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The Greek noun aion means “an eon,” or “an age.” Its adjective form is aionios, which means “age-abiding,” or “pertaining to an age.” Back in the early fifth century, when Jerome translated the Greek New Testament into his Latin Vulgate, he had two Latin words that were a rough equivalent of aionian. They were aeternum and seculum.
Aeternum is where we get our word “eternal,” and seculum is where we get our word “secular” (worldly). Aeternus had a double meaning: (1) unending time, and (2) an age, or a limited period of time. We read this in a scholar's footnote found in Augustine's City of God, XXII, i, which says,
“The words 'eternal' and 'eternity' from Latin aeternus, aeternitas, are related to aevum, which means BOTH 'unending time' and 'a period of time'; for the second meaning the commoner word is aetas.”
Augustine himself was a contemporary of Jerome in the fifth century, but Augustine did not know Greek. Peter Brown writes 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.”
Thus, when reading the New Testament in Latin, Augustine took the word aeternus to mean unending time, rather than an indefinite period of time. His influence essentially established this definition as the standard meaning of aeternus--and as the centuries passed, this meaning came to be seen as the equivalent of the Greek word aionian.
Even so, Augustine's error was apparently pointed out to him later, but it is often difficult to correct one's teaching once that teaching has been accepted by the public. Dr. F.W. Farrar tells us of this in his book, Mercy and Judgment, p. 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.”
There are at least four modern translations that render the word aionian correctly. Young's Literal renders it “age-during.” Rotherham's The Emphasized Bible renders it “age-abiding.” Wilson's Emphatic Diaglott and The Concordant New Testament leave the original Greek word intact, simply using aionian.
I say this so that no one thinks that I am pulling these things out of thin air. The word means an indefinite period of time, which, as Dr. Bullinger says in Appendix 129 of The Companion Bible, “may be limited or extended as the context of each occurrence may demand.” For other quotations from the scholars, see chapter 5 of my book, The Judgments of the Divine Law.
One of the most tragic casualties of this mistranslation of aionian has been the understanding of the Ages and specifically “The Age,” which was a reference to the Messianic Age to come. We read often of “the age to come” or “in the ages to come” (Eph. 2:7). Of particular note is Mark 10:30, where Jesus says, “and in the aion to come, aionian life.”
The age to come is what they called the Messianic Age. Because we understand two comings of Christ, we see this Messianic Age as beginning with the second coming of Christ. I believe that it is the thousand-year period of Rev. 20:6. I call it the Tabernacles Age, which follows the first resurrection.
Those overcomers who are raised in the first resurrection will be the first to receive immortality during “The Age.” The rest of the dead, however, will not be so fortunate, but will have to wait until that Age is completed.
Hence, the Bible everywhere urges us to attain life in “The Age.” Unfortunately, this phrase is usually mistranslated “eternal life,” as if to say “immortality.” Thus, we miss the real significance of the phrase. Yes, of course, it involves receiving immortality, but it is telling us to strive to be an overcomer so that we may receive this immortality in the first resurrection. That way we have immortal Life during “The Age” to come and do not have to wait around for an extra thousand years.
In short, aionian life specifically references TIMING, not merely the QUALITY of life. It is immortal life IN THE AGE, not mere immortality by itself.
Matt. 25:46 (KJV) says,
46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal.
Both “everlasting” and “eternal” here come from the Greek word aionian. The Cambridge Bible Commentary, by A.W. Argyle, says this about Matt. 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.”
Technically, this aionian punishment is scheduled for the age that follows the age to come, for the Great White Throne Judgment occurs at the end of the coming Age. Yet the aionian life (above) is surely a reference to the Age that is soon coming, for this is the desire of the overcomer—to inherit life in the Messianic Age to come.
Some of this is quite technical, so I have tried to simplify it as much as possible. I have already discussed the concept of the first resurrection and the thousand-year Tabernacles Age in other writings such as The Purpose of Resurrection, so I am hoping that most of you will already have some foundational knowledge of this.
The point I want to make is this: when you read “everlasting” or “eternal” in the Bible, you cannot take these translations at face value. The Hebrew word olam and its Greek equivalent, aionian, properly mean “an age, an indefinite period of time.” Hebrew thinking in Jesus' day looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, in which He would rule the earth with His people in a Great Sabbath millennium. This idea was expressed in the phrase, “The Age” and “The aionian Kingdom” (2 Peter 1:11).
The things “OF HIS KINGDOM” will have no end, of course (Luke 1:33). But the Kingdom Age itself is the final Age before the great Judgment introduces an entirely different scenario in the earth. This comes forth in the Hebrew phrase olam va'ad, “to the age and beyond.” (used in Ex. 15:18; Ps. 9:5; Ps. 10:16; Ps. 45:6; Dan. 12:3)
Jerome's translation, as misinterpreted by Augustine, largely eradicated the understanding of the ages from the Latin Church, and this has carried into most modern translations as well. Yet there are at least four translations which restore the true meaning of aion and aionian.
A more complete study of this is found in chapter 5 of The Judgments of the Divine Law. There is also a study of the early Greek Church fathers in chapter 6 of the above book, showing that they assumed the judgment of the wicked was to be temporary, and its purpose was to purify and cleanse the sinners, so that they could be saved.
Some Latin Church fathers (like Augustine) disagreed, believing that the judgment was “eternal.” Ultimately, the Roman Church later tried to reconcile those contradictory teachings, and they concluded that some people went to “purgatory,” while others went to “hell.” In both cases, however, they literalized the fire, rather than seeing it in terms of the divine law.
Once we come to understand how we got to where we are today, we can more easily see the mistakes of the past and make the necessary corrections in our thinking.