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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

What is hell, and is it biblical? Part 4: is hell eternal or age-long?

A response to Jacob McMillen and Josiah Pemberton. In this installment, I show that if you believe hell’s duration should be translated as “age-long” rather than “eternal”, you not only mangle basic language, but eviscerate the gospel and spiral into heresy on the nature of God himself.

Continued from part 3, on correctly translating Gehenna

The final “mistranslation” J&J offer is with regard to the words ainon and aionion (along with other variants), typically translated as referring to an unending period of time:

The word eternal used here is aiōnios, and like Gehenna, it has been completely mistranslated throughout the New Testament. As NT Greek teacher Richard Liantonio explains, aiōnios actually refers to to the length of an Age or “from age to age”. In Greek, an Age could refer to a generation, lifetime, or a longer, finite length of time. It’s where we get our word “eon”.

Among other important things, it means that this phrase “eternal punishment” could more accurately be viewed as “correction for the length of the Age“. [sic]

I’m not going to argue here from authority—anyone can quote some purported linguistic expert on just about anything and create a game of he-said-she-said. What I’m going to do is hold J&J to their own definition. What happens if we consistently stop “completely mistranslating” these words? How does that affect other New Testament passages that directly bear on the gospel and the nature of God? Well, what we find is that if we retranslate the rest of the New Testament this way—along with the bits about eternal punishment—it guts not only the gospel, but the nature of God himself.

For the record, I am not accusing J&J of denying the gospel or being heretics. One of the problems with their series is how they repeatedly fail to anticipate not only objections to their position, but the logical consequences of it. If they have thought this through, they give no hint of it. Quite possibly they have not. Again, this reflects extremely poorly on them as men setting themselves up to teach.

Socio-linguistic context

But first, I want to once again demonstrate how J&J are simply wrong about the way these words were used in their first century context.

Let me quote Philo, from his work De Mundo chapter 7, where he says “in eternity [aioni] nothing is passed, nothing is about to be, but only subsists.” Philo wrote around the time of the New Testament, using the same Greek. Yet clearly, here, he cannot be interpreted to be saying anything about an age; rather, the entire force of his comment is self-evidently similar to how Christians describe the eternality of God. This in turn is following both Aristotle and Plato and applying a Jewish gloss to their ideas about timeless, unchanging, unending realities. While ainon certainly can be used to refer to specific lengths of time, its full force refers to eternity. Indeed, in this regard it is rather like the word “eternal” in English, which can refer to a short period (“I waited an eternity”), but which has a full force referring to a timeless state, and by extension, in the created realm to an unending period of time.

Once again, J&J are either unaware of the linguistic context they’re claiming to teach about, or they are deliberately ignoring it. I’m afraid culpable ignorance isn’t much of an alternative to culpable deception.

Begging the question

Even if we didn’t have this kind of socio-linguistic context to work with, and even if we accepted that aionion did not have the typical force of eternality, there is still a fatal problem with J&J’s position:

They assume that the “age” the Bible refers to is of limited duration.

But even if we accept that aionion and its variants are mistranslated, and should be rendered as something like “age-long”, that does nothing to undermine the traditional view of hell if the age being referred to lasts forever. J&J have to quietly assume the very thing in dispute for their case to have even the semblance of credibility—namely that the age is a limited time. But this assumption rubs against the entire grain of the biblical evidence; including evidence in the Old Testament, which is in no way beholden to Greek vocabulary:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.Daniel 12:2

The word “everlasting” here is olam, which is very much like the English word “forever”. Its full sense literally refers to unending time; but of course, it can be used more colloquially to refer to any long, or long-seeming period. Here’s another example:

My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.Psalm 73:26

“Forever” here is also olam; and in Ecclesiastes 12:5 it refers to man’s “eternal home”. Is it speaking of a temporary situation? I’ll leave you to figure that out, but here’s a clue:

The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.Deuteronomy 33:27

The word “everlasting” is olam. Hebrew rhymes ideas rather than sounds, so “eternal” is intended to “rhyme” here; it means the same thing as “everlasting”. In Hebrew it is qedem, which has the force of something that has always been, and thus is everlasting or eternal. Neither means “age-long”. We know that God has always been and always will be—that is what Revelation 1:8 explicitly says.

The point is that if the Old Testament is looking forward to a permanent, unending age, a kingdom that is eternal because it is God’s, who is eternal, then J&J are simply out of luck even if they translate aionion as “age-long” in the New Testament—because “age-long” simply means “eternal” when speaking of an age that lasts forever!

Moreover, would you like to know how the 2nd century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament—the Septuagint, what Jesus and the apostles used—renders “eternal” and “everlasting” and “forever” in all the passages I’ve just mentioned? You guessed it—it uses some variant on aionion. J&J’s case simply cannot get off the ground.

Creating contextual contradictions

But let’s work with J&J’s definition of aionion as a non-eternal age. This “correct” translation then completely mangles otherwise entirely perspicuous passages by bulldozing obvious contextual clues—usually within the same sentence—that point to what aionion means. Here’s what I mean:

Gutting the gospel

Although J&J’s concern is with punishment and judgment, aionion is predominantly linked to eschatological life in the New Testament (44 times out of 71). Only a handful of times is it used of eschatological punishment. But of course, what is true of the “eternality” of the punishment is also true of the life, as Matthew 25:46 makes explicit:

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

If the punishment is just for an age, then the life at the center of the gospel is just for an age also. J&J give no pause to explain how their skewed focus can be reconciled with the Christian gospel. As I said in part 1, you can’t toss out eternal hell without tossing out eternal life. Look at Romans 6:22; 1 Peter 5:10; Hebrews 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:16—are these all just talking about life for an age; glory for an age; salvation for an age; comfort for an age? Are these are all just temporary things we have to look forward to? Is that it? Is that the Christian hope?

No. No it is not. Yet that is what J&J are committed to unless they are going to lapse into gross special pleading by saying that ainon and aionion mean “age-long” only when referring to judgment, but “eternal” when referring to other things.

Flat-out heresy

Leaving the best for last, observe how J&J’s translation of aionion makes a mockery of Jesus himself; of the very nature of God. In 1 John 1:2, is the life which is made manifest, the life that was with the Father from the beginning, just age-long? Is Jesus just a temporary being? Or is he eternal? Unending? Does he have an age-long dominion, or an eternal dominion (1 Timothy 6:16)? Do we only know the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom he sent, for an age (John 17:3)? That would make sense if God himself is just age-long (Romans 16:26)—not eternal. That would explain also why we reap from the Spirit only age-long life (Galatians 6:8) in an age-long kingdom (2 Peter 1:11)—because the Spirit himself is only for an age rather than being eternal (Hebrews 9:14).

No? God really is eternal? His dominion is eternal? Right, because that’s what aionion typically means. So, just like God, our salvation and redemption and inheritance are eternal (Hebrews 5:9; 9:12; 9:15)—as is the judgment on those who don’t believe (Hebrews 6:2).

Continued in part 5, on exegetical fumbles

1 comment

  1. Arlano Aquino

    Thank you for this very good series. Looking forward to reading the continuation.

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