Let’s pretend that you are a bible translator and you are working on creating an English translation of the bible from ancient (kione/biblical) Greek texts. And let’s say that there is one word – a noun – with a clear, agreed upon meaning. Every time you come across this word, all you have to do is substitute the English version of the word into the text and it works just fine. There’s just one hitch: if you do this your translation will be accurate and faithful to the ancient manuscripts but it will practically erase a long-held church teaching. Do you go with what the text says and use that one word in your translation? Or do you come up with a dozen or more other ways to translate that word in ways that leave the church teaching undisturbed?
This isn’t a hypothetical issue here. There really is a koine Greek noun which has one agreed upon meaning, yet has been translated dozens of different ways – presumably because translating it directly would almost totally remove the teaching of eternal hell from the bible. The word is aoin. It is the root word for the English word eon. The one word that can be used to translate it is “age”. It simply implies an undefined period of time. It has been used variously to describe everything from a few days to the span of a life to time longer than we can imagine. But like eon, it always indicates a period of time with a beginning and end. (Here’s a list of quotes from various biblical scholars saying the same thing. Here’s the wikipedia entry on the word aion. For an examination of how the word was used in ancient times by extra-biblical authors, go here. Or go here and scroll down to the section titled “The Greek Classics” about a quarter of the way down the page.)
Now here’s a chart that I laboriously created showing the way that the word got translated by actual biblical translators:
That’s a lot of different ways to translate one word – especially a noun – doncha think? But look at the words chosen and you can begin to understand what the problem is. This one simple word is the word that all those “eternal” and “forevers” in the New Testament come from. Suddenly instead of “the world to come”, we have “the age to come”. Instead of “forever and ever” we have “to the age of the ages”. Translate this one little word properly, and our familiar bible starts to look a little strange and mysterious. (To their credit, most modern translation do a decent job of putting the proper translation – age – into their footnotes. So if you’ve been paying attention, perhaps you’ve noticed that there’s something going on with ages in the bible before.)
Before going any deeper into how this word is used in scripture, we need to briefly look at the adjective taken from the word aion – aionian. For example, when we read the phrase “eternal fire” in Jude 1:7, it’s “aionian fire”. Aionian is the word used to describe the duration of the fire. Now, we don’t have a word in English that directly correlates with aionian. Sometimes the claim is made that while yes, aion does literally mean age, aionian means eternal. However, this makes no sense.
When we modify a noun to make it an adjective, the meaning of that adjective is still anchored to the meaning of the noun from which it was taken. For example, the word week means a period of 7 days. The word weekly means something that happens every 7 days. Same thing with daily or yearly or hourly. Now, aionian is slightly different in that it doesn’t describe how often something is happening, but rather is indicating the length of time for which something lasts. Like I said, we don’t have an English correlary. So if your kid’s summer camp will last a week, we say it’s a week-long summer camp. If an initiative will go on for a year, we say it’s a year-long initiative. In the same way a proper translation of the word aionaian would be age-long or age-lasting.
Now, if you’re a sharp cookie or knife or tool perhaps you have noticed that thus far I have only addressed the koine Greek words that get translated as forever and eternal (and world, universe, old, course or whatever else the translators need them to mean). And maybe you’re reaching for your Old Testament because you know that it contains its own forever and eternal statements. Or maybe you’re too busy wondering if I’m on drugs to think of such a thing. (The answer, sadly, is no.) But whatever the case may be, I’m glad I brought it up – what about the Old Testament? Well, the biblical Hebrew word translated as forever or eternal is “olam”.
