The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Aionios CAN'T be translated "eternal" for punishment!!!!!!!!

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.

Jeremiah 13
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.’ ” **

Jeremiah 15
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. **

Jeremiah 17
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”:

Jeremiah 18
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.

Aionios kolasis

Eternal punishment.

kolasis means

  1. to lop or prune, as trees and wings
  2. to curb, check, restrain
  3. to chastise, correct, punishment
  4. to cause to be punished

Barclay said kolasis never refers to retribution, but always to remediation.

And of course, if it’s *remedial *punishment, it cannot be everlasting.

that sounds good, but, once again one can find a scholar no matter what side they are on!~

Yes, but did you read my argument? Do you think eternal is a fitting translation?

I’ve been having a very long discussion with Luke about this on FB & the forum. I’ve settled on:

aionios = “of an undefined time period” = eonian
aion = “undefined time period” = eon

From the context you can find out information about eon, but eonian simply indicates that something occurs within an eon. This actually turns out to be a much more consistent translation (which is why it’s used in the Concordant Literal Version) than “eternal”, which can’t be consistently used e.g. Jonah time in the fish, stone walls & prison sentences in Josephus, occupation of Canaan, etc. See … E%BF%CF%82 for more examples.

I agree with your excellent list of passages which I think makes it clear that aionios can’t be translated “eternal” without introducing many contradictions. It makes me sad that some people prefer to change “all/everyone/world” to mean “some”, rather than change “eternal” to mean “eonian”. It’s especially odd because, as far as I can tell, the only doctrine that is lost is ECT/P. i.e. God still has no beginning or end, the life with God still has no end, etc.

very good. it echoes the thoughts i had growing up that God’s wrath in the OT was ALWAYS remedial. it always corrected, and there was most times a promised reconciliation at the end (there are a couple examples where there isn’t, i think Edom is one). why would the NT contradict this and make the end hopeless if it was indeed to be a “better covenant”?

now, it seems so obvious i wonder why i missed it.
it seems we want to exagerate an indefinite period to become eternal, and we want to underestimate the word “all”…and why? so we can teach that God would do something in Scripture we never see Him doing?

Superb article Chris.
I think those passages are conclusive.
Hoping you and yours are enjoying the summer. God bless.

I’m thinkin about it. Are there any OT verses that are dealing with postmortem punishment clearly?

Jason has been looking into that I think. There is a topic around somewhere recently that discussed that. The thing with me growing up was this: You read about people being punished, say, those from Sodom, and I figured that since they were killed by God in their rebellion that they would be punished eternally since they never repented. But that is all based on ONE WORD, aionios, which can be translated in a non eternal sense. That is why I wrote this article because I was asking myself, “How long would God punish non repentant sinners?” What scriptural evidence is there that God punishes eternally? So as I was reading through the Old Testament there was verse after verse about his not being angry forever; about how he relents; about how he loves us even when we are rebellious; about how he wants to restore us even when he is threatening to thrash us. It was just so clear that even if he didn’t restore everyone; even if UR wasn’t true, he most certainly would NEVER punish eternally because that is not who he revealed himself to be! This is not me being overly sentimental. This is what he revealed about himself! This isn’t me being uncomfortable with eternal hell and therefore saying “a loving God wouldn’t do that!” This is me accepting what God has revealed about himself in the scriptures. The only thing against me is the word “aionios”, which can be translated in a non eternal way. So I can either accept the definition as “eternal” and have it contradict literally dozens and dozens of other crystal clear passages of scripture, or I can say, "No, you shouldn’t translate it “eternal” because you can translate it “lasting” or “of the age to come” or some other way that would allow scripture to harmonize without having to twist a hundred other scriptures to make it work.

Thanks John. Blessings to you and your family as well!

Good point from the O.T. not having any reference whatsoever to our western 2011 idea of “Eternal Punishment”.

And to follow up on what AllenB wrote:

J.W. Hanson
Jesus never adopted the language of His day on this subject. Their language was aidios timoria, endless torment. His language was aionion kolasin, age-lasting correction. They described unending ruin, He, discipline, resulting in reformation”.

This is also explains why the greek speaking first and second century early church were Universalists. There was no mistake to them what Jesus said.

William Barclay
“The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. There is no instance in Greek secular literature where kolasis does not mean remedial punishment. It is a simple fact that in Greek kolasis always means remedial punishment. God’s punishment is always for man’s cure.”

I am not referring to “post mortem” salvation. What I mean is, are those verses that you quoted about punishments before or after death? Does the OT speak of the day of judgement sentence?


Isn’t olam translated “forever” n Jer. 3:5, and Psalm 103:9?

How can we use these texts to prove that God’s anger doesn’t last “forever,” when “olam” doesn’t mean “forever”?

good question

Simple, if I say my anger doesn’t last for more than a minute, then would it be true to say that my anger will last for an hour? No, because I said it wouldn’t last for even a minute. If God says his anger will not last for an age, then it logically cannot last for eternity either.

If this is not convincing for you then might I draw your attention to Micah 7:18

He does not retain his anger forever(ad),
because he delights in steadfast love.

Or as Rotherham puts it,

He has not held fast, perpetually, his anger,
for, one who delights in lovingkindness, is he!

You see ‘ad’ carries the sense of future continuing on and on, practically perpetual. The Concordant Literal Version translates it,

He does not hold fast His anger for the future.
For He delights in kindness.

The Micah passge is interesting, but what about Jer. 3:5 and Psalm 103:9?

You said “If God says his anger will not last for an age, then it logically cannot last for eternity either,” but there are New Testament passages that speak of age-lasing punishment (or even punishment that lasts “unto the age of ages.”)

How can Jer. 3:5 and Psalm 103:9 be taken as unqualified statements that God’s punishment doesn’t last for an age, when it sometimes does?

Oh no one has said that God’s punishment will not last for an aion. Olam’s primary definition is ‘long duration’ it can refer to as short as 3 days (Jonah) or 50 years(Exodus) or even longer. Olam/Aion’s amount of time is not set in stone. Dirtboy’s point (and mine as well) is that God’s anger will not last forever, it will come to an end, his punishment will accomplish what he means for it to do. Scripture is clear that their will be a Correction and Judgment Age, but that it will end with God being All in All.

Chris – very good stuff! Thanks…

Couldn’t help be reminded of my own current favorite “horrible punishment is really meant for good” passage in Isaiah 19
(helps to remind ourselves that Egypt and Assyria are always the bad guys!)

Agreed. It’s a little ripper.