When most people want to know the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word in the Bible, they look it up in a Concordance. Concordances are a great tool to begin to dig deeper into Scripture, but they are not the ultimate source. While Concordances do give short definitions, they are not intended to define. Their sole purpose is to show all occurrences of a particular word and how it was translated. To get the best definition of a word, therefore, requires a little bit of research, research which is not usually necessary to the layperson because there are few words in Christian doctrine that necessitate a better definition. But in the case of the two words that are translated “eternal” and “forever” (aion and aionios in Greek), we find it is necessary to do more research.
The intention of this blog is not to try and prove that these words do not mean endless, but to demonstrate actual sources that support the position that they more correctly mean an “age.” I could just tell you that many scholars, Bible Translations, Bible Dictionaries and Bible Encyclopedias define these words as “age,” but that wouldn’t prove anything. So I am going to quote a large number of sources to show that I am not alone in my assertion that aion and aionios rarely (if ever) convey endlessness.
But before we look at what some Scholars say about these words a few notes are in order. Firstly, there are 16 verses in the Bible that can be said to directly address some sort of judgment of an eternal nature. We will specifically refer to the one verse most emphasized as proving an ‘endless damnation’ for the unrepentant – Matthew 25:46.
“These will go away into eternal (aionios) punishment, but the righteous into eternal (aionios) life.” (NASB)
Secondly, to be fair we are going to look at some ancient scholars as well. I will give sources where I can, but I have not found them all.
Thirdly, normally I would not worry about defending my position with scholars, b/c for me Scripture is enough. My motto is Sola Scriptura – “What saith the Scriptures?” However I recognize that not everybody has the time or motivation to search these things out for themselves. Such people find it helpful to have authority figures confirm the truth. Therefore I wanted to begin this series with the view of a certain Scholars. Perhaps it will also help others to realize that I am not alone in my position. If you are one of the above, then this blog is dedicated to you!
To start with, Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible, which is a literal word for word translation of the Bible, translates the word aionios here and elsewhere in the Bible as “Age Abiding.” You can see this for yourself at the following website.
Young’s Literal Translation, also a literal word for word translation of the Bible, translates the word aionios here and everywhere else as, “Age During.”
The Concordant Version translates it as “Eonian” in the sense of pertaining to an Eon.
I could not find a website for many of the following, but those who have access to a theological library can check them out easily enough; or you could buy a copy of each resource for yourself from Amazon.com 😉 . (Yeah right!)
The Emphatic Diaglott simply transliterates the word as “Aionian” to avoid any confusion at all concerning its meaning. This is only done when a translator feels that the language he is translating into does not have a proper word to use. Which means that he finds the word “eternal” to be lacking.
The Cambridge Bible Dictionary, by A.W. Argyle, says about Matthew 25:46,
“Eternal punishment, i.e., punishment characteristic of the Age to come, not meaning that it lasts for ever. Eternal life, i.e., the life that belongs to the Age to come, the full abundant life which is fellowship with God.” (Italics mine.)
Bible translator, Dr. R.F. Weymouth, slightly disagrees with Young’s translation (mentioned above) on page 657 of The New Testament in Modern Speech, saying,
“Eternal: Greek: ‘aeonion,’ i.e., ‘of the ages.’ Etymologically this adjective, like others similarly formed, does not signify ‘during,’ but ‘belonging to’ the aeons or ages.”
So he is saying he doesn’t like Young’s translation of “age-during” but would rather render it “belonging to the age.”
Dr. Bullinger’s Appendix 129 to The Companion Bible, says this about the NT term aion:
“aion = an age, or age-time, the duration of which is indefinite, and may be limited or extended as the context of each occurrence may demand. The root meaning of aion is expressed by the Hebrew olam . . . which denotes indefinite, unknown or concealed duration; just as we speak of ‘the patriarchal age,’ or ‘the golden age,’ etc.”
When he claims that the actual duration of the age is unkown or concealed, he does not mean that it is infinite, it just means nobody knows its length until it is over. This of course is perfectly natural, b/c who doesn’t tend to shy away from admitting their age! 😉
The oldest lexicographer that we have of the Greek New Testament, Hesychius (who lived somewhere around AD 400-600), defines aion thus: “The life of man, the time of life.” J.W. Hansen remarks about Hysychius’ definition here saying,
“At this early date no theologian had yet imported into the word the meaning of endless duration. It retained only the sense it had in the classics (which refers to Greek writers before the Septuagint), and in the Bible.” (Parenthesis mine.)
