Αἰων and עֹלָֽם (olam)

Foreword

This writing is an in-depth study of the meaning of the Greek word αἰων. I recommend it for those who are already interested in the subject, but for relative new-comers to the scene I suggest you look elsewhere! Or you could just jump down to the end and read the summary and then decide whether to read earlier parts of the article. If your interest is in the related subject of universal reconciliation I have written two simpler writings on that: Universal Reconciliation and Universal Reconciliation or Eternal Torment?.

I’ve made use of two excellent websites:

First, The Bible Gateway. You can click on any verse underlined in this writing and see its translation in Young’s Literal Version (which I have chosen for consistency), and then in other translations and languages if you wish. Simply close the new window to return to this article.

Second, The Blue Letter Bible. From this website you can get Thayer’s lexicon definition of any Greek word and Gesenius’ lexicon definition of any Hebrew word and in each case all references to them in Strong’s Concordance by using their reference numbers. I have set this up here for αἰων and olam.

Introduction

Many people who are otherwise ignorant of Greek have in recent years become aware of the Greek word αἰων (aiōn). This is because it lies at the centre of a huge controversy. The Bible states that unbelievers will suffer torment for αἰωνs of αἰωνs. Does this mean for ever and ever, or does it mean for ages of ages? Or what else might it mean? It’s a vastly important question – where and how will you spend eternity? – and it hinges on the meaning of the word αἰων.

A second question that hinges on the meaning αἰων is the span of time made up of a series of eons or ages, and if so, when do they begin and end, and where are we now? A lot of new teaching on this subject is based on the assumption that αἰων always means eon or age.

αἰων is transliterated aiōn and pronounced I own, but I will use the Greek spelling αἰων throughout this article. For עֹלָֽם, the related Hebrew word, I will use the spelling olam.

A.E.Knoch in the Concordant Literal New Testament translates αἰων consistently by eon (the English word derived from it) and Young’s Literal Translation does the same but uses the more common English word age. The result in both cases is often close to nonsense.

In this article I am proposing a new approach to this question. The Greek word αἰων is an awkward translation of the Hebrew word olam, and the study of this Hebrew word olam will throw a totally new light on the meaning of αἰων. Most modern writers appear to be completely ignorant of this and simply state that olam means the same as αἰων and then give the matter no further consideration.

The adjective derived from αἰων is αἰωνιος (aiōnios). Does this word mean everlasting, eternal, agelasting or what? Clearly we must include this word in our study.

First we must look at the nature and extent of the problem. Below I have grouped together all the different ways in which αἰων is used in the New Testament, and ask the question, “Does the translation age make sense?” In many cases the answer will be no. I have given each verse in Young’s Literal Translation which, respectfully, is often close to gibberish, but can be very useful! Also, if you click on any verse reference, you will get Young’s translation of the verse, and can look at other translations.

Different Uses of αἰων

Group 1 - To the αἰων or αἰωνες:

Traditional translation: for ever

Further references to To the αἰων: Matt 21:19, Mark 3:29, Mark 11:14, Luke 1:55, John 4:14, John 6:51, John 6:58, John 8:35, John 8:51-52, John 9:32, John 10:28, John 11:26, John 12:34, John 13:8, John 14:16, 1Cor 8:13, 2Cor 9:9, Heb 1:8, Heb 5:6, Heb 6:20, Heb 7:17, Heb 7:21, Heb 7:24, Heb 7:28, 1Pet 1:23, 1Pet 1:25, 1John 2:17, 2John 1:2, Jude 1:13, 2Pet 2:17, 2Pet 3:18.

Comment: the traditional translation for ever makes sense, but does not fit every case. For the age would make more sense in some cases, but would be unnatural. The literal translation to the age is meaningless.

Group 1 extension - To the αἰωνες of the αἰωνες:

Traditional translation: for ever and ever

Comment: the traditional translation for ever and ever makes sense in some cases and especially with regard to God, but supports the unscriptural teaching of eternal torment. For ages of ages would not make much sense. The literal translation to the ages of the ages is meaningless.

Group 2 - From the αἰων or αἰωνες:

Traditional translations: long ago, of old, before time began

Comment: the traditional translations makes sense. The literal translation from the age is totally meaningless.

