Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever: Aiónios and the Universalist Hope

Words do not mean. People mean.
~ Alfred Korzybski ~

When I use a word,
it means just what I choose it to mean–
neither more nor less.

~ Humpty Dumpty ~

When discussing the question of eschatological punishment, defenders of the doc­trine of everlasting damnation immediately appeal to our Lord’s teaching on Gehenna.1 It is simply obvious, they tell us, that Jesus taught the eternal damnation of the reprobate. Certainly that is how most English translations of the New Testament render the relevant texts. The classic passage is Jesus’ Parable of the Last Judgment (Matt 25:31-46). It concludes with these words (Matt 25:46):

καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (KJV)

And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (RSV)

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (NIV)

And these shall go away into age-abiding correction, but the righteous, into age-abiding life. (REB)

And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during. (YLT)

And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian. (CLNT)

And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age. (DBHNT)

We immediately note that the King James, Revised Standard, and New International Versions speak of “eternal punishment” and “eternal life.” The underlying Greek word is aiónios, the adjectival form (along with aiónion, aioníou, and others) of the noun aión (age, eon, era, epoch). A popular New Testament lexicon offers the following definitions for αἰώνιος, α, ον [αἰών]:

  1. ‘relating to a period of time extending far into the past’, long ages ago.
  2. ‘relating to time without boundaries or interruption’, eternal.
  3. ‘relating to a period of unending duration’, permanent, lasting.2

The translation of aiónios as “eternal” appears to accord perfectly with the lexicon’s definitions (specifically #2 and #3). We are, after all, talking about the Last Judgment and the divine assignment of the righteous and the wicked to their final destinies. Everything seems to be in order. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Yet what about those other translations in the list? Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible translates aionios as “age-abiding” and Young’s Literal Translation as “age-during.” The Concordant Literal New Testament delivers something more like a transliteration (“chastening eonian,” “life eonian”), entrusting to us the task of figuring out what “eonian” means. And David Bentley Hart’s translation is more curious still and will be discussed below. Why did these translators choose to break from the infallible consensus? Simple answer: because the semantic range of aiónios is notoriously wider than the lexical entry might lead us to believe. Even in the context of the Last Judgment, aiónios need not, and perhaps should not, be rendered “eternal.”

Two linguistic principles need to be kept in mind throughout this article:

  • Words do not mean; people mean. Language is a living cultural reality by which which people communicate.
  • A word in one language is not equivalent to a word in another language. Translation is always an adventure.

We begin with Marvin Vincent’s classic Word Studies of the New Testament:

Αἰών, transliterated aeon, is a period of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself. Aristotle (περὶ ούρανοῦ, i. 9, 15) says: “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 (aἰών) is said to leave him or to consume away (Iliad v. 685; Odyssey v. 160). It is not, however, limited to human life; it signifies any period in the course of events, as the period or age before Christ; the period of the millenium; 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.

It is sometimes translated world; world represents a period or a series of periods of time. . . . Similarly οἱ αἰῶνες, the worlds, the universe, the aggregate of the ages or periods, and their contents which are included in the duration of the world. . . . The word always carries the notion of time, and not of eternity. It always means a period of time. Otherwise it would be impossible to account for the plural, or for such qualifying expressions as this age, or the age to come. It does not mean something endless or everlasting. . . .

In the New Testament the history of the world is conceived as developed through a succession of aeons. A series of such aeons precedes the introduction of a new series inaugurated by the Christian dispensation, and the end of the world and the second coming of Christ are to mark the beginning of another series. . . . He includes the series of aeons in one great aeon,  αἰὼν τῶν αἰώνων, the aeon of the aeons (Eph. 3:21); and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes the throne of God as enduring unto the aeon of the aeons (Heb 1:8). The plural is also used, aeons of the aeons, signifying all the successive periods which make up the sum total of the ages collectively. . . . This plural phrase is applied by Paul to God only.

The adjective αἰώνιος 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, as, on the other hand, ἀΐδιος, which means everlasting, has its meaning limited to a given point of time in Jude 6. Αἰώνιος  means enduring through or pertaining to a period of time. Both the noun and the adjective are applied to limited periods. Thus the phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, habitually rendered forever, is often used of duration which is limited in the very nature of the case. . . . The same is true of αἰώνιος. Out of 150 instances in LXX, four-fifths imply limited duration. . . .

Words which are habitually applied to things temporal or material cannot carry in themselves the sense of endlessness. Even when applied to God, we are not forced to render αἰώνιος everlasting. Of course the life of God is endless; but the question is whether, in describing God as αἰώνιος, it was intended to describe the duration of his being, or whether some different and larger idea was not contemplated. . . .

There is a word for everlasting if that idea is demanded. That ἀΐδιος occurs rarely in the New Testament and in LXX does not prove that its place was taken by αἰώνιος. It rather goes to show that less importance was attached to the bare idea of everlastingness than later theological thought has given it.3

Note especially Vincent’s claim that aiónios refers to a limited or indefinite period of time. In itself, it does not bespeak eternality. James Hope Moulton and George Milligan agree:

In general, the word [aiónios] depicts that of which the horizon is not in view, whether the horizon be at an infinite distance . . . or whether it lies no farther than the span of a Caesar’s life.4

Vincent also notes that aiónios may be used in a qualitative sense. We see this especially in the Gospel of John:

