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Part 2: Sin and Judgment: Chapter 20: What is Eternity? (Latin: Aeternus)

Languages evolve continuously. Those who speak the same language in diverse places coin new words, even as older words are discarded or take on new meanings. Soon those who spoke the same language can scarcely understand each other from one location to another, and it is said that they speak different languages.

In the time of Christ, the commercial language of that part of the world was Greek, having been established by Alexander the Great a few centuries earlier. But Classical Greek differed from the “common” (koine) Greek.

The same was true of Latin. Latin was the language of the upper class Patricians, politicians, and poets in Rome. For many years it was spoken by very few people outside of Rome itself. In fact, most of the people in Italy learned Greek before they learned Latin. The common people spoke many different dialects.

When Paul wrote to the saints in Rome, he did not write his epistle in Latin but in Greek. In fact, there was little need for a Latin Bible in Rome. When the Bible was first translated into Latin more than a century later, it came from North Africa and was written in Old Latin, which was quite different from the Latin spoken in Rome.

When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (380 A.D.), his Vulgate drew words from many different Latin dialects and eventually standardized the Latin language itself. As the power of the church grew, the Latin Vulgate gradually replaced the Septuagint Greek version of the Scriptures, which had dominated the church for centuries.

When Jerome came to the Greek word aion, he had two Latin words to choose from: seculum (“world, secular”) and aeternus (“eternal, eternity”). These he used interchangeably, and most of our modern English translations simply follow Jerome’s lead in using “eternal” and “world.” To Jerome, seculum and aeternus had similar meanings, and both words were in use in the various Latin dialects, but in the English language today, “world” and “eternity” are entirely different.

In Latin dictionaries, seculum means a generation, an age, the world, the times, the spirit of the times, and even a century. Secular matters pertain to worldly matters, as opposed to spiritual or heavenly matters. Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea in the early fourth century, wrote about “magicians who have ever existed throughout the seculums,” that is, past ages. The meaning of the word was similar to the Greek word aion, “age.”

Out of the 130 times that aion is found in the New Testament, Jerome rendered it seculum 101 times. He used aeternum just 27 times. The Greek word aionian was rendered aeternum 65 times out of 70 occurrences.

“An extraordinary surprise awaits us when we consider two verses wherein the Vulgate is, to say the least, bewildering. We have been reckoning the Latin in aeternum of Jerome’s day as meaning ‘for eternity’ or ‘into eternity,’ whatever it may have meant two or three hundred years before his time. It stands beyond all doubt that by seculum Jerome meant a limited period of time, an eon, but by aeternum he seems to have meant something different. Did he mean ‘eternity’? Or was this Latin word still used in the loose way it had been used long before his time, as meaning indefinite future time? Farrar says that even the Latin Fathers who had a competent knowledge of Greek knew that aeternum was used in the same loose way, for an indefinite period, in Latin writers, as aionion was used in Greek.” (Whence Eternity?, by Alexander Thomson)

The Emperor Justinian, who we have identified as the “little horn” in Dan. 7:8 (KJV) called for a church council in 540 A.D. to standardize the doctrines of the church. His goal, in particular, was to establish endless punishment for the wicked and endless life for the righteous. So when he set forth his position in a letter to the Patriarch Mennas of Constantinople, he wrote,

“The holy church of Christ teaches an ateleutetos aionios (endless aionian) life for the just and ateleutetos (endless) punishment for the wicked.”

He should have simply stayed with the biblical term aionian, for that is the Scriptural term. But Justinian was aware that the majority of the church at that time believed in universal reconciliation and that aionian did not mean “endless,” so he was determined to insert endlessness into a rigid creed. That is why he had to add the word ateleutetos to make it say what he wanted it to say.

Perhaps he was reacting to the fact that Origen, the universalist three centuries earlier, had asserted (correctly), “We believe in aionian punishment.” Origen believed in aionian punishment without believing in endless punishment, because aionian did not mean endless time. Judgment was limited to an age (aion).

By adding to Scriptural terminology, the church began to change Christian thinking so that, in the end, aionian and aeternus came to mean eternity. But this was an evolution of language, much like we see with all languages whose words often change meanings over the centuries.

Simultaneously, the deeper thought patterns themselves shifted from Greek to Latin, even as they had previously shifted from Hebrew to Greek.

The change from Hebrew to Greek thought patterns also affected their view of creation itself. Hebrew thought was founded on the idea that God created all things and pronounced them “very good” (Gen. 1:31). After multitudes of Greek were converted, it came to pass that Greek definitions overwhelmed the Hebrew thought patterns, and many Christians began to believe that matter was inherently evil.

This brought Greek dualism into Christian teaching. The goal of history was turned around. Instead of God reconciling creation to Himself, unifying the heavens with the earth, the divine plan was thought to end with a great separation into two realms—good and evil, light and darkness, heaven and hell.

This problem was further compounded in the transition from Greek to Latin thought patterns. Insofar as the relationship between God and man was concerned, the Greek church began with God, whose revelation expressed His relationship with man. However, the mindset of the Latin church was quite the opposite. It began with man and his relationship with God.

In practice, this meant that instead of starting out with a view of God’s measureless love and grace, along with His New Covenant promises to man, the Latin view focused upon man as a fallen and guilty sinner. With man at the center of things, power was attributed to man to thwart the grace of God by the power of his own will. In other words, man’s will was thought to be more powerful than God’s will. God wished He could save everyone, but, alas, His will could not override the power of man’s will.

Such a belief could only end in dualism and the final separation of mankind into two realms, a small realm called heaven, and a very well-populated realm called hell. A few were elected to salvation, while the masses were doomed to be lost forever.

Universal Reconciliation was by far the most widely accepted view of the early church until it came under attack in the year 400. In fact, Jerome himself had fully accepted Universal Reconciliation until the year 400, when the dispute arose in Alexandria and spread to Constantinople. Jerome then wrote to the pope in Rome, asking him what position he should take. The pope told him to take the side of endless torment. He complied with that order, and from then on wrote vicious letters which, to this day, make church historians cringe.

So the concept of the Jubilee was lost, and even Paul’s writings about “the all” (ta panta) of creation being reconciled to God were lost as well (Col. 1:16-20). Paul’s writings were read with the preconceived notion that aion was eternity, so the reconciliation of all things was greatly limited to a few things. Once Paul’s writings were modified in this way, the Latin church were able to fit his teachings into their dualistic view of the universe.