Group 3 - The adjective αἰωνιος:

Traditional translation: eternal (or everlasting)

Comment: the traditional translation makes sense, but supports the teaching of eternal torment which conflicts with other scriptures and with reason. The translation age-during or age-lasting is unnatural in most contexts.

Group 4 - Creation of the αἰωνες:

Traditional translation: worlds, universe

Comment: The traditional translation worlds makes far better sense than ages. Hebrews 11 is a commentary on the book of Genesis, which describes the creation of the world and has nothing to say about the creation of the ages.

Group 5 - This αἰων and the αἰων to come:

Traditional translation: this world, the world to come

Comment: it could mean world or it could mean age!

Group 6 - The end (consummation) of the αἰων (or αἰωνες):

Traditional translation: the end of the world

Comment: the traditional translation makes sense in the Matthew passages. The literal translation the end of the age is difficult. What age is it and when will it end? 1Cor 10:11 and Heb 9:26 are difficult.

Group 7 - Assorted other verses

עֹלָֽם - the Hidden Key

Many people nowadays have rejected the traditional church teaching of eternal torment for unbelieves and believe in universal reconciliation. Central to this belief is the idea that αἰων should be translated age. Particularly for ever should be for the age and for ever and ever should be for ages of ages. The writer and translator of the Concordant Literal New Testament A.E.Knoch has propagated the teaching that αἰων should always be translated eon (meaning the same as age). However, as we have seen, when we try to translate αἰων consistently as age, we soon find we are getting either poor sense or no sense at all.

So what does αἰων mean? The key can be found in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. This translation was done from Hebrew into Greek by 70 Jewish scholars in the 3rd century BC in Egypt. They met the common translators’ problem that sometimes they could find no Greek word that would accurately translate a given Hebrew word. The Hebrew word עֹלָֽם (olam) was particularly difficult to translate. We will now look at its various meanings and see why.

Meanings of olam

The word olam comes from a root alam meaning hidden, and it is used particularly in the sense of hidden time. In the Old Testament it occurs most frequently in the phrase לְעוֹלָם to olam. Literally this means to the hidden. We could paraphrase it as far as we can see. Its normal translation is for ever, but often it refers to a limited time, such as for life. This use of olam corresponds exactly to the Greek to the αἰων in group 1 above. It’s interesting to note further that the Greek phrase that people translate for ever or for the age is εἰς τον αἰωνα - to the αἰων. No other time period in the NT, such as 40 days, 3 weeks, 7 years has the preposition εἰς (to). They simply have the time phrase with no preposition - like when he had fasted 40 days. Why does this phrase εἰς τον αἰωνα have the preposition εἰς (to)? It can only be because it is translating to olam.

We also find olam looking backwards as in the phrase מֵעוֹלָם from olam. Literally this means from the hidden. Its most common translation is of old. This use of olam corresponds exactly to the Greek from the αἰων in group 2 above.

Olam is also used without to or from but with a noun. For example covenant olam, hills olam, God olam. These are normally translated everlasting covenant, everlasting hills, everlasting God. Clearly God is everlasting but theologians and scientists agree that hills are not! Whether God’s covenant with Israel is everlasting or age-lasting is a matter of considerable disagreement! However the existence of both God and the hills go beyond the limit of our sight both backwards and forwards in time. This use of olam corresponds exactly to the Greek αἰωνιος in group 3 above.

In the Old Testament olam never had the sense of a period of time such as an age or the sense of the world. But between the time of the Old and New Testaments both of these senses developed. Languages change and develop over time, and words take on new meanings. If you’ve tried to read Chaucer, or even Shakespeare I’m sure you’ll agree. Two particular phrases became current: העולם הזה‎ (ha olam ha ze) this olam, and העוֹלָם הַבָּא (ha olam ha ba) the olam to come. The olam to come most commonly meant the world to come, but appears also at times have referred to a future messianic age to come. Similarly this olam most commonly meant this world but sometimes referred to this age. We can see then that olam meaning world corresponds exactly to group 4 above; and that this olam and the olam to come correspond to group 5 above.

If you look up the word olam in a modern Hebrew dictionary, or ask an Israeli what it means, you will immediately get the answer world. I once came across some good advice to drivers in Israel (in Hebrew): “it’s better to arrive late in this olam than early in the olam to come”! This I imagine did not refer to inter-age time travel engineered by super Israeli technology, but had a more down-to-earth (if that’s the right metaphor) application! Modern Hebrew is not an infallible guide to the meaning of ancient Hebrew, but it does carry the weight of intense study on the part of scholars like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and others who revived the ancient Hebrew language.

As I said, these Septuagint translators could find no exact Greek word to translate olam (as indeed there is no exact word in English!). Aἰων, which meant an age or a life-time, was the nearest candidate. So they translated from olam by from the αἰων, to olam by to the αἰων, and olam on its own by αἰωνιος which is the adjective from αἰων. This made very unnatural and sometimes meaningless Greek, and if we follow their example by insisting on translating αἰων as age, we will get very unnatural and sometimes meaningless English!

We must now return to αἰων and reconsider its meaning in the light of the meaning of olam in each of the groups we have looked at.

Different Uses of αἰων in the Light of olam

Group 1 - To the αἰων or αἰωνες:

As we have seen there is an exact match between to olam and to the αἰων. Both mean to the limit of our sight. What happens beyond the limit of our sight? Quite simply, we don’t know. There may be an end, or there may be no end. Our English phrases are all more specific: "for life", "for ever" "till the end of the world". Any of these could be an appropriate translation of to the αἰων in the NT. Clearly no English phrase will match all its occurrences.

In each case we need a translation appropriate to the context that fits with truth revealed elsewhere in Scripture.

Group 1 extension - To the αἰωνες of the αἰωνες:

This phrase occurs 21 times in the NT and is always translated into English as for ever and ever. What a strange phrase! Why and ever? What does it add to for ever? Well the Greek phrase behind it (to the αἰωνες of the αἰωνες) is equally strange. We find this Greek phrase 8 times in the Septuagint where the Hebrew phrase behind it is לְעֹלָם וָעֶֽד (le olam va ed), which means to olam and more. We could paraphrase it as far as we can see and further.

Group 2 - From the αἰων or αἰωνες:

This phrase only occurs a few times but again powerfully indicates the connection between αἰων and olam. From the age or from the αἰων is absolute nonsense, but when we see it as a translation of from olam it makes perfect sense. It means from hidden time. No English phrase exactly fits, but the sense is clear enough.

Luke 1:70 could be translated as he said through his holy prophets from time immemorial or from time out of mind.

Group 3 - The adjective αἰωνιος:

Once again αἰωνιος is a very good match for olam when used with a noun in the Old Testament. It combines from the αἰων and to the αἰων, and refers to whatever goes to and beyond the limit of our sight in time past and future. Like olam αἰωνιος must be translated appropriately to its context.

In the NT αἰωνιος is used in the following ways:

It is striking how many times (45) the adjective αἰωνιος is used with reference to life. Jesus himself told us what it meant. Now this is eternal (αἰωνιος) life – that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent (John 17:3). This eternal life is something which is hidden both in its nature and in its extent. It is hidden in nature because knowledge of God exists in a realm hidden to the natural man. It is hidden in extent because it continues far beyond the horizon of our sight.

When referring to God, the best translation is obviously eternal or everlasting. The age-lasting God is ridiculous. God will last much longer than an age! Some people want to translate these phrases as the God of the ages. This translation is utterly foreign to its context in Deut 33:27 (The eternal God is your refuge) and Is 40:28 (Have you not heard? The LORD is an eternal God, the creator of the whole earth) and its one occurrence in the New Testament in Rom 6:26 (according to the command of the eternal God). To translate these phrases as the God of the ages rather than the eternal God is to reduce God’s title to something lesser rather than greater, and in each case is totally irrelevant to its context. The extent of God, backwards and forwards and upwards is hidden from us because it is totally beyond all our horizons. No words in Hebrew, Greek, English or any other earthly language will ever adequately describe him. So the best we can do is translate αἰωνιος θεος as the eternal God and ask him for a revelation of what those words mean.

Group 4 - Creation of the αἰωνες:

Twice in the letter to the Hebrews we find God described as the Creator of the αἰωνες.

Some Bibles translate these as ages (or eons) and others as worlds (or universe). Which are right?

Once again we find that the translation ages is utterly irrelevant to the context of both these verses. Hebrews chapter 1 describes the glory and pre-eminence of Jesus. Was he God’s agent in the creation of the universe; or was it just the ages? To translate αἰωνες as ages is hugely to downgrade the role of Jesus in creation, and to bring in a total irrelevance to the context. Similarly Hebrews 11 is a commentary on Old Testament history, and particularly the book of Genesis which begins the creation story. God did not create ages in Genesis chapter 1. He created the heavens and the earth! And that is what the writer to the Hebrews is talking about.

