Αἰώνιος in the New Testament – the second attributives
Jefferson Vann explores four instances of αἰώνιος in the New Testament, categorized as the second attributive position. He shows how they are consistent with his preferred translation of the word, as permanent. He also explains how believers can be given this life, and still die, and need to be raised to life in the future.
Today I would like to discus the four instances of αἰώνιος in the New Testament which are defined as second attributives.
Wallace defines this grammatical construction this way: “The second attributive position is article-noun-article-adjective (e.g., ὁ βασιλεὺς ὁ ἀγαθός = the good king). This difference in the placement of the adjective is not one of relation, but of position and emphasis. In the second attributive position “both substantive and adjective receive emphasis and the adjective is added as a sort of climax in apposition with a separate article. A literal, though awkward, gloss, bringing out the force of such a construction of ὁ βασιλεὺς ὁ ἀγαθός, is ‘the king, the good one.’ This construction occurs frequently..”1
Εἰ δὲ ἡ χείρ σου ἢ ὁ πούς σου σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· καλόν σοί ἐστιν εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν ζωὴν κυλλὸν ἢ χωλὸν ἢ δύο χεῖρας ἢ δύο πόδας ἔχοντα βληθῆναι εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον.
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, hack it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the fire, the permanent one.
All Christians can agree on the essence of this passage. Jesus warns us that nothing should stop us from making an end of sin. If something so essential as a hand or foot is keeping us out of Christ’s coming kingdom, then we should amputate. We also usually agree that Jesus does not actually endorse self-mutilation, but that he is saying our eternal destiny is important enough to do it, if that is what it takes.
For those who do repent of their sin and join Christ’s coming kingdom, there is the implicit promise that we will enter life. But, should anyone choose the opposite way, their destiny is defined as τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον. Traditionalists usually translate this phrase as “the eternal fire” or “the everlasting fire.” They believe that what Jesus is describing here is an ongoing process of suffering in hell without the possibility of death.
As a conditionalist, I recognize that most Christians have read the text that way, and so have believed that way. But, as I have demonstrated in previous articles in this series, the basic idea of αἰώνιος in the New Testament is not an ongoing process, but a permanent event. A fire that is αἰώνιος is not one which burns perpetually, but one which destroys permanently. That can be the only logical conclusion in Matthew 18:8 because Jesus contrasts two things to enter: either repent and enter life, or don’t repent, and enter the fire. The fire is the opposite of life. It is destruction. An eternal life of suffering does not qualify. The wages of sin is death, not an agonising eternal life.
Τότε ἐρεῖ καὶ τοῖς ἐξ εὐωνύμων· πορεύεσθε ἀπ᾽ ἐμοῦ [οἱ] κατηραμένοι εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον τὸ ἡτοιμασμένον τῷ διαβόλῳ καὶ τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the fire, the permanent one prepared for the devil and his angels.
In Matthew 24, Jesus answers some questions about the last things in general, and his second coming in particular. In chapter 25, he illustrates some of his answers with some parables, also eschatological in nature. This verse is part of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats, where he illustrates how the nations will gathered together, and then separated into two groups, based on how they treated him – or the least of his brothers.2 Those he places on his right will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. Those he places on his left will be thrown “into the fire, the permanent one prepared for the devil and his angels.”
In each case, the final destiny of each group has been prepared beforehand. The kingdom the sheep will inherit has been planned from the beginning of creation. The goats will share the fate of the devil and the angels who joined him in his rebellion against God. So is this αἰώνιος fire an eternal one, or a permanent one? Even if we were to grant that either translation is possible, which is appropriate for this text?
Rather than simply make our choice based on what we might think Jesus is saying here, there is another option theologically. We can go to another passage of scripture which is not allegorical, and which states in a more straightforward manner what the destiny of Satan and the demons is.
