The Evangelical Universalist Forum

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

Dear David,

Thanks for that very useful reply. There is one other issue I’d like to share with you.

In this paper you mention, in passing, the phrase “eis tous aionas” but maybe you have more on it in the book. My interest is in the longer phrase “eis tous aionas ton aionion” – unto the ages of the ages – found 12 times throughout Revelation.

Those who take it to mean “for ever and ever” and want to support the idea of everlasting punishment, quote three passages where it applies to

(a) God’s existence:
“Thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives for ever and ever.” (Rev 4:9)

(b) the suffering of the damned:
“The Devil, the Beast and the False Prophet will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (Rev 20:10)

© the joy of the redeemed:
“God will be their light, and they (the Redeemed) shall reign for ever and ever.”

Before my big question to you, I’ll share these thoughts:

(1) As Robin Parry has said, the devil, beast and false prophet could be representations of wickedness in the spiritual, civil and religious realms, and not persons at all.

(2) If the above presentation had wanted to fix “eis tous aionas ton aionon” to human punishment, it could have used Rev 19:3 where the smoke of destroyed Babylon rises up for ever and ever. However, this city could also be a symbolic representation – a symbol of wickedness in the commercial realm, and not persons at all. Moreover, this case of “eis tous aionas ton aionon” is clearly taking place in this world, and not in the next. If the smoke is truly to be everlasting, it will (in some way) need to continue on through the end of this age and on into the next (into the lake of Fire??).

And so we come to Rev 14:11 where many would say we have a clear case of human persons being sent into punishment “for ever and ever”. However the phrase here is not
eis TOUS aionas TON aionon
eis aionas aionon.

In other words, 12 times in Revelations we find the phrase “eis tous aionas ton aionon”, but only this once (when talking about human punishment) it is “eis aionas aionon” (without the article).

It seems to me that this must be more than mere coincidence, or random linguistic variation. And my big question: does the absence of the article (unto ages of ages) give us a slightly different nuance? Thanks!

Thanks for this question – as always, going to the heart of the matter. Here is our footnote 78 to the chapter “From the Septuagint to the New Testament”:

We understood aiôn to mean a long period of time, and the duplicated expression does not necessarily signify eternity. I’m attaching the entry on aiôn that Ilaria and I wrote for the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception; here we talk about some of the relevant issues.

           With warmest regards,


EBR-Aion.pdf (63.3 KB)

Hi David:

Just had a chance to read your essay/talk and thank you very much for it. Though I do confess that this sort of thing falls into the “second tier” of arguments for me personally. Which is to say that UR makes best sense to me in the context of ideas about God’s Love and the Universal nature of Christ’s sacrifice and the bibles insistence on God’s total and complete victory over death and sin and so on…

But there is another problem here which can be awkward at times too. And it’s been talked about I realize but I still struggle with the solution(s). It has to do with specific terms being used in different ways/senses depending on contexts. That is, if we say (or suggest) that “eternal” when applied to the fellowship of the redeemed with God lasting on for a time that has no end, then that meaning is sidestepped for another sense when it comes to the rehabilitative punishment of “hell” as being somehow “temporary” and having an end, we should expect to receive criticism.

IT seems to me a similar thing happens when we talk about words like “all”. Does all mean all without distinction – or only a weaker sense like “many”? Or take the phrase “kings of the earth” in Revelation. When we say this must be the exact same group that is pictured going IN to the Holy City as was earlier seen being cast into the lake of fire, our non-Universalist friends insist it must be a different group…

So I guessI wish I had a rule of thumb by which I could easily resolve ALL of these sorts of issues, but it seems we must handle each one as a individual case as we try to argue for one coherent whole theology…


Dear Bob,

  My colleague Ilaria would agree with you entirely that the real issue is theological, and so would I; but we tried to base our argument solely on philological method, because otherwise we would have been open to the charge of circular reasoning: we prove the meanings of the words from the theological position, and vice versa.  I was the one who attempted to limit our evidence as narrowly as possible.

  I believe you are right about the problem of different meanings in different contexts.  Here, Ilaria and I probably have a slight disagreement.  I would have said that aionios in relation to God refers to his role in the world to come, and that only by accident does it suggest “eternal,” since we know that God is eternal.  We argued that aionios has two related senses: long-lasting, but also referring to the next aion; and many of the applications to God can be understood in the second sense.  However, my solution too runs into problems, and you’ve put your finger on a major one.

  All the best,


Hi David; I have a question.

