Saturday, January 17, 2015

Eternal or Eonian? Part Seven (Then Comes the End; God All in All)

 "Then Comes the End"


The apostle Paul makes it clear that, contrary to popular Christian belief, Christ's reign is not going to be "eternal" or "everlasting" in duration. In 1 Cor. 15:23-28, we read: 

"For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For 'God has put all things in subjection under his feet.' But when it says, 'all things are put in subjection,' it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all." 

Christ's reign over the earth - when "all peoples, nations and languages" shall serve him - will begin when he comes with the clouds of heaven (Dan. 7:13-14; Rev. 1:7). And according to Paul in the above passage, his reign will continue "UNTIL he has put all his enemies under his feet." The word "until" is key, and indicates that the placing of Christ's enemies under his feet is the goal of his reign. When this goal is reached, there will no longer be any need for Christ to continue reigning. We are then told by Paul that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. Thus, the "end" (or "consummation") referred to in v. 24 comes after death, the last enemy, is finally abolished (through the vivification of every last member of Adam's dead and dying race). After the destruction of death, Christ then "delivers the kingdom to God the Father." 

"But," it may be objected, "Daniel 7:14 says that Christ's dominion "shall not pass away!" Yes, but notice the next words, "...and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed." This is likely an example of Hebrew parallelism, where (for the sake of emphasis) the same idea is stated in two different ways. Thus, for the Messiah's dominion to "pass away" would imply the forceful removal of it, and the destruction of his kingdom. Moreover, in the context, the expression "shall not pass away" is clearly meant to be understood as contrastive with what is said concerning the dominion of the "beasts" mentioned just two verses earlier. In Daniel 7:12 we read, "As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time." The Hebrew word translated "taken away" here (‛ădâ',‛ădâh) is the same word translated "pass away" in v. 14. In v. 12 the word clearly denotes a forced and involuntary removal of the beast's dominion. This is made even more evident in v. 26, where we read that the dominion of the Antichrist (the "little horn" of Dan. 7:8 and 11) shall also be "taken away" (‛ădâ', ‛ădâh), which is explained to mean that it would be "consumed and destroyed to the end." Thus, in the context, the meaning of Dan. 7:14 is simply that the dominion of the Messiah would not be forcefully and involuntarily taken away from him (implying the destruction of his kingdom). This does not, however, mean that Christ (after having accomplished what he was sent by the Father to do) will not one day voluntarily deliver his kingdom to the One from whom he received it. 

Gabriel vs. Paul? 

Some see the words of the celestial messenger Gabriel in Luke 1:32-33 as undermining the idea that the eons of Christ's reign will eventually end. In these verses we read that Gabriel told Mary, "And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for the eons [eis tous aionas]. And of his kingdom there shall be no end." The words, "and of his kingdom there shall be no end," are understood by most Christians to mean that Christ will never stop reigning. However, were this the correct meaning of Gabriel's words, they would be in direct conflict with the words of the apostle Paul. 

Since it is evident from what Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:24-28 that Christ's reign will end when he abolishes death, how do we harmonize this with what Gabriel told Mary? As noted earlier, the word aionas (in the expression eis tous aionas) is simply the plural form of the Greek noun aión. The expression literally means "for the eons." Since we can understand Gabriel to be referring to the final eons prior to the "end" or "consummation" referred to in the above passage, this part is not problematic. But what about the words, "and of his kingdom there shall be no end?" To understand this, we must keep in mind that, according to Paul, Christ is ultimately going to "deliver the kingdom to God, the Father." This will take place after Christ has abolished death and subjected all to himself. Moreover, the kingdom that Christ is going to deliver to the Father is the same kingdom which he is prophesied as receiving from God (the "Ancient of Days") in Daniel 7:13-14. It is this kingdom which will be his [Christ's] for the eons to come, thus making it the "eonian kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 1:11), since it belongs to Christ during the coming eons of his reign. But when the kingdom is returned to God at the end of Christ's reign (and at the consummation of the eons during which Christ reigns), the kingdom is not going to end. It will simply cease to be the "eonian kingdom" of Christ (for the eons of Christ's reign will have ended), becoming the everlasting kingdom of the Father. 

Thus, as first revealed in Gabriel's words to Mary, the kingdom that is going to belong to Christ for the final eons of redemptive history shall have no consummation or end. It's simply going to be returned to its Source (God, the Father), and continue for all time. 

Eonian Life and Immortality 

Some see Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 and 5:1 as undermining the idea that he employed aiónios in reference to temporary periods of time. There, Paul writes, 

"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eonian (aiónios) weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient (proskairos), but the things that are unseen are eonian (aiónios). For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eonian (aiónios) in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked." 

Here Paul is contrasting the present, mortal body of the believer (and the hardships to which it is necessarily subjected) with the future, immortal body with which believers will be "clothed" when that which is mortal is "swallowed up by life" (see 1 Cor. 15:21-28, 50-54). Our "outer nature" (which is "wasting away") refers to our present, mortal bodies. Our "inner nature," on the other hand (which, for the believer, is being "renewed day by day"), likely refers to our mind (cf. Romans 12:2). 

Now, in this passage, Paul is using proskairos and aiónios in contrast with each other. But notice that he is not contrasting time (which would be the word "chronos" in Greek) with timelessness. Instead, Paul is contrasting two different measures of temporal duration (i.e., two different measures of time). In Matthew 13:21, Christ employs proskairos to denote a relatively short measure of time. It is used in reference to those who hear the gospel and endure in their faith for only "a short while" in contrast to those who, after hearing the word, keep it and go on to produce fruit. Christ is not contrasting a temporary period of time with an endless measure of time; rather, Christ is contrasting a relatively short measure of time which does not result in the production of "fruit" with a relatively longer period of time that does (similarly, in Hebrews 11:25, proskairos is translated "a short season" or "fleeting" in some translations, and denotes the relatively short-lived enjoyment that sin brings). But the opposite of proskairos isn't endless duration, for proskairos doesn't mean finite duration. Its meaning is clearly relative to whatever is in view. Again, when Christ uses the word in Matt 13:21, he isn't contrasting a person who endures in his faith for a finite period of time with a person who endures in his faith for an infinite period of time; he's contrasting a relatively short period of time with a relatively longer period of time (i.e., relative to a person's mortal lifespan).

