EON AS INDEFINITE DURATION
FROM THE EARLY TIMES OF CHURCH HISTORY the
words aiõn and aiõnios (eon and eonian in the
Concordant Version) have been the subject of much controversy. This is because the
question of their meaning is central to the issue of eternal punishment.
Many holding our
essential position will say that aiõn means age, not [for]
ever. While this is a step in the right direction and in a loose sense is even
correct, it is problematic, and leaves some legitimate room for objection.
For example, were we
to use age as our basis for representing aiõnios, it would depend on
what we have in mind by age whether we should say age-pertaining,
or age-lasting. In any case, uniform translation would be impossible
and interpretation would be unavoidable. This is because some usages of aiõn are
for only a portion of one of the scriptural, epochal eons. Yet it is true that aiõn
itself is often used in reference to the entire duration of whatever age may
be in view in any certain context. Age-pertaining, besides being
awkward, assumes that the notion of time-periodness is inherent to aiõn,
which is incorrect; age-lasting, adds the further problem of affirming
that that which is eonian, always obtains for the entirety of an eon, which is also
It is best to use or
at least conceive the word duration instead of age (or even
eon) when we are considering these things, even if, in translation,
duration would be too awkward. It is true that for most readers, the English
eon confines the idea signified to a period of time. Yet even those who differ
with us in our teaching, even from their own perspective, can make no legitimate objection
to the rendering eon, itself, since more comprehensive dictionaries include
among their definitions for this word not only the idea of a period of time, but of
everlastingness as well.
seems to be the only practical and objective word to use in translation. However, to be
objective when considering this word in Scripture, with a view toward establishing its
essential meaning, one must conceive of it non-interpretatively, simply as an anglicized
transliteration of aiõn, similar to baptize for baptizõ. Yet,
after determining its meaning, in considering further its varied usages, one must also
recognize that it is no more true that this word exclusively refers to the epochal
eons of Scripture, than that it sometimes speaks of the notion of boundless eternity.
Nonetheless, we have found that nearly all of the usages of aiõn in the Greek
Scriptures do refer to the epochal eons of history (i.e., the eonian times,
2 Tim.1:9; see the Keyword Concordance entries eon and
eonian). Only a few New Testament aiõn texts concern some other
briefer period (e.g., not washing feet [John 13:8], or not eating meat [1 Cor.8:13],
for the eon [i.e., duration]).
LEXICOGRAPHY, THE CLASSICS,
AND THE SEPTUAGINT
usage alone is authoritative. Yet since many will appeal to lexicography (inasmuch as many
lexicographers claim that olam, together with aiõn and aiõnios,
sometimes means everlasting or eternal), we would only
point out that lexicographers differ in their opinions; and, even where they concur, this
is no proof that they are correct. The words of the apostle Paul ever remain good advice,
let no one be boasting in men (1 Cor.3:21).
lexicography must always be consulted, especially on disputed words, cum grano salis.
A theologian, in his definition, is quite certain to shade technical words with his own
belief, and lean one way or the other, accord to his own predilections. Unconsciously and
necessarily, the lexicographer who has a bias in favor of any doctrine will tincture his
definitions with his own idiosyncracies. Very few have sat judicially, and given meanings
to words with reference to their exact usage; so that one must examine dictionaries
concerning any words whose meaning is disputed, with the same care that should be used in
reference to any subject on which men differ.1
In our consideration
of lexicography, we should note that the primary usage of aiõn, both in early and
later Greek, is that of the duration of ones life. The oldest lexicographer,
Hesychius (c. 400-600 A.D.), defines aiõn thus: The
life of man, the time of life. 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, and in the Bible . . . . John of Damascus (c. 750 A.D.) says, The life of every man is called [his] aiõn . . . . The
whole duration or life of this world is called aiõn . . . . The
life after the resurrection is called the aiõn to
come . . . .
