"Terms for Eternity: Aiônios & aïdios" talk part 2


#1

The following was originally delivered as a talk, jointly by me and Ilaria Ramelli, in Edinburgh at the international conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, in 2006. A revised version appeared subsequently in the Mexican journal, Nova Tellus 24 (2006) 21-39. Please do let me know what you think of it.

Edinburgh-talk-Terms-for-Eternity.pdf (80.5 KB)

Given the prevalence of the term aïdios in Greek literature down through the Hellenistic period, it comes as something of a surprise that in the Septuagint, aïdios is all but absent, occurring in fact only twice, both times in late books written originally in Greek: 4 Maccabees and Wisdom. In addition, there is one instance of the abstract noun, aïdiotês, again in Wisdom.

On the other hand, aiônios occurs with impressive frequency, along with aiôn; behind both is the Hebrew colâm. A few examples of its uses must suffice. In Gen, the perpetual covenant with human beings after the flood, commemorated by the rainbow, is termed diathêkê aiônios, just as is that between God and Abraham and his descendants; in Ex it is the compact between God and Israel sanctified by the observance of the Sabbath, which in turn is called “an eternal sign” of this covenant across the generations and ages (aiônes). Here we see the sense of aiônios relative to aiôn, understood as a time in the remote past or future.

In general, the sense of aiônios is that of something lasting over the centuries, or relating to remote antiquity, rather than absolute eternity. Now, when the same term is employed in reference to God, e.g., theos aiônios, the question arises: does aiônios mean simply “long-lasting” in these contexts as well, or is a clear idea of God’s everlastingness present in at least some of these passages? Take, for example, Ex 3:15: “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever [aiônion], and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations [geneôn geneais].” The emphasis on successive generations, past and future, suggests perhaps that aiônios here connotes repeated ages, rather than a strictly infinite period of time. Many of the other examples come from relatively late texts, but even in these it is difficult to decide which sense is intended, in the absence of the kind of precise language to be found in the philosophers but alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. In some cases, moreover, the reference may be to the next epoch or aiôn, rather than to an infinite time as such.

Of particular interest is the mention in Tobias (3:6) of the place of the afterlife as a topos aiônios, the first place in the Hebrew Bible in which aiônios unequivocally refers to the world to come. In 2Mac, the doctrine of resurrection is affirmed and aiônios is used with reference to life in the future world. In sum, the Septuagint almost invariably employs aiônios, in association with the various senses of aiôn, in the sense of a remote or indefinite or very long period of time (like colâm), with the possible connotation of a more absolute sense of “eternal” when the term is used in reference to God – but this connotation derives from the idea of God. In certain late books, like those of Tobias and the Maccabees, there is a reference to life in the aiôn, understood in an eschatological sense as the world to come, in opposition to the present one (kosmos, kairos).

The adjective aïdios occurs only twice in the Septuagint. In Wisdom, which is saturated with the Greek philosophical lexicon, Wisdom is defined as “a reflection of the eternal [aidion] light” that is God. In 4Mac, an impious tyrant is threatened with “fire aiônion” for the entire age or world to come (eis holon ton aiôna). But here we find the expression bios aïdios or “eternal life” as well, in reference to the afterlife of the martyrs; this blessed state, moreover, is opposed to the lasting destruction of their persecutor in the world to come. This contrast between the parallel but antithetical expressions olethros aiônios and bios aïdios is notable. Both adjectives refer to the afterlife, that is, a future aiôn, but whereas retribution is described with the more general and polysemous term aiônios, to life in the beyond is applied the more technical term aïdios, denoting a strictly endless condition.

