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Eternal Judgment - Are Universal Reconciliation or Annihilationism True?

September 25, 2011

In recent years I became confronted with two ideas concerning the doctrine of eternal judgment, which, incidentally, is a doctrine that the writer to the Hebrews considered a foundational doctrine (Heb. 6:1, 2), and these two ideas are called universal reconciliation (or ultimate reconciliation), and Annihilationism.  Universal reconciliationists contend that all men will be saved or reconciled to Christ at the end of the age, including Judas Iscariot, Hitler, and unrepentant child molesters who use and then murder precious little children, with no remorse and for personal gratification.  Yes, they believe all will be reconciled to Christ and have eternal life.  Annihilationists contend that the wicked will not suffer endlessly, but will suffer until they are destroyed forever in the lake of fire.  Although this article is certainly applicable for a biblical examination of universal reconciliation, I don't feel to deal with that issue directly.  I would, however, like to address annihilationism directly.

As I read some of the arguments for annihilationism, I found that most of the arguments for this view were so weak that they did more to convince me otherwise than to convince me of its truth.  However, I was also struck with the fact that its proponents provided some compelling arguments for this view by casting doubt upon what is commonly believed to be the meaning of two key Greek words, so I prayerfully studied out the matter in order to determine what the scriptural truth is concerning eternal judgment.  I wanted to know the truth for myself, and I certainly wanted to know if what I had always believed to be true was, in fact, a lie.  Will men suffer endlessly, or will they be annihilated in the Lake of Fire?  I needed to know, and so do you, for as I said, the author of the book of Hebrews considered this to be a foundational doctrine.

With the direction of the Holy Spirit, I came to understand that Jesus and all of the New Testament writers clearly taught the doctrine of eternal torment, and I discovered that the arguments from the other viewpoint that appeared to be most compelling, were, in fact, based upon a false presupposition.  When this false presupposition is removed, the compelling evidence is completely undone, and the doctrine is shown for what it is.  It is shown to be a twisting of scripture to attempt to make the scripture consistent with our concepts of what a loving and just God should be.  The false presupposition that is the foundation of annihilationism hinges upon two main contentions:

Firstly, the annihilationist (as well as the universal reconciliationist) contends that the colloquialism “to the ages of the ages”, or in the Greek eis aion aion should NOT be translated as “for ever and ever”, but literally, “to the ages of the ages”, indicating an indeterminate, but limited span of time.  This is important because this is the expression used for the duration of the punishment of the wicked in the Lake of Fire (Rev. 14:11, 19:2,3, 20:10 see also Mat. 25:41).  

Secondly, they contend that aionios, as used by Jesus in describing the duration of the punishment of the wicked (Mat 25:46 see also 2 Thes. 1:9), does not mean eternal, even though scripture itself, as we will see shortly, indicates that it does, in fact, mean eternal. They lend strength to this argument by stating that since the first argument is true, that aion does not mean eternal, in spite of what Greek experts tell us, then aionios cannot mean eternal, since the adjective form of a noun cannot carry more weight than does the noun itself.  Well, they have inadvertently undone their entire argument by showing that eis aion aion has to mean for ever and ever, because (as we shall see shortly) scripture interprets aionios as meaning eternal, and if the adjective can carry no more weight than the noun, then the noun aion must, in fact, mean eternal, especially when used in the compounded and emphasized form  eis aion aion.  So, how does scripture interpret for us the adjective aionios as meaning eternal?  Let’s take a look…

Paul wrote in 2Co 4:18 the following: “while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal [proskairos]; but the things which are not seen are eternal [aionios].”

