Is Hell Temporal or Everlasting?

by Pastor Keith Surland

A growing movement in the church today believes that the traditional doctrine of hell is wrong. Their beliefs may be summarized as follows:

  1. The Bible does not teach that there is endless perdition in hell; neither the Greek language nor the early church taught or held such a view.
  2. The Catholic Church taught the concept of hell to hold the laity captive to clergy.
  3. The translators of Scripture followed erroneous traditions on certain passages.

These charges need to be answered honestly from the Scriptures, taking into consideration the Greek New Testament and the theology contained therein.

The most accurate and reliable lexicon of the New Testament in the academic world is Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. This exhaustive work looks at the language synchronically and diachronically, considering the era of the language in question and the original sources in the Greek language. There is no Strong’s numbering system. It is for a well-versed scholar who reads the Hellenistic tongue and understands the nature of lexicography. This work considers the noun cases and their impact on a word, as well as the syntactical environment in which a word may occur. For example, various entries are given for the word “spoudazo,” which indicates that this word has more than one meaning. “Hurry” or “be earnest” are some of the fields of meaning, but the context must decide which way the word is to be translated.

Adventists and those who hold to a universal reconciliation theology suggest that the Greek noun “aion” and the adjective “aeonian” mean “age” and “age-related,” that the two words do not denote “eternity” or “eternal.” Those who hold this view conveniently leave out the most noted and scholarly works in the field and instead follow works that are secondary sources, written by non-experts in the field, or considered to be antiquated sources. They do not consult the exhaustive works in the field of literature since these works do not favor this opinion.

The grammarian and the lexicographer must be unbiased and let the science in the given field guide them accordingly. Those who hold that “aion” and “aeonian” are incapable of expressing the concept of eternity are simply ignoring the exhaustive works in the field. I would like to consult these works.

Aeonian

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature — Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich

For the adjective “aeonian” the following is given: “eternal, without beginning, without or end” (p. 28). The entries are backed up with many references to the New Testament and also Patristic Greek, the LXX, the inscriptions, and papyri writings.

My own observation is that “aeonian” can be used of something perpetual in terms of this world. “Everlasting” is qualified by the use of the word in context. In English, we will use the word “everlasting” in terms of a marriage, a criminal’s life sentence, or the duration of a physical life. In such contexts, we understand what is meant by the use of the term. Thus, in Luke 16:9 the idea of the habitation (literally, “everlasting tents”) is ongoing.

Words are qualified by context. Moreover, in the nature of lexica, words have fields of meaning and do not have an invariant meaning. This will be pointed out in detail shortly.

Greek-English Lexicon — Liddell and Scott

This massive work is a far broader lexicon, going beyond the LXX and the Hellenistic language of the New Testament. It includes the classical Greek with over 2,000 pages for just the treatment of the lexica of the era, not including the index. This work notes the following for “aeonian”: “lasting for an age, perpetual, eternal” (p. 45).

Word Pictures of the New Testament, Vol. 1 — Robertson

A.T. Robertson taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and was a Greek scholar of world renown. To the layperson, Robertson left his Word Studies series. For the scholar, Robertson left the 1,456-page A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, which is a grammar for the advanced student and scholar. Upon the grammar’s first publication, scholars all over the world devoured the book, including even Europe where the horribleness of the First World War did not dampen their enthusiasm for the work. Having read this massive tome six times through in the past 20 years, I can also attest that Robertson’s grammar is so well-written and thorough that it felt as though Robertson were one of my professors even though he died in 1934.

Robertson deserves to be heard on any aspect of the koine since he wore out 12 Greek New Testaments in his lifetime and devoted his whole life to the study. His great work is still used in seminaries today.

In his Word Pictures that was a gift for non-Greek-readers, all might benefit. In his commentary on Matthew 18:8, he wrote the following concerning the word “aeonian” on page 147:

The word means ageless, without beginning or end as of God (Romans 16:26), without beginning as in Romans 16:25, without end as here and often. The effort to make it mean “aeonian” fire will make it mean “aeonian” life also. If the punishment is limited, ipso facto the life is shortened.