In the New Testament, when the reference is to God, aiônios may be presumed to signify “eternal” in the sense of “perpetual.” Nevertheless, the precise sense of aiônios in the New Testament, as in the Hebrew Bible, cannot be resolved with the help of explicit definitions or statements equating it with terms such as “ungenerated” and “imperishable,” of the sort found in the philosophers and in Philo of Alexandria. Hence, the positions adopted by religious scholars in this controversy have embraced both extremes. On the one hand, William Russell Straw affirms of aiôn that, in the Septuagint, "it is never found with the meaning of ‘life,’ ‘lifetime’… The majority of instances can bear only the meaning ‘eternal…’ As for aiônios, “It may be rendered ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ in every occurrence.” Peder Margido Myhre, on the contrary, argues that the Platonic sense of the term as “metaphysical endlessness” is entirely absent in the New Testament. I quote: “Since, in all Greek literature, sacred and profane, aiônios is applied to finite things overwhelmingly more frequently than to things immortal, no fair critic can assert … that when it is qualifying the future punishment it has the stringent meaning of metaphysical endlessness… The idea of eternal torment introduced into these words of the Bible by a theological school that was entirely ignorant of the Greek language would make God to be a cruel tyrant.”

We turn now to the two uses of the more strictly philosophical term aïdios in the New Testament. The first (Rm 1:20) refers unproblematically to the power and divinity of God. In the second occurrence, however (Jud 6), aïdios is employed of eternal punishment – not that of human beings, however, but of evil angels, who are imprisoned in darkness “with eternal chains” (desmois aïdiois). But there is a qualification: “until the judgment of the great day.” The angels, then, will remain chained up until Judgment Day; we are not informed of what will become of them afterwards. Why aïdios of the chains, instead of aiônios, used in the next verse of the fire of which the punishments of the Sodomites is an example? Perhaps because they continue from the moment of the angels’ incarceration, at the beginning of the world, until the judgment that signals the entry into the new aiôn: thus, the term indicates the uninterrupted continuity throughout all time in this world – this could not apply to human beings, who do not live through the entire duration of the present universe; to them applies rather the sequence of aiônes or generations.

We conclude with a glance at Origen’s use of aiônios and aïdios (in our larger project we carry our investigation down to the time of Dionysius the Ps.-Areopagite). In Origen, there are many passages that refer to the aiônios life, in the formula characteristic of the New Testament: the emphasis seems to be not so much on eternity, that is, temporal infinity, as on the life in the next world or aiôn. A particularly clear instance is (we believe) Philocalia, where the aiônios life is defined as that which will occur in the future aiôn. Origen affirms that God gave Scripture “body for those we existed before us *, soul for us, and spirit [pneuma] for those in the aiôn to come, who will obtain a life aiônios.” So too, in the Commentary on Matthew, the future life (aiônios) is contrasted with that in the present (proskairos). Again, Origen in a series of passages opposes the ephemeral sensible entities of the present time (proskaira) to the invisible and lasting objects of the world to come (aiônia).

Consistent with the usage of the Septuagint and the New Testament, Origen also applies the adjective aiônios to attributes of God. In one particularly illuminating passage, Origen speaks of the eternal God (tou aiôniou theou) and of the concealment of the mystery of Jesus over aiônios stretches of time (khronois aiôniois), where the sense is plainly “from time immemorial.” So too, Origen mentions the “days of the aiôn,” and “aiônia years” (etê aiônia), that is, very long periods of time, and the phrase eis tous aiônas here signifies “for a very long time.”

In Origen, the adjective aïdios occurs much less frequently than aiônios, and when it is used, it is almost always in reference to God or His attributes; it presumably means “eternal” in the strict sense of limitless in time or beyond time.

In On Principles 3.3.5, Origen gives a clear sign that he understands aiôn in the sense of a succession of aiônes prior to the final apocatastasis, at which point one arrives at the true eternity, that is, aïdiotês. Eternity in the strict sense pertains, according to Origen, to the apocatastasis, not to the previous sequence of ages or aiônes. So too, Origen explains that Christ “reigned without flesh prior to the ages, and reigned in the flesh in the ages” (aiôniôs, adverb). Again, the “coming aiôn” indicates the next world (epi ton mellonta aiôna), where sinners will indeed be consigned to the pur aionion, that is, the fire that pertains to the future world; it may well last for a long time, but it is not, for Origen, eternal.

In this connection, it seems particularly significant that Origen calls the fire of damnation pur aiônion, but never pur aïdion. The explanation is that he does not consider this flame to be absolutely eternal: it is aiônion because it belongs to the next world, as opposed to the fire we experience in this present world, and it lasts as long as the aiônes do, in their succession. Similarly, Origen never speaks of thanatos aïdios, or of aïdia punishments and torments and the like, although he does speak of thanatos aiônios or death in the world to come (kolaseis aiônioi), i.e. punishment in the world to come.

