Aion and Olam
aion – noun [age, aeon]
aionios – adjective [eternal]
‘Aion’ is a Greek noun translated as ‘age’. It’s adjective counterpart, ‘aionios’, is translated as ‘eternal’. Aionios is commonly used to describe the age referred to as everlasting. Love Wins uses many passages, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, as examples of the usage of the two words, ‘olam’ in the Hebrew and ‘aion’ in the Greek. The argument presented is that both words are defined as ‘age’ and as such they are not eternal but rather a determined period of time. The next conclusion is that the Bible never states an eternal punishment as we have been taught, but rather the true translation would be an age of punishment which is not everlasting. In Love Wins, Rob Bell asserts that both words have been misinterpreted to mean eternity – and he is clear that they do not. There are many debates about the translation of the words ‘aion’ and ‘olam’. Both words are considered equivalent in the Greek (aion) and Hebrew (olam) languages, however, the ongoing argument divides on the definition of the time period of ‘age’. This debate is not new. Long before Love Wins, John Wesley Hanson published a paper on this exact topic in which he vigorously dissects the words ‘aion’ and ‘aionios’ to draw the same conclusions as Bell. (‘The Greek Word Aion – Aionios, Translated Everlasting – Eternal, in the Holy Bible, Shown to Denote Limited Duration’ – by Rev. John Wesley Hanson, 1875)
So how long is an age?
The Hellenistic Definition
During the Hellenistic period (c. 323 – 30 BC) the Greeks used the word ‘aion’ interchangeably as both a determined timespan and an eternal time period. The Greeks had a God named Aion who was the God of Time. They didn’t limit the length of that time to a set period and so Aion was more properly known as the God of Eternity. In this case they used the name Aion to mean ‘all time’ or ‘eternity’ not as the God of a defined or limited time period, but rather they defined Aion as the God of Eternity, a continual existence.
Can an age last for eternity?
Consider this; if we are in eternity we are no longer measured by time – so the age of eternity can be without limits. Aristotle, Sophocles and even Homer all used aion not only as a determined amount of time but also as an eternal period.
In Aristotle’s ‘De Caelo’ (On the Heavens) he uses aion to refer to an age outside of time – eternity. He begins with an example of a circle with no beginning or end. He focuses on the essence of the circle and then states;
On the same principle the fulfillment of the whole heaven, the fulfillment which includes all time and infinity, is ‘duration’ [aion] – a name based upon the fact that it is always-duration immortal and divine. (De Caelo I, 9)
Sophocles also uses aion in referring to God eternally (Heracles 900).
Homer uses aion when referencing ‘life’, as in where one’s life [aion] leaves him (Iliad v. 685; Odyssey v. 160).
So what does this tell us?
The ancient Greeks considered aion to have a meaning of an everlasting time period. This is not the only meaning they understood but it is definitely one of the meanings that they used.
Eternal Life – The Dangers of Etymology
In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the term ‘eternal life’ to explain heaven (John 3:1–21). The usage of ‘eternal life’ is; ‘zoe aionios’ or ‘life eternal’. The adjective to ‘aion’ which is ‘aionios’ is used to describe the type of life we can expect. It is clear in this passage that Jesus refers to an eternity when referring to life in heaven; He is not stating heaven is a determined amount of time.
How we interpret ‘age’ is in unison with how we interpret ‘life’.
Do we consider life as a limited span of time or do we interpret life as existence?
Etymology is the study of words and their origin. In Biblical studies we practice etymology to decipher the true meaning of the Hebrew and Greek texts. These word-studies help us to find the precise meaning of a words definition – but this method can have a down side. Interpreting words according to their literal definition is not always best. For this reason our etymology is surrounded by a systematic set of rules which we call, Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics, the art and science of scriptural interpretation, accounts for this by enforcing the rule that the context of a word defines the definition of the word. The danger in digging to deeply into word meanings without considering their context is that by defining the literal meaning we can miss the intended interpretation of the word within its context. This is why we refer to words as equivocal (open to more than one interpretation) and not univocal (having only one meaning). Let’s examine this theory a little further using our example of the word ‘life’.
