ETERNITY OR THE PLAN OF THE AGES
THE MEANING OF "FOREVER"
IF ANYONE will only look into the heavens above and to the earth beneath, he cannot avoid the conclusion that there are order and design throughout the entire realm of nature. This conclusion is heightened into a profound conviction when one, with the aid of a good telescope, surveys the fields of space throughout the endless expanse of the universe, and when he, by means of the microscope, peers into the invisible world of microscopic life and activity. Only the most ruthless and stubborn unbelief can prevent one's seeing the positive proof for the belief that there is a Supreme One behind the visible universe, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Even the heathen poet, apart from the revelation of God, voiced this sentiment as was quoted by the Apostle Paul in his speech at Athens (Acts 17).
These conclusions are confirmed by the statement of Psalm 19:1, "The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament showeth his handiwork." In line with this declaration is the statement of the Apostle Paul: "For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse" (Rom. 1:20).
A close examination of any phase of phenomenon as we observe it today brings the conviction that this Supreme Being, whom we recognize as the holy, righteous God, has created the world with design and purpose stamped upon everything. Each part of nature contributes its bit to the proper functioning of the whole. There is nothing in the world or universe that is unrelated. This conclusion, drawn from a study of nature, is confirmed by statements in the revelation of God. For instance, Paul, in speaking of the church, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, declares that it was God's plan through this spiritual institution to make known the riches of His grace. This objective was and is "according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus, our Lord." The marginal reading of the verse is "purpose of the ages." From this expression we see that there are ages and that there is a purpose of the Almighty which runs throughout all of them. It is utterly impossible for us with our finite comprehension to take in such infinite ideas. Nevertheless, such is the scriptural declaration. This statement is in perfect accord with the phrase found in Ephesians 1:11, which asserts that in Christ also "we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will." In this statement we learn that the Almighty, who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, works all thingsin the material world and in human historyaccording to His eternal purpose. In perfect conformity with this declaration is another found in Romans 8:28, which asserts that "we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose." This verse should be studied in the light of the immediate context in order for one to understand it properly. When it is thus examined, it is seen that the omniscient God is working all things together for the good of those who know and love Him.
The Almighty's plans and purposes concerning us do not end with our present earthly sojourn but extend throughout all eternity. In fact, as we learn from the marvelous revelation in Psalm 139, God knew our unformed substance before He called us into existence. His thoughts concerning our welfare for time and eternity are more numerous than the sands beside the seashore. We shall marvel throughout all the future at His wonderful and benign plans and purposes for our enjoyment throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. These thoughts should quicken our interest in His plan of the ages; for, only when we understand it, can we enter into sympathetic and harmonious co-operation with Him in whom we live, and move, and have our being, and who has made such wonderful provisions for us in the future.
We are to examine in this study the fundamental truths concerning eternitypast, present, and future. By seeing the scriptural presentation of the truth on this subject, one can fully appreciate the present conflict between science, falsely so called (I Tim. 6:20), and the Scriptures. The popular idea is that there is a conflictan irreconcilable onebetween the revelation of the Bible on the one hand and real science on the other. It shall be shown very clearly that such ideas are absolutely false and that there is positively no conflict between the revelation found in the Scriptures and the real discoveries of science which constitute genuine knowledge. Pseudoscience and an unproved system of philosophy are unworthy of consideration.
It will be seen that every authentically-established principle or fact of science fits perfectly into the revelation that has been given to us in the Scriptures.
All parents should, not simply for themselves but especially for their children's sake, master the facts that are here presented in order to fortify their children against the rationalistic, unscientific theories that are taught in the grammar schools, as well as in the high schools, colleges, and universities. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, we are told.
A proper understanding of the facts that are set forth by this chart will likewise fortify the faithful believer against many of the false theories and doctrines of men. I therefore urge all who are interested in the spiritual welfare of their families and loved ones to study these facts most carefully.
MUCH of the present confusion that is found on every hand today is due to the misunderstanding of the words and phrases, in both the Old Testament and the New, that are rendered "forever" or "forever and forever." Unfortunately the translators, both of the Common Version and the Revised, have used the English words "forever," "forever and forever," or "everlasting," to render the various expressions that are found in the original text. Only by a clear, scientific study of these various expressions can the real scripture perspective concerning the plan of the ages be obtained.
I wish to urge every reader to study each of the scripture passages referred to on the chart in the light of its context.
A. THE CONNOTATION OF THE HEBREW AND GREEK TERMS
As suggested above, the proper approach to this theme is an investigation of those terms in both the Old Testament and the New which are translated in the English Version "forever," "forever and ever," etc. In this connection may I say that a misunderstanding of these words has led to countless errors in the past, is wrecking the faith of many, and is causing confusion at the present time. Instead of the danger's becoming less, it is increasing daily. We must therefore give earnest heed to this vast subject.
THERE are two principal words which are rendered forever in the Old Testament and which demand our attention. One of them transliterated would be spelled 'olam. The root form means literally to hide, to conceal. Since eternity in the past as well as in remote times during man's history is to us more or less obscure by reason of distance, naturally this word which means hidden was the word applied to things in both eternity past and in ancient times. That it does refer to eternity which existed prior to the creation of the earth is clearly seen from such passages as Proverbs 8:22,23. "Jehovah possessed me in the beginning of his way. Before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, Before the earth was." The verses following this quotation show very clearly that the writer was speaking of that part of eternity which antedates time. In the clause, "I was set up from everlasting," the word under discussion appears. It is therefore clear from this verse that our term refers to eternity before the creation of the world. God who has always existed is called "the everlasting God" in this verse: "And Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and called there on the name of Jehovah, the Everlasting God" (Gen. 21:33). The same thought is found in Isaiah 40:28, "Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard? The everlasting God, Jehovah, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary; there is no searching of his understanding." The prophet's conception of God is that He existed before the creation of the world and hence he called Him the everlasting God. Moses in addressing the children of Israel spoke thus of Him: "The eternal God is thy dwelling-place, And underneath are the everlasting arms" (Deut. 33:27). He thought of God as being in existence before the creation of the world and spoke of His arms as eternal. In Psalm 93:2 the author asserted that God existed from eternity. Passages which speak of Him as existing in the eternity of the past and which use the word under consideration are numerous, but these examples suffice to demonstrate this position.
In Psalm 90:2 we have the following statement: "Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God." A careful examination of this verse shows that Moses is speaking of the period of eternity which antedated the creation of the world, because he used the phrases: "Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world." These words undoubtedly show that he is speaking of the time before creation. But what is he affirming existed or was done in that eternity antedating time? The last of the verse gives this information: "Even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God." Since he is unquestionably speaking of the eternity in the past, it is evident that the translation of the Hebrew here given, "from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God," cannot be correct. The English expression, from everlasting to everlasting, includes eternity in both the past and the future. An examination, however, of the original text here throws much light on this difficult passage. If I be permitted to assume for a moment that which I will later prove; namely, that this same word in certain contexts as indicated by the facts of each passage frequently refers to an age or a period of time, I will translate the verse in accordance with this conception. It will then read, "Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, Even from age to age, thou wast God." Since our word does in many contexts refer to an age or period of time, and since Moses was talking of eternity in the past only, we cannot render this expression otherwise than "from age to age."
From these facts we learn that the eternity of the past antedating time divided into ages. Moses therefore was affirming that in that eternity past God existed from age to age. As to how long each of those ages was, there is not the slightest hint given in the Scriptures. But they reach back into all eternity of the past.
SEVERAL times in the Psalms we have a compound expression involving this word, which is most interesting. For instance, in 41:13 we have this statement: "Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel, From everlasting and to everlasting." In the term "from everlasting" the Psalmist is looking back into that part of eternity which antedated time and during which God alone existed. In the latter part of the expression, "to everlasting," he is looking forward into the future that follows the present period which we call time. But the conjunction and appears in this formula. This Hebrew word primarily means and, but another rendering of it is even. Let us substitute this meaning and see how the thought runs. "Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel, From everlasting even to everlasting." In my judgment when everything is taken into consideration, this translation conveys accurately the thought. I would still be loyal to the text and translate this expression, "From eternity even to eternity." This becomes apparent when we recognize that the psalmist is speaking of God and His being blessed. He was blessed in eternity in the past and will continue that way throughout all the ceaseless cycles of the future. Since therefore he is speaking of a condition or a characteristic of God, it is obvious that the expression can indicate nothing less than a glimpse from eternity in the past to eternity in the future. The same formula appears in Psalm 106:48. Again in Psalm 103:17 we see the same expression, which in this instance is speaking of God's lovingkindness. Since His grace is a characteristic of His being which he possessed from all eternity in the past and will retain throughout all eternity in the future, it is evident that this expression is properly rendered from everlasting to everlasting.
In Psalm 72:18,19 we have these words: "Blessed be Jehovah God, the God of Israel, Who only doeth wondrous things: And blessed be his glorious name for ever: And let the whole earth be filled with his glory." The clause, "And blessed be his glorious name for ever, has the singular form of this word. It is clear from the context that the psalmist is looking out into the futurethe eternity yet to beand is expressing his wish that God may be considered as blessed throughout the ceaseless cycles of eternity yet in the future. The duration of this future eternity is expressed by the word under consideration. The same type of expression occurs again in Psalm 89:52 and has the same significance. In Exodus 3 we have the account of God's appearing to Moses at the burning bush. Here the Lord revealed His memorial name to the great lawgiver. Concerning this name the Almighty declared, "This is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations" (Ex. 3:15). Since God's name is the expression of His character, it is quite evident that the word under consideration here signifies the eternity that is in the future.
FROM these facts it is clear that one of the two principal words translated in the Old Testament for ever does in many instances mean exactly what the English term connoteseternity. The facts of each context which has been cited, and many others that might be presented, prove beyond a doubt that it does signify eternity. In some instances, as we have seen, it looks back simply to the eternity of the past. In other cases it refers to the eternity in the future. There are some statements which look both ways. The examples examined are sufficient to establish this thesis. Much is the evidence in the support of this proposition.
For lack of space I shall briefly call attention to the use of this word in the plural. There are several examples. For instance, in Isaiah 26:4 the Lord speaks of himself as "an everlasting rock" which, literally rendered, is "a rock of ages." The eternity of the past is, in certain passages, subdivided into ages. The same thing is true with reference to the future eternity. The word rock is used symbolically to refer to God. In this expression, "a rock of ages," the prophet is simply affirming that God is a God of all the ages of eternitypast, present, and future. The angel Gabriel, in speaking to Daniel concerning the establishment of the millennial kingdom, said at the end of the seventy weeks (of years), "the righteousness of the ages" will be inaugurated upon earth. What is the righteousness of the ages? God's righteousness and His standard of conduct. Of course, it involves imputed righteousness, which is given to those who accept the Lord Jesus Christ. The morals, the ethics, and the standards of men change from season to season; but God's never do, because He is eternal. His righteousness, therefore, is called the righteousness of the ages. In Psalm 145:13 His kingdom is likewise called "a kingdom of the ages." From the last verses of Psalm 103, we learn that God's kingdom rules over allover the entire universe. The psalmists and prophets constantly affirmed that God reigns as King forever. When, therefore, David spoke of God's kingdom as being "of the ages," we know that he was thinking of eternity, but in terms of the subdivisions into which it falls. These illustrations, therefore, show beyond a doubt that the word under discussion does connote the idea expressed by the English words forever or everlasting.
THIS word does not always signify eternity, for in many contexts the facts limit itpour into it a modified meaning. For instance, in Amos 9:11 occurs the expression "as in the days of old." The term rendered old is the word under consideration. It is clear from the context that this passage is a predication of the re-establishment of the throne of David and the building up of his house as it was in the days of David and Solomon. It is clear, therefore, from this prediction that our word does not mean eternity in this context but simply, as rendered in our usual translation, the days of old. We see a similar usage in Isaiah 63:9. Here the prophet, speaking of God, said that He "carried them [Israel] all the days of old." The facts of this context show that Isaiah was discussing the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Our word, therefore, in this context cannot refer to eternity but to the days of Moses, which from the prophet's standpoint were days of old or ancient times. We see this same usage again in such a passage as Deuteronomy 32:7.
ANOTHER word occurring in the Hebrew text, which is translated forever, is 'ad. This word comes from the root which means to pass on, forward, or advance. From this fundamental meaning there easily developed the idea of time as well as space. Naturally the Hebrews spoke of eternity in terms of this word. For instance, in Isaiah 57:15 the prophet declares, "For thus saith the high and the lofty One that inhabiteth eternity." The imagery reflected in the prophet's language is that of the Lord as a person living in a house. He speaks of this house in terms of time. Then he asserts that God inhabits perpetuity or eternity. From our general knowledge of God we know that He has always existed and will continue to liveforever and ever. In view of this fact it is evident that our word can and does mean, under certain conditions, all eternity. Another illustration of this fact is found in Isaiah 9:6 in which the prophet gives us the names by which the Lord Jesus Christ will be called. Among these is "the Everlasting Father." If these words were rendered more literally, we could call him "the Father of Eternity." This idea is in perfect accord with the teachings of the Scriptures concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, who was with the Father in eternity of the past and who will continue with Him throughout all the coming cycles of eternity in the future. Again in certain passages which refer to God's attributes, such as His lovingkindness, we find this word is employed to indicate the eternal nature of these characteristics. We again discover this same usage in such passages as Psalms 83:16 and 92:7. In both of these quotations we see that the wicked are to be destroyed from the earth and their names perish during "the ages of eternity." In Isaiah 45:17 we have a very fine illustration of this usage: "But Israel shall be saved by Jehovah with an everlasting salvation: ye shall not be put to shame nor confounded world without end." A more literal rendering of this passage would be: "Israel shall be saved by Jehovah with the salvation of the ages: ye shall not be put to shame nor confounded unto the ages of eternity." From these and many other examples it is quite evident that this word likewise indicates eternity, but the facts of each context must be consulted before we can be dogmatic as to its exact meaning in a given case.
Like 'olam the word 'ad means ancient times, long ago, and continuity. It likewise refers to the futurethat part of eternity which lies ahead of us. The specific meaning must be gathered from the facts of each context.
From the investigation above we see that eternitypast, present, and futureis divided into ages. This fact is supported by the accurate, literal translation of these words which have been studied and others which might be presented. We are to remember that they do not necessarily connote eternity but simply carry the idea of continuity or perpetuity. The limits of the periods are to be determined by the facts of each context.
This word study in the Old Testament prepares the way for an investigation of the Greek words and phrases that are translated forever and ever, and into the ages of the ages. We must now turn to the New Testament and investigate some words and expressions which are translated forever. There are two terms which are rendered eternal, everlasting, and which are aidios and aion, together with the adjective derived therefrom, aionios.
The former of these words is derived from aei, which fundamentally carries the idea of being always or existing continually. This term was used largely in the Greek world to indicate the pure philosophical conception of eternitywithout beginning or without ending. It occurs in Romans 1:20. A literal translation of this passage is, "For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity," etc. It is evident that this word indicates eternity in both directions, because the Apostle was speaking of God's power and of His divine nature, both of which are eternal. The other occurrence of this word appears in Jude 6, which reads as follows, "And angels that kept not their own principality, but left their proper habitation, he hath kept in everlasting bonds under darkness unto the judgment of the great day." It is clear from this verse and its context that everlasting transcends all limits of time and reaches out into eternity of the future.
THE word aion and the adjective derived therefrom are used in the New Testament to indicate continuity, perpetuity, and duration. They must, therefore, be studied very carefully in order to understand what is meant in each instance. Unfortunately our translation of these words and of the phrases built around them is so very indefinite that great confusion has been created and an occasion has been given for false and destructive theories, which have yielded an enormous crop of heretical teachings. We must, therefore, study these words most carefully in order to lay a foundation for the correct scriptural understanding of "the plan of the ages"
Some scholars think that aion is derived from aei, which fundamentally means being or existing always. Other experts are of the opinion that it is derived from aemi, which means to breathe, blow, etc. Of course, the original fundamental idea usually inheres in a word throughout its entire history, though not always. According to Thayer, this word meant, in the Greek authors, first, age, a human lifetime; secondly, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, and eternity. In the New Testament these same ideas prevailed in the phrases built around this word. Scholars are correct in asserting that the New Testament usage and phrases were to a certain extent influenced by the Hebrew idioms. This fact is clearly seen in various passages which are either direct or indirect quotations from the Old Testament.
The Greek words, like those in English or any other language, often have many definitions, all of which are, of course, more or less closely allied. Nevertheless, there are differences. Every occurrence of a word, therefore, must be studied in the light of the facts of its context. It is therefore necessary for us to examine the various contexts in order to arrive at the correct condition of the meaning of this word. A failure to do this gives rise to many heresies which are now troubling the church of God and wrecking the faith of many.
The word aion in certain contexts refers to this lifethe one which we are now experiencing. For instance, our Lord in speaking of the seed which is sown among thorns interprets it as representing the person who hears the word, "and the care of the world ... choke the word" (Matt. 13:22). Here our term refers to the cares and responsibilities of the present life. The same idea appears in Mark 4:19. A like significance is attached to this word in the following quotation: "No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever" (Mark 11:14). Our word is translated forever, but the facts of the context show that it indicates the life period of the fig tree about which the statement was made. Again we see a similar usage in John 13:8: "Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet." This passage could be literally translated, "You shall not by any means wash my feet in the age or into the age." When we realize that Peter was talking about his literal feet and our Lord's washing them, we see that he used this expression to refer to his literal lifetime. These examples suffice to show that the word can refer to the span of one's life here in the flesh. The word in and of itself does not, however, have that signification; but when modified by the facts of the context, it does mean thatnothing more and nothing less.
In Hebrews 1:2 the Apostle Paul, in speaking of Christ, said that He was the One "through whom also he [God] made the worlds." Since in this very sentence he was speaking of the things to which Christ is to fall heir, it is quite evident that he used this word to refer to the physical universe. The same significance is attached to it as it appears in Hebrews 11:3. In these two instances it has the primary significance of the word kosmos which means the physical universe.
IT ALSO carries the idea that is expressed by the word world. The dominant idea of this usage is that of the world order, system, or environment. For instance, in Luke 16:8 the Lord spoke of the sons of this world and their being wiser than the children of light. Obviously He was speaking of people who are not regenerated and called them the sons of this world. The same usage appears in Luke 20:34, in which our Lord declared, "The sons of this world marry," etc. Evidently He was speaking of the people who belong to the world orderwho live upon this earth in contradistinction to those who are in the spirit world. In Romans 12:2 Paul exhorted Christians not to conform to this world. Here he used our same word. In II Corinthians 4:4 Satan is called the god of this world. It is he who backs up the civilization of the present order. In Galatians 1:4 is expressed the hope that the Lord will deliver us "out of this present evil world." Aion is the word appearing here. Paul spoke in Ephesians 2:2 of "the course of this world." The word rendered course is our very word. Again Paul spoke to Titus, saying that Christians should live "soberly and righteously and godly in the present world" (Titus 2:12,13). It is clear that he was speaking of our living here upon this earth in this age. Those who crucified the Lord are said to be the rulers "of this world." Demas forsook Paul "having loved this present world" (II Tim. 4:10). From these and many other passages it can be shown that our word does refer to the present world order in which we are living.
Another meaning of this word, very much like that which we have just studied, is that which thinks of the present period of time known as the Christian Dispensation. The harvest, when the wheat and the tares are to be separated, is at the consummation of "the age" (Matt. 13:39). In the light of the facts of this context it is clear that the Christian Dispensation is referred to by aion. In Matthew 24:3 the apostles asked Jesus concerning the end of this age, using this word. Jesus, in giving the great commission, Matthew 28:19,20, promised to be with His disciples unto the "consummation of the age." He was talking about the Christian Dispensation. In I Corinthians 1:20 Paul asked, "Where is the disputer of this world [age]?" He was talking about the present dispensation in which we are living. In the next chapter (2:6) he spoke of the gospel message and its not being the wisdom of this world, meaning the present dispensation or world order. Many are the illustrations that bring out this special signification.
The word, aion, refers, not only to times or ages mentioned above, but also to the Millennial Era. Our Lord in speaking concerning blasphemy against the Holy Spirit said that for such a sin there is no forgiveness, neither in the present era (Christian Dispensation) nor in the one to come (Millennial Age) (Matt. 12:31,32). In another marvelous revelation our Lord declared, "The sons of this age marry, and are given in marriage; but those counted worthy of attaining that age, and the resurrection which is from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: for they cannot die any more, for they are equal to the angels, and they are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection" (literal translation of Luke 20:34,35,36). In this passage He is obviously speaking of the Millennial Age. In Ephesians 1:21 Paul speaks of the exaltation of our Lord who has been lifted to a place far above all rule and authority and power and every name that is named, not only in the present age but also in the coming oneduring the Millennial Era.