Ζωή αἰώνιος eternal life, which occurs 42 times in N. T., but not in LXX, is not endless life, but life pertaining to a certain age or aeon, or continuing during that aeon. I repeat, life may be endless. The life in union with Christ is endless, but the fact is not expressed by αἰώνιος. Κόλασις αἰώνιος, rendered everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:46), is the punishment peculiar to an aeon other than that in which Christ is speaking. In some cases ζωή αἰώνιος does not refer specifically to the life beyond time, but rather to the aeon or dispensation of Messiah which succeeds the legal dispensation. . . . John says that ζωή αἰώνιος is the present possession of those who believe on the Son of God. . . . The Father’s commandment is ζωή αἰώνιος, . . . ; to know the only true God and Jesus Christ is zoe aionios. . . . Thus, while αἰώνιος carries the idea of time, though not of endlessness, there belongs to it also, more or less, a sense of quality. Its character is ethical rather than mathematical. The deepest significance of the life beyond time lies, not in endlessness, but in the moral quality of the aeon into which the life passes.5

Yet most translations of Matt 25:41 and 46 render aiónios as “eternal,” thus eliding the nuances of the word and perhaps importing into it later theological commitments.

In his translation of the Parable of the Last Judgment, David Bentley Hart leaves open the question of duration, emphasizing instead the divine judgment as eschatological event, i.e., that which pertains to the aeon to come:

Then he will say to those to the left, “Go from me, you execrable ones, into the fire of the Age prepared for the Slanderer and his angels.” (Matt 25:41)

And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age. (Matt 25:46)

In his concluding postscript, Hart notes the wide semantic range of aiónios in ancient Greek literature, paralleled by an equally wide range of the Hebrew word olam and the Aramaic alma, “both of which most literally mean something at an immense distance, on the far horizon, hidden from view, and which are usually used to mean ‘age,’ or ‘period of long duration,’ or a time hidden in the depths of the far past or far future, or a ‘world’ or ‘dispensation,’ or even ‘eternity,’ and so on; but it can also mean simply an extended period, and not neces­sarily a particularly long one, with a natural term.”6 If we reasonably assume both that Jesus taught in his native language of Aramaic and that the evangelists faithfully rendered his words into their Greek equivalents, it would then be irresponsible for the modern translator to insist on the eternal duration of the eschatological fire—unless, of course, the literary and historical context demands this reading. Hart concludes:

It is almost certainly the case that in the New Testament, and especially in the teachings of Jesus, the adjective aiōnios is the equivalent of something like the phrase le-olam, but also the case that it cannot be neatly discriminated from the language of the olam ha-ba [“the age to come”] without losing something of the theological depth and religious significance it possessed in the time of Christ.”7

Hence Hart’s decision to translate aiónios and noun as “the fire of the Age,” “the chastening of that Age,” “the life of that Age.”

In their book Terms for Eternity, Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan offer a comprehensive survey of how aiónios is used in Greek secular literature, Septuagint, New Testament, and early Church Fathers and contrasts it with aḯdios (“eternal”). With respect to New Testament usage they conclude:

In the New Testament, then, ἀΐδιος, which is used far less often than αἰώνιος, would appear to denote absolute eternity in reference to God; in connection with the chains of the fallen angels, on the other hand, it seems to indicate the continuity of their chastisement throughout the entire duration of this world—and perhaps too from before the creation of the world and time itself, that is, eternally a parte ante.

As for αἰώνιος, it has a much wider range of meanings, often closely related. It perhaps signifies “eternity” in the strict sense—without beginning or end—in reference to God or his three Persons or to what pertains to God, such as his glory or his kingdom; or it may mean “perpetual”—in the sense of “without end,” “permanent,” “uninterrupted”—in reference, for example, to the new covenant mentioned by Christ. Far the most common expression is ζωή αἰώνιος, which, we have argued, indicates life in the future αἰών, in contrast to the present καιρός (or χρόνος, “time,” or κόσμος, “this world,” often used in a negative sense), and which is expressly connected with Christ, faith, hope (for the future), the resurrection in the world to come, and above all to grace in numerous passages, especially Pauline, where grace is said to justify, and Johannine, where it is connected with love or ἀγάπη: for John, God himself is ἀγάπη, and the αἰώνιος life is directly identified with Jesus. This life, which is the goal or finality of the Gospel, is the true life, and is often designated simply by ζωή tout court; and it coincides with salvation. The adjective αἰώνιος is associated too with other nouns (e.g., glory, salvation), always with reference to life in the next world. Although one may infer that life in the world to come is eternal in the sense of unending, it appears that this is not the primary connotation of αἰώνιος in these contexts, but is rather the idea of a new life or αἰών.

On the other hand, αἰώνιος is also applied to punishment in the world to come, particularly in the expression πῦρ αἰώνιον: ἀΐδιος is never employed either for fire or for other forms of future punishment or harm of human beings, and on one occasion (in 4 Macc) ὄλεθρος αἰώνιος is contrasted specifically with βίος ἀΐδιος.8

Konstan was asked on an internet forum to provide a short summary of his and Ramelli’s research on aiónios:

Ancient Greek had two words that are commonly translated as “eternal”: aḯdios and aiónios. The latter of these terms is an adjective clearly deriving from the noun aión, from which we get the English “eon”: it is an old word, appearing already in Homer, where it refers normally to a lifetime, or else some definite period of time. It never suggests an infinite stretch of time, and in later writers it continues to mean, almost always, either a lifetime or some particular period of time.

What, then, about the adjective aiónios? Here is where problems arise, since the adjective seems first to occur in Plato, and Plato adapts it to a very special sense. Plato had the idea that time was a moving image of eternity, with the implication that eternity itself does not move or change: it is not an infinite length of time, but a state of timelessness (think of what time must have been like before God created the universe). This is quite different from the common meaning of aḯdios, which the presocratic philosophers had already used to express precisely an infinite stretch of time, with no beginning and no end; and this is what aḯdios continued to mean.

