The Hebrew concept of time and "aionios" and "aion"

By Eric Landström


Universalists all promote that unsaved sinful man can come into a state of salvation in the after life. Yet this belief seemingly directly conflicts with Scripture. The strongest proof to reject universalism is a comparison of Revelation 14:11; 19:3; 20:10 and 20:15, which invites the reader to believe that those who are cast into the lake of fire remain there forever. To argue against the understanding that there are souls cast into the lake of fire forever, universalists look to extra-biblical works to support their arguments against the Greek word for "eternal." They quote such and such said this and who and who thinks this, and so on and so forth. They exhaust all their resources to refute this because, quite literally, if the word does indeed mean eternal in regards to the after life, the age to come, the case for Christian universalism evaporates before their very eyes. However, it is wise to note that anything that is extra biblical is just that—extra biblical. As such we are not to base our doctrines upon the musings and words of uninspired men. Commentators are only useful in so much as to draw our attention to a doctrine that either is or is not represented in the Scriptures. However, if you are not educated enough to use Greek as a vehicle for study, you must trust that God did not fail to deliver the Scriptures to you in a language that you can understand. Furthermore, the argument the universalists promote, this ages of ages, flies in the face of the Hebrew concept of time. When taking into account the different concepts of time that Western civilization holds in comparison to the Hebrew concept of time, the rendering of the Hebrew and Greek into "for ever and ever" and the like is correct when it refers to the age to come. Anything different is scholarly pride and ambition as if to say, "Look everybody else is wrong, this should be 'ages of ages.'" Doing this amounts to nothing more than a half truth as I will explain below.

Remember when you mix truth with lie, you still end up with a lie. The more truth you mix with your lie, the better the lie is because it is likely more people will believe your lie is the truth. Furthermore, the longer and the louder you say a lie as the truth the more likely people are going to believe it is the truth. This works because people are basically sinners, and as such desire to hear what they want to hear which is not necessarily the truth. But the facts remain: Truth is more than our subjective feelings of what we feel is right. It has objective existence. It has common application.

Truth is true -even if no one knows it.
Truth is true -even if no one admits it.
Truth is true -even if no one agrees what it is.
Truth is true -even if no one follows it.
Truth is true -even if no one but God grasps it fully.

Since none of the universalists I've discussed this with possess a working knowledge of Greek, they are in no position to determine who is right regarding this issue. As such, unless they gain the knowledge to make an informed call of judgment, they should stick with what they can verify themselves rather than parroting the uninspired words of men­which happens to be the universalist party line.

Something that is within their ability to understand is the Hebrew concept of time. To understand the Hebrew concept of time, you must grasp the idea that the Hebrew mind did not think of the passage of time as a medium onto itself like the Greek mind or how western civilization views time. Rather, to a Hebrew, the passage of time was life. God's plan, in the Hebrew mind, consisted that man participated in two great ages. One age was this temporal in nature, the other great age was the age to come. Each of these great ages were divided up into smaller ages by events that occurred through life. Ultimately the sum of the temporal age was finite, and the sum of the age to come was infinite, which is to say, everlasting. Hence, the rendering of "ages of ages" while technically correct, completely fails to convey the meaning to the western reader. Therefore, to render the English as "for ever and ever" is correct, because this does explain the idea of the passage. However, if you are a universalist whom disbelieves this explanation, I encourage that you don't trust me, instead learn of the truth for yourselves from an expert. To accomplish this, I ask that you seek out your local synagogue and speak with the rabbi you find there. For starters, the rabbi is a completely neutral source of information; because his view will most likely be that we are both members of a really big cult called Christendom, and as such, he won't care one way or another. Get the rabbi to explain how Old Testament Hebrews viewed time. While ages of ages is a correct possible grammatical construction from an Old Testament Hebrew's point of view­this means "forever and ever" to the same Old Testament Hebrew when it refers to the age to come, the after life. Thus any translator interested in translating what is meant by the phrase in the original language will render the Greek "for ever and ever" or the like when applicable in English.

The objections of Universalists

Universalists have raised six objections to understanding aionios and aion properly rendered to convey the meaning of the words in English. The first of these is that only the scholarly can understand it. This is fallacious thinking. There is no need to be a scholar to understand the Hebrew concept of time, but having no knowledge precludes any information about special revelation. It is written in the Book of Hosea, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge..." (Hesea 4:6). As a Christian in the pursuit of maturity, your profession is to gain more knowledge of the Lord and to freely share that knowledge with others. Secondly, if you need to be a scholar to properly understand this, then you are not placing your trust in God, but in people who are most agreeable to your theology.