If any doubt remains, Heb 11:3 clearly implies that the αἰωνες are visible. They must therefore be worlds rather than ages.

Group 5 - This αἰων and the αἰων to come:

We have dealt with the first 4 groups with relative ease. In each case, to my mind at least, the meaning of αἰων has been clear. However we now come to a much greater problem. What are the meanings of this αἰων and the αἰων to come? Do they contrast 2 ages on earth, the age in which we currently live and some future age? Or do they contrast this world and the world to come, effectively meaning this life on earth and a future life in heaven (or maybe somewhere else)? αἰων, it appears, can be translated either way. Different mainstream translations have come to different conclusions.

I will again present the 5 NT verses that contrast the present αἰων with the αἰων to come before discussing them further. I will include the KJV, NASB and NIV translations of the word αἰων. Click on any of them to see ultiple different translations.

4 of these quotations are from the mouth of Jesus himself; and there can be no doubt that he spoke them in Hebrew (or Aramaic) rather than in Greek. We, of course, have their translation into Greek and from Greek into English. Clearly his actual words were ha olam ha ze (this world) and ha olam ha ba (the world to come) as these phrases were common in Hebrew then as now. Was he comparing present and future worlds (or lives), or was he comparing present and future ages? There is little doubt in my mind that worlds (or lives) rather than ages is the obvious choice, for the following 3 reasons:

  1. The world to come was the normal meaning of ha olam ha ba in Hebrew in the time of Jesus.
  2. Contrasting this life (or world) and the life to come is relevant to the whole human race. Everyone has a life in this world, followed by a life in the world to come. Very few have a life that spans 2 ages on earth!
  3. The world to come is in most ways a better fit in the verses quoted above.

Considering these verses individually:

Other verses which speak only of this αἰων or the present αἰων are Matt 13:22 Mark 4:19 Luke 16:8 Rom 12:2 1Tim 6:17 Titus 2:12 1Cor 1:20 1Cor 2:6-8 1Cor 3:18 2Cor 4:4 Gal 1:4 Eph 6:12 and 2Tim 4:10.

Eph 2:7 speaks of the αἰωνες to come.

Group 6 - The end (consummation) of the αἰων (or αἰωνες):

We move now to our last group.

Two of our quotations:

are similar to each other and different from the rest. Both of these make easy sense. Both see the coming of Jesus as the climax of history. His birth, life, death and resurrection were the fulfilment of everything that had gone before. Neither of the writers was looking forward to future events or ages. They simply saw the present as the climax of history. I don’t believe from the context that the writers had ages in mind; my own guess is that the climax of history is the nearest we can get to translating their thought.

The remaining quotations:

are all from Matthew and are directly or indirectly from the mouth of Jesus himself. All of them have the word αἰων in the singular as opposed to the previous 2 quotes which have the plural form αἰωνες. Again we must ask the question, does the word αἰων mean age, life or world in these verses? Again without doubt Jesus would have used the word olam, and it seems probable that his hearers would have understood it to mean world or life rather than age. It also seems probable that Jesus used the word αἰων here in the same sense as when he spoke about this αἰων and the αἰων to come. However for the present I will record an open verdict and await comments from any of my readers.

Summary

We have looked at 6 different ways in which the Greek word αἰων is used in the New Testament. The idea, strongly propagated by A.E.Knoch and accepted blindly by many others (in the past, myself included), that αἰων can or should be translated consistently by the word eon (or age) is totally untenable. The very idea that any Greek or Hebrew word should always be translated by the same word in English (or any other language) is contrary to every principle of language. The Greek word αἰων is used in the NT to translate the Hebrew word olam, and based on the various meanings of olam I make the following suggestions:

Conclusion

These changes in translation have two main consequences:

  1. The phrases traditionally translated for ever (and ever) and eternal are indefinite in length and may be limited or unlimited according to their context.
  2. When Jesus spoke about the αἰων to come, I believe that he was speaking about the world / life to come rather than a future age to come on earth. Likewise, when he spoke about this αἰων he was speaking about this world / life rather than this age.