So, we have two adjectives in use: one of them clearly means “infinite,” when applied to time; but the other does not, and what is more, it is connected with a common noun—aión—that means simply a lifetime, with no suggestion of eternity. Aiónios remains relatively rare in classical Greek, and then we come to the Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs very frequently (aḯdios, by contrast, only appears twice, and those in parts originally written in Greek). Now, aiónios here can refer to things that are very old (as we say in English, “old as the hills”), but by no means eternal—what in this world is eternal? This is a very common usage, based on the Hebrew term. But it can also be used in reference to the world to come, and here we face the fundamental issue.

If one speaks of the next life, or something that happens in the next life, as aiónios, does it mean simply the next era or eon, or does it carry the further implication of “eternal”? Many of the passages in the Septuagint seem to indicate that the meaning is “of that eon”—and after all, it is a very long, but still finite period of time, that elapses between our death and judgment day and the resurrection, and this could be called an era. What is more, there is some reason to think that, after the resurrection, time itself will come to an end. So, saying that punishment in the afterlife is aiónios may just mean “for that eon” or epoch, and not forever.

We argued that this sense was understood by many (or most) of the Church Fathers, and that when they used aiónios of punishment in the afterlife, they were not necessarily implying that punishment would be eternal. Of course, one can only show this by careful examination of specific passages in context, and this is what we tried to do in our book. Very often, the evidence is ambiguous; for example, when God is described as aiónios, it is very difficult to be sure whether the word means “of the other world” or simply “eternal,” since God is both. We hope readers will decide for themselves, on the basis of the evidence we collected and the interpretations we offered.9

Hart presents a lexical analysis similar to that of Konstan and Ramelli:

There is a genuine ambiguity in the term in Greek that is impossible to render directly in an English equivalent. Aiōnios is an adjective drawn from the substantive αἰών (aiōn or aeon), which can sometimes mean a period of endless duration, but which more properly, throughout the whole of ancient and late antique Greek literature, means “an age,” or “a long period of time” of indeterminate duration, or even just “a substantial interval.” Its proper equivalent in Latin would be aevum. At times, it can refer to an historical epoch, to a time “long past” or “far in the future,” to something as shadowy and fleeting as the lifespan of a single person (in Homer and the Attic dramatists this is its typical meaning), or even to a considerably shorter period than that (say, a year). It can also, as it frequently does in the New Testament, refer to a particular universal dispensation: either the present world or the world to come or a heavenly sphere of reality beyond our own. Moreover, the adjective aiōnios, unlike the adjective ἀΐδιος (aïdios) or adverb ἀεί (aei), never clearly means “eternal” or “everlasting” in any incontrovertible sense, nor does the noun aiōn simply mean “eternity” in the way that the noun ἀϊδιότης (aïdiotēs) does; neither does aiōnios mean “endless” as ἀτέλευτος (ateleutos) or ἀτελεύτητος (ateleutētos) does; and, in fact, there are enough instances in the New Testament where the adjective or the noun obviously does not mean “eternal” or “eternity” that it seems to me unwise simply to presume such meanings in any instances at all. Where it is used of that which is by nature eternal, God in himself, it certainly carries the connotation that, say, the English words “enduring” or “abiding” would do in the same context: everlasting. But that is a connotation by extension, not the univocal core of the word.10

If Jesus, the evangelists, or the other New Testament writers had wanted to teach eternal punishment, Greek words were available to them, including aïdios (eternal), aperantos (unlimited, endless), adialeiptos (unceasing), and ateleutos (endless), in lieu of the ambiguous and unsuitable aiónios. Yet they did not avail themselves of them. But another first century Jew did, Josephus Flavius. He tells us that the Pharisees teach that the wicked suffer “eternal retribution” (αἰδίῳ τιμωρίᾳ),11 “eternal imprisonment” (εἱργμὸν ἀίδιον),12 while the Essenes teach that the wicked are condemned to “unending retributions” (τιμωριῶν ἀδιαλείπτων)13 and “deathless retribution” (ἀθάνατον τιμωρίαν).14

Given its semantic range, the meaning of aiónios in any specific text must be determined by context and usage. Except when it modi­fies the noun “God,” aiónios need not signify “eternal,” and perhaps not even then, as Heleen Keizer points out.15 For an interesting example, take a look at Rom 16:25-26: in v. 25, the St Paul speaks of “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages [aioníois] but is now disclosed,” which clearly refers to a span of time that has ended; and then in the very next verse he speaks of the aioníou theou, the everlasting God. My favorite example of aiónios‘s polysemy: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities . . . serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of αἰωνίου fire” (Jude 1:7). Most translators render αἰωνίου as “eternal,” yet we know that the fire that destroyed Sodom did in fact come to an end. So in what sense is the fire eternal?

