"Eternity" is one of the most controversial words in the Bible. To many, it is thought to be the realm where time goes on and on, non-stop, ad infinitum, into which one enters after death. Based upon decisions affiliations, and actions made in this life on earth, it is supposed one irreversibly fixes his destiny for all eternity. The few who make heaven strum their harps and walk streets of gold with Jesus and all the happy saints. The vast multitudes who miss heaven, enter an eternal hell of burning torment and anguish. These notions which has shaped manís and the churchís views of God, have motivated some to embrace religionís answers whereas others turn to atheism. Still others are left neutralized and confused over whether God is a God of love, power, and mercy, or of hate, ineptitude, and vindictiveness.
The object of this writing is to examine the work "eternal" to show where it is used in scripture and to look at the Greek and Hebrew words from which it is derived. The word "eternal" which applies to the nature of God, will be contrasted with the word "age lasting" derived from the Greek word "aeonios," referring to the time periods for accomplishing the purposes of God. A clear understanding of these words reveals a truly sovereign, wise, and just God of love whose plan in creation and redemption knows no failure.
Words Synonymous To "Eternal"
The words "forever" and "everlasting," and the phrase "forever and ever" are used throughout scripture as synonyms for the word "eternal. Wesbsterís Dictionary defines "eternal" as "of infinite duration," "everlasting," "timeless," "perpetual," and "immutable." Rom.1:16 describes the Godhead as "eternal," here translated from the Greek word "aidios." "Eternal" is an excellent adjective for God. Clearly He has no beginning nor end. He neither sleeps for ages. It matters not what men nor devils say nor do. He continues steadfast in His plan and purpose. He is perpetual and never changes. With God there is "no variableness, neither shadow of turning" Jas.1:17. His fore- knowledge is perfect. "Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the ages" Ac.15:18.
For the last three centuries, the King James Version has been the most prominent and revered translation of the Bible. Indeed the bold acclamation, "Praise God, the Bible says what it means and means what it says," has been used to cement the veracity of its words regardless of their individual accuracy. Consequently, many have overlooked otherwise obvious mistakes regarding the uses of certain words. The KJV is not infallible, nor is it the object of our worship. Rather we are to worship King Jesus and allow Him to lead us into all truth, even when that means a revision in our thinking about the Bible, whether the King James or another version.
Some Obvious Errors
For example, in the Old Testament the old covenant of the law is referred to as the "everlasting covenant" (Lev.24:8) implying that it was to endure for eternity. Yet the New Testament records that the first covenant was "done away" and "abolished" 2Cor.3:11,13. God "has made the first old" Heb.8:13. Either God is confused, or else translators have rendered the text inaccurately. Since the former cannot be true, it is incumbent upon us to search out the exact meanings of words and to find the answers to such discrepancies.
The Aaronic priesthood is spoken of as "an everlasting priesthood" Ex. 40:15. If "everlasting" means "eternal," then the direct descendants of Aaron and only they, would be allowed to function as priests, and this for all time. Yet Heb.7:14-18 declares an end to the Aaronic priesthood and a new priesthood after the order of Melchizedek. Peter describes the church as "a spiritual house, an holy priesthood" (1Ptr.2:5), a statement which John confirms when he writes that by Jesusí blood the church has been cleansed from sin and made "kings and priests unto God" Rev.1:6. Thus in the above Exodus reference, "ever-lasting" cannot possibly mean "everlasting."
The children of Israel were to "observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant" Ex.31:16. Yet Paul states there remains "another day" of Sabbath rest for people of God" Heb.4:8,9. Though translators may have used the word "perpetual," the Holy Spirit disproves this choice of words, exposing it as incorrect.
The misuse of words expressing "unlimited duration" when specific time periods were intended is most obvious in the following cases. Jonah was not in the fishís belly "forever" Jon.2:6. A bondslave could not possibly serve his master "forever" Ex.21:6. God did not dwell in Solomonís temple "forever" 1Kg.8:13.
The Hebrew word from which the aforementioned "everlasting," "perpetual" and "forever" were translated, is "olam." Wilsonís Old Testament Word Studies by William Wilson, gives the meaning of "olam" as "duration of time which is concealed or hidden." In other words, an unknown length of time. Though it may have been a very long or even indeterminable period of time, the sense that it would come to an end was always there. This concurs with our New Testament texts which confirm that indeed these established practices were abolished and replaced with something better. The King James translators would have been more accurate to record that the old covenant and its priesthood were for an "age of time."
Essential to our understanding of the New Testament scriptures is a clear perception of what eternity and how the word "eternal" differs from the word from which it is translated. It is generally preached that eternity is a state of being into which Christians enter upon physical death and that eternal life describes the life the believer receives from God. But nowhere in the scriptures is a Greek word meaning "eternal" used to describe the life God gives to a Christian. This is proven by Jesus Himself in His one and only definition of the life He gives. For the purpose of clarity, we will insert the original Greek word "aeonios" for the translatorís word "eternal." Jesus said, "Now this is aeonios life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" Jn.17:3. Clearly this life has nothing to do with eternity, but is a quality of relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ who brings us into a present knowledge and experience with God our Father.