In the context of 2 Corinthians 4-5, proskairos conveys a relatively short measure of time (i.e., duration confined to a mortal lifetime, during which time one can see and experience one's mortal self "wasting away"). Aiónios, on the other hand - while not meaning endless duration - denotes a much longer duration of time (i.e., the duration of the eons to come, the full length of which is not explicitly revealed in Scripture). So when Paul says that "the things that are seen" are proskairos (i.e., fleeting, or pertaining to a relatively short measure of time) while "the things that are unseen" are aiónios (i.e., pertaining to, or enduring through, the eons to come) he places our present, mortal bodies in the former category of things, and our future, immortal bodies in the latter category of things. 

But why does Paul refer to our immortal bodies as "eonian, in the heavens," since this word does not denote endless duration? It's because he has in view the blessing that will be enjoyed exclusively by believers, prior to the time that Paul calls "the consummation" (i.e., when death is abolished by Christ and all are vivified or "made alive" in him). Paul has in view only those who are members of the body of Christ, and the heavenly allotment they alone will enjoy during these coming eons. This blessing for believers (in which they will enjoy immortality in heaven during the final two eons) is eonian in duration, not "eternal." When the last two eons (the eons of Christ's reign) come to an end, the believer will not lose his immortality. He will continue to live. But his life will, at this time, no longer pertain to (or be enduring through) the eons of Christ's reign. The special, eonian salvation he enjoyed as a result of being in the body of Christ will have come to an end. For at this time, God's "purpose of the eons" will have reached its goal: all people will have been made immortal and saved, and God will be "all in all."

Eternal or Eonian? Part Six (The Eonian God; The Kingdom of God; Eonian Life)

The Eonian God

As a review of the conclusions at which we've arrived in this study so far, let's now consider Paul's words in Romans 16:25-27. Below is the passage as it appears in three of the most literal translations of Scripture we have:

Now to Him Who is able to establish you in accord with my evangel, and the heralding of Christ Jesus in accord with the revelation of a secret hushed in times eonian, yet manifested now and through prophetic scriptures, according to the injunction of the eonian God being made known to all nations for faith-obedience―to the only, and wise God, through Christ Jesus, be glory for the eons of the eons. Amen! (Romans 16.26-27 CV)

And to Him who is able to establish you, according to my good news, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the secret, in the times of the ages having been kept silent, and now having been made manifest, also, through prophetic writings, according to a command of the age-during God, having been made known to all the nations for obedience of faith―to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to him be glory to the ages. Amen. (Romans 16.25-27 YLT)

Now unto him who hath power to establish you according to my glad-message―even the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of a sacred secret in age-past times kept silent but now made manifest, and through means of prophetic scriptures according to the command of the age-abiding God for obedience of faith unto all the nations made known unto a God wise alone, through Jesus Christ, [unto whom] be glory unto the ages. Amen. (Romans 16.25-27 REB)

By referring to God as the eonian/age-during/age-abiding God, the emphasis is simply being put on God's relationship to the eons he created. As noted earlier, we are told that there was a time before the eons began (2 Tim 1:9; Tit 1:2), and that God created the eons by his word (Heb 1:2, 11:3). Paul even calls God the "King of the eons" (1 Tim. 1:17). As the "eonian God," God endures through (and, by implication, is actively involved in) the eons he created, and of which he is King. But God's being the "eonian God" in no way limits his existence to these periods of time. As noted earlier, to argue this would be like saying that the words, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" limits God to these three patriarchs only. But of course, this expression is simply emphasizing his covenant relationship with these three men. Likewise, Paul's calling God the "eonian God" simply emphasizes his relationship to the eons he created, and through which he endures. When the eons are complete and the goal of God's redemptive plan (the "purpose of the eons") is reached, God will cease to be both the "King of the eons" and the "eonian God." However, he will continue to be who he has always been (i.e., the uncreated and incorruptible God, whose existence had no beginning and has no end).

In the last verse above, Paul writes, "...to the only, and wise God, through Christ Jesus, be glory for the eons of the eons." As is the case with the expression "the eonian God," there is no reason to believe that Paul was limiting God's glory to the ages/eons in view when he wrote these words (as if God will cease to receive glory from his creation when the final eon ends). Instead, Paul was simply putting an emphasis on the glory that God will receive during the final, most glorious eons of redemptive history (which will be in contrast to the glory he is receiving from his creation during this present, wicked eon, of which Satan is said to be the "god"; see 2 Cor. 4:4; cf. Eph. 2:2). And this point brings us to the final topic of this study: the kingdom of God and the eons of Christ's reign.

The Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven

In the previous installments of this study, we saw that the word commonly translated "eternal" in many English translations of the NT is aionios. This word means "age-lasting," "age-during" or "eonian" (enduring through, or pertaining to, an eon, or eons). Significantly, a number of contemporary, evangelical Christian scholars acknowledge that the expression translated "eternal life" in most English translations (zoe aionios) should best be understood to refer to life during what Scripture speaks of as the "age to come."[1] While it is true that these scholars would still argue that this future blessing is endless in duration, this is only because they understand the age, or eon, to come to be endless in duration. But this is surely a mistaken belief on their part. Scripture clearly speaks of more than one age or eon to come. Thus, logically, the next eon to come can't be endless in duration. However, while the Christian scholars I referred to are very much mistaken about the duration of the eon to come, we are in agreement on this one important point: whenever the adjective aionios appears in scripture, the reader should understand that a certain eon (or eons) is in view. As used in Scripture, the word does not mean "eternal." Rather, it always pertains to an eon or eons, whether past or future.

But what eon(s) are in view in the expression "eonian life?" The answer to this question is crucial, for misidentifying the eon(s) would most certainly distort the meaning of a significant portion of scripture. Fortunately, Scripture does not leave us in any doubt as to what eons are in view. First, let's take notice of the fact that, for a believing Israelite, entering, inheriting or possessing "eonian life" and entering/inheriting the "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven" were equivalent blessings, for Christ spoke of them interchangeably (Matt 19:16-17, 23-24; 25:34, 46; Mark 9:45-47; 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30; John 3:3, 5, 15). But what is the "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven?" It was on the topic of this coming kingdom that Christ placed an overwhelming amount of emphasis during the time of his earthly mission in the land of Judea. From the very beginning of his ministry, Christ's message was, "The era is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe in the gospel!" (Mark 1:14-15; Matt 3:1-2; 4:17) Jesus' hearers would have understood this proclamation concerning the kingdom of God as referring to the imminent fulfillment of important Messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Of special importance is the prophecy found in Daniel 2:44, where we read,

"And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever [Hebrew: olam; LXX:eis ton aion, or "for the eon"]..."