But in the
sixteenth century, Phavorinus was compelled to notice an addition, which subsequently to
the time of the famous Council of 544 had been grafted onto the word. He says: Aiõn,
time, also [by association] life, also habit, or way of life. Aiõn is also the
eternal and the endless as it seems to the theologian. Theologians had succeeded
in using the word in the sense of endless, and Phavorinus was forced to recognize their
usage of it. His phraseology shows conclusively enough that he attributed to theologians
the authorship of that use of the word.
this definition, Ezra S. Goodwin, one of the ripest scholars and profoundest critics,
says, Here I strongly suspect is the true secret brought to light of the origin of
the sense of eternity in aiõn. The theologian first thought he perceived it, or
else he placed it there. The theologian keeps it there,
now . . . . Hence it is that those lexicographers who assign
eternity as one of the meanings of aiõn uniformly appeal for proofs to either
theological Hebrew or Rabbinical Greek, or some species of Greek subsequent to the age of
the Seventy [i.e., the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew
Scriptures], if not subsequent to the age of the apostles, so far as I can
ascertain. The second definition by Phavorinus is extracted literally from the
Etymologicon Magnum of the ninth or tenth century. This gives us the usage
from the fourth to the sixteenth century, and shows us that, if the word meant endless at
the time of Christ, it must have changed from limited duration in the Classics, to
unlimited duration, and then back again, at the dates above specified! [Yet] from the
sixteenth century onward, the word has been defined as used to denote all lengths of time
from brief to endless . . . .2
In considering the
usage of aiõn in the Greek Classics (the literature with which the authors of the
Septuagint were familiar), Hanson says further concerning Goodwin, that, earlier in the
nineteenth century, he patiently and candidly traced this word through the Classics,
finding the noun frequently in nearly all the writers, but not meeting the adjective until
Plato, its [apparent] inventor, used it. [Goodwin] states, as the result of his protracted
and exhaustive examination from the beginning down to Plato, We have the whole
evidence of seven Greek writers, extending through about six centuries, down to the age of
Plato, who make use of aiõn, in common with other words; and no one of them
ever employs it in the sense of eternity. When the Old Testament was translated
from the Hebrew into Greek by the Seventy, the word aiõn had been in common use
for many centuries.
preposterous to say that the Seventy would render the Hebrew olam by the Greek aiõn
and give to the latter (1) a different meaning from that of the former, or (2) a different
meaning from aiõn in the current Greek literature. It is self-evident, then, that aiõn
in the Old Testament means exactly what olam means, and also what aiõn
means in the Greek Classics. Indefinite duration is the sense of olam, and it is
equally clear that aiõn has a similar
signification . . . . I do not know of an instance in which any
lexicographer has produced the usage of ancient classical Greek in evidence that aiõn
means eternity. Ancient classical Greek rejects it altogether (by
ancient he means the Greek existing anterior to the days of the Seventy).
appears that when the Seventy began their work of giving the world a version of the Old
Testament that should convey the sense of the Hebrew Bible, they must have used aiõn
in the sense in which it was then used. Endless duration is not the meaning the word had
in Greek literature at that time. Therefore the word cannot have that meaning in Old
Testament Greek. Nothing can be plainer than that Greek literature at the time the Old
Testament was rendered into the Greek Septuagint did not give to aiõn the meaning
of endless duration.3
THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES
objective consideration of the facts of Scripture shows that the essence of olam
(and therefore of aiõn as well, its equivalent, whether in the Septuagint or in
the New Testament) is simply duration. As Vladimir Gelesnoff wrote, The
Hebrew olam is derived from a primitive root meaning to veil from sight, to
conceal. A conspectus of the passages proves that olam expresses duration,
the whole time during which a person, thing, or state,
exists . . . . It may, therefore, be rendered [correctly as to
interpretative sense if not to essential meaning] by any term expressing the duration
with Adam. As at present constituted, it will have an end. Hence, if olam is used
of persons, it expresses their whole life, or life-time; if a succession of generations,
or the state of a people, mankind, or creation, then a period of time, an extended period
of time, commensurate with the specific application (e.g., Prov.22:28; Gen.6:4; Psa.77:5,
143:3; Joshua 24:2) . . . .
