In his Word Studies in the New Testament, Marvin Vincent, D.D., Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature at Union Theological Seminary, New York, explained:
Aion, transliterated aeon, is a period of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself. 4 ” “Aion, transliterated
aeon, is a period of
longer or shorter duration,
having a beginning
and an end, and
complete in itself.”Aristotle (peri ouravou, i. 9, 15) said, “The period which includes the whole time of one’s life is called the aeon of each one. Hence, it often means the life of a man, as in Homer, where one’s life (aion) is said to leave him or to consume away (Il v.685; Od v.160). It is not, however, limited to human life. It signifies any period in the course of the millennium, the mythological period before the beginnings of history. The word has not “a stationary and mechanical value” (De Quincey). It does not mean a period of a fixed length for all cases. There are as many aeons as entities, the respective durations of which are fixed by the normal conditions of the several entities. There is one aeon of a human life, another of the life of a nation, another of a crow’s life, another of an oak’s life. “The length of the aeon
depends on the subject to
which it is attached.” The length of the aeon depends on the subject to which it is attached 4.…The adjective aionious in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting. They may acquire that sense by their connotation.... Aionios means “enduring through” or “pertaining to a period of time.” Both the noun and the adjective are applied to limited periods.... Out of the 150 instances in LXX, [Greek Old Testament] four-fifths imply limited duration. For a few instances, see Gen. xlviii. 4; Num. x. 8; xv. 15; Prov. xxii. 28; Jonah ii.6; Hab. iii. 6; Isa lxi. 17.4
So what if the Greek word aion has been erroneously translated “eternal” instead of “age”? What does that have to do with everlasting punishment? It has everything to do with it, since one of the key texts used in defense of the Augustinian view of hell is Mt. 25:46: “And these will go away into everlasting [aionian] punishment.” If this passage as translated here is accurate, then I would have to admit the Bible teaches that hell is forever. But what if it is not? What if aion does not mean “everlasting”? What would that do to the “biblical support” of an infinite hell? It would negate the use of any verses resting on the word aion used in its defense.
Consider how the following translations word this phrase:
♦ Young’s Literal Translation: “punishment age-during.”
♦ Rotherham Translation: “age-abiding correction.”
♦ Weymouth Translation: “punishment of the ages.”
♦ Concordant Literal Translation: “chastening eonian.”
These reputable and literal translations use the word “age” and not “eternal.” These two concepts are diametrically opposed to one another. They are not the same by any means. An age has a beginning and an end; eternity does not.
Augustine raised the argument that since aionios in Mt. 25:46 referred to both life and punishment, it had to carry the same duration in both cases.5 However, he failed to consider that the duration of aionios is determined by the subject to which it refers. For example, when aionios referred to the duration of Jonah’s entrapment in the fish, it was limited to three days. To a slave, aionios referred to his life span. To the Aaronic priesthood, it referred to the generation preceding the Melchizedek priesthood. To Solomon’s temple, it referred to 400 years. To God it encompasses and transcends time altogether.
Thus, the word cannot have a set value. It is a relative term and its duration depends upon that with which it is associated. It is similar to what “tall” is to height. The size of a tall building can be 300 feet, a tall man six feet, and a tall dog three feet. Black Beauty was a great horse, Abraham Lincoln a great man, and Yahweh the GREAT God. Though God is called “great,” the word “great” is neither eternal nor divine. The horse is still a horse. An adjective relates to the noun it modifies. In relation to God, “great” becomes GREAT only because of who and what God is. This silences the contention that aion must always mean forever because it modifies God. God is described as the God of Israel or the God of Abraham. This does not mean He is not the God of Gentiles or the God of you and me. Though He is called the God of the “ages,” He nonetheless remains the God who transcends the ages.
In addition, Augustine’s reasoning does not hold up in light of Ro. 16:25, 26 and Hab. 3:6. Here, in both cases, the same word is used twice—with God and with something temporal. “In accord with the revelation of a secret hushed in times eonian, yet manifested now…according to the injunction of the eonian God” (Ro. 16:25, 26 CLT). An eonian secret revealed at some point cannot be eternal even though it is revealed by the eonian God. Eonian does not make God eternal, but God makes eonian eternal. “And the everlasting mountains were scattered.…His ways are everlasting” (Hab. 3:6). Mountains are not eternal, though they will last a very long time. God’s ways however, are eternal, because He is eternal.
Matthew 25:46 contains an additional clue confirming the temporary nature of God’s judgment. The Greek word, translated “punishment,” is kolasis. William Barclay, world-renowned Greek scholar, translator, and author of the popular Bible commentary, The Daily Study Bible and New Testament Words, notes:
The Greek word for punishment here [Mt. 25:46] is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment. 6
Thomas Talbott, philosophy professor at Willamette University in Oregon and author of The Inescapable Love of God, explained:
According to Aristotle, there is a difference between revenge and punishment; the latter (kolasis) is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer, the former (timōria) in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction. Plato also appealed to the established meaning of kolasis as support for his theory that virtue could be taught: “For if you will consider punishment (kolasis)…and what control it has over wrong-doers, the facts will inform you that men agree in regarding virtue as procured.” Even where a punishment may seem harsh and unforgiving, more like retribution than parental chastisement, this in no way excludes a corrective purpose. Check out the punishment that Paul prescribes in I Corinthians 5:5. One might never have guessed that, in prescribing such a punishment— that is, delivering a man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh—Paul had in mind a corrective purpose, had Paul not explicitly stated the corrective purpose himself (“that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”). So as this text illustrates, even harsh punishment of a seemingly retributive kind can in fact serve a redemptive purpose.7-9
“And these will go away into everlasting [aionian] punishment [kolasis], but the righteous into eternal [aionian] life” (Mt. 25:46). Isn’t it ironic that the passage most often used to support everlasting punishment is in fact one strongly opposing it when accurately understood?
Aionian (eternal), when associated with God, may simply refer to that which comes forth from Him and relates to His purposes; a quality of essence rather than of duration. Is this not what our Lord intends in John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You”? If this is so, perhaps the Matthew passage could be paraphrased this way: “And these will go away into the chastisement of God, but the righteous into the life of God.”Aionian (eternal), when
Professor Talbott confirms this:
When the letter of Jude describes the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as “eternal fire,” the point is not that the fire literally burns forever without consuming the cities; it is not that the fire continues to burn even today. The point is that the fire is a form of divine judgment upon those cities…that has its causal source in the eternal God himself. And similar for Jesus’ reference to “eternal fire” in Matthew 25:41 and to “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46. The fire to which he alludes is not eternal in the sense that it burns forever without consuming anything— without consuming, for example, that which is false within a person (see 1 Co. 3:15)—and neither is the punishment eternal in the sense that it continues forever without accomplishing its corrective purpose. Both the fire and the punishment are eternal in the sense that they have their causal source in the eternal God himself.10