It is from this verse in Daniel that the expressions "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" are derived. That this kingdom refers to the Messianic kingdom is evident from Daniel 7:13-14. There, Daniel writes,

"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting [olam]dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed."

The Messianic kingdom is called "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven" because (as foretold in Daniel's prophecy) it was to be a kingdom set up by "the God of heaven." It is also appropriately referred to as the kingdom of Christ, or the kingdom of God's Son (Eph 5:5; Col 1:13). The apostle Peter referred to the Messianic kingdom as "the eonian kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet 1:11). Christ himself referred to it as his kingdom (John 18:36), and as a kingdom which had been assigned to him by his Father (Luke 22:29). Although Jesus will be the "king of kings" in this kingdom, others will sit on thrones and reign during this time as well.

In Daniel 7:18 we are told that "the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom to the eon, even to the eon of the eons." We are also told that "the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an eonian kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them" (v. 27). Echoing this prophecy, Jesus himself told his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” And in Revelation 5:9-10, we are told that the saints in view will be a “kingdom” that will “reign on the earth” (cf. Rev 22:5).

Eonian Life: Life During the Eons of Christ's Reign

Although the expression zoe aionios ("eonian life") is common in the New Testament, it appears only once in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the LXX).[2] In Dan 12:1-2 (ESV), we read:

"At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt."

In the Hebrew text, the expression translated above as "everlasting life" is chayei olam. In the LXX, the expression is translated zoe aionios, or "eonian life." Since I believe a correct understanding of this passage from Daniel can shed much light on what "eonian life" refers to, let's ask (and then try to answer) the following question: To what time period, and to what event, is Daniel 12:1-2 referring?

We are told that this resurrection (as the language surely indicates is in view) will take place during "a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time" (or, "a time of distress unlike any other from the nation's beginning up to that time" - NET). And considering the context of Daniel, it seems clear that this "time of trouble" will involve Daniel's "own people" (i.e., the people of the nation of Israel). Employing similar language, Christ spoke of a "time of trouble" as taking place just before his return to earth in power and glory, when he comes to set up his kingdom: "For then shall there be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be" (Matt 24:21; cf. Luke 21:20-23).

We are also told that everyone among Daniel's "people" (i.e., Jews, or Israelites) whose names were found written in "the book" would "be delivered" (or "escape" -NET). From Jesus we learn that those in view here are the Jewish believers who will be alive at the time when the events prophesied in Daniel 12 begin to unfold. What exactly this "deliverance" or "escape" entails is made clear in Matt 24:15-20, where Christ declared,

"So when you seethe abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Danielstanding in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath."

And just a few verses later, we read:

"Now immediately after the affliction of those days [i.e., the "time of trouble" referred to in Daniel 12:1] the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not be giving her beams, and the stars shall be falling from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Mankind in heaven, and then all the tribes of the land shall grieve, and they shall see the Son of Mankind coming on the clouds of heaven with power and much glory" (Matt. 24:29-30).

From this we can conclude that the time at which the faithful among Daniel's people (believing Israelites) will be raised to enjoy eonian life is around the time of Christ's return to earth to establish his kingdom, for it is with this event that the present eon ends and the eon to come begins (Matt. 24:3). Thus, the eons to which "eonian life" pertains are the eons during which Christ is going to reign over the earth (Mark 10:29-31; Luke 18:29-30; Matthew 19:28-30; Luke 22:29-30; Eph. 1:20-21; cf. Rev. 5:9-10). It is these eons which are going to succeed what Paul called the "present wicked eon" (Gal 1:4), and which both Christ and Paul had in view when they spoke of the "eon to come" (which is the first eon of Christ's reign) and the "eons to come" (Matthew 12:32; Mark 10:29-31; Luke 18:29-30; Eph. 1:21; Heb 6:5). Thus the eons to which the expression "eonian life" refers are simply the eons during which Christ reigns.[3]

Moreover (and as has been noted already), we know from Revelation 20:4 that the first eon of Christ's future reign will last for about a thousand years. And while the duration of the second eon is not revealed in Scripture, the time period is nonetheless referred to as an "eon," just like the duration of the thousand-year kingdom. By virtue of its being one of two eons (and not an "eternity"), it is a period of time that has a beginning and an end. In fact, because it is the last of the two eons during which Christ reigns, we know it will ultimately end. How can we know this? Because, according to Paul, Christ's reign is one day going to end.



[1] See, for example, C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the First Gospel, pp. 144-50; George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 290-292; J.I. Packer, "The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Crux XXVI.3, September 1990, 23; "Evangelical Annihilationism in Review," Reformation & Revival, Volume 6, Number 2 - Spring 1997; John Painter, 1, 2 and 3 John (Sacra Pagina), p. 195; Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, pp.73-74; John G. Stackhouse, Jr. "Jesus Christ," The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, p. 151; N.T. Wright, Romans, p. 530.

[2] The expression also appears in 2 Macc. 7:9; 4 Macc. 1 5:3; and Ps. Sol. 3:12, but these examples are found in apocryphal books which, although of historical value and importance, I don't consider to be inspired Scripture. 

[3] One verse in which the first eon of Christ's reign is mentioned is Matt 19:28, which refers to this time as "the new world" (ESV) or "the regeneration" (NKJV). The Holman Christian Standard Biblerenders this expression "in the Messianic Age." And the NET Bible reads, "In the age when all things are renewed," and says in a footnote, "The Greek term translated the age when all things are renewed(παλιγγενεσία, palingenesia) is understood as a reference to the Messianic age, the time when all things are renewed and restored." 


