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Most modern Bible translations use the words “eternal” and “everlasting” when translating the Old Testament Hebrew word olam and the New Testament Greek word aionian. This has caused much confusion and misunderstanding of the Scriptures, especially when speaking of divine judgment.
The Greek word translated “eternal” is aionian, “pertaining to an age, or eon.” (Aion is anglicized as eon.) An age is normally a limited period of time, having a beginning and an end. Nonetheless, ages can have different lengths of time, so the word really means an indefinite or unknown period of time. Indefinite is not the same as infinite.
Ages Have Beginnings
Hebrews 11:3 says,
3 By faith we understand that the worlds [aionas, “ages”] were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
At the time of creation, God in His foreknowledge created the ages to come. When He created time, He divided that time into ages. The Greek word aionas is plural for aion. It does not mean “world,” but the translators could hardly translate the word as “eternity.” After all, that would imply that eternity had a beginning point. So the KJV and NASB render it “worlds,” which served to cover up the creation of time.
Again, we read in Hebrews 1:2,
2 In these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed Heir of all things, through whom also He made the world [aionas, “ages”]
The KJV reads, “by whom also He made the worlds,” which at least recognizes that aionas is plural. However, the author was not telling us that God created the world (or worlds). He was telling us that God created the ages—time itself. If the author really intended to speak of the world or worlds, he would have used the Greek word ge (pronounced “gay”), which refers to the physical world. We still use the prefix geo as in “geography” or “geo-political” to describe earthly matters.
Paul writes in Titus 1:2 about things that God promised pro chronon aionian, “before times aionian,” that is, prior to the creation of the ages. It would make no sense to render this, “before eternity began.” So the NASB renders it “long ages ago.” The KJV renders it “before the world began.” It is easy to see how the translators struggled to reconcile Paul’s words with their preconceived notion that aionian means “eternal.”
Paul says also that we have been promised "eternal life," that is aionian life, whereby we are given immortality for and during "The Age," that is, the thousand-year Messianic Age.
Ages Have Endings
In Matthew 13:39, 40, we read,
39 and the enemy who sowed them [the tares] is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age [aion], and the reapers are the angels. 40 So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age [aion].
The KJV reads, “the end of the world.” The NASB translates this correctly, quietly admitting that aion and aionian are not eternal but are limited periods of time that come to an end.
Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 28:20,
20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always [literally, “all the days”], even to the end of the age [aionos].
What “age” was this? He was speaking specifically of the Pentecostal Age that lay ahead. It was the time from His ascension to His second coming. Now this does not mean that His presence will cease with His second coming. His presence, in fact, will be enhanced when He returns. Nonetheless, He wanted to impress upon the disciples (and the church as a whole) that His presence would be with them every day, even though they might face persecution and even death.
When Aionian is Applied to God
Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:17 (NASB),
17 Now to the King eternal [ton aionon, “of the ages”], immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever [aionas ton aionon, “ages of the ages]. Amen.
While I do not doubt that God is “eternal,” the Greek text reads, “King of the Ages.” This can be seen, in part, as the King of Time who stands above time and is not restricted by it, because He created time. We can also read this to mean that He is sovereign throughout the ages of earth’s history. Hence also, He is given “honor and glory for the ages of the ages.”
The word ton means “of the,” not “and.” Ages of the ages refers to the greatest of the ages, the climactic ages, just as Solomon’s Song of Song’s is the greatest of songs and the Holy of Holies is Most Holy Place. A good clue as to the meaning of “ages of the ages” is found in Revelation 11:15, where we read,
15 ... The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and he will reign aionas ton aionon (“for the ages of the ages”).
The ages of the ages are the climactic ages in the future. There is first “The Age,” which is what the Jews called the Messianic Age, the great Sabbath Millennium. Christ will reign over most of the earth during that age, but not all of it. Christ’s Kingdom will be a Kingdom of Light, but there will also be “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30), which describes the land of “Gog and Magog” (Revelation 20:8 that remains outside of His dominion. Gog and Magog finally are conquered toward the end of the thousand years (Revelation 20:7-9), at which time Christ’s light-filled reign covers the entire earth and dispels all darkness.
The final judgment at the great White Throne cannot take place until all has been subdued under Christ. Only then are the dead summoned to the court to prepare for the final age of judgment in Revelation 20:11.
These two “ages of the ages,” I believe, will end with the Jubilee, at which time, time as we know it ceases to be relevant.
So when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that “the last enemy that will be abolished is death,” we see that the first death (mortality) is abolished at the great White Throne judgment when all are raised from the dead and when death is cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). The second death, which is a death of the flesh that we must all experience at one time or another, will be abolished by the Jubilee at the end of time.
But aionian is only the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word olam. This equivalency dates back to about 280 B.C., when 70 rabbis in Alexandria began to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in order to accommodate the Jewish population that had grown up in a Greek-speaking environment. This generation no longer spoke Hebrew, so it became necessary to translate the Scriptures into their spoken language. This translation was known as the Septuagint.
In the next few centuries, the Septuagint came to be something like a Hebrew-Greek dictionary that set the standard for the way in which Hebrew words were to be expressed in Greek. This was the standard used in the language of the New Testament. The point is that aionian is the nearest equivalent of olam, so when the people spoke about “eternal punishment,” they were using the Greek word aionian to express the Hebrew definition of olam.
So in part 2, we will discuss the meaning of olam.