Here, Paul gives us a clear and concise definition of the Greek word aionios, and he does so by using the word *aionios, which is translated eternal, in contrast to the word **proskairos, which means temporal, or for a set or proper time.   Rather than expressing the idea of the eternal by using the word aidios (G126), Paul chose to use the word aionios.  Rather than expressing the idea of the eternal by using the negative in conjunction with the word for temporal (in other words, “not temporal”), or by using the word akatalutos (G179) meaning indissoluble or permanent (Heb. 7:16), he chose to use the word aionios.  That which is seen is temporal, and that which is not seen is eternal [aionios].  Paul’s usage of the word aionios clearly indicates that it does mean eternal, and not temporal, or limited to an age or to the end of an age, or for an indeterminate period of time.  If aionios meant “an age” or “an indeterminate period of time”, as the Annihilationists have argued, it would be an expression of the temporal rather than the eternal.  Were that so, then this passage of scripture would make no sense, for it would read thus:  “… for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are temporal.”  

So, I think that this verse, taken in conjunction with the dozens of verses using aionios as describing eternal life, as well as eternal inheritance, covenant, glory, kingdom, gospel, power, God, house, and consolation, gives us a clear definition of the word as it is consistently translated in the NT, and that is, “endless in duration, or eternal”, Just as W.E. Vine, James Strong, and others have asserted.  Let’s follow the fundamental principle of biblical interpretation and let scripture interpret scripture.  

*G166 aionios
ahee-o'-nee-os
Strong Definition:
From:G165 aion; perpetual (also used of past time, or past and future as well): - eternal, for ever, everlasting, world (began).

Thayer Definition:
1) without beginning and end, that which always has been and always will be
2) without beginning
3) without end, never to cease, everlasting
Part of Speech: adjective

**G4340 proskairos
pros'-kahee-ros
Strong Definition:
From G4314 and G2540; for the occasion only, that is, temporary: - dur- [eth] for awhile, endure for a time, for a season, temporal.

Thayer Definition:
1) for a season
2) enduring only for a while
3) temporary
Part of Speech: adjective

The eternal aspect of aionios becomes even more evident when you see how Paul uses this word over and over in context, as he contrasts the physical with the spiritual, the earthly with the heavenly, the seen with the unseen, and the temporal with the eternal.  Let’s look at that context:
2Co 4:16  Wherefore we faint not; but though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day.
2Co 4:17  For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal [aionios]  weight of glory;
2Co 4:18  while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal [aionios].
2Co 5:1  For we know that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal [aionios], in the heavens.
2Co 5:2  For verily in this we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our habitation which is from heaven:
2Co 5:3  if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked.
2Co 5:4  For indeed we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened; not for that we would be unclothed, but that we would be clothed upon, that what is mortal may be swallowed up of life.

In the following verses, Jesus uses this word in describing the punishment of the wicked as being as enduring as the life that He gives to those who are in Christ:

Mat 18:8  Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting G166 fire.

Mat 25:41  Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting G166 fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:


Mat 25:46   And these shall go away into everlasting G166 punishment:G2851 but the righteous into life eternal G166.

G2851
kolasis
kol'-as-is
From G2849; penal infliction: - punishment, torment.

Thayer Definition:
1) correction, punishment, penalty
Part of Speech: noun feminine
A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: from G2849
Citing in TDNT: 3:816, 451

Mar 3:29  But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness,G3756 G859 G1519 G165  but is in danger of eternal G166 damnation:

We see from the following verse that the duration spoken of in the previous verse is clearly everlasting or eternal:

Mat 12:32  And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world,G165 neither in the world to come.

It is very significant that the NT uses the word aionios over 40 times to describe eternal life.  I don’t see where, in light of its usage in the NT, it can be seen as temporal in regard to punishment, but eternal in regard to the life that God gives to those who believe in Christ, especially when Jesus uses it in the same verses to describe both the life He gives and the punishment for rejecting that life (Mat. 25:46).

Mat 25:46  And these shall go away into everlasting G166 punishment: but the righteous into life eternal G166.