Eternal or Eonian? Part Five (The Greek Adjective Aiónios)

The Greek Adjective Aiónios

Thus far we have considered the Hebrew noun, olam, and the Greek noun, aion (which appears in both the singular and the plural form in the LXX and the New Testament). We now come to the word that was used by the LXX and the authors of the New Testament in place of olam as the adjective form of the noun aionaiónios (αἰώνιος). As the adjective form of aionaiónios should best be understood to mean "belonging to, or lasting for, an eon." Hence it is rendered "age-abiding" in Rotherham's Emphasized Bible, "age-during" in Young's Literal Translation, and "eonian" in the Concordant Literal New Testament. Just as "color" is to "colorful," "length" is to "long," and "day" is to "daily," so aion is to aionios. And just as "daily" can never mean "yearly" (because its limit is defined by the noun "day" from which it is derived), so aionioscan never refer to something other than an aion or "eon." Because aion is not used in Scripture to mean "eternity," the adjective form of the word (aionios) should not be understood to mean "eternal."

Commenting on Matt. 25:46, English theologian Charles Ellicott has the following to say on the adjective, aionios:

"...the Greek word which is rendered "eternal" does not, in itself, involve endlessness, but rather, duration, whether through an age or succession of ages, and that it is therefore applied in the N.T. to periods of time that have had both a beginning and an ending (Rom. 16:25), where the Greek is "from aeonian times;" our version giving "since the world began." (Comp. 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 1:3)--strictly speaking, therefore, the word, as such, apart from its association with any qualifying substantive, implies a vast undefined duration, rather than one in the full sense of the word "infinite."" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible)

The first definition of aionios provided by A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature(edited by Frederick William Danker) is "pertaining to a long period of time." In The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (edited by James Hope Moulton and George Milligan), the concluding comments for aionios are as follows:

"Without pronouncing any opinion on the special meaning which theologians have found for this word, we must note that outside the NT, in the vernacular as in the classical Greek (see Grimm-Thayer), it never loses the sense of perpetuus....the spirit of [which is illustrated in] Job 19:24 [`With iron pen and lead, that they should be hewn in rock for the future!']....In general, the word depicts that of which the horizon is not in view, whether the horizon be at an infinite distance...or whether it lies no farther than the span of Caesar's life."[1]

In his Word Studies in the New Testament (Vol. IV) 19th century Bible scholar Marvin Vincent wrote,

"The adjective aionios in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective in themselves carries the sense of 'endless' or 'everlasting.' Aionios means, ‘enduring through or pertaining to a period of time.’ Out of the 150 instances in the LXX (Septuagint), four-fifths imply limited duration."

And on the Perseus Library Greek Dictionary, aiónios is defined as “lasting for an age.”[2]

Dr. F.W. Farrar - a well-versed scholar in the Biblical languages - states in his book Mercy and Judgment (p. 378):

"Since aion meant 'age,' aionios means, properly, 'belonging to an age,' or 'age-long,' and anyone who asserts that it must mean 'endless' defends a position which even Augustine practically abandoned twelve centuries ago. Even if aion always meant 'eternity,' which is not the case in classic or Hellenistic Greek—aionios could still mean only 'belonging to eternity' and not 'lasting through it.'"

This common-sense fact is inexplicably overlooked by Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon (1886), as well as that by Arndt and Gingrich (1957). In both of these lexicons, the adjective aiónios is presented as having three meanings: (1) without beginning; or (2) without end; or (3) without beginning or end. Such a definition as this should most likely be attributed to theological bias and presuppositions; apart from the fact that this threefold definition of aióniosbears no resemblance whatsoever to the noun form of the word (from which it was derived), this definition simply cannot be applied consistently in the New Testament (see, for example, Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy 1:9, and Titus 1:2, which will be considered below).

Nor does this definition work consistently in the LXX. As noted in the quote from Dr. Vincent above, the wordaiónios appears 150 times in the LXX. This ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible was in common use among the Jews in the 1st century and frequently quoted by the authors of the New Testament.[3]It can therefore shed much light on how the authors of the New Testament would've most likely understood and used the term aiónios in their own writings. As one of the words with which olam was translated,aiónios was used in the LXX in reference to long periods of time. It refers to things of long-lasting (but limited) duration that were, at the time, considered past[4] as well as to things of long-lasting (but limited) duration that were, at the time, consideredfuture.[5]

Paul used the word with this very meaning in Romans 16:25. There, Paul speaks of a mystery kept secret for "chronos aiónios" (literally, "during times eonian") but "now revealed." It is evident that aionios cannot mean "without beginning" here, for Paul's use of the expression pro chronon aionion ("before times eonian") in 2 Tim. 1:9 and Titus 1:2 implies that the chronos aiónios had a beginning. Nor can aiónios here mean "without end," for it is connected with a period of time during which a mystery was kept secret but later "revealed." It is evident that Paul is simply referring to those long periods of history that elapsed before the gospel of grace was revealed to Paul and began to be proclaimed. If the word aionios did carry the idea of endlessness here, then the "mystery" or "secret" of which Paul wrote would have never been revealed to people. This meaning of aiónios is entirely consistent with its usage in the LXX, with which Paul (as well as the other authors of the New Testament Scriptures) were very familiar.

Aiónios in Extra-Biblical Literature

We may further note that aiónios was used by first-century Jewish writers to describe those things that are of a limited duration. Philo used the exact phraseology we find in Matthew 25:46 - just as Christ used it - in the context of temporal affairs between people of different socio-economic classes:

"It is better not to promise than not to give prompt assistance, for no blame follows in the former case, but in the latter there is dissatisfaction from the weaker class, and a deep hatred and everlasting punishment (kolasis aiónios) from such as are more powerful" (Fragmenta, Tom. ii., p. 667).

Josephus also employed aiónios to refer to things of temporal duration (such as the period between the giving of the law to Moses and that of his own writing, to the period of the imprisonment of the tyrant John by the Romans, and to the period during which Herod's temple stood, before its destruction by the Romans). In one Jewish work (Solomon’s Parables) we read, "These they called aiónios, hearing that they had performed the sacred rites for three entire generations." Here, the expression "three entire generations" warrants the use of the adjective aiónios.

