In my last post I talked about the Greek words aion and aionios. Aionios is often (but not always) translated eternal or everlasting. It cannot be the case that aionios means eternal in the modern sense — or at least that it always must mean eternal in that sense. For example:
Then He will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels! (Matthew 25:41 HCSB)
The HCSB translation of this verse certainly doesn’t work with our modern view of eternity — that is, having no beginning and no end. For that matter, a lot of verses using aionios can’t reasonably use the word eternal, at least not in this sense. In the verse above, as the fire has been prepared, it can hardly be said to have had no beginning. So the HCSB here (and elsewhere) perhaps uses aionios in the sense of having a beginning but no end. Other translations render this as everlasting, which works better with our traditional view of the fires of hell. Literal translations typically render this more or less as Rotherham does:
Then, will he say unto those also, on his left hand: Depart ye from me, accursed ones! Into the age-abiding fire, which hath been prepared for the adversary and his messengers; (Matthew 25:41 Rotherham)
And while the words eternal or everlasting often make logical sense, at least on the surface, age-during or age-abiding always work wherever aionios is found. There may be a reasonable argument for translating aionios as eternal when it refers to God, as God is understood to be without beginning or end, and as such, may so qualify the adjective aionios when it is used to describe Him, but the use of eternal or everlasting in translating aionios in some instances, as when it refers to the fires of hell, is at best arbitrary, and at worst, the reading back into scripture of preconceived and accepted Augustinian doctrine. There is ample scriptural reason to suppose that God is not only age-during but also eternal. There is none (and much to the contrary) to suppose God’s punishment, whether by torment or by extermination, to be everlasting, let alone eternal.
Since the use of the words aion and aionion do not definitively show that God’s punishment is without end, we must find this concept elsewhere in scripture, if we can — but this post is about the “eternal, everlasting, and forever” passages, so I’ll stick to them for now.
There is another meaning for eternal which is often missed. Sodom and Gomorrah are said to have been consumed by eternal fire (Jude 1:7). Clearly this fire is no longer burning, so this statement cannot be taken to mean that the fire lasts forever, nor yet that the fire had no beginning or end. Could we then say that the fire is eternal in the sense that its results are eternal? No, for:
“I will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and those of Samaria and her daughters. I will also restore your fortunes among them, so you will bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you did when you comforted them. As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters and Samaria and her daughters will return to their former state. You and your daughters will also return to your former state. (Ezekiel 16:53-55 HCSB)
The indication here is that God means to restore both Sodom and Israel. We know this, since prophesy is clear elsewhere that Israel will be restored. God is not saying “when pigs fly.” He is saying that He will restore Israel and Sodom alike. And therefore we know that the eternal fires that destroyed Sodom will not, in the end, have an eternal result. So the fires had a beginning and an end, and their results are not everlasting. So what does scripture mean by calling them eternal? It could mean “age-during,” of course, since an age is an indefinite and finite period of time, but could it actually mean eternal in a sense we haven’t considered?
What if eternal fire refers to fire that has its origin in eternity? In God, in other words. We have French wine and Chinese firecrackers and African music; why not eternal fire? If eternal, in context with God, does have its modern meaning (and because of the Platonic influence with regard to the use of aion and aionios in context with the divine, there’s reason to suppose it could), it isn’t unlikely that when it modifies something that comes from God, aionios could refer to the kind of substance it is modifying — that is a substance from God, or from eternity. So the fire can be eternal fire in that it comes from eternity, not because it has burned and will burn forever (as the fires that consumed Sodom manifestly do not do.)
If this is the case, and it seems likely that it is, the eternal fires of Gehenna can be eternal without burning forever, and eternal destruction can also be eternal without lasting forever. This may seem far-fetched, but the word apollumi (defined by Thayer as: to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to, ruin, among other things) which is translated in some places as destroy and in other places as lose, etc., doesn’t appear to be as final as it sounds to us either. I’ll get into that next time. I know I promised to talk more about 1 Thessalonians 1:9 in this post. I’ll definitely have more to say about it, but I didn’t have room today. I’ll address it after a few words about the meaning of “destruction”; I hope this will be possible in my next post.
Edit: As you may have noticed, apollumi is not the word used for destruction in 2 Thess 1:9, but rather olethros. Apollumi is a fascinating study, and I’ll probably talk about it sometime later, but it is olethros we’ll discuss in the next post. Sorry for the mistake.