The Evangelical Universalist Forum

When did "eternal" change from "ethereal" to "endless"?

The definition of “eternal” often comes up, most recently in one of my discussions with Luke on FaceBook.

It seems some of the Church Father’s (Origen & Gregory) at least saw “eternal” as not “endless”, my guess is something closer to “ethereal”. And given most (all?) before Calvin thought some people’s “eternal” hell wasn’t endless (i.e. some saved postmortem), I wondered if Calvin changed the emphasis.

Sonia what’s the website you use that shows the history of a word?

I realise that even today forever/eternal are sometimes used non-literally.

I’m fairly certain someone (more than one person, likely) changed the emphasis/ meaning long before Calvin. It has been awhile since I’ve read the information. You might want to check the reading list over at Tentmaker, I’m pretty sure they’ve got some stuff on it.

I usually use this first:

and it’s good to get a second opinion:

and this is useful too: … rget=greek

I haven’t looked at the Tentmaker site in a long time, but I remember a lot of info there.

It is very clear that our word “eternal” is directly descended from “aionios” so the road to understanding leads back there. It’s interesting to me that of all the words that could have been used to convey “eternity” or “endlessness,” the word of choice in scripture is aionios.


thanks Sonia, those links look really useful!

What is the origin of the clarity of which you write? I did not find the first two websites helpul at all in tracing the English word “eternal” to “aionios”. However, the third site you mention is an excellent source. I looked up the Greek word αἰωνιος (aionios), and found that the perseus site defines the word as “lasting for an age”. You can verify this fact by clicking on the following link:

The word αἰωνιος was used in koine Greek (the Greek spoken from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D.) to refer to anything which is enduring. The word was used by Diodorus Siculus to describe the stone used to build a wall. The word seems to have been used as meaning “lasting” or “durable”.

Josephus in “The Wars of the Jews” book 6, states that Jonathan was condemned to “αἰωνιος” imprisonment. Yet that prison sentence is said to have lasted only three years, certainly not eternally. The word is the adjectival form of the noun αἰων which means “age”.

But the clincher comes from the Homily of the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Ephesians, written by Chrysostum. He wrote that the kingdom of Satan “is αἰωνιος, in other words it will cease with the present αἰων.” So Chrysostum apparently believed that “αἰωνιος” meant exactly the opposite to “eternal”! ---- that it is “ lasting” but in this case also “temporary.”

I don’t think so. The word of choice for eternal is not αἰωνιος but αἰδιος. The latter word is used in the following passage:

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal (αἰδιος) power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. Romans 1:20 RSV

Actually the Greek word αἰωνιος never means “eternal”; it usually means “lasting”. Sometimes it applies to that which is eternal, but that fact in no way implies that it means “eternal”.

For example:

Matthew 25:46 And these [the goats] will go away into lasting punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] into lasting life."

The “lasting punishment” of the goats does not continue indefinitely, but will some day come to an end after the “goats” repent and submit themselves to the lordship of Christ. But the “lasting life” of the sheep will continue forever. However, that “everlasting” aspect is not inherent in the meaning of the word αἰωνιος.

Origen and to a some extent Gregory thought that there would be universal salvation but there is no evidence that they understood “aionios” to mean ethereal. Secondly where is the evidence that “eternal” ever meant “ethereal,” at any point in the history of biblical translation? Besides the standard Greek-English lexicon BDAG ( affirms that “aionios” does indeed mean eternal and not just in quality but in duration.

Well, it certainly does not always mean that, even if I grant that it ever does. Good scholars have weighed in with “pertaining to the age to come”- what is your take on this definition. It certainly sometimes means less than endless, as in the case of the Aaronic priesthood.

That’s not the case for the use of aionios in every instance of the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament and in the New Testament.

Thanks Sonia :sunglasses:

"]eternal (adj.)
late 14c., from O.Fr. eternel or directly from L.L. aeternalis, from L. aeternus “of an age, lasting, enduring, permanent, endless,” contraction of aeviternus “of great age,” from aevum “age” (see eon). Related: Eternally.

"]eternal from Old French eternal, from Late Latin aeternalis, from Latin æternus contraction of aeviternus, “of great age”, from ævum, “age”.When was Calvin? e.g. late 14c. by any chance?? Interesting connections to “age” too

Luke, I really want you to answer this as I don’t want to me wrong on this important issue.

According to BDAG The noun, “aeon” can refer to the olden days (Acts 15:18) or particular unit of history, such as the age to come (Luke 20:35). The adjective “aionios” can refer (in only a few places) to period of time long ago, (Rom 16:25) but generally best translated as “a period of time of endless duration,” “eternal”.

