The Religious Concept of Eternal
Interestingly enough, our English word “eternal” comes from the Latin æternus which means, literally, “lasting for an age” (Walter Skeat, The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, 1882). This is confirmed by many etymological sources:
lasting for an age – John Kennedy, Word Stems: A Dictionary, 1996, page 128.
age – Robert K. Barnhart, Barnhart’s Concise Dictionary of Etymology, 1995, page 254.
age – Ernest Weekly, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 1967, page 526.
Somewhere along the way the meaning of the word “eternal” took on its modern religious concept. “Eternal” has come to mean “endless.” This definition is purely religious, rooted in Greek philosophy.
The Testimony of Others
We are not alone in coming to see the important scriptural meaning of “for ever,” “eternal” and “everlasting.” Consider the testimony of others concerning the current concept of “endless” as related to “eternity:”
No doubt it was right at one time to translate æonial by eternal, and would be right again could we reinstate the original significance of the word: for, strangely enough, the word “eternal” originally meant age-long. – Samuel Cox, Salvator Mundi, or Is Christ the Saviour of All Men? 2008, Classic Reprint Press, page 88.
Let me say to Bible students that we must be very careful how we use the word “eternity.” We have fallen into great error in our constant use of that word. There is no word in the whole Book of God corresponding with our “eternal” which as commonly used among us means absolutely without end. – G. Campbell Morgan, God’s Methods with Men, page 185.
Eternity is not a Biblical theme … What we have to learn is that the Bible does not speak of eternity. It is not written to tell us of eternity. Such a consideration is entirely outside the scope of revelation. – Charles H. Welch, An Alphabetical Analysis, Vol. 1, p. 279, 52.
“Aion” … is a period of longer or shorter duration, having a beginning and an end, and complete in itself … The word always carries the notion of time, and not of eternity. It always means a period of time. Otherwise it would be impossible to account for the plural, or for such qualifying expressions as this age, or the age to come. It does not mean something endless or everlasting … The adjective “aionios” in like manner carries the idea of time. Neither the noun nor the adjective, in themselves, carry the sense of endless or everlasting … Words which are habitually applied to things temporal or material cannot carry in themselves the sense of endlessness. Even when applied to God, we are not forced to render “aionios” everlasting. Of course the life of God is endless; but the question is whether, in describing God as “aionios” it was intended to describe the duration of His being, or whether some different and larger idea was not contemplated. – Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. IV, p. 59.
That “aiónion” does not mean endless or eternal, may appear from considering that no adjective can have a greater force than the noun from which it is derived. If “aión” means age (which none either will or can deny) then “aiónion” must mean age-lasting, or duration through the age or ages to which the thing spoken of relates. – Nathaniel Scarlett (1798), Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, A.B. Grosh, editor; Vol. VIII, No. 10; October 6, 1837, page 315.
Since “aion” meant “age,” “aionios” means, properly, “belonging to an age,” or “age-long,” and anyone who asserts that it must mean “endless” defends a position which even Augustine practically abandoned twelve centuries ago. – Frederic William Farrar, Mercy and Judgment, page 378.
The Bible hardly speaks of eternity in a philosophical sense of infinite duration without beginning or end. The Hebrew word “olam” … in contexts where it is traditionally translated “forever,” means, in itself, no more than “for an indefinitely long period.” … In the New Testament, “aion” is used as the equivalent of “olam.” – Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible.
The Old Testament and the New Testament are not acquainted with the conception of eternity as timelessness. The Old Testament has not developed a special term for “eternity.” The word “aion” originally meant :vital force,” “life;” then “age,” “lifetime.” It is, however, also used generally of a (limited or unlimited) long space of time … – The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. IV, p. 643.
There is no word either in the Old Testament Hebrew or in the New Testament Greek to express the abstract idea of eternity … “Eternal” is misleading, inasmuch as it has come in the English to connote the idea of “endlessly existing,” and thus to be practically a synonym for “everlasting.” But this is not an adequate rendering of “aionios” which varies in meaning with the variations of the noun “aion” from which it comes. – Hasting’s Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. III, pp. 369, 370.
The word by itself, whether adjective or substantive, never means endless. – Frederic William Farrar, The Wider Hope (1890).
The conception of eternity, in the Semitic languages, is that of a long duration and series of ages. – J.S. Blunt, Dictionary of Theology.
The word “aion” is never used in Scripture, or anywhere else, in the sense of endlessness (vulgarly called eternity, it always meant, both in Scripture and out, a period of time); else how could it have a plural – how could you talk of the æons and æons of æons as the Scripture does? – Charles Kingsley (1857), Endless Torments Unscriptural.
“Aion”means “an age,” a limited period, whether long or short, though often of indefinite length; and the adjective “aionios” means “of the age,” “agelong,” “aeonian,” and never “everlasting” (of its own proper force). It is true that it may be applied as an epithet to things that are endless, but the idea of endlessness in all such cases comes not from the epithet, but only because it is inherent in the object to which the epithet is applied, as in the case of God. – Thomas Allin, Christ Triumphant.
The single most commonly used English word that represents the meaning of aiōn is “age.” Twice the King James Version translators used the word “ages” to translate aiōn.
That in the ages [aiōn] to come He might shew the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).
Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages [aiōn] and from generations, but now is made manifest to His saints (Colossians 1:26).
Etymologically, the words “age” and “eternal” are from the same source. This can be verified by checking any dictionary on word origins. As an example, Eric Partridge in his work, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1983), has the following listed under “Eternal” – “See Age.”
Our English word “age” best represents the concept of the word aiōn in the Divine plan. When God uses aiōn in reference to His workings, He communicates the idea of “age” (or “eon”). Or, in the case of aiōnios it would be “age-lasting,” but once again the “age” in reference must be qualified by usage within the context.