When speaking of things that they believed would be of endless duration, Philo and Josephus employed words other than aionios. For example, Philo says, “zoe apothneskonta aeikai tropon tina thanaton athanaton upomeinon kai ateleuteton” (that is, “to live always dying, and to undergo an immortal and interminable death”).[6]

Concerning the beliefs of the Pharisees in the first century, Josephus states: "They believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or according to vice in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison [eirgmon aidion], but that the former shall have power to revive and live again" (D. Ant. 18.14-15).

Here we find that the Pharisees believed the subterranean place of punishment for wicked immortal souls was an "eternal [aidion, not aionion] prison." And in another place (B. War 2.162-64), Josephus states that the Pharisees "say that all souls are imperishable, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment." The words translated "eternal punishment" are aidios timoria, and should not be confused with Jesus' words in Matthew 25:46 (kolasin aiónios, or "chastening eonian"). Similarly, in describing the doctrine of the Essenes (another Jewish sect), Josephus says they believe that“the souls of the bad are sent to a dark and tempestuous cavern, full of incessant punishment [adialeiptos timoria].” This was the language used by the Pharisees and the Essenes when describing their views of the punishment that the wicked would endure. But Christ and his apostles refrained from using such language, instead using aiónios (eonian) when referring to punishment.

But what about the Greek philosopher, Plato? Some theologians have come to the conclusion that aiónios means "eternal" in Scripture based on how Plato used the word in his writings. But surprisingly, Plato's philosophical use of aión and aiónios actually supports the position being defended in this study. Like the authors of Scripture (as well as the translators of the LXX), Plato understood the word aiónios to be the adjective form of the noun aion, and consistently employed the word in this way. But in stark contrast to its usage in the LXX and New Testament, Plato contrasts aion with time (chronos). Time, for Plato, is but a "moveable image of aionos," and that of which time is an image is the unchanging, timeless realm of ideas, which transcends the ever-changing world we experience and perceive.[7]Thus, Plato used aión to denote an unchanging, timeless realm (i.e., "eternity" in the absolute, metaphysical sense), and contrasted it with all changing, temporal duration.

Now, just as Plato used aionios as the adjective form of the noun aion/aionos, so did the inspired authors of the New Testament. But the key difference (a difference which those theologians who've derived their understanding of the meaning of aionos from Plato have failed to appreciate) is this: whereas Plato used the noun aion to denote an unchanging, timeless realm (i.e., "eternity"), the authors of the New Testament and the translators of the LXX did not. In contrast to Plato, they used aion to refer to a particular period or duration of time.In other words, they used the word to mean the exact opposite of what Plato meant by it! For them, aion and its derivatives were the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew olam. And since aionios is used as the adjective form of aion (which, in the New Testament and LXX, means "eon" or "age"), it follows that the adjective should be understood in the New Testament to mean "lasting for, or belonging to, an eon" (or simply, "eonian") - not "eternal," as in Plato.

Plato:                    1. AION (noun) means "ETERNITY" (noun).
                              2. AIONIOS (adjective) means "ETERNAL" (adjective).

This is consistent. Plato used the noun "aion" to mean "eternity," and used the adjective form of the noun to mean "eternal."

Literal Bibles:      1. AION (noun) means "EON" or "AGE" (noun).
                                2. AIONIOS (adjective) means "EONIAN," "AGE-LASTING," or "AGE-                                       DURING" (adjective.)

This, too, is consistent. The most literal Bible translations (such as Young's Literal Translation, Rotherham's Emphasized Bible and the Concordant Version) translate the noun aion as "eon" or "age," and translate the adjective form of the noun in a way that is consistent with (and reflects the meaning of) the noun.

However, when we turn to most Bible translations (such as the KJV, NKJV, NIV, ESV, NASB, etc.), the inconsistency is glaring:

Most Translations:       1. AION (noun) means "AGE" (noun).
                                         2. AIONIOS (adjective) means "ETERNAL" (adjective).

What the translators of most Bibles have done (at least part of the time) is correctly translate aion with a word that, in English, denotes a long but temporary span of time (an "age"), and then (inconsistently) translated aiónios according to its Platonic/philosophical meaning (using the word "eternal"). 




[1] James Hope Moulton and George Milligan; London: Hodder and Stoughton, Limited, 1949, p.16

[2] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=ai)w%2Fnios&la=greek

(See also the first definition provided by LSJ/Middle Liddell)

[3] It is difficult to deny that God directed the authors of the New Testament (the Greek Scriptures) to use the Septuagint when its translation was preferable. Among all the "Old Testament" books from which the inspired authors quoted most frequently (i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms and Isaiah), the LXX was quoted from more often than the Masoretic text. Only when Job, Zechariah and Malachi are referenced is the Masoretic text used more often. As a rule, each New Testament author agrees with the LXX translators more frequently than with the Massoretes, with the most striking contrasts found in John's gospel, Acts, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, James and 1 Peter.

[4] See, for example, Job 22:15; Ps 24:7; Ps 24:9; Ps 77:5; Pro 22:28; Pro 23:10; Isa 58:12; Isa 61:4; Isa 63:11; Jer. 6:16; Jer. 18:15; Ez. 26:20; Ez. 36:2; Hab. 3:6

[5] See, for example, Gen 17:7; Gen 17:8; Gen 17:13; Gen 17:19; Gen 48:4; Ex 12:14; Ex 12:17; Ex 27:21; Ex 28:43; Ex 29:28; Ex 30:21; Ex 31:16; Ex 31:17; Lev 6:18; Lev 6:22; Lev 7:34; Lev 7:36; Lev 10:9; Lev 10:15; Lev 16:29; Lev 16:31; Lev 16:34; Lev 17:7; Lev 23:14; Lev 23:21; Lev 23:31; Lev 23:41; Lev 24:3; Lev 24:8; Lev 24:9; Lev 25:34; Num 10:8; Num 15:15; Num 18:8; Num 18:11; Num 18:19; Num 18:23; Num 19:10; Num 19:21; Num 25:13; 1Ch 16:17; Job 3:18; Job 10:22; Job 21:11; Job 41:4; Ps 76:4; Ps 77:5; Ps 78:66; Ps 105:10; Isa 24:5; Isa 55:13; Isa 60:15; Isa 61:4; Jer.5:22; Jer. 18:16; Jer. 20:17; Jer. 23:40; Jer. 25:9; Jer. 25:12; Jer. 51:39; Ez. 35:5; Ez. 35:9; Jon 2:6; Mic. 2:9.

