Our Certain Joy: Eonian Vs. Eternal Life

There is no Christian doctrine, and likewise no stumbling block, more dividing than the concepts of eternal life and eternal torment. However, are such concepts found in Scripture or has Christianity missed another rich truth?

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. (John 3:16 NIV)

There is no Scripture more oft-quoted than John 3:16. It is the verse of the altar call, to come and believe in Jesus to be saved from eternal life in Hell. There is one word in this passage that has caused so much grief, so much confusion, and so much vitriol towards the religion. That word is “Eternal,” and this word singlehandedly misconstrues one of the most exciting truths of God’s design and purpose for creation.

To demonstrate the misdirection of this interpretation through one example, the word itself is a theologically confusing translation. No one can have eternal life because we all have a beginning and end. God is the only being that is truly and utterly eternal, having no beginning and no end. We, on the other hand, will have everlasting life. It is not a damning example, but it is one where the preciseness of the text is muddied.

The greatest fault of our modern translations is in interpreting the Greek word itself as “eternal” (in the Christian definition of having no end or time). This is how the Concordant Literal New Testament, translating Greek to literal English, renders it,

For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian. (John 3:16 CLNT bold mine)

What is eonian life? To begin to answer this we must define what the word eon, and its adjective equivalent eonian, means. 

Eon and eonian are the English equivalents of the Greek words aion and aionion. W.E. Vine’s An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines them as,

“an age, era” (to be connected with aei, “ever,” rather than with ao, “to breathe”), signifies a period of indefinite duration, or time viewed in relation to what takes place in the period.

Eonian translates not to eternal life but to life during a certain period of time in relation to what takes place during that time (this will be important for our next post). This cannot mean eternal since a period of time designates an eventual end to that period. But this one word has been interpreted in modern Bibles in a shockingly vast myriad of ways, from “eternal,” “life,” “forever,” “time,” “universe,” and “world.” It has to be asked somewhere along the way how a single, easily identifiable and understood word can be translated in so many different and confusing ways. This has caused the truth that God has designated specific periods of time, called eons (Hebrews 1:2), to fulfil His plans for His creation (Ephesians 3:11), to become virtually unknown and non-existent in the modern church and Bible schools.

This mistranslation has resulted in so much spiritual harm and turmoil for believers and seekers alike. They have to acknowledge an eternal life of suffering and torment in the face of a loving God who had sent His Son to die for all the sins of man. How can anyone possibly reconcile one of the biggest contradictions in religious history? It is impossible, thus Christianity either heralds human free will and becomes an apostate religion to the sovereignty, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ or hails sovereignty amidst eternal destruction and accepts it as just the way it is.  

If eonian means eternal life, we should expect to see it translated consistently in Scripture. There are over 190 instances of this word in the New Testament and it is translated correctly as “age” or “ages” only a handful of times. This is only because the context has rendered interpreters with no other choice. Some quick examples are,

…..The harvest is the end of the age (aion), and the harvesters are angels. (Matthew 13:39 NIV)

As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age (aion) (Matthew 13:40 NIV)

This is how it will be at the end of the age (aion) (Matthew 13:49 NIV)

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age (aion)?” (Matthew 24:3 NIV)

The question is, how can aion and aionion mean a period of time in one instance and an eternal, endless time in another? It cannot. A word cannot contradict itself, so one definition must be true and the other false. Since context has forced translators to interpret the verses above as “age,” and there is not a single instance in the Greek where the context defines aion and aionion as life eternal (eternal life is merely assumed by translators and inserted into the text), then every instance of “eternal hell,” “eternal life,” or its equivalents in our New Testament is a false interpretation. False interpretations unwittingly create false translations.

Could God have used another word to designate an everlasting amount of time or was aionion the only option? There actually is a Greek word that means everlasting/infinite/endless and Paul uses it to instruct Timothy.

nor yet to be heeding myths and endless genealogies, which are affording exactions rather than God’s administration which is in faith. (Timothy 1:4 CLNT bold mine)

If our Lord wanted all of our “eternal life” passages in Scripture to mean eternal life, then the word He would have inspired is the word Paul uses in his letter to Timothy. This is not aionion, but apérantos. He places the word right there in plain sight, leaving no doubt of His preciseness. 

The weight of this is immense. It is life-changing. If you read all of the judgement passages in the Bible in this light (Matthew 25:41, 46, Mark 3:29, Hebrews 6:2, and so on) you will have a completely new Bible. Why is this so important? Because God has purposed to show His abounding love and grace before times eonian (2 Timothy 1:9), that at the end of the eons God will reconcile all of creation to Himself (1 Corinthians 15:22-23, Ephesians 1:9-10, Colossians 1:17-20) and abolish sin and death once and for all (Hebrews 9:26). He does not plan to drive anyone away for eternity nor leave them in a state of death and separation. My friends, no longer do you have to wonder how to reconcile God’s abundant love, grace, and mercy in the face of everlasting pain, suffering, and hopelessness.  

This still leaves us with plenty of questions. What is Hell? What are the eons and what happens within them? And what of divine stubbornness? With the definition of eonian behind us, we can now turn to each of these questions.