Why the “Eternal” Confusion?
As we have seen the Hebrew word o·v·lam (olam) and the Greek word aiónios (and its derivatives) need not denote endlessness. Why then have translators chosen these words again and again? Were they trying to mislead us? Not necessarily. As I mentioned, translation is difficult and it is easily possible to make wrong inferences as to the intended meaning of a word. Most likely the reason for the persistent, systematic error we have seen can be found in the verse that we started this chapter with:
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
As a translator, you want to be consistent. Since we believe that eternal life really does go on forever, eternal punishment must be for the same duration, it is argued. Translators believed there was parallelism to the concepts of eternal punishment and eternal life. This seems like a reasonable inference if the verse is taken in isolation, but given our new understanding of the whole counsel of Scripture, it becomes suspect.
It is certainly not a logical necessity.
Let’s use a simple analogy to illustrate this point…
Imagine that I say the following:
“For a period of time I weighed about 8 pounds, but for another period of time, I weighed about 175 lbs.”
Is it a logical necessity that the time periods are of the same duration? I only weighed about 8 pounds for a very short period of my life, but then I grew up, and now I weigh around 175 pounds. I’ve been around this weight for many years and may continue to weigh about 175 pounds until I die, for all I know. Likewise, it does not follow logically that the usage of the word aiónios must mean the same thing in all instances.
In fact, we have scriptural examples that prove that it does not, using aiónios/olam to denote different time periods in a parallel fashion much like Matthew 25:46. Consider the following:
Habakkuk 3:6 (ESV)
He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal (aiónios/olam) mountains were scattered; the everlasting (aiónios/ad) hills sank low. His were the everlasting (aiónios/olam) ways.
Notice that the last line refers to God's ways as everlasting (aiónios/olam). For God, the words "everlasting" or "eternal" must mean truly eternal, without beginning or end, because He is without beginning or end. But if we apply this same definition to the eternal mountains and everlasting hills, we must assert that they too have no beginning or end, which is obviously false. The parallelism of the passage does not support the concept that aiónios or olam must have equal duration. Instead, we see a refutation of that argument. The duration being described is dependent on the noun being modified. God's ways are truly eternal because He is God. Mountains and hills are not eternal because they were created, and will eventually disintegrate. In fact, Habakkuk 3:6 is describing the end of these "eternal" mountains and hills, since they are being scattered (some versions say "shattered") and sinking low (i.e. they are not hills anymore).
Romans 16:25-26 (ASV)
Now to him that is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which hath been kept in silence through times eternal (aiónios), but now is manifested, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal (aiónios) God, is made known unto all the nations unto obedience of faith...
I chose the American Standard Version for this example because it at least makes an effort at consistency in translation. Many other versions translate the first phrase that uses aiónios as "long ages past", "since the world began", "the beginning of time" etc. These versions, of course, do this because translating aiónios as "eternal" in the context of a mystery that has already been revealed makes no sense. In what possible way can a mystery hidden for eternity be revealed? It, of course, cannot.
It is also vital to notice that aiónios is used twice in this same sentence, first to describe the times for which the mystery of Christ was kept hidden, and second to describe God Himself. Again, when applied to God the adjective "eternal" has the connotation of "without beginning or end." This meaning clearly cannot be applied to the time for which a mystery has been hidden, especially since that mystery is no longer hidden.
Both of these scriptural examples demonstrate that the argument that aiónios must always indicate the same duration when used in parallel or in the same sentence, is not a good one. Instead, we clearly see aiónios being used in the same sentence to denote different ideas. Its meaning is dependent on the noun it is modifying in context.
Recall that aiónios is an undefined period of time. In fact, it has a significant range of meaning in ancient Greek. Consider the following excerpt from Word Studies in the New Testament by Marvin Vincent (D.D., Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature at Union Theological Seminary, New York):
Aristotle says: "The period which includes the whole time of each one's life is called the aion (eon) of each one." (Peri Ouravou, i.9, 15)
Hence, it often means the life of a man, as in Homer, where one's life (aion) is said to leave him or consume away (Iliad. v. 685; Odessy. 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 in the flesh; the period of the millennium (the 1000 year reign of Christ to come); 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 is one aion 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 aion depends on the subject to which it is attached. It is sometimes translated "world," with "world" representing a period or a series of periods of time. (See Matt 12:32; Matt 13:40-49; 1 Cor. 1:20; 1 Cor. 1:20; Ephesians 1:21). Similarly the worlds, the universe, the aggregate of the ages or periods, and their contents which are included in the duration of the world. (1 Cor. 2:7; 1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 1:2; Heb 9:26; Heb 11:3)
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. . . . The adjective aionios in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting (pp. 58-59, vol. IV, Vincent's Word Studies of the New Testament, retrieved from Merciful Truth: Eternity )
Dr. Vincent also notes that “aionios means ―enduring through or ―pertaining to a period of time. Both the noun and the adjective are applied to limited periods....Out of the 150 instances in LXX, [Greek Old Testament/the Septuagint] four fifths imply limited duration” (Beauchemin 2010, page 25)
Did you see the amount of variation exhibited by the word “aion” and its adjective derivative aionios, everything ranging from the length of a man’s life, to an indefinitely long duration? Did you also notice that the vast majority of the time that the words are used in the Septuagint, they imply limited duration? It is quite strange to insist that the words must mean denote eternity when they clearly do not do so most of the time.
