The Greek word “aion” (and its adjective “aionian”) is mostly translated “eternal,” “everlasting,” and for “ever” in the King James Version. However, some translations read “age-abiding,” “age-during,” or “eon,” as noted below. “Robert Young, author of the highly respected Young’s Analytical Concordance, in his literal translation of the Bible, always translates them as ‘age’ and never once as ‘everlasting,’ or ‘eternal.’”1
Old Testament (Greek Septuagint)
In History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution, Edward Beecher, D.D., pointed out:
The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament and was the Bible of the early church. The word aion occurs in it about four hundred times in every variety of combination. The adjective aionios derived from it, is used over one hundred times.…Aion denoted an age, great or small, so the adjective aionios expressed the idea pertaining to or belonging to the aion, whether great or small. But in every case this adjective derives its character and duration from the aion to which it refers.2
In the Septuagint the Greek word, aion, is used to translate the Hebrew word olam. Thus, if we want to get a sense of the N.T. meaning of aion, we need to understand the meaning of olam in the O.T. Numerous passages referring to olam show clearly it cannot mean “never-ending” in those texts. Note these few:
¨ Jonah was in the fish forever [olam]. But only until he left three days later (Jon. 1:17; 2:6).
¨ Sodom’s fiery judgment is eternal [olam]. But only until God returns them to their former state (Ez. 16:53-55; Ju. 7).
¨ A Moabite is forbidden to enter the Lord’s congregation forever [olam]. But only until the 10th generation. (De. 23:3).
¨ Hills are everlasting [olam]. But only until made low and the earth is burned up (Ge. 49:26; De. 33:15; Is. 40:4; 2Pe. 3:10).
¨ Mountains are everlasting [olam]. But only until they are scattered (Hab. 3:6).
¨ A slave serves his master forever [olam]. But only until death ends his servitude (Ex. 21:6).
¨ The Mosaic covenant is everlasting [olam]. But only until it vanishes away (Le. 24:8; He. 8:7-13).
¨ The Aaronic priesthood is everlasting [olam]. But only until the likeness of Melchizedek arises (Ex. 40:15; Nu. 25:13; He. 7:14-22).
¨ These “stones” are to be a memorial forever [olam]. Where are they now (Jos. 4:7)?
¨ The leprosy of Naaman shall cling forever [olam]. But only until his death, of course (2K. 5:27).
¨ God dwells in Solomon’s temple forever [olam]. But only until it is destroyed (2Ch. 7:16; 1K 8:13; 9:3).
¨ Animal sacrifices were to be offered forever [olam]. But only until ended by the work of Christ (2Ch. 2:4; He. 7:11-10:18).
¨ Circumcision was an everlasting [olam] covenant. But only until the new covenant (Ge. 17:9-13; 1Co. 7:19; Ga. 5:6).
¨ Israel’s judgment lasts forever [olam]. But only until the Spirit is poured out and God restores it (Is. 32:13-15).
¨ I will make you an eternal [olam] excellence. But only until many generations (Is. 60:15).
As we can see, olam does not mean “eternal” though it can last a very long time. Also, “forever and ever” is not an accurate translation. How can you add “ever” to “forever?” The literal translation is “for the eon [olam] and further.” This makes sense. The Concordant Version Old Testament is consistent here. Consider two examples:
¨ He [David] asked life from You; You will give it to him: Length of days for an eon [olam] and further (Ps. 21:4 CVOT).
¨ He has founded the earth on its bases. It shall never slip for
the eon [olam] and further (Ps. 104:5 CVOT).
Even passages that do not use the word olam, but signify unchanging, are not so when God is involved. Nothing can deter Him from achieving His purposes. For example:
¨ Israel’s affliction is incurable. But only until the Lord restores health and heals her wounds (Jer. 30:12, 17).
¨ Samaria’s wounds are incurable. But only until the Lord brings them back and restores them (Mic. 1:9; Ez. 16:53).
¨ Egypt and Elam will rise no more. But only until the Lord brings back their captives (Jer. 25:27; 49:39; Ez. 29:14).
¨ Moab is destroyed. But only until the Lord brings back the captives of Moab (Jer. 48:4, 42, 47).
