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How Eternal is Eternal?

Nov 03, 2009

Augustine, the fifth-century bishop of Hippo, argued against Universal Reconciliation in his book, The City of God, XXI, xi,

"Moreover, some of those against whom we are defending in the city of God think it unjust that a man should be condemned to eternal punishment for crimes, however great committed in a short period of time. As if any just law would ever make it an aim that punishment should equal in length of time it took to become liable to punishment!"

Obviously, the argument is spurious, because no one says that the length of time it takes to commit a sin has anything to do with the length of time it takes to bring judgment. It may take only a few minutes to rob someone of thousands of dollars, but to repay it might take years.

What his Greek opponents were saying was that the word aionian is not a word that means infinite time. The word for infinite was aidios, as used in Rom. 1:20,

"For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, His ETERNAL [aidiospower and divine nature, have been clearly seen . . ."

If Paul had used the tern aionian here, many might have misunderstood him, thinking he was limiting God's power. So Augustine's opponents, who spoke Greek as their native tongue, understood that God was the Savior of all men (1 Tim. 4:10) and that He would reconcile all of creation (Col. 1:16-20).

Augustine continues:

"Now since fine, loss of status, exile and slavery are generally so imposed that they are not eased by any pardon, are they not comparable to eternal punishment, as far as the measure of this life allows? Note that the reason why they cannot be eternal is that the life of one punished by them is not eternally prolonged. However, the crimes that are avenged by penalties of longest duration are perpetrated in the shortest time, and no man living would propose that the torments of the guilty should be ended as quickly as the deed was done--murder, or adultery, or sacrilege, or any other crime that ought to be measured not by length of time, but by the enormity of its injustice and impiety."

Here Augustine draws the parallel to the Roman law system. If a man commits a crime that draws a "life sentence," the criminal would theoretically continue in slavery forever, if he were immortal.

I'm not sure that even the Romans would have passed laws demanding eternal slavery, if they knew that someone was immortal. But that is a moot point. The fact that men might be so unmerciful only shows the contrast between the character of man and the character of God. Surely Augustine must have had some knowledge of the law of Jubilee, which limited liability for major crimes. Surely, he must have known about the limit of 40 stripes for misdemeanors.

When Augustine tries to argue on the basis of law, he shows his ignorance of biblical law. Instead, he appeals to Roman law, with which his audience was familiar.

Augustine also argues that "eternal life" is the same length of time as "eternal judgment." Technically, he is right, because each refers to an appropriate AGE in which men are either immortal or experiencing judgment.

To be given "age-abiding life" is to be given immortality in the first resurrection, wherein the overcomers enjoy immortality in THE AGE to come. The Hebrews often referred to "The Age" as being the great Messianic Age, i.e., the Millennial Sabbath. Hence, Strong's Concordance tells us about the word aion (#165), giving as one of its meanings, "spec. (Jewish) a Messianic period (present or future)."

When a Judean spoke of "The Age," he was referring to the Messianic Age to come. And the term aionian meant "pertaining to The Age (to come)".

Life in The Age, then, referred to immortality given at the resurrection. While Jewish thought did not account for more than a single resurrection, John makes it clear in Revelation 20 that there were to be TWO resurrections. Not all would be raised in the first, and so the NT admonishes people to believe (Passover) and to learn obedience (Pentecost), so that they might inherit aionian life (Tabernacles) in the first resurrection.

Every believer will eventually inherit immortality, but only the overcomers will qualify for aionian life.

As for "eternal judgment," there is an appropriate age for judgment as well. It is not the same age as the one in which aionian life is granted, but is rather the age AFTER the Millennial Sabbath.

Aionian life is immortality following the first resurrection. Aionian judgment is judgment following the second resurrection.

So Augustine's argument is again spurious, because it is based upon his lack of knowledge. He did not know the Greek language, nor did he understand the Messianic terminology commonly used in the first century. In Peter Brown's book, Augustine of Hippo, page 6, we read,

"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."

Some time after Augustine made his arguments, his error was apparently pointed out to him, but by this time it was difficult to make the change. Dr. F.W. Farrar tells of this in his book, Mercy and Judgment, page 178,

"Since aion meant 'age,' aionios means, properly, 'belonging to an age,' or 'age-long,' and anyone who asserts that it must mean 'endless' defends a position which even Augustine practically abandoned twelve centuries ago."

Here is what A. W. Argyle says in The Cambridge Bible Commentary in regard to Matt. 25:46,

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

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

This is why Young's Literal Translation of the New Testament renders the term "life age-during." This is why The Emphasized Bible renders the term "life age-abiding." There are others who simply avoided the whole problem. Wilson's New Testament translation, The Emphatic Diaglott, simply leaves it as "aionian life." So does the Concordant Version.

All of these scholars (and many more) recognized the futility of insisting that aionian must mean an infinite period of time. The fact is, an age is an indefinite period of time, but not infinite. Ages can be of varying lengths. Aionian life is 1000 years; aionian judgment is 42,000 years. The time of an age can vary, but an age always comes to an end.

Once we understand the idea of "The Ages," we can understand the biblical teaching on life and judgment. But we must get past the Latin word aeternum, which Jerome used to translate aionian,and which has come into the English language as eternal. Jerome was a contemporary of Augustine in the fifth century. He did not face a language barrier, but in his day aeternum had a double meaning. It could mean either "unending time" or "a period of time (age)."

Unfortunately, aeternum now means just one thing: unending time.

This is the first part of a series titled "How Eternal is Eternal?" To view all parts, click the link below.

How Eternal is Eternal?

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Dr. Stephen Jones

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