By Joe Schimmel & Tony Palacio
Since the release of our DVD, The Submerging Church, we have received several emails challenging our ministry concerning the bible’s teaching about hell. Some question whether it is eternal, or whether it is temporal. Others argue for annihilationism. Still some argue that hell is a place of discipline and once sinners repent and/or finally surrender to God that they are released from hell and can enter heaven. Some even suggest that some of the church Fathers didn’t really have a full understanding about hell, so how can we really know what is true?
Our ultimate source of authority should always be scripture. After all, it is the inspired word of God. Of course, there are debates as to what translation is the best, but for the topic of this discussion we will set aside that debate while looking at a key word used in the original Greek that is used for the term “forever,” “eternal,” etc. That Greek word is “aion” or “aionios”.
Regarding the question of understanding the duration of one’s punishment in hell as a mere “period of time” – rather than “forever” – on the basis of what the claim of the real meaning of “aionios” and the biblical evidence otherwise shows: Some would have us believe that “eternal” and “forever” are not the way the New Testament writers wanted us to understand their usage of “aionios” in scripture. If this is the case we run into many irremediable problems when it comes to the promise of eternal life for the believer and the very nature of God.
While it is true that the words “aion” and “aionios” in certain contexts speak of an “age” or a mere “period of time,” it is also clear that they often mean “eternal” or “eternity” in given contexts. Some want us to understand “aionios” as exclusively meaning a mere age or period of time in an effort to prove a point that everybody (or many) has/have an opportunity to accept Christ AFTER death. The biblical evidence is overwhelming, however, in proving that the word “aionios” most often means “eternal” or “forever.”
Note that Jesus used the same word (aionios) to describe the eternal duration of both life for the “righteous” sheep and punishment in hell for the wicked “goats” in the very same verse and context (Matthew 25:46):
“These [the wicked] shall go away into eternal [aionios] punishment: but the righteous into eternal [aionios] life” (Matthew 25:46).
It would be really odd for Jesus to have used the same word “aionios” to describe the duration of both life and punishment, to actually mean that life was eternal yet punishment was a mere “period of time.” This would look something like this:
“These [the wicked] shall go away into temporary [aionios] punishment: but the righteous into eternal [aionios] life.”
Some want “aionion” to mean a mere period of time when describing the duration one spends in hell, while simultaneously having us believe that the bible teaches eternal life is forever – all while utilizing the same Greek word to explain both. This is a classic case of attempting to “have your cake and eat it too.”
The Greek word “aionion” is used 50 times to describe the eternal life of the believer and if we assign the meaning of the word that many want to press upon it (in an absolute sense), such verses promising eternal life are not so impressive anymore, to say the least. Here are some examples of how these verses promising eternal life would look if we followed the Universalist’s lead consistently, and substitute a “period of time” for the Greek word “aionios”:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life [for a period of time?]” (John 3:16).
Note that John 10:28 comes out especially ridiculous, as it would contradict itself by contrasting life as a mere “period of time” with “never perishing”:
“and I give eternal [aionios] life to them [for a period of time?], and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:28).
Here are a couple of other examples:
“so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal [aionios] life [for a period of time?] through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21)
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal [aionios] life [for a period of time?] in Christ Jesus our Lord” (John 6:23).
Also observe how “aionios” is used to describe God’s eternal nature and how ridiculous “aionios” would be translated as a mere “period of time” in regard to God’s nature, making it no different than humans in respect to its coming to an end:
“but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal [aionios] God [who only exists for a period of time?], has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26).
“who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal [for a period of time?] dominion! Amen” (1 Tim 6:16).
“how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal [for a period of time?] Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14).
One of my favorite verses that illustrates that “aionios” often speaks of the eternal is in 2 Corinthians 4:18. Why? Because “aionios” is used here by Paul to contrast the unending eternal with the temporal material world:
“For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal [aionios]” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Notice how ridiculous this verse would appear (it would be meaningless) if we pressed the idea that “aionios” can only refer to “a period of time” or a mere “age”:
“For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are [for a period of time?]” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
I hope this helps clarify a better understanding of the words “aion” and “aionios” when properly understanding their use within the context of scripture. Sure, it is a pleasant teaching to think that we get “a second chance” after death, or that “torment is temporary,” but this simply is not taught in scripture. To further illustrate this, I point you to the scripture which teaches the principle that if people do not accept Jesus, that they will remain wicked:
“Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy” (Revelation 22:11)
Below is our entire chapter on hell from our DVD “The Submerging Church” called “Rob Bell on Hell” broken up into two parts: