Saturday, January 17, 2015

Eternal or Eonian? Part One (Introduction; A Common Argument Refuted)


This seven-part study is, essentially, a defense of the few translations of Scripture we have available in which the words "eternal," "everlasting" and "forever" do not appear (such as Young's Literal Translation, Rotherham's Emphasized Bible, the Concordant Literal Version and the Dabhar Translation). I will be arguing that the Hebrew and Greek words translated "eternal," "everlasting" and "forever" in the more popular versions (such as the NIV, KJV and ESV) do not, in fact, have "eternity" or endless duration in view. Instead, these words have in view long but finite periods of time (i.e., ages, or "eons") during which God's redemptive plan for the universe is unfolding. This "purpose of the eons" (as Paul calls it in Ephesians 3:11, CV) will find its completion in the abolishment of sin and death from the universe and the reconciliation of all to God, through Christ (who, according to the apostle Paul, secured this ultimate outcome by his death for our sins: This is the ultimate goal or consummation toward which everything is heading, and with which the eons will conclude. It is, in short, a universe in which God is "all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). As a corollary of this main position I will be defending, I will also be arguing that the blessing which Scripture reveals that believers (but not unbelievers) will enjoy prior to the consummation is not "eternal life" (as is commonly believed) but rather "eonian (or "age-abiding") life" - that is, life during the final eons/ages of redemptive history, prior to the consummation referred to in 1 Cor. 15:28.[1]

In contrast to the above position for which I'll be arguing, the belief of the majority of Christians (as well as that of most non-Christians who are familiar with what mainstream Christianity teaches) is that the Bible teaches that God has suspended the "eternal destiny" of each individual on something that they must do or experience before they die. One common question heard from Christian evangelists (and found in evangelical tracts) is, "Where will you spend eternity?" These alarming words are meant to elicit a repentant decision from those to whom the question is posed. However, the underlying assumption of this rhetorical question is that there is more than one place in which a person might "spend eternity," and that one's eternal destiny ultimately hinges on a decision that one must make (or a conversion experience one must have) before death. According to this commonly-held belief among Christians, the Bible reveals that some people are going to enjoy "eternal life"[2] in heaven, while everyone else will be doomed to suffer "eternal punishment" (or "eternal separation from God") in "hell."

Historically, Christians have been divided as to whether one's eternal destiny is fixed as a result of God's sovereign decree (Calvinism), or as a result of the exercise of one's own "free will" (Arminianism). The belief of most Christians today (and perhaps throughout Christian history) is that it is human beings - and not God - who are the final arbitrators of their eternal destiny. In any case, it is believed by the majority of Christians that Scripture teaches that there are two possible eternal outcomes which a person can experience. Even in verses where the word "eternal" doesn't appear in connection with the fate of unbelievers (such as the well-known John 3:16), their fate is taken for granted as being just as "eternal" as that of the redeemed. 

In spite of its deep roots in Christian orthodoxy and its widespread acceptance by most Christians today, I believe this view of human destiny to be irreconcilable with what Scripture actually teaches. Although it must be acknowledged that no translation of the Bible is perfect and infallible, I believe that a misunderstanding of a few key words employed by the inspired authors of Scripture has resulted in many translations of the Bible which teach something vastly different from (and contradictory to) what God has actually revealed concerning the fate of humanity. While some of these Bible translations may, otherwise, be generally reliable, I believe the destructive consequences of the errors they contain far outweigh any good they could possibly have (at least, for those who are unaware of such errors). The detrimental effect which these translational errors have on people's understanding of the gospel - as well as on their understanding of God's character, plan, wisdom and power - makes the translations that contain them useful tools in the hands of "the god of this eon" (whose agenda involves systematic deception, and the keeping of as many people as possible from believing the truth about what Christ accomplished through his death on the cross).[3]For it is by means of such popular translations that Satan is not only able to keep countless people (both Christian and non-Christian) in unbelief concerning Paul's gospel, but also keep the majority of Christians completely oblivious to the fact that they're in unbelief.[4] 

A Common Argument Refuted 

One of the oldest and most frequently employed arguments used to support the traditional Christian belief that there is ultimately going to be a division of eternal duration between two different categories of human beings (i.e., those who die as believers and those who don't) derives its perceived strength from certain popular translations of Scripture. The verse that is perhaps most commonly appealed to in order to support this position is Matthew 25:46. The argument can be expressed as follows:

1. In Matthew 25:46 (NIV), Jesus speaks of both "eternal life" and "eternal punishment."

2. If the "eternal punishment" of which Christ speaks is not endless in duration, then neither is the "eternal life." 

3. "Eternal life" refers to the final destiny of all believers, and is therefore endless in duration.  

4. Thus, the "eternal punishment" must be understood as endless in duration as well.  

Is this a conclusive argument? Not at all. One could, for example, dispute premise (2) as follows: In Habakkuk 3:6, the same word (olam in Hebrew and aionio sin the LXX[5]) is used to describe both the duration of the mountains and the duration of God's ways. Similarly, in Romans 16:25-26 (English Standard Version), Paul speaks of "the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed." The expression translated "long ages" is "chronos aiónios." If the Greek adjective aionios were translated "eternal" here (as it is elsewhere in this translation), it would read "eternal times." And in v. 26 Paul says that the revelation of this mystery was "according to the command of the eternal God."  

Now, it is evident that, in verse 25, the Greek adjective aionios cannot mean "without beginning," for Paul's use of the expression pro chronon aionion elsewhere (see 2 Tim 1:9 and Titus 1:2) implies that the chronos aiónios had a beginning. Nor can the word mean "without end," for it is clearly connected with a limited period of time (during which a mystery was kept secret but later "revealed"). Paul is evidently referring to the periods of time that elapsed before the advent of Christ, and before the gospel began to be proclaimed in the world. If the Greek adjective aiónios carried the idea of endlessness here, the "mystery" of which Paul speaks would have never been made known to "all nations" (as Paul said it had been). Thus, in Romans 16:25-26 we have the same word (aiónios) applied to both God and to a "mystery" that was kept secret for long (but temporary) periods of time. 

So assuming (for the sake of argument) that the words used in reference to God in Habakkuk 3:6 and Romans 16:26 are describing God's eternality (I will dispute this idea later, however), we would then have the same words being used in the same immediate context denoting both eternality and limited duration. Thus, the belief that the Greek word aiónios must refer to the same exact duration when applied to both "life" and "punishment" in Matthew 25:46 is undermined. For even if the "life" in view is understood to be endless in duration, it doesn't mean the "punishment" necessarily is.  

But let us now consider premise (3). Does the expression often translated "eternal life" in the "New Testament" Scriptures even refer to the final destiny of the saved? Does the Greek word translated "eternal" in most Bibles truly mean "lasting forever" or "without end," in an absolute sense? As we'll see in the remainder of this study, this isn't at all what Jesus and his apostles meant by the expression. 


[1] Generally speaking, we can say that the blessing of eonian life will consist of one's being alive during (and therefore able to enjoy) the final eons that will transpire before God's redemptive plan for the universe reaches its ultimate goal. When we dig a little bit deeper, I believe that what Scripture reveals about the nature of "eonian life" and who will enjoy it is somewhat more nuanced (for example, I believe Scripture reveals that some who will enjoy eonian life will be immortal, while others will be mortal). But as these details are not really relevant to the purpose of this study, a more in-depth investigation of this particular subject will have to wait. 

[2] Christ spoke of the blessing commonly translated "eternal life" as a blessing available to believers only (John 3:14-16; 5:24; 6:40, 47). The apostle Paul did so as well. But this necessarily excludes not only those who have made an "informed decision" to reject the gospel, but also infants/young children, many mentally disabled people, and every person throughout history who has lived and died without having ever heard the gospel. Thus, if the expression commonly translated "eternal life" refers to one's final salvation, and if only those who believe the gospel before they die will be finally saved, then all who die as infants/young children, many mentally disabled people, and every person throughout history who has died without having heard the true gospel will be lost forever (and to attempt to make any category of persons an exception to this requirement is to completely undermine the position that belief in the gospel before death is absolutely necessary to being finally saved). However, as I will be arguing in this study, this is (fortunately) not the case! 

[3] According to Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, Satan (the "god of this eon") "blinds the apprehensions of the unbelieving, so that the illumination of the gospel of the glory of Christ...does not irradiate them." 

[4] Even so, we must keep in mind that "all is out of God" (Rom. 11:36) and that God is "operating all in accord with the counsel of his will" (Eph. 1:11). And this must necessarily include the deceptive work of Satan, and the fact that the truth of the gospel and the goal of God's redemptive plan for the universe is being hidden from most people (both Christians and non-Christians). It is evidently not God's will that everyone come into a realization of the truth in this lifetime (although they will, eventually; see 1 Tim. 2:3-7). 

[5]In the 3rd century B.C., the Greek king Ptolemy of Egypt commissioned the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. This translation (known as the Septuagint, or the LXX)was the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into another language. Significantly, the Greek dialect or form into which the Hebrew Scriptures were translated was Koine Greek. What's significant about this is that Koine Greek is the dialect in which the "New Testament" was written, and was in common use among the Jews in Christ's day. For more information on the LXX, see 


  1. Well written. Now to read the following in the series !!!

  2. Thanks, Rebecca! I started on this a few years ago, and then just kind of left it unfinished for a while (which is something that happens a lot, haha). I finally started working on it again the past couple months in order to include on my blog. It was my wife's idea to break it up into several parts (which I think was a good idea). Hope you find the rest of the study helpful (although I'm sure you and the other believers reading are already familiar with much of the content!). Any questions or constructive feedback/criticism is welcome! :-)