(Note to anyone who got here by Google search: This post is not a discussion of whether hell is eternal or not. That debate does not interest me. It is a discussion of what “aionios” means in general, with particular interest in what the phrase “aionios zoe” (generally translated “eternal life”) means in the New Testament.)
The Greek word aion originally simply referred to life, and later came to mean “life span.” From this usage it became a general word for a “length of time.” By the time of Christ it more commonly referred to longer time-spans, and is often translated as “age” in the New Testament. It is where we get our word “eon”(or aeon).
When Christ speaks of those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit not being forgiven “in this age or in the age to come” [Matthew 12:32], the background Greek is aion. About 75% of the time you read “age” in the New Testament, the background Greek is aion. Unfortunately, there is simply no English equivalent to the essential meaning of aion, but “age” is the most accurate of several unsatisfactory choices. Indeed, if translators were more literal, we would read “age” more frequently in our Bibles, but often aion gets translated as “world” or “forever.” Instead of “forever,” a more accurate translation would be “throughout this/the age.” To capture the notion of something transcending the/this age, writers often use the plural, as in the common reference to glory being to Jesus “forever and ever” (e.g., Hebrews 13:21) which is literally “into the ages.”
While “age” is the closest English word to what aion means, it fails to capture its philosophical trappings. Indeed, our modern understanding of time forms a real barrier to understanding the Greek notion of an “age.” We see time as a type of coordinate system that complements space. Space bounds the universe and every point in that universe travels through time. In this way, locations and events can be designated by their place and date much like points on the Earth’s surface are designated by latitude and longitude. For the Greeks, though, time was bound up with the idea of motion and (more generally) the type of gradual change perceived in the world as it evolves.
When I say aion means “age” I don’t mean to emphasize the chronological time interval moving from one date to another. In fact, the philosophical meaning of aion contrasts with the notion of chronological time. Chronological time (as understood by the Greeks) is bound to the realm of our senses. We see and apprehend events occurring in time and we mark time off from one solar cycle to another. The notion of aion is rather a “timeless present” that captures the abstract properties of the world. A new aion is marked out when the characteristics of the previous one cease to be and are replaced by new characteristics.
One example given by Philo [(On the Changing of Names (267)] is the aion signified by the birth of Isaac. The world prior to Isaac’s birth is somehow fundamentally different from the world afterward because Isaac’s birth marks the fulfillment of a promise by God. This was an aion that was, in Philo’s words, truly “strange, marvelous, and new.” So the point of an aion is not that it marks off some interval of time but rather that it represents an apprehension of abstract qualities of the world, an apprehension that does not change gradually (as the world seen through the lens of time does), but is rather a timeless present that endures until the next age commences.
Linguistically, the word “aionios” is just the adjective formed from aion. Thus, if we were using strict etymology, aionios would mean something like “pertaining to (a/the) age.” Its actual meaning (or range of meanings) has been much debated.
It is an odd word. We don’t have one in English. The words “age-y” or “time-span-y” don’t exist. The closest we come is when we say something like “That outfit is so 80s.” Words are created because of practical needs, and it is not clear why one needs an adjective form of “age.”
For this reason, the adjective aionios came rather late. The Greeks got along perfectly well for several centuries prior to Plato coming up with the word. He is the first person known to use the term aionios, most notably in Timaeus, where he describes the creation of the universe.
The thing that makes aionios so difficult to understand is that it is very often used to refer to “unceasing” or “constant,” and hence is often read as “eternal.” Yet, the Greeks already had a word for “eternal” [adios], so why did Plato feel the need to create this other word?
More important to my study is “What did John, Paul, and the other Jews responsible for the NT mean when they wrote aionios?” If they just wanted to say “eternal” or “unending,” then the Greek word that clearly means that is adios. Yet aionios is used very frequently in the NT while adios is only used twice (in Romans 1:20 to refer to God’s eternal power, and in Jude 6 to refer to the eternal chains binding the rebellious angels for punishment). Aionios is a more obscure word, so why was it favored so heavily? What did the apostles mean by it?
Much of the interest in the meaning of aionios comes from people who want to argue against the idea of hell lasting forever. This strikes me as a rather silly debate. First, whether or not hell lasts forever, the Bible is clear it should be avoided at all costs. Second, claiming that God could not possibly choose to punish people for eternity seems too much like judging the Creator. Third, those who argue for a temporal hell generally (though not always) do so as part of a Universalistic theory that claims all eventually go to heaven. This further claim seems decidedly unbiblical based on Matthew 10:28. (Luke 13:24 ff also seems to suggest that once the door is closed it won’t be reopened.)
The reason I care about the meaning of aionios is its use in the key phrase aionios zoe, generally translated “eternal life.” I claim that it rather refers to “life in the age (to come)” or “life in the (Messianic) age.” In other words, the life we have in the New Covenant. We have a type of this life now with the advent of the Holy Spirit, and it will reach fullest flower when we receive our full inheritance of a purified flesh in the resurrection (Romans 8:23).
The problem is that it is hard to tell what aionios is intended to mean in general because the life of the next age is supposed to be unending/eternal (see Luke 20:36) as well, and the life of the New Covenant is understandably linked to that life as described above. Thus, it is hard to untangle what aspect of the life we have in Christ the New Testament writers referred to with aionios. Was it intended to refer to the new creation, the “life of the new age.” Or was it intended simply to refer to immortality?
Often this is when people who don’t like theology say something like “can’t it be both?” Or, similarly, “why does it matter which meaning they actually intended if both meanings apply?”
The reason I’m pursuing the question is that our understanding of what the apostles meant by aionios zoe (typically translated “eternal life”) directly influences how we think about other topics because the idea of aionios zoe is fundamentally linked to salvation and Christ’s work in general. If you think of aionios zoe as referring to the life we have in the New Covenant through the power of the Holy Spirit, then the gospel story of Christ’s work revolves around the question of “what did Christ have to do to allow me to receive the Spirit?” In other words, it becomes centered on verses like John 16:7. This is quite a different gospel story than what many Christians are used to. Note that this question includes the key idea of the resurrection as well because the resurrected flesh is the most perfect form of this life in the New Covenant. It is the completion of the work Jesus has already begun, the final inheritance for which the Holy Spirit is a portion.
Notably absent from the above is any discussion of the Final Judgment, which I do not believe is directly linked to salvation. Jesus judges both Christians and non-Christians alike, but not as a judge assesses a defendant (who is only on trial for supposed crimes). Rather Christ judges everyone based on all their works (both evil and good) to determine whom He will choose for the New Kingdom. (This is indicated many times in scripture, some clear examples being Matthew 14:47-50; Matthew 25:31-46. Paul says it in three different ways within the Romans 2:5-16 passage and repeats it in Romans 14:10-12. 2nd Corinthians 5:11 is also notable.)
Recently I found a couple of particularly interesting passages in Philo where aionios is used in a way that completely settles the question as to the basic meaning of aionios for Hellenized Jews around the time of Christ. Before going into the details, I want to give an English hypothetical that mirrors Philo’s discussion of aionios.
Imagine you are a 5th grade student, and your science teacher says “The academic name for our Sun is Sol. I say ‘academic’ because it is not a universal name for our ‘sun.’ Our sun doesn’t have a universal name, and it does not need a universal name. People just say ‘the sun’ and most people have no knowledge of the name ‘Sol.’”
Now, as a 5th grade student, you may not know what “academic” means, but from the above discussion it absolutely cannot mean “universal” or “used everywhere” or “unlimited in space.” The teacher has specified that the whole point of her use of “academic” is to limit the scope of the term under discussion. If “academic” could in any way have “everywhere” or “universal” as its base meaning, then her statement becomes sheer lunacy.
Philo makes a statement very similar to the above, except instead of discussing something containing all of space (everywhere/universal), the discussion refers to time.
Philo comments on passages in the Old Testament where the name of God is discussed. The Greek version of the Old Testament uses the term aionios to refer to this name. Philo explains that the use of the word aionios tells us that this name is not the eternal name for God. It does not apply to the age that came before this one, but is only given in this age so man would have a term to use in prayer. Philo indicates that aionios is a fundamentally limiting term (with respect to time) and specifies that it is not only a limiting term, but it is used precisely for the purpose of specifying that God’s absolute name is not in view because God has no absolute name. Philo says that the word aionios is used to “relativize” the name of God, indicating that the name given to Moses is God’s name relative just to this age, not one that is applicable beyond or before this age. Clearly, if aionios had “eternal” as a base meaning, it could hardly be used with the purpose of limiting the noun it is modifying.
In discussing the well-known “I am who I am” passage where God is said to have given God’s aionios name, Philo says (On the Changing of Names, section 12):
For this, says he, is the “[aionios]” name, as if it has been investigated and discerned in the age [aion] in which we live, and not in the age [aion] that was before.
In another passage (On Abraham, section 51), Philo makes a similar remark. He quotes Scripture where God says “This is my [aionios] name: I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Here, Yong’s classic translation of this passage:
…appropriating to himself an appellation composed of the three names: “For,” says God, “this is my [aionios] name: I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” using there the relative term instead of the absolute one; and this is very natural, for God stands in no need of a name. But though he does not stand in any such need, nevertheless he bestows his own title on the human race that they may have a refuge to which to betake themselves in supplications and prayers, and so may not be destitute of a good hope.
This discussion is not intended to suggest that aion or aionos can never imply or give rise to the notion of eternity. As mentioned above there are certainly phrases using this term (“from age to age” and “into the ages”) that convey the notion of “forever and ever.” However, these very phrases indicate that aion itself cannot refer to “forever” in the philosophical sense. There cannot be multiple “forevers.” These terms can get across the notion of “ceaseless” or “enduring” because the notion of aion embodies those properties of the world that are not subject to the gradual effect that time has on the world. However, this does not mean “changeless” per se, but rather “constant within this age.” (Of course, there is nothing saying that the age in question has to end…)
The point of this discussion is to claim that when Jesus or one of the apostles used the term aionios to refer to the life made possible to us through Jesus, they were not referring to the “unendingness” of that life but are rather referring to the character of that life. The aionios zoe is the life in the age of the New Covenant and is fundamentally different from the life of those who never received the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Just as the birth of Isaac ushered in a new age fundamentally different from that which came before it, the ascension of Jesus as High Priest who sends the Holy Spirit, brings about a new age, and those who believe in Jesus have access to the special life of that age.
Under this reading, Christ’s claim in John 17:3 makes perfect sense: “This is the aionios zoe, that they know You, the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom You have sent.” This verse defines the aionios life not in terms of its duration but in terms of its nature.Note that the special linguistic structure John uses in 17:3 is the same he uses elsewhere when he wants to give a definition or exact description of something or someone. See John 1:19, John 3:19, John 15:12, 1 John 1:5, and 1 John 3:11 for further examples of this grammatical structure and John’s use of it.
The life in this new age is one typified by knowledge of God, knowledge which Jesus says will be brought by the Holy Spirit. It is the sending of the Holy Spirit that Jesus claims is the reason He had to die (John 16:7).