What is eternity? What does the Bible have to say about it? Well, what might seem cut and dry to us isn’t necessarily as clear in the biblical text. I want to highlight briefly here are the key terms often translated as eternal or eternity in Scripture might not mean what we assume in our modern context. The Biblical tradition is compiled from sources dating back 3500 years, up to about 2000 years ago, and we would be guilty of false equivalence if we were to import our meanings back onto the original context of Scripture without at least allowing the authors to speak for themselves. I am going to be as brief as I can in this post, focusing on a couple of highlights from the Old and New Testaments, and I will link to a more detailed discussion for the interested reader. If you are interested in chasing down more sources hit me in the comments section, I’ll be happy to help.
In the Old Testament the dominant term translated as ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal’ is olam. This term is probably not concerned with timeless eternity. It’s not clear that anyone in ancient Israel operated with this conceptual framework until the Jews began to interact with Hellenism, and even after the Jewish and Greek societies cross-pollenized the meaning of olam did not substantively shift. More often than not olam, especially when referring to human experience in history signifies a long duration of time, the epochal past, or the far stretches of the future, or even a realm of experience so encompassing that it could be said to be a world (c.f. Ecclesiastes 3:11 best translated in King James Version, Young’s Literal Translation). Even where olam is translated ‘everlasting’ – “from everlasting to everlasting, you are God,” (Psalm 90:2) speaks of God, it is not speaking of an unending sequence of duration that stretches from the past into the future, rather it is speaking of a God who was present before the primordial beginnings and will continue to exist long after the transient life and experience of mortals. Hebrew is a notoriously fluid language, so we should be cautious to give a static meaning to the terms as theologically loaded as eternity.
The Septuigant (Greek translation of the Old Testament) translates olam with the adjective aionios. Like olam, aionios and its related forms (aionian, etc.) does not typically refer to eternity as we might understand it. The same sense of an age, or an epoch is in mind in the NT and Septuigant usage. Positively speaking, aionios is descriptive of the kind of life believers experience (e.g. ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal’ life in John 3:16). However, negatively, aionios also describes the punishment reserved for the wicked in Matthew 25 and Revelation 20. But, as with all translations, context determines meaning; so, we should not be quick to draw equivalence to the kind of life believers experience and the kind of chastisement or punishment the wicked undergo. Marvin Vincent’s four volume series Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament (currently $0.99 for Amazon Kindle BTW!) says this:
In the New Testament the history of the world is conceived as developed through a succession of aeons. A series of such aeons precedes the introduction of a new series inaugurated by the Christian dispensation, and the end of the world and the second coming of Christ are to mark the beginning of another series. … The adjective aionios in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective in themselves carries the sense of endless or everlasting. They may acquire that sense by connotation. … Aionios means enduring through or pertaining to a period of time. Both the nouns and the adjective are applied to limited periods. … Out of the 150 instances in LXX, four-fifths imply limited duration. (IV:59)
All of this should give us pause in where we apply ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal’ to the aion word group, and where we should interpret it as something temporal or bound to a certain duration. While aionoios doesn’t explicitly rule out the translation ‘everlasting’, in most cases, it is probably best to interpret it as pertaining to a specific time-span or epoch.
What does this mean when it comes to the question of Christian Universalism? Well, it means that hell is probably not best understood as something that will go on and on forever. Rather, the just chastisement of sinners in hell will end at some point (how long or brief is pure speculation), and these individuals will eventually be restored to God. There is much more written on this topic for anyone interested, but I am trying to keep these posts brief. A great longer discussion on this very issue can be found over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, which is a great resource for anyone seeking to explore Universalism that is both biblical and orthodox:
I am working on a larger piece on Universalism from a Reformed perspective that I hope to have ready later in the Fall when my research is complete and I have more time to draft it. But, I will be wrapping up the To Hell With Them? series in the next installment. I will continue to post on the topic of Christian Universalism as time allows. If you want to read any of my previous posts, you can find them here: