Sunday, June 12, 2011

Is Eternity Really Eternal?

Michael “Squints” Palledorous, one of the characters in The Sandlot, always knew he was going to marry Wendy Peffercorn.  However, some time before they had their first kiss on the side of the community pool, “Squints” made his famous quote about the Beast’s sentence to its backyard fortress as he uttered, “For-ev-er”.

Rob Bell, in his newest and most controversial book (to date) Love Wins, aptly describes the feeling of The Beast’s owner upon learning of its sentence:

“Remember sitting in class, and it was so excruciatingly boring that you found yourself staring at the clock?  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  What happened to time in those moments?  It slowed down.  We even say, ‘It felt like it was taking forever.’  Now when we use the word ‘forever’ in this way, we are not talking about a 365-day year followed by a 365-day year followed by another 365-day year, and so on. What we are referring to is the intensity of feeling in that moment.  That agonized boredom caused time to appear to bend and twist and warp.”[1]

Bell also states:          

“When we use the word ‘age’ like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or a year, and more to a period or era of time.  This is crucial to our understanding of the word aion, because it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever.”[2]

Part of the controversy surrounding Bell’s book is his supposed rejection of the historical understanding of the doctrine of hell (i.e. eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked).  Now, a separate review of Bell’s book and thoughts is forthcoming; however, for the time being, and based on additional conversations surrounding the term aion, it seemed necessary to provide a linguistic analysis of this crucial word.

To begin, we ought to note that there are two different words (and their many derivatives) used to address “an age” or “eternity”: aion and aionios.  With that said, we ought to next look at how these terms are defined.

Aion has four definitions: (1) a long period of time, without reference to beginning or end (of time gone by/the past/earliest times, or of time to come which, if it has no end, is also known as eternity); (2) a segment of time as a particular unit of history, age (the present age or the age to come); (3) the world as a spatial concept; and (4) the Aeon as a person.[3]

Aionios has three definitions: (1) pertaining to a long period of time, long ago; (2) pertaining to a period of time without beginning or end, eternal; and (3) pertaining to a period of unending duration, without end.[4]

With those definitions in place, it would certainly seem absurd to attempt to persuade someone that aion never has a temporal sense, as the following texts demonstrate: Luke 20:34-35; John 9:32; Acts 15:18; Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:8; et al.  All of these texts (and many more) certainly point toward a temporal or historic sense when using the word aion.

However, the issue at hand is whether, at times, aion, aionios, and their derivatives can have a non-temporal meaning (i.e. specifically, contextually and correctly defining the term as eternal, eternity or everlasting).  The rest of this essay sets out to convincingly demonstrate this fact.

It seems most prudent to begin by demonstrating that aion, aionios, and their derivatives can, at times, identify a non-temporal sense when using these words.  For instance, consider the following texts:

Rom. 9:5 – will God’s praise be only temporary?

Rom. 11:36; 16:27; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:20 – will God’s glory be only for an age?

            2 Cor. 9:9 – is God’s righteousness momentary?

Based on this evidence (certainly non-exhaustive!), is anyone willing to continue arguing that aion, aionios, and their derivatives do not, at times, convey a non-temporal sense?

Therefore, if we are willing to concede that there might be instances where the sense is non-temporal, then, what should follow is a reminder that we ought to read, interpret and understand Scripture in its context.  For instance, if we look back to one of the temporal examples (Luke 20:34-35), we can see that translating aionos as eternal, eternity or everlasting would certainly not fit.

But what about texts that speak about heaven and hell as a post-mortem destination?  Let’s first consider Daniel 12:2…

“Prior to Daniel 12:2 we find no clear evidence of belief in hell, if by hell we mean a place of eternal torment and judgment for the wicked.  It would be left to later revelation in the New Testament to develop this image.  When the doctrine of hell develops in the New Testament, it borrows much of its imagery from the Old Testament, particularly the images of perpetual suffering through maggots and unquenchable fire in Isaiah 66:24.”[5]

In addition, regarding olam:

“[i]t is true that the Hebrew word…does not always mean endless in a strict temporal sense.  But in this context [Daniel 12:2], it seems to because it points to a decisive division into joy or misery after death and resurrection.  As the life after death is everlasting, so the shame and contempt are everlasting.  There is no thought in the Old or the New Testament that after the resurrection divides humanity into life and contempt, this division will ever be replaced by a new condition.”[6]

