What Does Aionios Mean?
The Words We’ve Fudged: Eternal
In this article, we look at the Greek word aionios and explore the implications of incorrectly translating this word “eternal”.
Clarifying the Objective
Words get lost in translation and the Greek words aion and aionis, and the Hebrew equivalent olam, fall into this category. The translation process is fraught with many challenges and we can be grateful for the many translations that make the Scriptures accessible to us in contemporary English. That said, accepting the limitations of the translation process, the goal of exegesis is to draw out the full meaning of the Biblical text.
The objective is to discern where the original meaning of the word is obscured and to then rediscover the term as it was intended.
The Meaning of Aionios
The Greek words aion and aionios, and the Hebrew equivalent olam, mean “age” and refer to a specific aeon, epoch or season. Although translated “eternal” and “everlasting”, they simply do not mean forever and ever.
The words aion, aionios and olam instead refer to a defined period of time dependent on the subject they describe. They can thus refer to short or long periods of time, but they never mean unending, never-ending, infinity, or 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” (italics added).
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).
In other words, aion, aionios and olam refer to a specific duration of time dependent on its subject or the context in which it appears. Never does it explicitly mean “without end” which the English words endless, unending, eternal, eternity, infinity and forever convey.
Let’s consider some New Testament examples where the Greek words are correctly translated “age” or “world,” and cannot possibly mean “eternal”, as in forever and ever.
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, “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 conformed to this infinity…”. It would be nonsensical.
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 as it is compared to another specific age in the future. 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 distort the meaning of the original words. In this case, “eternal”, “everlasting” and “forever”, which for us mean “without end”, do not accurately capture the time-specific words aion, aionios or olam.
Let’s now consider the implications…
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. Here. Now. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).
The phrase “eternal life” in Greek is aionios zoe, literally: “age life”—referring to the quality or calibre of life that comes from relationship with God in the immediate present. 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.”
Don’t miss this. Jesus Himself makes it clear that aionios zoe (translated “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 understand as follows: “This is true or essential 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 the 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.
Furthermore, it is critical to understand this phrase in the context of the Message of Jesus, the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Jesus ushered in this God-quality of life not just because He redeems but because He delivers us from the framing narrative of a corrupt Empire and complicit religion. His disciples and the early church lived from a higher dimension, a new Kingdom, one from which they brought life and liberty to their society. Overflowing with the life of God, they contended for the poor, they advocated for the marginalised and they excelled in good deeds that changed their world.
Yet too often, Christendom has booted the gist of Jesus’ message to an after-death experience and defaulted on liberating others bound by the Empire by offering a misguided opiate. Amen or O-me?
When the rich young ruler asked Jesus, “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!” (v. 24)—clearly connecting the man’s question of inheriting “eternal life” with the present reality of the Kingdom of God.
Bottomline? The phrase “eternal life” is a synonym for the “Kingdom of God” and its primary intent concerns the quality of life found in relationship with Father God now, a reunion that empowers us as sons and daughters to advance our Kingdom mandate.
What About Eternal Punishment?
When the Son of Man comes in His glory … All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left …
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Jesus used the phrase aionios kolasis in His parable of the sheep and goats, a phrase translated “everlasting punishment” or “eternal punishment”. (This is the only time the phrase is used in the entire Bible.)
As we’ve seen, aionios refers to a time-specific period that has both a beginning and an end. The Greek word translated “punishment” (kolasis) comes from the word kolasin, a horticultural term used for pruning trees. In classical Greek, kolasis referred to punishment which aimed at the reformation of the offender.
Together, this phrase (aionios kolasis) may more accurately refer to curative correction or remedial punishment. Certainly, the phrase in itself does not imply a punishment that is applied “without end”, as in forever and ever.
In other words, “eternal punishment” refers to the quality or intensity of God’s punishment not the quantity of it. While it is unquestionably severe, the phrase does not convey the sense of endless punishment.
Some point out that since aionios punishment is compared with aionios life in the parable (v. 46), the judgement of the goats versus the reward of the sheep, the former must equal the latter in duration.
That’s not necessarily true.
We find the Greek word (aionios) used in making a comparison within the same passage elsewhere. In Romans 16:25, 26, for example, Paul compares the beginning of the “world”, a specific point in time, with the “everlasting God”, who is, obviously, beyond time.
The same is true for the Hebrew word olam. For example, in Habakkuk 3:6, “the everlasting mountains” are compared to God’s “everlasting ways”.
In other words, aionios punishment and aionios life in the parable do not necessarily refer to the same duration of time.
Matthew 25:46 may well be read as follows: “And the unrighteous will go 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.”
“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.”
This section on “eternal punishment” is not intended as a comment on the nature of God’s judgement of the unbelieving. It is only a comment on the phrase translated “eternal punishment”. The doctrine of future states is a more complex issue and requires more than just a simple word study on a single phrase found in a parable (and nowhere elsewhere in Scripture)—a parable that’s chiefly concerned with conveying God’s perspective on how nations deal with their poor and needy.
Making comment on this phrase is important, however, as it shows how easily one can read into the word “eternal” that which was not intended by the use of aionios, aion or olam.