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How divine judgment came to be seen as everlasting

Nov 30, 2011

Origen was roasted by certain unscrupulous church bishops about the year 400 A.D. Because he had written on so many topics over the years (202-253 A.D.), there were many opportunities for men to voice their disagreements. Yet his basic view on the salvation of all men in the end was not officially questioned by his opponents until much later.

This was because most of the church leaders and individual Christians believed that all men would be saved. Yet they believed that most of mankind would have to undergo a baptism of fire by the judgments of God before they were fully restored to their Creator. In fact, the fourth century saw the most prominent church leaders teaching this view openly. It was so self-evident and universally taught, in fact, that no 4th century Church Council was formed to deal with any controversy over it.

The uproar occurred as the year 400 approached. Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria banned the writings of Origen over the issue of whether or not God possessed a physical body or was just a spirit. Because the vast majority of the Christians and leaders respected Origen so highly, it seemed necessary to undermine his popularity by attacking more of his beliefs.

In those days the Greek-speaking Church in the East was the dominant force in Christendom. They produced nearly all of the great leaders and scholars of the Church. Little was written in Latin that could match the sermons and books written by the Greek Fathers. In fact, most of the Latin Fathers were quite fluent in Greek as well, because Greek had been the international language in the centuries after Alexander the Great.

There was one Latin Father, however, who did not have a good grasp of Greek in the early 5th century. It was Augustine of Hippo. Historian Peter Brown tells us in his book, Augustine of Hippo, p. 36,

"Augustine's failure to learn Greek was a momentous casualty of the late Roman educational system; he will become the only Latin philosopher in antiquity to be virtually ignorant of Greek."

Though he was not the first to believe that sinners would be punished endlessly, he was the one who truly popularized the view. Even so, he admitted in his writings that in his day there were "very many" who did not agree with him (Enchridion, 112). In his well known book, The City of God, XXI, 17, he wrote:

"And now I see I must have a gentle disputation with certain tender hearts of our own religion, who are unwilling to believe that endless punishment will be inflicted, either on all those whom the Just Judge shall condemn to the pains of hell, or even on some of them, but who think that after certain periods of time [ages], longer or shorter according to the proportion of their crimes, they shall be delivered out of that state."

Though Augustine did not really know the Greek language, he presumed to disagree with the other Greek Church Fathers on the definition of aionian judgment. His primary disagreement was based upon his interpretation of Matthew 25:46, which the KJV translates,

"And these shall go away into everlasting [aionian] punishment; but the righteous into life eternal [aionian] ."

Augustine's logic said this:

"For Christ said in the very same place, including both in one and the same sentence: 'So these will go into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.' If both are eternal, then surely both must be understood as 'long,' but having an end, or else as 'everlasting' without an end. For they are matched with each other. In one clause eternal punishment, in the other eternal life." [The City of God, XXI, xxiii]

This logic sounds good, but it is simply wrong. The idea of aionian life refers to the reward of life (immortality) during The Age, i.e., the Messianic Age which was commonly taught and believed in Jesus' day. Many today call it The Millennium. It is the culminating Age, the great Sabbath Day of a thousand years.

In Revelation 20, John speaks of this thousand-year Age, placing a limited resurrection ahead of it and a general resurrection afterward. The reward of the just, then, is to receive immortal life in the first resurrection, so that these few many enjoy the blessings of immortality during The Age. This isaionian life. The "life" speaks of immortality; the word "aionian" applies it to the special reward in a specific age.

There is likewise, an aionian judgment, for after the Great White Throne, John tells us, the unbelievers will be put into the "lake of fire" for the final Age. That Age will not end until the Jubilee cancels any remaining liability (debt) for sin.

Hence, we see that there is an aionian life as well as an aionian judgment. Augustine did not understand this, but the Greek Church Fathers did, as Augustine himself admits. So are we to believe a Latin-speaking bishop or the vast majority of Greek-speaking bishops?

Augustine's Bible was an old Latin translation which used two Latin words to translate the Greek term aionian. These were aeternus and seculum. A scholar's footnote to Augustine's The City of God, XXII, i, tells us this:

"The words 'eternal' and 'eternity' from Latin aeternusaeternitas, are related to aevum, which means BOTH 'unending time' and 'a period of time'; for the second meaning, the commoner word isaetas."

Augustine chose to interpret aeternus to mean unending time. If the New Testament originally had been written in Latin, he might have had a strong case for his position. But it was not logical to translate the Greek word into Latin and then use the preferred meaning of the Latin word to form one's doctrinal position. That is where Augustine strayed from the truth.

Here is what The Cambridge Bible Dictionary says about Matthew 25:46,

46 eternal punishment, i.e., punishment characteristic of the Age to come, not meaning that it lasts for ever.

eternal life, i.e., the life that belongs to the Age to come, the full abundant life which is fellowship with God.

Here is how Young's Literal Translation of the Holy Bible translates Matt. 25:46:

"And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during."

Another Bible translator, Weymouth, quibbles with Young on page 657 of The New Testament in Modern Speech,

Eternal: Greek: 'aeonion,' i.e., 'of the ages.' Etymologically this adjective, like others similarly formed, does not signify 'during,' but 'belonging to' the aeons or ages.

Both agree that aionian pertains to an Age and does not mean unending time as Augustine would have us believe. Rotherham's The Emphasized Bible renders it "age-abiding." Wilson's The Emphatic Diaglott avoids the problem entirely by leaving it as aionian.

Shall we believe the Greek scholars or Augustine?


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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