Quite a while ago, I posted a “part five” of a series on Christian universalism that I had written, with that particular installment focusing on the use of the adjective αἰώνιος (aiōnios) in the New Testament. The interpretation of this adjective has become a particularly contentious issue in current discussion of early Christian eschatology, as it’s interpretation is one of the main determining factors for whether the early Christians believed that afterlife punishment would be truly unending (or otherwise permanent), or whether there was hope for an end to this punishment and/or reconciliation.
(For introductory background on this debate for those who are unfamiliar, look up the terms “purgatorial universalism,” “annilihationism,” and “eternal conscious torment,” which are the most commonly used rubrics for the different positions here.)
Since my original post, however, I’ve made some significant changes; but most important of all, I’ve now read the most extensive modern academic treatment on aiōnios that there is: Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan’s Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts, published by Gorgias Press.
At the continued reminding of /u/DadIamStrong (thanks!), I’m posting a revision of my original post, followed by an extremely comprehensive analysis of Ramelli and Konstan’s monograph… which will certainly take multiple posts.
Before I begin properly, let me say that I think that revisionist arguments for the early Jewish/Christian eschatological denotation of αἰώνιος are, in many ways, fundamentally anti-critical (or… anti-critically “fundamentalist”?).
That is to say: from an academic history of religions perspective, the eternity of afterlife torment can be found in various ancient Near Eastern and Indo-European traditions, as well as in Egyptian and both Hellenistic and non-Hellenistic Jewish traditions. Many people from these cultural/ethnic groups were demonstrably in contact with each other, lending each other details and schemata here (that is, specifically in terms of afterlife beliefs).
The extent to which early Christianity was particular influenced by Hellenistic and non-Hellenistic Jewish beliefs makes it highly likely that we should see early Christian beliefs—including those on the nature of afterlife punishments—in continuity with them, in various ways. While this doesn’t suggest that Christianity slavishly reproduced the beliefs it inherited, from a critical perspective it does increase the likelihood that they would be similar; and, indeed—along with doctrines of annihilationism (which sometimes co-existed alongside eternal torment)—I think there’s no question that we do see this.
Of course, there were a number of contemporary Greek and Jewish texts that hinted at the eternity/continuity of afterlife torment, with various vocabulary used. In addition to the word αἰώνιος, other words like ἄπαυστος, ἀθάνατος, ἀίδιος, συνεχής, ἀδιάλειπτος, ἀτελεύτητος, ἀπέραντος, and ἀκατάλυτος were used to denote this (as well as phrases like οὐκ ἐκλείψει ἔτι). On the Jewish side, there are things like Philo, De Cherubim 1.2:
and 4 Maccabees 12.12:
And (with Steve Mason commenting on Josephus),
(Cf. Philo, Spec. 3.84—τὸ τῆς τιμωρίας ἀθάνατον—and the use of ἀδιάλειπτος in BJ 2.155; as well as AJ 18.14, on the Pharisees’ belief “that souls have power to survive death and that there are rewards and punishments under the earth for those who have led lives of virtue or vice; eternal imprisonment εἱργμὸν ἀίδιον] is the lot of evil souls, while the good souls receive an easy passage to a new life.” Cf. also Justin, Apol. 20 here.)
Further, in the Tosefta Sanhedrin, for the totally unrighteous (רשעים גמורים), “Gehenna is closed up after them, and they are condemned in it forever לדראון עולם].” This may be similar to the final scheme outlined in 1 Enoch 22.
Yet various Christian universalists have argued that the Greek adjective αἰώνιος (hereafter transliterated as aiōnios), as it is used in the Septuagint, New Testament and elsewhere, does not necessarily mean “eternal” as is the traditional understanding, but can instead have several other quite different denotations. (They apply the same reasoning to Hebrew עוֹלָם, ʻolam, which is often claimed as the counterpart of αἰώνιος, though really it’s the counterpart of the noun αἰών.)
The context in which this argument is normally made is in objection to a particular eschatological doctrine called Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). The proponents of this view derive their support of this from various NT verses in which aiōnios is used—which ECTists use to claim that there will literally be no end to torment in “Hell” for unbelievers/the unrighteous.
I’ve stated various objections to universalists’ “revision” of the meaning of aiōnios before. Of course, these objections come from a secular viewpoint, and have been purely philological/historical in nature (though they also don’t necessarily suggest that these verses ambiguously point toward Eternal Conscious Torment, either).
Through toying around with these various objections, I believe that there’s one in particular that’s the most forceful. This revisionism of aiōnios often tries to break down this adjective into its constituent components, and then reconstructs a particular (literal) meaning here, retrojecting it back into the adjective itself as if this is its primary meaning. Of course, with just a little bit of reflection, it can be seen how dangerous this is: words don’t really gain their meaning from their etymology or their constituent components, but from how they’re used, in a particular era, etc. (I’m sure there’s a fancy term for this, like “functional semantics” or something).
Universalists often favor an overly literal translation of aiōnios. They derive at least anecdotal support for this in that there are two major modern Biblical versions where such a translation is adopted: Young’s Literal Translation, which translates it as “age-enduring,” and the New World Translation (published by the Watch Tower Society, viz. Jehovah’s Witnesses), favoring “time-indefinite.” Further, some individual universalists adopt the even more vague gloss “pertaining to an age.”