Origen was deeply learned in both the Bible and the classical philosophical tradition; what is more, he maintained that damnation was not eternal, but served rather to purify the wicked, who would in the end be saved in the universal apocatastasis. His careful deployment of the adjectives aiônios and aïdios reflects, we have argued, both his sensitivity to the meaning of the latter among the Greek philosophers, and the distinction that is apparently observed in the use of these terms in the Bible. For Origen, this was further evidence in Scripture for the doctrine of universal salvation.*


"Terms for Eternity: Aiônios & aïdios" talk part 1
Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Chri
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Why do UR's change the meaning of "Aionion"?
#2

Ultra interesting and helpful!

Are there more parts to the talk? (I think you said before, but I’ve forgotten…)


#3

Jason, the entire speech is in the PDF download near the top of each part/post. It looks like the speech in the PDF is divided into 6 parts on Robin’s blog, which I suppose will be the same here.


#4

Robin divided it into 6, but here it’s only in two parts. The full pdf is attached to both.


#5

This is absolutely wonderful to have this study from the academic world!

I think mainline scholarship has felt this way about aionios for a while, but never had the full research to state their case without some hesitation. I’m thinking of the liberal Alan Richardson’s An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (page 74), and (surprisingly) the more conservative RVG Tasker’s Matthew Tyndale Commentary (page 240). Both these state that the word relates to quality of the Age to Come rather than quantity of never-ending time. But I get the impression, too, that there was a slight lack of confidence in stating the case.

So thanks to David and Ilaria for this wonderful research and confirmation!!

One question to David Konstan: is the revised version in the Mexican journal an expansion of this article? In other words, does it carry even more details? Thanks.


#6

Hey, David. Thanks so much for being here and posting all this. It’s incredibly helpful and is an especially important aspect of universalism to me.

I have a question though. In trying to explain the concept behind aionios to people in my head, I came up with a way of possibly explaining it but am not 100% that it is accurate. I’m sure that the concept’s fairly ambiguous to begin with that it could be interpreted more than one way, but here goes:

Plato was associating timelessness with a derivative of a word that meant an “age” because he was thinking of eternal essences which ages came to be identified with. We do the same thing in our own time by labelling ages, such as “The Age of Enlightenment,” “The Information Age” and in the Christian world, “The Age of the Law” and “The Age of Grace.” Plato believed that everything was rooted in the heavenly, eternal realm, thus “enlightment,” “law,” and “grace,” for instance would be eternal things that have been communicated to us and have come to identify an age. In short, it was something akin to dispensationalism. To say that someone would experience “eternal correction,” in the Greek meant something more like, they would be subject to the “Age of Correction.”

Correction, judgment, punishment, fire etc, are all divine, eternal things that thus come to constitute an age of existence for some.

Would that be a fair thing to say?


#7

Dear Alex and friends,

  It’s a thrill to know that people are taking such an interest in what we did.  In answer to the first question, the published version is basically the same paper, but with some footnotes.  The real detail is, I’m afraid, in the book, where case after case is examined: we tried to be exhaustive (and it was exhausting!), so we covered as many examples as possible.

  On the second question, perhaps the following formulation will help.  One meaning of eternity is infinite time; if I live eternally, I live forever, with no end.  But at any given moment, I’m right here, with a past and a future, just like anyone else.  But another meaning of eternity is outside of time.  For example, when God created the universe, did he also create time, or did time exist before?  If time existed, why did God decide to create the universe at one time rather than another?  In addition, is Christ younger than God, because He is the son?  The ancient thinkers worried about this, and some held that before the universe was created, there was no time at all.  Besides, God sees all the past and the future simultaneously: it’s there like a picture to Him, not unfolding moment by moment but altogether present.  It is thoughts like that which lead to a conception of eternity in which time, is, as it were, folded up.  That was Plato’s intuition.  It’s a hard thing to grasp, needless to say.

Very best,
David


#8

Yes, thank you for that very eloquent explanation. It’s something I stumbled upon in C.S. Lewis’ writings when I was much younger and explained alot to me.

