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The Ages of Eternity - The Question Stated

Frederick William Grant

Facts and Theories as to a Future State

*"Eternal Hope," Preface, xxxiv.  †"Hist. Doctrine Script. Retribution," p. 128.

But again "everlasting" is in the same dilemma, for of course it only means "lasting ever," and "an evergreen is not a tree green to all eternity, but a tree continuously green during its life."†

So that we are in some doubt as to our English even. The word "endless" is getting to displace "eternal," but as no word of exactly that meaning is found in the New Testament in any connection of interest to us here, we are practically left without any true word in it for what for want of a better term I must still call "eternity," at all!

Authorities also differ - Mr. Oxenham thinks that the "word aïdios might be expected from its root aei to mean ‘everlasting' in the strictest sense";* while Dr. Beecher assures us that "in the New Testament aei is never used in the sense of eternity."†

*"Letter," p. 17.

†"Hist. Retribution," p. 128.

We must inquire, therefore, for ourselves; although we shall not refuse the help that those more learned than we can pretend to be can give us in the matter.

The words with which we have to do are in the Greek but two: aion and aionios. They have been Anglicised into æon and æonial, and these terms, although not naturalized in our language, we may find it convenient for our present purpose to retain. The phrases "forever" and "forever and ever" in our common Bibles are literally "for the æon," "for the æons," "for the æons of æons," and akin to terms in the Old Testament where the Hebrew word "olam" takes the place of æon. "Eternal" and "everlasting" are both renderings of the word "æonial."

It is upon the ground of this phraseology that the argument is built, that æonial cannot be in the strict sense "eternal" "For the æon" cannot be "for eternity," because there are æons, and æons of æons; and you cannot so reduplicate eternity. Æonial "belonging to the æon," consequently cannot imply a longer time than the "æon" to which it belongs. Æon, moreover, in Scripture itself is translated by "world" between thirty and forty times, and twice in the plural by "ages," and this last word seems to afford the most consistent rendering all through. "Eternal life," in that case would be "the life of the age" or "the life of the world to come," and "eternal punishment," of course, must be harmonized with this: it cannot or need not be an endless punishment.

Mr. Jukes, in his "Restitution of All Things," goes a good way further. He contends that these ages of which Scripture speaks, and of which the heathen writers understood nothing, refer to "Christ's mediatorial kingdom, which is ‘for the ages of ages,' and must yet be ‘delivered up to the Father, that God may be all in all' "

"The ‘ages', therefore (he says), are periods in which God works, because there is evil and His rest is broken by it, but which have an end and pass away, when the work appointed to be done in them has been accomplished. The ‘ages,' like the ‘days' of creation, speak of a prior fall: they are the ‘times ‘in which God works, because He cannot rest in sin and misery. His perfect rest is not in the ‘ages,' but beyond them, when the mediatorial kingdom, which is ‘for the ages of ages,' is delivered up, and Christ, by whom all things are wrought in the ages, goes back to the glory which He had ‘before the age-times' (2 Tim. i 9, Tit. i. 2), that God may be all in all. The words ‘Jesus Christ (that is, Anointed Saviour), the same yesterday, today and for the ages,' imply that through these ages a Saviour is needed, and will be found, as much as today and yesterday. It will, I think, too, be found, that the adjective founded on this word, whether applied to ‘life,' 'times,' 'punishment,' 'redemption,' 'covenant,' or even God Himself, is always connected with remedial labour, and with the idea of 'ages' as periods in which God is working to meet and correct some awful fall... Nor does this affect the true eternity of bliss of God's elect, or of the redeemed who are brought back to live in God, and to be partakers of Christ's 'endless life' (Heb. vii. 16), of whom it is said, 'Neither can they die any more, for they are equal unto the angels, and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection;' for this depends upon a participation in the divine nature, and upon that power which can change these vile bodies, that they may be fashioned like unto Christ's glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able to subdue even all things unto Himself" (Rest., pp. 61-68.)

This has the advantage of being very definite doctrine, and as such it can be examined and compared with Scripture. This we hope to do in detail presently. But first, it seems, we have to look at these words outside of Scripture, and in their roots and beginnings in ordinary Greek.

Dr. Beecher has taken up this subject in a rather elaborate way, following out the suggestions of Dr. Tayler Lewis, which may be read in the "Genesis" and "Ecclesiastes" of Lange's Commentary.* We may sum up Dr. Beecher's statements in a much briefer way without detriment (we think), either to their clearness or their force.