In light of this, perhaps a few things should be said about how we really are to determine what the semantic range of aiōnios is, as it’s used in Biblical literature.
When we start to look at the ways that the various ways that aiōnios is used in Koine Greek, it may indeed be tempting to broadly define its primary denotation as “spanning from a certain point in time onwards.” The question is whether “spanning for a certain point in time onwards, without end” is an integral part of this primary denotation.
It is a well-known principle of etymology and word formation that some denominal adjectives—while simply being a straightforward adjectival form of their noun—are meant to suggest a sort of elongation of size or length of the root noun. For example, Italian nasuto is the adjectival form of naso, “nose”; and although nasuto simply means something like “relating-to or having a nose,” it’s understood as “big-nosed” (=being overly defined by one’s nose?) We can in fact see all sorts of interesting shifts in meaning that occur in this process; cf. English bony, understood not just to mean “relating to or having bones” but rather “skinny”; or even more drastic semantic shifts, like Greek αἴτιος, “guilty, responsible,” the adjectival form of *αἶτος, “share, lot.”
While (the adjective) aiōnios’ underlying noun form, αἰών (aiōn), can itself denote “eternity” when used in certain ways (as will be discussed below), it should be beyond doubt that the use of aiōnios in Biblical Greek (and elsewhere) fits into the category describe above. The primary denotation of aiōn is “age” (or “time”), and analysis of the usage of aiōnios suggests a great elongation, to the extent that we must say that its primary denotation in the Koine Greek of Biblical times is characterizing a span of time that is so long as to be virtually incalculable, or indeed truly infinite. (It appears that the “spanning from a certain point in time onwards” element is, in fact, secondary.)
A few words should be said here about the possibility of certain exaggerated uses of aiōnios. To use English itself as example: imagine saying
“It’s going to take forever to fix this computer” (or “I’m going to be working on this forever”)
Or, if you’re telling someone why it took so long for you to meet up with them, you can say
“I was at the grocery store forever” (or, similarly, “I’ve been working on this forever,” or “it feels like I’ve been working on this since the beginning of time”)
In both cases here, you exaggerate for rhetorical effect: in the former, you’re referring to an unending future period of time (but, surely, it’s indeed going to be able to be completed within a finite amount of time); in the latter case, this period of time has already come to an end, but you exaggerate to emphasize how long it took (or if it’s still ongoing, you exaggerate how long it’s been—you haven’t really been working on it from the “beginning of time”).
If you wanted to express these modern phrases using idioms of Koine Greek (of the NT and elsewhere), you could do this several ways—i.e. using aiōnios itself, or using its root noun aiōn, in various clauses. (On the etymology of aiōn itself and its derivatives, see this). To express the time aspect of “(I’m going to be working on this) forever,” you might use εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας or εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων (and cf. Hebrew לעולם). For “I have been working on this forever,” you might use aiōnios in conjunction with χρόνος, chronos: so something like πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων or χρόνοις αἰωνίοις, probably both best understood as something like “from time immemorial” (cf. also ἀπ᾽ τοῦ] αἰῶνος, used in LXX to translate things like מעולם, suggesting the deep antiquity of something: literally “from eternity”). In fact, all of the aforementioned Greek clauses appear in various Greek texts and/or the NT. (Although in some places, they may be used to denote a literal eternity).
Yet, significantly, as far as I’m aware aiōnios is never used in the Septuagint or New Testament to describe/denote a period of time that was finite, having already come to an end. (While it’s true that, with references to a certain figure or event that happened in “ancient times”—using some of form of aiōn or aiōnios—this may be understood to have a pinpointable origin at a specific date or time, the primary meaning here still emphasizes the relative incalculability of the antiquity here… if only rhetorically.)
Some universalists point to verses like Jonah 2.6 to challenge this—“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever לעולם/αἰώνιοι]—whereas Jonah was only in the depths for three days (Jonah 1.17). But the most accurate and powerful reading of this text actually strengthens the fact that עוֹלָם /aiōnios here may be taken to denote a true eternity: Jonah really was doomed to a death that was eternal, irreversible; but God intervened to save him from this eternal fate (cf. Job 7:9, “he who goes down to Sheol does not come up”).
Jonah 2.6 is indeed a point in the “genuinely-eternal” camp’s favor.
Again, I should emphasize that the most accurate definition of aiōnios is “characterizing a span of time that is so long as to be virtually incalculable, or indeed truly infinite.”
This definition is proposed from the collection of uses of aiōnios. A word’s usage determines its “meaning.”
We can be assured that some ancient authors used aiōnios in an exaggerated way, in the same way that we, today, use “forever” (as demonstrated above). But, again this all comports with the “base” meaning of “characterizing a span of time that is so long as to be virtually incalculable, or indeed truly infinite.”
The main matter of contention, then—perhaps the only one (though cf. the next parenthetical remark)—is when aiōnios is being employed in a particular instance in a literal sense, and when it’s employed in an exaggerated sense. (Also note that the suggestion that aiōnios can be used to suggest “irreversible,” and thus might occasionally support annihilationism. This too, however, is a secondary meaning that developed from the base meaning that I’ve isolated; but it’s also highly unclear when or if certain texts mean to suggest this.)
[Admin edited to add [url=http://www.evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=6329]a convenient link to part 2 here.]