Introduction and Approach of This Article
The point of this article is not to come to a firm conclusion on a singular meaning of aion (αἰών). It means different things in different contexts throughout its etymological history. In the New Testament, the meaning becomes more disputed because its meaning is a piece of evidence to determine whether Hell is eternal. Many modern sources looking into the meaning of aion are inherently theologically biased; personal theology and presuppositions often influence how the author defines the word. This is not necessarily bad, but it is a caveat to those looking for unbiased sources. Universalists will argue it cannot mean eternity (or it does not in the specific context of the New Testament authors), whereas Traditionalist Christians (those believing that aion means eternal and therefore implies an eternal Heaven AND Hell) will argue that it does. See for instance different listings of uses of the word in the New Testament, one here with a Universalist bias and another here deliberately trying to refute the Universalist opinion. There are numerous others.
The purpose of this article is to be clear, succinct, and neutral. To go through the evolution of the word, we must be brief and summarize the contributions of other, more knowledgeable sources, with a preference for sources that are neutral about the question of Universalism. There are many astute authors on both sides, but our focus is just on the neutral meaning of the word aion. To refute the ideas of the sources or individual references is counterproductive; we are looking at the broad strokes of the evolution of the meaning of aion. The interpretive part of the following argument is that aion may represent one side of the meaning of eternity, but this conclusion does not fundamentally impact the question of eternal damnation vs. Universalism.
With the controversy of aion it is often more a question of how a modern person defines eternity. For Traditionalists, proposed translations of “for all time”, “through all the ages and ages to come”, etc. means eternity. At the very least they argue that these phrases are used metaphorically to express eternity. For Universalists, these definitions are just talking about the time/ages of this fallen world. Finite creation, they argue, cannot be infinite in duration/extent, and the only eternal thing is God. Both positions are defensible.
This is not meant to be a scholarly treatise; those have been done, and one that will be frequently utilized is available via Google Books here. English letters will be used throughout for Greek words, but those interested should refer to the link both for the original language and to check the references for themselves. Keizer, the author of the book linked above, is attempting to be impartial, and a re-evaluation of the monumental work is far beyond the scope of this short article. This book is available to the reader as of the time of this writing. Other great works exist, but they are often prohibitively expensive. I’ve tried to keep other sources available or cheap to find for transparency and to encourage additional reflection on the topic. One who wishes to do more of his/her own research is highly encouraged.
We will start with the controversy about the meaning of aion, and then move to the various meanings of the word aion and its evolution in meaning over the centuries. We need a foundation upon which to build. Next we will move into more theoretical, interpretive grounds of the differences between Hebrew and Greek ways of thinking, focusing on the Hebrew meaning of olam, which the Septuagint translates as aion. Following that will be a brief discourse on the problems of the word “eternity” and how certain conceptions match olam/aion while others match a more abstract definition of “eternity”. Finally, there is a brief section about the two Greek words that are concerned with eternity or endless time: aion and aidios. Aidios has a more abstract, distinct meaning as “eternity”. This simple definition is all that is needed for the majority of the article, but this section at the end goes into more detail and follows from some of the conclusions in the article. This paper will argue that Aion means many things, including eternity, but with notable qualifications. The need for qualifications is due to an incomplete synthesis of Hebrew and Greek ways of thinking about time, and thus eternity, as well as a philosophical disagreement on what the English word “eternity” means.
Points of Controversy in the Meaning of the Word, and the Different Sides
Both Universalists and Traditionalists have an obvious theological ax to grind. Universalists argue that Hell is not eternal, whereas Traditionalists argue it is. Ultimately, this article argues that the word starts off with a more concrete meaning of life, and it gradually means eternity by the early-mid Christian era. Just when that final transition to meaning eternity takes place is up for debate. The word could mean “eternity” in the sense of “everlastingness” by the Hellenistic Age (323 BC - 31 BC), some years before Christ, but this is a definition of “eternity” that requires qualifications. A more pertinent question over the eternality of Hell would be whether there is a difference between everlastingness and eternity. We will touch on that last question, but it, more than the word aion itself, is often the unspoken point of contention between Universalists and Traditionalists. Another way to phrase the question might be: “Is eternity endless time or outside of time altogether?” Still, let us return to the point at hand.
There are strong arguments on both sides of the debate for the meaning of aion. On the one hand, Universalists point out that the word aion has a complicated history in the Greek language, and should often mean something more like the English “aeon” or “eon” which implies a limited amount of time (and which has the same meaning as the Latin saecularis but etymologically comes from aevum-which came from aion- which later became ae(vum)ternitas, or eternity). Traditionalists rightly point out that most linguistic scholars for around 1500 (or 2000) years accept the definition of "eternity, everlasting, forever, etc." for aion,and that it can be used metaphorically to imply eternity. Meanwhile Universalists argue correctly that the word itself literally means “age”, not eternity, and is marked as distinct from the other Greek word for eternity (aidios) in the Liddell-Scott Greek Lexicon. Instead of making specific claims on the meaning of the word, I will offer a range of possible meanings. It is my argument that aion can mean something akin to the English "eternity", but it does not always, and it depends on how one defines eternity more than the word aion itself. Its meaning, like much of the Greek language, is not directly translatable and hence has a broad range. The word itself is slippery, making it exceptionally controversial and prone to hopeful interpretation by polemical theologians.
So why is this one word the subject of so much contention? It all has to do with the salvation of souls. Christ repeatedly uses images of Hell (fire, darkness, Gehenna, etc.), and he always calls them by some version of the word aion (see links above for passages). Traditionally, at least for the last 1500 years or so, aion has meant “everlasting, eternal” to biblical exegetes and linguists. Technically, however, it means “aionic”. The English word would be “age”, which is not infinite in extent. If one believes in an eternal Hell, the traditional way to interpret the word makes sense. If one is a Universalist, the literal meaning is preferred. The Universalist will then think that the punishments are aionic, or limited in time to a set period, and afterwards all are saved. Meanwhile, the Traditionalist believes that aion is just another way to refer to eternity. Whether or not aion can mean eternal or merely means “for a finite time” is crucial for the ultimate placement of souls in the age to come.
There are strong reasons to suppose that aionic can mean something like eternity as well, supporting the Traditionalist argument. Matthew 25:46 talks of aionic punishment and aionic life. Few would argue that “aionic life” is less than eternal. Aionic life appears elsewhere, notably John 17:3, John 3:36, etc. If one is a Traditionalist and believes in an eternal Hell of some form (whether that be punishment or separation from God), this presents no problem. Universalists reply that “aion” means something specific in Greek that ties the “duration” to the thing. For example, a person’s “aion” might be 80 years, whereas a Mayfly’s would be a day. There might be two different aions in this passage.
