The Evangelical Universalist Forum

More thoughts on aionion, Matt Slick's argument

I was reading Matt Slicks argument against universalism and the use of the word “ainoion” for eternal. He argues that it is clear from the context that aionion means eternal in these passages:

Then he talks about damnation:

This is from, How do you aionion experts see this?


I’m not an expert by any means, however, I think his argument is weak because you could list the same verses and put “age beyond sight” (or “lasting”, “ethereal”, etc.) instead of “eternal” and all the passages still make sense!

Yet he does exactly the same thing when he avoids talking about the times when eon (and its cognates and various prepositional phrases) don’t mean eternal in the sense he’s aiming for. :wink:

Once those are recognized, then either the term constantly means something else which can fit all examples, or the term has a variable meaning depending on the context it’s being deployed in.

Edited to add: this comment was based on the portions dirtboy posted; I notice from other portions he posted later that Matt does acknowledge that there are definite examples of when “eonian” cannot mean eternal, and that he acknowledges the meaning has to be established by context. This still means his attempt to deploy the lists originally mentioned, in the way that he does, is fallacious, though: all he does there is make a direct comparison as though ‘eonian’ has to mean the same thing no matter what and therefore universalists are only picking and choosing based on what meaning suits them as a “hopeful wish”.

(Incidentally, I critiqued Matt’s article on the unforgiveable sin here in this thread, at some length. I invited him to correspond on it, but he was afraid he’d only be treated badly by universalists based on his past history at CARM.)

Well said, Jason. I am one of those who affirm that “αιωνιος” never means “eternal”, although it sometimes applies to things which happen to be eternal. There is nothing about the word or its etymology which indicates an inherent meaning of “everlasting”.

In spite of what Matt Slick says, I do have a problem with translating the word as “eternal” or “everlasting” even when applied to God or to the life we have in Christ. In most cases, the word “lasting” works well as a translation. For example, I would translate John 3:16 as “…should not perish but have lasting life”. Though that life happens to be everlasting, that fact does not give us the right to translate “αιωνιος” in that way. It would be like translating the word “heavy” as “weighing over a ton” just because the word “heavy” is used to describe trucks. However “heavy” is also used to describe some people. I say “heavy” never means “weighing over a ton” even though it sometimes describes that which weighs over a ton. Similarly, “αιωνιος” never means “everlasting” even though it sometimes describes that which is everlasting.

Hm; that’s a helpfully precise (if unusual) way of looking at it, Paidion. Thanks!

The question is, does it mean eternal or not?

Would not context qualify it as eternal?

i don’t think it has to mean eternal in that statement.

my simple understanding is this.

lasting life and lasting damnation…it works as a sentence, so flip around our cultural bias, and you might assume from this that life lasts an age and so does the damnation.

but it doesn’t end there. the lasting life is further explained in other places (and clarified) to mean that one shall never perish. however, as for the damnation, we are told that death and the grave itself will be destroyed at the end in the lake of fire.

also we’re told that no man is cast off by the Lord forever (Lam 3:31). so we have to take the original statement as comparing to long lasting conditions, and THEN look at what is meant. lasting life is lasting because one will not perish. death and judgement can last a long time, but they don’t last FOREVER, because we are told that death will be destroyed, and that God won’t cast us away forever.

i suppose you could expand on Paidon’s example this way.

"…and all my packing will be sorted, some into a heavy box marked “CDs” and the other into a heavy box called “Books”
and then later on we could flesh out what i mean by “heavy” when it comes to the box of CDs, and leave the heaviness of the Book box as vague, for the reason that the CDs tend to be a constant and known weight, whereas the books could be many sizes.
similarly, the lasting life is VERY lasting, and so can be stated as such, but the other long lasting quantity of time for judgement is left vague because different people may experience it for different lengths of time.

i’m sure that’s clear as mud, but that’s how i see it.
also, Jesus uses the term “eternal life” in John 17 when He is praying for His disciples, but rather than define it as a period of time without end, or even without death as you might think, He defines it as “knowing the Father and knowing The Son”, which is clearly a qualitative statement. now maybe “aionian” is not the word used there, so that may be irrelevant to this specific point, but honestly i think we can get a bit trapped into HAVING to translate this word a given way, and yet i personally feel there are alot of even better reasons to assume God gets what He wants in the end and becomes All in All.

