Αἰώνιος | aiónios in the New Testament – the first attributive occurrences
Jefferson Vann explores eight instances of αἰώνιος in the New Testament, showing how they are consistent with his preferred translation of the word, as permanent. He also explains why the doctrine of innate immortality needs to be discarded in order for the true gospel to be proclaimed.
In the two previous articles in this series, I showed that the term does not necessarily imply an unending process. 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 perpetually. In other words, they treat the adjective eternal as if it were the adverb eternally.
Today I will examine eight instances of αἰώνιος in the New Testament which are categorised as being in the first attributive position. That simply means that the phrase where the adjective occurs begins with the definite article, is followed by the adjective, and then the noun that the adjective modifies.
Wallace defines this grammatical construction this way: “The first attributive position is article-adjective-noun (e.g., ὁ ἀγαθὸς βασιλεύς = the good king). In this construction, the adjective receives greater emphasis than the substantive. This usage is quite common.”1
Since we expect these instances to emphasise the meaning of αἰώνιος, it will be revealing to see how the word is used in these constructions. Of particular importance will be what nouns are described.
Καὶ ἐγὼ ὑμῖν λέγω, ἑαυτοῖς ποιήσατε φίλους ἐκ τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας, ἵνα ὅταν ἐκλίπῃ δέξωνται ὑμᾶς εἰς τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς.
And I am telling you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the permanent households.
The shrewd manager discovers that his position of employment is going to end. He is getting fired. He decides to spend his last days in his position making friends of his master’s creditors, so that he would have people who could help him when he is jobless. Jesus tells this parable not to encourage dishonesty, but to encourage those who presently have worldly wealth to invest that wealth in his coming kingdom. This present age is not the permanent one. It does not have permanent households (τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς). No matter how big the mansion you might build, it will eventually crumble to dust and be replaced. Investing in the permanent future makes more sense than investing in the temporary present.
Traditionalists can be excused for reading such phrases as “eternal fire” and “eternal life” and thinking that they are describing perpetual ongoing processes that never end. But how can a household be thought of as an unending process? No, the word “eternal” is not the best word to describe τὰς σκηνάς. But that does not stop our English Bible translators from using it:
- “eternal homes”((NET, CEB,))
- “eternal dwellings”2
- “eternal tabernacles”((ASV, Darby.))
- “eternal resting-places”3
- “an eternal home”4
- “eternal habitations”5
The translators reflect the fact that traditionalists are so “heavenly” minded that they do poor exegesis. It is clear that Jesus was not contrasting earth with heaven. He was contrasting the present reality with the future one. The present reality is entirely temporary. So, if you have wealth in this age, it is appropriate to spend it on the next age, because you cannot take it with you. The future reality is permanent. That is where we will have permanent households.
καθὼς ἔδωκας αὐτῷ ἐξουσίαν πάσης σαρκός, ἵνα πᾶν ὃ δέδωκας αὐτῷ δώσῃ αὐτοῖς ζωὴν αἰώνιον. αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ αἰώνιος ζωὴ ἵνα γινώσκωσιν σὲ τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν καὶ ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν.
just as you have given him the right to decide over all humanity, to give permanent life to everyone whom you have given him. And this is that permanent life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
This text combines an anarthrous attributive in verse 2 with the first attributive in verse 3. In both cases, the noun is ζωή (life). In both cases, the adjective describes that life as permanent. Jesus is praying to the Father, and mentions the fact that the Father has given him some people, and to those whom the Father has given him, he has given them permanent life. He defines that permanent life as a relationship – knowing both the Father and the Son. Does that mean that ζωὴν αἰώνιον is limited to the relationship? No, Jesus had already explained that it also means he will raise those people from the dead.
- John 6:39 “This is what my sender wants: that each thing given to me by him I will not destroy, but resurrect it on the last day.”
- John 6:40 “Because this is what my Father wants: that everyone who is seeing the Son and believing in him has permanent life, and I will resurrect him on the last day.”
- John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me extricates him, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
- John 6:54 “The one who gnaws on my flesh and drinks my blood has permanent life, and I will raise him up on the last day”
But how can we have permanent life from Jesus now, and still die before he comes? The answer is that we get the promise of permanent life now, and that promise will be fulfilled when Jesus raises us on the last day when he returns. John explained this in one of his letters:
- 1 John 2:25 “And this is the promise that he made to us: permanent life.”
- 1 John 2:28 “And now, little children, stay with him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”
The permanent life is the future life. We have been guaranteed a resurrection that will begin that future, permanent life. That guarantee is the relationship we have with God right now. That is why Jesus could say that to know him and the Father was αἰώνιος ζωὴ.
παρρησιασάμενοί τε ὁ Παῦλος καὶ ὁ Βαρναβᾶς εἶπαν· ὑμῖν ἦν ἀναγκαῖον πρῶτον λαληθῆναι τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ· ἐπειδὴ ἀπωθεῖσθε αὐτὸν καὶ οὐκ ἀξίους κρίνετε ἑαυτοὺς τῆς αἰωνίου ζωῆς, ἰδοὺ στρεφόμεθα εἰς τὰ ἔθνη.
Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, and this is what they said, “To you It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first. Since you are rejecting it and are judging yourselves unworthy of that permanent life, notice, we are turning to the Gentiles.
While evangelising the Jewish residents of Antioch, Paul becomes convicted that God is leading his team to evangelise Gentiles instead. His reason is that the Jewish communities are beginning to reject the gospel of Christ. Paul referred to this rejection as judging oneself unworthy of that permanent life. The gospel is the offer of that permanent life for those who believe in Christ.
Τῷ δὲ δυναμένῳ ὑμᾶς στηρίξαι κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου καὶ τὸ κήρυγμα Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, κατὰ ἀποκάλυψιν μυστηρίου χρόνοις αἰωνίοις σεσιγημένου, φανερωθέντος δὲ νῦν διά τε γραφῶν προφητικῶν κατ᾽ ἐπιταγὴν τοῦ αἰωνίου θεοῦ εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως εἰς πάντα τὰ ἔθνη γνωρισθέντος,
Now to him who is able to strengthen you as I teach when I share the gospel and proclaim Jesus Christ, according to the revealed mystery that had been kept secret for long ages, but now has appeared, and through the prophetic scriptures has been made known to all the nations, as the permanent God has commanded, to bring about obedient believers–
The first example of αἰώνιος here is the adverbial use mentioned in a previous article. In the second the first attributive structure is used to describe God as “the permanent God.” Why not use the word eternal here? Is it wrong to call God eternal? It is not an incorrect translation of the phrase, but “the permanent God” fits the context better. Paul speaks of God as the permanent one who stands outside the boundaries of the ages. When the time was right, God invaded our temporary times and revealed his gospel.
1 Timothy 6:12
ἀγωνίζου τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα τῆς πίστεως, ἐπιλαβοῦ τῆς αἰωνίου ζωῆς, εἰς ἣν ἐκλήθης καὶ ὡμολόγησας τὴν καλὴν ὁμολογίαν ἐνώπιον πολλῶν μαρτύρων.
Engage in the good conflict of the faith. Take hold of that permanent life to which you were called and about which you made the good profession in the presence of many witnesses.
Paul encourages Timothy to struggle to the point of agony (ἀγωνίζου τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα) in order to take hold of what Christ has promised him. The promise was that permanent life to which (Timothy) was called.
Καὶ διὰ τοῦτο διαθήκης καινῆς μεσίτης ἐστίν, ὅπως θανάτου γενομένου εἰς ἀπολύτρωσιν τῶν ἐπὶ τῇ πρώτῃ διαθήκῃ παραβάσεων τὴν ἐπαγγελίαν λάβωσιν οἱ κεκλημένοι τῆς αἰωνίου κληρονομίας.
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised permanent inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
For the author of Hebrews, permanent life is our permanent inheritance. Christ mediates the new covenant, making it possible for us to eventually inherit that life. Here again, the possession of permanent life is explained as possession of a promise. Our temporary lives may (and probably will) come to an end. But the life that Jesus will give us at our resurrection when he returns will not be like this temporary life. We will inherit permanence.
1 Peter 5:10
ὁ δὲ θεὸς πάσης χάριτος, ὁ καλέσας ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν αἰώνιον αὐτοῦ δόξαν ἐν Χριστῷ ὀλίγον παθόντας αὐτὸς καταρτίσει, στηρίξει, σθενώσει, θεμελιώσει.
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his permanent glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
The word for “a little while” is ὀλίγος. We get our English word oligarchy from this word. An oligarchy is a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution. When I lived in the Philippines, people often spoke of that country as an oligarchy because it was heavily influenced by about twenty wealthy families.
Peter speaks of believers as having been called into God’s permanent glory in Christ. He contrasts that calling with the temporary sufferings that believers often face in this life. Peter encourages his readers to persevere through those times of suffering. Believers will only suffer a little while (ὀλίγος), God will restore them.
2 Peter 1:11
οὕτως γὰρ πλουσίως ἐπιχορηγηθήσεται ὑμῖν ἡ εἴσοδος εἰς τὴν αἰώνιον βασιλείαν τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν καὶ σωτῆρος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.
Because in this way there will be generously provided for you an entrance into the permanent kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The permanent kingdom Peter talks about here is not a place in the sky that good people go when they die. The permanent kingdom is the one that will be established when our king returns to the place God has given him for a throne. That place is earth, but not yet. Peter speaks of the entrance into that kingdom in future tense “there will be generously provided for you…” In other words, when the king comes, believers will have entrance into his permanent kingdom.
If there is a general theme of these eight passages it is that the life we are now living is temporary, the life –glory, inheritance, houses, kingdom to come will be permanent.
This gospel message deserves to be preached. People need to know that their present existence is temporary but that God offers them a resurrection unto permanent life. But it is hard to preach that message to a world that is convinced that everyone lives forever no matter what. The doctrine of innate immortality dulls the blade of our evangelism. It needs to be discarded, so that the gospel truth of potential immortality can get through to the nations who need it.
- Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1996), 306.
- CSB, ESV, LEB, NASB, NIV.