Origen, the greatest exegete of the early Church and a native Greek speaker, was well aware of the meaning of aión and its adjectival forms:

Whenever Scripture says, “from aeon to aeon,” the reference is to an interval of time, and it is clear that it will have an end. And if Scripture says, “in another aeon,” what is indicated is clearly a longer time, and yet an end is still fixed. And when the “aeons of the aeons” are mentioned, a certain limit is again posited, perhaps unknown to us, but surely established by God.16

Commenting on Rom 6.5, Origen writes:

In Scrip­tures, aión is sometimes found in the sense of something that knows no end; at times it designates something that has no end in the present world, but will have in the future one; sometimes it means a certain stretch of time; or again the duration of the life of a single person is called aión.17

Origen explicitly connects aiónios life to final salvation and apokatastasis. Commenting on the Gospel of John, he writes:

The Savior calls himself a harvester, and the recompense of our Lord is the salvation and reintegration of those who are harvested; the expression “And he gathers the fruit for aiónios life” means either that what is gathered is the fruit of aiónios life or that it itself is aiónios life.18

But even the aiónes will come to an end, Origen tells us: “After aiónios life a leap will take place and all will pass from the aeons to the Father, who is beyond aiónios life. For Christ is Life, but the Father, who is ‘greater than Christ,’ is greater than life.”19

God the Father transcends all ages. In the apokatastasis the entirety of creation will participate in the aḯdios life that is the Creator. God will be all in all, as the Apostle teaches (1 Cor 15:24-28). The Origenian notion of eschatological stages sounds strange to our ears today. When was the last time you heard a sermon on the Son delivering his kingdom to the Father in cosmic theosis? Origen’s exegesis should at least challenge our default readings of eschatological aiónios punishment. The fire that belongs to the world to come, the pur aiónion, most definitely will come to an end once it has accomplished the purification of the condemned. It may last for a short or long time; but it is not eternal. Evil has no place in the universal restoration. Konstan and Ramelli elaborate:

In this connection, it seems particularly significant that Origen calls the fire of damnation πῦρ αἰώνιον but never πῦρ ἀΐδιος. The explanation is that he does not consider this flame to be absolutely eternal: it is αἰώνιον because it belongs to the next world, as opposed to the fire we experience in this present world, and it lasts as long as the aiónes do, in their succession. It does not, however, endure into the ἀϊδιότης, that is, in the absolute eternity of the final apocatastasis.20

Origen clearly understood the semantic spectrum of aiónios and recognized that it does not compel a reading of “eternal.”

Almost 300 years after Origen’s death, the Emperor Justinian would command Menas, the Patriarch of Constantinople, to convene a synod to condemn Origen. In his edict he affirms the doctrine of eternal perdition:

The Holy Church of Christ teaches an endless æonian [ateleutetos aionios] life to the righteous and endless [ateleutetos] punishment to the wicked.21

Justinian uses the word ateleutetos to express the endlessness of both aionion life and final punishment. The clarification is necessary, given that Origen and his disciples happily taught aiónios punishment. John Wesley Hanson comments:

If he [Justinian] supposed aionios denoted endless duration, he would not have added the stronger word to it. The fact that he qualified it by ateleutetos, demonstrated that as late as the sixth century the former word did not signify endless duration.22

To confirm his point, Hanson then quotes the Neoplatonic philosopher Olympiodorus, a contemporary of Justinian:

Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless ages [apeirous aionas] in Tartarus. Very properly the soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the divinity, but for the sake of healing. But we say that the soul is punished for an æonian period, calling its life, and its allotted period of punishment, its æon.23

Not only does the philosopher deny eternal punishment, but he explicitly employs aiónion to express the limited duration of post-mortem punishment.

In Matt 25:46 Jesus speaks of “aiónios punishment” (punishment pertaining to the aeon to come—the only place in the New Testament where the phrase occurs) and “aiónion life” (life pertaining to the aeon to come). Given that the life given to us in Jesus Christ is eternal in the strong sense, does this not mean that the punishment of Gehenna is also eternal in the strong sense? St Basil of Caesarea appears to have made this inference in his brief rules for monastics: “for if there will be at a certain moment an end of aiónios punishment, there will also surely be an end of aiónios life.”24 The argument seems initially plausible, even compelling, given the parallelism; but the inference does not necessarily obtain. Aiónios is an adjective: it modifies the noun to which it is connected. Adjectives often vary in meaning when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things, states, or events. When we read the sentence “Jack is a tall man standing in front of a tall building,” we do not jump to the conclusion that Jack is as tall as the building. We recognize the relativity of height with respect to both. When Jesus states that the wicked are sent to aiónios punishment, we should not assume that it refers to a state of perpetual punishing or that the loss is irretrievable. Jesus is not necessarily threatening interminable suffering. He (or the evangelist) may, for example, have intended aiónios to signify indefinite duration, i.e., the duration proper to the aeon of the next world. If so, the parallelism holds, yet even still it does not entail endless punishment. Or Jesus may be referring to the divine requital (whether remedial, retributive, or annihilating) that properly belongs to the eschatological aeon. And this is the crucial lexical point: aiónios by itself does not tell us whether the fire of gehenna is of limited, indefinite, or unlimited duration. By contrast, the life of the age to come, ζωή αἰώνιος, is truly eternal, for the life of Christ is indestructible and perduring. Adjectives modify nouns, yet nouns also modify adjectives.25

Christopher Marshall also rejects the thesis that the parallelism of Matt 25:46 implies eternal punishment. We may not deduce the eternality of Gehenna, he argues, from the eternality of the Kingdom:

The word “eternal” is used in both a qualitative and a quantitive sense in the Bible. It is sometimes urged that if eternal life in Matthew 25:46 is everlasting in duration, so too must be eternal punishment. But “eternal” in both phrases may simply designate that the realities in question pertain to the future age. Furthermore, inasmuch as life, by definition, is an ongoing state, “eternal life” includes the idea of everlasting existence. But punishment is a process rather than a state, and elsewhere when “eternal” describes an act or process, it is the consequences rather than the process that are everlasting (e.g., Heb. 6:2, “eternal judgment”; Heb. 9:12, “eternal redemption”; Mark 3:29, “eternal sin”; 2 Thess. 1:9, “eternal destruction”; Jude 7, “eternal fire”). Eternal punishment is therefore something that is ultimate in significance and everlasting in effect, not in duration.26

Note how misleading the English word “eternal” can be as a translation of aiónios. If the qualitative sense is intended by the speaker, then “eternal” is an inaccurate rendering, given that the dictionary definitions of “eternal” focus on  temporal perpetuity and timelessness.  The point is not the duration of the eschatological age but its character and tone, purpose and telos. In common usage “eternal” does not capture this nuance. David J. Powys concurs:

The general primacy of the qualitative sense of aiónion in N.T. usage, is universally acknowledged. Seen as such it expresses the quality of the promised Age (aión), the age of the kingdom of God. This rather than the duration of the kingdom is the primary stress within the word aiónios. Matthew 25:31-46 is packed with imagery concerning the fulfilment of the kingdom: it tells of the coming of the Son of man (v.31), the coming of the King (v.34) and the gathering of the nations before the throne (vv.31,32).