Aion is a loaded word that is difficult to define, in part because nailing down a definition of all the Greek speaking world at the time is almost unfair. It would be like explaining what the word "soul" means in the early 21st century to somebody from the 41st century. There's a definition, and there's a pattern to its meaning; there is no disputing that. However, if one were to really dig into people's perception of that loaded word, they would find many shades of meaning: material/spiritual, immortal/mortal, and the list could continue endlessly. Narrow it down further-what does soul mean to only Western Civilization? More questions arise: How do you define Western Civilization? Is it useful to look at the differences over our past centuries regarding the word? What about unorthodox thinkers? Does the “New Age” count?
A further problem for an easy interpretation of the word is the dynamic synthesis between Greek and Hebrew ways of thinking. Westerners mostly follow in the Greco-Roman ways of thinking about things, especially including time and space (see Thorleif Boman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek-available for cheap-particularly his section on time and space). It must be remembered that we are dealing with a Hebrew culture in the New Testament in addition to the Greek. The Hebrews and the Greeks had different ways of thinking about the world, and to understand the bible one must think like a Greek and like a Jew at the same time. As already stated, and repeated a bit tediously throughout, one major barrier to agreement on the word aion is the different interpretations given to “eternity” by the Greeks and the Hebrews. The latter do not have a word for what might be called “timeless eternity”.
Aidios is a Greek word for timeless eternity that is seldom used in the New Testament. Universalists point out that the use of the word aion rather than aidios must be deliberate, and that an “age” is different than “eternity”. In the Septuagint aion is used almost exclusively for the Hebrew word olam, which does not mean timeless eternity (more on this in a following section). Universalists argue the seventy translators deliberately chose aionic over aidiotic, and thus aionic cannot mean eternity. However, Traditionalists point out an important reference to aidios chains found in Jude 1:6 for angels who abandoned their own, rightful positions. The Traditionalist argument is that if these angels are in eternal chains, this must be an eternal Hell, or some form of eternal punishment. Why punishments are mostly referred to as aionic and only here (at least for the angels) as aidiotic appears at first inconsistent. One possible explanation might be that aionic things usually refer to humans and the mortal realm, while aidiotic things refer to the “divine”. This is how Greek philosophers usually treat the words. However, in a later section we will see this is not always the case either.
We have come to a point where we need to go into more detail regarding the original Greek meaning of the word, exploring what it has meant and what it can mean. The central question to keep in mind is whether aion can or must mean eternity, and to remember that the word’s meaning has evolved over the centuries. What aion meant to the New Testament authors may or may not have been the same with what it meant to later Christian authors. It is important to place the word in its various contexts.
Conclusions of the Section:
- “Hell” and punishments are described in the bible as “aionic”. In certain places “Life” (Heaven) and its synonyms are described as aionic as well.
- There is an ongoing question about whether aion must mean “eternity” in all cases. This impacts whether the bible says Hell is eternal (the Traditionalist opinion) or only temporary (the Universalist opinion, at least for those that believe in Hell). It depends on the context.
- The Greeks and Hebrews had different ways of thinking about time and the universe, and this is often ignored in discussions about the meaning of aion.
- Both Traditionalists and Universalists have passages and interpretations to support their opinions. Coming to a consistent, biblical and etymological proof rather than a likely and logical opinion is elusive.
Original Greek Meaning and the Evolution of the Meaning of Aion in the Greek Language Up to the Septuagint
Following chronologically, we will briefly look into the origins of the word aion and its many meanings. For clarity and brevity, we will ignore the distinction between the noun (aion) and any other part of speech, like the adjective form, aionios. The meaning does change over the course of time, making the issue of what it means in New Testament times more complicated. From its beginnings in early Greek poetry it later went through a radical transformation, as all things did, under the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. It was inserted into biblical canon with the Septuagint when it stood for the Hebrew olam, which we will treat later. Following is a brief summary of Keizer, with comments. One should keep in mind that many of the lexicographers mentioned in the next couple paragraphs, who provide us with the “original meaning” of aion, are writing centuries removed from the word’s original use and after the New Testament authors.
The etymology of the word is unclear. Hesychius of Alexandria (5th or 6th century AD) provides supposed original meanings of the word in his lexicon. Hesychius claims that it can mean marrow or psyche (roughly “soul”), but marrow has been removed in the supplement to the modern LSJ lexicon as an over-interpretation. It probably just means life force. Later lemma conjecture aion could come from aein "to blow". The traditional (and sometimes contested) etymology of aion is from aei on or “always being”. This comes from Aristotle (384-322 BC).
From this beginning come shades of meaning of aion for different Christian authors. John of Damascus (c. 675-749 AD) gives a brief explanation of the meanings of the word from an 8th century AD Christian perspective. The first two are older definitions, while the last couple came later, especially in early Christian usage. The passage is from An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith Book II Chapter 1 which is available here.
“It must then be understood that the word age (aion) has various meanings, for it denotes many things. The life of each man is called an age. Again, a period of a thousand years is called an age. Again, the whole course of the present life is called an age: also the future life, the immortal life after the resurrection, is spoken of as an age. Again, the word age is used to denote, not time nor yet a part of time as measured by the movement and course of the sun, that is to say, composed of days and nights, but the sort of temporal motion and interval that is co-extensive with eternity. For age is to things eternal just what time is to things temporal.”
According to the earlier definitions of John of Damascus, and up to later Greek thinkers, aion meant something like the life force assigned to each person, and the duration of life. It is associated with a beginning and an end, like an actual life. Later it is applied to an “age” with a duration. Even later it means the whole course of the universe, including the afterlife, and it is co-extensive with eternity. Here it is clear that John of Damascus is talking about two distinct things (age and eternity) but is in some way equating the two. Early Christians used aion in both these ways, adding confusion for interpreters. Many early Church Fathers, especially Origen (c. 185 - c. 254 AD), used aion in a more limited, cyclical sense of age, implying punishments in Hell were not eternal. Origen, along with numerous others, from Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 - c. 394 AD) to, possibly, Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662 AD), believed that all would be reconciled because Hell had an “end”. This information was sometimes kept secret. Only Heaven was eternal to these fathers. Other, earlier Christian sources also use aion to refer to “forever” or even “eternity” with qualifications. Aion is used in the last line of the “extra verse” of the Lord’s Prayer to imply eternity/forever (for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, to the aions). This extra verse is found in some ancient sources such as the Didache, which was likely composed in the 1st century AD. The Didache also uses aion several times to imply “forever” for God’s glory. This usage is like several scriptural passages that refer to God’s glory, His rule, etc. in both the Old and New Testaments. A later, Byzantine work called the Etymologicum Magnum (c. 1100 AD) adds that aion is everlasting, aidios, and unending. With aion and eternity it is important to remember that there is a complicated relationship between two distinct things that may or may not be thematically connected within the concept of eternity. Different ancient sources use the word differently, disagree on the eternality of hell, and validate their arguments with scripture.
