Why Greek Matters (Part 3) – Into the Age – The Meaning of “Eternity” in the New Testament

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The word eternity never occurs in the New Testament. Neither does the word forever.

This is the third part in a series attempting to show some of the difference it makes in reading or studying the New Testament using Greek rather than only English. Since I teach NT Greek, I am often asked regarding the purpose or benefits of learning Greek to study the Bible. Unfortunately there is no magic in Greek which suddenly makes the Bible unlock its secrets. Instead, there are a lot of small differences and nuances that reading the Greek text makes, which add to a considerable cumulative whole. The present series hopes to identify and illuminate just a few of these. This ideally will encourage those currently or considering studying Greek to persevere in their aims. It also should be of help to those who do not know Greek to simply understand a little more what is going on “under the hood” of their English Bible.

Rather than the words “eternity” or “forever”, what occurs is the Greek word aiōn (αἰών), which literally means “age.” This is not age in the sense of how old someone is, but age in the sense of “a long period of time.” Aiōn is from where we get our modern English word “eon.” Two phrases in Greek, “into the age” (eis ton aiōna, εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα) or “into the ages of ages” (eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn, εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων) are almost always translated as “forever” or “forever and ever” in English Bibles. The adjectival form of aiōn (aiōnios, αἰώνιος) is usually translated as “eternal.”

Granted, when aiōn is used in these ways the sense of limitless duration is often implied. The question at hand however, is how does the meaning transfer or change when brought into English? In ancient Greek usage, aiōn was used to speak of a person’s life, their lifetime, a generation, an “age,” or length of time in the past. It was not until Plato (ca. 429-347 BC) that it began to mean “eternity,” which for him was a “timeless, ideal eternity, in which there are no days or months or years” (TDNT I, 198). Does aiōn in the New Testament mean eternity, or furthermore mean something akin to Plato’s definition of timeless eternity? Obviously, since nearly all English Bibles translate eis ton aiōna as “forever” the answer to the former and often latter is assumed yes. What the English Bibles don’t show, is that these and many other passages also use the word “aiōn:”

Matt. 12:32 “Whoever  speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever  speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matt. 13:22 “And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the  world (lit., “age,” aiōn) and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.

Matt. 13:39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the  end of the age; and the reapers are angels. 40 “So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the  end of the age.

Mark 10:30 but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in  the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age (aiōn) to come, eternal (aiōnios) life.

Rom. 12:2 And do not be conformed to this  world (“age,” aiōn), but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may   prove what the will of God is, that which is good and  acceptable and perfect.

Eph. 2:2 in which you formerly walked according to the  course of this world (“age”, aiōn), according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.

Furthermore, the sheer fact that we frequently see the word aiōn appear in the plural indicates to us that a strict concept of eternity is not possible, for to speak of “eternities” is illogical. If eternity is limitless, there cannot be two or more “eternities” in the future.

Without wanting to oversimplify the issue, it seems to me like the word aiōn in the New Testament generally means what it literally means: “age.” In a Jewish context, this would refer to the “two-age eschatology” which had been significantly developed in the intertestimental period (though derived from the canonical Hebrew Scriptures). The present “age” is characterized by unrighteousness, suffering, disorder, injustice, etc. However, they believed God would intervene and enact a “coming age,” in which justice, life, peace and joy would prevail as God vindicates his afflicted people. This “age to come” would be inaugurated by the resurrection of the dead and the advent of renewed bodily existence. This gives a completely different picture “aiōn” than the too-often quasi-Platonized concepts we read into “eternity.”

Thus “eternal life” is not simply floating off into an ethereal realm of whimsical timeless, formless existence. It does not even mostly refer to the limitless duration of it (though it certainly implies that). Rather, “eternal life” is the “life of the age,” that is, the life of the “age to come” (TDNT I, 206). Eternal life is participation in the restoration of all things when God redeems and re-creates the earth and all that is in it, in full righteousness, justice, peace and prosperity. Eternal life is the undoing of Sin and Death’s every effect, and is further the consummation of God’s intent for his creation to experience the heights of joy ordained for our physical, bodily, sensory, emotional, relational, communal, and cultural existence on earth.

This highlights how radical it is when Jesus tells his followers that they presently possess eternal life (Jn. 3:36; 5:24; 6:47). He is not simply telling them they will live a long time. Neither is he telling them they will certainly get into heaven. He is telling them that the “life of the age to come” has somehow burst forth in the midst of the present and is the shared possession of all those who believe in Him. The eschatological restoration has begun in, among and through those who have given their full allegiance to Jesus, the Lord of the new world.

This entry was posted in Eschatology (Last Things), Gospels, John (Gospel and Epistles), Soteriology (Salvation) and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Why Greek Matters (Part 3) – Into the Age – The Meaning of “Eternity” in the New Testament

  1. Heather says:

    This is really good – thanks for writing about this. I had heard some crazy teachings a few years back about aion that just left me confused on any topic involving that word, and this really put it clearly and simply for me, so for that I thank you.

  2. Richard says:

    My pleasure Heather. There’s a fair bit of strange teaching about there concerning “the Greek.” Glad to be of assistance.

  3. Matt says:

    Awesome post Richard!

  4. Tom Cole says:

    Richard, excellent article. Now how about an article on “Blessed are the poor in spirit for their is the kingdom of the heavens (plural). The Greek is plural for the word “heaven”. I’ve always wondered what that could mean.

  5. Richard says:

    Hey Tom – great question! One of the tricky parts of biblical interpretation is evaluating whether a detail has interpretational significance or not, that is, whether it alters the meaning. Just as we need to be aware of details significant to interpretation that we may be missing, we also want to be cautious about over-interpreting details. Though I have not looked specifically into this verse in detail, my sense (open to change!) is that the plural “heavens” is not a detail of interpretational significance. In Hebrew the word “heaven” is always a plural word (strangely the word “water,” “Jerusalem,” “God,” and others are also plural…or to be more precise with the exception of God, these words are “dual”). There have been interpretations given of this phenomenon, such as multiple “heavens,” the waters above the heavens and the waters below, the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem, and a plurality of persons in God (i.e. the Trinity). These interpretations do not really pan out for a number of reasons. As a matter of example, if someone poured water into a cup, in Hebrew they would say it in plural – they poured “waters” into the cup. They certainly did not think they were pouring the waters from above the heavens and below into their cup. When someone said they were going to walk to Jerusalem they would use the plural, not at all trying to say they were walking to both the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem (quite a difficult feat!). When a bird is said to be flying in the “heavens” they were not saying that it was flying in the “three different heavens” simultaneously. Since these words are consistently used in plural, it is much more indicative that they are simply idiomatic, meaning, for some unknown reason, in Hebrew these words are used in the plural merely as a feature of the language. It would be different if sometimes the Hebrew would say “heaven” or “one of the heavens” but it never does. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, the Old Testament does not divide “the heavens” into three distinct spheres (i.e., “first,” “second,” and “third,” heavens). There is no clear and explicit delineation of this view anywhere in the Old Testament. There is obviously varied use of the term “heavens” but there is no interest in divvying it up in neat clear compartments. This belief developed much later and appears for the first time in certain versions of the Apocalypse of Moses and also the Book of Enoch, which date to around the first century BC or later. There being “three heavens” was not “standard Jewish belief,” in fact when ancient Jewish writers do give the number of “heavens” its not always the same – sometimes three, sometimes seven, sometimes eight.

    Point being, my sense as to why “heavens” is plural in Matthew 5 is simply because the Greek throughout the NT reflects the fact that the writers spoke Hebrew and they are carrying over features of Hebrew language into their Greek unconsciously.

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