Surely the punishment, spoken of here by Jesus, is as enduring as the life.  Of course, the essence of eternal life is not in its duration, but in its eternal quality and its union with Him who is eternal.  However, you cannot discount the aspect of eternal duration, for it is that very aspect that Paul emphasizes for us, as we saw in 2 Cor. 4:18.  Together, Jesus and Paul both give us a clear understanding, through their use of the word, that aionios is eternal in duration as well as in essence.

So then, since (as we have seen from Paul's usage of the word) aionios does, in fact, mean eternal, then the noun form of the word, which is aion, has to mean eternal, if the annihilationist's argument is true that the adjective form of a word can carry no more weight than does the noun form.  While that, in and of itself, tends to undo their argument, let's look further into the word aion.

Aion

Some would contend that the phrase for ever and ever G1519 G165 G165 should be translated literally, as, “the ages of the ages”, since aion (G165) refers to an age.  However, it seems apparent to me that the punishment that the NT speaks of as being to the ages of the ages, is, as in the above mentioned scriptures, as enduring as is Christ and His reign, which is spoken of as to the ages of the ages:

Rev 10:6  And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, G1519 G165 G165 who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer:

Rev 11:15  And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever G1519 G165 G165

Aion, or age,  seems to be indicative of either this present age or of the age to come.  The question is over the eternal or temporal nature of the age to come.  The following scripture shows that this age has an end, whereas the one to come does not.  The context shows this clearly, and in this verse we see both aion and aionios used to express eternity.

Mar 10:30  But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world G165 aion to come eternal G166 aionios life.

Luk 18:30  Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world G165 aion to come life everlasting G166 aionios.

No one who has ever challenged the meaning of aionios as “eternal” would dare contend that the forty plus uses of the NT expression “eternal life”, does NOT, in fact, mean eternal, but only temporary life.

In this passage, the common NT phrase eis aion is shown to be eternal:

Luk 1:33  And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever;G1519 G165 and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

If His kingdom has no end, then obviously, His reign will have no end, and is, therefore, eternal.  So, we see clearly in this verse that aion means eternal.

We see in this passage how the negative is used to show the eternal nature of the word aion:

Joh 4:14  But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never G3364 G1519 G165 thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting G166 life.

Let me ask a question.  Will those who drink of the water that Jesus gives begin to thirst again at the end of the age to come?  Of course the answer is no.  Never ever (ou me eis aion) is as eternal as is the life, spoken of in this verse. 

Joh 6:51   I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever:G1519 G165  and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Will those who partake of Jesus live only to the end of the age to come?  Of course not.  If aion does not perfectly express the idea of the eternal, surely Jesus would’ve used another word in this passage in order to convey the idea. 

Joh 6:58  This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever G1519 G165.

Joh 8:35  And the servant abideth not in the house for ever:G1519 G165 but the Son abideth ever G1519 G165.

Does the Son abide for a long time and then cease?  No. 

Even the use in the following verse shows the eternal nature of aion when the context dictates:
1Ti 1:17  Now unto the King eternal, G165 immortal, [From G1 (as a negative particle) and a derivative of G5351; undecaying] invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever G1519 G165 G165. Amen.

Here, the negative particle shows that He cannot be seen, so He is invisible, He cannot decay, so He is immortal, and it uses aion to show that he is eternal, rather than using the negative in conjunction with a Greek word for “end”, such as telos (“no end” as in Luke 1:33).  It does not say that he is vague, but invisible, nor healthy, but immortal, nor old, but eternal!  He does not exist till the end of the age, but forever!

If you look at all scriptures where aion is used in the NT it becomes obvious that it is used to mean eternal, except where it speaks of this present age or world, and the author is always careful, in every case, to indicate just that, using phraseology indicating this age or this present age.  I would humbly challenge anyone to show me a NT scripture where the meaning of aion is ambiguous.  If it is not clearly indicative of this present age that will end, it is always an expression of eternity or of the age to come that the scripture clearly declares will have no end. 

Heb 13:8  Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever. G1519 G165

Does He change?  No, the scripture declares that He changes not.

1Pe 1:23  Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. G1519 G165

Does the word of God endure for only a season?  No.

1Pe 1:25  But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. G1519 G165 And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.

1Jn 2:17  And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. G1519 G165

Rev 1:18  I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, G1519 G165 G165 Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.

Rev 4:9,10  And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, G1519 G165 G165 The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, G1519 G165 G165 and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
 
Rev 5:14  And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever. G1519 G165 G165

Rev 10:6  And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, G1519 G165 G165 who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer:

Rev 11:15   And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. G1519 G165 G165

Rev 14:11   And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: G1519 G165 G165 and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

Rev 15:7  And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever. G1519 G165 G165

Rev 19:2,3  For true and righteous are his judgments: for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand.
And again they said, Alleluia. And her smoke rose up for ever and ever. G1519 G165 G165

Rev 20:10    And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. G1519 G165 G165

Rev 22:5   And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever. G1519 G165 G165 eis aion aion

When I asked George F. Somsel, a retired Greek professor, whether eis aion aion means “for ever and ever,” he answered this way,  “’The X of Xs’ is a common way to express ‘the greatest’ or ‘the highest.’  Take ‘King of kings’ as an example.  Yes, ‘for ever and ever’ or for ‘the ages of the ages’ would be a way to express the greatest time conceivable.”

Also, the annihilationists' insistence that aion and aionios are age specific and do not refer to eternity, or time without end, begs the question: why then did not the writers of the NT, and Jesus Himself, use the word aidios to clearly express one of the main themes of scripture, which is the eternal nature of God, of Jesus Christ and His reign, and of the life He offers, and then use aion and aionios to express more age-specific ideas?  Why is aidios used only twice in the TN (Rom. 1:20, Jude 1:6) when, according to the annihilationsists, it much more clearly expresses the eternal than does aion or aionios? 

Because the arguments for Annihilationism and Universal Reconciliation are insupportable with NT scripture, their proponents must simply obscure the issue by casting doubt on Bible translation. You will find that they do this by examining Old Testament scriptures in the Septuagint, and by making assertions about the beliefs of primitive Christians. I believe that these arguments serve only to muddy the waters that flow clearly, cleanly, and consistently from NT scripture, as we have seen.

Conclusion

Someone has said that in biblical interpretation, context is king.  The second rule of interpretation is to let scripture interpret scripture.  In looking at the NT Greek usage of aion and aionios, it is obvious that they are used to mean eternal, unless specific to this present age and in contrast to the eternal age to come.  To say that eternal damnation for sinners in a literal fire where they will suffer for ever is not a scriptural doctrine, but rather, a doctrine born of medieval superstition or of Catholic tradition, is to misrepresent or obscure the clear teaching of New Testament scripture.  I think that once we remove the false notion that our NT has been mistranslated when it uses the terms eternal, forever, or for ever and ever, then we can read the entire NT without that misconception obscuring its obvious meaning when it speaks of the worm that does not die or the fire that is unquenchable, for example.

Is it hard to swallow, the idea that our friends and loved-ones, or our enemies for that matter, may suffer endlessly in a fiery torment?  Yes, it’s hard for us to even grasp.  However, let us not attempt to rewrite scripture, but accept what it clearly teaches until the Spirit of Truth can reveal to us the nature and character of God in regard to what we currently may not be able to comprehend.  “…Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). 

While it's difficult for me to comprehend human beings suffering endlessly throughout eternity, I can tell you that when I was lost in sin and abiding under the wrath of God, it was not at all difficult for me to comprehend the eternal hell that I knew awaited me, and that I knew I fully deserved.  For me, what was impossible to comprehend was not the justice of God that rightfully condemned me to an eternal hell, but the mercy of God that He poured out upon me when He came to me, rescued me and forgave me, Me the greatest of sinners.  It was the severity of God that served to make His goodness to me so overwhelming that His love and mercy captured my heart and conquered my will forever. 


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