Consider the following sentence;
“When the sword entered the soldiers belly his life poured out onto the ground.”
How would we interpret this definition of ‘life’?
If we were to take the literal meaning of the word ‘life’, we would imagine the invisible essence of the soldier’s being coming out of his body. Although this is a meaning, I bet when reading this sentence the vision you had in your mind was the actual red blood spilling out of the soldier’s belly – not his invisible being. In this case the word ‘life’ is substituted for ‘blood’ as a visual but still retains its ultimate meaning of existence. If we read ‘blood’ it would not be enough to convey a meaning of death – he could have survived the wound. Do both interpretations mean the same thing in this context – yes, they both are stating that the soldier’s existence ended, he was mortally wounded – he died. If we dig too deeply into the literal meaning we can dissect the word ‘life’ and never come to the conclusion that blood came out of the body, however, instinctively we envision red fluid pouring onto the ground and correctly assume the soldier is dead. Context determines definition.
Now let’s consider another usage of the word ‘life’ in the following sentence;
“The prisoner must serve two consecutive life sentences.”
Does this mean the prisoner will die, and then be reincarnated to serve another term for the length of his natural existence?
Not at all, while there are differing rules for each state in America, a life sentence has many interpretations. Some states refer to a life sentence as the length of your existence on earth while others qualify it as 25 years, thus the reason you would be sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. We understand this based on our cultural context. In these cases the word ‘life’ is conditional upon its context and in both cases it is also qualified by its definition. In the first case ‘life’ the essence and being and in the second case ‘life’ is a determined period of time.
What Is Really Being Said?
Rob Bell will argue that ‘age’ absolutely does not refer to a never-ending eternity but rather a specific time period. Ultimately, if it is true that there is not an eternal hell than it could also be logical to assume that there is not an eternal heaven. Both referred time periods use the same words; aion and olam.
So my question would be that even if ‘age’ is a period of time – how long is that time?
We assume limits on time but according to Aristotle; it is possible that an age could be eternal?
And if we assume the age is not eternal but rather 3 years or 3 million years or 3 billion years or 3 trillion years – then aren’t we then determining whether we are willing to submit to Christ based on the extent of the term of punishment?
Is that the love God is looking for?
“I can stand to do 3 years in torment for my rebellion and then I will give in and love God – but I cannot do 3 trillion years or an eternity so I might as well love Him now.”
It is not the teaching on the length of an age that I have issues with as much as the conclusion that is drawn. The conclusion Bell comes to is that during or at the end of this age of punishment there is still a chance of redemption. In many ways he makes it clear that even if we do not ‘believe’ in this life it’s alright because we can get it right after death. The punishment is not forever and once we learn our lesson we can be forgiven. This bases our submission to Christ and our love for God on the conditions of punishment. This is like the adult asking the child;
“Are you sorry for doing wrong or are you sorry for getting caught?”
If we love God out of fear of punishment then do we really love God?
We are to love out of an understanding of who our Creator is and of the grace we have received due to our separation from the Creator of everything and throw ourselves completely on that grace with our hearts full of love – regardless of the length of the punishment age. We work out our salvation with ‘fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12) but not as if God is over us with a whip waiting for us to make a mistake – this is not the meaning of ‘fear and trembling’. It is a shame that some see our relationship to God as a ‘walk the line and do as I say or you will be punished’ relationship. They completely miss the point of who God is and who we are. If we ever had a touch from God and felt his presence in private prayer time and stood before him in intimacy as Moses did we would find ourselves on our knee’s trembling and repeating “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was and is and is to come”(Rev. 4:8). Not out of fear for being struck down and punished but out of an awesome reverence where in that moment we realize who we are and who he is. In those times we catch a glimpse of how big God is and are struck with the reality of how insignificant we are.
This thinking is taught by Paul in his letter to the Philippians. To understand ‘fear and trembling’ we need to read those words in their context and let Paul explain what he means:
Phil 2:5-13 (ESV) – Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
So ultimately, if the point of the argument is how long will people suffer in hell then I think we are missing the point altogether.