It is thus natural and appropriate to take ‘eternal’ (aiónios) in each of its three instances in this passage as being primarily qualitative in sense. The point is not that the fire will burn for ever, or the punishment extend for ever, or the life continue for ever, but rather that all three will serve to establish the rule of God.27

Kim Papioannou offers a similar exegetical judgment: “It is therefore likely that in the New Testament the adjective αἰώνία goes beyond the quantitative sense of ‘a period of time’ to imply a quality to be associated with the age to come—the age that God will set up.”28 In these cases “pertaining to the age to come” would be a more accurate translation, Papioannou suggests. It should be noted that Marshall, Powys, and Papioannou are not proponents of universal salvation.

Taking a somewhat different tack, Thomas Talbott has proposed that aiónios, both in Matt 25 and elsewhere in the New Testament, should be understood in a causal sense, except when it is used directly of “God”:

Whether God is eternal (that is, timeless, outside of time) in a Platonic sense or everlasting in the sense that he endures throughout all of the ages, nothing other than God is eternal in the primary sense (see the reference to ‘the eternal God’ in Rom. 16:26). The judgements, gifts, and actions of God are eternal in the secondary sense that their causal source lies in the eternal character and purpose of God. One common function of an adjective, after all, is to refer back to the causal source of some action or condition. When Jude thus cited the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of eternal fire, he was not making a statement about temporal duration at all; in no way was he implying that the fire continues burning today, or even that it continued burning for an age. He was instead giving a theological interpretation in which the fire represented God’s judgement upon the two cities. So the fire was eternal not in the sense that it would burn forever without consuming the cities, but in the sense that, precisely because it was God’s judgement upon these cities and did consume them, it expressed God’s eternal character and eternal purpose in a special way.

Now even as the adjective aiónios typically referred back to God as a causal source, so it came to function as a kind of eschatological term, a handy reference to the age to come. This is because the New Testament writers identified the age to come as a time when God’s presence would be fully manifested, his purposes fully realized, and his redemptive work eventually completed. So just as eternal life is a special quality of life, associated with the age to come, whose causal source lies in the eternal God himself, so eternal punishment is a special form of punishment, associated with the age to come, whose causal source lies in the eternal God himself. In that respect, the two are exactly parallel. But neither concept carries any implication of unending temporal duration; and even if it did carry such an implication, we would still have to clarify what it is that lasts forever. If the life associated with the age to come should be a form of life that continues forever, then any correction associated with that age would likewise have effects that literally endure forever. Indeed, even as eternal redemption is in no way a temporal process that takes forever to complete, neither would an eternal correction be a temporal process that takes forever to complete.29

Talbott’s proposal illustrates the variety of interpretive possibilities open to the exegete.

Now consider how Matt 25:46 reads when the word kólasis, traditionally rendered “punishment” in English translations, is given an alternative, but very possible, rendering—chastisement. As seen above, Hart translates kólasis in Matt 25:46 “chastening of that Age.” God chastises not to exact vengeance (timoria) but to correct, convert, discipline, and purify. Although kólasis can certainly be used in a retributive sense (e.g., 2 Macc 4:38), it may also signify remedial punishment. If Jesus intended kólasis to signify chastisement, then the adjective aiónion cannot mean “eternal.” Chastisement comes to an end when its corrective purpose is accomplished. In the late 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria clearly distinguished between kólasis and timoria:

For there are partial corrections which are called chastisements [kólasis], which many of us who have been in transgression incur by falling away from the Lord’s people. But as children are chastised by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish, for punishment [timoria] is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised collectively and individually.30

Just as aiónios does not compel “eternity,” so kólasis need not mean “retribution,” i.e., deserved punishment for its own sake. The corrective function of Gehennic punishment was explicitly stated by the biblical exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia:

Those who have here chosen fair things will receive in the world to come the pleasure of good things with praises; but the wicked who have turned aside to evil things all their life, when they are become ordered in their minds by penalties and the fear that springs from them, and choose good things, and learn how much they have sinned by having persevered in evil things and not in good things, and by means of these things receive the knowledge of the highest doctrine of the fear of God, and become instructed to lay hold of it with a good will, will be deemed worthy of the happiness of the Divine liberality. For He would never have said, “Until thou payest the uttermost farthing,” unless it had been possible for us to be freed from our sins through having atoned for them by paying the penalty; neither would He have said, “he shall be beaten with many stripes,” or “he shall be beaten with few stripes,” unless it were that the penalties, being meted out according to the sins, should finally come to an end.31

Yet even if biblical exegetes should determine, however unlikely, that kólasis in Matt 25:46 denotes the retributive infliction of suffering, this is perfectly compatible with the doctrine of universal salvation, as long as the punishment is finite and temporary.

I propose the following as a plausible translation of Matt 25:46: “Then they will go away to eonion punishment, but the righteous to eonion life.” The advantage of this translation is that it leaves open legitimate interpretive possibilities and does not read into the text later dogmatic developments.