Robertson points out that there is “aeonian” or everlasting fire, everlasting punishment, and everlasting life. A reading of the passages with a Greek concordance backs up the above with abundant references.

Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint — Lust, Eynikel, and Hauspie

In this two-volume set, each word in the LXX is defined along with relevant references. This is a work for scholars but is accessible to the non-Greek reader. They note that the meanings for “aeonian” include “without beginning or end, eternal, everlasting” (p. 14).

A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament — Abbott-Smith

“Age long, eternal, of that which is without beginning (Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2), of that which is without end” (p. 15)

Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains — Louw and Nida

Scholars such as Eugene Nida and Johannes P. Louw have brought to attention groundbreaking work in the area of lexical semantics. They bring a linguistic approach to the study of lexicography. In their lexicon of the Greek New Testament, they arrange words by sematic domains. For “aeonian” they note, “Pertaining to an unlimited duration of time-‘eternal.’” They properly translate “blétheini eis to pyr to aiónion” in Matthew 18:8 as “be thrown into eternal fire” and “tou acóniou theou” in Romans 16:26 as “of eternal God” (vol. 1, p. 642).

Many today are writing books that challenge the typical translations of “aion” and “aeonian.” Since those who write such books or articles often do not read Greek fluently or know little about the Greek as a language, they confuse the words “aion” and “aeonian” and lump them together as if they are the same word. They are cognate to one another but are not the same word. One is a substantive, and the other an adjective. I will continue now with the different word aion.

Aion

The noun “aion” has a large field of meaning, unlike the narrower “aeonian.” Depending on the context, this noun can mean “age, era, universe, world system.” When used in lexical units with certain prepositions it can mean “long ago,” “since all-time,” and similar phrases (Nida and Low, Vol 2., p. 7). Various grammars and lexicons point out that the idiomatic expression of the word “aion” and the preposition “eis.” For example, Raymond Summers, in his Essentials of New Testament Greek, properly pointed out that “eis ton aeona” means “forever and ever” (p. 76). I translated every occurrence in the New Testament of this prepositional phrase and found his contention correct. The idiom conveys “eternity” or in some contexts “perpetuity.” The idiom that occurs is translated “forever and ever” in the following passages:

  • Mark 3:29; 11:14
  • Luke 1:33, 55
  • John 4:14; 6:51, 58; 8:35, 51, 53; 10:28; 11:26; 12:34; 13:8; 14:16
  • Romans 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 16:27
  • 1 Corinthians 8:13
  • 2 Corinthians 9:9; 11:31
  • Galatians 1:5
  • Ephesians 3:21
  • Philippians 4:20
  • 1 Timothy 1:17
  • 2 Timothy 4:18
  • Hebrews 1:8; 5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21, 24, 28; 13:8, 21
  • 1 Peter 1:25; 4:11; 5:11
  • 2 Peter 3:18
  • 1 John 2:17
  • 2 John 1:2
  • Jude 1:13, 25
  • Revelation 1:6, 18; 4:9, 10; 5:13; 7:12; 10:6; 11:15; 14:11; 15:7; 19:3; 20:10; 22:5

This exhaustive list it illustrates the interface between lexica (“age”) and syntax (the transitive nature of “eis” and the accusative of extent). Thus, as can be seen in the references, the idiom illustrates the nature of language. It is folly to treat words in isolation and to ignore a language’s idioms. Imagine if someone treated our lexical units in isolation, “Cut it out.” We understand the phrase idiomatically as “stop it.” Another example is the phrase “he got his fingers burned,” meaning that he got into trouble.

When we see “aion” used in the lexical unit in the references above, we see the idiomatic expression for “eternity.” Revelation 22:5 uses this idiom in the doxology of praise to God, “to Him be the glory and the might forever and ever.” We are told the redeemed shall “reign forever and ever.” In a similar fashion, we are told that the smoke of the torment of the wicked ascends forever and ever. Satan will be tormented forever and ever (Revelation 20:10). “Aion” must be looked at in light of any limiting Greek genitive, any prepositional phrase in which it might occur, and any lexical unit as witnessed above.