servant whose ear was bored became a bondman for ever, that is, for life
(Ex.21:6) . . . . For ever in 1 Chronicles 22:10
covers the forty years of Solomons reign; in 1 Kings 8:13 and 9:3, it is the
time when the temple was in existence . . . . Further passages
such as Ecclesiastes 1:4 and Psalm 78:69 which speak of the earth abiding for
ever, when compared with passages such as Matthew 5:18, 2 Peter 3:7-10,
Revelation 21:1, make evident that the for ever of both the Psalmist and
Ecclesiastes is coeval with the continuance of the present earth, from its making in
Genesis 1:3-31 to its dissolution in Revelation 21:1 . . . .
proof that the idea of endlessness is foreign to olam is afforded by the phrase
for ever and ever. The English reader may suppose the second ever
to be the same word as the first. But it is not. The Hebrew is va-ed. As the
Septuagint translates it, and still, and as the translators have so rendered
it in scores of places, we will translate it beyond or further.
Now, if olam meant endlessness as some say it does, why reinforce it by adding
beyond? Nor is this all. Further study discloses that even olam va-ed
(for ever and ever) does not refer to infinitude. The Psalmist says: I
will keep Your law continually, forever [i.e., for the eon and beyond;
CV, Psa.119:44]. Now, as our Lord plainly indicates the passing away of the law
(Matt.5:17,18), it follows that law observance is over once the law is done away. The
terminal point of the Ages is hid from the ancient prophets. Beyond the era of
Israels restoration they see dimly a farther stretch. But it is too distant to
discern the faintest outline or catch a feeble glimmer of its glory. As a huge orb of
light appears to a spectator myriads of miles away a mere tiny speck, remote futurity to
the Hebrew seers is a far-off, vague, indistinct something which they style beyond.
It was reserved for the apostle to the nations to observe the age of ages at close range
and unveil its consummative glory in his own marvelous unfoldings.4
shall reign for the eon and further (Ex.15:18). The reign of Yahweh, in the
Person of Christ, will continue not for ever, but until the consummation, when
He gives up the kingdom to His God and Father (1 Cor.15:24). Similarly, the mercy of
Yahweh is for the eon and further (Psa.52:8). The Scripture discloses a
sinless past and anticipates a flawless future. Hence the provision of mercy for the
eon and further, makes it coextensive with the existence of offense while
circumscribing the time during which it will be needed.
The Hebrew olam
va-ed, and its Greek equivalent for the eons of the eons, then, convey the
idea of terminable, though chronologically indefinite and unrevealed duration.
The idea of the
nouns (olam, or aiõn) is always [for the] duration of that
which is in view. The duration which is in view must always be judged from the
context, or from the nature of things, otherwise known. Therefore, the adjectival idea is,
of or pertaining to the duration (of that which is in
view). In some cases, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, the duration which is in
view (whether used of the past or future) is not at all referring to the epochal eons
(i.e., those eons which, abiding for long periods, correspond to the system [or world]
which, during any certain time, prevails on earth; e.g., Eph.2:2).
references are only to a much briefer duration, such as the length of time when a people
lived in a certain region (Joshua 24:2); the brief duration of Jonahs experience
inside the great fish (Jonah 2:6); or the duration of the remainder of a slaves
lifetime in which he would serve his master (Deut.15:17). Yet no such usages or any others
affect the meaning of olam itself; they only show that it is used in reference to
many diverse durations.
There does not seem
to be anything in the word itself that would definitively preclude at least the
possibility that it could be used in reference to an unending duration (since,
after all, all the word says is duration). Nonetheless, as Brother
Gelesnoffs article points out, when olam is used epochally (i.e., of
long-continuing duration), its references are still governed by the words and
further, even as by the subjects to which both these phrases (for the olam
and, and further) refer, namely, the millennial kingdom, and the new earth
which follows it.