The polysemy of aiónios explains why most universalists of the patristic period were native Greek speakers. They knew its semasiological scope and exploited it to advance their universalist convictions. Hence they had no problems asserting that the punishments of Gehenna would come to an end.32 They knew that Jesus’ assertion of aiónios punishment in Matt 25:46 did not mean, or at least need not mean, what we mean today by the words “eternal” and “everlasting.” If they had wanted to clearly assert eternal punishment, they had other adjectives available to them. When the Greek New Testament was translated into Latin, the translators made a fateful decision: they chose to render both aiónios and aḯdios by aeternus (forever, everlasting, eternal, perpetual). While aeternus renders aḯdios well, it’s a disaster for aiónios. The aeonic significance of the word is completely lost. The deal was sealed with the eventual adoption by the Latin Church of St Jerome’s translation of the Bible (now known as the Vulgate), as its preferred translation. Jerome renders Matt 25:46 as follows: et ibunt hii in supplicium aeternum iusti autem in vitam aeternam (“And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting”). Faced with the Lord’s apparent assertion of eternal perdition, the dogmatic rejection of universalism by the Latin Church was, tragically, the only faithful response.32

The lexical evidence is neither decisive nor probative; but it does indicate that aiónios need not—and some would say, cannot—be interpreted to support the traditional doctrine of eternal damnation. “True,” writes Robin Parry (aka Gregory MacDonald), “the age to come is everlasting, but that does not necessitate that the punishment of the age to come lasts for the duration of that age, simply that it occurs during that age and is appropriate for that age.”33 At this point proponents of the greater hope commonly invoke the character of God to guide their interpretation:

Any interpretation of Gehenna must be compatible with the claim that God is love and would never act in a way towards a person that was not ultimately compatible with what is best for that person. Any interpretation of Gehenna as a punishment must be compatible with the claim that divine punishment is more than retributive but has a corrective intention as well (for divine punishment of the sinner must be compatible with, and an expression of, God’s love for that sinner). Any interpretation of Gehenna must be compatible with God’s ultimate triumph over sin and the fulfilment of his loving purpose of redeeming all his creatures.34

Elsewhere I have argued that Christians should and must read the Holy Scriptures through a “hermeneutic of love” or, as I prefer, a “hermeneutic of Pascha,” precisely because God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ as absolute love. This gospel revelation must guide our interpretation of the Scriptures. The point is, the eschatological passages in the Scriptures are theologically underdetermined. In many cases the language is ambiguous, polysemous, metaphorical. When Jesus taught that the wicked will be condemned to Gehennic punishment, what exactly did he intend to communicate? It is by no means obvious. Will this punishment be eternal? Exegetes vigorously disagree, and their disagreements seem to be irresolvable, even at the basic level of historical investigation. The wide semantic range of aiónios precludes a dogmatic conclusion. Jesus is not here in the flesh to explain himself, and there are no oracles to whom we may go to receive infallible answers. Even so, interpret we must, if we are going to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. We must therefore choose our hermeneutica paradigm wisely—for choose we inevitably will, one way or the other.

But one thing I think we may safely say: sometimes eternity ain’t forever.

Footnotes

[1] I am not a biblical scholar. I don’t even read ancient Greek. My purpose in writing this article is quite modest: to present samples of the scholarship, past and present, that challenges the translation of aionios as “eternal” in the oft-quoted hell passages in the New Testament. These passages can be plausibly and reasonably interpreted in ways that do not deny apokatastasis. Please forgive the very lengthy quotations. I want you to see the words of the scholars rather than my paraphrases. The first version of this article was originally written on 13 September 2013 under a different title, “From Here to Eternity: How Long is Forever.” Since then it has undergone numerous revisions and may well undergo even more.

[2] Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009), p. 12.

[3] Marvin Vincent, Word Studies of the New Testament (1900), IV:58-60. Writing around the same time, Thomas Allin states: “Let us next consider the true meaning of the words aiōn and aiōnios. These are the originals of the terms rendered by our translators ‘everlasting,’ ‘for ever and ever’: and on this translation, so misleading, a vast portion of the popular dogma of endless torment is built up. I say, without hesitation, misleading and incorrect; for aiōn means ‘an age,’ a limited period, whether long or short, though often of indefinite length; and the adjective aiōnios 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.” Christ Triumphant (2015), pp. 275-276.

[4] James Hope Milligan and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (1929), p. 19.

[5] Vincent, IV:60-61.

[6] David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (2017), p. 541. Heleen Keizer devotes a chapter of her dissertation Life Time Entirety (1993) to the relationship between aiōn and ‘olām in the Septuagint.  She contends that aiōn (and analogously aiōnios) is a time-word signifying the whole or entirety of time: “Aiōn is the encircling whole of time” (p. 177). At the end of the chapter she concludes: “To summarize, ‘olām = aiōn in its fundamental sense designates what constitutes the temporal horizon inside of which we, created beings, have our position: it denotes time, always bound up with creation, reaching as far as we are able to envisage. In relation to particular matters, this horizon can be wider or more narrow: the time of a life, the time of a particular condition” (p. 204).

In the conclusion of her dissertation, Keizer connects the LXX understanding of ‘olām/aiōn with the usage of Jesus: “Of decisive importance is the new usage of aiōn found in the New Testament, where we hear Christ speaking of ‘this (present) aiōn’, ‘the end of this aiōn’, and ‘the coming (future) aiōn’. This new usage of the Greek term again reflects literally the usage of ‘olām: Rabbinic sources speak of ‘olām hazze and ‘olām habbā’ (‘this ‘olām” and “the coming ‘olām’). The distinction between two aiōns/‘olāms originated in the period before Christ; it is rooted in the soil of the Old Testament prophecies and firmly present in Jewish apocalyptic texts. To speak of ‘this aiōn’, its ‘end’ and ‘the aiōn to come’ clearly lends to aiōn the meaning of a limited time. But at this point our findings with regard to the Old Testament meaning of ‘olām/aiōn can be supportive and supported. The New Testament indicates that ‘this’ and the ‘coming’ aiōn are not simply successive ‘ages’ or ‘periods’: the coming aiōn, as a restored, reborn world, will in the future completely replace the present one, while as a new ‘horizon’ of life it is also present already now” (pp. 251-252).

[7] Ibid., pp. 542-543.

[8] Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan, Terms for Eternity (2011), pp. 69-70. Also see their article “Terms for Eternity,” Noua tellus, 24/2 (2006): 21-39, which may be downloaded here: http://www.scielo.org.mx/pdf/novatell/v24n2/0185-3058-novatell-24-02-21.pdf. Because their book has been dismissed on social media as a piece of universalist propaganda, it should be noted that Dr Konstan is not a universalist. He doesn’t even believe in the afterlife. He is a respected and widely-published scholar of the classics, with no universalist axe to grind.

[9] The Evangelical Universalist Forum (January 2012): https://forum.evangelicaluniversalist.com/t/terms-for-eternity-aionios-aidios-talk-part-2/1392/48.

[10] Hart, p. 538.

[11] Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 2.155.

[12] Josephus, Antiquities 1814.

[13] Josephus, Wars 2.155.

[14] Ibid., 2.157.

[15] Heleen Keizer, Review of Terms of Eternity, The Studia Philonica Annual 23 (2011): 203-204. Keizer cites examples from Philo and Theodore of Mopsuestia.

[16] Origen, Hom. in Ex. 6.13; quoted by Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (2013), p. 161. In the fifth century, Theodoret of Antioch gave the following definition of aión: “Aión 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.” Quoted by John Wesley Hanson, Aiōn–Aiōnios (1878), p. 12.

[17] Origen, Comm. in Rom. 6.5; quoted by Ramelli, p. 163.

[18] Origen, Fragments on John 13.46.299; quoted by Ramelli and Konstan, p. 122.

[19] Origen, Comm. in Io 13.3; quoted by Ramelli, p. 160.

[20] Ramelli and Konstan., p. 126. In De Sectis the following quotation is attributed to Origen: “There is a resurrection of the dead and there is punishment, but not everlasting [ἀπέραντος]. For when the body is punished the soul is gradually purified, and so is restored to its ancient rank.” Quoted by John Behr, On First Principles (2017), II:610. On Origen’s understanding of the purifying nature of the fire of Gehenna, see Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church (1991),  pp. 56-58. St Gregory of Nyssa, following Origen, also taught that the purifying fire of God will effect the salvation of all rational beings, including even the demons. See Morwenna Ludlow, Universal Salvation (2000), pp. 82-85; Ilaria Ramelli, A Larger Hope (2019), pp. 109-129.

[21] Quoted by John Wesley Hanson, Universalism the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church (1889), p. 283.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., pp. 283-284.

[24] Quoted by Ramelli and Konstan, p. 195.

[25] My thanks to Dan Heck for this observation.

[26] Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution (2001), p. 186, n. 123.

[27] David J. Powys, Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question (2007), p. 292.

[28] Kim Papioannou, The Geography of Hell (2013), p. 47.

[29] Thomas Talbott, “A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgement,” in Universal Salvation?, ed. Robin Parry and Christopher H. Partridge (2004), pp. 46-47.

[30] Clement, Strom. 7.16.

[31] Theodore of Mopsuestia, fragment; quoted by Solomon of Akhlat, The Book of the Bee (13th century), chap. 60. John Wesley Hanson also quotes this passage (minus the first sentence) and cites Assemani’s Bibliotheca orientalis, tom. iii, as its source (pp. 216-217).

[32] On the challenges of translation of ancient Greek into other languages, see Orville Jenkins, “Time or Character, The Ages or A Time Sequence in aionios“: http://orvillejenkins.com/theology/aionios.html.

[33] In her review of The Terms of Eternity, Keizer writes: “A positive observation can be made in as much as the hypothesis investigated by Terms for Eternity appears to be largely confirmed—a nuanced reformulation of the conclusion is, however, called for, which may be as follows: Scripture and the Church Fathers offer a basis to say that the aionios life is to be understood as really without end, whereas aionios death can be understood as once meeting its limit; aidios appears to be used by the Fathers far more frequently for future life than for death or punishment. This state of affairs, it can be stated, is bound up with the fact that aionios is very much more a biblical term than aidios as an obvious result of the respective frequency of the two terms in the Bible (OT + NT): aionios 222 and aidios 4 times. It can be concluded moreover that aidios regularly expresses endless duration in time, while aionios, as derived from aion, regularly refers to an entirety of time, the limits of which are not known or not there; both adjectives may also be employed to refer to a supra-temporal condition” (p. 206).

[34] Robin Parry, The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed. (2013), p. 148.

[35] Ibid.

(Revised: 24 July 2022)

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15 Responses to Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever: Aiónios and the Universalist Hope

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This is an expanded and revised version of an article I wrote many years ago. Because I intend to include it in my book, I’d like to invite anyone who knows biblical and classical Greek to critique it. If there are flaws, I want to know how to improve it. I welcome all criticisms, objections, and suggestions.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Rob says:

    Thank you for this most interesting and thorough survey.

