Spirit of the Word - Covenant Eschatology - Introductory Note - New Stuff
The following was taken for the book The Origin and History of the
Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, by Thomas Thayer - Chapter 5, Section IV
THE WORDS ETERNAL,
EVERLASTING, FOREVER, ETC.
These words are regarded by many as settling the question of the endless duration of punishment - with how little reason the facts will show. It is remarkable that, though the original words rendered "everlasting," "eternal," &c. (aion and aionios), occur together one hundred and seventy-nine times in the New Testament, they are used only twelve times in connection with punishment. "Everlasting fire" occurs three times, and "everlasting punishment" once, "everlasting destruction" once, and "eternal damnation" once! Matt. 18:8, 25:41, 46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Mark 3:29. The other texts are Heb. 6:2; 2 Pet. 2:17; Jude 7, 13. Surely, if the words everlasting and eternal mean strictly endless by their own inherent force, this is very singular. The Gospel a special revelation of endless punishment, and yet the words expressing this awful fact, applied to it only nine times out of a usage of one hundred and seventy-nine examples!1
Let us now attend to the definition and usage of the words by lexicographers, and classical and scriptural writers, that we may be able to judge of its value in the present discussion.
1. Lexicographers and Critics. Schleusner, whose exact learning makes his authority of great weight, defines the noun aion, thus: "Any space of time, whether longer or shorter, past, present, or future, to be determined by the persons or things spoken of, and the scope of the subject - the life or age of man; any space in which we measure human life, from birth to death."
Donnegan. "Aion, time; a space of time; life time and life; the ordinary period of man's life, the age of man; man's estate; a long period of time; eternity. Aionios, of long duration; eternal, lasting, permanent."
Schrevelius. "Aion, an age, a long period of time; indefinite duration; time, whether longer or shorter, past, present or future; life, the life of man. Aionios, of long duration, lasting, sometimes everlasting, sometimes lasting through life."
Authorities might be multiplied to any extent, but these are sufficient to show that the radical meaning of the Greek words translated "everlasting," "forever" is not endless, but simply indefinite time, longer or shorter, past or future; and that they take their force as to duration from the subjects or persons to which they are applied. If they mean strictly endless in any case, it is not because that idea is in the words aionios, aion, "everlasting," "forever;" but because the being or subject qualified demands it, or is, of itself, necessarily endless.
Hence Dr. Macknight, Presbyterian, says: "These words, being ambiguous, are always to be understood according to the nature and circumstances of the things to which they are applied." And though he claims the words in support of endless punishment, yet he frankly adds: "At the same time, I must be so candid as to acknowledge, that the use of these terms forever, eternal, and everlasting, in other passages of Scripture, shows that they who understand the words in a limited sense when applied to punishment, put no forced interpretation on them." 2
2. Usage of Greek Authors. The Greek writers constantly employ these words in a way to exclude the idea of endless, and to illustrate the meaning of indefinite time, the duration to be determined by the general scope of the subject.
Plato has the phrase "eternal (aionios) drunkenness;" but one can hardly believe he meant endless drunkenness.
Eusebius, one of the early Christian writers, speaking of the Phoenician philosophy as presented by Sanchoniathon, says of the darkness and chaos which preceded creation: "They continued for a long eternity" - (dia polun aiona). Here the word is qualified by long, showing that eternity means simply age or time indefinite, long or short.
"And these they called aionios, eternal, hearing that they had performed the sacred rites for three entire generations."In Solom. Parab. This eternity was three generations long, or about one hundred years. "Alter not the eternal boundaries." If "eternal" implied endless, they could not be altered.
These examples might be multiplied, but my purpose is only to furnish the reader with a sufficient number to enable him to judge of the usage among the Greeks themselves, who, of course, will be allowed to understand the signification of words in their own language. I shall cite one more authority from classic usage, because his definition has been claimed as decisive of the meaning "endless," as the radical idea of aion, from which comes aionios, "everlasting," "forever," etc.
"According to Aristotle, and a higher authority need not be sought, aion is compounded of aei, always, and on, being; that is, always existing,...interminable, incessant, and immeasurable duration." Clarke on Gen. 21:33. Others also compel Aristotle into the same service.
Now, a single passage from the same work in which Aristotle is represented as defining aion to mean radically and strictly endless, duration without end, will show the uncertainty of such criticism, and the folly of attempting to press the great philosopher into the support of endless punishment. The passage referred to (De Mundo), has this expression: "from one interminable eternity to another eternity" - ex aionos atermonos eis eteron aiona.
Now, if Aristotle intended to define aion as signifying strictly endless, as Dr. Clarke affirms, why did he add another word to increase the force of it? Where the need or sense of saying from one interminable eternity to another? And even with this addition he does not convey the idea of duration without limit or end; otherwise there could not be another such period, which the sentence affirms! Plainly he uses the words in the ordinary sense, meaning by them only indefinite time, endless or limited, as the nature of the subject may require. And even when joined with the adjective atermonos, "without limit or termination," it is not to be taken too literally, as signifying a strict eternity.
