Matthew 25:46 -  “Aionian” or “Eternal”
by Ken Eckerty


Most Christians who believe in the doctrine of never-ending punishments base this on several passages in the New Testament that seem to speak of punishment in terms of “eternity.”  Some of these passages include 2 Thes. 1:9, Rev. 14:11, and Rev. 20:10-15.  However, the conclusion that God will torment most men forever is primarily based on a faulty understanding of the meaning of the Greek words “aion” and “aionios.”  Unfortunately, most of our English Bibles do not accurately translate these words, and as a result, the doctrine of “eternal” hell continues to thrive in the midst of the organized church.  Let’s take a look at both of these words and see how most Christians have misapplied them.

“Aion”

The Greek noun “aion” literally means “an age” or “an indeterminate period of time.”  Hebrews 1:2 tells us that “God made the ages,” and the Apostle Paul tells us that there was a state of existence BEFORE the ages (1 Cor. 2:7) and that the ages will END. (1 Cor. 10:11)  Clearly, if something begins and ends, it cannot be unending. 

Strong’s Concordance gives this definition for the word “aion:”

1) for ever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity  2) the worlds, universe  3) period of time, age. 

According to Strong, this little four-letter Greek word can mean both “eternity” and “a period of time.”  Huh?  How can something mean both a period of time which clearly has a beginning and ending AND a state of existence that has neither beginning nor end?  The simple answer is it can’t!  The Greek language is not like English.  It is much more precise which is why I’m sure God chose this as the language of the New Testament.  While some English words can carry two different meanings totally separate from context, the Greek language is not so.  While there can be different usages for a Greek word based on context, there is no one Greek word, that I am aware of, that can have two totally opposite meanings. 

Let’s look at one of the verses that is commonly used to prove the doctrine of never-ending punishment.

And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever; and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name. (Rev. 14:11)

 

The Greek word translated “forever and ever” is the word “aion” (used twice).  There are three problems with the way the King James translates this verse. 

First, if something is “for ever,” why bother adding another “ever?”  Are we to think that there is more than one “for ever” or that we have to have an extra “ever” added so we get the point? 

Secondly, both uses of the word “aion” are in the plural form.  The problem with this should be obvious to anyone who is honest.  Are we to somehow think that there is more than one (plural) eternity?  No theologian teaches that and yet there is no doubt that the plural form of “aion” is used in this verse.  If the King James translators looked at the tense a bit more carefully, they would have written the above phrase to read “for evers and evers.”  This, of course, makes absolutely no sense.  However, if we properly interpret “aion” to mean “an indeterminate period of time,” then the verse makes perfect sense.  Here is how it should be translated:

And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up unto ages of ages; and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name. (Rev. 14:11)

 

This interpretation helps us understand that “an age” can be a very long time – the length of which is known only to God.  However, “a very long time” is NOT “forever and ever.” 

Thirdly, it’s very interesting to note that those who are tormented will have no rest DAY or NIGHT.  If this is an eternal state of punishment, why are the terms “day” and “night” used?  Day and night were created by God as recorded in the Genesis account.  (Eternity is not created – it has always existed).  These are terms that designate time, not eternity, and since eternity contains no “day” or “night,” I think it is clear that the word “aion” in Rev. 14:11 cannot mean eternal.  The punishment (torment) will continue as long as it takes for God to accomplish His purpose—no more, no less.  It does not go on “forever and ever” as boasted by theologians, but it lasts only for the ages.  

 “Aionios”

The adjective “aionios” comes from the noun “aion” and means “age-abiding” or “age-lasting.”  It is a common rule of language that an adjective can have no more force than the noun from which it is derived.  For example, if I say that my grandfather is my elder, I mean to say that he is older than myself, and therefore, is to be respected. However, if I change this noun to its adjective form, this, in no way, changes the meaning of the word.  By using the word elderly, I am still saying that my grandfather is old.  It’s the same meaning—all that has changed is the form.  The same is true with “aionios.”  If “aion” (the noun) means “an indeterminate period of time” then it goes to follow that “aionios” (the adjective) will also have the same basic meaning. 