Consider the N. T. use of aion. Does “eternity” make any sense in the following passages? To make my point unmistakable, I have translated the Greek word aion with the English word “eternity.”
¨ What will be the sign…of the end of the eternity (Mt. 24:3)?
¨ I am with you…to the end of the eternity (Mt. 28:20).
¨ The sons of this eternity are more shrewd (Lu. 16:8).
¨ The sons of this eternity marry (Lu. 20:34).
¨ Worthy to attain that eternity (Lu. 20:35).
¨ Since the eternity began (Jn. 9:32; Ac. 3:21).
¨ Conformed to this eternity (Ro. 12:2).
¨ Mystery kept secret since the eternity began but now made manifest (Ro. 16:25-26).
¨ Where is the disputer of this eternity (1Co. 1:20)?
¨ Wisdom of this eternity, nor of the rulers of this eternity…ordained before the eternities…which none of the rulers of this eternity… (1Co. 2:6-8)
¨ Wise in this eternity (1Co. 3:18).
¨ Upon whom the ends of the eternities have come.
¨ God of this eternity has blinded (2Co. 4:4).
¨ Deliver us from this present evil eternity (Ga. 1:4).
¨ Not only in this eternity but also in that which is to come (Ep. 1:21).
¨ Walked according to the eternity of this world (Ep. 2:2).
¨ In the eternities to come (Ep. 2:7).
¨ From the beginnings of the eternities (Ep. 3:9).
¨ Hidden from eternities…but now…revealed (Col. 1:26).
¨ Loved this present eternity (2Ti. 4:10).
¨ Receive him for eternity (Ph.1:15). Does this mean forever or only until Onesimus dies?
¨ Powers of the eternity to come (He. 6:5).
¨ At the end of the eternities (He. 9:26).
¨ We understand the eternities have been prepared by a saying of God (He. 11:3).
How can we say…
¨ “Before eternity” or “eternity began”? Eternity has no beginning (Jn. 9:32; Ac. 3:21; 1Co. 2:7; Ep. 3:9).
¨ “Present eternity,” “eternity to come,” and “end of eternity?” Eternity transcends time. Only God is eternal (Mt. 24:3; 28:20; 1Co. 10:11; 2Ti. 4:10; He. 6:5; 9:26).
¨ “This eternity,” “that eternity,” or “eternities”? There is only one eternity (Lu. 16:8; 20:34-35; Ro. 12:2; 1Co. 1:20; 2:6-8; 3:18; 10:11; 2Co. 4:4; Ga. 1:4; Ep. 1:21; 2:2, 7; 3:9; Col. 1:26; 2Ti. 4:10; He. 11:3).
¨ “Eternal secret” if the secret is revealed? (Ro. 16:25-26; Col. 1:26). It is no longer a “secret” at that point.
¨ Onesimus will be Philemon’s slave for eternity? Is he still his slave (Phil. 1:15)?
Scores of passages demonstrate that aion is of limited duration. In his book God’s Methods with Man, G. Campbell Morgan (scholar, associate of D.L. Moody, and a highly respected expositor of Scripture), said:
Let me say to Bible students that we must be very careful how we use the word “eternity.” We have fallen into great error in our constant use of that word. There is no word in the whole Book of God corresponding with our “eternal,” which, as commonly used among us, means absolutely without end. The strongest Scripture word used with reference to the existence of God, is—“unto the ages of the ages,” which does not literally mean eternally.3
In his Word Studies in the New Testament, Marvin Vincent, D.D., Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature at Union Theological Seminary, New York, explained:
Aion, transliterated aeon, is a period of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself. Aristotle (peri ouravou, i. 9, 15) said, “The period which includes the whole time of one’s life is called the aeon of each one.” Hence, it often means the life of a man, as in Homer, where one’s life (aion) is said to leave him or to consume away (Il v.685; Od v.160). It is not, however, limited to human life. It signifies any period in the course of the millennium, the mythological period before the beginnings of history. The word has not “a stationary and mechanical value” (De Quincey). It does not mean a period of a fixed length for all cases. There are as many aeons as entities, the respective durations of which are fixed by the normal conditions of the several entities. There is one aeon of a human life, another of the life of a nation, another of a crow’s life, another of an oak’s life. The length of the aeon depends on the subject to which it is attached.…The adjective aionious in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting. They may acquire that sense by their connotation….Aionios means “enduring through” or “pertaining to a period of time.” Both the noun and the adjective are applied to limited periods….Out of the 150 instances in LXX, [Greek Old Testament] four-fifths imply limited duration. For a few instances, see Gen. xlviii. 4; Num. x. 8; xv. 15; Prov. xxii. 28; Jonah ii.6; Hab. iii. 6; Isa lxi. 17.4
So what if the Greek word aion has been erroneously translated “eternal” instead of “age”? What does that have to do with everlasting punishment? It has everything to do with it, since one of the key texts used in defense of the Augustinian view of hell is Mt. 25:46: “And these will go away into everlasting [aionian] punishment.” If this passage as translated here is accurate, then I would have to admit the Bible teaches that punishment is forever. But what if it is not? What if aion does not mean “everlasting”? What would that do to the “biblical support” of an infinite hell? It would negate the use of any verses resting on the word aion used in its defense.
