What does the Greek word for eternal mean?

What does the Greek word for eternal mean? May 4, 2011

One issue that we did not get our teeth fully into during my debate with Rob Bell was the meaning of the Greek word for “eternal.” This reminded me of a three part series I once did on Cows, Dogs, and Political correctness for some reason. Bell seemed to be arguing that it did not mean something that goes on for ever. As I pointed out, the same word is used for the eternal reward of eternal life as for the eternal punishments. Thus, both must have the same duration! This is especially true in Matthew 25:46. If the punishment is not eternal, nor is the life.

The following list of Bible verses show how the word ‘eternal’ is used in the New Testament. All but a couple of them use the same Greek word that we argued about. To me it is obvious what the word must mean from the context of each verse. A good guide to exposition is to imagine that the word in question was illegible in the sentence, that someone had blotted it out, and ask yourself what you would be most likely to guess it meant. Usually that is the correct meaning.

In the first instance when trying to ascertain what a Greek word really means, to see how it is used elsewhere in the Bible is very helpful.

Then, one should turn to lexicons. It should be said that the lexicons acknowledge that there are different meanings to the word eternal, but here are some conclusions relevant to our discussion:

“The predominant meaning of aionios, that in which it is used everywhere in the NT, save the places noted above, may be seen in 2 Cor. 4:18, where it is set in contrast with proskairos, lit., ‘for a season,’ and in Philem. 15 . . . Moreover it is used of persons and things which are in their nature endless, as, e.g., of God, Rom. 16:26; of His power, 1 Tim. 6:16, and of His glory, 1 Pet. 5:10; of the Holy Spirit, Heb. 9:14; of the redemption effected by Christ, Heb. 9:12, and of the consequent salvation of men, 5:9, as well as of His future rule, 2 Pet. 1:11, which is elsewhere declared to be without end, Luke 1:33; of the life received by those who believe in Christ, John 3:16, concerning whom He said, ‘they shall never perish,’ 10:28, and of the resurrection body, 2 Cor. 5:1, elsewhere said to be ‘immortal,’ 1 Cor. 15:53, in which that life will be finally realized, Matt. 25:46; Titus 1:2.

“Aionios is also used of the sin that ‘hath never forgiveness,’ Mark 3:29, and of the judgment of God, from which there is no appeal, Heb. 6:2, and of the fire, which is one of its instruments, Matt. 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7, and which is elsewhere said to be ‘unquenchable,’ Mark 9:43.

“The use of aionios here shows that the punishment referred to in 2 Thess. 1:9, is not temporary, but final, and, accordingly, the phraseology shows that its purpose is not remedial but retributive.”* ”

-W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996).

“Eternal life does not therefore just begin in the future, it is already the possession of those who have entered upon fellowship with Christ. Thus Jn. 3:15 speaks of having eternal life in the present. But there is also a temporal sense, so that eternal (aiōnios) indicates the quantity of this life: because it belongs to Christ, who himself is the Life (Jn. 14:6), it has no end. It will not even cease at death (Jn. 8:51; 11:25f.).”

-Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986).

“Only in the light of the context can it be said whether αἰών means “eternity” in the strict sense or simply “remote” or “extended” or “uninterrupted time.””

-Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-).

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