

as you did not [care for] one of the least of these, you did not do it to me

Matthew 25:45

I’m guessing that even if we had perfect empathy for others, we still wouldn’t be as connected as He is!

Additionally He:

  1. incarnated into our earthly experience.
  2. spent His earthly life being an exemplar of empathy and caring for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned, and urged (commanded) His followers to do likewise.
  3. gave His life to redeem the whole world (1John 2:2).
  4. mercifully continues to sustain and care for everything (Matt 5:44-48).

After all the above, is He really going to leave some of us eternally hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned in hell?? Will He cease to have empathy and compassion?

I think this context should make us wonder why kolasis aionios (Matt 25:46) is often translated “eternal punishment”? Especially given translating aionios as “eternal” is an interpretive leap compared to “eon-ian” (“pertaining to the aion/aeon/eon/age to come”), which is a more literal translation. Here are three more reasons.

First, Jesus’ role in the parable is that of the shepherd, an analogy that He often used positively:

I am the living God, The Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his flock [not just the sheep].

John 10:11, Aramaic Bible in Plain English

The Lord is my Shepherd

Psalm 23, HCSB

Kid-goat-standing-on-sheep
Kid standing on a mature sheep (source)

Second, the Greek word eriphos/eriphion, which gets translated in the parable as “goats”, is translated as “young goat” in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the only other occurrence in the NT but as there are about 100 occurrences in other ancient texts, most Greek dictionaries say the word means “young goats” or “kids”. Even the conservative Pulpit Commentary acknowledges that, “The goats (eriphion or kids) [in this parable are] on the left.” Because of this, I think Jesus is deliberately contrasting mature sheep with kids who need a lot of maturing.

Third, it’s likely that “maturing” is associated with the Greek word kolasis, which gets translated “punishment” in the NIV. It only appears in one other place in the NT (1John 4:18) but it appears in a few hundred other ancient texts, so according to Perseus (online dictionary used by Logos―most widely used Bible software in the world) it means “checking the growth”.

Barclay, a theologian and author of popular NT commentaries, came to a very similar conclusion:

The word was originally a gardening word, and its original meaning was pruning trees. In Greek there are two words for punishment… kolasis is for the sake of the one who suffers it [i.e. correction to mature someone]; timoria is for the sake of the one who inflicts it [i.e. retribution]

William Barclay, The Apostles’ Creed

Some definitions include “maiming, cutting off”, probably as the correction can be severe (e.g. a surgeon may need to remove a gangrenous or cancerous limb to save someone’s life). Reminds me of Paul’s description of God cutting the Jews off for awhile, before grafting them back on again once the Gentiles had come in.

So in summary, I think it is fair to interpret Matthew 25:46 as:

And these [the immature] shall go into [God’s severe] eonian correction [until they are mature], but the just [the mature] into [God’s blessed] eonian life.

Updated 22/12/2015:

A friend made a helpful observation, “The other thing I like about this passage is that the kids are not creatures who don’t belong in the herd―they are the young of the herd. The word translated “sheep” can be a general word for small herded livestock―usually sheep and goats.”1

So maybe it should be called “The Parable of the Mature and Immature Goats”!


1. For the rest of the conversation see https://www.facebook.com/SoniaLJohnson/posts/10153734598621328
My friend Cindy also did a more thorough unpacking of this parable:
The Sheep and The Kids
What To Do With The Kids
Eternal Punishment & Eternal Life