*Special Introduction to the First Chapter of Genesis, Part 3; and his excursus on "Olamic or Æonian Words in Scripture", Ecclesiastes, pp. 44-61.

He first of all examines the proof of aion meaning eternity from Aristotle's derivation of it from aei on "always existing." Two questions arise from this: is this etymology correct and if so, is it decisive of the matter? On the first point he concedes it to be correct for the sake of argument, although sufficient reasons could be given for rejecting it, and Plato and Aristotle were very poor etymologists. As to the second he objects that "aei does not always, or even commonly, denote or imply eternity, and in this passage it manifestly does not, and to give it that sense involves Aristotle in inconsistency and absurdity, and in a war with notorious facts in the history of the Greek language."

This last is by itself decisive, and we need not look further at the question of derivation. The constant meaning of aion in Homer is by all admitted to be "life": to "breathe out one's aion" was to die.

"From this abstract idea of 'life' it passed to a concrete form to denote a living spirit, an aeon." This meaning occurs, not in Homer, but in Euripides, and is found at a later period in Epictetus, who declares that he is not an æon (a spirit) but a man. "The element of time in any form is not included in these original uses of the word," says Dr. Beecher.†

†He would not deny it. I suppose, that by Arrian's time, the meaning even of eternity has entered into this application of the word. His words are : - "I am not an Æon, but a man, a part of all things, as an hour of the day, I must subsist as an hour, and pass away as an hour."

"Nevertheless, as the idea of duration is essentially connected with prolonged life, the word assumed an idea of time, and denoted the continuous time of life at any given point, and also the total duration of life." It is thus used not only by Homer, but by the great poets, Pindar, Æschylas, Sophocles and Euripides. And "as our word age, denoting the time of the life of a man, also comes to denote the lifetime of a generation, and then a period marked with some characteristic, as the antediluvian age or the Mosaic age, and then those living in that period, so was it with the word aion."

"The senses of the word thus far spoken of, occur for above five centuries in such writers as Homer, Hesiod, the Orphic Hymnists, Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, Herodotus, Xenophon and Thucydides; but we do not yet come to the idea of eternity."

But Dr. Beecher admits that afterwards we do find the idea. "The original idea of life was (at length) subordinated and disappeared, and ideas of time alone took possession of the whole ground, and aion, instead of denoting life, came to denote time." Thus it passed into the sense of eternity: for time, "when it is qualified by adjectives denoting totality, acquires the sense of eternity." At first this qualifying adjective was expressed; but by degrees came to be sometimes implied and understood, and "aion, with this understanding, was used for eternity."

"Thus the expression eis ton aiona came sometimes to mean for all time, that is, forever, and to eternity. In such cases Cremer says that it means 'for the future,' that is, for all time to come. But this same form that may thus denote eternity, may also denote for an age, or for a dispensation, in other circumstances.

"There is still another use of aion, introduced by Plato to denote a kind of philosophical eternity, from which past, present, and future time are eliminated, and absolute being only is retained."

I have thus far followed Dr. Beecher, as his account of the matter seems to be on the whole correct. I have nothing to object, nor (at least, at present) anything to add. The next step carries us into Scripture, and there we get upon more satisfactory as well as more familiar ground.

In the Septuagint the word aion is used as the constant equivalent of olam, and it is easy to ascertain the meaning of it therefore at the time this translation was made. Olam is not the life of a man, and the Homeric significance of aion is not found. Olam is undoubtedly more often used for a limited time than for eternity. We have seen indeed that the Old Testament in general gives us only the shadows of what are eternal things. And the shadows are necessarily transient and to pass away. Yet to these the term is constantly applied. The covenant with Noah is a covenant of olam; and not less so the Mosaic statutes and ordinances, although these plainly were to pass away. So also even the ''men of old" are "men of olam"; "the ancient landmark" is the "landmark of olam"; Israel's yoke had been "broken from olam," and so repeatedly.* Now, in none of these cases do we find a parallel to the limitations which the nature of things in all languages imposes on the term "forever," and which yet leave it its full significance elsewhere. An ancient landmark is not a Landmark which had been there as long as in the nature of things it could; and so as to the rest. And such examples are numerous. By no process of fair dealing then can olam (or aion in its use in the Septuagint) be said necessarily to mean eternity.

*Gen. vi. 4; Prov. xxii. 28; Jer. ii. 20. It is rendered "old " or "of old" or "in old time," in Deut. xxxii. 7; Josh. xxiv. 2; Job. xxii. 15; Prov. xxiii. 10; Eccl. i. 10; Isa. xlvi. 9; lvii. 11; lviii. 12; lxi. 4; etc.

But again, it is used in the plural, where we can scarcely translate it otherwise than by "ages": Psa. lxxvii. 5, "the years of ancient times" are "the years of ages "; Isa. ii. 9, "the generations of old" are the "generations of ages." Here the same remarks as before, and not less forcibly, apply.

Moreover, there is in the Old Testament a way of expressing absolute eternity, which seems fully to recognize the inadequacy of olam definitely to express it by itself. This is by the addition to it of a word which may be taken as "and yet" "for the olam and yet,"* showing that beyond the olam there is a conception of time possible and actual This phrase occurs some fourteen times in the Old Testament, and in one instance only it may have a more limited meaning, Psa. civ. 5, and here really limited by the nature of that to which it is applied.†

*Dr. Tayler Lewis speaks of it thus in Lange's Ecclesiastes: Ad " is transition to, arrival, and going beyond - a passing beyond still further, on and on. Thus it becomes a name for eternity, as in those remarkable expressions, Isa. ix. 5, abi ad, poorly rendered 'everlasting Father,' and shochen ad, 'inhabiting eternity,' Isa. lvii. 15 ; with which compare Hab. iii. 6, Gen. xlix. 26, and Isa. xlv. 17, where we have the same word as noun and preposition - the mountains of ad, the progenitors of ad - to the ages of ad: to the ages to which other ages are to be added indefinitely. Hence, the preposition sense to, making it significantly, as well as etymologically, equivalent to the Latin ad et, the Greek, Saxon at and to, in all which there is this sense of arrival and transition. The idea becomes most vivid and impressive in this Hebrew phrase, "forever and yet."

†The other passages are: - Exod. xv. 18, Psa. x. 16, xxi. 4, xlv. 6, 17, xlviii. 14, lii. 8, cxix. 44, cxlv. 1, 2, 21, Dan. xii. 8, Mic. iv. 5.

This then gives us the sense (so far as the Septuagint goes) of both æon and æonial: for "æonial" is the word they use in such cases as those where in Hebrew would be found the noun olam with a governing preposition. A "covenant of olam" becomes thus an "æonial covenant," and the "landmark of olam," the "æonial landmark." No one can avoid the conclusion, as it would seem, that olam and æon in the Septuagint, may very properly be taken to mean "age," and that æonial in the same way means "belonging to the age, or ages."

Here Dr. Beecher stops short in his inquiry, and does not follow it into the New Testament. Nor does he sufficiently recognize the fact that after all there are passages in which olam can scarcely stand for less than eternity, and that aion is therefore already used in the Septuagint in this way.* His examination is imperfect, and his statement partial. The former he does not carry far enough to decide the question, and yet leaves the full force of what he has brought forward to bear upon the decision of the meaning of the word as used by the Lord as to the condemnation of the wicked hereafter. This is scarcely candid. It is true he warns us at the beginning that he does not propose to discuss this question of eternal retribution, but he does unavoidably produce an impression by the partial investigation he has made. Nay, he would actually settle the point as far as concerns the meaning of the words "eternal "punishment, and "everlasting" fire. We may fairly demand of him, why he has omitted what is absolutely necessary to the mere philological inquiry even? and why the question of these words should be more difficult to settle in the New Testament than it is in the Old? Nor only so, but as he has shown us that the word aion did get to mean "eternity," and was used for it by Plato and others before the time of our Lord, it was surely above all necessary to see whether the New Testament might not use the word in some similar Way.

*The very first use of both shows this: Gen. iii. 22; and see Deut. xxxii. 40; Psa. ix. 7; xxxiii. 11; xc. 2; xcii. 8; cii. 12; cxxxv. 13, etc.

Dr. Beecher, however, has not done this, and from this point we must go on without him. We have presented the arguments and conclusions to which he and others have come, fully, and (we think) impartially. We shall seek the final solution now where only we can find it, and where he has not ventured yet.

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