Back in the very olden days – like around 2000 years ago, many Hebrews were no longer able to speak their ancient tongue. So they too relied on translations of their sacred text. They relied on the Septuagint. It was the Greek translation of the books of the Old Testament. Of course, in Israel, most people spoke Aramaic but that’s a whole other story. What’s important for our purposes is that we have several copies of the Septuagint to reference. Which is very handy for those of us who like doing word studies because we can look at the way a Hebrew word is used in context AND we can see how the Hebrew scholars translated said word into Greek. Which can be very revealing. It just so happens that the ancient Hebrew word olam is almost always translated into the Greek words aion and aionian. So for all practical purposes they are synonymous and everything that I say about those words above, also applies to the Old Testament as well. Since I have other things to do this week, I didn’t dive in and make a nice chart to show you exactly how various modern translations have screwed up olam, but if I did, it would look similar to the one above. So, just look at the one above again and pretend.
Why Should You Believe Me?
I know that if you’re encountering this material for the first time, the natural reaction may be think that maybe it’s not true because if it was, this wouldn’t be the first time you heard these claims. On Friday, I will get into the history of how and why our translations came to goof this word up so badly. However, anyone who paid attention to the uproar over the Committee on Bible Translation’s attempts to use gender neutral language in TNIV can understand how it is that little serious attempt has been made to correct this error. (For those who had things other than controversies over bible translations on their mind, here’s the gist: the CBT put out an updated version of the NIV which did things like translate “men” into “people” in order to more accurately reflect those places where “men” was used to indicate “mankind” rather than gender. There was much denunciation and gnashing of teeth. The Presbyterian Church in America and Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions denouncing the new translation. James Dobson and John Piper sobbed on each other’s lapels. Etc, etc, etc.)
Entire books have been written on this subject (in fact I link to a couple of them in the 2nd paragraph above), so clearly I can only skim the surface of the evidence in just a blog post. But for the sake of those who aren’t going to go read books, I’ll offer a couple of other bits of information which demonstrate that translating aion and aionian as eternal or forever is wrong.
First of all, are there words which DO mean eternal or forever in koine Greek or ancient Hebrew? Yes. And they are never used in reference to punishment, hell fires or anything else upon which the teaching of eternal hell is based. Those teachings are always described using the words aion, aionian and olem. Here’s another handy, dandy chart of words indicating eternity:
To further make the point, we have our old friend Josephus, the Hebrew historian who wrote in the time shortly after Jesus’ death. According to Josephus, at the time of Jesus, the normal Jewish teach was eternal punishment for the wicked. However, when Josephus speaks of this teaching, he doesn’t use aion or aionion (or any of its derivatives like aiona). He says that the Pharisees teach “the souls of the bad are allotted aidios eirgmos, to an eternal prison, and punished with adialeiptos timoria, eternal retribution.” Of the Essenes, Josephus says that they teach, “the souls of the bad are sent to a dark and tempestuous cavern, full of adialeiptos timoria, incessant punishment.” Jesus, on the other hand says in Matthew 5:25 “they will go away to (aionian kolasin)”.
Tomorrow we’ll dig deeper into the difference between “adialeiptos timoria” and Jesus’ “aionian kolasin”. But for now, the take-away from all this talk about kione Greek and translations is this: no where does the bible say that hell is eternal. It speaks of hell, punishment, suffering and such as aionian – for an age. Jonah was in the belly of the whale for olem – Greek aion – an age. 3 days as it turns out. The priesthood of Aaron was to stand for aion – an age. Until it passed to the priesthood of Melchizedek. The bible simply does not speak of eternal hell at all, ever. I know that some of you reading this are thinking, “I know there are verses that can be understood to teach about eternal hell that don’t use the word aion.” And you’re right. There are a few verses such as “unquenchable fire” that can be understood to indicate eternal hell. We’ll be getting to those later. In the meantime, take a look at these 100 bible verses/proofs for the idea of universal salvation. We’ll get to the tiny handful of “lake of fire”, unquenchable fire” and such verses tomorrow.
But the kids have taken my oldest son hostage and are demanding cheesy-poofs in exchange for his release, so I guess this will have to do for now!
*To make things simpler on me, I’m just going to use the transliterations of the Greek and Hebrew words.