On the words often translated “eternity” and “eternal” in the Bible. From Thomas Allin’s Christ Triumphant.
From Christ Triumphant by Thomas Allin. See Ramelli’s & Konstan’s Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts, for a newer study.
Let us next consider the true meaning of the words “aion” and “aionios.”1 These are the originals of the terms rendered by our translators “everlasting,” “for ever and ever:” and upon these misleading translations, a vast portion of the popular dogma of endless torment is built up. I say, without hesitation, misleading and incorrect; for aion means “an age,” a limited period, whether long or short, though often of indefinite length; and the adjective aionios means “of the age,” “age-long,” “aeonian,” and never “everlasting” (of its own proper force). It is true that it may be applied as an epithet to things that are endless, but the idea of endlessness in all such cases comes not from the epithet, but only because it is inherent in the object to which the epithet is applied, as in the case of God.
Much has been written on the import of the aeonian (eternal) life. Altogether to exclude, (with MAURICE) the notion of time seems impracticable, and opposed to the general usage of the New Testament (and of the Septuagint). But while this is so, we may fully recognize that the phrase “eternal life” (aeonian life) does at times pass into a region above time, a region wholly moral and spiritual. Thus, in S. John, the aeonian life (eternal life), of which he speaks, is a life not measured by duration, but a life in the unseen, life in God.
Thus, e.g., God’s commandment is life eternal. — John 12:50. To know Him is life eternal, — John. 17:3, and Christ is the eternal life. — I John 1:2; 5:20. Admitting, then, the usual reference of aionios to time, we note in the word a tendency to rise above this idea, to denote quality, rather than quantity, to indicate the true, the spiritual, in opposition to the unreal, or the earthly. In this sense the eternal is now and here.
Thus “eternal” punishment is one thing, and “everlasting” punishment a very different thing, and so it is that our Revisers have substituted for “everlasting” the word “eternal” in every passage in the New Testament, where aionios is the original word. Further, if we take the term strictly, eternal punishment is impossible, for the “eternal” in strictness has no beginning.
Again, a point of great importance is this, that it would have been impossible for the Jews, as it is impossible for us, to accept Christ, except by assigning a limited — nay, a very limited duration — to those Mosaic ordinances which were said in the Old Testament to be “for ever,” to be “everlasting” (aeonian). Every line of the New Testament, nay, the very existence of Christianity is thus in fact a proof of the limited sense of aionios in Scripture. Our Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, our Holy Communion, every prayer uttered in a Christian Church, or in our homes, in the name of the Lord Jesus: our hopes of being “for ever with the Lord” — these contain one and all in an affirmation most real, though tacit, of the temporary sense of aionios.
As a further illustration of the meaning of aion and aionios, let me point out that in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint)–in common use among the Jews in Our Lord’s time, from which He and the Apostles usually quoted, and whose authority, therefore, should be decisive on this point — these terms are repeatedly applied to things that have long ceased to exist. Thus the AARONIC priesthood is said to be “everlasting,” Num. 25:13. The land of Canaan is given as an “everlasting” possession, and “for ever,” Gen. 17:8, and 13:15. In Deut. 23:3, “for ever” is distinctly made an equivalent to “even to the tenth generation.” In Lam. 5:19, “for ever and ever” is the equivalent of from “generation to generation.”
The inhabitants of Palestine are to be bondsmen “for ever,” Lev. 25:46. In Num. 18:19, the heave offerings of the holy things are a covenant “for ever.” CALEB obtains his inheritance “for ever,” Josh. 14:9. And DAVID’S seed is to endure “for ever,” his throne “for ever,” his house “for ever;” nay, the passover is to endure “for ever;” and in Isaiah 32:14, the forts and towers shall be “dens for ever, until the spirit be poured upon us.” So in Jude 7, Sodom and Gomorrah are said to be suffering the vengeance of eternal (aeonian) fire, i.e., their temporal overthrow by fire, for they have a definite promise of final restoration. — Ez. 16:55.
And Christ’s kingdom is to last “for ever,” yet we are distinctly told that this very kingdom is to end. — I Cor. 15:24. Indeed, quotation might be added to quotation, both from the Bible and from early2 authors, to prove this limited meaning of aion and its derivatives; but enough has probably been said to prove that it is wholly impossible, and indeed absurd, to contend that any idea of endless duration is necessarily or commonly implied by either aion or aionios.
Further, if this translation of aionios as “eternal,” in the sense of endless, be correct, aion must mean eternity, i.e., endless duration. But so to render it would reduce Scripture to an absurdity. In the first place, you would have over and over again to talk of the “eternities.” We can comprehend what “eternity” is, but what are the “eternities?” You cannot have more than one eternity.
Let me state the dilemma clearly. Aion either means endless duration as its necessary, or at least its ordinary significance, or it does not. If it does, the following difficulties at once arise;
1 — How, if it mean an endless period, can aion have a plural?
2 — How came such phrases to be used as those repeatedly occurring in Scripture, where aion is added to aion, if aion is of itself infinite?
3 — How come such phrases as for the “aion” or aions and BEYOND? — ton aiona kai ep aiona kai eti: eis tous aionas kai eti. — See (Sept.) Ex. 15:18; Dan. 12:3; Micah 4:5.
4 — How is it that we repeatedly read of the end of the aion? — Matt. 13:39-49; Matt. 24:3; Matt. 28:20; I Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26.
5 — Finally, if aion be infinite, why is it applied over and over to what is strictly finite? e.g., Mark 4:19; Acts 3:21; Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 1:20, 1 Cor. 2:20, 1 Cor. 2:6, 1 Cor. 3:18, 1 Cor. 10:11, etc. But if an aion be not definite, what right have we to render the adjective aionios (which depends for its meaning on aion) by the terms “eternal” (when used as the equivalent of “endless”) and “everlasting?”
Indeed our translators have really done further hurt to those who can only read their English Bible. They have, wholly obscured a very important doctrine, that of “the ages.” This when fully understood throws a flood of light on the plan of redemption, and the method of the divine working.
In these repeated instances [of the different combinations of the terms aion and aionios in the Greek] there must be some definite purpose in the use of these peculiar terms; and we must deeply regret the unfairness and inconsistency which in the case of aion mars and renders unfair our versions. Thus it would be interesting to ask on what principle our Revisers have in one brief epistle employed FIVE different words (or phrases) to translate this one word, aion, e.g., Eph. 1:21; Eph. 2:2-7; Eph. 3:11-21, e.g., “world,” “course,” “age,” “eternal,” “for ever.” Such are the devious ways of our teachers, and our translators.
“The conception of eternity, in the Semitic languages, is that of a long duration and series of ages.” — Rev J. S. BLUNT — Dictionary of Theology.
“‘Tis notoriously known,” says Bishop Rust, “that the Jews, whether writing in Hebrew or Greek, do by olam (the Hebrew word corresponding to aion), and aion mean any remarkable period and duration, whether it be of life, or dispensation, or polity.” “The word aion is never used in Scripture, or anywhere else, in the sense of endlessness (vulgarly called eternity, it always meant, both in Scripture and out, a period of time; else how could it have a plural — how could you talk of the aeons and aeons of aeons as the Scripture does? — C. KINGSLEY.
So the secular games, celebrated every century were called “eternal” by the Greeks. — See HUET, Orig. ii. pg. 162.
Find the rest of Thomas Allin’s Christ Triumphant here.