Ever, Eon, Aἰων and Olam

The phrase for ever occurs many times in the New Testament and is the standard, accepted translation of the Greek phrase εἰς τον αἰονα (eis ton aiona).

But αἰων does not mean ever; it means age or eon and εἰς does not mean for; it means to. So the literal translation of εἰς τον αἰονα is to the age. But to the age makes no sense, either in English or in Greek.

The NT has a similar Greek phrase ἀπ αἰωνος (ap aionos) which literally means from (the) age. This makes almost less sense than to the age! In Luke 1:70 the ESV translates it from of old; the KJV, since the world began; the HCSB, in ancient times.

As I read the Old Testament in Hebrew, I noticed two similar Hebrew phrases, le-olam (לְעוֹלָם) meaning to olam, usually translated forever and me-olam (מֵעֹולָם) meaning from olam, often translated of old (see Gen 6:4, Ps 25:6). Here was the key. These two Hebrew phrases were exactly parallel to the two Greek phrases. In fact the Greek phrases were literal translations of the Hebrew phrases.

But what does olam mean? Many people say it means an age, but no Hebrew lexicon gives it that meaning. Here is the definition of Gesenius (a highly accepted authority) : “עוֹלָם: Properly What is hidden; specially hidden, long time; the beginning or end of which is not defined”. (For the full definition click on olam.)

So the meanings become clear: ἀπ αἰωνος (ap aionos) and me-olam mean from the hidden (past); εἰς τον αἰονα (eis ton aiona) and le-olam mean to the hidden (future).

Notice especially that both these phrases are indefinite. They could refer either to limited time or to unlimited time. As Gesenius puts it “the beginning or end of which is not defined”.

Specifically, when they refer to God they are obviously unlimited; God is “from everlasting to everlasting”. God goes beyond the horizon into the hidden in every direction both in time and in space!

When they refer to future punishment, taking other Scriptures into consideration, to olam or εἰς τον αἰονα must refer to limited time. Future punishment will not go on for ever and ever.

I have gone into much greater depth on this subject in the article Αἰων and olam.