αἰώνιος, Eternal, Jonah & Jesus – Bradley Jersak

We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows—eternal, ever since Wednesday—that we never heard Mrs. Prothero’s first cry from her igloo at the bottom of the garden. Or, if we heard it at all, it was, to us, like the far-off challenge of our enemy and prey, the neighbor’s polar cat. But soon the voice grew louder. “Fire!” cried Mrs. Prothero, and she beat the dinner-gong.

The Debate Thus Far

A key term in contemporary (and ancient) debates concerning the duration and nature of divine judgment and the possibility of ultimate redemption is αἰώνιος, usually translated in Matthew 25:46 as “everlasting” (NTE) or “eternal” (NIV) punishment.

This appears to make quick work of the universalists and an iron-clad case for the infernalists, especially when the verse pairs eternal life with eternal punishment in Jesus’ own words: “And they will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous will go into everlasting life.”   The logic is that in Matthew’s account, if the adjective is true of the one, it must be true of the other. That is, by using the same term, we shouldn’t suppose that Christ is promising eternal life for the sheep but only temporary judgment of the goats. Fair point.

BUT both ancient (St. Clement of Alexandria) and current scholars, whether conditionalist (N.T. Wright, technically) or universalist (David Bentley Hart, Fr. Aiden Kimel), point out that even within the Scriptures, αἰώνιος does not always mean “eternal” or “everlasting” … and even those two words are not strictly synonymous. In ancient Greek, the term may refer to:

  1. Perpetual or everlasting.
  2. Lasting for an age (an αἰών), i.e. age-lasting or age-inaugurating.
  3. Holding a title perpetually, i.e., for life.

So Hart translates it “These will go to the chastening [since kolasis can indicate correction rather than retribution] of that Age but the just to the life of that Age.” In this case, he capitalizes the Age to identify the “age to come” for both correction or blessing, thus retaining the parallel use of the word. But he is also bearing in mind that after the Age, there is an “end of the ages” (1 Cor. 10:11, cf. 15:24). In other words, the culmination of this age and commencement of the forthcoming Age will feature a crisis (krisis) that leads to chastisement or life abundant. But in Hart’s view, those outcomes converge and the End of the Age(s) (“the full completion” – 1 Cor. 15:24) when “in the Anointed, ALL will be given life” (1 Cor. 15: 22) flock in eternity, when God is “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

I find Hart’s argument convincing, primarily in the distinction between aionios as the “age to come” (or “age of judgment,” if you will) and “the end of the ages” (or “eternity”). But also in the sense that the age to come does divide humanity into two companies, while Paul is explicit in showing that the end of the ages draws all of humanity (in Adam) into the eternal state (as Christ’s gift to the Father).

A New (Old) Layer: Jonah of Jesus

Not all commentators are convinced by Hart. Should we stake either case (infernalist or universalist) on a word that can be translated either perpetual or everlasting or age-long? What if we don’t need to? Read on!

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.”  Matt 12:38-41 (NIV)

What is this sign of Jonah? Jesus connects Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish with his time in the tomb (and beyond). It is worth reading Jonah’s prayer from the whale to see how that story is prefiguring Christ’s death, burial, descent and resurrection:

1 Now the Lord commanded a huge sea creature to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the sea creature three days and three nights.  

2 And from the belly of the sea creature Jonah prayed to the Lord his God, and said, 

3 I cried in my affliction to the Lord, my God, and He heard my voice; out of the belly of hades: You heard the cry of my voice. 

4 You cast me into the depths of the heart of the sea, and rivers encompassed me; all Your surging waters and Your waves passed upon me. 

5 And I said, I have been driven away from Your sight; Shall I again look with favor toward Your holy temple? 

6 Water is poured over me to the soul; the lowest deep encircled me; my head plunged into the clefts of the mountains. 

7 I descended into the earth, the bars of which are everlasting barriers; yet let my life ascend from corruption, O Lord, my God. 

8 When my soul was failing from me, I remembered the Lord. 
May my prayer be brought to You, into Your holy temple. 

9 Those who follow vanity and lies forsake their own mercy. 

10 But with a voice of thanksgiving and praise, I will sacrifice to You. As much as I vowed, I shall offer up to You, to you, the Lord of Deliverance.

11 Then the Lord commanded the sea creature, and it cast up Jonah onto the dry land.

         —Jonah 2:1-11 (OSB, LXX)

Do you see what Jesus did there? He allegorized the poetic prayer to prefigure his death and resurrection by a careful, literal reading of the words in the scroll. You can see how the message was embedded there from the beginning but could not be perceived until Jesus unveiled it.
Specifically, Jonah describes his own descent into the belly of the sea creature and the belly of hades, into the clefts of the mountains, and even into the earth (similar to “under the earth” [Phil. 2:10] or “lower parts of the earth” [Eph. 4:9]. If we read Jonah literally, he is not describing the time in a giant fish’s digestive tract. He is telling us he died and came back to life. But even if he’s speaking in poetic hyperbole, Jesus chooses to interpret the story as describing his own very real death and resurrection. 

The Everlasting Barriers

So what? Did you catch verse 7? From the Septuagint:

…κατέβην           εις             γην  ης             οι μοχλοί αυτής

…I went down; into [the] earth of which its bars

κάτοχοι                 αιώνιοι.

[ holds  [are the] eternal].

και. αναβήτω       εκ     φθοράς       η ζωή μου, κύριε ο θεός μου

Yet let [ ascend from corruption    my life],  O LORD my God!

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Alright, now here is my point: do yohttps://www.amazon.ca/More-Christlike-Word-Reading-Scripture/dp/1641236523u see where the LXX of Jonah specifically speaks of his descent into hades, the bars or barriers of which are … eternal or everlasting? αιώνιοι. So even if we translate hades or the underworld judgment at everlastingYET Jonah discovers that God ends the everlasting imprisonment and commands the fish to belch him out… just as he does with Christ. 

My point, then, is that it doesn’t matter how you translate αιώνιοι. Even if we could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it means “eternal” or “everlasting,” LIFE still overcomes it and it comes to an end.So as someone who believes in ultimate redemption, I am relieved of bearing the burden of proof that it means something other than eternal.

If you found this article helpful, please consider pre-ordering my forthcoming book, A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way. CLICK HERE to pre-order now (available July).

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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More