Consider how the following translations word this phrase:
¨ Young’s Literal Translation: “punishment age-during.”
¨ Rotherham Translation: “age-abiding correction.”
¨ Weymouth Translation: “punishment of the ages.”
¨ Concordant Literal Translation: “chastening eonian.”
These reputable translations use the word “age” and not “eternal.” These two concepts are diametrically opposed to one another. They are not the same by any means. An age has a beginning and an end; eternity does not.
Augustine raised the argument that since aionios in Mt. 25:46 referred to both life and punishment, it had to carry the same duration in both cases.5 However, he failed to consider that the duration of aionios is determined by the subject to which it refers. For example, when aionios referred to the duration of Jonah’s entrapment in the fish, it was limited to three days. To a slave, aionios referred to his life span. To the Aaronic priesthood, it referred to the generation preceding the Melchizedek priesthood. To Solomon’s temple, it referred to 400 years. To God it encompasses and transcends time altogether.
Thus, the word cannot have a set value. It is a relative term and its duration depends upon that with which it is associated. It is similar to what “tall” is to height. The size of a tall building can be 300 feet, a tall man six feet, and a tall dog three feet. Black Beauty was a great horse, Abraham Lincoln a great man, and Yahweh the GREAT God. Though God is called “great,” the word “great” is neither eternal nor divine. The horse is still a horse. An adjective relates to the noun it modifies. In relation to God, “great” becomes GREAT only because of who and what God is. This silences the contention that aion must always mean forever because it modifies God. God is described as the God of Israel and the God of Abraham. This does not mean He is not the God of Gentiles, or the God of you and me. Though He is called the God of the “ages,” He nonetheless remains the God who transcends the ages.
In addition, Augustine’s reasoning does not hold up in light of Ro. 16:25, 26 and Hab. 3:6. Here, in both cases, the same word is used twice—with God and with something temporal. “In accord with the revelation of a secret hushed in times eonian, yet manifested now…according to the injunction of the eonian God” (Ro. 16:25, 26 CLT). An eonian secret revealed at some point cannot be eternal even though it is revealed by the eonian God. Eonian does not make God eternal, but God makes eonian eternal. “And the everlasting mountains were scattered.…His ways are everlasting” (Hab. 3:6). Mountains are not eternal, though they will last a very long time. God’s ways however, are eternal, because He is eternal.
Matthew 25:46 contains an additional clue confirming the temporary nature of God’s judgment. The Greek word, translated “punishment,” is kolasis. William Barclay, world-renowned Greek scholar, translator, and author of the popular Bible commentary, The Daily Study Bible and New Testament Words, noted:
The Greek word for punishment here [Mt. 25:46] is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment.6
Thomas Talbott, philosophy professor at Willamette University in Oregon and author of The Inescapable Love of God, explained:
According to Aristotle, there is a difference between revenge and punishment; the latter (kolasis) is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer, the former (timōria) in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction. Plato also appealed to the established meaning of kolasis as support for his theory that virtue could be taught: “For if you will consider punishment (kolasis)…and what control it has over wrong-doers, the facts will inform you that men agree in regarding virtue as procured.” Even where a punishment may seem harsh and unforgiving, more like retribution than parental chastisement, this in no way excludes a corrective purpose. Check out the punishment that Paul prescribes in I Corinthians 5:5. One might never have guessed that, in prescribing such a punishment—that is, delivering a man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh—Paul had in mind a corrective purpose, had Paul not explicitly stated the corrective purpose himself (“that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”). So as this text illustrates, even harsh punishment of a seemingly retributive kind can in fact serve a redemptive purpose.7-9
“And these will go away into everlasting [aionian] punishment [kolasis], but the righteous into eternal [aionian] life” (Mt. 25:46). Isn’t it ironic that the passage most often used to support everlasting punishment is in fact one strongly opposing it when accurately understood?
Dr. Helena Keizer is a trustworthy authority on the definition of aiōn in ancient Greek literature, including the Bible in the time of Christ. Keizer published a 315-page doctoral dissertation titled: “Life, Time, Entirety – A Study of Aiōn in Greek Literature and Philosophy, the Septuagint and Philo.” Presented on September 7, 1999 in Holland, at Amsterdam University. Keizer stated:
“Olām and hence aiōn in the Biblical sense is time constituting the human temporal horizon.”29 “Our study has led to the conclusion that infinity is not an intrinsic or necessary connotation of aiōn, either in the Greek or in the Biblical usage (‘olām).”30 “To speak of ‘this aiōn’, its ‘end,’ and ‘the aiōn to come’ clearly lends to aiōn the meaning of a limited time.”31 “The following description of Gregory of Nyssa…makes a good finishing point for now: ‘Aeon designates temporality, that which occurs within time.’”32
I am pleased to say that Dr. Keizer has given me permission to share her book with others in electronic format.
Terms for Eternity is another scholarly work on aiōn by David Konstan and Ilaria Ramelli. Konstan is the John Rowe Workman Distinguished Professor of Classics and Professor of Comparative Literature, at Brown University in R.I. Ramelli is Assistant Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan, Italy. They agree with the conclusions of Dr. Keizer. They wrote:
“Apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aiónios does not mean “eternal”; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” In particular when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to the Biblical usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come.” (Page 238)
These scholarly works are important, as the key defense of eternal punishment depends on this word meaning absolute eternity. For more on the meaning of aiōn, see our website: HopeBeyondHell.net; Further Study; Eternity, and Church History.
Aionian (eternal), when associated with God, may simply refer to that which comes forth from Him and relates to His purposes; a quality of essence rather than of duration. Is this not what our Lord intends in John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You.” If this is so, perhaps the Matthew passage could be paraphrased this way: “And these will go away into the chastisement of God, but the righteous into the life of God.” Professor Talbott confirmed this:
When the letter of Jude describes the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as “eternal fire,” the point is not that the fire literally burns forever without consuming the cities; it is not that the fire continues to burn even today. The point is that the fire is a form of divine judgment upon those cities…that has its causal source in the eternal God himself. And similar for Jesus’ reference to “eternal fire” in Matthew 25:41 and to “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46. The fire to which he alludes is not eternal in the sense that it burns forever without consuming anything—without consuming, for example, that which is false within a person (see 1 Co. 3:15)—and neither is the punishment eternal in the sense that it continues forever without accomplishing its corrective purpose. Both the fire and the punishment are eternal in the sense that they have their causal source in the eternal God himself.10
Similarly, Barclay wrote:
The simplest way to put it is that aionios cannot be used properly of anyone but God; it is the word uniquely, as Plato saw it, of God. Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give.11
The Gospel writers thought in terms of two ages, the present age and the age to come, and they associated the age to come with God himself; it was an age in which God’s presence would be fully manifested, his purposes fully realized, and his redemptive work eventually completed. They therefore came to employ the term, “αίώνίος,” [aionios] as an eschatological [doctrine of end times] term, one that functioned as a handy reference to the realities of the age to come. In this way, they managed to combine the more literal sense of “that which pertains to an age” with the more religious sense of “that which manifests the presence of God in a special way.” Eternal life, then, is not merely life that comes from God; it is also the mode of living associated with the age to come. And similarly for eternal punishment: It is not merely punishment that comes from God; it is also the form of punishment associated with the age to come. Now in none of this is there any implication that the life that comes from God and the punishment that comes from God are of an equal duration.”12
Likewise, Beecher demonstrated that in the days of the early church the idea was “punishment of the world to come.” The early Church establishes that fact through the ancient creeds. In fact, in none of its creeds did the early Church teach everlasting punishment.13
Arguing that eternal punishment must be of unending duration because it is contrasted with eternal life (Mt. 25:46), misses the point. It fails to recognize that eternal life is a quality of relationship with God (Jn. 17:3), and is an end in itself; while eternal punishment is God’s corrective discipline and a means to an end. In any case, whether aion means “age-abiding,” “of God,” or “of the world to come,” none of these expressions state, imply, or require that the punishment be never-ending.
So then, if aion does not strictly mean eternal, what word does? There are a number of Greek words that imply eternal. They are usually translated “indestructible,” “imperishable,” “unfading,” “immortality,” and “incorruptible.” See Ro. 1:23; 2:7; 1Co. 9:25; 15:42, 51-54; He. 7:15-16; 1Pe. 1:3-4; 5:4; 1Ti. 1:17; 6:16; 2Ti. 1:10.
Our hope of immortality does not reside in the word aion but in God’s very nature (unfailing love and unlimited power) and promises. (See Appendix I). So long as we have a flawed understanding of this four letter Greek word, we will remain blinded to the truth in relation to God’s judgments.
I recommend that you also read The History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution by Dr. Edward Beecher. I found his findings conclusive. You may read it on our website: HopeBeyondHell.net, Further Study, Church History.
Author Update (July 2018): See Anchor 4 in my new book, “Hope for All: Ten Reasons God’s Love Prevails.” It includes updated elements on this theme not mentioned above and offers additional clarification. It’s fairly brief. Be sure to read the bolded endnotes along with the main text.
This article is taken from chapter I of Hope Beyond Hell – Revised Edition (pages 21-31) Free book download: HopeBeyondHell.net A
Also read “Hope for All” free online at www.hopeforallfellowship.com
1 Hurley, Loyal F. The Outcome of Infinite Grace. Santa Clarita, CA: Concordant Publishing Concern, n.d. 19.
2 Beecher, Edward. History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution. New York: Appleton, 1887. Chapter 17. Put into Electronic Format by Naomi Durkin, 2000.
3 Morgan, G. Campbell. God’s Methods with Man. New York: Revell, 1898.
4 Vincent, Marvin. Word Studies in the New Testament. 1887. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973. 58-59.
5 Bonda, Jan. The One Purpose of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Publishing Co, 1998. 18.
6 Barclay, William. William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977. 65-67.
7Talbott, Thomas. “A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgment” in Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge (eds.) Universal Salvation? The Current Debate. Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 2003. 47. Note 27; In Rhetoric 1369b,13; Note 28; In Gorgias 477a.
8 Ibid. 51. Note 28; In Protagoras 324.
9 Talbott, Thomas. “Eternal Punishment.” Online posting. 2005. 2 May 2006. http://www.willamette.edu/~ttalbott/aionios.htm.
10 Talbott, Thomas. The Inescapable Love of God. Salem, Oregon: Universal, 2002. 87-88.
11 Barclay. Ibid.
12 Talbott. Ibid. 89-90
13 Beecher, Edward. History of Opinions on the Scriptural Doctrine of Retribution. New York: Appleton, 1887. Chapter 19. Put into Electronic Format by Naomi Durkin, 2000.
29 Keizer, Heleen M. Life, Time, Entirety – A Study of “AIŌN” in Greek Literature and Philosophy, the Septuagint and Philo; Doctoral dissertation University of Amsterdam. 1999. Slightly amended version 2005. Chapter VI, Sec. I. 241. Personal note from Dr. Keizer: “Dear Mr. Beauchemin…please use this electronic document as you would a paper copy in your possession or borrowed from a library.” Email us for more information.