In my study of “universalism” (although for various reasons, I prefer “restorationism”) over the past few years, it seems that I continually run into two major scholarly camps on the issue of aion, aionios, etc. One seems to insist on it meaning literally without end, and the other camp varies in intensity, but comes up somewhere short of a literal endlessness. If scholars cannot seem to agree on this issue, how are we to know who is right?

The evidence that I have seen seems to strongly point in the direction favorable to the universalist (or what-have-you), but the other position seems rather entrenched (but maybe that’s just my perception), so I wonder if you could comment on these issues.

To some extent, I think, the division in the ranks is due to prior commitments, whether to apocatastasis (and “restorationism” is a very good translation of that term) or to eternal punishment. This can be seen clearly in some earlier studies of the two terms, which we refer to in our book: in these, the motivation was explicit. It’s why I insisted that we avoid theological issues and focus on the words themselves.

  Now, the words are not always perfectly clear in their meaning, and sometimes the sense appears to depend on the context.  Still, there is no question but that the early sense of aion is simply a lifetime, and that it comes to mean also a long period of time, an eon or age; and aionios follows suit.  Plato introduces the confusion, but employing aionios for his new idea of a timeless eternity, since aidios was too clearly connected with a time extending to infinity.  Still, in classical literature the difference is fairly clear.

  Then, with the Septuagint, aionios becomes the common term, and so too in the NT.  It’s meaning here depends in part on the sense of the Hebrew terms that lie behind this usage, but since koine Greek is subtly different from classical, one has to do the work separately on these texts.

  Now, aionios is most certainly applied to God, and my colleague Ilaria wants it to mean infinite in that case; of course, God is infinite in every respect, but is this the force of aionios when so used?  My sense is that it still bears the connotation of belonging to another aion or epoch, and can mean something like “transcendent,” but it’s a delicate issue.  At all events, here is where there is space for disagreement.

  We did our best to lay out the evidence fairly, and came down on the side of restorationism.

  I hope this helps,

        Very best, David

I think so, yes. It seems to be such a fine line to walk; and the emphasis placed on which side of the fence one should fall on seems to rely fairly heavily on those “prior commitments”. Still, I have seen a number of scholars like yourself who in their study of the issue (laying aside their prior commitments) who have come down on the side of universalism after having started from scratch, so to speak. That is an encouragement to me.

Did you go into your study with any prior Christian beliefs about the matter?

No, I didn’t; as I mentioned in earlier correspondence, I was raised in a Jewish family, and have not been a believer of any sort since I was about ten years old. (My wife is Catholic, I should point out, but our difference on the score has in no way interfered with our marriage.) I got interested in Christianity as a part of the classical world; like almost all classicists, I had imagined a wall between the pagan and Jewish or Christian worlds. Friends made me aware of the towering intellectual presence of the church fathers, for instance, and about 15 years ago I joined the Society of Biblical Literature, where I am now co-editor of a series and haven’t missed a meeting since then. My horizons began expanding when I wrote a book on friendship, and inquired why most early Christian writers – but not all – preferred the vocabulary of brotherhood to friendship, and then I began working on pity, and more particularly on divine pity, and this too took me into new areas.

  So that’s the autobiographical part of the story.

              Warmest greetings,


Thanks for the interesting reply!

What do you think of the argument that in Matthew 24, where we read of both eternal life and eternal punishment, it could read “the life of the age to come” or “the punishment of the age to come”? This would interpret it to mean something different than “forever”. David, what would you say?

He is God throughout the ages, seen and unseen. Thus, aionios. :wink:

Indeed, I agree: where I see aionios in such contexts, I’m inclined to read “of the age to come.”

        Very best,  David

Indeed! I am looking forward to ordering your book.

You were responding to me, right?

Yes, I think so, although I think his response applies to StudentOfTheWord’s too, as the “unseen” age is the “age to come”.

From Hebrews:
11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

He has made perfect “forever”. This doesn’t seem to fit the universalist translation of aion (assuming that this is the word in the scriptures mentioned). He has made perfect “for the age to come”? do you think that this works? Seems like it doesn’t…

Personally, I think so. He made perfect for the age to come, written as what ‘age to come’ although at the time it was written was a present reality. That, presently, the one sacrifice is now what was, and therefore is what is now is continues into what is to come. We are in that present perfect “forever”, whereas prior to the one sacrifice, it was for an age to come.

Ya lost me, sorry :slight_smile:

Writing from France, so only occasionally in touch this next week. StudentoftheWord’s answer sounds like a good answer to me. By the way, I’m negotiating with the publisher to produce an affordable version of Terms for Eternity.

  Warmest wishes, David