This adjective is never found until the writings of Plato (427 BC - 347 BC) who only used the word five times, and while he did use this word in the context of eternity, he never used it by itself to mean such.  Why?  Because the word, in and of itself does not mean “eternity.”  Whenever he wanted to convey the idea of eternity, he always combined a stronger forced word with it (such as “aidios”), but not once did he ever use “aionios” by itself to mean “endless.”  However, both Plato and Aristotle did use the word “aionios” by itself to mean temporary.  Here is an excerpt by J. W. Hanson from his book Bible Threatenings Explained:

Plato, referrring to certain souls in Hades, describes them as being in “aionian” intoxication.  But that he does not use the word in the sense of endless is evident from the Phaedon, where he says, “It is a very ancient opinion that souls quitting the world, repair to the infernal reigions, and return after that, to live in this world.”  After the “aionian” intoxication is over, they return to earth, which demonstrates that the word was not used by him as meaning endless. 

Aristotle uses the word in the same sense.  He says of the earth, “All these things seem to be done for her good, in order to maintain safety during her aionos,” duration, or life.  And still more to the purpose is this quotation concerning God's existence: "Life and 'an aion continuous and eternal, zoe kai aion sunekes kai aidios.'"  Here the word aidios, (eternal) is employed to qualify aion and impart to it what it had not of itself, the sense of eternal.

So we can see from classic Greek usage that the word “aionios” meant a temporal period of time and was not used to convey the idea of eternity.  But does the Bible use the same grammatical rules as the ancient Greeks did?  Titus 1:2 is a good place to answer that.  It is also a good example of how much difficulty the King James translators had in translating this word.

 

Here is the verse as found in our King James Bibles:

 

In hope of eternal (aionios) life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world (aionios) began;

 

The words “eternal” and “world” are both the exact same Greek word—“aionios.”  So the natural question is why didn't the King James translators translate it the same in both cases?  Simply because it wouldn’t make any sense!  Let's try it. 

 

In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the eternity began

 

What does “before the eternity” mean?  We know now, just what the translators knew back then, that is, that there is no such thing as “before eternity,” so in order to make the verse work, they had to change the meaning of the word to mean something that was temporal, and in this case they used the word “world.”  There is a word in the Greek language for “world” and it is the noun “kosmos,” but that is not the word that Paul (under the inspiration of God’s Spirit) chose to use.  Clearly, we cannot translate the second “aionios” to mean “eternal” because to do so, we would have to admit that there was something BEFORE the eternity.  So in this one little verse, we have clearly shown that you cannot always translate “aionios” to mean “eternal,” and this being the case, what does this do to the idea of “eternal (aionios) punishment?”

 

We have dealt a crushing blow to the idea that “aionios” must always be translated “eternal,” and in doing so, we have opened the door to the possibility that God’s punishment does not continue endlessly, but lasts only for the ages.  In this short essay, we will not discuss the specific passages that address God’s universal salvation, but are simply showing the possibility that God’s punishment does not last forever as most Christians teach. (See the article titled, "The Work of the Cross").

 

NOTE:  There are two other instances in the New Testament where the King James version translates “aionios” to mean world.  (Rom. 16:25; 2 Tim. 1:9) 

 

The Argument

Neither the noun (“aion”) nor the adjective (“aionios”) etymologically mean “eternal” and yet theologians and translators have improperly defined both of these words to support the idea that God will punish men “forever and ever.”  To prove this, proponents of “eternal” punishment will find try to find examples in the New Testament where “aionios” is used with either God or the life He gives through Jesus Christ.  They tell us that if “aionios” is used to speak of God (who is obviously eternal), then this proves that “aionios” should also mean eternal when used in conjunction with punishment.  The “golden” text that Christians use to prove that “aionios” must mean “eternal” is found in Matt. 25:46.