“Next the end of the harvest will happen, when he gives back the kingdom to God and Father, when he has eliminated every rule and every authority and power. Because it will be necessary for him to reign until he has put all the hostile ones under his feet. The last hostile thing to be eliminated will be death.”3
In his chapter on the resurrection, Paul explains the timing of the resurrection by describing it as a great harvest, which will take place in three stages. The first stage was Christ’s resurrection as the firstfruits – the first to be raised from among those who are now sleeping.4 The next stage is the resurrection of those who are in Christ, and this will take place when he returns.5 The final stage will be the end of the harvest, when Christ gives back the kingdom to the Father. But before that final stage of the harvest, all of God’s enemies must be eliminated. This includes unrepentant humans, but it also includes every rule (ἀρχή) and every authority (ἐξουσία) and every power (δύναμις). Each of these terms is used in the New Testament to refer to beings in the demonic world.
- ἀρχή – Romans 8:38; Ephesians 3:10; 6:12; Colossians 1:16.
- ἐξουσία – Ephesians 1:21; 2:2; 3:10; Colossians 1:13; 2:15; 1 Peter 3:22.
- δύναμις – Matthew 24:29; Romans 8:38; Ephesians 1:21; 1 Peter 3:22.
Paul says that these demonic beings are enemies who will be eliminated before Christ gives back the universe to the Father. They will be eliminated by the fire that John describes in Revelation – a fire that torments and consumes God’s enemies – a fire John calls the second death.6 No one knows how long it will take to destroy those demons. John saw them burning for ages and ages.7 But he later saw a new creation, because the old creation (including that fire) had passed away.8 John is describing the same thing that Paul predicted, the complete destruction of Satan and the demonic world.
When Jesus warns the nations that they too may suffer the fate of being thrown into the permanent fire prepared for Satan and the demons, it is a serious matter. But to insist that the fire cannot do what Paul says it will do is to abuse scripture.
1 John 1:2
καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἐφανερώθη, καὶ ἑωράκαμεν καὶ μαρτυροῦμεν καὶ ἀπαγγέλλομεν ὑμῖν τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον ἥτις ἦν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα καὶ ἐφανερώθη ἡμῖν-
the life appeared, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the life, the permanent one, which was with the Father and appeared to us–
In his letters, John uses the second attributive construction of αἰώνιος to refer to Jesus himself. The life that he lives is the permanent life. The life that he demonstrates is the permanent life. The life that he offers and promises is the permanent life.
1 John 2:25
καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἣν αὐτὸς ἐπηγγείλατο ἡμῖν, τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον.
And this is the promise that he made to us– the life, the permanent one.
As I mentioned in a previous article, in his first letter, John clears up what might have been some confusion readers had concerning Jesus’ statements about permanent life. Jesus is said to have given (δίδωμι) believers this permanent life.9 Now, believers are said to have (ἔχω) this permanent life.10 But if that is the case, why do believers die? And why does Jesus promise to raise (ἀνίστημι) believers from the dead?11
Traditionalists might answer this question by saying that believers have been given immortality in their souls or spirits, but await a resurrection to have immortal bodies. But those do not appear to be the distinctions John is making. Instead, what Jesus gives believers is the promise (ἐπαγγελία) that he will give us this permanent life in the future. Luke calls it the age to come.12 In his letter, John explains that the gospel gift is the promise of permanent life that Jesus gives us.
The most prevalent adjectival construction in which αἰώνιος appears in the New Testament is called the fourth attributive position. We will survey those 48 instances next time.
1Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1996), 306.
31 Corinthians 15:24-27 (my translation).
41 Corinthians 15:20.
51 Corinthians 15:23.
6Revelation 20:9, 10, 14, 15; 21:8.
9John 1:12; 4:10, 14; 6:27, 32, 33, 51; 10:28; 17:2.
10John 3:15, 16, 36; 5:24, 40; 6:40, 47, 54; 8:12; 10:10; 20:31.
11John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:23, 24.