That would still be entirely possible, even in the specific fashion Paidion is talking about. (Just as context could qualify “heavy” as “weighing over a ton”.)

If context can qualify it as eternal, though, then it’s open for discussion whether context does or does not do so in any given case. That’s certainly fine with me, but many non-universalists (including Matt Slick in the tactic above) want to shut down appeal to situational context by the argument of “X must mean eternal in these places because X means eternal in these other places”.

For which however there are demonstrable counterexamples disproving such an attempt as being broadly true (such as “eonian” hills being destroyed by God in the OT, and “eonian” times coming to an end with the advent of Jesus in the NT.)

To be fair, there are more nuanced and contextual versions of Matt’s argument, too. :slight_smile: Edited to add: which Matt himself seems to attempt elsewhere in the article. But that still leaves the initial attempt mentioned by dirtboy above as a fallacious attempt to shut down appeal to situational contexts.

Matt Slick says:

(emphasis mine)

Two very important things here are that it is a fact that aionios can mean temporary, as Matt admits. Also, he points out that context determines the meaning. At this point we need to look at the scriptures as a whole and see what they teach about duration of punishment in the biblical texts:

The Old Testament:

  1. When God warned Adam and Eve about sinning and punishment did he say that they would suffer eternally if they partook of the fruit? No, he said they would die. He never once says they will be eternally punished.
  2. When God confronted Adam about his sin, did he tell him that the punishment was eternal? No, he cursed the ground and gave woman painful childbirth and a few other things.
  3. When God gave the law and talked about consequences, did he tell them about eternal punishment? No, in Deuteronomy he gives several chapters of blessings and cursings for various sins. He is very specific and detailed about the punishment, but he NEVER offers eternal punishment in the old testament as a consequence for sin. This is critical because the context is very important. The Old Testament is teaching us about how God deals with sin, forgiveness, redemption, etc. And we see an important pattern develop in the old testament. Nehemiah Chapter 9 shows this pattern where God is gracious to his people and they get complacent and sin. He then warns them. They ignore him and continue in sin. He sends punishment. They repent. God forgives. Then the process happens again…and again…and again. Even to the point of God pouring out His wrath on Israel. Even after His wrath, He still seeks to redeem Israel from their sin and He never sentences anyone to hell.

So, the Old Testament ends, not with hopelessness, but with hope, that God will redeem his people if they repent. We have learned that God hasn’t threatened eternal punishment in the O.T. We learn about his wrath, but learn that he can use it for purposes of discipline, like the exile. He has not given up on Israel when he pours His wrath on them.

  1. The New Testament:
    Jesus comes along and we have several thousand years of history with people who have lived and died without the threat of eternal punishment. Jesus continues teaching the idea that we are to forgive like He does (70 times 7). Jesus tells us what kind of punishment will come to those who don’t repent, “aionian punishment”. Well this can mean for, according to Matt Slick, a temporary period of time, or forever, depending on context. Interestingly, Jesus could have used the word “aidios” which ALWAYS meant eternal, but instead, the words that came from his mouth could have meant “a temporary period of time”. In the greater context of scripture so far, what do we understand, FROM GOD, what kind of punishment He gives for sin? How many examples, from scripture, do we have so far where God has given eternal punishment for sin? NONE! When Jesus is preparing to speak about aionian punishment for the first time, what do we know about God and punishment? What did Jonah say to God when he was frustrated at him:

"Jonah 4:2 He prayed to the LORD and said, "Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity."

We hear that he definitely punishes sin, but he is also tremendously merciful. David deserved the death penalty for Bathsheba and Uriah and God told him plainly that he would not die and that he forgave him. We are told that His lovingkindness endures forever. We see God time and again pouring out His fierce anger and then we see him relent. He gives a beautiful story about his love in the book of Hosea where the wife commits adultery and Hosea is supposed to purchase her back in her adultery.