It is the untrained in Biblical languages who treat words in isolation, with one invariant meaning. This charge cannot be laid at the feet of translators. Embarrassingly, it is the untrained in Biblical languages who mix the words “aeonian” and “aion” as if they were the same word. One book I have read treats the two words as if they were one and forces the meaning of “aion” onto “aeonian.” That book’s author admitted to me that he did not know Greek, yet a large portion of his arguments were about Greek.

Lexicographical Analysis

Contrary to what scholars in this field articulate, there are those who write on the subject of eternal damnation or hell and contend that the Greek language cannot or does not have a lexeme to express the concept of eternity or perpetuity. This is an idea to which a Greek philosopher who used the language and dealt with concept of eternity would not agree. The New Testament is a book that deals with the concept of eternity, and to say that a book like the New Testament has no lexical stock to express the concept of eternity is unsubstantiated. To say that the word means only “X” is the error of the root and etymology fallacy. To say that aeonian means “age-related” and nothing else is to fall into the error of invariant meaning for words. Even the word “theos” needs to be qualified by context. Words have fields of meaning, which can be witnessed by the lexical range of words. Words too must be analyzed with words of association, especially any limiting genitives. If you take the word “flame,” you can have all kinds of ideas, but limiting genitives can open the identity more sharply the word. For example, a “flame of fire” more sharply defines the word flame. On the other hand, “flame of passion” gives a different notion. Therefore, simply looking up words with a concordance without noting the syntactical environment in which a word occurs is simply not being responsible. Some in the Christian community follow this tendency with words that occur in the Bible. At the very least, this should show us that we need to be cautious and not assume an invariant meaning of a word.

Scholars today correctly look at a word’s lexeme synchronically, meaning within the era of a particular time (in this case, the 1st century). I will develop this thought in some detail shortly. For now, the charge that Greek lexicons or our understanding of Greek is flavored by later theologies developed in church history must be examined. We know a great deal of the lexeme and syntax of Ancient Greek. Enough is known to conclude that classical Greek is not like koine. Classical Greek uses fewer prepositions, more hypotactic structure, and longer sentences; koine has more prepositions; more paratactic structure, less subordination, rarer use of the optative mood, and shorter sentences. We know Greek from the time of Linear B, before Homer and the classical period. The knowledge we have long predates the composition of the New Testament in koine. Thus, we can diachronically view the language but synchronically exegete the Hellenistic New Testament. Our knowledge of the New Testament language has witnesses from the pre-Homer era to the development of the koine. We know the totality of the Hellenistic tongue as a living language through diachronic analysis. That is why the Iliad has long been translated.

We also have the benefit of the LXX. Many of the Hebraisms in the New Testament come from not only the Semitic authors but also the LXX and its influence on the koine. Therefore, the earlier Semitic tongue did impact the Koine of the New Testament. Again, our knowledge of New Testament koine is enhanced from the earlier understanding of the Hellenistic tongue.

Prior the discovery of the papyri we had little comparison for words that appeared rarely in the New Testament (but perhaps more frequently elsewhere in the 1st century). The trash heaps of Egypt revealed wills, personal letters, business documents, and other forms of day-to-day writings to show us the living language that the Apostles knew and read. Therefore, we have the full fabric of the ancient idiom, which allows us to understand better the lexeme and language of that day.

This shows the embarrassing naivety of those who say that our understating of the Greek New Testament has been flavored by men and their traditions in the centuries after the apostles. There are so many scholars who have studied the Hellenistic tongue for both secular and sacred reasons who know that language from the two perspectives, diachronic and synchronic. They would find such a notion that ancient Greek would be influenced by succeeding generations as amusing.

Anachronisms abound in untrained Christian circles. The root fallacy abounds in defining words by etymology, but it is not as if these errors were not flagged.