Let’s step back to Archaic Greece (c. 800-480 BC) where we find examples of the more concrete definitions at the beginning of John of Damascus’ list. Homer and Hesiod, writing in the 8th century BC, use aion strictly as a lifespan. Aion is almost synonymous with life, and often associated with the Greek word for “fate” which is moira. Aion is an allotment appropriate to whatever it takes. This implies a sense of “completion” to what one is given, and this foreshadows something that Aristotle argues. Interestingly, the poet Simonides (c. 556-468 BC) also associates fate and aion in Fragment 984, where he uses aion to refer to the allotment of the gods, contrasting with the bios of people. Gradually bios replaces aion as the word for human life, and aion itself begins to be used more philosophically and abstractly.
Later poets and pre-Socratics are the ones to broaden the use of aion from simply life/fate to more abstract ideas. The poet Pindar (518 - c. 438 BC) uses the word referring to the psyche (another loaded word) of a person, and he again emphasizes the “fated allotment” of aion by calling it morsimos (destined). The Pre-Socratic Empedocles (c. 492-432 BC) keeps the connections with life, but in Fragment B16 he refers to the whole life of the universe as aion. Another Pre-Socratic, Heraclitus (c. 540 - c. 480 BC) refers to aion as a child playing a game. Here aion begins to mean the succeeding ages, and more importantly the life of the universe. Heraclitus also refers to his arche fire as aeizwon, or everliving. This word might be considered etymologically linked with aion if one accepts Aristotle’s etymology from aei on. Nevertheless, it conveys a similar meaning to the later definition of aion as everlasting. As Greek philosophy progressed under the Pre-Socratics and after Socrates, it demythologized physics while at the same time it used suggestive words like aion and aeizwon to describe reality. These words have more qualitative and literary rather than a quantitative meaning. Another example of this blurring between qualitative and quantitative, or mythology and physics might be the style of Plato’s (428/7 - 348/7 BC) dialogues. While he discounts myth he is at the same time using mythical tropes, styles, and words in his “poetic prose” to make positive claims about how the world works. At this stage it becomes difficult to quantify aion in philosophical circles.
For theatre, Aeschylus (525/4 - 456/5 BC) uses aion as life-long for humans, but unending for gods. By the time of the comic poets, it becomes clear that aion is a poetic word meaning life reserved for more solemn media like tragedy and epic. However, the word further branches out in meaning in other contexts. Keizer (39) implies that it could mean simply “for all time” in common usage, especially in the orators Isocrates (436-338 BC) and Demosthenes (384-322 BC). Whether “for all time” can mean eternity is a problem to which we will return.
Miscellaneous Greek authors use aion differently to mean an approximation of eternity. On pages 53-54 Keizer notes how Diodorus Siculus, writing in the mid 1st century BC, describes the eternity of the Egyptians. Diodorus sometimes uses the word to mean something like "for all time", but in an endless, undefined way. In 126.96.36.199 he says, “One group (of natural philosophers and historians), which takes the position that the universe (kosmos) is unbegotten and undecaying, has declared that also the race (genos) of men exists from aion, their generation (genesis) never having got a beginning.” Clearly, Diodorus is saying that some philosophers and historians think that there was no beginning to the universe, implying that it is eternal, with an infinite past. Stoics beginning in the 3rd century BC would play on this notion as well with their endless but cyclical notions of ekpyrosis. Each age is destroyed by a cosmic conflagration and a new one is born without end. By this stage in thinking, the meaning of aion has transitioned to endless time, still retaining in certain contexts an association with life. This attachment of aion to life never quite leaves the word, even in its transformation under Plato (428/7 - 348/7 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC).
Plato revolutionizes the word. He turns it into an adjective and sometimes uses aion and aidios interchangeably. Some claim that the Greeks only refer to the gods as aidios and mortals as aionios, but this is seemingly not true based on an analysis of Plato’s dialogues. Some disagreement does remain because of the dual descriptions of the gods as aionic and aidiotic. For instance, in his Laws 904a9-gods are aionic, but elsewhere in his writings they are aidiotic as in the Timaeus 37c. Aion here seems to refer to the basic meaning of “the allotted life” or perhaps here in a more metaphysical sense of “one’s allotment in existence”. However, it is applied to the eternal gods. The word under Plato takes on a more religious and less defined meaning.
Additionally, in Timaeus 37d Plato famously calls time a moving image of eternity. This implies that time, often associated with aion, and eternity are separate, just like the world of the Forms of the Demiurge/Creator and the created universe are different. Confusingly, Plato also calls the created universe eternal (aidios) in 37d. Commentary on this would be unfruitful to this article, resulting in a digressive and perhaps contentious interpretation of Plato. Suffice to say many have claimed that Plato created a duality but made a mysterious connection with the dual worlds that he describes. Plato declares that the world of Forms impinges through a “receptacle” in the Timaeus, but much was left for Western Civilization to decipher. Aristotle tries.
With Aristotle’s writings comes an attempted answer to the confusion left in Plato, bridging this infinite gap between the world and the World of Forms. It is in Aristotle that we find associations between aion and apeiron, which means “boundless, infinite”. This hearkens back to Anaximander’s (610-546 BC) arche, but it is also Aristotle attempting to find a solution to the ultimate problem of Plato: How is the finite, material, time-bound world connected with (and an image of) the infinite, eternal, and immaterial world? Aristotle perhaps answers by saying that the connection, or at least the image (aion) itself is boundless/infinite. However, the word apeiron might literally mean something like “untested, unanswered, or unmeasurable”, and perhaps this just further complicates the question of the gap.
Confusingly, Aristotle also constantly paints the concept of aion with another loaded word from his philosophy: telos, or “end”. Aion has an end to Aristotle. How can it be boundless and have an end? The answer must stretch what Aristotle meant by telos. Telos does not mean “end” so much as it means a goal to which all things strive. The ultimate telos is the Prime Mover to Aristotle, representing pure activity/motion, “thought thinking itself”, etc. The Prime Mover himself is eternal, but he is also the ultimate end.
