This article introduces the concept of what linguists call “deverbal nouns”—of which the word “punishment” is one example—as one way of explaning why the “eternal punishment” of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 25:46 is not the clear proof of eternal conscious torment that traditionalists tend to think that it is.
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“Punishment” and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns

In the opening statement from my recent debate I had said,

What we disagree on is the meaning of punishment. Traditionalists see it as suffering forever, whereas annihilationists see it as the everlasting effect of being executed. Linguists call this a deverbal result noun, a noun referring to the results of its corresponding verb, and it’s a phenomenon found both in Scripture and in modern language.

This was recently misunderstood by pseudonymous blogger TurretinFan, and understandably so—excuse the pun—because it didn’t come across quite right. I did not mean to say that linguists call “punishment” a deverbal result noun; I meant that they call the object to which I was referring—namely, a noun that refers to the results of its corresponding verb—a deverbal result noun. What’s more, I neither said nor implied that “punishment” is in every case a deverbal result noun, but that it is in the case of Matthew 25:46.

Nevertheless, TurretinFan argued that the “noun ‘punishment’ is a deverbal noun, but it is not a deverbal result noun” (emphasis his), going on to seemingly argue that this is inherent in the meaning of the noun. Let us examine this claim.

First, it should be noted that many deverbal nouns are polysemous, ambiguous between a process or result meaning. For example, the phrase, “The translation of the book took ten years,” means that the process of translating lasted ten years. The phrase, “The translation has been published recently,” on the other hand, means that the translation that resulted from, or was the outcome of, the translating process was recently published. Building may refer to the process (e.g., “building a house”) or to the result (e.g., “a beautiful building”); the word construction is similarly ambiguous. Isolation may refer to the process (e.g., “gene isolation”) or to the result (e.g., “forced into isolation”). Other ambiguous examples include separation, banishment, performance, subjugation, imprisonment, and many more.

TurretinFan cited Roget’s Thesaurus on “punishment” in support of his contention that “‘punishment,’ like ‘walk,’ is a manner noun, not a ‘result’ noun.” I do not dispute that “punishment” does sometimes—even often—refer to the process of punishing. But since such deverbal nouns are often polysemous, it does not follow that therefore “punishment” carries a process meaning every time it’s used. “Punishment” may often describe “a manner of treatment, not the result of that treatment,” but this is not always the case.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) includes a definition of punishment that describes a process, namely, “The infliction of a penalty or sanction in retribution for an offence or transgression” (emphasis mine), but it immediately follows this first definition with, “(also) that which is inflicted as a penalty.”1 This distinction, between the infliction of a penalty and the penalty which is inflicted, can serve to illustrate the difference between “punishment” as a process noun and “punishment” as a result noun.

One of the synonyms TurretinFan cites is “amercement,” for example, which the OED defines as “a discretionary penalty or fine.”2 The punishment of a fine certainly isn’t the infliction of the fine—the process of paying it—but rather the resulting absence of that money from the offender’s bank account. Consider “confiscation,” also included in the list of synonyms TurretinFan cites. The punishment of confiscation certainly isn’t the infliction of it—the process of having one’s property confiscated—but rather the resulting lack of something previously owned. Examples of punishments whose measure is in their process obviously exist, but they are not the only kinds of punishment.

Perhaps there is no better example of a punishment which does not fit TurretinFan’s conclusion than that of capital punishment. After all, what is the nature of capital punishment? Is it suffering as part of the process of death? And how is it measured? Is it measured in the amount of time it takes to die? TurretinFan’s insistence that “‘punishment’ [is] about the process” would render a lengthy prison sentence a greater punishment than a quick and painless execution, such as death by lethal injection. And yet capital punishment, by any means, is reserved for the most serious of crimes.

Saint Augustine rhetorically asked, “As to the award of death for any great crime, do the laws reckon the punishment to consist in the brief moment in which death is inflicted, or in this, that the offender is eternally banished from the society of the living?”3 TurretinFan alleged that my reference to Augustine misses the point: “Capital punishment is severe regardless of its duration, because of the kind of punishment it is. But ‘eternal punishment’ is specifically a comment on the duration of the punishment.” But I suspect it may be TurretinFan who misses the point.

Did we not see Augustine explicitly stating that the measure of capital punishment is not in the duration of the punishing, but rather in the duration of the consequent lifelessness? And the context of his statement is those punishments which last longer than the time it takes to commit a crime. In fact, he includes death in a list of such punishments, rhetorically asking again, “Is there any one of these which may be compressed into a brevity proportioned to the rapid commission of the offence, so that no longer time may be spent in its punishment than in its perpetration, unless, perhaps, reparation?”4 If it is not possible to compress the punishment of death into the amount of time it takes to commit a crime worthy thereof, then the duration of the punishment of death must be measured in the result, rather than the process, of being executed.