[6] Tract De Prasmiis et Pasnis, Tom. ii., p. 419 (Mangey's Edition)

[7] Plato wrote, "When the father creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal (aidios) gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this was eternal (aidios), he sought to make the universe eternal (-), so far as might be. Now the nature of the ideal being was eternal (aiõnios), but to bestow this attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity (aiõnos),and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal (aiõnios) but moving according to number, while eternity (aiõnos) itself rests in unity; and this image we call time (chronos).For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also. They are all parts of time, and the past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal (aidios) essence; for we say that he "was," he "is," he "will be," but the truth is that "is" alone is properly attributed to him, and that "was" and "will be" only to be spoken of becoming in time, for they are motions, but that which is immovably the same cannot become older or younger by time, nor ever did or has become, or hereafter will be, older or younger, nor is subject at all to any of those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause. These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity (aiõnos) and revolves according to a law of number. Moreover, when we say that what has become is become and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent -- all these are inaccurate modes of expression. But perhaps this whole subject will be more suitably discussed on some other occasion."

Eternal or Eonian? Part Four (The Greek Noun Aión)

The Greek Noun Aión

As noted earlier, the Jewish authors of the New Testament used the Greek language to express what were essentially Jewish ideas and concepts shaped largely by the inspired content of the Hebrew Bible. So when they wanted to express the idea that the Hebrew word olam embodied, they used words from the Greek language that could best serve as vehicles for its meaning. One of the words that they used as the Greek equivalent of olam is the Greek noun aión. In the New Testament, the word aión denotes an uninterrupted, indefinite duration of time - or simply, an “eon”[1] or “age.” The Analytical Greek Lexicon defines aión as "a period of time of significant character; life; an era; an age."

Consider the following entry on "time" from The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. IV, p. 643):

"Time: The OT and the NT are not acquainted with the conception of eternity as timelessness. The OT has not developed a special term for "eternity." The word aion originally meant "vital force," "life;" then "age," "lifetime." It is, however, also used generally of a limited or unlimited long space of time. The use of the word aion is determined very much by the OT and the LXX. Aion means "long distant uninterrupted time" in the past (Luke 1:10), as well as in the future (John 4:14)."

In every case in which the noun aión (age or eon) appears in the New Testament, it can be understood as referring to long, uninterrupted periods of time in redemptive history that span many generations on earth. We are told that there was a time before the eons began (2 Tim 1:9; Tit 1:2), and that God created the eons by his word (Heb 1:2, 11:3). Hence, Paul calls God "the King of eons" (1 Tim 1:17), since he created and rules over them. In the Greek scriptures we read of past eons (Rom 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; 10:11; Eph 3:9; Col 1:26, Heb 9:26), a present eon (Matt 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; 1 Cor. 2:6-7; Gal 1:4), and future eons to follow this present eon (Mk. 10:30; Mt. 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; Lk. 18:30; Eph. 1:21; 2:7; Jude 1:25). We also read of the consummation of the eons (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb 9:26). There are, then, a minimum of five eons referred to in Scripture.[2]

"For the Eon(s)"

Two phrases that appear several times in Scripture are "eis ton aióna [singular]" and "eis ton aiónas [plural]." A literal translation of these expressions would be "for the eon" and "for the eons," respectively. The following are some examples of where the first expression can be found in the New Testament: Mt.21:19; Mk.11:14; Lk.1:55; Jn.6:51, 58; 8:35; 12:34; 14:16; 1 Cor. 8:13; 2 Cor.9:9; Heb.5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21; 1 Pet.1:23, 25; 2 Pet.2:17; 1 Jn.2:17; 2 Jn.2; Jude 13; Heb.7:24. The form of the expression in which the plural aiónas (ages/eons) is used can be found in the following places: Mt.6:13; Lk.1:33; Rom.1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 16:27; 2 Cor. 11:31; Heb.13:8; Jude 25. 

The fact that the expression appears with both the singular and the plural form of aion makes it evident that neither expression means "forever." For if eis ton aióna [singular] means "forever" (as most English translations have it), then the plural form of the expression would then have to be translated "forevers" -which, of course, is absurd. And since there is a plural form of the expression, it follows that the singular form can't mean "forever."But both expressions make perfectly good sense if they're referring to one or more periods of time (i.e., eons). 

That the expression eis ton aióna(s)doesn't refer to "eternity" is evident not only from the above considerations, but also from its use in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the LXX). For the expression eis ton aióna ("for the age") is found in several places in the LXX which even the most stubborn opponent of the position being advanced in this study would have to concede doesn't have anything to do with "eternity," or with that which is literally "forever." For example, we read that the servitude of bondmen was to be eis ton aióna (Ex. 21:6; Deut. 15:17; Lev. 25:45-46). Here, the expression eis ton aióna ("for the eon") has reference only to the present eon, in which the people in view existed as bondservants in Israel. The meaning of the expression is simply that one's servitude would last as long as they lived during this eon.

Another similar example from the LXX can be found in 2 Kings 5:27, where we read that Gehazi and his descendents would be afflicted by a skin disease eis ton aióna or "for the eon." Again, the "eon" in view here simply cannot be an endless duration of time. Gehazi and his descendents were not being told that they would have a skin disease literally "forever," or for "all eternity!" That would be absurd. Even when translators render the original expression as "forever," no one in his right mind could interpret this literallyBut again, there is an age or eon in view here. And the eon that is in view is the present eon, where people can (and do) live and die with the kind of skin disease that afflicted Gehazi and his descendents. In this verse, eis ton aióna("for the eon") clearly means that Gehazi and his descendents would be afflicted by the skin disease as long as they lived during this eon.

Another interesting verse from the LXX is found in the book of 1 Maccabees. Although I believe this book to be apocryphal and non-inspired (as do most non-Catholics), I still regard it as being of important historical value. And in this instance it can tell us a good deal about how the Greek expression eis ton aióna was understood by those Jews who translated the inspired Hebrew Scriptures into Koine Greek (which, again, is the same Greek dialect in which the New Testament was written). In 1 Maccabees 14:41, we read, "Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest eis ton aiónauntil there should arise a faithful prophet..." Obviously, the expression eis ton aióna ("for the eon") cannot be understood to mean "for eternity," or (literally) "forever." For if that were the case, there could be no "until." The obvious meaning is that Simon would be the governor and high priest as long as he lived during this eon (and "until there should arise a faithful prophet").