    One of the challenges posed by the semantic complexity of aiónion and its cognates is how on earth to respond to questions about the meaning of the text from the average man or woman in the pew (which is to say, the believer who has neither the inclination nor the scholarly capacity to understand the nuances of the original language and the various arguments about how best they might be rendered in English).

    (This conundrum is not unique in scripture to aiónion, of course.)

    Like

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      To an extent it’s easier to respond to the average man or woman in the pew (of which I am one) than someone interested in the scholarly nuances of the language. Broadly speaking the only circumstance in which this debate impacts significantly on the core meaning of the text is in the context here of “aionion” punishment. My takeaway as a lay person is that one can be reasonably confident that it is referring to some kind of ongoing / future divine punishment for sins, but (and certainly with our current knowledge of NT Greek) whatever the precise meaning it is impossible to establish simply from the use of the word whether this is everlasting or not.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rob says:

        It’s especially hard to argue with those who believe God sentences unbelievers to eternal damnation.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Indeed it is. I find it strange how horrified they are at the suggestion that God really is merciful and, as the Bible teaches, WILLS the salvation of all, the restoration of all things and people. It is hard to get them to think of exactly what kind of “god” they believe in when they so happily describe the torments of “the damned.” We would call another human being who would do such a thing a monster, yet we blithely describe God, who is love, as doing exactly that without any qualms of conscience on our part.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Rob says:

            IMHO this kind of belief is usually the result of God being bound by a decidedly ungodly concept of (retributive) justice.

            Like

          • Calvin says:

            It’s not even retributive justice. That has limits. Infinite torture is far worse than an eye for eye, which if nothing else is at least a fair and proportionate exchange,

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Jamie says:

    Yes, I think this is quite well encompassing of the main topic. I too have written about this in my own book called “Leaving Hell Behind.” One thought which I find is often overlooked in this discussion is we know that aionios is an adjective of aion. As a foundation, I think it is good to show people how many different ways “aion” is translated by the various translations. It shows such inconsistency. A simple concordance can help for all of the major versions like the ESV, NASB etc. But otherwise good.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I just uploaded the latest version of the article. New material has been added.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Tom says:

    Thanks Fr Al. Best single location on the Net for info on UR.

    I was wondering whether ἀπέραντος (aperantos – endless, limitless, boundless) can be used to describe Hell to mean something more like vast, indefinite, ‘with no end in sight’, etc., that is, without implying that which is literally interminable or without end.

    This seems to be Paul’s meaning for the word’s only NT appearance in 1Tim 1.4 where he warns of those who “devote themselves to endless (aperantois) myths and genealogies which produce speculations produce rather than the stewardship from God which is by faith.”

    Paul cannot think myths and genealogies are literally “without end.” He can only be using the word to describe people who “go on and on endlessly” about such things. So the concept doesn’t necessarily imply that which is, strictly speaking, interminable.

    So I’m not sure why a universalist couldn’t say Hell is ‘aperantos’ (boundless, endless) in a more poetic, less mathematical, sense, the way we might say the boundless/endless depths of the sea swallow its victims, etc.

    And then Fr Al in this article quotes Olympiodorus:

    “To confirm his point, Hanson then quotes the Neoplatonic philosopher Olympiodorus, a contemporary of Justinian: ‘Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless ages [apeirous aionas]…’”

    Fr Al shared an interesting quote of (or attributed to?) Origen: “There is a resurrection of the dead, and there is punishment, but not ‘everlasting’. For when the body is punished the soul is gradually purified, and so is restored to its ancient rank. For all wicked men, and for demons, too, punishment has an end, and both wicked men and demons shall be restored to their former rank.”

    I understand ‘everlasting’ in the quote is some form our word (apeirous or aperantos).

    My question: If aperantos implies what is literally unending or interminable, then what can Paul mean by using it to describe ‘myths’ which Paul cannot believe to be literally unending (in any sense)? But if Paul uses the word to describe what are obviously finite, circumscribed, limited constructs, then the word has a more poetic side to its face, then may it not be used to describe Hell?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hmm. Given your facility with languages and experience with the translation of the Bible, I’m guessing you already know the answer to your question! 😜

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In my opinion, which is worth less than a cup of coffee at Mickey D’s, the two worst things to happen to the Roman Church were Augustine and Justinian. That the Orthodox Church describes a thug like Justinian as a saint is beyond confusing to me. Defending correct doctrine is only one small part of a saintly life.

    Like

  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Okay, folks. I have just updloaded the final final FINAL version of “Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever.” It’s time now for me to write the introduction to my soon-but-not-too-soon to be pubished book.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Joseph says:

    ///Because their book has been dismissed on social media as a piece of universalist propaganda, it should be noted that Dr Konstan is not a universalist. He doesn’t even believe in the afterlife. He is a respected and widely-published scholar of the classics, with no universalist axe to grind.///

    Does the academy have the same view of the book? Your mention of Dr. Keizer’s review seems to indicate it’s at least viewed as a respectable addition to the question. Then again, the academy and social media are two different universes.

    Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Classics scholar Carl O’Brien wrote a review of Terms for Eternity for the Classical Review in 2010. He concluded:

      This is a first-rate reference work. The semantic development, though interesting in its own right, is important evidence for our understanding of the history of ideas of this period, and the philosophical and theological significance of the analysed passages is outlined. While there are already excellent studies of the ancient concept of time, such as R. Sorabji’s Time, Creation and the Continuum (1983), R. and K.’s extensive philological analysis will be a vital tool for scholars working in this area.

      Clearly he is more positive about the book than Keizer. I do not have access to any other reviews. If you happen to find any, please pass them on.

      Like

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