As D. A. Carson said in his book, Exegetical Fallacies, the pulpits and the Christian community are guilty of the sin of creating anachronisms, and this is even true of many well-known Bible teachers and preachers of our time. How many times have we heard that the word idiot comes from the Greek word “idios,” dynamite from “dunamis,” or prototype from “protos”? But these modern words have nothing at all to do with their ancient roots. It is unfortunate that the Christian community in their ignorance gives a hearing to this uninformed thinking regarding lexica, and it is in this state that Universalists and Adventists make their argument that “aeonian” simply means “age-related” and nothing more.

All languages move in only one direction—forwards and not backwards—and followsw the analytic tendency. Therefore, we are not to press modern meanings into the ancient time. It would be impossible for New Testament authors to have imagined the power of dynamite when using the word “dynamis.”To answer any questions about the meaning of words or anything related to language, we look at the ancient tongue. There is a plethora of documents in the ancient language for us to read. One can understand the feature of lexeme in the ancient tongue by looking at the language itself. This requires reading the language and not merely looking up words in isolation—which is not reading at all. Syntax and context are the basis to understanding, and they enable us to read the ancient language smoothly and broadly. Etymology and the root fallacy is clearly not the way to derive meaning.

Most English-speaking people are not even aware of the etymology of their own language, and we should not assume the ancients were any different. The very fact that so many Greek words depart from their roots and etymology is evidenced by the multitude of meanings for some Greek words. A non-Greek-reader can discover the meaning of a word by tracing a particular Greek word through the New Testament, which will show the many different definitions a word can have. This would prove the fallacious nature of believing in an invariant meaning for any Greek word. Indeed, this is also true of English and Hebrew, and I suppose of many other languages.

Widely reading a language and seeing how a word develops is of great benefit in understanding the various fields of meaning. For the Greek word “logos,” the translation of “word” does not exhaustively fill every range of use. So what of “aeonian”? The literature of those who make such unsound claims of an invariant meaning of “aeonian” such as “pertaining to age” is not even consistent with the rest of the lexical stock of the New Testament. Moreover, ancient Greek philosophers had the words in their lexical stock to refer both to the concepts of things everlasting or eternity. No one disputes a temporal referent in “aeoinian” (e.g., Luke 16:9,10), but it is entirely erroneous to say that it only has one meaning and could not express the concept of something that is everlasting, which it does in so many texts (as in the nature of God, the nature of life, and the nature of God’s execution of divine wrath). My own reading through the Greek New Testament has shown that the majority of passages refer to the idea of “everlasting” or “eternal” (from the perspective of what lies ahead and not focusing on the inception of something). In fact, a paucity of texts refer to something that is not eternal or everlasting. Thus we do not have the following:

  • Age-related redemption (Hebrews 9:12)
  • Age-related glory (2 Corinthians 4:17)
  • Age-related covenant (Hebrews 13:20)
  • Age-related God (Romans 16:26)
  • Age-related Spirit (Hebrews 9:14)
  • Age-related fire (Matthew 25:41)

The Greek New Testament, which embraced a lexeme for an everlasting notion, can and does declare those things that are everlasting, including the New Covenant, the eternal God, and eternal life and damnation. To insist on an invariant meaning for “aeonian” is very inconsistent of Adventists and Universalists. Our English Bibles would look very different if we approached other words the same way.

If the New Testament were translated in an archaic fashion of ultra-literalness or followed etymology slavishly, we would have a comical translation. Take the case of the Greek word “ekballo.” Its etymology consists of two words—the preposition “ek” which means “out of” and “ballo” which means “to cast.” Thus, it literally means “to throw out.” Yet, if one were to follow etymology, we would see the Good Samaritan “throwing out two denarius” (Luke 10:35). We would have Jesus literally throwing out the oxen and sheep (John 2:15). Could you see Him picking up an ox and casting it out? In 1 Corinthians 4:21, we have Paul coming to the Corinthian believers “in a rod.”

In Acts 19:32, 39, and 40, we have the common Greek word “ekklesia,” which is often translated “church.” We often hear of the church being called the “called-out ones” because of etymology, and yet this verse shows the fallacious nature of etymology. The “ekklesia” in these verses was a riotous mob of people who, for the majority, did not even understand why they gathered in the first place. Why not call the riotous mob (or “ekklesia”) the called-out ones? Therefore, to hold to an invariant meaning of Greek words proves to be comical.

Universalists and Adventists alike do not apply the root meaning in the rest of their English Bible. Yet here they are inconsistent. Such inconsistency is born not as a result of scientific analysis but rather of ignorance on the nature of language. We can look further at erroneous translations if we hold to an invariant meaning—“The one who has the Son has age-related life; the one who does not have the Son does not have life” (1 John 5:12) and “that you might know you have age-related life” (1 John 5:13).

Adventist and Universalist lock themselves into one invariant meaning of a Greek word; this is not from a diachronic approach but of a biased one. In this, they are not consistent with other words that have fields of meaning. The conjunction “that” is so flexible that it has a multitude of meanings. It can express a result, purpose, indirect discourse, subject, object, appositive, or clauses–to name a few. The same is true with the Greek word “hina,” which functions in all these capacities depending on the context and sentence structure. The common word “logos” can mean “talk, history, proposal, matter, thought, account, or opinion and reason” depending on the context. Thus, words can have ranges of meaning and not an invariant meaning. The same is true of “aion,” which is often confused by some with the word “aeonian.”

Analogical Language

The Bible is full of illustrations and analogical language. Jesus was a master of illustration in His teachings. Because of the fluid and somewhat elastic nature of words, it is the context that must anchor a word’s meaning. Thus, to use a phrase like “this house will last forever” means that it will be around for several generations to come, perhaps even centuries.

Relative to something everlasting, the word “forever” in this life naturally by definition does not mean something that is endless. On the other hand, when we are talking about eternity and the infinity that encompasses eternity, the term “forever” means something that is endless. Naturally, when we use terms such as “perpetuity” or “everlasting,” anything that is analogous to it by definition naturally has an end in this world.

No analogous language or anything analogical will be endless in our world, but when a referent is used concerning infinity, our analogies in this temporal world break down since everything in this world is temporal and has an end.  Thus “everlasting” in this world and “everlasting” in infinity are not comparable and are in reality two different things. Everything has a termination in this time-oriented age, but in infinity there is no terminus. In that dimension “everlasting” means “everlasting.”

Using this principle, the term in “inextinguishable fire” as an analogy to anything in this life will be temporary, but the term “inextinguishable fire” in infinity means something that is entirely endless.

I have noted that some authors who believe in a termination of hell fail to understand this limitation of analogous language. It is never wise to press any analogy to exhaustion. Everlasting in this age and life and everlasting in eternity are two different things.

Jesus, for example, referred to the fires of Gehenna (Mark 9:43–48). He referred to something that was local, containing ongoing fire that was inextinguishable (“asbestos”). Naturally, the local Gehenna’s fires would go out eventually. Anything that Jesus would use as an earthly analogy would cease naturally one day. This is true of the very earth and heavens that now exist. They shall perish one day (Hebrews 1:10–11), which means that any analogy of an ongoing flame in this life will have a temporal limit. But “asbestos” fire (or, “inextinguishable” fire) that concerns eternity is another matter. Jesus’ point in using an earthly analogy was to convey a central truth. The first-century person would have seen the local Gehenna continually burning in their lifetime, and they would have gotten the point about an ongoing burning in hell.

Fundamental to believing that hell is not everlasting is an argument of philosophy, not of empirical analysis. Their doubts did not grow out of doubts in the translation but rather from the seemingly inexplicable notion that a loving God could condemn a person forever. They then must attack the notion of the translation that contradicts their theology. It was not the translation itself that made them doubt however, but the hard nature of the teaching, which admittedly is frightening.

