The Words We’ve Fudged: Eternal
In our last article, we looked at “salvation” and “righteousness,” and pointed out how we’ve truncated both words. For instance, while salvation is a comprehensive word that resonates with multiple references, it’s difficult for us to think of it as anything but being saved from damnation (i.e. being granted eternal life). So we’ve preached a narrow message that almost solely addresses a post-mortem concern failing to address the many earthy issues so important to Jesus.
Furthermore, shearing “justice” from the concept of “righteousness” has aided and abetted this truncated approach, a second mistake complicit with the first. Why bother about contending for the poor, the oppressed and the victimised when it’s all about personal piety and getting to the other side?
But here’s the thing. We’ve fudged the word “eternal” too. And this is where things get particularly hot under the collar.
This is the 8th article in our series on Messy Dogma where we’re seeking to re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. In this second of a new sub-series, The Words We’ve Fudged, we look at another word we’ve truncated and consider how it muddies Jesus’ message. If you’re just joining us, you’ll probably find it helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
2217 words (c. 5 pages) = 25 minute read
Eternal: Another Fudged Word
In this article and the next few, we look at two concepts badly translated into English resulting into a terrible distortion of their original meaning. Let’s begin with the word “eternal.”
The English words “eternal” and “everlasting” are used to translate the Greek words aion and aionios, and the Hebrew equivalent olam. These words mean “age” and refer to a specific aeon, epoch or season, but do not actually mean “eternal” as we’ve come to understand it (i.e. forever and ever).
In his Word Studies in the New Testament, Marvin Vincent explained: “Aion, transliterated aeon, is a period of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself.”
Campbell Morgan, a highly respected expositor of Scripture, said: “Let me say to Bible students that we must be very careful how we use the word ‘eternity.’ We have fallen into great error in our constant use of that word. There is no word in the whole Book of God corresponding with our ‘eternal,’ which, as commonly used among us, means absolutely without end.” (Campbell Morgan, God‘s Methods with Man).
The words aion and aionios instead refer to a defined period of time dependent on the subject it describes. They can thus refer to short or long periods of time, but they never mean unending, never-ending, infinity, or forever and ever.
Let’s consider some New Testament examples where the Greek words are correctly translated “age” or “world,” and cannot possibly mean ‘eternal’ as in unending, never-ending, forever and ever.
- Paul wrote, “do not be conformed to this world…” (Romans 12:2).
The word “world” in Greek is aionios and refers to this current age or epoch of time, and in this case, its specific influence, which has a definitive end. It can’t possibly mean “eternal” as in never-ending. Paul was obviously not saying, “do not be conformed to this eternity…” or “do not be confirmed to this infinity…”. It would be nonsensical.
- Jesus said, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34).
It goes without saying that He wasn’t saying, “The sons of this eternity marry…” or “The sons of this forever…”. It wouldn’t make any sense.
- Paul wrote, “… not only in this age but also in that which is to come” (Ephesians 1:21).
Paul is referring to some specific now, “this age,” which clearly has an end. He did not mean, “…not only in this eternity but also…” or “…not only in this forever and ever but…”. Again, it would be a ludicrous remark.
The corresponding Hebrew word (olam) is likewise often incorrectly translated with the English word “forever.”
- For example, Jonah is translated as saying that he was in the belly of the fish “forever,” which of course lasted for just three days (Jonah 1:17; 2:6). Obviously, Jonah was not claiming to be in the fish for all eternity.
- Animal sacrifices were to be offered “forever” until, of course, the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ ended the need for animal sacrifices (2 Chronicles 2:4; Hebrews 7:11-10:18).
- Our English translation has God expressing His intention to dwell in Solomon’s temple “forever.” The temple was, of course, destroyed (2 Chronicles 7:16). We know that God was expressing His intention to inhabit Solomon’s temple for a specific “season” or “age.”
The point is simple: our English words can sometimes distort the meaning of the original words.
What about Eternal Life?
The phrase “eternal life” mainly appears in John’s Gospel and is, in fact, John’s way of communicating the Kingdom message. This is a significant statement. Eternal life is a synonymous expression for the Kingdom of God, which was already established by the time John wrote his Gospel account (see Mark 10:17-31, c. Vv. 17 and 23). Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John chose this phrase as his primary expression, using it fifteen times; in contrast, he used the phrase “Kingdom of God” only six times.
