Questions and Answers: Statements in the article "Will I Go to Heaven When I Die?" in the May-June issue aren't totally accurate about going to heaven or hell at death.

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Statements in the article "Will I Go to Heaven When I Die?" in the May-June issue aren't totally accurate about going to heaven or hell at death.

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Many people assume that these verses, Matthew 25:41 Matthew 25:41Then shall he say also to them on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
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, Matthew 25:46 Matthew 25:46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
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, prove the wicked are to be eternally tortured in hellfire while the righteous go to heaven. But is that what these verses say?

First, notice the setting to which these verses refer—when Jesus “comes in His glory” (Matthew 25:31-32 Matthew 25:31-32 31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory: 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats:
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). We are told that He will then separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep represent the righteous (Matthew 25:34-40 Matthew 25:34-40 34 Then shall the King say to them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungered, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: 36 Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you an hungered, and fed you? or thirsty, and gave you drink? 38 When saw we you a stranger, and took you in? or naked, and clothed you? 39 Or when saw we you sick, or in prison, and came to you? 40 And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.
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). At His return He sets the sheep at His right hand. The goats in this instance represent sinners who ultimately refuse to repent. They are appointed to assemble on Jesus’ left hand. He then consigns the goats to “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41 Matthew 25:41Then shall he say also to them on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
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).

The word everlasting is translated from the Greek word aionios . The key to understanding this verse is knowing what will occur everlastingly. Does it refer to a fire that tortures without end, or does it have another meaning?

In Matthew 25:46 Matthew 25:46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
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Jesus spoke in a single sentence of everlasting ( aionios ) punishment and of life eternal ( aionios ). Since the righteous will be given eternal, or everlasting, life, many theologians believe the punishing of the wicked must last as long as the life given to the righteous. But this cannot be reconciled with the statement that those cast into the lake of fire perish— they are killed. As explained elsewhere, they suffer death—the second death (Revelation 2:11 Revelation 2:11He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches; He that overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death.
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; Revelation 20:6 Revelation 20:6Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
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, Revelation 20:14 Revelation 20:14And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
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; Revelation 21:8 Revelation 21:8But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.
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).

A plain and simple meaning of Matthew 25:46 Matthew 25:46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
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that fits with the rest of the Bible is that the wicked are cast into a fire that annihilates them— renders them forever extinct. The resulting punishment of being cast into the aionios fire is a one-time event. It is a permanent punishment, the results of which will remain forever—that is, eternal death. It is not ongoing punishing that continues forever without end. Put succinctly, it is everlasting punish ment, not everlasting punish ing. This is the only explanation that agrees with the rest of the Scriptures.

An additional point should be made regarding the meaning of aionios here. Genesis 19 describes God’s destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness: “Then the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 19:24 Genesis 19:24Then the LORD rained on Sodom and on Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;
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). They were utterly consumed by fire.

Some 2,000 years later the book of Jude describes these cities as “suffering the vengeance of eternal [ aionios ] fire” (verse 7). Yet it is obvious that the fires that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning. In the case of these cities and in the case of the wicked, who are consigned to aionios fire, the fire burns and completely destroys. But the eternal aspect of the fire is its everlasting effect, not how long it actually burns.

As for the righteous, they will indeed inherit eternal life in the Kingdom of God “when the Son of Man comes in His glory” (Matthew 25:31 Matthew 25:31When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory:
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,Matthew 25: 34, Matthew 25:46 Matthew 25:46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
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), but that life will not be spent in heaven. They live and reign with Jesus Christ when He returns and establishes His Kingdom (Revelation 20:4-6 Revelation 20:4-6 4 And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
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), but they reign with Him in that Kingdom on earth (Revelation 2:26 Revelation 2:26And he that overcomes, and keeps my works to the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
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; Revelatin 5:9-10; Matthew 5:5 Matthew 5:5Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
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). This is why Jesus exhorts us to pray, “Your Kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10 Matthew 6:10Your kingdom come, Your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
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; Luke 11:2 Luke 11:2And he said to them, When you pray, say, Our Father which are in heaven, Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
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)—because that Kingdom is coming to earth at His return.

For more information, we recommend our study guide Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach?