What’s in an Eternity? Eternity as we know it is a relatively new concept. Ironic, no? The word used for eternity in scripture is olam (in the Hebrew), which means, more accurately, “to the age” or “age-during.” In the Old Testament, we don’t really find the concept of “eternity” taught. In the New Testament, the word translated “eternity” (and also used to translate olam in the Septuagint) is aionios, and aion is sometimes translated “forever,” though usually it becomes “world” or similar. Then we have “forever and ever,” or to the aions of the aions.
All of these original language words are probably more accurately translated “age-during,” or “an age or eon” or, in the case of forever and ever, “to the ages of the ages.” Strongs doesn’t agree, incidentally, but the literal translations of the Bible such as Youngs do translate both “olam” and “aeon/aeonios” in this way. Most modern translations, including the KJV, translate them variously depending on the context.
Often olam was used in situations which manifestly do not (or did not) last forever. Jonah said that the bars of the deep had closed on him forever, but in fact he was only in the fish’s belly for three days. Still, it felt like an eternity, and perhaps he thought himself justified in his hyperbole. There are other things which are declared to be eternal in the Old Testament, however, which are not. For example the Aaronic priesthood was “forever,” as were the fire, the lamplight, and the sacrifices in the temple, and the temple itself. So is the deed of land given to Israel, the “everlasting” hills, the term of service for a slave who chooses to remain in bondage once his debt is paid. The land will one day be destroyed, with the everlasting hills, and does anyone think the bondman or woman remains a slave after death?
An Ammonite or a Moabite could not enter the congregation of the Lord “forever” unto the tenth generation. Huh? Which is it? There are many other examples, but these should be enough to demonstrate that “olam” doesn’t necessarily mean “eternal.” It needn’t be translated “eternal,” either, even when referring to God. There are plenty of indicators that God is eternal (in the modern sense of the word) even without translating “olam” that way. God is, since He is eternal, necessarily also “age-during.”
In the New Testament “aion and aionios” also get themselves translated in various ways depending on the context. They have the same basic meanings as “olam” in the Old Testament, that is to say, ”to the age, age-during, for an age, that which pertains to an age.” Nevertheless, to say they are never used in a sense of having to do with eternity (as we perceive it) in the New Testament might not be quite fair. Plato used “aionios” to describe his concept of eternity, and it’s not unlikely that the New Testament authors would have also used it in this way, particularly when speaking of God. It is also used freely to speak of things that aren’t eternal, and used in contexts where “eternal” as a translation simply doesn’t work.
For example, whoever speaks a word against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or the one to come. The word here is “aion,” and clearly “in this eternity or the eternity to come” makes no sense at all. Or the seed sown among thorns, which is choked by the worries of this . . . eternity? No, again, aion is here translated either “this world” or “this age.” I could go on, but you can find them yourself by doing a search for G165 and G166 in KJV+. I use the free e-sword software you can find at www.e-sword.com. Most of the examples you’ll find will be for G165 (aeon). There’s a good deal more to this, but I’ll save it for my next post, and also talk about 2 Thessalonians 1:9 again, which was what prompted all this discussion of Hebrew and Greek words in the first place.