So, not only is this phrase important in our efforts to hear afresh the Kingdom message; as it turns out, it is one of the phrases that has been most distorted.
Because of the incorrect English word “eternal,” John’s wonderful phrase is now booted into the afterlife when, in fact, John laboured through his account to explain that Jesus’ incarnation had radically altered this life. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).
The phrase “eternal life” in Greek is aiōnios zōē, literally: “age life”—referring to the quality or calibre of life that comes from relationship with God now. Its direct meaning and implications do not concern the hereafter, but the here-and-now. In fact, it could be best understood as fullness of life, or the God-kind of life.
John 10:10 is a verse that captures this thought, and John’s core message, well. Jesus said: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
A little later, Jesus explained: “This is eternal life that they may know You, the only true God” (John 17:3). Don’t miss this. Jesus Himself makes it clear that eternal life is essentially about relationship with God and the infusion of the God-quality of life into our earthly lives now. This verse could be read as follows: “This is quality of life, that they may know You, the only true God.”
The fact that we correctly conclude that this “age life” transcends time is because its subject is, of course, God; this life comes from the Source of Life, and since He transcends time, so does this life He gives us. However, this idea, though valid, is secondary and dependent on the subject; in this case, God Himself. It is a deduction we make. The word “eternal” does not in itself have this connotation.
The point again is this: by fudging the word “eternal,” we kick the urgency and application of Jesus’ message into the afterlife when it was intended for this life. Jesus sought to describe the quality and substance of life God makes available to us now in Him; too often, we relegate it some arcane after-death bliss.
Jesus ushered in a quality of life made possible because we’re delivered from the corrupt frame story of man and all mankind’s systemic subplots. We’re empowered to live on a higher plane, by a new story; one from which we can liberate the planet. Yet too often, we boot the gist of His message to an after-death experience and default on freeing others from their systemic entrapment by offering a misguided opiate. Amen or O-me?
So, to return to a passage we’ve already mentioned, when the rich young ruler asked, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18), he wasn’t asking, “How do I get to heaven?” Rather, he was asking for the secret to fullness of life. Seemingly full of himself, he was asking a self-actualising question: “What more do I need to have it all?”
After Jesus confronted his pride, Jesus said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”—clearly connecting the man’s question of inheriting “eternal life” with the present reality of the Kingdom of God.
What about Eternal Death?
Are you sure you want to know? With great knowledge comes great responsibility. I jest, but my tongue is firmly in my mouth.
It goes without saying that this has obvious implications on how we understand the phrases eternal death and eternal damnation.
As we will see in the next word we’ve fudged (Hell), one of the Greek concepts Augustine, the early church father (AD 354-430), seeded into Christian doctrine was the teaching of “endless torment” (or eternal damnation). One of the core passages he based this on was Matthew 25:46. In this parable of the sheep and the goats, the Son of Man comes in His glory to judge the nations (Matthew 25:31-46).
The spine-chilling climax to this parable ends with the goats condemned to “everlasting punishment” and the sheep blessed with the promise of “eternal life.” Of course, the incorrect translation of aionios as “everlasting” and “eternal” in this passage probably reflects Augustine’s original bias in the translation.
Augustine taught that since “eternal life” must be forever and ever, “everlasting punishment” must be never-ending, too.
However, as we’ve seen, the Greek word does not convey this meaning in itself; rather, the specific period involved is determined by the subject it describes. The sheep in the parable are given “eternal life” (literally, age life), the undefinable and immeasurable quality of life we have from a relationship with Father God. Correctly concluding that this God-given promise is unending is based on the subject: God is undying; timeless. The duration is linked to the subject—in this case, God Himself.
The goats are sentenced to “everlasting punishment” (literally, age punishment), referring to the quality or substance of just punishment from God; punishment for a defined age or epoch or season of time. This phrase simply does not imply never-ending punishment. So, to what then does it refer?
The Greek word translated “punishment” (kolasis) was originally a horticultural term, used for “pruning trees,” and thus, would more accurately refer to curative correction or remedial punishment.