An Impossible Interchange
Equating aeonios life to eternal life is an impossibility. "Aeonios" and "eternal" are words having totally different meanings. They are not interchangeable. Jesus who should be our sole authority, describes aeonios life as a dynamic relationship, the outcome of which is growth and change. Although the adjective "eternal" is appropriate for God, it is certainly inappropriate for the believerís life in God, because though God is of "infinite duration, everlasting, timeless, perpetual and immutable" (the definition from Websterís Dictionary quoted earlier), the believersís life is one of continuous change over aeons of time. This process begins in the spirit of the believer and requires time to be completed. A Christian may commonly speak of and desire to have eternal life, but it hardly seems possible that he should want eternal life now or upon death, until he is totally and perfectly conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
Let's Look At "Aeonios"
To understand this better, we must know about the word "aeonios." The Greek adjective "aeonios," for which so many translations mistakenly use the word "eternal" is derived from the noun "aeon." "Aeon" means "age" or "ages," as in "the mystery which has been hid from ages and generations" (Col.1:26), or in "the ages to come" Eph.2:7. These ages are time periods having a beginning and an end. In the study of grammar, it is an indisputable law that an adjective can have no different or greater meaning than the noun from which it is derived. For example, the adjective "monthly" could only be derived from the noun "month," not "hour," "day," or "week." Aeonios life can only mean a life pertaining to an age or ages of time (Heb.1:3 Ampl.) because "aeonios" is derived from "aeon." Hence, the misapplication of the word "eternal," implying timelessness, when periods or portions of time are meant, obscures rather than proclaims Godís magnificent plans for man.
Godís Purpose In The Ages
Understanding the uniform meaning of "aeon" and of its adjectival form "aeonios," reveals the majestic and sovereign wisdom of God in His purpose for all creation. The aeons past, present, and future are not Godís "hit and miss" attempts at getting a few loyal subjects to obey Him. Instead the aeons are the womb out of which God brings forth people to accomplish His purposes. In ages past God called not only the Israelites, but also idol worshipping Egyptians and Assyrians to be His servants. Those ages were the periods of their coming to know about God and learning obedience to His ways. The present church age is a unique time in which other people redeemed and appointed according to Godís purpose and grace before the aeonios times began
(2Tim.2:9), are being birthed and nurtured, these unto the new covenant relationship of sons and daughters.
Those so privileged are the "ekklesia" or "called out" people who are known as the church. Their initial salvation experience commenced when they were "born again." In this spiritual regeneration they received the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph.1:3), the earnest or down payment toward their inheritance. While partaking of aeonious life, i.e. growing in the knowledge and love of God, these people ultimately mature to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph.4:13), and find themselves perfect and entire wanting nothing (Jas.1:4). When perfectly conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom.8:29), they shall have their inheritance which is being like God-Gen.1:26. For them the work of the aeons will have been completed.
Traditional Objections Unmasked
With every progression of new understanding, it is quite normal for there to be objections. Loyalists to creeds and tradition will be the most adamant objectors for they have deeply ingrained within their minds, that the believer has eternal life. It is clear that such is not the case, because one in a state of timeless immutability, or eternality, is disqualified from Godís purpose in creating man. Godís creative processes require repentance and change. Since God says, "I change not" (Mal.3:6), then it is Godís children who change. Scripture states, "we shall (future tense) be like Him for we shall see Him as He is." 1Jn.3:2. The ages exist in order that during them we may with our eyes on Jesus, go from glory to glory and faith to faith-2Cor.3:18.
Aeonios Life---Aeonios Punishment
The most common objection arises with the realization that if aeonios life for the righteous will one day be completed, then aeonios punishment for the unregenerate will also one day be completed. Most prominent support for the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment is in Matthew 25:46 where aeonios punishment is contrasted to aeonios life. "Then they will go away to eternal (aeonios) punishment, but the righteous to eternal (aeonios) life." It is argued that the latter is supposed to mean endless life, hence the former supposedly means endless punishment. If the punishment is limited, the life must also be limited, the duration of each being expressed by the same word. Though the reasoning appears logical, it is based upon the unfortunate mistranslation of the word "aeonios."
Even if the premises for eternal punishment in Matt.24:46 were true, it is clear from Rom.16:25-26, that "aeonios" does not mean "eternal." Here again "aeonios" occurs twice, "According to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past (aeonios), but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal (aeonis) God." "Aeonios" cannot mean "eternal" when it speaks of the gospelís being kept secret "since the world began," (KJV), "for long ages past" (NIV). If "aeonios" meant "eternal" (perpetual), then the gospel would still be a secret, for there would be no succession of ages before which it was a secret nor after which it could be revealed. The same truth is revealed in Titus 1:2. "In hope of eternal (aeonios) life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began (before times aeonios)." Though God is certainly eternal, the second use of "aeonios" in Rom.16:26, refers to Him as the God of the ages, just as he is the God of Israel or the God of Abraham.