The second objection involves the figurative fallacy on the part of the universalist. The Figurative Fallacy is: Either (1) mistaking literal language for figurative language or (2) mistaking figurative language for literal language. The question is not, "Should we interpret the passage literally or symbolically?" The question is "Which part must be interpreted literally and which part symbolically?" Like onto that, universalists further error by failing to discern that the Bible often times speaks of spiritual things rather than temporal things. In a nutshell, the only rebuttal the universalist offers with this argument against rendering these words as to mean "endlessness" and the like, is from verses where the rendering "forever" or "endless" is obviously figurative or spiritual. The universalist, by making this argument insults both the reader and their own intelligence in a desperate attempt to cling to their unscriptural position.

The third objection is that there are alternate theories available as to what the Hebrew concept of time is and that these alternate theories would tend to support the universalist position. Obviously when the authors wrote the epistles and Gospels they were to be understood by the author's intended audience. Since for the most part they were written to the Jews first and to the Gentiles second, we really should leap the historical gap between our cultures and understand the Hebrew concept of time rather than tickle our ears with modern theories.

Since the Hebrew concept of time has been preserved by an entire nation of Jews, it is rather easy to find out what they thought then and still what the non-westernized Jews think now rather than attempt to lay the foundations of our faith on the sands of theory and speculation. Before the fact of what the Hebrews did believe then, and do believe now, the alternate theories argument evaporates.

The fourth objection universalists present is that several verses point to there being "ages" for believers yet to come in the after life, citing Ephesians 2:7 for example. The Bible refers to past ages in order to exalt God in His knowledge as the divine Creator in parallel with human ignorance (Isaiah 64:4; Deut. 4:32). The New Testament reveals the hidden wisdom of God, the Gospel, is a mystery that is revealed after long ages (1 Corinthians 2:7; Colossians 1:26; Romoms 16:25; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2).

With that in mind, the present era is the end of the ages according to 1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 9:26; and 1 Peter 1:20. In reference to Ephesians 2:7, the church as it lives in this age looks forward to the age of future consummation. Though the saved exist in this age, they are born from above as new creatures at the moment of their salvation. Now is a the dawn of a new age for them while they live in an age that is yet to end. These believers also look forward to the next age in which they will be incorruptible, conformed to the image of Christ (ref. Romans 8:29). Therefore when Ephesians 2:7 speaks of ages to Christians, it speaks righteously because Christians whom are born from above participate in two ages with the blessings of the Lord -the end of this age, and the coming kingdom of God.

Hence, Ephesians 2:7 isn't speaking of multiple ages that take place in the coming kingdom of God in the after life as the universalists must have occur to support their unscriptural position of purgatory.

The fifth objection is based on the semantic range of the Greek words. While it is technically true that the words need not always be rendered forever and the like, this is only true when the Greek word refers to this world age. Therefore, I'm not arguing that the Greek, when referring to this temporal world or age, means eternal -that is not the point of contention. The point of contention is how long is the age to come going to last. The universalists insist that the next age is also finite to support their doctrine of purgatory. This is what the universalist argument seeks to support and their argument has no basis outside of the semantic range of the grammar.

If for example if I say to you, "bar," what am I talking about? A salad bar? A drinking establishment? Atmospheric pressure? A metal bar? What? Just because the semantic range of a word encompasses several different meanings doesn't allow you to say the text alone determines meaning. Rather the author alone determines the meaning of the text. Therefore, we must jump the historical gap and understand the Hebrew concept of time, which is understood to be that the next age is without end in order to properly understand the message that was to be conveyed.

The sixth objection universalists raise, like onto the fifth objection, is that the Greek word that is translated into eternal is aionion. It comes from the Greek root aion meaning "age" which while true is not a reasonable objection because, while technically the word does mean "age," linguistically with the intent to convey the meaning the word "age" had to a Hebrew of the biblical period it should be understood as to mean eternity to a contemporary audience. As Tom Logan rightly pointed out the beliefs of an Old Testament Hebrew; "Man lives his life in two periods or worlds. There is the temporal here and now. This of course is finite and an age or ages in this life are of necessity finite. Then there is the afterlife which takes in man's existence after death. Since these are the only two forms of existence man participates in and God has made provision for an unending existence for man; the age i.e. duration or ages of this period is infinite."

As Tom continued, "The fact is that lexicons acknowledge the respective cultures (Greek and Hebrew) both had a belief in an endless afterlife and used terms based on aion and olam to refer to it."

The universalist argues that age implies that it is a period of time that comes to and end. To really examine if the universalists interpretation of age carries weight, we ought to be consistent with their application and meaning of the word "age." Therefore if we apply their argument consistently, all of the following shall also come to an end:

Greek word "aion" used of God's glory

1. Philippians 4:20 "Now unto God and our Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen."
2. 1 Timothy 1:17 "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory
for ever and ever. Amen."