Theodoret (AD 300-400) in his work In Migne Vol. IV, on page 400 says,
“Aion is not any existing thing, but an interval denoting time, sometimes infinite when spoken of God, sometimes proportioned to the duration of the creation, and sometimes to the life of man.”
John of Damascus (AD 750) defines it thus,
“1, The life of every man is called aión. … 3, The whole duration or life of this world is called aión. 4, The life after the resurrection is called ‘the aión to come.’”
Dr. Edward Beecher in his book Christian Union remarks about the ancient understanding of this word,
“It commonly means merely continuity of action . . . all attempts to set forth eternity as the original and primary sense of aión are at war with the facts of the Greek language for five centuries, in which it denoted life and its derivative senses, and the sense eternity was unknown.”
He further states,
“that the original sense of aión is not eternity. . . . It is conceded on all hands that this (life) was originally the general use of the word.”
In the Paris edition of Henry Stephens’ Lexicon it is affirmed emphatically,
“that life, or the space of life, is the primitive sense of the word, and that it is always so used by Homer, Hesiod, and the old poets; also by Pindar and the tragic writers, as well as by Herodotus and Xenophon.”
We will explore these Greek writers and their use of Aion and Aionios along with many others in a later blog in this series.
Professor Knapp, the author of an edition of the Greek Testament, one in use in many colleges, observes that:
“The pure idea of eternity is too abstract to have been conceived in the early ages of the world, and accordingly is not found expressed by any word in the ancient languages. But as cultivation advanced and this idea became more distinctly developed, it became necessary in order to express it to invent new words in a new sense, as was done with the words eternitas, perennitas, etc. The Hebrews were destitute of any single word to express endless duration. To express a past eternity they said before the world was; a future, when the world shall be no more. . . . The Hebrews and other ancient people have no one word for expressing the precise idea of eternity.”
Hasting’s Dictionary of the New Testament, says,
“There is no word either in the O.T. Hebrew or in the N.T. Greek to express the abstract idea of eternity.” (p. 542 Vol. I)
“Eternal, everlasting–nonetheless ‘eternal’ is misleading, inasmuch as it has come into the English to connote the idea of ‘endlessly existing,’ and thus to be practically a synonym for ‘everlasting.’ But this is not an adequate rendering of aionios which varies in meaning with the variations of the noun aion from which it comes.” (p. 369, Vol III)
For those who may be unfamiliar with the laws of language, an adjective cannot have a greater force than the noun from which it originates. And aion is a noun and aionios is the adjective directly derived from aion. Thus if aion means age, then aionios cannot mean anything greater than an age. Thus by Linguistic principles aionios can only mean age-long, or pertaining to an age. A good example of this is the adjective generational, which originates from the noun generation. Generational means “pertaining to a generation.” A generation is usually around 40 years. If I was to come along and start claiming that the word generational meant 1000 years, or to make this an even better analogy, to claim that generational means an endless duration, I would literally be crucified by English professors!
This helps make the above quote more understandable when he says that, “everlasting…is not an adequate rendering of aionios which varies in meaning with the variations of the noun aion from which it comes.”
James Donnegan in A New Greek and English Lexicon (1839) writes,
“Time; space of time; life time and life; the ordinary period of man’s life; the age of man; man’s estate; a long period of time.”
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (page 1010) says,
“Primarily signifies time, in the sense of age, or generation”
Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon says,
“A period of existence; one’s lifetime; life; an age; a generation; a long space of time. A space of time clearly defined and marked out; an era, epoch, age, period or dispensation.”
And lastly, and in my opinion, least, is the Strong’s Concordance. Not generally a good source for defining words, but nonetheless what the majority of Christians will reference when looking for the definition of a word. Anyways, even the NASB’s Strong’s Concordance gives “Age-long” as one of the definitions of aionios! The evidence has been right in front of us this whole time, but we havent had eyes to see it.
There are many more scholars that I could reference who are of the same mind concerning the meaning of aion and aionios, but I think we have more than enough to build on. In the next blog we will look at the usage of the words aion and aionios in the New Testament.