It seems to me that those critical of conditionalism cannot appeal to the phrase “eternal punishment” by itself, for it may refer to the everlasting effect of being punished by death. So Jonathan Edwards, arguing against annihilationists who posit a very extended period of suffering prior to annihilation, writes,5

For, if it be owned, that Scripture expressions denote a punishment that is properly eternal, but that it is in no other sense properly so, than as the annihilation, or state of non-existence, to which the wicked shall return, will be eternal; and that this eternal annihilation is that death which is so often threatened for sin, perishing for ever, everlasting destruction, being lost, utterly consumed … If this be all that these expressions denote, then they do not at all signify the length of the torments, or long continuance of their misery; so that the supposition of the length of their torments is brought in without any necessity, the Scripture saying nothing of it, having no respect to it, when it speaks of their everlasting punishments; and it answers the scripture expressions as well, to suppose that they shall be annihilated immediately, without any long pains, provided the annihilation be everlasting.

You see, Edwards’ argument is not that the language of eternal punishment works against annihilationism. Quite the contrary, he argues that annihilation answers the “scripture expressions” of eternal punishment well, but that if that’s what these expressions refer to, there remains no biblical justification for a lengthy period of penal suffering prior to annihilation. In Edwards’ mind, while there may be many reasons for rejecting annihilationism, the phrase “eternal punishment” is not in and of itself one of them.

Traditionalists would do well to recognize what Edwards recognized. Scripture has a lot to say about final punishment, and this vast wealth of biblical testimony cannot be read through the lens of this single, solitary, polysemous phrase in Matthew 25:46. Apparently, upon further thought, TurretinFan agreed. He wrote,

even if Date were correct that “punishment” were a deverbal result noun, he would have to argue that the context favors a result interpretation, not an event/process/manner interpretation…Words can have a range of meanings, known as the “semantic range” of the word. When there is a question about which meaning of the range of meanings applies, the very best clue to that meaning is the immediate context.

This is precisely what I argued in my opening statement. I said, “The question, then, is what is the nature of eternal punishment?…And the answer is clear from Jesus’ reference to the ‘eternal fire,’ a phrase found in two other places in the New Testament.” And then I went on to my make case from those uses of the phrase, which I’ll make in the future here at Rethinking Hell.

TurretinFan, however, appears to insist on a different element of the local context as the means by which we must determine whether “punishment” in Matthew 25:46 is a result or a process noun. He writes, “when ‘eternal punishment’ is placed in parallel with ‘eternal life,’ we are given an unmistakable clue that the ‘event’ or ‘manner’ sense is intended.” In other words, what determines one noun’s reading is that of its nearest neighbor. But this is not true. If a mechanic were to repair the engine of one’s car, guaranteeing that both the parts and labor will last for a year, one would naturally understand that while the parts themselves would function properly for a year, the laboring would not; the outcome of the labor would last for that period of time. TurretinFan’s test would render the guarantee nonsensical.

Were TurretinFan to object on the grounds that in this example one noun is deverbal and the other is not, another example could be brought to bear. If two people were to enter into an agreement that lasts for the duration of their lives, since the deverbal noun “agreement” refers to the result of agreeing, applying TurretinFan’s test would require that the deverbal noun “lives” refers to the time during which the agreeing takes place. Yet, clearly this is not the case. The result of agreeing would last for as long as these hypothetical partners live. And so, whether one deverbal noun has a process or result meaning is not what determines whether its neighbor carries the same meaning.

Thus the parallel between “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46 does certainly indicate that “eternal” means “for eternity” in both cases, but the deverbal nouns described as “eternal” need not carry the same reading. The phrase Jesus uses a mere verses earlier, “eternal fire,” carries a certain meaning elsewhere, which along with the rest of Scripture must be the lens through which we interpret “eternal punishment,” rather than the other way around.

Notes:

  1. punishment, n. Oxford English Dictionary, Third edition, September 2007; online version June 2012; accessed 19 June 2012
  2. amercement, n. Oxford English Dictionary, Third edition, March 2008; online version June 2012; accessed 19 June 2012
  3. St. Augustine (2011-10-04). The City of God - Enhanced (Kindle Locations 16804-16805). Kindle Edition.
  4. Ibid. (Kindle Locations 16792-16794).
  5. Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of President Edwards: With a Memoir of His Life (G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1830), 401.
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