          

And these shall go away into everlasting (“aionios”) punishment: but the righteous into life (“aionios”) eternal.  (KJV)

 

Their argument goes something like this:

 
If the punishment for the wicked is temporary (“aionian”), then the life for the righteous must also be temporary (“aionian”).   In other words, you are saying that God (and the life He imparts) is not eternal but will only last for the ages; and when the ages are complete, then God (and His life) ceases to be.

 

Or to quote a staunch proponent of the doctrine of never-ending punishment, Eric Landstrom,

 

The exact same word “aionion” is used to describe the duration of punishment as well as of the life of the righteous—those who are saved.  The same word describes both conditions.  If it means one thing in the first part of this sentence, then it means the same thing in the second part since they are both in the same context and both are describing time—duration of the states of the unsaved and the saved.  If the punishment is eternal, then so is the life.  Likewise, if, as the universalist says, the punishment is not eternal, then neither is the life.  You can’t pick and choose how the word is applied in this verse to suit your own theology.

 

For those who use this argument, it may seem like they make a valid point.  Are we really picking and choosing as accused by Mr. Landstrom?  The truth of the matter is that Mr. Landstrom fails to consider two very important scriptural points: one, he does not differentiate between the two states (time and eternity) in which God can and does operate in, and two, he does not distinguish the difference between the nature of God and the nature of man. 

 

As we answer the cynics charge, keep in mind that we have already clearly shown in the New Testament where “aionios” absolutely cannot mean “eternal.”

 

The Answer

 

As already stated, the meaning of the word “aionios” is “age-lasting,” not “eternal.”  Rotherham’s Emphasized version properly translates Matt. 25:46 as follows:

 

         And these shall go away into age-abiding correction: but the righteous into

         age-abiding life.

To address Mr. Landstrom’s accusation that we are somehow limiting the life of God by our translation of the word “aionios,” we most confidently declare that God’s life never had a beginning, nor will have an end.  This life can be found nowhere except in God.  This life fills both time and eternity.  It existed before the ages (1 Cor. 2:7), and it will continue after the ages (1 Cor. 15:28 ).  God is eternal (Rom. 1:20--Gk. word “aidios”), indissoluble (Heb. 7:16), and immortal (1 Tim. 6:16), and therefore, His life is also eternal, indissoluble, and immortal.

Man, on the other hand, is both temporal and mortal.  He is not born with this God-life.  The Bible says, “Only God hath immortality.” (1 Tim. 6:16)  Man exists wholly in the realm of time (ages).  He has never known anything but the realm of time.  He lives and he dies.  He is born and goes back to the dust whence he came.  So when God imparts His life, it is imparted to mortal man who is “aionian.”  In other words, man has been given life which pertains to the ages.  This does not mean that the essence of God’s life is somehow temporary (or that God is temporary), it simply means that the life of God is imparted to man who is bound to the ages and who is NOT immortal.  The ancient Egyptian and Greek teaching that says that man has an immortal soul (now embraced by the Church) is not scriptural.  The only reason man has any life at all is because God (who is life) chooses to impart it to His creatures.

When the Bible speaks of the “aionian God” (1 Tim. 1:17), it does not mean that God is less than eternal.  It simply means that He manifests Himself within the framework of time.  That which is seen is temporal; that which is unseen is eternal.  When the Bible says that God is “aionian,” it means He is “aionian” in the sense that He can move and manifest Himself in the realm of sight.  When the Bible speaks of the “eternal” God (Rom. 1:20), this means that God transcends all time, and He manifests Himself in that which is unseen.  God is the only One who can exist in both the state of time and timelessness.  Jesus, after His resurrection, possessed the fullness of God’s life allowing Him to manifest Himself in both the “aionian” realm (when He showed Himself to the disciples) and the “eternal” realm (being with the Father).