Other scholars agree with this assessment.
Charles John Ellicott was a distinguished scholar and bishop who served as Professor of Divinity at King's College London and Hulsean Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. In Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible he writes the following:
(Matt. 25:46). Everlasting punishment--life eternal. The two adjectives represent the same Greek word, aionios it must be admitted that the Greek word which is rendered "eternal" does not, in itself, involve endlessness, but rather, duration, whether through an age or succession of ages, and that it is therefore applied in the N.T. to periods of time that have had both a beginning and ending (Rom. 16:25).
James Hastings was a well respected Scottish minister who received honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees from both the University of Aberdeen (1897) and Queen's University in Nova Scotia (1920). In Hastings ’ Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. I, p. 542, art. Christ and the Gospels ) he explains:
Eternity. There is no word either in the O.T. Hebrew or the N.T. Greek to express the abstract idea of eternity. (Vol. III, p. 369): Eternal, everlasting—nonetheless "eternal" is misleading, inasmuch as it has come in the English to connote the idea of "endlessly existing," and thus to be practically a synonym for "everlasting." But this is not an adequate rendering of aionios which varies in meaning with the variations of the noun aion from which it comes. (p. 370)
Notice that the word aionios “varies in meaning with the variations of the noun aion from which it comes” (Hastings) and that the “length of the aion depends on the subject to which it is attached” (Vincent). Therefore it makes sense that the aionios life that we are offered is indeed everlasting (and so much more), because it is describing the life that comes from knowing God and Christ (who is the way, the truth and the life). Aionios, however, does not always connote endlessness, especially when it is describing a word such as kolasin (corrective punishment that has the goal of restoration). Indeed, in such a context, this interpretation would be nonsensical.
It is not difficult to understand the concept that an adjective can connote different lengths of time depending on the noun that it modifies. In fact, this principle applies in English as well. Here is an example:
If I say that my dog is “old,” it is reasonable to assume that it is about 12 years old or so, but certainly not 105. If I say that a Giant Sequoia is “old,” it is almost certainly hundreds of years old. Notice that the adjective (“old”) has different meanings depending on the subject it is modifying, just as aionios does in the Greek.
Conclusion: Is “hell” Eternal?
It seems incredibly unlikely that the correction that sinners will receive as a result of God’s judgment will be eternal suffering. There is no solid linguistic basis for the translation from either Greek or Hebrew being rendered this way. Rather, it reflects a bias passed on to the translators who were taught to believe in the traditional doctrine of hell.
Since this translation is the primary rationale for believing in the doctrine of hell, and since this translation seems to be contradictory to many plain biblical truths (as outlined in earlier chapters), it is foolhardy to insist on its veracity. We are called to “…honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16). How can we obey this command if we insist on defending a false premise (the doctrine of hell) that robs people of hope and at times makes us feel hopeless for the lost? Let’s drop this false premise and preach the incredibly good news that Jesus Christ is indeed the "Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14) just as the Scriptures have plainly told us!
Beauchemin, Gerry, and D. Scott Reichard. Hope beyond Hell: the Righteous Purpose of Gods Judgment. Malista Press, 2010. A free pdf of this book is available here: http://www.tentmaker.org/books/hope_beyond_hell.pdf. It is also free for Kindle or a hard copy can be purchased from Amazon.
Ellicott, Charles John. “Ellicott's Commentary on The Whole Bible for English Readers.” Bible Hub, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/matthew/25.htm. See the section on Matthew 25:46
Hastings, James. “Eternal Everlasting - Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament - Bible Dictionary.” StudyLight.org, www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/e/eternal-everlasting.html.
Vincent, Marvin. Word Studies in the New Testament. 1887. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973. 58-59. Note: This source (along with more great analysis) can be seen directly here: https://www.studylight.org/commentary/2-thessalonians/1-9.html#vnt. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is the verse being analyzed.