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Aionios: the Greek word for Eternity
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- from William Barclay's New Testament Words:
We do well to search out the true meaning of the word aionios, for in the NT this is the word which is usually translated eternal or everlasting, and it is applied to the eternal life and the eternal glory, which are the Christian's highest reward, and to the eternal judgment and the eternal punishment, which must be the Christian's greatest dread.
Even in classical and in secular Greek aionios is a strange word, with a sense of mystery in it. Itself it is an adjective formed from the noun aion. In classical Greek this word aion has three main meanings.
(i) It means a life-time. Herodotus can speak of ending our aion (Herodotus, 1.32); Aeschylus, of depriving a man of his aion (Aeschylus, Prometheus 862); and Euripides of breathing away one's aion (Euripides, fragment 801).
(ii) Then it comes to mean an age, a generation, or an epoch. So the Greeks could speak of this present aion, and of the aion which is to come, this present age and the age which is to come.
(iii) But then the word comes to mean a very long space of time. The prepositional phrase ap'aionos means from of old; and di'aionos means perpetually and for ever. It is just here that the first mystery begins to enter in. In the papyri we read how at a public meeting the crowd shout `The Emperor eis ton aiona, The Emperor for ever.'
The adjective aionios becomes in Hellenistic Greek times the standing adjective to describe the Emperor's power. The royal power of Rome is a power which is to last for ever. And so, as Milligan well puts it, the word aionios comes to describe 'a state wherein the horizon is not in view'. Aionios becomes the word of far distances, the word of eternities, the word which transcends time.
But it was Plato who took this word aionios -- he may even have coined it -- and gave it its special mysterious meaning. To put it briefly, for Plato aionios is the word of eternity in contrast with time. Plato uses it, as it has been said, 'to denote that which has neither beginning nor end, and that is subject to neither change nor decay, that which is above time, but of which time is a moving image'.
Plato does not mean by this word simply indefinite continuance -- this is a point to which we must later return -- but that which is above and beyond time. There are three significant instances of the word in Plato.
In the second book of the Republic (363d) Plato is talking of the poets' pictures of heaven. He talks of the rewards Musaeus and Eumolpus offer the just men: 'They take them down into the world below, where they have the saints lying on couches at a feast, everlastingly drunk, with garlands on their heads; their idea seems to be that an immortality of drunkenness (aionios methe) is the highest meed of virtue.'
In The Laws he speaks of the soul and the body being indestructible, but not eternal (904a). There is a difference between simple existence for ever and eternity, for eternity is the possession of gods, not of men.
The most significant of all the Platonic passages is in the Timaeus 37d. There he speaks about the Creator and the universe which he has created, 'the created glory of the eternal gods' -- The Creator was glad when he saw his universe, and he wished to make it as nearly like the eternal universe as it could be. But 'to attach eternity to the created was impossible.' So he made time as a moving image of eternity.
The essential point in this picture is that eternity is always the same and always indivisible; in it there is no being created and no becoming; there is no such thing as being older and younger in eternity; there is no past, present or future.
There is no was or will be but only an eternal is. Obviously we cannot have that state in a created world; but none the less the created world is, within its limits, the image of eternity.
Here then is the salient fact.
The essence of the word aionios is that it is the word of the eternal order as contrasted with the order of this world; it is the word of deity as contrasted with humanity; essentially it is the word which can be properly applied to no one other than God. Aionios is the word which describes nothing less and nothing other than the life of God.
We must now turn to the use of the word aionios in the NT itself. By far its most important usage there is in connection with eternal life. But that usage is so important that we must retain it for separate treatment. And we must first take a sweeping view of all its usages.
As we do so we must remember that aionios is distinctively the word of eternity, and that it can properly describe only that which essentially belongs to and befits God.
It is used of the great blessings of the Christian life, blessings which have been brought by Jesus Christ.
It is used of the eternal covenant of which Christ is the mediator (Heb. 13.20). A covenant means a relationship with God, and through Jesus Christ men enter into a relationship with God which is as eternal as God himself.
It is used of the eternal habitations into which the Christian shall enter (Luke 16.9; II Cor. 5.1.). The ultimate destiny of the Christian is a life which is none other than the life of God himself.
It is used of the eternal redemption and the eternal inheritance into which the Christian enters through Jesus Christ (Heb. 9.15). The safety, the liberty, the release which Christ wrought for men is as lasting as God himself.
It is used of the glory into which the faithful Christian will enter (I Peter 5.10; II Cor. 4.17; II Tim. 2.10). There awaits God's faithful man, God's own glory.