Greek word "aion" used of God's throne

Hebrews 1:8 "But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom."

Greek word "aion" used of God's duration

1. 1 Peter 1:23 "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever."
2. 1 Peter 4:11 "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion
for ever and ever. Amen."
3. Revelation 1:6 "And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion
for ever and ever. Amen."

Greek word "aion" used of the saints

1 John 2:17 "And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever."

Greek word "aion" used of heaven

Matthew 25:46 "but the righteous into life eternal."

Greek word "aion" used of hell

1. Matthew 25:46 "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal."
2. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 "these will pay the penalty of
eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord."
3. Matthew 25:41 "Depart from me, ye cursed, into
everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels"
4. Jude 13 "for whom the black darkness has been reserved

Greek word "aionios" used of heaven

Luke 18:30 "in the age to come, eternal life."

Greek word "aionios" used of hell

1. Revelation 14:11 "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night."
2. Revelation 20:10 "they will be tormented day and night
forever and ever."


Despite the efforts of men to override the clear teaching of the Bible, the Bible is clear about the eternal nature of the punishment of the wicked. "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal" (Matt. 25:46). It is easy to see that Life is the same in duration as is the Punishment of the wicked. If one is temporary, so is the other. If the punishment of those held within the lake of fire is temporary, heaven is also temporary.

The New Testament use of the words eternal and everlasting makes it clear what they mean. It is "everlasting punishment" (Matt. 25:46). The fire is "everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). There will be "eternal damnation" for some (Mark 3:29). For emphasis, consider how other verses use these words:

1. God is everlasting. "According to the commandment of the everlasting God" (ref. Romans 16:26). Does everlasting mean unending or temporary? Will God cease to exist?

2. The Holy Spirit is eternal. "Who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God" (ref. Hebrews 9:14). Is the Holy Spirit temporary? When the lake of fire gives up her dead, will He go out of existence?

3. Redemption is eternal. "Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us" (Hebrews 9:12) Is Christ's work of eternal redemption completed or was it for just a brief time?

4. Salvation is eternal. "He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him" ( ref. Hebrews 5:9). Will salvation also be temporary as well?

5. The kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. The faithful will be in "the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:11). Will the end to the suffrage of the wicked in the lake of fire also earmark the end of the kingdom of God?

The same words in both Greek and English are used to describe the future punishment of the wicked that are used to describe God, the Spirit, salvation, and the kingdom. "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). Therefore, the fallacy with even arguing how long the duration of "aion" and "aionios" as to mean an age or duration of time less than forever and ever and to mean something other than time everlasting to support the doctrine of universal reconciliation is that then the same argument can be applied to heaven, God, and the everlasting life of the saints. In this the universalist is not consistent with their argument of what these words mean. Further, any objections to aion and aionius being rendered as "for ever" in English and not specifically covered here will be based on such scanty factual evidence or philosophical reasoning as to be made untenable to be the basis of one's belief in universalism. I am confident in the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked as was S. Lewis Johnson, who wrote: "It is doubful that there is a doctrine in the Bible easier to than that of eternal punishment (cf. Matthew 25:46)."

"For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (Titus 2:11-14).


Theological Issues

Is there really a second chance for salvation after physical death?
2. Is one's salvation based on one's level of light/desire for God, or is salvation based on a true knowledge of and repentant response to the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ in a person's normal lifetime?
3. Does Scripture teach the ultimate reconciliation of all things in such a way that the ongoing, eternal existence of hell, Satan, demons, and unbelievers would be a contradiction or that would militate against God's full glory (cf. John 12:32; 1 Cor 15:28; Eph1:10; Phil 2:10-11)?


Key Words

aiwn /aiwniov (aion, aionios)
Context strongly determines the meaning of eternity/eternal,
whether it be "for an extremely long time" or "forever."
2. With rare exceptions (e.g., Rev 19:3), the plural is always used in
the sense of "forever."
3. Would not Rev 14:11 indicate an eternal experience not just eternal
results, as also the lake of fire experience (Rev 20:10)?
4. The use of the plural aiwna (aiona) in Jude 13 to describe the
experience of "black darkness" is utterly unexpected and
unnecessary if universalism were in view (cf. 2 Pet 2:17 where
aiona is not used).


Richard L. Mayhue, Master's Seminary Journal, Fall 1998.
S. Lewis Johnson, God Gave Them Up, 1972.
Gerhart Kittel, Theological Dictonary of the New Testament (Abridged), pp. 31-32.
Colin Brown, The New International Dictonary of New Testament Theology, pp. 826-850.
Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Baker Book, January 1999.

Copyright © 2001, Eric N. Landstrom


Also see The Hebrew Concept of Time

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