Uniformity Eliminates Confusion
The fact is "aeonios" wherever it is used in the New Testament has one uniform meaning. When applied to God, He is the aeonis God, or the God of the ages, i.e., the Being who through aeons of time is working out His wonderful plan. The word "aeonios" has the force of belonging to, or in connection with the ages; for example, "aeonios life," "aeonios salvation," "aeonios redemption," "aeonios inheritance," "aeonios fire," and "aeonios punishment" (see John 3:16; Heb.5:9; 9:12,15; Jude 7; Matt.24:46). To suggest that "aeonios" means "endless times" or "endless ages," is not only a contradiction of terms, but nonsensical and confusing. It is equivalent to suggesting an "infinite finite," a "limitless limit," a "something nothing" or a "full vacuum." An age is a span of time, a period of existence. Though seemingly immeasurable to man, nevertheless it is of limited duration.
God's Punishments Have Purpose
In examining "aeonios" as it is applied to punishment, we see that this too pertains to a period of time or age in which God is working out His purposes. The Greek word translated "punishment" is ""kolasis," which means "to curtail, retrain, chastise, or prune." Aeonios chastisement would then be a sentence of chastisement with both a beginning and an end, for the purpose of correction. The fact that the sentence of chastisement has an end does not in any way take away from its severity (Rom.11:22). God has promised judgment to theGentiles until He sends forth judgment unto victory-Matt.12:18-20. For when Godís judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness-Isa.26:9. Never are Godís chastisements meaningless, as they would be if aeonios punishment were forever. Even those who have not benefited from His judgments while living on this earth, will one day experience His judgments, for "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" Heb.9:27. The marvelous truth of the gospel is that Godís chastisements are redemptive. Ultimately all the ends of the earth shall know God, for He has sworn by Himself, and the word has gone out of His mouth in righteousness and shall not return void, that unto Him every knee shall bow and every tongue shall swear-Isa.45:22-23; Phil.2:10-11.
If "Aeonios" Meant "Eternal"
Furthermore supposing "aeon" and its adjectival form "aeonios" meant "eternal," consider how illogical the Holy Spirit would appear saying, This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of eternity (aeonios)" (2Tim.1:9) "which God, who does not lie promised before the beginning of eternity (aeonios)" (Tit.1:2); "according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for eternity (aeonios) past" (Rom.16:25); who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil eternity (aeon)" (Gal.1:4); "the harvest is the end of this eternity (aeon)" (Matt.13:39); "who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming eternity (aeon)" Heb.6:5. Suffice it to say that there have been "aeons" in the past, there is the present "aeon," and there are "aeons" to come. These all combined make up TIME, encompassing the whole progressive plan and program of God for the development of His creation.
Only "Aidios" Means "Eternal"
The fact is the New Testament has only one word which can truthfully be translated "eternal." This is the Greek word "aidios" which is used only twice. Once it describes the Godhead. "For since the creation of the world Godís invisible qualitiesóHis eternal (aidios) power and divine natureóhave been clearly seen" Rom.1:20. The second time it describes the chains which hold rebellious angels until their day of judgment, "these he has kept in darkness; bound with everlasting (aidios) chains for judgment on the great day" Jude 6. These timeless, unchangeable chains will always be a symbol of the severity of Godís corrective measures. Apart from these two verses, there is no place in scripture where a word meaning eternal is to be found.
Eternity and its synonyms are grevious mistranslations of the Hebrew and Greek words. Both the Old and the New Testament misuses indicate a biased mind-set which hides Godís true nature and purpose. The uniform translation of "aeon" and its adjective from "aeonios" solves many inconsistencies in scripture study. Jesus came to give aeonios life, a quality of relationship with the Father through Himself, a life that is only the earnest of much more to come. The most shameful consequences of this error are the grotesque images which Christianity projects of God, who is really so loving, wise and powerful. Godís love nature corresponds with His purpose which required Jesus to hang on a cross, and about which Jesus said, "And I if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" Jn.12:32. His wisdom and majesty dominate the ages through which mankind is drawn toward Godís goal of creating man in His own image, "that God may be all in all" 1Cor.15:28.
Understanding the realities of Godís plan of the ages has great practical application in the life of the believer. The amazing grace of God which we so willingly embrace for ourselves, we then extend to every living soul. We know that if God saved a "wretch like me," then our faith can be extended toward seeing every other wretched, lost soul saved. Grace can be truly comprehended when it is extended to all creation. To limit Godís grace is to be of a law mentality which judges, condemns and puts "our" group above another. It should only be too obvious that it is the very rejection of this unlimited grace which justifies the self-righteous and divisive attitude so prominent among Christians. Whether in the home, church, or world, all grounds for judgment and condemnation are removed.
The "Christ in you" is the Christ of God who never fails. He was slain before the foundations of the world (Rev.13:8) in anticipation of manís failure. Calvary was not an after-thought. The "Christ in you" has unlimited love, wisdom, and perseverance for delivering you as well as all creation from every bondage of sin and death. He is well able to complete that which he began.
Our confidence is greatly enhanced when we see God in His magnificence and grandeur, the author and perfector of our faith, who Himself has faith for the whole world. Jesusí blood will acquire all it has purchased; He "gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time" 1Tim.2:6. The salvation of all mankind continues throughout the expanse of Godís ages.
By Lee Salisbury