Does God Punish Endlessly?
In this chapter we will attempt to prove from plain Scripture that God's punishments are NOT endless. The English translations which use the term "eternal" and "everlasting" in relation to both divine punishment and life in the coming age are actually mistranslations of the original Hebrew and Greek. Furthermore, these incorrect translations do away with the Hebrew concept of the Kingdom Age, the Messianic Age, or as it is usually called in the Bible, "The Age."
There are at least three good literal translations that are very accurate in their rendering of the Hebrew word, olam, and the Greek word, aion. Rotherham's The Emphasized Bible and Young's Literal Translation use the terms "age-abiding," "age-enduring," and "age-lasting," rather than eternal or everlasting. The Concordant Version prefers to leave it as eonian, since our English word "eon" means "an age," and the English language has simply borrowed the word "eon" from the Greeks. At least two of these versions are readily available in most Christian bookstores, so we will not belabor the point further.
Some do not like to use the term, Kingdom Age, since it implies that the Kingdom does not exist today. For this reason, I prefer to use the term, Tabernacles Age, since this term conveys the idea of the third stage of Kingdom development.
"Everlasting" in the Old Testament
Whenever our English versions use the term "everlasting" or "eternal" in the Old Testament, it is normally from the original Hebrew word, olam. This word means "to hide, keep secret, obscure." It is best expressed by the English word, "obscurity." In actual usage, the word refers to an INDEFINITE period of time, but NOT eternal. It is simply AN AGE. The end of that age is obscure and generally unknown, but not endless.
For example, in Jonah 2:6, the prophet prays for deliverance out of the belly of the great fish. He says:
6 I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever [olam], But Thou hast brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.
Did Jonah remain in the belly of the fish for eternity? Obviously not, or he would have been recycled fish bait many times over. In the darkness he had no concept of time, and so those three days and nights are described as being olam, an obscure amount of time.
Another example where olam is clearly a limited period of time, or an age, is found in Exodus 21:6. It specifies that a servant may serve his master "for ever" (olam). This is not for eternity, but only for the remaining life time of the servant. No one could know how long the servant would remain alive, so the amount of time was indefinite, or obscure.
One very interesting verse is Psalm 45:6. It shows that there is time AFTER olam. This proves beyond doubt that olam itself cannot refer to eternity, because when the Psalmist wished to express eternity, he had to say "olam va ad," or "the age and beyond."
6 Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever [olam va ad, "the age and beyond"]; A scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Thy kingdom.
There are many other examples where olam is obviously a limited period of time, but we do not wish to bore the reader unduly. We shall simply list a few from the Psalms in the event that some readers may wish to study this further: Psalm 78:66; 79:13; 86:12; 89:1; 110:4; 112:6; 115:8.
"Everlasting" in the New Testament
The New Testament books were written in Greek or, in some cases, in Aramaic and then immediately translated by the authors into Greek. The New Testament authors often quote verses from the Old Testament, and when they do, they usually quote from the Septuagint. This was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was used widely during the time of Christ and the Apostles.
In Hebrews 1:8 the author quotes from Psalm 45:6. In this verse, olam is rendered by the Greek word aion. Compare also Hebrews 5:6 and Psalm 110:4. This is the closest Greek equivalent and therefore was used in the Septuagint. And so we can safely say that aion is meant to convey the same meaning as the Hebrew concept of olam.
But what about the Greek word itself? Does aion really mean an age, or a limited period of time? Yes, it does. It does not really carry the idea of "obscurity," but like olam, means an age, or eon.
Let us prove this. One of the most obvious New Testament passages where aion refers to an age is found in Matthew 13, where Jesus interprets His own parables. In order to show the contrast between aion and kosmos, we will begin with verse 38.
38 And the field is the world [kosmos]; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age [aion]; and the reapers are angels. 40 "Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age [aion].
The King James Version says "the end of the WORLD," but most reference Bibles have a marginal reference to explain that verses 39 and 40 should read "AGE," rather than "world." How do they know? Simply because the Greek word is aion, rather than kosmos. All translators know that aion refers to an age, including the New American Standard, which we quoted above. It is a reference to a limited period of TIME.
Ages have both a beginning and an end. Hebrews 11:3 tells us that ages have beginning points:
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.
The NASV above mistranslated aionas in this instance. Aionas is simply the plural of aion in the Greek. It says God "framed" the ages; therefore, ages had a beginning. This is witnessed also by 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"].
We know that Jesus Christ (the Logos of John 1:1) did indeed create the world, but this is not what the author of Hebrews was telling us. He was informing us that Jesus created the ages of time. Time simply did not exist before creation. Time is a created thing, just like space. In fact, Paul makes reference to a promise of God that He made BEFORE time began. It is found in Titus 1:2.
2 In the hope of eternal [aionian] life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago [pro chronon aionion, "before the ages began"].
It is truly unfortunate that the NASV translators did not understand the doctrine of the ages. If they had rendered the passage as it reads, rather than trying to interpret it by their own understanding, it would be easier for the average reader to see how God created time and divided it into various ages. Here is where a more literal translation would be helpful. For example, Young's Literal Translation of Titus 1:2 reads,
2 upon hope of life age-enduring, which God, who doth not lie, did promise before times of ages.
Rotherham's Emphasized Bible renders this verse,
2 In hope of life age-abiding; which God who cannot lie promised before age-during times.
These renderings are more accurate, even though they are a little more difficult to read because they are so literal. Easy-reading versions such as the NASV certainly have their place in modern society, but the serious Bible student should also have a literal translation at his or her disposal in order to filter out the translator's bias (See Also Appendix 6).
"Eternal Life" or Life in the Age?
Titus 1:2 (above) also makes reference to God's promise to us, which is the hope of aionian life. Many have assumed that this is a reference to immortality itself, and this is why it so often rendered "eternal life." But strictly speaking, this is not so. Aionian life is a specific promise of immortality IN THE TABERNACLES AGE, given to those who inherit Life in the first resurrection. As we saw in Chapter One, a few believers will inherit life at the first resurrection; but most believers will have to wait for the general resurrection. Paul makes reference to the first resurrection in Phil. 3:10-14.
10 That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection [exanastasis] from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The "upward call of God" that Paul speaks of in Philippians 3:14 is to receive Life in the first resurrection at the beginning of the Tabernacles, NOT at the general resurrection, at the end of the thousand years.
How do we know this? Because in Philippians 3:11 Paul describes this higher calling as being the "out-resurrection" (exanastasis). It is the only time in the entire New Testament that Paul puts an "ex" in front of the usual word for resurrection (anastasis). It is his way of differentiating this greater resurrection from the general resurrection.
The Greek word translated "upward" in the NASV above is ano. It means high, upward, or above. When the word is used of countries, it means inland, or up from the coast. When the word is used of time, it means FORMER, or formerly. And so, when Paul uses the term to describe the prize of the UPWARD (high) calling of God, he is most likely telling us that there are two resurrections: the former and the latter, or the first and the general resurrection. The prize is to attain to the former, or first resurrection.
All through the New Testament we find countless references to "eternal life." Yes, of course we will inherit eternal life, or immortality. But the thrust of this phrase is to show us a better resurrection, wherein we may inherit life during the Tabernacles Age PRIOR TO the time of the new heavens and the new earth.
We should understand the Scriptures through Hebrew eyes, not through our modern English eyes. In the Hebrew concept, it was correctly believed that we would be resurrected at the beginning of the Tabernacles Age. The Messiah would come to rule that Kingdom, and His people would rule with Him. In other words, they would be given aionian life, "Age-abiding life," or life pertaining specifically to the Tabernacles Age.
I have found no evidence that the prophets knew clearly of more than one resurrection back in the Old Testament era, any more than they knew there would be a Pentecostal Age before the Tabernacles Age. This was something that was to be revealed with Jesus and the Apostles. And when they did reveal it, they made it clear (as we saw in Chapter One) that those who attain to that high calling would be given life 1,000 years BEFORE the rest of the believers.
Consequently, we find references like Luke 12:46 which appears to teach that believers ("servants") who do not watch for His coming will not inherit "eternal life." In reality, it merely says that such people will not inherit the first resurrection. They will not have the privilege of ruling with Christ in immortality and incorruption during the Tabernacles Age. And so we are everywhere exhorted to strive to inherit aionian life, which is the real prize (Phil. 3:14).
