Αἰώνιος in the New Testament – three rare instances
Jefferson Vann explores three rare instances of αἰώνιος in the New Testament, showing how they are consistent with his preferred translation of the word, as permanent. He argues that a permanent hell cannot be endless. It must result in the second death.
In the previous article in this series, I investigated four instances of the adverbal use of αἰώνιος in the New Testament. I showed that the term does not necessarily imply perpetuity. My reason for doing this is to show that the typical translation of αἰώνιος in the New Testament – eternal – can be misleading. Most, when they see the word eternal, think of an action taking place eternally. In other words, they treat the adjective eternal as if it were the adverb eternally.
Today I would like to discus three instances of αἰώνιος in the New Testament which are rare. The first two instances are examples of what is called the first (anarthrous) attributive position. An anarthrous phrase does not contain any articles.
Wallace defines this grammatical construction this way: “when it has been determined from the context that an adjective in an adjective-noun construction (note the order: adj., then noun) expresses an attributive relation to the noun, it is in the first (anarthrous) attributive position (e.g., ἀγαθὸς βασιλεύς = a good king). This is common enough, occurring hundreds of times in the NT.”1
If Wallace calls it common, why do I call it rare? Although the construction is common for most adjectives, it is rare for αἰώνιος. Usually, that adjective appears in what Wallace calls the fourth attributive position if it is in an anarthrous phrase. I count 48 instances of that construction for αἰώνιος. The difference has to do with the location of the adjective compared to the noun it modifies. In the fourth attributive position, the structure is noun, then adjective. But in the first anarthrous attributive position, the structure adjective, then noun.
ὃς δ᾽ ἂν βλασφημήσῃ εἰς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον, οὐκ ἔχει ἄφεσιν εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, ἀλλ᾽ ἔνοχός ἐστιν αἰωνίου ἁμαρτήματος.
but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of a permanent sin”-
In a previous article, I argued against John Piper’s use of this passage to defend eternal conscious torment.2 He argued that since the blasphemer has committed an eternal sin, that sinner must suffer eternally to pay the price for that sin.
My response to Piper’s argument was as follows:
“Admittedly, the assertion of no forgiveness in the age to come does speak against the notion of eventual restoration. Yet, conditionalists are bothered by the assumption that if a sin is eternal, the sinner who sins it must never die. Piper is implying this, as it were, through the back door. He argues that an eternal sin requires a perpetual punishment.
The word aionios can possibly mean perpetual, but its most usual meaning is permanent (as opposed to temporary).3 A permanent sin will be punished by the permanent destruction of the sinner in Gehenna. It does not require that the sinner be granted eternal life so that he can continue to sin and continue to be punished. The wages of sin is death4 , not an everlasting life of sinning and being punished. The eternal punishment the Bible describes is a lake of fire called the second death, a permanent event.5 It is a description of the eternal consequences of eternal sins committed against an eternal God, but it results in the opposite of eternal life. It does not, and cannot involve eternal life.”6
When I previously studied αἰώνιος, I showed that its normal meaning was permanent.
- the permanent sin which can never be forgiven (Mark 3:29).
- the permanent weight of glory compared with our slight momentary affliction (2 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Peter 5:10).
- the permanent things that are unseen compared to the transient things that are seen (2 Corinthians 4:18).
- the permanent house (body) in the heavens compared to our temporary tent (body) on earth (2 Corinthians 5:1).
- the permanent destruction the lost will face at Christ’s return (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
- the permanent comfort and good hope we have through God’s grace (2 Thessalonians 2:16).
- the permanent glory that accompanies salvation in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10).
- Philemon’s permanent return to Colossae, after being parted from them for a while (Philemon 1:15).
- The permanent salvation made possible by Jesus, our great high priest (Hebrews 5:9).
- The permanent judgment that will take place after the resurrection of the dead (Hebrews 6:2).
- The permanent redemption secured by Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:12).
- the permanent covenant made possible by the shedding of the blood of Christ (Hebrews 13:20).
- entrance into the permanent kingdom provided for all those who make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10-11).
When we translate αἰώνιος as permanent in Mark 3:29, the problem goes away. The sin is permanent, and the solution (death) is permanent.
The second occurrence of αἰώνιος in the first anarthrous construction also includes the other rare instance, so I will treat both occurrences together.
2 Corinthians 4:17-18
τὸ γὰρ παραυτίκα ἐλαφρὸν τῆς θλίψεως ἡμῶν καθ᾽ ὑπερβολὴν εἰς ὑπερβολὴν αἰώνιον βάρος δόξης κατεργάζεται ἡμῖν, μὴ σκοπούντων ἡμῶν τὰ βλεπόμενα ἀλλὰ τὰ μὴ βλεπόμενα· τὰ γὰρ βλεπόμενα πρόσκαιρα, τὰ δὲ μὴ βλεπόμενα αἰώνια.
Because this light momentary affliction is preparing for us a permanent weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that we can now see but to the things that we cannot now see. Because the things that we can see are temporary, but the things that we cannot see are permanent.
The contrast is between the present temporary affliction and the future permanent weight of glory. Here again, we see αἰώνιος functioning attributively, describing a permanent state in contrast to a temporary one.
Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians were for them to focus their eyes on those permanent things that they cannot now see. To do this, Paul employs the only use of αἰώνιος in the 2nd predicate grammatical structure. According to Wallace:
“The second predicate position is article-noun-adjective (e.g., ὁ βασιλεὺς ἀγαθός = the king is good). Here, the emphasis seems to be either equally placed on both noun and adjective or is slightly heavier on the noun.”7
The noun in this case is τὰ μὴ βλεπόμενα (the things which we cannot see) which refers to all the things we will inherit in the future as God’s children. Those invisible things are the really permanent things. Contrasted with them, all our present troubles are a light momentary affliction – a temporary inconvenience.
The difference is the permanent things of our future are ὑπερβολὴν εἰς ὑπερβολὴν (beyond all comparison). You might recognize the English word hyperbole in this Greek word. It is a combination of the words ὑπέρ (beyond) and βάλλω (to throw). The noun means to “proceed beyond a limiting point or degree.”8 The limiting point Paul is describing is the future glory compared to the present shame of temporary suffering. Paul encourages the Corinthians to think outside the box of their temporary struggles to their future inheritance.
So, we have seen three more instances of αἰώνιος, and so far, not a single instance where the word necessarily implies perpetual activity. Instead it is best translated permanent. Its opposite is πρόσκαιρος. That word combines πρός (for) and καιρός (time), and refers to something limited to the present time. Our English word temporary is the best choice for translating πρόσκαιρος.
One would think that if αἰώνιος meant never ending activity, its opposite would be something else. That is precisely why we conditionalists ask our traditionalist brothers and sisters to rethink their assumptions about hell. We see hell as God’s permanent solution – the second death. We do not see the word αἰώνιος requiring God to create a hell which is by definition impermanent. A hell that never ends never ultimately punishes sin. It is thus never αἰώνιος.
1Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1996), 309.
5Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8.
7Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1996), 308.