This connection between aion and apeiron leads to the confusion on the meaning of the word today since Aristotle also says that aion involves an entirety and has a telos. How can something that is undefined have an end? These seem to be two competing notions for what the word aion means, and they both seem to be accurate. Later we will see that the equivalent Hebrew word for aion also implies a sense of endlessness and boundlessness. This problem of end and infinity is not new to Aristotle. Plato could not solve how immaterial, eternal forms interacted with the world of change and multiplicity. As mentioned above, he vaguely refers to a receptacle. Aristotle likewise had difficulty answering how the Unmoved Mover (or 47/55 Unmoved Movers, depending on the passage) ends the infinite regress and allows movement. He resorts to merely saying that the Prime Mover is eternally in motion. On such lofty speculations there is usually a breaking point. It is like trying to encompass infinity without referring to it as a mathematical trend. Technically one could just keep writing numbers ad infinitum, but this is physically and temporally impossible. There is no end to the list. Later in Western philosophy Descartes (1596-1650 AD) likewise had a similar “interaction” problem. How does the mind interact with the body, if one is immaterial and the other is material? This sort of problem without a solution comes with any dualism, and we see both Aristotle and Plato trying to bridge their gap with the use of the word aion. This bewilderment as to when or how the two worlds converge leads to the disagreement between Universalists and Traditionalists on the meaning of aion. Universalists will emphasize the telos part of the word, which seems to imply an end. Traditionalists will emphasize the apeiron aspect of the word, implying endlessness and eternity. Both are right, but a deeper meaning should be teased out of the word that encompasses both telos and apeiron. Such a paradox is open to interpretation.
Continuing on from Aristotle, the use of the word aion to refer to something infinite/boundless is later used somewhat frequently by Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) and other Stoics (Keizer 94ff.). Additionally, Philolaus (a 5th century BC Pythagorean although the date and the fragment referenced are disputed) and Diodorus Siculus use the phrase “from aions” in ways that tie it to infinity/apeiron. The Septuagint uses this same phrase ex aiones 5 times, implying something like “from an ‘infinite’ OR ‘undefined/boundless’” number of ages back. We will return to the Septuagint, but notice how the phrase can mean different things to different people (infinite time vs. an undefined, large amount of time). Although both infinity and apeiron are associated with aion, apeiron is not a synonym for infinity. It is merely related in meaning like the word eternal is related to the word endless.
Keizer ultimately concludes that Aristotle does use aion for the transcendent, although it is always associated with life and an end (telos). This occurs in De Caelo, where Aristotle is criticizing some of the conceptions of Plato's Timaeus with regards to the creation of an everlasting universe. Aristotle argues it cannot be "unchanging" as the word aidios would imply. Keizer says, “To conclude, as observed by Aristotle in De Caelo I.9, aion describes the complete life-and-time of every person. Analogously, according to Aristotle, aion “divinely” describes the immortal and divine, complete life-and-time of the cosmos.” In Metaphysics XII (1072b), Aristotle says that “life and aion continuous and everlasting belong to god, for that is what god is”. He also thinks that the cosmos are eternal, but this predicament of the “eternality” of the universe has always bothered Western philosophers and scientists for the same reasons it is difficult to define aion. Is the universe time-bound or is time even real?
Keizer concludes that Aion is a whole, not a part. It is a unity, either in the form of a human life or the universe. To humans it can appear infinite. Some authors clearly use it to mean infinite time or time going boundlessly into the future or past. Although one could argue that there is a clear evolution from small (life), to big (lifetime/age) to bigger (eternity) in the meaning of aion, Keizer explicitly denies this (57). Others such as Hanson also vehemently deny that Aristotle used the word as “eternity”. It is safer to say instead that in aion there is life, time, and entirety. It is holistic. Depending on one’s philosophical disposition, the “whole of time/reality” can mean eternity or not. It all depends on whether one thinks “a whole/entirety” demands a hard end.
Conclusions of the section:
- Aion starts with a meaning of “alloted life” and slowly accumulates connotations with more abstract notions of ages, times, and boundlessness.
- Aion at its core means life, possibly from aei on (“always being” in Aristotle 279a27).
- Aion continues to carry the connotation of “age” through the Christian Era, but it adopts more meanings implying limitless time as well.
- Aion can relate to either the divine or the mortal by the time of Plato/Aristotle, but it usually refers to the mortal realm.
- Aion can mean something like “for all time”, “all of time”, etc. by the time of the Hellenistic Age (323-31 BC). It is not a part but a whole.
- Aion implies an end (telos), but it also implies boundless (apeiron).
- At this point one could interpret aion to mean “eternal”, but one could argue philosophically the word might be time-bound and eternity should transcend time
- By the early-mid Christian Era (after the New Testament), the word meant eternity but it is left unclear what it meant to the New Testament authors. The meaning is dependent on the context, as well as the interpretation of the reader.
Olam and Hebrew Conceptions of Time in the Old Testament and Septuagint
This brings us to the Septuagint, which was most likely translated from the 3rd to the 2nd century BC. Here, we find aion used frequently. Keizer notes that aion is used by the Septuagint translators 430/447 times that olam is used in the Masoretic Text, including times when the Septuagint is seemingly missing passages that are in the MT. It is often claimed that the Hebrews have no conception (or at least word) for eternity. This is true in one sense; they do not have a word for the timeless eternity of the Greeks and modern man. In another sense, however, this is an unfair statement. Olam might not mean timeless eternity, but it might mean boundless time. Keizer notes that there are three main components to Olam: 1) it bears relation to life, 2) it is involved with time, and 3) it is projected into the future and past (147). The limit for olam is not always known; it is hidden and unmeasurable to humans. This compares to Aristotle’s association of aion with apeiron. Again, whether this meets the requirements of one’s personal conception of “eternity” as applied to Heaven/Hell is subjective. At this juncture we have discussed the whirlwind of meanings of aion in Greek, carelessly flipping across the centuries in a couple paragraphs. Next it will be useful to look at the meaning of the word olam and more Hebraic conceptions of time.
The Hebrews have a different worldview than the Greeks. According to Thorleif Boman, “To the Hebrews time worked much more like a rhythm,” (see Boman 133ff.). Another way to express this is that to the Hebrews, time was more subjective and experiential. It was not an abstraction as it was to the Greeks, but lived. Ultimately Boman concludes that the Hebrews experience reality through activity (think of the meaning of the tetragrammaton), whereas the Greeks experience reality more through knowledge. One is subjective and experienced, and the other is objective and abstract. One is intimate; the other is distant. One is qualitative; the other is quantitative. To prove this Boman goes through the Hebrew language and systematically compares Greek and the Hebrew thought, focusing on language. Even without fully accepting Boman’s conclusions, this difference between worldviews is key. It is possible that aion represents the more “Hebrew” way of thinking about eternity.
Boman spends much of the book discussing the different ways of expressing knowledge between the Greeks and the Hebrews. He claims that the Greeks view knowledge as more static, including big ideas such as Being. It is something to be dispassionately defined, categorized, and known rather than truly experienced. One can see this is in the “dualistic” Plato and his thoughts concerning the Forms that are immutable, immaterial, and accessed only through philosophy. Likewise one can see this is the dry, logical prose of Aristotle. Meanwhile, Hebrew uses dynamic words of action/deed for words of being (and eternity). Hebrews only use olam for eternity, but Greeks distinguish between aion (subjective) and aidios (objective and static), favoring the latter as more “Formal”. Boman showcases his point with something of a case study between the Greek word logos and the Hebrew word dabhar (65-69). Though there is a formal similarity in denotation, there is a difference in connotation. Dabhar is a “power-laden word”, and “it is characteristic of the Hebrews that their words effect and of the Greeks that the word is. Eternity also has different connotations depending on which culture is doing the diction. Aion is the subjective, active, effect, but there might be another side to eternity that is static, that simply “is”.
It is worthwhile to note also that God is referred to as olam/aionios in the Old Testament on different occasions. In Genesis 21:33 God is referred to as God olam, or aionios, "God of the ages", or all time. It cannot be claimed that the Hebrews viewed their God as “limited” per se. God is surely God forever, but “forever” can mean both timeless and experienced in an ongoing fashion. Ultimately, in a section on olam from pages 151-154, Boman concludes that “boundless time” should be used rather than a word like “eternity”. To modern ears it sounds like a paradox, but logically this does not need to be so. As we also noted in Plato and Aristotle, aion can apply to the divine in certain circumstances. Keizer also notes repeated instances of an "aionic God" used especially in the prophets in the Septuagint (178ff.).
Still, it would be rash to conclude that aion must mean eternity, or that boundlessness is always a part of the word. Keizer claims the opposite (250-251). It is only later that the word aion comes to mean eternity without qualification, or eternity in the static Greek conception of eternity. Aion could mean boundless time, but not “eternity”. Even in the early Christian Era, Aions were sometimes viewed just as ages and as cycles, such as in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, written c. 175-185 AD where he describes the use of the word with the Gnostics. Meanings expanded into life force/soul, age, world age, world soul, etc., but there is the ongoing danger of Gnosticism for Christian interpretations since gnosticism is heretical/unorthodox. Aion in the age of the New Testament and later could mean both time-bound ages and boundless time, depending on the context. The problem of whether aion can mean eternity remains, but a simple answer is that it means simply boundless time. If one can imagine eternity as boundless time, then the question is solved. If not, the question is ongoing like the word itself.
This section has been more interpretive with regards to Hebrew and Greek ways of thinking. Without writing much more, these have to be generalizations. However, the possibility that there can be two ways of thinking about time in the ancient world, and that the Hebrews might have favored one and the Greeks might have favored another, should be remembered for the context of the New Testament which was written in the context of both worlds. We live and think in the world through subjectivity and objectivity, or through experience and abstraction. We must consider both perspectives when thinking about eternity. How one understands these two sides, or whether one thinks both sides are needed for a definition of eternity, is important. Nevertheless, one must remember in such discussions that we are dealing with the ancient world, and we should avoid anachronistic claims.
Conclusions of the Section:
- Olam and Aion are almost interchangeable for the translators of the Septuagint.
- The Hebrews tended to think of the world (and time) as more dynamic, more on a spectrum of activity, and as experiential. The Greeks tended to think of the world and time as static ideas, emphasizing objectivity and knowledge.
- Olam and Aion can mean something like “boundless time” and seem more subjective than objective
- One could see in the Greek and Hebrew differences the reasons for at least two forms of eternity: aidios is the cold, objective, “outside of time” type of eternity. Olam/aion is the subjective, experiential eternity that is ongoing, boundless, and rhythmic/cyclic.
Problems with “Eternity”
We must now briefly ask the question at the heart of this whole affair: The big question we will focus on in the debate is whether eternity is boundless time (aion) or timeless (not aion). “Time” is experienced by creation and can be broadened to mean “subjective experience” (aion/olam). Timeless would mean objective, 3rd person knowledge and “outside of time” (aidios in Greek). Another way to phrase it would be that aion/olam imply movement/rhythm, whereas aidios means immutability in some sense. Boman sees these distinctions increasingly as the issue of dynamic vs. static modes of expressing reality. The Hebrew way of thinking is dynamic, whereas the Greek is static. If we are to tentatively apply the terms of our article, dynamic “eternity” is aion/olam, while static eternity is aidios/timeless eternity. As Boman concludes, both are reasonable and necessary. Boman brings in the quantum theoretical example of an atom, and how it is both a static thing (particle), and a dynamic thing (a wave) at the same time. Wave particle duality is at the center of modern-day physics; they seem to contradict each other, but it is more proper to say that the two “natures” of reality, particle and wave, are mutually complementary.
One should also consider the “eternality” of cycles-can they be eternal, or at least never-ending? In book VIII of his Physics (252b-253a1), Aristotle concludes that there was never a time when there was no motion, and motion will always continue. This is a way of saying that reality is eternal. Soon after he uses an image of plucking a string continuously. He questions whether notes of the string played are the “same” or different. Ultimately, however, Aristotle says there is nothing to prevent some motion (think change) from being continuous and eternal (using the word aidios-Aristotle returns to discuss the cyclical motion in more detail from 262b26-265a10). This is reminiscent of the endless cycles of ancient Greek religion and philosophy, notably the Stoics and the various “transmigration of souls” stories from Orphic religion (the first mention of Orphic beliefs is in 6th century BC poetry) to Plato. To the Greeks, this might have meant eternity (aidios), but once again with a qualification on the term for the modern reader.
A well-known Catholic theologian of the 20th century offers some insight into how Christians, early and later, have thought about eternity. Hans Urs von Balthasaar wrote a book entitled Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?: With a Short Discourse on Hell. It is partially available in preview (as of the time of this writing) via Google Books. In it he has a chapter about the eternity of Hell. Following is a brief summary of his thoughts. Other summaries of Christian thoughts about eternity are available on the web (e.g. here which goes into a little more philosophical rather than theological depth). The purpose of staying within the Christian tradition along with Balthasar is to see if there have ever been any different conceptions that match our subjective vs. objective distinction.
Thomas Aquinas (1224/5 - 1274 AD) gives a somewhat “Hebraic” thinking to the eternity of Hell. Balthasar quotes the Summa I, q 10, a 3 ad 2: “In Hell, there is no true eternity, but rather time”. In other words, Aquinas emphasizes the endlessness of Hell, but he juxtaposes the “eternity” of Hell with the eternity of God, which is different. It is also worthwhile to note that to Aquinas, the changing punishments of Hell, being endless, have no end. There is no reconciliation or apokatastasis in Thomas Aquinas. Heavenly eternity for Aquinas is described by the Latin phrases nunc stans, or tota simul possessio. Balthasar correctly observes Aquinas is following Boethius (c. 475 - c. 525 AD) and Aristotle. These are the only ways that we can conceive of Heavenly eternity, being ourselves within the context of time-it as an “immovable now”. This is not a definition, but an approximation. According to this view humans are unable to truly comprehend eternity.
Boethius in Book V Prose 6 tackles this problem while discussing the related problem of Providence and free will, and some quotes from the section will clarify what he means by the differences of eternity:
“…Let us now consider as far as is lawful the nature of the Divine Being…God is eternal…Eternity is the whole, perfect, and simultaneous possession of endless life…therefore, whatever is subject to the condition of time, even that which-as Aristotle conceived the world to be-has no beginning and will have no end in a life coextensive with the infinity of time, is such that it cannot rightly be thought eternal. For it does not comprehend and include the whole of infinite life all at once, since it does not embrace the future which is yet to come. Therefore, only that which comprehends and possesses the whole plenitude of endless life together…can justly be called eternal…For it is one thing to live an endless life, which is what Plato ascribed to the world, and another for the whole of unending life to be embraced all at once as present…Therefore if we wish to call things by their proper names, we should follow Plato in saying that God indeed is eternal, but the world is perpetual.
Boethius emphasizes God’s divine simplicity to explain how God “lives in the eternal present” without contradiction. There seems to be a clear distinction between eternity and endlessness both in the Greek and Christian tradition, but the Christians, in emphasizing God’s transcendence and simplicity, also allude to the fact that we are limited in our knowledge. Further, their interpretations of eternity are philosophical and not binding on the reader. Subjective judgment need not carry proof.
In a similar vein, Balthasar quotes the modern scholar Otto Betz, from his book Eschatology in Religious Instruction, and that quotation sheds more light on the different “eternities”:
“It is terminologically misleading to speak of the eternity of Hell. Eternity, in the strict sense, applies only to God, who stands above time and is Lord over time. A created being can participate in God’s eternity if it receives from God a share in His glory. The damned, by contrast, is not eternal, nor does God grant him a share in glory. His lot is another form of being, which is an expression of his despair and hopelessness: endlessness, everlastingness. Thus sin does not live eternally, but fixates man in such a way that he is trapped in an unchangeable rigidity that no longer desires conversion and no longer seeks forgiveness.”
One does not have to accept the conclusion of Aquinas, Boethius, or Betz that there are two different types of “eternity”, but it does provide a valid, dualistic answer to the multifaceted perception of eternity. A Universalist can deny that there are different faces to true eternity, while a Traditionalist can deny the Universalist position.
That there are different types of eternity in the Christian worldview largely comes from Augustine (354-430 AD), who elaborates different types of eternity. Augustine was influenced by Porphyry’s (c. 234 - c. 305 AD) threefold conception of man, namely that man is composed of body, imagination, and mind. These three parts are listed in ascending order, meaning that the realm of Heaven for Porphyry and Augustine is the mind/spirit. Porphyry of course is following the different divisions of Plato’s metaphysics and his Simile of the Line. “True” eternity of Heaven is of the mind, whereas the eternity of Hell is of the imagination. Hell, to Augustine, was a state, and not a place, although Balthasar notes instances where Augustine is inconsistent in this regard. What we have, then, are Christian minds conceiving of eternity as both one and multifaceted. Aion and Aidios neatly fit into the eternity of Hell and the eternity of Heaven described (although remember the aionic life of Matthew 25:46).
Ultimately, Balthasar concludes that God must in some way be beyond human conceptions of time/eternity, following the reasoning of Aquinas. Balthasar quotes Irenaeus’ Against Heresies II. 28.3:
“God must always be the greater, going above and beyond everything, and not only in this world but also in the future one, so that he might always remain the Teacher, while man, as the pupil, might always learn from God. Does not the apostle, too, say that, when everything else will have passed away, these three alone will endure: faith, hope, and love? For our faith in our teacher remains unshakable forever, he that gives us the certainty that he is the only true God, that we truly love him forever because he is the sole Father and that we may hope to receive again still more from God and learn from him because He is the Good and possesses inexhaustible riches and a kingdom without end and unbounded teachings.”
Gregory of Nyssa also follows this train of thought and, as Balthasar states, he, “equates everlasting rest in God with everlasting motion through Him and toward Him.” Balthasar also concludes that there is no Christian answer to the notion of aions of the Gnostics, and that eternity is not the “opposite of time”. These dualisms are a product, largely, of Greek philosophy, especially Platonic, Aristotelian, and NeoPlatonic philosophy. God transcends and encompasses all things, so these are purely false dualisms. They are contradictions because we cannot understand the deeper meaning, whatever that might be. God is not just timeless, but his time is endless. We are left with an approximation, an image of what we think eternity must be, like a child contemplating the apeiron.
Balthasar ends his chapter with a reflection on the differences between eternity of life and “eternity” of death:
Thus-and nothing more was to be shown here-no greater contrast can be imagined than that between the things respectively designated as eternity in eternal life and in “eternal” death. The former is the highest-possible development of all duration within the absolute vitality of God; the latter is complete withdrawal to the point of shriveling into a disconsolate and immovable now. And in the former is contained every opportunity for the consummate development of man-not just of his contemplative, but also of his active side-whereas in Hell absolutely nothing more can be contemplated or done.”
This is yet another dualism. On one side is the ultimate Aristotelian telos of man into pure, active acceptance with God; on the other is the frozen, passive despair of mankind not reaching this end. In a way, both are timeless, but both are also full of experience.
Conclusions of the Section:
- The word “eternity” can have multifaceted meanings. It is important to understand how a Hebrew might interpret the idea and how a Greek might within the context of the New Testament.
- These meanings might contradict each other, but they still are part of a whole idea.
- The “eternity” of Hell might be one side of the meaning of eternity, whereas the eternity of Heaven might be the other.
- We can only understand eternity in a limited fashion.
- God transcends and encompasses all, and Life with/through Him is the ultimate goal for humankind. Hell is the correlating opposite.
