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 incorrect.
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.
“Eon” 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
Scriptural 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).
“Now 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, according 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 idiosyncrasies. 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.”
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 one’s 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.
“Alluding to 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 . . . .”
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.
“It is 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).
“Thus it 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.”
THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES
An 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 required.
“Mankind began with Adam. As at present constituted, it will have an end. Hence, if olam is used of persons, it expresses their whole life, or lifetime; 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) . . . .
“The Hebrew 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 Solomon’s 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 . . . .
“The crowning 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 Israel’s 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.”
“Yahweh, He 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).
Often, the 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 Jonah’s experience inside the great fish (Jonah 2:6); or the duration of the remainder of a slave’s 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 Gelesnoff’s 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 John’s 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
The 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 punishment.
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 John’s 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.
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