On The Greek Words For Eternity And Eternal

(aion and aionios)

I have thought that, as one of the forms in which infidelity circulates at present is Universalism, or the Restitution of all things, it might be well to put out clearly and simply some facts (for that is what they are), which may deprive its advocates of one main ground of their reasonings, and that without any reasoning on the general subject of a doctrine, which, when examined, sets aside the truth of Christianity. I refer to the meaning of aion, and also of aionios. We are told by Dr. Farrar, with much pretension to competency in affirming it, that “everlasting” or “eternal” ought not to be found in the Bible; by Mr. Cox, that it means properly an “age” and “age-long,” and that it cannot be right to translate them eternal or everlasting. Mr. Jukes, with a wild imagination, takes the same ground. They simply echo one another. Now all I purpose to do here is to state some passages from other authors, which prove that (while used in other senses, some of which are not found at all in Scripture), it does mean “eternity” and “eternal.” I will afterwards examine some of the passages in Scripture in which it is found.

Aion in Greek properly means “eternity.” I do not dispute here, whether we are to believe with Aristotle, that it is derived from aei einai; or with other modern writers from aio, I breathe, whence it had the meaning in Homer, Euripides, and other authors, of life and breath; or possibly these may be two different words, one from aei on, the other from ao spiro, whence the two very different meanings. This is certain, that the word is distinctly used by Plato, Aristotle, and Philo (and, according to the dictionaries, by Lycurgus, whom I have not the means of consulting) as “eternal,” in contrast with what is of time having beginning or ending, as its definite and proper meaning.

Plato (Timceus, ed. Steph. 3, 37, or ed. Baiter, Orell. et Winck. 712) says, speaking of the universe: “When the father who begot it48 perceived that the image made by him of the eternal (aidion) gods moved and lived, he was delighted with his work; and, led by this dehght, thought to make his work much more like that first exemplar.” Inasmuch therefore as it (the intelligible universe) is an eternal (aidion) animal (living being), so he set about to make this (the sensible) universe such with all his power. The nature therefore of the animal (living being) was eternal (aionios, before aidios), and this indeed it was impossible to adapt to what was produced (to genneto, to what had a beginning); he thinks to make a moveable image of eternity (aionos), and in adoring the heavens he makes of the eternity permanent in unity a certain eternal image moving in number, that which in fact we call time; that is, days and nights, and months and years, which did not subsist before the heaven began to be, then with its being established he operates their birth” (beginning to be, genesin auton). And after unfolding this, he says (p. 38): “But these forms of time imitating eternity (aiona), and rolling round according to number, have had a beginning (gegonen)… Time therefore began with heaven, that they having begun with it may be dissolved with it, if there be indeed any dissolution of them, and according to the pattern of eternal (diaionias, in some MSS. aionion or -as) nature that it might be as like as possible to it. For that pattern exists for all eternity (panta aiona estin on)3 but on the other hand, that which is perpetual (dia telous) throughout all time has had a beginning, and is, and will be.” And then he goes on to speak of stars and planets, etc., as connected with what was created in time. It is impossible to conceive any more positive statement that aion is distinct, and to be contrasted with what has a beginning and belongs to the flux of time. Aion is what is properly eternal, in contrast with a divine imitation of it in ages of time, the result of the creative action of God which imitated the uncreate as nearly as He could in created ages. It is a careful opposition between eternity and ages; and aion and also aionios mean the former in contrast with ages.

I now give Aristotle peri ouranou, 1, 9 (ed. Bekker, 1, 279): “Time,” he says, “is the number of movement, but there is no movement without a physical body. But outside heaven it has been shewn that there is not, nor possibly can come into existence, any body. It is evident then that there is neither place, nor void, nor time outside. Wherefore neither in place are things there formed by nature; nor does time cause them to grow old: neither is there any change of anything of those things which are arranged beyond the outermost orbit; but unchangeable, and subject to no influence, having the best and most independent life, they continue for all eternity (aiona). For this expression (name) has been divinely uttered by the ancients; for the completeness which embraces the time of the life of each, outside which there is nothing, according to nature, is called the aion of each. According to the same word (logon) the completeness of the whole heaven, and the completeness which embraces all time and infinitude is aion, having received this name from existing for ever (apo ton aei einai), immortal (athanatos, undying), and divine.” In 10 he goes on to shew that that beginning to be (genesthai) involves the not existing always, which I refer to as shewing what he means by aion. He is proving the unchangeable eternity of the visible universe. That is no business of mine; but it shews what he means by eternity (aion). It cannot be aidion and genesthai at the same time, when, as in Plato, aidios is used as equivalent to aionios. Aristotle has not the abstract thoughts of Plato as to ideas, and the paradeigma of what is visible, the latter being a produced image of the eternal paradeigma. He rests more in what is known by the senses; and makes this the eternal thing in itself. But the force of aion for both is a settled point; and Aristotle’s explanation of aion as used for finite things, I have long held to be the true one; that is, the completeness of a thing’s existence, so that according to its natural existence there is nothing outside or beyond it. It periechei the whole being of the thing.

As to Philo, the sentence is in De Mundo, §7, en aioni de oute pareleluthen ouden, oute mellei, alia monon iphesteken. Such a definition needs no explanation: in eternity nothing is passed, nothing is about to be, but only subsists. This has the importance of being of the date and Hellenistic Greek of the New Testament, as the others give the regular, and at the same time philosophical force of the word, aion, aionios. Eternity, unchangeable, with no ‘was’ nor ‘will be,’ is its proper force, that it can be applied to the whole existence of a thing, so that nothing of its nature was before true or after is true, to telos to periechon. But its meaning is eternity, and eternal. To say that they do not mean it in Greek, as Jukes and Farrar and S. Cox, and those they quote, is a denial of the statements of the very best authorities we can have on the subject. If Plato and Aristotle and Philo knew Greek, what these others say is false. That this is the proper sense of aionios in Scripture, is as certain as it is evident. In 2 Corinthians 4:18, we have ta gar blepomena proskaira, ta de me blepomena aionia. That is, things that are for a time are put in express contrast with aionia, which are not for a time, be it age or ages, but eternal. Nothing can be more decisive of its positive and specific meaning.