Extended Application

As to the rest of Scriptural teaching, what is the next victim of this doubt? “The trinity does not make sense; it is a fallacious teaching of the church.” Will we set aside the belief in the triune God because it does not accord with our understanding? How do you know that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower Society are wrong about John 1:1? We can defend against their beliefs because of our knowledge of the Greek as a living language with conventions of communication. The same spirit that moved Charles T. Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, also provokes those who do not hold to endless torment. Russell did not start with the question, “Is John 1:1 translated correctly?” Rather, he said he could not accept the trinity.

Thus, he then attacked the translation. Satan works by deception, and he twists the Scripture to attack truth. Sound linguistics or any scholarly discipline did not start the argument; rather a philosophy did since the truth was so painful to take. A good thesis is not written to prove one’s opinion but rather to prove or unearth the truth. Universalists did not start with a query for truth but rather with defeating the teaching of endless judgement. Their quest never included any sense of objectivity. Rather, from the beginning, it was birthed with an aim to destroy an important doctrine that the Bible teaches.

I found that today’s books are being written “to defend the character of God.” They are built on premises such as, “God is not vindictive, unlike what those who hold to tradition make Him out to be.” Thus, books are being written which proclaim that the Bible does not teach eternal retribution. Such authors must first attack the translations. They admit that, if “aeonian” means “eternal’ or “everlasting” in Matthew 25:46 concerning “life,” then one would be forced to say that the same adjective means “eternal punishment” by parallel. The irony is that it is not Greek scholars who are saying that “aeonian” does not mean “eternal,” but those who find the doctrine of eternal retribution repugnant. They then, without knowing Greek, make the arguments from Greek. One such author, with whom I had dialogue, uses a lot of name-throwing in his book. He will use the name of a respected authority and has him as a backing source of support. The subtlety is that he would have the reader think that the certain authority supports his position. I find that this writer conveniently leaves out the most authoritative lexicons for secondary sources or sources that are antiquated.

There are many passages that can be used in the English, which would cause any reader to conclude that the Bible teaches everlasting damnation. If those who hold to a grand reconciliation theory are correct, then the Greek scholars are wrong. The translators—from those who translated the LXX to those in the present time—are wrong, but the Bible itself would be wrong. For example, to follow this line of thinking, John 3:36 would be wrong in that people will see life. In another case, John 3:3 would be moot because Satan and the demons would go to heaven. But none of this can be.

Those who hold to a universal reconciliation theory cannot accept or account for the “herem” passages of the Bible. (“Herem” is a Hebrew word which is used to describe something or someone devoted to destruction by the Lord.) The herem passages are not consistent with the kind of love in which Universalists believe. Kill infants? Kill the animals? (Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:1–3). The common apologetic is that it was to contain the spread of sin, but that is not pertinent in killing an animal or baby.

Those who do not follow the Bible’s teaching on everlasting perdition of the lost maintain that love is the chief perfection of God. God exists however in His perfectionism without composite, which means for example that one cannot separate God’s love from His justice or His power from His grace. He is completely holy, powerful, just, and love at the same time. He is immutable, meaning that none of His perfections ever were, are, or will be ingressive. Ontologically, He is all these perfections eternally at the same time. We see these perfections through His executions of those perfections in the eternal life He gives and the eternal damnation of the wicked.

Fundamental to the controversy on the everlasting nature of hell is the nature of God Himself. Is it such a stumbling block for those who do not accept the Bible’s teaching on everlasting hell that they cannot worship God? If we have to redefine God’s wrath and the vindictive nature that grows out of His moral justness, then do we have the same God?

There is much in the counsels of God that we do not understand (Romans 11:33–36), but we cannot attack the declarations of God simply because they do not make sense to us or are not palatable to us. We must accept many of the declarations of God by faith, and it is here too that we must trust God to do that which is right even though His moral rightness might lead to a hangman’s gallows. In all things, we must remember that God is holy and we are not. His ways are just. If we do not embrace His love, we will face His just wrath.