Aion and Aidios
A Greek word that is frequently compared with aion is Aidios. Universalists and others argue that aidios is the true Greek word for eternity, and Hell is always described with the word aion, not aidios. There is the important exception in Jude 1:6 for the chains of the angels. Still, the fire in verse 7 for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah is aionic. Traditionalists will point out that there is aidiotic punishment described for the angels, and Universalists will point out that for the humans it is still listed as aionic. This distinction could hearken back to Greek philosophy’s general pattern to use aidios for divine and aionic for the universe, but, as we mentioned, Plato and Aristotle do not seem to keep this dichotomy with perfect consistency. At the very least, the lines are blurred.
It is true that “Hell” is never described as aidios by Jesus, but the claim that aion cannot mean eternity is open to discussion. Above we have argued that aion follows the more dynamic and experiential Hebrew way of thinking, and aidios follows the more static and abstract Greek way. In this brief section we will look more deeply into a comparison of the two words. One could argue they are a dualism, or that only one can be correct. Another could argue that they are two sides of the same concept. Finding a link between the two worlds stretched the minds of the Greeks, and it was only partially worked out by the time of the New Testament.
For instance, Plotinus (c. 205-270 AD), the founder of Neoplatonism, asserts a deep relationship between aion and aidios, explaining that aion has its “being in the aidiotic” in Ennead 3.7.1. Throughout he validates what we said above about aion. He makes the claim that aion is a type of eternity, and he defines it as, “Life in repose, unchanging, self-identical, always endlessly complete,” in 3.7.11. He relates it to his god (nous, or divine mind, which is his 2nd hypostasis) in 3.7.5 by saying it is “God made manifest”. In that same passage he keeps aion’s connections with life, calling it “Life limitless in the full sense of being all the life there is.” Aion then is life, a type of eternity, and a “partless end (telos-3.7.3)”, consistent with what we find in other Greek philosophers. Perhaps the clearest statement he makes about the two words together, however, is in 3.7.5 where he says, “aidios is the corresponding state arising from the (divine) substratum and inherent in it; Aion is that substratum carrying that state in manifestation.” Aion, then, is the perceivable act of aidios. In this way Plotinus mirrors Plato’s description of the “moving image of eternity”. This fits neatly into Plotinus’ theories on emanations from The One, the ultimate source and 1st hypostasis, to nous, the 2nd hypostasis which actualizes reality. Plotinus then seemingly subjugates aion to a lesser form of existence. Significantly, Plotinus does not call his transcendent 1st hypostasis, The One, aionic. The One is beyond words. However, a descent and return from the One is implied in the emanations of Plotinus. On some level all share the same existence, and thus we all share in the One and in both aidios/aion, but the explicit link Plotinus makes is murky.
There is some deep connection between the two words, but dualistic Greek philosophy describes this association disparately, with no final solution by the time of the New Testament. Plotinus’ statements are significant, but he is writing well over a hundred years after the authors of the New Testament. Relying on him too heavily presents the same anachronistic problem as defining aion as eternity because some Christians after 200 AD did. Plotinus does offer one final clue about the different meanings of the two words. He refers to the universal system as “the aidiotic circuit of heaven” in 3.2.3 and the “aidiotic cosmos” in 3.3.6. Elsewhere he describes the universe as living (and hence aionic), but in these passages he is describing the mechanical operation only. In 3.2.3 for instance, in context he is saying that Souls (3rd hypostasis) infuse life into the aidiotic circuit of heaven.
It seems that aion is the subjective side, while aidios the objective. Aion is the experience, and aidios is the abstraction. Aion explains the process of eternity. Time is a process always unfolding, but there is also a "whole of time", uniting the paradox explained above between telos and apeiron. A process can be everlasting (hence "aionic life"-there are also many verses throughout the bible, like 2 Peter 3:18, where the glory of Christ or God will be “now and to the day of aions”). Boman makes use of a metaphor of a melody when discussing the Hebrew conception of time, and this is instructive for the word aion and aidios. One can perform the song and think of it in terms of beginning, middle, and end. However, once completed, the song still exists. The experience is not forgotten, the song can be sung again, even endlessly. Finally, the form, the sheet music, is the representation that is timeless. Sometimes the discussion about time, eternity, and aions misses the point that there are different perspectives about all three.
There are poetic ways to express this idea, each paradoxical but ultimately true. Think of the infinity and measurability of a circle, or movement, or calculus. A circle is at the same time an unmoving shape, but it has the potential to be a wheel. Think of the notion of bounded and unbounded infinity in modern mathematics. There are no clean answers here, nor were there in the time of the Greeks. This is what necessitated the attempted synthesis of Greek philosophy.
There was always the struggle in Greek philosophy between subjective and temporal becoming (aion, Heraclitus) and static, abstract Being (Aidios, Parmenides). Plato ultimately favors Parmenides’ Being, having lasting implications for the West. This is the point of Boman, that the Greeks viewed things through Being rather than becoming/movement like the Hebrews or Heraclitus. Both worlds of Being and becoming find a rough synthesis in Plato and Aristotle, who favor the former, but in reality both becoming and Being ultimately exist within a context of each other. This context concerns the problems Aristotle obsesses over, such as motion in Physics being eternal. The mechanism for this juxtaposed connection was mysteriously described by Plato by a receptacle in his Timaeus. It is through the receptacle that Being "causes" becoming eternally. The cycle does not have to end, as Being is Aidios, so aions continue in a never-ending cycle that is apeiron (also see Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History which is available for cheap online). Plato applies aion to the universe, as a living being in Timaeus 37d, meaning eternity. It is aionic and cyclical, and it is the process of the becoming and Being of all things. As mentioned above, Aristotle also uses aion to mean something like boundless cycles, and he also attempts to define the connection between the world of changing becoming and static Being. Aion seems to be used at times when the connection between the two is unclear, hence the meaning is paradoxical and (perhaps) inconsistent. However, to delve more deeply into the intricacies of Plato, Aristotle, and Greek philosophy is the subject of thousands of years of thinkers, not a small article on the meaning of aion, so we will move on.
Aion is the measurable process that can continue and renew in eternity (saecula saeculorum, aeon of aeons, etc.). Aidios is the unmeasurable divine source of things in which it "fits”. Notions of measurable time are meaningful in one (aion), but not in the other (aidios). With this construction one can discuss the "eternal" universe in terms of measurable, sometimes boundless time components, discuss the cycle of eternity, and discuss eternity as beyond both. This is not a perfect unity, but at the base level of all profound matters of philosophy one runs into assumptions, contradictions, and the limitations of human language to express the ineffable. These are simply words to express different contexts, one human and material, the other divine. The eternity of humans might not be comparable to the eternity of God, but souls dwell in Heaven.