What I was wondering about was something more along the relationship between eternity and time, and a hint at why Plato may have used a denotation of time to describe something of eternity. In a sense an age in and of itself is eternal, it’s just our perception of it which leads us to think of it as being based in what’s before it and finalized in the future. But that’s exactly what I was getting at. The “aeon” is eternal not in the sense that it has an infinite extension but that it has a life and essence all of its own, in the realm of the eternals. Does that make sense?

Thanks again for your help.
Justin


#9

Dear Justin,

Indeed, it does make sense.

All the best, David


#10

Dr. Konstan,

Thanks for the exhausting and hard work. It’s truly a gift. I’ve yet to read through your posts, so my question may be answered. But let me quickly post a couple of thoughts that came up on another thread elsewhere on this site and then ask you to comment (on Jude 1.6).


Tom: I don’t see how June 1.6 doesn’t sink his thesis. It’s not a defeater for UR, but it doesn’t look good for his thesis about aidios (that it always means “eternal”). Regardless of how you construe ‘until’ (“eis” + the accusative as showing finality or purpose or direction, whatever), it seems to me that these “chains” cannot be “eternal” in the sense he David claims because these chains are not divine, they’re created (or they represent a created/finite state of affairs) which by definition makes them corruptible and finite.

Robin quoting Dr. Konstan on his (Robin’s) blog: We turn now to the two uses of the more strictly philosophical term aïdios in the New Testament. The first (Rom 1:20) refers unproblematically to the power and divinity of God. In the second occurrence, however (Jude 6), aïdios is employed of eternal punishment—not that of human beings, however, but of evil angels, who are imprisoned in darkness “with eternal chains” (desmois aïdiois). But there is a qualification: “until the judgment of the great day.” The angels, then, will remain chained up until Judgment Day; we are not informed of what will become of them afterwards. Why aïdios of the chains, instead of aiônios, used in the next verse of the fire of which the punishments of the Sodomites is an example? Perhaps because they continue from the moment of the angels’ incarceration, at the beginning of the world, until the judgment that signals the entry into the new aiôn: thus, the term indicates the uninterrupted continuity throughout all time in this world—this could not apply to human beings, who do not live through the entire duration of the present universe; to them applies rather the sequence of aiônes or generations.

To which I replied: I’m not sure. It seems that given Konstand’s thesis, I suspect just what he seems to have suspected, that aionios would be the appropriate term here (June 1.6), not aidios. To explain it by saying aidios is used “to indicate the uninterrupted continuity throughout all time in this world” is just to give aidios the sort of meaning one gives to aionios. Doesn’t that undermine his thesis?


I should probably say that I don’t find absolute timelessness/atemporality a helpful notion. I mean helpful in explaining God or God’s relations to a temporal world (least of all explaining supposed divine foreknowledge of all that occurs temporally along our timeline). I know the “eternal/timeless now” is a very popular argument, but I’m disinclined to adopt it. Not that rejecting divine atemporality doesn’t involve its own problems. It does. But in the end I think it’s less problematic than is divine timelessness.

Tom


#11

Dear all,

  Jude 6 is indeed a troubling text, and I confess that it continues to worry me.  We certainly don’t want to indulge in special pleading, and these do look like eternal chains, though it is significant that they are applied to angels, in contrast to human beings.  Does it mean that fallen angels will suffer eternally?  And does this include the time after the final judgment?  Here is where we are left in some doubt by the text: if the angels are liberated at the end of days, then perhaps the chains go all the way back in time – they are eternal in that direction – but not all the way forward, to the very end.  If that was the distinction intended, then perhaps we can see why the language was a bit strained.  But this invites further reflection and discussion.

        Very best,


        David

#12

Hey, Tom. Perhaps this is a discussion for another thread, but have you considered the possibility of a meta-time in which God can indeed move and take action, yet is freely able to access both our past and future simultaneously?


#13

Tom: Sure, it’s a popular view. I think Hugh Ross advocates something like this; a kind of hyper-time or supra-time in which God acts temporally but where our entire timeline is accessible from his own unique timeline or dimension.