Jesus Will Reign for the Ages of the Ages
In Luke 1:33 we find that "OF His kingdom there shall be NO END." If Luke had used the term aionian here, he would have been incorrect. The things OF the kingdom shall truly be everlasting, not age-lasting. But Jesus' reign lasts only until all enemies are subdued, including death itself (1 Cor. 15:25-28). At that point the Kingdom is turned over to the Father, and the perfected universe enters a timeless realm of which we know little.
In Hebrews 7:16 the writer refers to Jesus' coming "according to the power of an indestructible life." The Greek word translated "indestructible" is akatalutos, which means "indissoluble, not subject to destruction." The King James Version translates it "endless," which is also accurate. He would have been wrong if he had said Jesus only had aionian life. So he chose his words carefully.
In 1 Timothy 1:17 we are told that Jesus is the King of the Ages. That is, He is the rightful Ruler of the earth who shall reign during the final two ages of time. There is first the Tabernacles Age, which culminates the plan of God in the present world-order, followed by the Age of the New Heavens and the New Earth. These are the ages of the ages, or the ages to come.
After the 7th thousand-year period (Sabbath millennium), God will kindle the lake of fire to purify the wicked. The believers will simply receive "few stripes" or "many stripes," up to 40, according to Bible law (Deut. 25:1-3). God prohibits beatings of more than 40 stripes. Why?
1 If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, 2 then it shall be if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of stripes according to his guilt. 3 "He may beat him forty times but no more, lest he beat him with many more stripes than these, and your brother be degraded in your eyes.
God's judgments are carefully measured in order to prevent us from being "degraded." They correct us, rather than destroy us. This is true for both believers and unbelievers, for it is the same law that is used for all lawbreakers. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:17:
17 Now to the King eternal [ton aionion, "of the ages"], immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever [aionas ton aionon, "ages of the ages"]. Amen.
The way this verse is usually translated leads most people to believe that Paul was informing us of God's "eternal" existence. God is, of course, "eternal." No one disputes that, for it is always assumed. But Paul is bringing out another aspect of God's character and position. He is the "King of the Ages" and shall rule in the final glorious ages of the earth. It says that He shall reign "for the Ages of the Ages."
The Greek phrase (see above) is aionas ton aionos. The word, ton, means "of-the." It NEVER means "and." Dr. Young translates the above verse correctly and literally:
17 And to the King of the Ages, the incorruptible, invisible, only wise God, is honour and glory-to the ages of the ages! Amen.
If we stop and think about it, the phrase "ever and ever" really makes no sense, because it implies that it is longer than a mere "ever." Some translators do a song-and-dance routine, attempting to show that the phrase is an idiom meaning "forever and ever." They say it signifies ages tumbling upon ages. If that were the case, then Holy of Holies ought to be idiomatic of "Holy AND Holies." The Song of Songs should then be idiomatic for "Song AND Songs." Or perhaps we should say that the Holy of Holies is a Holy Place tumbling upon countless other holy places. The Song of Songs should be a Song with an infinite number of stanzas.
No, the Bible talks about the MOST Holy Place and the GREATEST Song and the GREATEST of the Ages.
Jerome's Latin Vulgate
The early Church was mainly divided between Greek and Latin culture and language. We read from secular histories that the Roman Empire had conquered the Greek-speaking world shortly before Christ's birth. The Romans borrowed a great deal from the Greeks, but the language and cultural barrier always remained in place. The thinking was just plain different.
The Greek philosophers were mostly concerned with the perfect (ideal) man. The Romans were mostly concerned with a perfect government. The Greeks pursued the ideal man by studying virtue and beauty; the Romans pursued their perfect government by studying law and order.
These differences surfaced in the early Church as well. Both cultures had a tendency to interpret the Bible through the colored glasses of their own cultures. As time went on, they got farther and farther away from the Hebrew perspective. And so both Greeks and Romans had their own unique shortcomings and blind spots, even as we do today in our own cultures.
The blind spot of the Latin Christians was their belief that in order to maintain law and order, it was necessary to threaten men with the worst possible tortures in the afterlife. This obsession with maintaining law and order appears to have been a motivating force behind the Latin idea of God's eternal retribution upon sinners.