Ultimately eternity must have many attributes that are described by a combination of aidios, aionios, and perhaps even other words. It is worth noting again that the Hebrews do not have a comparable word for aidios. For explanation, see the section on olam and Greek/Hebrew thinking above. Aidios initially means something like immovable now/nunc stans (see section above on Problems of Eternity), and aion was a process, but could be everlasting. Another way of saying this is simply that aion, as part of a whole view of eternity/time, is the content of aidios. Aidios is timeless, and aion can mean endless time or experience.
Conclusions of the Section:
- “Hell” for humans is never described with a form of the word aidios. It is always aionic. However, in Jude 1:6 the angels who left their appropriate positions are in aidiotic chains, implying eternal Hell.
- Aionios and Aidios reflect the difference between Hebrew and Greek ways of thinking about boundless time and eternity respectively. It is also possible that it reflects the inner struggle of Greek thinking about ultimate truth and whether it is becoming/change/movement or Being/static knowledge. Plato and Aristotle favored the latter, having lasting implications for Western thought.
- In Greek philosophy there are many only partially resolved issues that make an uncontroversial definition of words like “eternity” and “Being” difficult, especially in the time of the New Testament.
Conclusion and Some Remaining Questions
Aion has many shades of meaning. It is a word that developed in meaning, with the last step (it meaning eternity) having lasting implications for the salvation of souls. The textbook definition of eternity for aion stands, but it must have some qualifications. It initially meant “life”, or “one’s allotment”, but it came to be used more abstractly to refer to an age, then endless ages. In the Septuagint it is used interchangeably with the Hebrew word olam, which means something like “boundless time”. Aion, along with olam, is a word that is personal, subjective, and involves time and experience. In this capacity it can mean one possible interpretation of “eternity”, but it cannot mean the other, objective, static, and timeless eternity of aidios. Aion can mean the former type of eternity, but it does not always. It depends on context, and people will interpret passages differently. People arguing about whether it means eternity or not are referring to eternity in two fundamentally different ways that may or may not be connected.
There are many more avenues and rabbit holes into which one can go. Again, this is not meant to be an exhaustive treatise; it cannot be. This is merely a summary of facts with some necessary interpretation of those facts. Although I have tried to be neutral and merely express possibilities, there are nevertheless many places about which the reader might disagree. The reader is firmly encouraged to further research the matter with some of the sources listed in the article which represent both sides. The reader is encouraged to take the bias of the writer into account.
The issue of what aion means is unresolved, and much has been left unsaid. Nothing has been said about the various theories of time, either scientific theories and questions about whether time even exists or philosophical theories like McTaggart’s about A and B series, etc. These are beyond the scope of this article and represent different disciplines. Each section above is worthy of volumes, and we have had to avoid questions leading to academic swamps. This paper did not delve into the uses of the word in the New Testament in any detail. To do so is inherently interpretive. This article also did not delve much into Origen’s or the gnostics’ use of the word. This would be a vast undertaking. Aion, at the time of Origen could mean something like eternity, but Origen himself viewed all punishments as aionic in the limited sense of the word; they were not eternal. Other Early Christians use it in the more “boundless” sense, like the writers of the Didache. Still, many dispute these definitions on various grounds, either through exegesis of individual scriptural passages or philosophical interpretations of “eternity”. Shortly after the writings of the New Testament the word began to mean simply “eternity”, but whether this was the uncontested case during the writing of the NT is up for debate, as is one’s theological position regarding the eternity of Hell.
There are numerous unanswered questions. It all comes down to how one interprets passages. For instance, in Matthew 12:32 the sin of blasphemy against the holy spirit is not forgiven in this age (aion) or the age to come. Do believers get access to the aion of life, while those condemned stay in their aion separated from God? Is one age measured within time, while the age of God is timeless? If aion’s meaning is tied to its object, can the aion of Life be true eternity and the aion of punishment only “a long time”? Some passages and philosophers suggest this, although aion usually has associations with time, but others do not. One can get creative with his or her analysis, but interpretations are difficult to prove. Neither the Universalist nor the Traditionalist can rely only on the meaning of the word aion to defend their position. The word can be utilized to mean both, specifically because it has a range of meaning that continues to evolve.
A couple of English examples might help illustrate part of the linguistic problem of defining aion. If I have not seen somebody in a long time, I might say, “I haven’t seen them in forever,” or, “I haven’t seen them for an eternity.” One is stranger, but both are equally ridiculous if taken literally. The words have meaning, but the philosophical definitions are garbled in popular usage. The New Testament is written in Koine Greek, and it is unclear whether one can overly analyze the word by earlier philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, or later ones like Plotinus. The bible is full of depth, but it was also meant to be accessible to the common person who might be ignorant of philosophy.
We have compared aion with other words dangerously pregnant with philosophical meanings: telos, apeiron, life, fate, and eternity. We have proposed that eternity has different faces, and one face need not be preferred over the other. In fact, by reflecting on the variegated meanings of the word eternity, one is able to come to a deeper understanding of the idea itself. Aion is one of those faces of “eternity”. This interpretation is by no means final. Plato might have simply called it an eikos mythos, or likely story. If one concludes thus then he/she must still conclude aion can mean endless time from the Hellenistic Age onwards and is associated with life, fate, and a completed whole. Aion is like the Greek word kosmos which originally meant the concrete order of things and has come to mean the whole order of the universe. The word itself is often conflated with the universe, as in modern English usage.
As one last example, think in terms of our cosmos. It is 15 Billion years old, and it had its beginning in the Big Bang. Some claim, however, that it is eternal; there was no true beginning. The beginning was just the end of another cycle, a “rebirth” after a previous “death” of a universe before. This ongoing process might be repeated if our universe were to collapse within itself, creating a “Big Crunch” which would rebound into another Big Bang. This process had no start and no end, but it is still a contained whole in the sense that it is reality. Alternately, as some scientists propose, the universe, with no beginning, will continue to expand eternally. This is reminiscent of the infinite regress problem of Aristotle which he ultimately “solved” with his “god”, the Prime, Unmoved Mover. These issues are overwhelming to truly comprehend. Is the Aion our universe? Yes. Is the Aion the Cycle? Yes. Is it boundless? Yes. Is it eternity? Maybe in one sense, but knowledge of eternity is beyond the human ken.
Not to discourage reflection and curiosity on the topic, on such unresolved controversial issues that drive us all to individual bias, I think Daniel 12:8-13 provides some insight into what we can or should know. Chapter 12 is an apocalyptic text about the resurrection of the dead in the age to come. Daniel says, “ ‘O my lord, what shall be the issue of these things?’ He said, ‘Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall purify themselves, and make themselves white, and be refined; but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand; but those who are wise shall understand…But go your way till the end; and you shall rest, and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of days.’”
Updated June 11, 2020