Now, before we proceed any further, two things ought to be acknowledged: (1) I have not had formal Hebraic studies; therefore, outside of a few thoughts by reputable scholars, I am going to focus mainly on interacting with the New Testament Greek, which I have studied.  (2) “The idea of an afterlife or eternal life came late in postexilic times and is attributed to Jewish contact with Persian documents.  Dan. 12:1-2 is conceded to be the first biblical reference to an afterlife.”[7]  (3) “Though anticipated in the OT, the concept of eternal life seems to be largely a NT revelation.”[8]

With that said, as we turn to the New Testament, we should not be intimidated by the fact that the idea of an afterlife came late in postexilic times due to interaction with Persia.  Why is that?  Because God, in Christ, also discussed the afterlife, and by no means should there be argument that Jesus was influenced by Persia’s influence on his culture enough to where he would teach falsely.

Moreover, it seems appropriate in this instance to allow for some mystery, as, at least from my studies, I have not come across any conclusive evidence as to why the idea of eternal life or eternal punishment were not addressed in more detail throughout the OT.  Perhaps, though, we should consider the fact that “[w]e do not have to have a satisfactory explanation for everything God tells us is true.  There are mysteries: ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever’ (Deut. 29:29).”[9]

Moving now to two specific New Testament texts:

In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31ff, the term aionion is used, which Jesus uses both to point to the eternal life of the righteous and eternal punishment of the cursed (Matt. 25:41, 46).  Therefore, if we are to read this portion of Scripture in context, unless we are going to conclude that the eternal life of the righteous is also temporal, we must conclude, rather, that the eternal life of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the cursed are, in fact, eternal.  Moreover, Jesus uses the same word aionion to address the “eternal fire” reserved for the “cursed”.  Therefore, because this word is not being used in a historical context, it seems appropriate to translate this word as “eternal”. 

Within Revelation 20:10, John uses the phrase tous aionos ton aionon (translated “for ever and ever”), to describe the eternal torment received within “the lake of fire and brimstone”.  Now, those who wish to argue for a temporal meaning of this phrase must also consider Revelation 22:5, which describes the eternal, or unending, reign of God’s servants.  Therefore, if an argument is made for the temporal nature of the torments of hell in Revelation 20:10, then we must conclude that the reign of God’s servants in Revelation 22:5 is also temporal.  Surely, no one is willing to contend for that part of the argument.

In addition:

“And against the strong body of NT teaching that there is a continuing punishment of sin we cannot cite one saying that speaks plainly of an end to the punishment of the finally impenitent.  Those who look for a different teaching in the NT must point to possible inferences and alternative interpretations.  But if Jesus wished to teach something other than eternal retribution, it is curious that he has not left one saying that plainly says so.  In the NT there is no indication that the punishment of sin ever ceases.”[10]

In conclusion, it is my hope that this entry has provided some conclusive evidence that aion, aionios, and their derivatives can and are, at times, translated as eternal, eternity, or everlasting (even when speaking about the post-mortem destinations of humanity).  Future posts will consider the terms used by the New Testament writers to describe hell, along with additional thoughts about hell as “eternal, conscious punishment of wicked.  For the time being, let’s conclude with the following:

“The notion of eternal punishment was greatly elaborated in the early Christian apocalypses that came to be called apocryphal (to the NT).  In The Apocalypse of Peter, for example, various places of punishment are revealed.  In each case the mode of punishment suits the sins for which the lost souls are being punished.  It is this later tradition that Dante incorporated in his Inferno.”[11]

[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 31.
[2] Ibid., 57.
[3] Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 32-33.  It should also be noted that BDAG is arguably one of the premier language resources.  With that said, one must be willing to grapple with the evidence provided therein in order to claim reputable scholarship.
[4] Ibid., 33.
[5] Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 65. 
[6] John Piper, Jesus: the only way to God: must you hear the gospel to be saved?(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 33-34.
[7] Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 282-283.
[8] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 394.
[9] Piper, 32.
[10] Elwell, 395.
[11] Achtemeier, 842.

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