I do not know when the Old Latin version of the Bible was translated for the benefit of the Romans. It was not a good translation by any scholar's standard. But finally, a scholar arose who was well qualified to revise the old version. His name was Jerome.
Jerome was born in 347 A.D. in Italy. His parents were wealthy Christians who sent him to Rome for a secular education. After his studies he was baptized in the Church at the age of 19. When he decided upon the monastic life, his parents opposed it, and he had a falling out with them. Having a bad temper, Jerome never saw them again, nor did he ever mention them again in his writings.
In 373 A.D. when Jerome was in his mid-twenties, he went East, because the Greek world was the land of education and higher theological learning. He met Evagrius in Antioch and began learning the Greek language. Later he also learned Hebrew thoroughly.
From 379 to 382 he lived in Constantinople, where he met Gregory of Nyassa. He also took Gregory of Nazianzus as his "teacher." Jerome began reading all the writings of Origen as well as others that were recommended to him. When he re-translated the Latin Bible in 390-406 A.D., he wrote in the preface an appreciation to Origen, who had done much translation work as well. (Jerome also lived in Alexandria for a time. This was Origen's home town.) Finally, he settled in Bethlehem, where he headed a monastery for the remaining years of his life.
It is unfortunate that Jerome's personality was so vindictive and unforgiving. He was truly one of the best Christian scholars of the day and was admired for this; but his poisoned pen made people very cautious so as not to offend him in any way. His senseless attacks on Pelagius finally resulted in his Bethlehem monastery being burned to the ground in 416 A.D. Jerome died on September 30, 420 A.D.
As for the Latin Vulgate, Jerome did an excellent job over all. His translation became a classic that has been used ever since. However, we must confine our remarks here to the subject of "eternal" and "everlasting," because it is through the Latin Vulgate that we inherited these words in the English Bible.
When Jerome came to the Greek word aionian ("age-lasting"), he had two Latin words to choose from in its translation: seculum and aeternum. Both of these words had already been used in the Old Latin version that he was correcting. And, in fact, these words were quite close in meaning to the Greek aionian. And so Jerome used both words interchangeably.
There was just one problem. The Latin words had a DOUBLE MEANING. According to a footnote in Augustine's City of God, XXII, I, we read,
"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."
This footnote was put in by modern Latin scholars to clarify the Latin terminology, because Augustine was attempting to prove that aeternus and aeternitas in his Latin Bible was unending time. Recall the verse we quoted earlier, Psalm 45:6,
6 Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever [olam va ad, "the age and beyond"]; A scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Thy kingdom.
Jerome translated this phrase to read in Latin: in aeternum et ultra, ("into eternity and beyond"). It is obvious that Jerome knew that aeternum referred to a limited period of time, an age, rather than "eternity" as we know it today, for there is nothing beyond eternity.
At any rate, Jerome used both seculum and aeternus in the Latin Vulgate. Twelve hundred years later, the King James translators simply followed the Vulgate in their rendering of these words. Whenever the Vulgate said aeternus, the KJV said "eternal;" whenever the Vulgate said seculum, the KJV reads "world." This is why the KJV in Matthew 13:39 and 40 reads "the end of the WORLD" instead of "the end of the age." Our modern word, secular, means "pertaining to this world-order, or to this age."
It is not that Jerome's translation was incorrect. His words were technically accurate. The problem was that they apparently had a double meaning, and that Augustine chose the wrong meaning to champion eternal torment. Latin scholars were thus compelled to point out his bias.
Augustine's Argument in his Book, City of God
The book, City of God, was actually a series of books written from 412 until his death in 430. When Alaric the Goth sacked Rome in 410 A.D. it was an embarrassment to the Christian Church that needed an explanation. After all, it had been contended that such an event could never happen, now that Christian Emperors ruled Rome. It was supposed that God would defend Rome from the pagan invaders. The pagans in Rome, on the other hand, had prophesied the fall of Rome, now that the pagan gods were no longer being supported by the state. And so Latin Christians looked to Augustine to explain how this could happen. This was why he began to write his book two years later in 412 A.D.
Augustine essentially wrote that all men are divided into two spiritual cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Rome itself was therefore not the issue, because some Romans were of Babylon and some of Jerusalem, the City of God. He argued that at the end of history, all citizens of each city would be separated by God. Most would go to hell for eternity; a few would go to heaven for eternity.
In the latter part of the series, particularly Book 21, he attempted to prove that the punishment of the wicked is "eternal," that is, endless. To do so, he used much philosophical reasoning and quotations from Cicero, the Roman lawyer. (See Appendix 1.) Beyond that, his only real "proof" is his interpretation of Matthew 25:46, which he discusses as follows in, City of God, XXI, xxiii.
"For Christ said in the very same place, including both in one and the same sentence: "So these will go into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." If both are eternal, then surely both must be understood as "long," but having an end, or else as "everlasting" without an end. For they are matched with each other. In one clause eternal punishment, in the other eternal life. (To say) "Eternal life shall be without end, (but) eternal punishment will have an end" is utterly absurd. Hence, since the eternal life of the saints will be without end, eternal punishment also will surely have no end, for those whose lot it is."
Augustine seems totally ignorant of two things: (1) the Greek word aionian did NOT have a double meaning, as did the Latin; and (2) the Hebrew concept of "The Age."
Matthew 25:46 actually is teaching that the wicked will go into divine chastening that is aionian (for or during the AGE). The righteous, on the other hand, will be resurrected to life aionian (for or during The Age).
In the Gospels Jesus specifically taught on two distinct resurrections. Luke 14:14 tells us about "the resurrection of the just," where the righteous will be rewarded. In John 5:28 and 29 Jesus tells us about the resurrection of both the just and unjust.
The interim between these two resurrections defines "The Age." Those who are raised in the resurrection of the just will receive life in The Age; i.e., aionian life. It is a special reward for certain Christians called to rule with Christ. They will receive life a thousand years before their fellow Christians.
It does NOT mean that their reward must end with that age. God does not plan to take back immortality from them.
Likewise, when Jesus speaks of the wicked or the unjust receiving aionian judgment, He is once again showing us that their judgment is limited to a specific age. It has both a beginning and an end. Judgment is not perpetual without hope of restoration. The book of Revelation shows that this age of judgment follows the great White Throne Judgment at the end of the thousand-year Tabernacles Age.
And so, the aionian life reward of those who rule with Christ a thousand years will commence at the first resurrection and end with the second. The aionian judgment of the unjust will commence with the second resurrection and end with the great Jubilee at the end of time, after all things have been put under the feet of Christ.
Consequently, Augustine's argument that aionian life and aionian judgment must both be equal is absolutely correct. The problem arises when he tries to show that both are unending, when, in fact, both pertain to an age. He plays upon the average Christian's ignorance of Greek. Secondly, he exploits one's ignorance of "The Age" (aion) and things pertaining to it (aionian).
The bottom line is that Augustine's argument in his City of God holds no water, and even the Latin scholars who have translated his books know this and inform us in their footnote of Augustine's misleading rhetoric. In fact, Dr. F. W. Farrar, in his book, The Eternal Hope, page 198, says of Augustine:
"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."
And so we see that in the original Hebrew and Greek languages, the words, olam and aionian refer to a limited period of time. This is why most of the early Christian Church scholars understood the lake of fire to be only age-lasting. Augustine was the first to actually advance an argument against this, and he did so on a very flimsy basis, because he did not understand the Doctrine of the Ages.
Augustine was severely handicapped because he was virtually ignorant of the Greek language. Peter Brown tells us this in his book, Augustine of Hippo, page 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."
What was worse, in time the Latin Church no longer saw the need to learn Greek, and this deficiency perpetuated the error with little chance of correction. Peter Brown tells us of this:
"Gradually the 'learned fellowship' would cease to feel the need for Greek books. For they had Augustine." (Ibid., p. 272).
It is not our purpose to detract from Augustine's genuine contributions to the Church and to Christian thought. He did have his strong points, which made him the most influential Latin theologian of his time. We will comment later on some of his important contributions to Christian thought, but for now we have necessarily limited our comments to the subject at hand, showing the history of the word "eternal" and how events shaped its modern interpretation.