In Mark 11:12-14 (Concordant Version), we read the following: "And on the morrow, at their coming out from Bethany, He hungers. And perceiving one fig tree from afar having leaves, He came, if, consequently, He will be finding anything on it. And coming to it, He found nothing except leaves, for it was not the season of figs. And answering, He said to it, 'By no means may anyone still be eating fruit of you for the eon [eis ton aióna].' And His disciples heard."

Here again, the expression eis ton aiona simply refers to the present age or eon(i.e., the eon in which the fig tree existed). When Christ spoke these words, the fig tree withered, thereby preventing anyone from being able to eat fruit from it "for the eon." Christ's words had no reference to "eternity," or to any future eon. He had in mind only the eon in which the fig tree existed, and in which it could possibly bear fruit for others to eat.

In Hebrews 5:6, we read of Christ that he is a priest "for the eon [eis ton aióna]." Most translations render this expression "forever." However, we know the aion (eon) in view must refer to a temporary period of time. The work of a priest is to deal with sin (see Heb. 2:17 and 5:1). If Christ's priestly office is to continue "forever," then it would mean that sin is never going to come to an end and be blotted out. A priestly office is only necessary as long as there are sinners in need of a priest to deal with their sins. Thus, Christ's priestly office - and the eon during which he will act as priest on behalf of Israel - will eventually come to an end, since there is coming a time when sin will be no more. Similarly, there is coming a time when there will no longer be a need for Christ to hold his kingly office. Why? Because the purpose for which he was given this office will have been fulfilled. Once there is no one left to be subjected (for all are ultimately going to be subjected to Christ), Christ is going to subject himself to God, and deliver the kingdom to him (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

"For the Eon(s) of the Eon(s)"

A similar expression to eis ton aiona that appears occasionally in the Greek Scriptures is eis tous aionas ton aionon. This and other similar expressions are all translated "forever and ever" in most Bible translations. In the expression eis tous aionas ton aionon, both words which are translated "forever" and "ever" are the plural form of aion. But of course, the English word "ever" is singular. And "forevers and evers" is even more absurd than "forever and ever" (which is bad enough in itself; if something is already "forever," no further duration could be added to it)! Consequently, for those Bible translators desiring to be as literal and accurate as possible in their translation, the English word "ever" is simply not an appropriate choice with which to translate the plural form of the Greek noun aion. The Greek expression eis tous aionas ton aionon would better be translated "to the ages of the ages" (as in Young's Literal Translation or Rotherham's Emphasized Bible) or (perhaps better still) "for the eons of the eons" (as in the Concordant Version).[3]And as noted earlier, the expression "for the eon (or eons) of the eons" implies at least two future eons to follow the eon in which we are now living.[4]

Some erroneously believe that this expression should be understood as referring to an infinite number of eons. But that would be like saying that the phrase "holies of holies" (ta hagia ton hagion) in the LXX translation of 2 Kings 8:6 refers to an infinite number of holy places, for the Greek grammatical construction is the same in both expressions. The expression "holies of holies" simply refers to the most holy places among other holy places. Similarly, "the eons of the eons" should be understood as referring to the greatest eons among other eons, and not to an infinite number of eons. That this is the case is evident also from the fact that, in a number of verses, the expression is "for the eon [singular] of the eons [plural]," which is of the same grammatical form as the expressions, "holy of holies" and "king of kings." Just as the "holy of holies" refers to the greatest holy place among other holy places, and the "king of kings" refers to the greatest king among other kings, so the "eon of the eons" refers to the greatest eon among other eons (which Scripture clearly reveals will be the final eon).

Interestingly, in the English Standard Version (a self-described "essentially literal" translation), the translators actually acknowledge that the Greek expression they've consistently translated as "forever and ever" in their translation literally means, "to the ages of ages" (see, for example, the footnote provided for 1 Timothy 1:17). This honest acknowledgement of the literal meaning of the Greek makes one wonder why this "alternative" translation was relegated to a footnote rather than placed in the text itself. For the inclusion of this footnote betrays the fact that the words which appear in the text (i.e., "forever and ever") are actually the interpretation of the translator, rather than an "essentially literal" rendering of the Greek.



[1] An “eon” is defined as “an indefinitely long period of time; an age” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/eon). This, I believe, the best translation of the Greek noun aion that we have in the English language, and is thus the most appropriate word with which to translate it. What makes “eon” especially suitable as a translation of aion is the fact that it has an adjective form (“eonian”) that corresponds perfectly with the Greek adjective aiónios.

[2] Since there is no good reason to assume there to be more, it seems most reasonable to believe that the total number of eons which God planned before creation, and which will transpire before the consummation (when death is abolished and Christ delivers the kingdom to God), is five. That there are five total eons can also be inferred from the fact that there are four great cataclysms referred to in Scripture. If every eon ends with one of these great cataclysms (except the last, which will end with God's being "all in all"), then the total number of eons is five.

[3] The reason is this: ton aionon is in the genitive form meaning "of" or "belonging to" the aionon. And there is no conjunction in the Greek expression tous aionas ton aionon (the Greek word for "and" is "kai," not "ton"). So to replace the Greek "of the" (a genitive plural article) with "and" (a conjunction) is dubious, to say the least. There is no grammatical or linguistic reason for any translator to do this. And if the word aion is rendered "eon" or "age" by an English Bible translation, then to be consistent, the plural form of aion (aionon) should be rendered "eons" or "ages."

[4] It should be noted, however, that some believe this expression should be understood idiomatically rather than literally. Even if this is the case, we have no reason to assume that an endless duration of time is in view. If the expression tous aionas ton aionon should be understood idiomatically rather than literally, it could simply be understood to mean, "into the distant future," or "for a long time," and would convey the same general idea that is expressed in expressions such as, "from generation to generation" (Isaiah 34:10) or "throughout all generations" (Eph 3:21; cf. Col 1:26). Whether such expressions are to be understood literally or figuratively, no idea of an absolute "eternity" or a literal "forever" need be implied.