The concept of eternity has been around since the Hebrew Scriptures were written. The ancient Jewish world-view had a strong sense of God’s promises being eventually fulfilled and then on a permeant basis, ie forever. Otherwise things like the resurrection makes no sense in the Old Testament.

Universalism has to prove that “eternity” was invented and then inserted into the translation at some point. The problem is that the idea of eternity is as old as Scripture itself and there is no historical evidence for a duplicitous invention of “eternity” and a sneaky “insertion” into the text.

I would like you to amplify this and challenge the community here so that if some are in error and want to escape, they have sound reasoning to compel such an escape./…

Let me reframe the debate in an unusual and perhaps controversial way.

Alex has asked When did “eternal” change from “ethereal” to “endless”? This is clearly impossible because you’d have to say there was some sort of grand conspiracy to to smuggle a different meaning for “aionios” for both punishment and life with God! :open_mouth: And there’s just no evidence at all for that.

What’s more likely and in some ways this second senario weakens my case a little.

In the debate about global warming the majority of scientists in climate related fields read the data a particular way and a small minority read it the other the way and say either it’s not occurring or humans are not the cause of it. The fact is they should be allowed to be skeptical and question the data but the consensus among the scientific community is that this theory of human induced global warming is correct. Now you could make the same case about “aionios” that a small minority of theologians and translators have got it right despite that the consensus in the biblical translation community. Like climate change skeptics, “eternal” skeptics have difficult task because theirs has always been and currently is the minority postion.

Some of you believe in human induced climate change so the challenge for you is saying why that’s right and “eternal” doesn’t mean endless duration. But I’m caught in the opposite bind, I believe human induced climate change is wrong but the majority is right about “eternal”!

If you’re a universalist the wisest move (Alex!) is not continue down the increasingly bizarre path of some sort of historical conspiracy by saying the meaning has been changed by evil Calvinists but to say instead a small minority have always translated it correctly. (Just I believe the small minority of scientists who disagree with human induced climate change. :slight_smile: )

I’m still thinking this over :slight_smile:

You’re right, Paidion, and that was sloppy of me. Aionios is the root of our “eonian”. Our “eternal” descends directly from the Latin aeternus, which I was thinking of as the Latin equivalent of the Greek “aiwnios” because it includes in its definition, “of an age”. But I could be wrong about that: Augustine said that “aiwn” was equivalent to the Latin seculum, but that aiwnios was not translated “secular” because some things secular last only a short while, which might cause confusion since things aiwnios last till the end of this world or forever. I wonder where he was getting his definition of aiwnios. I’d like to look into this more.

I agree with you, Paidion! I was just not writing clearly. I was trying to say that if the biblical writers meant to say “endless” they had other choices which would have made the point much more clearly. Yet instead of those other options, they chose the word “aionios”.


It is interesting to see that Philo say the word as having a biblical usage and a philosophical usage. Maybe there was an importing of the Greek thought of aionios into the bible?

Do you have that quote handy, roofus?

Paidion’s made some good points, but I thought I’d give a shot at responding to Luke. :slight_smile:

That’s far from inarguable, especially if you mean simply “without end.” Now I’ll grant that the idea of God being “eternal” in the sense of “outside time, pre-existent, uncreated Creator on whom the existence of all other beings depends” does have a consistent thread in the Scriptures. The Bible has always affirmed a difference between God and his qualities and nature on the one hand, and his creation on the other hand, who are strictly dependent beings. So “eternal” as a quality determined solely by God’s nature, yes. “Eternal” as a quality meaning “everlasting,” not so much.

Ancient Jews had no concept of an eternal resurrection with God–at least, not like modern Christians have. I’ll grant that there was a vague idea of an afterlife in which the righteous experienced blessings with God. But there’s hardly an explicit formulation to be found, especially in the “ancient Jewish worldview.” (Not until the time of the exile did these things really start getting worked out, I believe) The “permanent basis” ancient Jews may have had was strictly based on the “ethereality” (to refer back to Alex’s original post) of God’s nature. They were convinced that He, as the I AM, guaranteed whatever promises he gave them. Their exact formulation of “eternal/everlasting” was superfluous, as their trust in his promises was rendered sure by their trust in God’s nature as the independent Source of all blessing. (at least as I understand it from what I’ve heard and read :slight_smile: )

No, I think it just has to show that “without end” came to be regarded as the primary sense of the concept “eternal / determined by God’s timelessness.” This seems to be the case from church history.

If you search the word “Philo”, a thread wil be referenced with an article discussing the matter.

And the evidence for this is … ? In other words when did the meaning of eternal change from something vague to something that meant duration?