Patristic Universalism 

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Sounds Greek to me

Sounds Greek to me

The word Eternal 

March 15, 2018

 The very pit itself is a place of torments and of chastisement, but is not eternal… It was made that it might be a medicine and help to those who sin. Sacred are the stripes which are medicine to those who have sinned…'Therefore we do not complain of the pits (of hell)— abyssis—but rather know that they are places of torment, and chastisement, being for the correction (amendment) of those who have sinned.

- Titus, Bishop of Bostra (ca. A.D. 364)


 The Greek word translated as ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ in our English translations is aionios and according to many traditional commentators always means ‘eternal’ in the strict sense of the word and therefore aionian punishment always refers to punishment that never ends. I know for me personally, all the literature I read told me that   aionios always meant “eternal.” But reflecting back, the only sources I consulted were from authors who shared my view that hell was eternal and so it never occurred to me their definition of aionios could be influenced by their theological presuppositions. However, it might surprise some people that how scholars define the duration of aionios in the New Testament embraces “both extremes” from meaning “eternal” in “every occurrence” to the idea of “endlessness” being “entirely absent.”


 Is it really true that aionios always means eternal? To help answer that question, one must first look to the root word aion and understand how this term is defined. According to Dr. Heleen Keizer, the “primary meaning” of ‘aion’ is “lifetime” with the idea of “completeness” and thus ‘aion’ has more to do with “the entirety of time” rather than with “endlessness” and therefore, the concept of “eternity” to describe ‘aion’ is both “anachronistic” and “misleading.”Given that ‘aion’ represents a complete block of time or an entire age, the duration of this period depends on the object to which the word is attached.  The age [aion] of a moth’s life is shorter than the age [aion] of a tree’s life. “There is one aeon of a human life, another of the life of a nation, another of a crow’s life, another of an oak’s life. The length of the aeon depends on the subject to which it is attached.” Further proof the word ‘aion’ was not normally defined as eternal is the fact that it is sometimes used in the plural (“the ends of the ages” [1 Cor 10:11] or “the ages to come” [Ephesians 2:7?] or “this age” and “the one to come” [Eph 1:21]). As Vincent explains, the word aion is therefore a term that almost always has a beginning and an end.


Aion… is a period of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself…The word always carries the notion of time, and not of eternity. It always means a period of time. Otherwise it would be impossible to account for the plural, or for such qualifying expressions as this age, or the age to come. It does not mean something endless or everlasting. - Marvin Vincent


This is not to say aion can never mean “eternal,” but it usually only takes on that signification when referring to God. Not surprisingly, since the word aion does not normally mean “eternal,” the adjective aionios usually does not normally mean “eternal” either since “Words which are habitually applied to things temporal or material cannot carry in themselves the sense of endlessness.”According to Vincent, the term aionios occurs 150 times in the LXX18 and in four-fifths of those cases, the term implies limited duration.


The adjective “aionios” in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun [aion] nor the adjective [aionios], in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting … A Aionios means enduring through or pertaining to a period of time. Both the noun and the adjective are applied to limited periods. - Marvin Vincent


Dr. Heleen Keizer’s Ph.D. dissertation studied the meaning of aion and she likewise concludes that “eternal” is not an inherent meaning of aionios. In his dissertation, Peder Myhre called attention to the   fact that some in the early church who defined aionios as “eternal” were “totally ignorant” of the Greek language.  Myhre's point about the limited knowledge of the Greek language by the Latin fathers (i.e. Augustine) should not be overlooked. The New Testament was written in Greek within a Greek culture and therefore we should give more weight to how aionios was defined from one whose mother tongue was Greek such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen than to one who had to learn the language “grudgingly” such as Augustine.Augustine's argument that aionios must mean "eternal" when referring to rewards and punishment in Matt 25:46 should be viewed with a high degree of suspicion since neither Clement nor Origen (whose mother tongue was Greek) interpreted the punishment described above as everlasting. As Harmon notes, Origen believed every one would be saved after the remedial fires of Matt 25:41 had been administered. 



 If Clement of Alexandria and Origen—who grew up speaking the Greek language—saw no issues with interpreting aionios as something less than eternal when applied to the punishments of Matt 25:41 and 46, then are we not free to do the same?




 If Christ wanted to unambiguously convey the idea that punishment was eternal in the “strict sense” of the word, surely the very term to express it would be aidios. While it may be true that nine-tenths of modern-day Christians who have grown up with the teaching that hell is eternal would interpret aionios as ‘eternal,’ this statistic would not hold for Jesus’ audience or even the early church. Given how often aionios was used to express something less than eternal, if Christ really wanted nine-tenths of the world to understand His message to be teaching eternal punishment, surely He would have used aidios instead. From the preceding it’s clear that quick answers such as “aionios always means eternal” are misleading at best and despite what traditional commentators would have us believe about the nature and duration of eschatological punishment, it is not the open and shut case they try to convince us it is; it is simply false to claim aionios always means eternal. And if the most common meaning of aionios is something less than eternal, a major pillar supporting eternal damnation has collapsed.


[A]ionios does not mean “eternal”…it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” - Ilaria Ramelli and David Konsta


For more on this topic see Chapter 4, Patrisitc Universalism, by David Burnfield