JUST WHAT DOES “ETERNAL” MEAN ANYWAY?
BY: CHARLES W. WELLER
THE NEW TESTAMENT: AION/AIONIOS
THE OLD TESTAMENT: OLAM
The King James Version has given us an interesting understanding of the Scriptures. For many of the present words have a different connotation than what was meant in the 1600’s. England used the word “hell” to mean “dig up” the ground. They would hell the ground every spring. In 1989, hell means a place of eternal torment.
In almost every language it is the usage of the language that determines the meaning of the word. At one time in our society the word “gay” meant to be happy and merry, but today the word has a very different meaning in that it is related to homosexuals. Thus, with just one example we can see the change involved with words over a period of time.
Words change their meanings as time progresses. It is very helpful therefore for us to consider the original Hebrew or Greek of a Scriptural text so that we might gather the correct meaning. At the same time meanings must also be taken in context within the chapter that it is written.
As we proceed with the study of the words “eternal,” “ever,” “forever,” “everlasting” we will review the present view of what these words mean. Yet, we will also look at their meaning historically and in the context of that day. Proper study as a Berean is needed to grasp the gem that God has for us.
Scriptural inerrancy is a foundational point of our study of the Bible. Either the Bible is inspired and with that every word to every place of punctuation, or it is not. The Bible cannot be partially inspired. While doctrines may cause divisions in the body of Christ, and that over interpretation, the basis of Scripture is our starting point. We need to go the original Greek and Hebrew.
THE NEW TESTAMENT: AION/AIONIOS
In the New Testament, the word that is used as the noun or adjective: AION/AIONIOS is the word that we first will turn. This word is used a total of 199 times in the New Testament. Yet, the inconsistency in the KJV causes manifold problems. For example AION/AIONIOS is translated in the KJV as: age, eon, time, period, today, universe, life, course, world, worldly, world without end, since the world began, from the beginning of the world, ever, evermore, for ever, for ever and ever, never, eternal, everlasting, always, from of old, in ancient times, from all time, before time began, eternal life, eternity, course of eternity, UTTER darkness
As an example in Ephesians, we find in 1:21 “not only in this WORLD” which should read “age.” The Holy Spirit inspired men to write the Bible. In other places of Scripture the Holy Spirit uses the Greek word “cosmos” for the English “world.” If the Holy Spirit wanted the word translated in Ephesians 1:21 as world,” the Spirit would have used “cosmos.” But the Spirit did not use “cosmos” but “aion.” The reason being that the Spirit wished to express time in the thought and the importance of it. The KJV translators did a very poor translation of the original, but the best they could at the time.
In Ephesians 2:2 it states: “according to the COURSE of this world” which should read “age/eon.” In 2:7 it is translated correctly as AGE. But in 3:9 the KJV states: “which from the beginning of the WORLD” which should read “AGES.” Thus, it is easily seen that there can be a problem with the interpretation of words. AION, the noun, and AIONIOS, the adjective, both are words that are used with the context of time.
Whether in secular writings or in the Bible, these two words refer to time. It may be a short time – an age. Or it can mean a longer time – ages. Or depending on the circumstances it may mean the “best of” as in – the age of the ages, ages of the ages. But in every context it refers to time. When the Bible reader’s eyes see the word “eternal,” the reader’s mind automatically thinks the word means a time of endlessness, a time without end. It is this understanding, that must be reconsidered. While churches have taught such to the believer, it is because the leadership does not understand the Greek or the Hebrew, but have accepted, without question or personal searching their teacher’s lesson.
Because of the conflict that enters one’s mind, we will use the King James Version to prove itself incorrect. There are many instances where the word “eternal” is used and implies time without end, but the same word “eternal” refutes such in another location of Scripture.
Consider Luke 1:33 which states that: “He shall reign over the house of Jacob FOREVER; and of His kingdom there shall be no end.” How does that relate to 1 Corinthians 15:24 which states: “Then cometh the end when He shall have delivered up the kingdom of God, even the Father.” It is obvious that Jesus does not reign always, but that His reign ends when He turns all things over to the Father. Can “forever” mean time without end?
Now, if this is true then it also raises other questions doesn’t it? If forever doesn’t mean forever, then the lake of fire isn’t forever is it? Is salvation then for a certain time only? These are serious questions that bring into play the very character of God. The plan and purpose of God for the ages also has to be reconsidered in light of AION and AIONIOS. Many church doctrines must be reassessed. It is not a discussion here that can be said “so what, this is not important.” The question raised by the understanding of these two words goes down to the root, the very fiber of the Christian faith.
Ours is not to consider the weightier matters, but to thoroughly explain and reveal the understanding of the importance of time as expressed by AION and AIONIOS. There is a basis, a foundation, which must be considered. IF God uses the word “AION” to mean “eternal” as a time without end, then that thought/understanding should follow throughout the Bible. The thought is that the time period is endless. If the word “AION” does not mean “eternal” then that should also be proven by the texts studied.
God has given us “eternal life” the KJV proclaims. The Greek is AIONIAN life. An age lasting life. Does this mean that we have lost “eternal” life and won’t live forever? By no means! The truth is God has given us life for the age (eternal). BUT through salvation we will be delivered from the ages into that which is without time. When time is no more we shall “be.” But we can not and must not equate “eternal” with timelessness.
Some will find it offensive to consider that heaven will end, as well as the lake of fire. Some will find it offensive that there is no rapture, others will be offended that they will not know their relatives in heaven. Church doctrine teaches one thing, the Scriptures another. But truth remains.
Consider the following comparisons, and their discrepancies:
Revelation 11:15: “He shall reign for EVER and EVER.”
1 Corinthians 15:25: “For he must reign UNTIL He hath put all enemies under His feet.”
Hebrews 5:6: “Thou… a priest for EVER after the order of Melchizedec.“
Hebrews 9:26: “but now once in the end of the WORLD… to put away sin…”
Jonah 2:6: (while in the fish) “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me FOREVER.”
Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonas was three days and nights …”
Exodus 28:43 (Aaron’s call as a priest) “…it shall be a statue for EVER unto him and his seed after him.”
Hebrews 7:11 “If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood… what further need… another priest…after the order of Melchizedec…”
These few passages and there comparison clearly express the idea that “eternal” does not mean timelessness. What it does show is that there is a time period that will last for an unknown period to man. In other words, God knows the length of the time period while to man it seems unending because it lasts through many generations.
When death is swallowed up by life (1 Corinthians 15:54), there is no more death. Death and hell are cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20) So are the unsaved on that day. The people are NOT ETERNALLY tormented. They are judged and tormented for an AGE. At the end of the age, death is turned into life.
Heaven is for an age. The lake of fire is for an age. How long is the age? No man knows. But we do know that there are: an age of the ages, or eon of the eons – Ephesians 3:21. This means that within a number of ages, this one age is the best of the group.
But then we also find that there is the phrase: ages of the ages, or eons of the eons. This means that there are ages that are the best of all the ages. One age in this group of ages and another age in that group of ages, gives us two ages that are the best of the ages. Thus is birthed the idea of ages of the ages. Revelation 1:6 in the KJV says “for ever and ever” and should be translated as “for the eons of the eons.”
Confused? I hope not. But before time ends and is no more we have many ages to go through. Jesus came that we might have eternal life – age lasting life. The word “AIONIOS” is used 43 times with the word “life.” It is used with fire 3 times. With the usage of life it refers not only to time but in certain places of Scripture with the very nature of life.
At the point of salvation, that born again experience, the saint receives life. Age life. He may physically die, but will receive resurrection because the life in Him abides through the ages. It is the seed unto the resurrection so that then at the appointed time he will receive immortality, which is life that is beyond time. Thus, while some think they have “eternal life,” that is living unendingly, they do err. This age-life causes us to abide through the ages, even while in the grave until the appointed time.
Those that are raised unto judgment – the lake of fire – do not receive immortality. They suffer the second death. (Rev. 20) It is only at the end of the eons (ages) that all death is swallowed up into life. As in Adam all die ALL shall be made alive. (1 Cor.15:22)
I might add that a thorough study of scripture will also reveal that the soul is not immortal. It does not go to heaven when a person dies. Age-life supports the idea that the soul does not go to “heaven.” It is the tendency of human nature to run in ruts. No where is this tendency more marked than in the sphere of the religious. It must be obvious to a careful observer that the one thought with most adherents of Christianity is to defend the tenets of traditional belief. Few care to admit that they have taken too much for granted; fewer still have inclination to test what they have received or courage to recant a fixed thought.
Scripture is regarded not so much as a well of life, a source of knowledge, but as a vast arsenal of text-weapons for separate use in theological arguments” (Vladimir Gelesnoff, The Ages in Scripture, pg.3). AION/AIONIOS carry within their understanding of an “age” that an “age” has an end. When anyone talks and uses the word “age” and people that are involved with the conversation understand that “age” refers to a specific period of time. A period of time that has a beginning and an ending. But the KJV uses the word “eternal” which has the connotation of no time.
Hebrews 1:8 states: “…Thy throne of God is for ever and ever; a scepter of righteousness, is the scepter of thy kingdom.” This verse is clearly applied to Jesus Christ. It is a quote of the Old Testament Psalm 45:6. Yet, in the light of 1 Corinthians 15:24, which we quoted earlier, Jesus reigns TIL He turns all over to the Father. What does “for ever and ever” mean in the KJV of the Bible?
In this verse it clearly should be translated as “unto the ages of the ages.” In other words, Jesus Christ reigns until the best ages of all the ages have finished their function in finally delivering all creation from death. When everything is swallowed up into life, He turns it over to His Father.
Revelation 11:15 in the KJV states that “The kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ and He shall reign for ever and ever.” Again, it shows that there were kingdoms that reigned for a while, and then His appeared and will reign for ages of the ages.” Christ rules in the affairs of men from the time of creation unto the summation of creation. We can say unequivocally.
THE OLD TESTAMENT: OLAM
The Hebrew word “olam” is the word that the KJV uses for “ever, forever.” Olam actually means a life time if it is tied to usage with a person. Another way of saying it would be “unto many generations.” It is the intent of the Hebrew word to express the idea that the “thing” will last for the whole time it was created for.
Have we not seen the pictures of the Egyptian pyramids, or even been there? These pyramids will last forever is a probable statement that one would make concerning this wonder of the world. But if the earth would be burned up with fervent heat, as 1 Peter discusses, then these same pyramids will not be eternal or last forever. But the pyramids will last as long as they were created for. Such is the meaning of olam.
In some places olam is translated as: the beginning of the world, ancient, from of old, long, old time, always, continually, and world. In Exodus we find that the slave was a slave forever, but could that mean more than his natural life? Of course not. Consider Deuteronomy 23:3-5 which states that a Moabite or an Ammonite cannot enter the congregation of the Lord for at least ten generations. Yet, in Nehemiah 13:1 it states: “...that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever.” Their pledge in Nehemiah was for their “generation” or “lifetime” in the Hebrew it did not mean from that point on without end.
Ecclesiastes 1:4: “One generation passes away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever.”
Matthew 5:18: “For verily, I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
The earth does not abide “for ever.” It abides “till.” The Hebrew olam does not mean without relation to time. It means a time that has an end, but whose end is undetermined by man. Ezekiel mentions that the sanctuary of the Lord will be in the midst of Israel “for ever.” But the book of Revelation (21:22) shows there is no sanctuary as Israel knew it, for a new thing is being done. Again another clear instance where the word means a specific time.
The most interesting point is Eccelesiastes 3:11 which states: “He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also He has set eternity in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God doeth from the beginning even unto the end.”
In this verse we note many points worth consider. Every piece of creation was made for its time. A time was set in the heart of man. God has a plan that has a beginning and an end. The whole chapter 3 deals with times and seasons. The word eternity is used for olam. The whole chapter, the verse in particular deals with time. That alone should make us question the use of the word eternity. But when the Hebrew is looked at, eternity means age or life-time.
Some books worth study on the subject of aion/ aionios/ olam are:
THE AGES IN SCRIPTURE, Vladimir Gelesnoff,
GOD’S ULTIMATE by A.E. Saxby,
GOD’S EONIAN PURPOSE by Adlai Loudy,
THE OUTCOME OF INFINITE GRACE by Loyal Hurley,
ALL IN ALL by A.E. Knoch.
AGES-WHAT DOES ETERNAL MEAN, THE [Charles W. Weller] 1