Eternal or Eonian? Part Three (The Olam God)

Although it is evident from the many examples given earlier that the Hebrew word olam was used in reference to things that are clearly temporary in duration, it may be objected that the same word is also applied to God, his rule, his mercy, his truth, his glory, etc. (see Deut 32:40; 1 Chron. 16:34; Psalm 9:7, 29:10, 102:12, 104:31; 117:2; Lam 5:19; Eccles 3:14; cf. Ex 3:15; Psalm 33:11; 66:7; 100:5; 103:17; 104:31, 105:8; 117:2; 135:13; 146:10; Isaiah 51:6, 8; Dan 2:44, etc.). If olam should best be understood to denote a limited, indefinite duration of time, then wouldn't verses such as these mean that God's existence (along with his reign, his mercy, his truth, etc.) is also of a limited duration? Not at all.

The fact of God's eternality (i.e., his having no beginning or end) stands by itself, and does not rely on the meaning of the word olam. Many consider God's eternality and everlastingness to be expressed in the divine name "Yahweh," for example. We're also told that God is "incorruptible" (which implies his being everlasting or eternal). And in Psalm 102:27 we're explicitly told that God's years have no end. But the idea of eternity, or absolute endless duration,is not inherent in the word olam as it is used in the Old Testament. It is not God's eternal, time-transcending existence that is in view in these verses (which was likely a fact taken for granted by the writers of Scripture). Instead, what is in view when olam is used in reference to God is his continuous, faithful and personal involvement with his creation in all of the time periods of redemptive history, whether past, present or future. It is thisfact that the scripture writers are emphasizing by their use of olam in reference to God, his rule, his glory, his mercy, etc.

Understood in this way, the use of olam in verses such as these is not an argument for or against that which is "eternal" or "everlasting" in the absolute sense of the word. Moreover, by use of parallelism (a common literary device used by the Hebrew people) the authors of Scripture frequently explain their use of olam when applied to God, his reign and other things by adding parallel expressions such as, "throughout all generations," "to a thousand generations," "many generations," "from generation to generation," "from age to age," "unto children's children," etc.[1]Such expressions as these keep the perspective on the ages of history rather than pointing to an "eternal" state of existence. It is in reference to a world in which generations of people are born, live and die that olam is used in many such verses. None of the above verses have any reference to "eternity." Nor were they written to, or for, anyone inhabiting "eternity."

The Olam God

As a review of the conclusions we've arrived at concerning the meaning of the Hebrew word olam, let's consider Genesis 21:33, where God is described as the "olam God." What is the meaning of this description of God, if the word olamdoesn't have God's eternality in view? I think the context can help us out here. A few chapters earlier, we read that God had made an "olam covenant" with Abraham:

"And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an olam covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an olam possession, and I will be their God" (Gen. 17:7-8).

As part of this olam covenant that God made with Abraham, God promised to give to Abraham the land in which he was sojourning as a stranger. Significantly, in the verse that immediately follows the one we're considering (in which God is referred to as "the olam God"), we read that Abraham was, at the time, sojourning in the land of the Philistines (Gen 21:34). This historical detail should bring to the reader's mind the covenant that God had made with Abraham. At some future time, God is going to fulfill his covenant promise to Abraham, and the land of the Philistines in which he was but a sojourner (when we're told he "called on the name of Yahweh") will belong to him and his descendents, as an olam inheritance.

Now, this raises the question: When God fulfills his promise to Abraham and Abraham finally possesses the land, how long will the land be in Abraham's possession? The answer to this question will help us determine how long the duration of time is that is represented by the word "olam" in Gen. 17:7-8. Although the duration of time was apparently unknown to Abraham when God made this promise to him (remember that olam denotes a "hidden" duration of time, whether past, present or future), does Scripture give us any indication elsewhere of how long it will be (either exactly or approximately)? Well, we know that, according to Revelation 21:1, the present heaven and earth is one day going to "pass away" and be replaced by "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 21:1). So assuming the land will be in Abraham's possession as long as the land exists to be possessed and inhabited (which is, I believe, a reasonable assumption to make), Abraham's possession of the land cannot be understood as an "eternal" possession. Why? Because according to what is revealed in Revelation, the entire earth (of which the land promised to Abraham is a part) is one day going to cease to exist and be replaced by a new earth. But in spite of the fact that the present earth is ultimately going to be destroyed and replaced, Abraham will still have plenty of time to enjoy the land promised him by God. For according to Rev. 20, the present earth is going to remain in existence for at least a thousand years after Abraham is resurrected at Christ's coming. Thus, the time period expressed by the Hebrew noun olam in Genesis 17:7-8 is at least a thousand years.

Having established that Abraham's "olam possession" of the land is not "eternal," let's return to Genesis 21:33, where God is referred to as the "olam God." Is Moses saying that God's existence is limited to the time period during which (as well as leading up to when) Abraham enjoys his "olam possession?" Not at all. Moses was no more limiting God's existence to time by the use of the word olam than God was excluding himself from being the God of others when he identified himself as "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Instead, Moses was emphasizing the fact that God was the God who endured through all the ages of history, and was more than able to fulfill his covenant promises to Abraham that he and his offspring would receive the land. He is called the "olam God" out of recognition of the fact that he is intimately involved with all that takes place within the time periods of history, overseeing and directing them according to his sovereign purpose. 



[1] Gen 9:12, 16; 17:7; Ex 3:15; 12:14; 27:21; 30:21; 31:16; 40:15; Lev 6:18; 10:9; 17:7; 23:21, 31; 24:3; Num 10:8; 15:15; 18:23; Deut 23:3, 6; 32:7; Josh 8:28; Psalm 33:11; 45:17; 49:11; 61:6-7; 72:17; 79:13; 85:5; 89:1-2, 4, 29, 36-37; 100:5; 102:12; 103:17; 105:8; 106:31; 135:13; 145:13; 146:10; Prov 8:23; 27:24; Isa. 34:10, 17; 51:8-9; 58:12; 60:15; 61:4; Lam. 5:19-20; Dan 4:3, 34; Joel 3:20; cf. Eph 3:21