If I were going to translate the “eternal” passages in the scriptures concerning the duration of hell, what would I do? What would be my methodology? First, when translating scripture, I understand that scripture needs to agree with other scripture. If I come across a word that could be translated one of two ways and one way makes it contradict scripture while the other one fits harmoniously, it would be my duty to translate the passage according to the rules of grammar and in accordance with the harmony of scripture. For example, grammar allows John 1:1 to be translated “a god”, but context does not (non trinitarians will disagree, but that is not the point of this post. You can come up with your own example - I think you understand the point). Both must be taken into account when translating the Greek and Hebrew scriptures.
When we come to the word “aionios” there can be no doubt that it can be translated in both an “eternal” and “non-eternal” (see Romans 16:25; 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 1:2)sense. Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words affirms this (as well as many other legitimate conservative sources, such as my NASB bible), but emphasizes that the vast majority of times in scripture it means “eternal”. Aionios can be a complicated word, but for sake of simplicity, let’s say we would use “eternal” for the one side, and “lasting” [for an age] for the other side (or “pertaining to an age” but we’ll use “lasting” for simplicity). There is another reason we are given to translate it as “eternal”. We are told that since, in Matthew 25:46, when Jesus is talking about the sheep’s and the goats, he ascribes aionios life to the sheep’s and aionios punishment to the goats. It is argued that these are parallel and therefore they must use the same definition. Since we know that heaven is eternal, then the meanings must be the same in both phrases. Is this the case? Would translating it “eternal” contradict scripture? It is my firm conviction that translating “aionios” as eternal in this and other such passages of scripture directly contradicts what God has consistently revealed about himself in the testimony of the rest of scripture.
It is clear from scripture that the heart of God desires to save mankind. Whether or not you agree with universal reconciliation, the scriptures declare God’s desires clearly: His love is so intense and powerful that he sent his only son to die for “God so loved the world”. The scripture goes further to say that it is in his heart’s desire that ALL men be saved:
1 Timothy 2:4
who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
So God deeply loves and desires to save all of his creatures, though that is not yet a promise that His will will succeed. God reveals himself in the Old Testament (and new) to be a person who does NOT punish eternally**. This is repeatedly revealed in numerous ways. As you read through the Old Testament, a pattern, or theme develop about God and punishment of sin. It angers and disgusts him and he punishes it. But he always stops. His anger has an end. When God was punishing David for the census in 2 Samuel 24, he stopped at 70,000 dead and relented. It specifies that. When Jonah was faced with preaching to the Ninevites, he said to God,
“That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. **I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” **
Is this true? Is he a God who relents? The scriptures affirm it here and in several other places quite clearly that God’s punishment never lasts forever. This is not just my opinion for the scripture bears it out specifically here in Jonah and in other places such as:
Joel 2:13 - Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, **for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. **
This is a characteristic of God, not merely a rare action. I then sought out situations that would refute this but found only more supporting texts. Going through the book of Jeremiah, God is very vocal about his anger at Israel’s sin. His punishment is severe. I found several interesting verses about His punishment of them:
Jeremiah 7:20 20“This is what the Almighty LORD says: My anger and fury will be poured out on this place, on humans and animals, and on trees and crops. My anger and fury will burn and not be put out.
14Then I will smash them like bottles against each other. I will smash parents and children together, declares the LORD. **I will have no pity, mercy, or compassion when I destroy them.’ ” **
5No one will take pity on you, Jerusalem. No one will mourn for you. No one will bother to ask how you are doing. 6You have left me,” declares the LORD. “You have turned your back on me. So I will use my power against you and destroy you. **I’m tired of showing compassion to you. **
4You will lose the inheritance that I gave you. I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you haven’t heard of. I will do this because **you have stirred up the fire of my anger.
It will burn forever. **
So there is was - I found the evidence that God’s punishment IS permanent and forever. There were several statements that gave the impression that God’s punishment would not end. It seemed to contradict what I had originally thought about God’s punishment. God said it would be forever. But wait! Then came the clincher. The first one was right after Jeremiah 17 where God said it would “burn forever”:
7“At one time I may threaten to tear up, break down, and destroy a nation or a kingdom. 8But suppose the nation that I threatened turns away from doing wrong. **Then I will change my plans about the disaster I planned to do to it. **
So even after God decides “forever” and proclaims it, His mind can still change. And then several chapters later the very famous passage in Jeremiah 29:
Jeremiah 29 -
10This is what the LORD says: When Babylon’s 70 years are over, I will come to you. I will keep my promise to you and bring you back to this place. **For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. 12‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 14‘I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’
Even when God made straightforward, unequivocal, seemingly irreversible statements about punishment, he would in fact change his mind because of his compassion because that’s the way he is (or the Hebrew “olam” is being mistranslated). God does NOT punish or remain angry forever! Look:
Jeremiah 3:4,5 “Have you not just now called to Me, My Father, You are the friend of my youth? Will He be angry forever? Will He be indignant to the end?’ Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD; I will not look upon you in anger. For I am gracious,’ declares the LORD; ‘I will not be angry forever.”
Psalms 30:55 For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime”;
Psalms 103:9 He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever.”
When he said that his anger “would burn forever” in Jeremiah, it was actually seventy years that it lasted for, not eternity. Eternity, it seems in this case, is seventy years.
When we get to the New Testament and Jesus supposedly said that God’s punishment was going to be “forever”, this would be the first time God ever said that punishment would be “forever” and meant it, and it contradicts scripture about “not being angry forever”; “being a God who relents”, etc. He did so a few times in Jeremiah, but did not mean it (it makes you wonder if they translated “olam” correctly when he said his fire would burn forever when he meant for only seventy years?). He plainly does NOT punish forever and if that is what Jesus was saying, it would be a HUGE non- sequitur because it does not follow how God punishes in the rest of scripture.
God does not mention eternal hell in Genesis at the beginning or after Adam and Eve’s sin; or at the giving of the law and the various punishments and consequences of disobedience throughout the Old Testament. God details punishment quite a bit in the O.T. but he never tells his people that his punishment for sin is eternal punishment. Instead he continuously presents himself as someone who is patient, forgiving, and, after punishing sin, he wants to reconcile. He is one who relents concerning punishment. He is portrayed as someone whose loving-kindness lasts forever and whose anger is for only a short time, not the other way around. Love, it is said, never fails. He asks us to continue to forgive again and again, and he asks us to love our enemies, NOT just our enemies who become Christians. Then, all of the sudden, we are to believe that God stops forgiving and punishes forever, for the first time in scripture opposed to dozens and dozens of scriptures to the contrary. In other words, there is NO larger context in which we can determine that God punishes endlessly and eternally. It simply is not there no matter where you look.
Therefore, when I come to “aionios”, I see how God deals with his wrath throughout scripture, I understand that God is not one who is angry forever and he is one who relents concerning wrath and punishment. I would be foolish and wrong to say, “It must mean eternal” because that is not how God has revealed himself in the scriptures. To say that hell is eternal contradicts scripture as a whole and I challenge anyone to find a scripture outside of “aionios” that indicates that God’s punishment of sin is eternal. I’ve not yet found any such scripture or scriptural principle though I’ve found the opposite again and again! I simply cannot fathom how this can have been missed because the scripture are so consistently and repetitively clear throughout. Therefore, the argument that aionios has to be translated “eternal” because it is a parallel in the sheep and goats simply holds no water.