This is the image we have of God’s love and mercy and justice. So what would aionian punishment be? Would it be for a period of time or forever? What does the biblical context tell us? The reason we say that sin against God deserves eternal punishment is because of these verses that use aionian, but they could mean non eternal. We know for certain that sin against God deserves aiWnian punishment, **but what other contexts tell us that it should be forever and not for an age? *****What other examples from scripture concerning punishment show us that it is obvious that God would punish forever? *** Is it not obvious that the scripture does not offer such a context that teach us that God punishes eternally? The only reason we say it is eternal is because of aionian, but context from scripture as a whole shows that it should definitely NOT be translated as eternal because that is NOT the picture that is painted of God throughout all of scripture. It is so clear to me! God is “one who relents concerning calamity.”

The context theory of the meaning of “ἀιωνιος” just won’t wash. Right from the days of Augustine, the following sentence spoken by our Lord was used to demolish it:

" And these (who did not minister to the needy) will go away into ἀιωνιος correction, but the righteous into ἀιωνιος life.” Matthew 25:46

There is a parallel use of “ἀιωνιος” in this sentence. That means it must have the same meaning in both phrases.
If we try to translate it contextually, we might come up with this atrocious translation:

*And these will go away into lengthy punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. *

To translate a word differently in the same sentence where it is used in a parallel fashion is poor translation indeed. But to translate the word in the same way using a correct meaning of “ἀιωνιος” makes perfect sense and avoids the just mockery from those who scoff at those universalists who think it is justifiable to translate it in two different ways. Thus an appropriate translation would be:

*And these will go away into lasting correction, but the righteous into lasting life. *

Both the correction of the unrightous and the life of the righteous is lasting, but the former describes a temporary condition of the lost being corrected, and the latter describes the life of the rightous which happens to be, not only lasting, but everlasting.

Very well said dirtboy :sunglasses:

Paidon, I imagine the word would carry the same meaning at least within any given book or author, if not the entire NT. How far this could be extended is another matter e.g. does it always carry the exact same meaning ever time it’s used in the Septuagint? What about non-Biblical texts?

I agree, we don’t loose the concept of life without end in the Bible, just because we don’t translation aionion as “eternal/everlasting”.

I think that you make some provocative OT points. Why would God have hidden the truth about the hereafter? However, the OT is developmental in its teaching about the afterlife. For instance, resurrection is not mentioned either in much of the OT (hence the Jewish debates about the afterlife- Sadducees vs. Pharisees).
As far as your NT points, I think that you have a problem with the parallel usage pertaining to life and punishment in Matthew 25. It doesn’t make much sense to say that aionian life is simply for long ages. Then what? Do we have to reconvert?

I tend to agree, any simple attempt at trying to get “eonian” to mean only a (flexibly) long period of natural time, is going to stumble over things like this.

I’ve been recently reading a more nuanced and detailed way to get “eonian” to mean only a (flexibly) long period of natural time, in Stonehouse’s first book. I can’t say I entirely buy that either–partly because he hangs strongly on an exotic computational scheme of what various “eon” related phrases are supposed to mean (so that ‘this’ phrase is longer than ‘that’ phrase which is longer than ‘this other’ term). But he makes some small and large interesting points along the way.

His basic argument is that the NT (and the OT) authors are talking mostly about life in Christ’s kingdom after the lake of fire judgment (which is itself after the 1000 year reign), where due to remaining rebels Christ has not yet delivered up His reign to His Father. The notion is that the rebels can only see Christ as a reigning king, and He’s the target of their rebellion; they may acknowledge He is ruling but they only acknowledge it in a grudging fashion. This is not something God (in any Person, Father or Son–Stonehouse is a binitarian who doesn’t believe the Spirit is a third distinct Person) can accept, so He is always working to bring the rebels to worship in spirit and truth, and eventually succeeds at this. At which point Christ’s “reign” per se ends as the Son delivers up all those subordinated to Him in subordination to the Father.