The adjective “everlasting” in “everlasting punishment” then refers to the intensity (quality) of this remedial chastisement, justly measured to those deserving of such—and actually implies a sense of hope once justice is served. This hope is spoken of implicitly in other passages (see for example: John 1:29; 3:17; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 1 Timothy 2:4-6; Titus 2:11-13; 1 John 2:2; 4:14), and we’ll pick up on this thread later in the series.
Just to be thorough on this verse in Matthew 25:46…
What if Augustine was right in his interpretation of this verse?
Since the same Greek word aionios appears in both sides of this ‘equation’ (in one sentence), doesn’t it refer to the same duration of time? No, we find these Greek words used in the same passage to refer to different periods of time, and each time, as we’ve consistently seen, their meaning is derived from the subject they describe.
- To the Romans, Paul explained that “according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began … according to the command of the everlasting God…” (Romans 16:25, 26).
The “world began” refers to a defined point in time in contrast to the “everlasting God,” who is, obviously, beyond time itself. Thus, while the same word is used in the same passage or ‘equation,’ they refer to two different periods of time.
And the same is true of the Hebrew word olam:
- Habakkuk referred to “the everlasting mountains” that are eventually “scattered” and then declares, “His ways are everlasting” (Habakkuk 3:6).
While the mountains are finite, God’s ways are clearly not. Again, the same word, appearing in the same thought (sentence) or ‘equation,’ clearly refers to two different periods of time based on the subject.
Thus, Matthew 25:46 may be read as follows: “And these will go away to just chastisement, but the righteous into God’s life.”
In The Inescapable Love of God, Thomas Talbott explained: “The Gospel writers thought in terms of two ages, the present age and the age to come, and they associated the age to come with God Himself; it was an age in which God‘s presence would be fully manifested, His purposes fully realized, and His redemptive work eventually completed. They therefore came to employ the term [aionios] as an eschatological term, one that functioned as a handy reference to the realities of the age to come.”
Talbott continued, “In this way, they managed to combine the more literal sense of that which pertains to an age with the more religious sense of that which manifests the presence of God in a special way.”
And he concluded, “Eternal life, then, is not merely life that comes from God; it is also the mode of living associated with the age to come. And similarly for eternal punishment: it is not merely punishment that comes from God; it is also the form of punishment associated with the age to come. Now in none of this is there any implication that the life that comes from God and the punishment that comes from God are of an equal duration.”
It’s also worth pointing out that not all the early church fathers agreed with Augustine’s doctrine of unending damnation. Augustine himself said:
There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.”
Notice, he acknowledges that they did not deny the Holy Scriptures by holding to a different viewpoint on this subject. And while there were three predominant theories to the judgment of the unbelieving in the early church (remedial chastisement, annihilation, and endless torments), it is important to remember that even the Creeds simply yet profoundly state that Jesus will come to “judge the living and the dead” … full stop. That’s IT!
There is no one dogmatic, historical viewpoint on post-mortem judgment within the Christian tradition. Sadly, many believers don’t even know that they have other valid alternatives to consider other than the doctrine of endless damnation.
Just a word on Augustine before we wrap up this article.
Augustine was a respected and influential early church father. However, he was first a disciple of Plato before he converted to Christianity. By his own admission, he attempted to reconcile the Christian faith with Greek philosophy and in the process, aside from the many positive contributions he made, introduced some less than positive concepts into the mix, too.
To critique these contributions is not to criticise the man. The issue is this: if we hold to the doctrine of endless torments (or never-ending punishment), we have him to thank for popularising a Greek import into Christian tradition. However, we should also then acknowledge the other viewpoints within orthodox Christianity, and refrain from dogmatic condemnation of other valid perspectives.
What’s the key point to ponder?
Simple. Our English word “eternal,” which means forever and ever, does not accurately translate the Hebrew and Greek words. The original words refer to defined periods of time dependent on the subject of the passage, and when used in connection with God, often refer to quality or substance.
Do yourself a favour and study the passages given in this post. Try replace “eternal” with infinity or never-ending to do your “Does it even make sense?” test.
Where we’re going next?
In the next post, we’re going to look at how we’ve fudged another word that has the potential to blow your mind and get me in trouble. All I ask is that you proceed with an open heart. Okay, let’s have a look at the word Hell.