by Al Maxey

Issue #74 ------- October 3, 2003
It is only with the heart that one can see
rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

--- Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)


Reflective Analysis of Forever
Analyzing the Attributes of Aionios

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) once observed, "The clock indicates the moment -- but what does eternity indicate?" Men have pondered the concept and scope of eternity since the earliest days of our existence upon this earth. In some ways, it is truly beyond our comprehension, since we are finite beings seeking to fathom the infinite; the temporal seeking to comprehend the eternal. On the other hand, our Creator has endowed us with an awareness of the eternal realm and its realities (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Thus, there is that innate yearning within our hearts and minds to more perfectly grasp that which is above and beyond ourselves. Eternity truly transcends the space/time continuum, yet we, who inhabit the latter, may indeed, through honest spiritual inquiry, gain a glimpse into the former.

Essentially, the question is -- How long is forever? Does this biblical term signify "time without end," or are we somewhat misled by even associating the element of time with the concept of forever? Are there other possible meanings and applications of forever in God's Word? I have had people boldly declare to me that the word "eternal" only, and always, means "unending continuity." Indeed, some have become somewhat agitated when this position is challenged. Are they correct in their assertion? Or, have they presented too narrow a view of this biblical concept? These are legitimate questions that require a reasoned response, for some of our theological tenets will be determined by our conclusions.

The Greek word in question here is: Aionios, an adjective usually translated "eternal," "forever" or "everlasting." Biblical Hebrew offers several combinations of the word olam (usually translated "forever, lifelong"). The Greek aionios comes from the root word: Aion, which means "age" or "era," and from which we acquire the word "eon." The adjective aionios appears 70 times in the New Testament writings (with well over 100 additional occurrences in the Septuagint), and although the word does denote that which is unending in some passages, it just as often does not. "The force attaching to the word is not so much that of the actual length of a period, but that of a period marked by spiritual or moral characteristics" (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of NT Words). The reality, which some seem reluctant to acknowledge (because it affects their theology), is that aionios is used in two very distinct and separate ways in the Scriptures --- qualitatively and quantitatively. One must examine the context, as well as that which these words describe, in order to determine which meaning applies, or if both meanings are perhaps applicable. The Holman Bible Dictionary stresses that although "some aspects of both quality and duration appear in every context," nevertheless in some passages "the emphasis is on the quality ... rather than on unending duration" (p. 440). The tendency of some to view aion and aionios as only signifying "time without end" can be exegetically misleading, for these terms may also describe the quality of something, with no reference to time whatsoever! Failure to perceive this fact has led to some misguided theology.

Simply stated, "forever" isn't always forever! In other words, about half the time aionios is used in Scripture it denotes the quality of that which is described (as being of the "eternal," rather than the "temporal," realm), rather than a reference to quantity of time. Thus, in a great many biblical examples, "forever" actually ends! A noted theologian by the name of Emmanuel Petavel correctly observes, "There are at least 70 occurrences in the Bible where these words qualify objects of a temporary and limited nature ... signifying only an indeterminate duration of which the maximum is fixed by the intrinsic nature of the persons or things themselves." In other words, the nature of "forever" is often directly determined by the nature of the object described. Thus, "eternal" or "forever" may well simply denote something will endure for as long as that object has the ability or capacity to endure. Although Plato had a huge impact upon the thinking of the Hellenistic Jews and the early Christians in this area (away from the biblical concept), nevertheless "Aristotle returns to the conception of aion as the relative period of time allotted to each specific thing" (Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 198).

Notice just a few examples of that which Scripture describes as being "eternal," but which clearly are not intended to be "everlasting" (in the sense of unending):

  1. The sprinkling of blood on the doorpost --- "You shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever" (Exodus 12:24).

  2. Aaron and his sons "shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute" (Exodus 29:9). "Their anointing shall qualify them for a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations" (Exodus 40:15).

  3. Caleb's inheritance --- "Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance to you and to your children forever" (Joshua 14:9).

  4. Solomon's Temple --- "I have surely built Thee a lofty house, a place for Thy dwelling forever" (1 Kings 8:13).

  5. A "forever" servant --- "You shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. And you shall do likewise to your maidservant" (Deuteronomy 15:17). Obviously, the word "forever" in this passage is limited to the length of the servant's life. If the man or woman lived only ten more years, then "forever" was ten years in duration. This verse in no way suggests (as some have contended) that such a person would be the servant of another throughout endless ages, both in the temporal realm and in the eternal. "Forever" endured for only so long as the servant lived; thus, "forever" was limited ... there would be a point of termination.

  6. Unto Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, it was said, "The leprosy of Naaman shall cleave to you and to your descendants forever" (2 Kings 5:27).

These are just a very few of the many biblical examples, but they demonstrate the truth that the concept of aionios does not always refer to "time without end," but may actually mean "time of a limited duration" (the limits determined by the nature of the object described, and by the context). An excellent New Testament example, by the way, would be the fig tree which Jesus cursed in Matthew 21:19 and Mark 11:14 --- "Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever" (KJV). Again, "forever" would simply be the length of the life of this particular tree. If the tree lived another 25 years, it would never again produce fruit during that time. Thus, "forever" would be 25 years in duration. When the tree ceased to exist, so would "forever" with regard to fruit bearing capabilities.

One should also not overlook the fact that the Bible (and this is especially true in the NT writings) uses aion and aionios in a qualitative sense about half the time these words occur. The Scriptures speak of the distinction, for example, between this "present age" and the "age to come." This has primary reference to the various qualities of both ages or eras or realms, and not so much to the concept of time. The famous Greek scholar B.F. Westcott stated it this way: "The word speaks of being, of which time is not a measure." This present age may be spoken of as "temporal," for example, whereas the age to come may be characterized as "eternal." Again, this is not a statement with reference to time, for the latter is truly outside the parameters of space and time. Rather, the terms "temporal" and "eternal" qualify the various aspects of the nature of these realms -- one being earthly, one heavenly; one physical, one spiritual; one corrupt, one pure.

A good example of the qualitative aspect of aionios is seen in Jude 7 --- "Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them ... are exhibited as an example, in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire." A scholar by the name of Joseph A. Baird observes, "'Eternal fire,' for example, does not necessarily mean a fire that burns endlessly (quantitative meaning), but may also mean a fire 'peculiar to the realm and the nature of God' (qualitative meaning)." On this same passage from Jude, Dr. Alan Richardson writes, "The real point is the character of the punishment. It is that of the order of the Age to Come as contrasted with any earthly penalties" (An Introduction to the Theology of the NT). This was not a volcanic eruption, nor lightning (both of which have been suggested), rather this was a fire "from the Lord" which "rained down out of heaven" (Genesis 19:24). It was not a "temporal fire" (of the earth), but an "eternal fire" (from the presence of the Almighty). "Eternal," therefore, does not suggest that judicial fire is still burning those cities to this day, but rather that its source was not of this temporal realm.

Similarly, when the inspired New Testament writers speak of "eternal life," the adjective aionios refers to "the quality more than to the length of life" (Dr. Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology). It is life lived in an entirely new realm; life experienced in the eternal, rather than temporal, realm. This certainly does NOT detract in any way from the endlessness of this future life, however, for Scripture clearly declares (using other terms) that it will NOT be terminated. One such passage is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 --- "We shall ALWAYS (Greek: pantote) be with the Lord."

This view of the Greek adjective aionios is clearly "shown to be a legitimate interpretation, and cannot (so far as the texts containing the word 'eternal' are concerned) be called a forcing of Scripture to suit a theory" (Dr. Guillebaud, The Righteous Judge). Too many have limited their definition of "forever" and "eternal" for the sake of their tradition and theology, and this is unfortunate. Dr. Clark Pinnock, in his work Prospects For Systematic Theology, has stated the case quite well --- "We cannot rest content with mere reiteration of earlier insights. A theology which seeks only to restate the system of some honored theological forerunner is less than fully biblical." J.I. Packer, in Fundamentalism and the Word of God, wrote, "We must never become enslaved to human tradition, and assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice, and in so doing excuse ourselves from the duty of testing and reforming them by Scripture." Here is Charles Hodge's conclusion on the matter: "If we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, all we have to do is to ascertain what it teaches on this subject, and humbly submit."

The reality is: "Forever" does not always mean forever ... at least, not in the sense that we normally take it. This may impact our traditional theology in some areas, a fact which greatly troubles some disciples .... although it shouldn't, if their quest is truly for ultimate Truth. For example, some believe the punishing (suffering, torture) of the wicked in the lake of fire will be without end ("eternal"), and they vehemently deny any qualitative aspect to aionios in this specific phrase. To suggest that "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46) could be anything other or less than endless torture is tantamount to heresy, to their way of thinking. However, is it just possible we have failed to fully perceive the significance of the concept of "eternal" when used with the reality of the final "punishment" of the wicked? Is it possible we have overlooked the qualitative aspect of this term? Is it also possible we have failed to distinguish between two key concepts with regard to the disposition of the unredeemed --- process and result? I believe we have.

Notice Matthew 25:46 --- "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." The fates of both the unrighteous and the righteous are said to be "eternal." What are the fates of both? The promise to the righteous is LIFE. The promise to the unrighteous is DEATH. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). God has always placed before men two great destinies: life and death; the blessing and the curse (see: Deuteronomy 30:15-20). The punishment for sin and rebellion against God has always been DEATH. Both the reward and the punishment are said to be "eternal." But, eternal in what sense? Qualitative or quantitative? Or both?

I believe the overall context of God's Word on this matter indicates the answer is BOTH. Both the reward and the punishment will be of that other realm, not of this temporal one. In quality, it will far surpass anything we might imagine. However, quantitatively, both reward and punishment will endure without end. I believe Scripture also clearly portrays that reality. As Matthew 25:46 (quoted above) declares, the punishment and life are both "forever" -- for as long as the righteous are alive, the unrighteous will be dead.

Here is where those who embrace the traditional teaching on final punishment (endless conscious torture) commit a grave error in their interpretation. Scripture makes it very clear that it is the punishMENT, not the punishING, that is forever or everlasting (if one is looking at the quantitative application of the term). Punishment is a RESULT, punishing is a PROCESS which leads to a result (or should, otherwise it is more abuse than legitimate punishment). Our God never declared the process to be endless -- a never-ending process never actually achieving the result promised -- rather, God promised the process would lead to a result which would endure. At an execution, for example, when a person is placed within the gas chamber, the dying process will be most unpleasant; it will be torment! This punishING, however, does ultimately bring about the desired result: a punishMENT, which is death! The sentence passed upon the convicted criminal was a DEATH sentence (not a LIFE sentence); the punishment prescribed, therefore, is DEATH, not never-ending DYING amidst endless suffering. Dying is merely the process, torturous though it be, that brings about the result preordained. Although the suffering of the dying process is not to be discounted as an aspect of the punishment, the actual punishment itself is DEATH -- the forfeiture of LIFE. Result, not process!!

God has declared that the wages of sin is DEATH. This punishMENT (result) will be brought about by a horrendous punishING (process), which is the dying experience. That will be torturous. It will truly be torment. But the wages of sin is DEATH, not DYING. The "eternal punishMENT" is death. PunishMENT is a result, not a process (that would be punishING). Failure to differentiate between process and result has led some to a theology of an eternal punishING (process) rather than an eternal punishMENT (result). Thus, they actually teach that the wages of sin is never realized; the goal never achieved. Death never happens. This was dramatically displayed in the December 2001 issue of The Banner of Truth (a publication of some within the Churches of Christ) in a lengthy poem entitled "There Is No Death" by J. L. McCreery. The title really says it all. The wicked are continually in the process of dying, they assert, but death never occurs. Indeed, the wicked are said to LIVE forever; they never die; they just continue to exist forever in misery. Thus, it is declared "death" really means "life" (a life lived endlessly in agony). Frankly, such a doctrine is the exact opposite of what Scripture teaches. This view teaches there is no death, just as the poem asserts; it has been removed as the "wages of sin." In its place one now finds "everlasting LIFE in misery." The DEATH sentence, pronounced by God, has now been commuted by man to a LIFE sentence "at hard labor."

The punishment for sin, according to the Lord, is DEATH (loss of life, not life of loss), a death that will be dispensed from His throne of justice, and which, when accomplished, will endure endlessly. From this "second death" there will be no resurrection to life, as there was with the first. Once the wicked have been destroyed, they are gone forever ... never to return. Those who teach it is the PROCESS that is everlasting, rather than the RESULT (and who teach the result is never actually achieved in reality), teach contrary to biblical Truth. Admittedly, most do this out of innocent ignorance, rather than mindful maliciousness. It was what most of us were taught growing up, and we simply never bothered to question it (although the thought of the traditional position may well have seemed rather extreme to us, as many later admit). It is time for discerning disciples to begin challenging such doctrines, and carefully examining them anew from God's holy Word. Remember: Truth has nothing to fear from honest, in-depth investigation!

To further illustrate the above principle of interpretation (forever result vs. forever process), notice yet another example. In Hebrews 9:12 we read that Jesus Christ, "not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption." Here we find a similar phrase to "eternal punishment." This time, however, it is redemption that is said to be "forever." We must now ask the same questions. Is it the process (redeemING) that is endless, or is it the result (redempTION)? Is the author of Hebrews seeking to convey the idea of a never-ending process of redeeming; one that never actually ever results in a final redemption? Is that the message here? Of course not!! Redemption is a RESULT, and it is both quantitatively and qualitatively eternal. It would be of no comfort to us whatsoever if our Lord was continually and forever in the process of seeking to redeem us through the continual offering of His blood, but with this process never actually producing the resultant goal: redemption. If redemption itself was unobtainable, and the only thing truly enduring was the PROCESS, then redemption would never truly be obtained, because it is the process, not the result, that endures. If a process is never-ending, then a result is never obtained. That is unthinkable with regard to redemption. It is equally unthinkable with regard to final punishment. Both are results, and it is the result that is said to endure. When we teach the traditional view on this matter, we in effect teach just the opposite of biblical Truth. That is no light offense, in my estimation.

Consider these other "eternal" realities mentioned in the New Covenant writings: (1) "Eternal destruction" -- 2 Thessalonians 1:9. What endures without end? A destroying process which never brings about the desired result? Or, is it the result (destrucTION) which is forever? Will God forever seek to destroy the wicked and evil, but never be able to achieve the desired destruction? (2) "Eternal consolation" -- 2 Thessalonians 2:16. Will the Lord be forever in the process of seeking to consol and comfort us, but never actually achieving that result? Or, will we be consoled, and will that consolaTION be enduring? (3) "Eternal salvation" -- Hebrews 5:9. Is our Lord Jesus Christ forever seeking to bring about salvation, but never actually achieving it? Or, has He secured salvaTION for mankind through His once for all sacrifice? What endures? The process of bringing about salvation, or the resultant salvation itself? (4) "Eternal judgment" -- Hebrews 6:2. Will the judging process go on forever and ever? Or, is it the judgMENT itself that endures?

We could go on and on, but hopefully you are beginning to see the interpretative principle here. A failure to differentiate between process and result can completely alter one's theology. Thus, when it comes to questions like "How long is forever?" we must exercise a tremendous amount of care. Many factors must be taken into consideration, and a failure in any of these areas of contemplation can lead to a theology totally at odds with biblical Truth. Of utmost importance in any such effort at interpretation of a passage in which the word aionios is connected is to determine (1) is this term being used qualitatively or quantitatively, or perhaps both?, and (2) is the focus of the teaching in the passage on process or result? Correct answers here are critical to our theological constructs.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, Keep on throwing light on open Bible study. Those who tend to get mean-spirited with you remind me of the "cool dudes" in Acts 22:23, where these enemies of Paul were so angry they got a handful of dirt and tossed it in the air. Their anger moved them to act like infants. When I coached debate in a high school in southeast Texas, I reminded my debaters from time to time that if they allowed the other side to make them angry, the debate contest judges would take that as indication of having a weak position. I've found that principle to be true in discussing biblical issues as well. Some brethren become unkind when they have a weak argument. Reminds me of the uproar described in Ephesus in Acts 19:32, "Most of the people did not even know why they were there." Remembering my days in politics, a popular practice was to recruit a bunch of people to come to political rallies, even if most of them didn't know "why they were there." But at least in politics, we had the decency not to toss dust in the air. Instead, slinging a good gob of mud usually got the job done quite well.

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