So he would (and does) account for the Matthew 25 sheep and goat judgment along that line: the righteous go into the life of that coming eon (which will last for eons of the eons–which in the calculations he promotes comes out to several billion years :exclamation: ), the wicked into the judgment of that coming eon. Not all the wicked are punished for that whole period, only Satan (who in Stonehouse’s reckoning is the last holdout to repent and be reconciled to God); others are restored in sequence as they repent. The Church joins with the Son in evangelizing until then. Eventually the life of that age ends because that age ends with the final conversion, and life in the subsequent age begins. (No one dies or is resurrected in making this transition. For the righteous, the main difference is that there are no more rebels to evangelize anymore.)

I don’t know that I agree with his rationale entirely, but it’s suggestive anyway. :slight_smile: (I still prefer a qualitative meaning to “eonian”.)

Yeah, I’m with you on the qualitative nature of aionion. Far less problems with it, and true to the scripture’s own definition of what aionios life is.

I’d say that the blessing denoted by the expression “eonian (or age-lasting) life” is simply replaced by a different (and greater) blessing when the “eon” or “age” to which the “life” belongs comes to an end. It doesn’t mean anyone’s having to be “reconverted.”

This would entail believing that the age mentioned is not the endless age.

Of course, but how is this problematic?

It’s evident that the “age” to which aeonian life (“age-lasting life” or “the life of the age”) pertains is what Christ, Paul and the author of Hebrews referred to as the “age to come” (Matthew 12:32; Mark 10:29-31; Luke 18:29-30; Eph 1:21; Heb 6:5) - i.e., the age which was to follow the one in which these men were living. This age is, I believe, the period of time during which the Messiah reigns (Mark 10:29-31; Luke 18:29-30; Matthew 19:28-30; Luke 22:29-30; Eph 1:20-21). The Holman Christian Standard Bible (a modern evangelical translation) even renders the expression “in the regeneration” (found in Matt 19:28, NKJV) as “in the Messianic Age.” So I think it can be inferred that aeonian life is a blessing that belongs to the same duration of time as the Messianic reign (which Peter referred to as “the age-abiding kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” - 2 Pet 1:11, Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible).

As the blessing which pertains to the age of the Messianic kingdom/reign, aeonian life can be enjoyed by believers for as long as the age of the Messianic kingdom/reign continues. But in 1 Cor 15:24-28 (cf. Ps. 110:1) it is revealed by Paul that Christ will reign “until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” The word “until” implies that Christ’s reign is not of endless duration. After Christ has subjected all people to himself, he will then deliver back to God the kingdom that he originally received from God (1 Cor 15:24; cf. Dan 7:13-14). Paul calls the time when Christ delivers the kingdom back to God “the end” (which I take to mean the end of Christ’s reign, or the age during which Christ reigns). Thus, according to this understanding, aeonian life is a blessing that pertains to a limited duration of time - i.e., the age of Christ’s reign, which has both a beginning and an end. As wonderful a blessing as aeonian life is, it does not have any reference to the time following the Messianic reign, and thus does not, I don’t believe, pertain to anyone’s final, unchanging destiny. Moreover, Christ seems to differentiate the blessing of aeonian life from that of being “raised up” by him on the “last day” (John 6:40).

Interesting. Have you held that view up to the criticisms of it? (Is it tried with fire)?

If we understand the meaning of the word as “lasting”, this seems to apply to all cases. Josephus called Jonathan’s imprisonment “aionios”. That imprisonment was lasting all right, but only 3 years. In other cases, it is applied to an entire life time. In one secular Greek writing it was used to describe a brick wall. That wall probably lasted longer than a life time. The Septuagint refers to the “lasting hills”. That would be a lot longer than a lifetime. When the NT speaks of “the lasting God” or the “lasting life” we have in Christ, that is unending.

So, once again, I affirm that there is nothing inherent in the word which indicates that a specific length of time is part of the meaning. The word “aionios” or “lasting” can be applied to a relatively short period (such as Jonathan’s imprisonment), a much longer period (such as a life time), an even longer period (such as the durability of a stone wall), much longer yet (the durability of the hills) or a never ending period (such as the existence of God or our life in Christ).

Thus we should not affirm that “aionios” has a whole lot of different meanings just because it has a whole lot of different applications. It never means “lasting for 3 days”. It never means “lasting for a life time”. It never means “lasting for hundreds of years”. It never means “lasting for thousands of years”. It never means “everlasting”. It simply means “lasting”.