 

“Aionian” life is that life which is applicable to the ages (time).  “Immortality” is that life which is applicable to the state of timelessness.  Both emanate from God who is indissoluble, unchangeable, immortal, and the One who NEVER dies.  Again, it is not “aionian” in that its quality is somehow temporary, but in that it is given to man who is temporary.  Since I am limited in my flesh, I cannot experience anything other than “aionian” life.  I cannot move through walls and appear and disappear as Christ did.  When I lay down this mortality, and put on immortality, then I will be able to minister both to God (eternal) and to my brethren who are still limited by temporal time (aionian).

No one who believes in universal reconciliation teaches that God is temporary.  This is a twisting of our words that those who oppose the truth of universal reconciliation use to try and discredit the glorious gospel.  While we in no way deny God’s “eternal” nature, we do believe that the nature of man is temporary.  If God doesn’t give His life to us, then we would all perish forever going back to the “dust from whence we came.”

As to man’s reward and punishment, man is both rewarded and punished according to the life lived IN THE AGES. If he has done well (while living in the realm of time), he will receive the life of God, which manifests itself in the ages.  If he has done badly (while living in the realm of time), he will receive punishment which will manifest itself in the ages.  And when the time of the end shall come and God has become “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), all rewards and punishments, which are only applicable during the ages, will cease.

To teach that God will punish eternally (that is, outside of time) for deeds committed in a temporal body in temporal time is doing injustice to the Word of God and frankly, is not using a “pattern of sound words.”  It is not JUST (fair) to put man (who did not ask to be born) into a world totally blind to his own sin, with a tempter who seeks to deceive him, who inherits a body of death which constantly opposes God’s law, with many voices in the world saying “this is truth” or “that is truth,” with divisions and strife among the very people (the Church) who are supposed to have the truth, and then give this man maybe twenty, fifty, or seventy years, and burn him in hell for all eternity if he doesn’t make the right “choice.”  People who believe this, and unfortunately it is most Christians, frankly do not understand the depravity of their own sin.  They have forgotten that it was GOD WHO SAVED THEM, and they did nothing but simply respond to God’s “dragging” them to Himself.  If God had not opened their eyes, they would still be in darkness.

While “aionios” does not (in and of itself) mean “eternal,” the Greek word “aidios,” as used in Romans 1:20, comes about as close to the definition of “eternity” as any Greek word can.  While God is spoken of in terms that describe His eternal state (eternal, indissoluble, and immortal), these words are NEVER used in the scriptures when speaking of man’s future punishment.  If God wanted to teach the idea of never-ending punishments, He certainly would have chosen a word with much more force than “aionios.” 

Lastly, it will also help us if we understand that God’s purposes are not completed in this current age, but worked out in successive ages. (Eph. 2:7)  The message of God’s saving work through Christ is glorious, and it is not limited to this lifetime as the orthodox church would have us believe.  It is not in God’s plan “to save as many as He can before this life ends” only to throw the rest of His precious creation in the dumper for all eternity.  Jesus did not pray for the world, but for those whom the Father gave Him (the disciples). (John 17)  Those who are Calvinists will twist this prayer of Jesus to say that God only has intentions to save the elect, while the rest are reserved for never-ending punishment, but they make the same critical mistake that most of Christendom does in that they do not see that God’s purposes for mankind do not end with this life.  Everything will be accomplished in GOD’S TIME, not ours. 
God’s purpose in this age is to bring a people to Himself (elect) in order to reach the non-elect in the ages to come.  He is calling US in order to show forth His kindness to OTHERS in the ages to come.  Once you see this truth, you will then understand why most people will never come to Christ in this age.  This does not mean God has forsaken the many and given them up to suffer never-ending punishments.  The mercy, love, and compassion of our God will never fail and the Good Shepherd will keep on seeking and saving until each and every last sheep (good and bad) is brought into the fold.

 

As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

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