The problem is that all events within our time are *by definition already the result of whatever God has done to influence them from his own dimension of meta-time. Being able to view events in our time from some dimension which supposedly gives God access to these events all at once could not provide God a basis upon which to act so as to bring about or prevent or otherwise influence what is foreknown in our time; what is foreknown from God’s meta-dimension is what actually happens in our universe. It can’t also be the basis upon which God acts to prevent or bring things about in our universe.

Tom*


#14

…back to aidios…

David,

Thanks again for taking time (no pun intended!) to engage us here. I think it’s probably best to think that if we have overwhelming reason to believe the semantic field for a term to be such and such that very rare exceptions are either a) poor language skills on the part of the speaker (in this case Jude), or b) well, I don’t know what (b) would be.

What I’d like to ask is whether or not it’s feasible to measure Jude against the larger witness of antiquity and just say Jude didn’t really graps aidios so well himself and actually misuses the word here. Those who want to believe divine inspiration agree (because they have to) that such inspiration makes room for bad grammar and mispelling. Why not other misuses of language?

Just thinking out loud.

Tom


#15

Dear Tom,

  Since aidios is so rare in the NT and the LXX, it’s certainly possible that the term had a special meaning in Jude.  I think this is a sensible position: we’re not looking to hold Jude or any other text to rigorous standards of vocabulary, but to get the drift of their thinking.  Taking account of the broad history of a term, as Ilaria and I did, is useful, even essential, but one must always be alert to idiosyncrasies.  So yes, this is a way to proceed.

        All the best,  David

#16

I’ll discuss Jude 6 and many other verses in my Wipf & Stock working title Conditional Futurism. We also can consider that if the fallen angels with “eternal chains” accept the gift of liberation, then we don’t need to focus on how to literally interpret eternal chains.


#17

Dear Dr. Konstan,

Thanks again for all of this! I’m especially interested in the bit where you say:

"Origen … in the Commentary on Matthew, the future life (aiônios) is contrasted with that in the present (proskairos). Again, Origen in a series of passages opposes the ephemeral sensible entities of the present time (proskaira) to the invisible and lasting objects of the world to come (aiônia)."

I’m wondering if this solves one of my big textual problems: 2 Corinthians 4:18 – with things proskaira being set against things aionia. Cf these 3 translations of the verse:

King James Bible
While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen [are] temporal; but the things which are not seen [are] eternal.

English Standard Version (©2001)
as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

International Standard Version (©2008)
because we do not look for things that can be seen but for things that cannot be seen. For things that can be seen are temporary, but things that cannot be seen are eternal.

What I always wanted to do with that verse was this:
to take proskaira as temporal /in time, over against aionia which is outside of time, or at least belonging to the age to come.

However, it always bugged me that the other three appearances of proskairos in the NT (Mk 4:17 / Mt 13:21 and Heb 11:25) clearly had a “temporary” nuance rather than a “temporal” (in time) nuance.

But now there’s hope for me, I think.
Is it the case, from Origin’s quote, that the proskaira in 2 Cor 4:18 could indeed have the temporal nuance, over against a Platonic aionia ? Pls let me know what you think. I don’t mind if I’ve got it wrong – my life doesn’t depend on it !! :confused:


#18

I have argued somewhere else on the forum, in detail, that the meaning for aidios here must be “unseen” more than “sequentially eternal”, based not only on local contexts but on parallels with the Petrine epistle and some other scriptures. Since the word could carry that meaning, then it seems reasonable to go with the meaning that results in no contextual problems rather than the other meaning if that one results in contextual problems.


#19

Good point, too! (I’m really looking forward to the completed version of that book, btw. Sorry for not helping much with the editing. :wink: )


#20

I’m not sure about this one. Proskairos does mean of the present moment, and hence transient but also embedded in time. Aionios can refer to the coming eon, the time between now and the resurrection, and this would be a reasonable contrast to the present time, without necessarily implying an atemporal sense of eternity. But again, aionios can shade into the sense of eternal, and in the Church Fathers the Platonic notion of a timeless eternity is well established; so it may be reasonable to take unseen things as having a timeless existence, like the Platonic forms.

  I hope this helps.

        Warmest wishes to all,

        David