IS "ETERNAL" ETERNAL?
Dr A. T. Pierson, opening a sermon entitled "The Inevitable Alternative", remarked, having read Matthew 25.46, "This is, without exception, the most unpopular text in the Bible. There is no one text upon which ministers of Christ so infrequently preach, and from which the bulk of hearers so constantly shrink as from this verse. Yet we are bidden to declare the whole counsel of God, whether men will hear or whether they will forbear. And if for no other reason than this, that the declaration of the entire message of God is the essential condition of freeing our own garments from the blood of lost souls, there is no minister of Christ that ought to preach without at times calling attention to a subject like this".
This remark will furnish sufficient justification for dealing exclusively with such a solemn theme in these articles, for it is important that believers should be established in this fundamental doctrine, and unbelievers should be apprised of it that they may thereby be driven to seek the way of escape which is not far off.
An initial consideration of no small importance is that outside of the Scriptures nothing is known as to this matter. Men may speculate, but nothing can be affirmed unless it is based upon Gods Word. For that reason, it is vital to accept the inspiration of the Bible, since unless one is assured that the Bible is Gods Word nothing will convince. In these articles the Bible will be the alone recognised source of authority as to death and after.
Accordingly, let us raise the question first of all, "Is eternal punishment (or to use an equivalent term eternal judgment) a Bible doctrine?" A reference to Matthew 25.46 and Hebrews 6.2 will immediately reveal two facts:
It is certainly named in the Bible. But we should consider the three terms that are in these two references - (a) eternal, (b) punishment, and (c) judgment.
That this is a correct English translation of the Hebrew and Greek words cannot be seriously contested. Paul speaks of the "things which are seen as being temporal and the things which are not seen as being eternal": from which it is evident that the antonym of "temporal" is "eternal": the one is limited, the other is unlimited. The one lasts for a specific period, the other, forever.
Is "eternal" a long but defined period of time?
Dr. Pierson writes, "For example, it has been said that the word translated "eternal" does not mean "eternal" at all. It is a Greek word ainios. That word is from the Greek word aion, which is the same as the English word eon, or age; and it has been said that this word means age-long, that it is a punishment that reaches through a definite period, but not necessarily through eternity. But the same word precisely is applied to life in the other section of the verse (Mt 25.46): "but the righteous unto life eternal." Though the word is translated "everlasting" in the first part of the verse, and "eternal" in the last part of the verse, it is the same original word in both; and if the word means age-long as to punishment, does it not mean age-long as to life? And if that be the case, then there is no guarantee in this verse here for the everlasting punishment of the wicked and there is no guarantee here for the everlasting life of the righteous".
But then notice that, while that word does mean age-long, so does the word "eternal." The word "eternal" is from the Latin word aetas, an age, which is the exact correspondent of the Greek word aion, an age; so that our word eternal means nothing but age-long. We have to take words to express ideas that are far beyond us. We have to take words that fall within the compass of our experience. We have never known a life that did not end, nor a life in which there was no succession of days and hours, and years and centuries; and so when we try to express the idea of a life that is not bounded by those limits, we take the longest period of which we know anything - an age. Take the most indefinite period of which we know anything - an age; and we use that word to express the conception of eternity. Now, if you will stop a moment you will see the reason of this. Suppose the word that is here translated "eternal" meant year-long. A year is a definite cycle of time, 365 days. It marks the period of the revolution of the earth round the sun in its orbit, and so a year means a definite period. But the word "age" means an indefinite length of time, and so we have no word that comes so near to eternity as the word age, for there are no limits to mark the beginning, no limits to mark the end, and that is the characteristic of eternity. And so the Greek, having no other word, said ainios, age-long, and the Latin, having no other word, compounds one from the word aetas, an age, and we take our word eternal from the same Latin word aetas.
"Eternal" used in other Scriptures
Added to the foregoing, we may observe that this word "eternal" is applied to life in such famous passages as John 3.16 and 10.28, to God Himself in Romans 16.26, and to the Holy Spirit in Hebrews 9.14. Also it is a characteristic word in Hebrews where the eternal blessings of Christianity are contrasted with the temporal blessings of Judaism (5.9; 9.12,15; 13.20). Then we may call attention to the use of the same word in more solemn instances and the reader should himself examine these: Matthew 18.8; 25.41; 2 Thessalonians 1.9; Hebrews 6. 2; and Jude v.7).
Were translators wrong in using "eternal"?
Were it not for the objection of the opposers this point could the more speedily be disposed of from what is written above, but since there are those who will oppose we would ask, "Were the scholarly translators of the AV ignorant of the true force of the original words and blundered in their translation? Did the various scholars who sat on the Revisers Committee make the same error, or is their translation in the text intended to be a confirmation that the AV in this matter is correct?"
Indeed, etymologically the Greek word for "age" is compounded of two other Greek words, one being aie meaning always, and the other being the present participle of the verb for "to be", i.e. "being", and together they mean "always being". Not that etymology can always determine the meaning of a word in its usage, but here certainly it is useful.
"For ever and ever" means "eternal"
As to the expressions "for ever and ever" which some translate "unto the ages of the ages", or "unto the ages", we may quote the words of the late J. R. Caldwell: "It is useless to argue that the words imply a limited though extended period. An age with God is at least a thousand years. Ages must be much longer. But the expression ages of ages, what can it mean but that which exceeds human conception, in short, eternity?".
This is an expression used of God Himself, and the duration of His throne, and is frequently found in ascriptions of glory to Him. Similarly, the precisely same expressions are employed in Revelation 14.11; 19.3; 20.10) in relation to the subject before us, that of eternal punishment.
We shall later on see that, in the nature of things, nothing but eternal punishment is possible for the unbeliever, and that apart from the words themselves, it is an integral part of the doctrine of Scripture. But the words are definite, and only they who are wilfully blind, having an unscriptural theory to support, deny the true meaning of these terms.
To be continued.