Since this is bound to come up at some point, I wanted to do a more comprehensive post on the words “everlasting” or “eternal” connected to punishment (hell, hades, lake of fire, etc). This will be somewhat redundant of my earlier short post. My apologies in advance. Also, it will be rather technical and of probably no interest whatsoever except to a believer in sola scriptura (the Bible Alone is truth). You have been warned.
As far as I can find, EVERY single scripture which is traditionally interpreted as teaching everlasting punishment uses some version of the Greek words “aion” and “aionios” to describe this punishment. These words are also the origin of our English word “eon”, and, like that word, convey the idea of a long – but finite amount of time. They are, however, consistently MIS-translated as “everlasting” or “eternal” by the King James and many other translations. It is safe to say that the doctrine of eternal punishments stands or falls on the correct translation of this one, somewhat obsure, term.
This in itself raises a question. If God wants us to know about eternal punishment and directed the writing of the Bible, could he not have inspired the choice of some other, less controversial word? Yes, he could have. Several very appropriate words are available in Greek, such as “akatalutos” (endless, permanent – strongs 179), “aidios” (ever-enduring – strongs 126), “athanasia” (undying – strongs 110), “adialeiptos” (ceaseless, permanent – strongs 88). All these words ARE used in the New Testament – but only when referring to eternal life and eternal rewards, never in reference to punishments – a telling difference.
The Pharisees and the Essenes apparently DID believe in eternal torment for the wicked, and when Josephus, the Jewish historian of the time of the apostles, describes their beliefs, he uses the Greek words I mention above. The Pharisees, he says, believe the wicked are sent to an everlasting prison [eirgmon aidion] subject to eternal punishment" [aidios timoria]. The Essenes believe the wicked would suffer never-ceasing punishment [timoria adialeipton], or deathless punishment, [athanaton timorian].
Jesus teaching, by uses terms such as “olethros aiónios or aióniou kriseos "age-long chastisement," or "age-long condemnation." In distinguishing his doctrine of punishment from the Pharasees, it may be that this is at least part of what Jesus had in mind when he warned his disciples to beware of the doctrine of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Mat 16:12). The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, and the Pharisees believed in endless torment. Perhaps those who teach endless punishment today are, in fact, teaching one of the particular doctrines of the Pharisees that Jesus specifically repudiates.
The writers of the time who used the word “aion” and “aionios” used them to refer to “age” and “age-long” – not eternity. Here are some examples:
From Homer: "Thyself shall be deprived of pleasant aiónos" (life – or age.) "Husband thou hast perished from aiónos" (life or time.)
From Hesiod: "To him (the married man) during aiónos (life – his age) evil is constantly striving,”
Hippocrates. "A human aión is a seven days matter."
Euripides: "Every aión of mortals is unstable."
Euripides: "Marriage to those mortals who are well situated is a happy aión."
Plato: "Leading a life (aióna) involved in troubles."
Arisotle: "Which of these things separately can be compared with the order of the heaven, and the relation of the stars, sun, and also the moon moving in most perfect measures from one aión to another aión,"
Philo: "These they called aiónios, hearing that they had performed the sacred rites for three entire generations."
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (The Septuagint) the same use of “aion” or “aionios” for “age” applies:
"There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, (aiónos), men of renown."
“"Whereas thou hast been forsaken and hated, so that no man went through thee, I will make thee an aiónion excellency, a joy of many generations."
"And it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go away from thee; because he loveth thee and thine house, because he is well with thee, then thou shalt take an awl, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant. aionios"
There are also a number of places where the word is used in the New Testament that simply CANNOT refer to “eternity”. Here are some examples.
What was sown among the thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of this age (aion) and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. (Matthew 13:22 WEB)
[Is the listener distracted from the gospel by the cares of ETERNITY??]
So will it be in the end of the world (aion). The angels will come forth, and separate the wicked from among the righteous, (Matthew 13:49 WEB)
[The angels come at the end of ETERNITY?? (ie, never)]
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets who have been from of old (aion) (Luke 1:70 WEB) [From the beginning of ETERNITY?]
His lord commended the dishonest manager because he had done wisely, for the children of this world (aion) are, in their own generation, wiser than the children of the light. (Luke 16:8 WEB)
[The children of ETERNITY are wiser than the children of light??]
Since the world began (ek tou aiónos) it has never been heard of that anyone opened the eyes of someone born blind. (John 9:32 WEB)
[Since the beginning of ETERNITY?? ]
Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began (chronos aionios) (Romans 16:25 KJV)
[Since ETERNITY begain??]
that in the ages (aions) to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus; (Ephesians 2:7 WEB)
[That in the ETERNITIES to come?? Is there more than one eternity?]
Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages (ta tele ton aiónon) have come. (1 Corinthians 10:11 WEB)
[Has the end of all ETERNITIES come upon us?? THAT would be bad news]
Even where the word refers to something where “eternity” might make sense, the construction doesn’t allow for “eternity” to be the meaning. For example:
Now to the King eternal [aionos], immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever [eis aionos] . Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17 WEB)
No one would object to calling God the eternal King. But would it make sense to call him the King of the “eternities” (plural?) This makes no sense at all. There’s only one eternity. However, if aion means age, then we get this translation (from Youngs)
and to the King of the ages, the incorruptible, invisible, only wise God, is honour and glory–to the ages of the ages! Amen. 1 Timothy 1:17 YLT)
“King of the Ages” – and “ages of ages” make perfect grammatical sense, and are still accurate.
So, if “age” and “ages” and “age-long” are really the better translations of these words, how and when did they come to be translated “eternal” and “everlasting”? We can get some clues by examining ancient dictionaries and lexicons. Here is the definition of “aion” from some ancient dictionaries.
Hesychius, (A. D. 400-600,) "The life of man, the time of life."
Theodoret (A. D. 300-400) "Aión is not any existing thing, but an interval denoting time, sometimes infinite when spoken of God, sometimes proportioned to the duration of the creation, and sometimes to the life of man."
John of Damascus (A. D. 750,) says, "1, The life of every man is called aión The whole duration or life of this world is called aión. The life after the resurrection is called 'the aión to come.' "
Then, by the 16th Century, we read this in the lexicon of Phavorinus: "Aión, time, also life, also habit, or way of life. Aión is also the eternal and endless AS IT SEEMS TO THE THEOLOGIAN."
So sometime after the Council of Nicea, the meaning had begun to change to “eternal”, and it was apparently at the instigation of theologians, rather than translators. There began to be a theological preference for thinking of “aion” as “eternity”.
Another help in pointing out that “aionios” cannot mean “eternal” is in the word for punishment associated with it, for example, in this scripture:
And these shall go away to punishment age-during (kolasis aionios), but the righteous to life age-during. (Matthew 25:46 YLT)
The word used for “punishment” (kolasis) actually refers to pruning, to cutting off branches to improve a tree. The correct translation is closer to “correction” or “chastisement”. It is a REMEDIAL punishment – the object being to improve the person being corrected. It would be absurd to imagine undergoing “corrective” punishment for all eternity! The word suggests that at some future point, the branches will be sufficiently pruned that the tree can be allowed to grow again.