In a poem ascribed to Errina Lesbia there is a similar use of the adjective "greatest" in connection with aion - "the greatest eternity that overturns all things," ho megistos aion. The greatest eternity implies a less one; and is demonstrative proof that the noun aion and the adjective aionios convey the idea not of strictly endless duration, but only of duration indefinitely continued.
Philo and Josephus wrote in Greek, though Jews by birth. The former uses the very phrase found in Matt. 25:46, "everlasting punishment" - kolasis aionios - as follows: - Speaking of the manner in which certain persons retaliate an injury, he designates it as "a deep hatred and everlasting punishment." Of course the everlasting punishment in this case is inflicted by men in this life, and cannot, therefore, last much above "three-score years and ten."
Josephus employs the word in such phrases as these: "the everlasting name of the patriarchs;" "the everlasting glory of the Jewish nation," which ended two thousand years ago; "the everlasting reputation" of Herod; "the everlasting worship" in the temple, which also ceased nearly eighteen hundred years ago; "the everlasting imprisonment" to which John, the tyrant, was condemned by the Romans, though it could not continue but a few years at most. 3
These Jewish-Greek authors were contemporary with the New Testament authors, and are therefore good authority for the usage and meaning of the words in review, embracing both the Greek and Jewish elements. Philo and Josephus, Matthew and Luke, allowing for the difference in education, stood in the same relation to the Greek language, and the Jewish usage of it, and what may be affirmed of one may be affirmed with equal force of the others. And, surely, nothing is more obvious than that the first named did not understand the words aion and aionios as meaning anything more than indefinite time.
Another decisive fact is this: The Sibylline Oracles, Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, and others of the Christian Fathers, who are acknowledged believers and teachers of the final restoration, often use the phrases "everlasting fire," "everlasting punishment," in regard to the wicked. Nothing can more conclusively show that the expressions are not to be taken in the sense of endless; for, though they believed in everlasting punishment, they also believed it would end in the restoration of those who suffered.
3. Scripture Usage. The Scripture usage will be found in perfect harmony with the foregoing facts. The Hebrew word, which is the equivalent of the Greek, is thus used: "I will give thee the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession." Gen. 17:8. And in verse 12, the covenant of circumcision is called "an everlasting covenant." And yet the Jews were driven from the land of Canaan, and the covenant of circumcision was abolished, eighteen hundred years ago! So the priesthood of Aaron is called "an everlasting priesthood," and yet it was put aside by God's authority, and the priesthood of Christ set up in its place. Exod. 40:15.
Now, did Jehovah use this word "everlasting" to mean endless? If He did, then He has broken His promise to the Jews in three several instances; or, if not this, the priesthood of Christ is an imposture, and the old Covenant of the Law is still in force! See, also, Levit. 16:34, 25:46; Exod. 21:6.
Jonah 2:1-6, is another illustration, where "forever" lasted only three days and three nights! showing the folly of arguing for the endlessness of punishment on the strength of such elastic words as these. The punishment of Jonah is described by the term "forever," though it lasted only seventy-two hours; and there is no more reason for supposing the term to mean endless in other cases, when applied to punishment, than here. There is no more authority for saying the "everlasting punishment" of Matt. 25:46, is endless, than for saying the "forever" punishment of Jonah, or the "everlasting priesthood" of Exod. 40:15, is endless.
The word may sometimes be used to signify a strict eternity; but it takes its force in such cases from the subject or person to whom it is applied. For example, in the expression "everlasting God," everlasting means endless, because God is immortal, not by any force of its own. The word "everlasting" borrows its endlessness from God, not God from "everlasting."
So, in all cases, the adjective is modified by the noun. A strong horse, a strong mind, a strong chain, strong drink, strong language - in each one of these phrases "strong" has a different meaning, according to the nature of the subject or noun. So a wise man, a wise God - in the last case the word "wise" means infinite wisdom, but not in the first; and the meaning of infinite is not in "wise," but in "God." And it is the same with "everlasting" - it never has the force of endless in itself; and, in order to make it mean endless when applied to punishment, it must be shown that punishment is in its nature as necessarily endless and infinite as God is. It will probably take some time to do this.
It may be well to notice the argument that in Matt. 25:46, "eternal life" and "everlasting punishment" are set against each other, and that one is as long as the other. The reply to this is, that the life of the blessed is not presumed to be endless because of the word "everlasting," but because of God's infinite goodness; the same reason which weighs against the presumption that the punishment of the wicked is endless. Show that there is as much reason from the nature of God to suppose that evil and suffering will be endless, as that good and happiness will be, and there may be some force to the argument.
Beside, Rom. 16:25, 26, Titus 1:2, Habak. 3:6, show that the same word may be differently applied in the same sentence. "Everlasting hills" are not of the same continuance as the "everlasting God;" and "eternal life" is not the same as the "eternal times" (English "world"), before which it was promised. Titus 1:2. 4
The following brief summary will illustrate the scriptural usage of the words "everlasting," "forever," and show how impossible it is to build up the doctrine of endless punishment on terms so uncertain:
"We see the word everlasting applied to God's covenant with the Jews; to the priesthood of Aaron; to the statutes of Moses; to the time the Jews were to possess the land of Canaan; to the mountains and hills; and to the doors of the Jewish temple. We see the word forever applied to the duration of a man's earthly existence; to the time a child was to abide in the temple; to the continuance of Gehazi's leprosy; to the duration of the life of David; to the duration of a king's life; to the duration of the earth; to the time the Jews were to possess the land of Canaan; to the time they were to dwell in Jerusalem; to the time a servant was to abide with his master; to the time Jerusalem was to remain a city; to the duration of the Jewish temple; to the laws and ordinances of Moses; to the time David was to be king over Israel; to the throne of Solomon; to the stones that were set up at Jordan; to the time the righteous were to inhabit the earth; and to the time Jonah was in the fish's belly. We find the phrase forever and ever applied to the hosts of heaven, or the sun, moon, and stars; to a writing contained in a book; to the smoke that went up from the burning land of Idumea; and to the time the Jews were to dwell in Judea. We find the word never applied to the time the fire was to burn on the Jewish altar; to the time the sword was to remain in the house of David; to God's covenant with the Jews; to the time the Jews should not experience shame; to the time the house of David was to reign over Israel; to the time the Jews were not to open their mouths because of their shame; to the time those who fell by death should remain in their fallen state; and to the time judgment was not executed.
But the law covenant is abolished; the priesthood of Aaron and his sons has ceased; the ordinances, and laws, and statutes of Moses are abrogated; the Jews have long since been dispossessed of the land of Canaan, have been driven from Judea, and God has brought upon them a reproach and a shame; the man to the duration of whose life the word forever was applied is dead; David is dead, and has ceased to reign over Israel; the throne of Solomon no longer exists; the Jewish temple is demolished, and Jerusalem has been overthrown, so that there is not left "one stone upon another;" the servants of the Jews have been freed from their masters; Gehazi is dead, and no one believes he carried his leprosy with him into the future world; the stones that were set up at Jordan have been removed, and the smoke that went up from the burning land of Idumea has ceased to ascend; the righteous do not inherit the earth endlessly, and no one believes that the mountains and hills, as such, are indestructible; the fire that burnt on the Jewish altar has long since ceased to burn; judgment has been executed; and no Christian believes that those who fall by death will never be awakened from their slumbers. Now, as these words are used in this limited sense in the Scriptures, why should it be supposed that they express endless duration when applied to punishment?" 5
1. Twenty of these examples repeat the word, making its actual occurrence 199 times - eis tous aionas ton aionon.
2. Truth of Gospel History, p. 28.
3. Stephens' Thesaurus Graecae Linguae; Robert Constant's Lexicon; Universalist Quarterly, ii 133, iv 5-38; Expositor, iii, &c., have furnished most of the above examples. See, also, Christian Examiner, articles by E.S. Goodwin, from Dec., 1828, to May, 1833.
4. See Prof. Tayler Lewis on Olamic and Aeonian Words, chap. 10, sect. iv
5. Everlasting. - Gen. 17:7, 8, 13; 48:4; 49:26; Exod. 40:15; LeV 16:34; Numb. 25:13; Ps. 24:7; Hab. 3:6.
Forever. - Deut. 15:17; 1 Sam. 1:22; 27:12; LeV 25:46; 2 Kings 5:27; Job 41:4; 1 Kings 1:31; Neh. 2:3; Dan. 2:4; Exod. 14:13; Eccl 1:4; Ps. 104:5; 78:69; Ezek. 37:25; Gen. 13:15; Exod. 32:13; Josh. 14:9; 1 Chron. 23:25; Jer. 17:25; Ps. 48:8; Jer. 31:40; 1 Kings 8:13; Numb. 10:8; 18:23; 1 Chron. 28:4; 1 Kings 9:5; Josh. 4:7; Jonah 2:6; Ps. 37:29.
Forever and ever. - Ps. 148:5, 6; Isa. 30:8; 34:10; Jer. 7:7; 25:5.
Never. - LeV 6:13; 2 Sam. 12:10; Judges 2:1; Joel 2:26, 27; Jer. 33:17; Ezek. 16:63; Amos 8:14; Hab. 1:4. - Universalist Book of Ref., pp. 107-177.
The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment
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