The primary epochal
usage of olam, points to the Messianic kingdom, which, as we later learn, is of one
thousand years duration. Yet when the words and further are added, we
are brought to the period of which Isaiah prophesies (Isa.66:22), the period which Peter
confirms (2 Peter 3:13) and John sees in vision (Rev.21, 22), the epochal new
heavens and new earth.
We know that the
apostle Johns vision is, indeed, of an epochal period, not of endless duration. We
know this simply because while John, in Revelation 21 and 22, speaks of the reign of
Christ, of saints, and of kings of the earth, while affirming the presence of the second
death, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, speaks of Christ reigning until He gives up the
reign (the kingdom); indeed, of the time when all sovereignty and authority is
nullified (which therefore includes that of both the saints and the kings of the earth),
and even of the time when death itself is abolished, the glorious day when all will
finally have that life of which Christ is the Firstfruit, all unto the end that God may be
All in all (1 Cor.15:28). Just as surely as the abolition of slavery entails freedom
for those formerly enslaved, the abolition of death entails life for those formerly dead.
Indeed, no sane and
unprejudiced mind will claim otherwise. A sane and unprejudiced mind, however, is the gift
of God. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are concealed in Him
(Col.2:3). We cannot enlighten others, though God may enlighten others
through us. If most cannot accept our testimony, we can only assure ourselves that we are
simply believing what the Scriptures actually say.
CONFUSION CONCERNING WORD MEANING
fact is that God will one day abolish death and become All in all (1 Cor.15:26,28).
Such a glorious consideration itself precludes any legitimate claim that these words in
question, olam and aiõn, may sometimes refer to an unending duration of
Yet nothing is more
common than for theologians and professors to rehearse a variety of passages in which
these words in question appear, which, to the popular mind (including that of most
scholars), indeed, seem to refer to endlessness. Then the claim is made that olam
(or aiõn) has a wide range of meaning, which is to say a plurality of
meanings, including the idea of endlessness, whether in reference to the past or future.
Scholars are correct
when they stress that meaning must be determined by context; yet they err when, failing to
distinguish special usage from essential meaning, they claim that word meaning may well be
plural and is to be determined by the context, or, more accurately, by the
presuppositions which they bring to the context. Since ordinary believers have no idea
what the truth may be about such things, they simply accept the scholars word. Yet
if the scholars are either bound by tradition, or simply do not think fully logically on
these questions, they will be confident that they are correct, and will dismiss our views
merely as the suppositions of heretics.
Yet it is according
to the presuppositions of most that truth is determined, presuppositions which make
it seem correct that these time words sometimes refer to endlessness (hence the confused
claim that they sometimes mean everlasting or eternal).
On the other hand,
if we can show that olam and aiõn never mean endless, we
ourselves need to realize that it does not follow from this that it is simply impossible
for these words ever to refer to the endless past or future. Yet even so, neither
does it follow that even if there is nothing that intrinsically precludes these words
themselves from being used to make such a reference, that they are ever, in fact, so used.
Indeed we are far
from suggesting that they are ever so used. Any exegesis in favor of such a claim is but
the reflection of a failure to recognize that the notion of eternity past is
not a scriptural theme, and that, with reference to the future, the Scriptures do not use
these expressions of any time extending beyond that of the period of Johns vision of
the new earth. Such false claims concerning olam and aiõn as well are but
the fruit of the foundational error of everlasting punishment, of a failure to see that,
in soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), while the Arminians are correct as to the
compass of those for whom Christ salvifically died (namely, all mankind), just as surely,
the Calvinists are correct as to the gracious nature of the evangel, how it is that the
sacrifice of Christ effects salvation for all for whom it was designed.
1. John Wesley Hanson, Aiõn-Aiõnios, p.12; Chicago:
Northwestern Universalist Publishing House, 1875.
2. ibid., pp.12,13; cit., Christian Examiner, vol.10, p.47;
Boston: Gray & Bowen.
3. ibid., pp.20,21,26,27.
4. Unsearchable Riches, vol.2, pp.238,239,243,244.
Forward to Part Two
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