So it is used in connection with the words hope and salvation (Titus 3.7; II Tim. 2.10). There is nothing fleeting, impermanent, destructible about the Christian hope and salvation; even another world could not change or alter them; they are as unchangeable as God himself.
It is used of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ (II Peter 1.11). Jesus Christ is not surpassable; he is not a stage on the way; his revelation, his value is the revelation and the value of God himself.
It is used of the Gospel (Rev. 14.6). The Gospel is not merely one of many revelations; it is not merely a stage on the way of revelation; it is eternity entered into time.
But while aionios is used to describe the greatest blessings of the Christian life, it is also used to describe the greatest threats of the Christian life.
It is used to describe the fire of punishment (Matt. 18.8; 25.41; Jude 7). It is used to describe punishment itself (Matt. 25.46). It is used to describe judgment (Heb. 6.2). It is used to describe destruction (II Thess. 1.9). It is used to describe the sin which finally separates man from God (Mark 3.29).
It is in these passages that we need to be specially careful in our interpretation of the word. Simply to take it as meaning lasting for ever is not enough. In all these passages we must remember the essential meaning of aionios.
Aionios is the word of eternity as opposed to and contrasted with time. It is the word of deity as opposed to and contrasted with humanity. It is the word which can only really be applied to God.
If we remember that, we are left with one tremendous truth -- both the blessings which the faithful shall inherit and the punishment which the unfaithful shall receive are such as befits God to give and to inflict.
Beyond that we cannot go.
Simply to take the word aionios, when it refers to blessings and punishment, to mean lasting for ever is to oversimplify, and indeed to misunderstand, the word altogether. It means far more than that.
It means that that which the faithful will receive and that which the unfaithful will suffer is that which it befits God's nature and character to bestow and to inflict -- and beyond that we who are men cannot go, except to remember that that nature and character are holy love.
We must now turn to the greatest of all uses of the word aionios in the NT, its use in connection with the phrase eternal life.
We must begin by reminding ourselves of the fact which we have so often stressed, that the word aionios is the word of eternity in contrast with time, of deity in contrast with humanity, and that therefore eternal life is nothing less than the life of God himself.
(i) The promise of eternal life is the promise that it is open to the Christian to share nothing less than the power and the peace of God himself. Eternal life is the promise of God (Titus 1.2; I John 2.25). God has promised us a share in his own blessedness, and God cannot break a promise.
(ii) But the NT goes further than that -- eternal life is not only the promise of God; eternal life is the gift of God (Rom. 6.23; I John 5.11). As we shall see, eternal life is not without its conditions; but the fact remains that eternal life is something which God out of his mercy and grace gives to man. It is something which we could neither earn nor deserve; it is the free gift of God to men.
(iii) Eternal life is bound up with Jesus Christ. Christ is the living water which is the elixir of eternal life (John 4.14). He is the food which brings to men eternal life (John 6.27, 54). His words are the words of eternal life (John 6.68). He himself not only brings (John 17.2, 3) but is eternal life (I John 5.20).
If we wish to put this very simply, we may say that through Jesus there is possible a relationship, an intimacy, a unity with God which are possible in no other way. Through what he is and does men may enter into the very life of God himself.
(iv) This eternal life comes through what the NT calls belief in Jesus Christ (John 3.15, 16, 36; 5.24; 6.40, 47; I John 5.13; 1 Tim. 1.16). What does this belief mean? Clearly it is not simply intellectual belief. Belief in Jesus means that we believe absolutely and implicitly that what Jesus says about God is true... that life is in the hands of the love of God. But further, this belief means believing that Jesus is who he claims to be... We believe that God is Father and that God is love, because we believe that Jesus, being the Son of God, has told us the truth about God ... Eternal life is nothing else than the life of God himself...
We shall never enter into the full ideas of eternal life until we rid ourselves of the almost instinctive assumption that eternal life means primarily life which goes on for ever.
Long ago the Greeks saw that such a life would be by no means necessarily a blessing. They told the story of Aurora, the goddess of dawn, who fell in love with Tithonus, the mortal youth. Zeus offered her any gift she might choose for her mortal lover. She asked that Tithonus might never die; but she forgot to ask that he might remain for ever young.
So Tithonus lived for ever growing older and older and more and more decrepit, till life became a terrible and intolerable curse.
Life is only of value when it is nothing less than the life of God -- and that is the meaning of eternal life.
Editor's last word:
Dr. Barclay well addresses the primary element of aionios, that of, much more than mere temporal duration, sharing in the very life and essence of God. The afterlife reports confirm this truth.
See my core articles which sort out fact from error concerning traditional religious teaching: