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.*