I will now quote various passages of Scripture to shew aion or aionios has the definite meaning of “for ever,” or “eternal,” in English. No one who has examined its use in Greek questions that it is used for life, or the whole period of a man’s existence till he breathes his last; nor that it may be used for ages or periods, looked at as a whole. The question is, Does it not properly mean eternal or for ever, and that where age and age-long would have no sense? Thus Matthew 21:19, of the fig-tree: Let no fruit grow on thee eis ton aiona. “For the age” has no sense. It never was to grow. So Mark 11:14. That eternity is not grasped by man as a definite idea is true, because definite is finite, and man, being finite, cannot grasp what is m-finite. It is known only as that which is absolutely; or negatively as that to which end is denied.

Again, Mark 3:29, oik echei aphesin eis ton aiona. What age? It is not in the age, as some have fraudulently translated it, but “has not ever forgiveness.” It is not any particular age; the eis allows no such sense, and the ton would require some particular age, which even so would leave no sense to eis. It can only mean here “for ever.” There was a present age and age to come, o aion outos, and o aion o mellon, and well known to the Jews, the olem hazeh, and the olem havo; and an increased measure of forgiveness was looked for in Messiah’s age. This sin could be forgiven in neither; no additional increase of forgiveness was looked for beyond Messiah; and each measure belonged to its own age; it was not a prolonged process, but what occurred in each as proper to it. But eis ton aiona, can only mean “for ever,” though “for ever” may be used metaphorically when there is no withdrawal of the gift or promise, and the effect cannot last longer than that to which it applies. The gift has no limit (it is, as Aristotle says, apeiria\ the existence of that to which it applies may. I do not lend it, I give it for ever; yet what I give, or the person to whom it is given, may cease to exist; but the gift is for ever, without repentance, out and out.

So John 4:14, shall not thirst “for the age”: is that the meaning? or never? John 6:51, 58, “live for ever”; John 10:28, not perish “to the age”: is that the sense? John 13:8, thou shalt not wash my feet “to the age!” A multitude more may be quoted to the same effect; some with the modified sense I have spoken of above of absolute gift and calling never to be retracted. But eis ton aiona never means “to the age” in any case.

Take 1 Peter 1:23, 25, logon zontos theou kai menontos eis ton aiona. Does it last only “to the age” (applying it to the logon, not to theou as some do)? So verse 25, rema menei eis ton aiona. So 2 John 2, the truth shall be with us “to the age!” So Jude 13, wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness eis ton aiona. Here again “to the age” has no sense.

The case of aionios is just as strong. It is used seventy-one times in the New Testament. Of these it is connected forty-four times with life, where “for an age” or “age-long” is just nonsense, as believers to have age-long life and shall not perish. It is in contrast with ever perishing. The knowledge of the Father, and of Jesus Christ, whom He has sent, is life for the age. Is that all? The words of Jesus were remata zoes aioniou not tes zoes. It was that in its nature, not a specific period: indeed believers have it now. In Romans 6:22 the end is everlasting life. So that the life of that age, though no particular one is ever spoken of, is the end of the matter. It is not merely dark beyond as to a Jew, but there is no object beyond. My object is not to argue the point, but to consider the words here; but I must say that, if anything could lower and degrade the hope and present joy of the Christian, it is this miserable notion that “eternal “does not mean eternal.

But, farther, Christ was that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested to us; 1 John 1:2. He is our life; he that hath the Son hath life. He is the true God and eternal life. Five, I may say six, times it is used of “eternal fire,” or “punishment.” The rest are various, glory, salvation, redemption, inheritance, Spirit, God Himself. But none of them is eternal! all belong to this wonderful unknown age, and no more. But the eternal weight of glory is that of which the apostle speaks, when he says that the things are not for a time, proskaira, but eternal, aionia, chapter 5:1 going on to say that he was looking for a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. We have the word used with chronon (times) in plural for the times of God’s active dispensations. Before anything was created, this life was given us in Christ; putting it in its nature out of time.

Read these passages, and say if (while no one denies that there are ages and dispensations in which God has wrought and works), it be so that eternity is excluded from the revelation given to the Christian, and from the rest of God (for the promise is left us of entering into His rest), and that eternal glory, the eternal God, only means a God that has to say to that age. That God having called us to His own kingdom and glory, specifically that as our calling, this means a temporary period, an age which characterises Him, so that the eternal God is only the age-long God. That this life promised before the ages (chronon aioniori), and which Christ is in His Person as with the Father, is only a life in one of these ages; and that when I read that the God of all grace has called us to His eternal glory by Jesus Christ, for which we may suffer a while, it is only a temporary glory of His for some special age; 1 Pet. 5:10. That the glory of God, for which we hope in contradistinction to the peace and favour we possess, is only a temporary thing, for I suppose His own glory is the glory we boast in Romans 5. That language of exuberant apprehension is used, such as “ages of ages,” and all the “generations of the age,” or “eternity of ages,” we know. But this does not alter the meaning of the word: aionios is properly the opposite to proskairos.

48 Both Plato and Aristotle treat the universe as a living animal, proved so by its constant movements: from them also Philo.