Everlasting, Eternal, Ages Upon Ages
And these will go off into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life everlasting--Matt. 25:46, D.L. Cooper's translation.The Present and Future Ages
The subjects concerning eternal life and future punishment are of such vital importance that it is necessary to investigate thoroughly the significance of the word rendered everlasting.
In the discussion of the parable of the talents, I called attention to the fact that the unfaithful servant was cast into outer darkness where there were weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. In that investigation I showed that, according to the Scriptures, there is a place of punishment to which the wicked are to be assigned.
Although the doctrine of future punishment is very unpopular, the faithful servant of God must in love declare the Biblical teaching on this point regardless of all consequences. A failure to give the Scriptural emphasis to this most important doctrine is doubtless the fundamental reason for the laxity that exists in the world today. Men must be moved by the motive of fear as well as by the impulse of love.
Many admit punishment in the future but deny that it is of eternal duration. Those taking this position place strained and unnatural meanings upon the word translated everlasting. What is the Scripture teaching concerning everlasting punishment?
Before we can decide the duration of eternal life and this future punishment we must study carefully the various words, phrases and statements which are used in connection with the teaching concerning them. The accompanying chart (below) should be carefully studied and referred to as we proceed.
In Matt. 12:32 our Lord declared that there is no forgiveness for the sin against the Holy Spirit, "neither in this [age]*, nor in that which is to come." This "age" refers to the present Christian dispensation and "that which is to come," to the Millennial era. The same distinction between the present and the future ages is set forth in Eph. 1:21. The contrast between these eras likewise appears in other passages, but these suffice.Significance of "Aion" and "Aionios"
In Matt. 13:40,41 Jesus spoke of the separation of the righteous from the wicked "in the consummation of the age." According to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19,20), the Gospel is to be preached to all nations during this era unto the "consummation of the age."
Paul, in Eph. 1:9,10 spoke of the Millennial era as the dispensation or ministration of the fullness of the seasons. In relation to the former ages this language conceives of the glorious Millennial era as the consummation, the one of fruition and glory.
From a study of the word aion and the special idioms in which it appears, we see that in various settings it has different shades of meanings. Since it has these several connotations, it becomes necessary for one to examine very closely the context of every occurrence in order to arrive at the meaning of the inspired writers.Any Limitation to "the Ages of the Ages"?
Figurative significance: The word aiones is sometimes used in a metaphorical sense. For instance, in Heb. 1:2 we are told that God through Christ made the aiōnas, "worlds." This word primarily means "ages," but in this context it is quite evident that the writer was not speaking of the ages but of material things. The thought is the same as that expressed in John 1:3. Just before using this word John spoke of all things as having been made through Christ and added that "through whom also he [God] made the worlds." The flow of thought demands this secondary meaning.
Since this is true, one asks, why did not the Lord use a word which primarily means the physical universe? This question is to the point. The Biblical writers constantly used figures of speech. We are not, however, to jump to the conclusion that the bulk of their utterances are figures. We are never to resort to such a method of interpretation. Only when the facts of the context indicate that a passage is to be taken figuratively are we justified in thus interpreting it.
Since the context shows that the writer did not use "ages" in the primary, literal meaning, we are to understand that here it has a secondary or metaphorical significance. It is quite evident that by metonymy the author spoke of "the contained in terms of the container."
We are constantly using this figure. For instance, we say that the teakettle is boiling, whereas we are speaking of the water in the kettle. Thus the contained is spoken of in terms of the container. The present physical universe consisting of many heavenly bodies has its existence during certain of the ages of eternity; hence it is contained within these ages. It was natural, therefore, for the writer to speak of these physical worlds in terms of the ages.
Another example of this metonymical use of the word "ages" is found in Heb. 11:3. In this passage we are told that the "ages" have been mended, completed, put in order, arranged or adjusted. It is a little difficult to know just exactly what is meant by this verse. Did the writer have in mind the original creation or the work of reconstruction after the wreckage recorded in Gen. 1:2, the account of which is given in the first chapter of Genesis? It is doubtful that he was talking of the original creation. I am inclined to believe that the work of the "six days of reconstruction" recorded in Gen. 1:2b-31 is the thing to which reference is made. I am led to this conclusion since the word primarily means to "repair or mend," but on this point I will not be dogmatic.
In view of all the facts, it is clear to my mind that the physical universe is referred to in this passage. This statement being correct, we can see that this verse is another illustration of the word "ages" being used metonymically, indicating the universe.
A third instance of this metaphorical use is found in 1 Tim. 1:17. Literally rendered the verse reads: "But to the King of the ages, the incorruptible, invisible, only God, be honor and glory into the ages of the ages. Amen." God is said to be the King of the ages, the immortal, unseen God. Since Paul speaks of God as the incorruptible and invisible God, it appears that he is instituting a contrast between the Almighty and what he refers to as "the ages." If this supposition is correct, the expression, "King of the ages," does not refer to periods of time but rather to the various worlds whose existence comes within certain ages of eternity.
"Everlasting" when used with God, Christ: We have seen that the word aioniōs is used in connection with God Himself and with the Lord Jesus Christ. Since they are eternal in their existence, this adjective cannot indicate "age-lasting." Such an idea is contrary to the flow of thought in each passage. It can only, in these connections, mean "everlasting, never-ending."
This same adjective modifies the life which Christ gives to those who trust Him. He declared that He gives His life to them. The same kind of life which He possesses He gives to every born-again soul. The life of everyone who has been regenerated is hidden with Christ in God. In view of these fundamental truths of Christianity we are driven to the conclusion that this adjective when modifying the life imparted by Christ to the believer can only mean everlasting, never-ceasing.
The believer has passed out of death into life and will not come into judgment. Such are the declarations of the Lord Jesus. The reason that he will never come into any kind of judgment for trial is that he possesses the same kind of life as does the Lord Jesus Christ. We have become partakers of His divine nature through the "exceeding great promises" granted to us (2 Pet. 1:3,4).
Those who receive eternal life by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ shall reign in the new Jerusalem into the ages of the ages, according to Rev. 22:5. The expression, "Unto the ages of the ages," is the oft-recurring expression used in connection with God's eternal existence. Therefore it connotes nothing short of a never-ceasing existence throughout all eternity of the future. Since the saints in the new Jerusalem are said to reign into the ages of the ages, this promise is an affirmation that the life which the Christian receives from Christ is everlasting.
According to the Scriptures, the one who has been raised with Christ and seated in the heavenly places will now, either by death or by the rapture of the Church at the coming of the Lord for His saints, be ushered into His presence, "and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17). The word translated "ever" connotes the idea of "at all times, always, ever." From that event onward they who are united with Christ will ever be with Him wherever He is. They will be with Him throughout the Millennial Age and will reign with Him. After that golden era this earth will be destroyed (Rev. 20:11-15) and there will be created new heavens and a new earth. Then the new Jerusalem will come down out of the new heavens upon the new earth and the saints who have been with the Lord and who have reigned with Him during the thousand years will enter that new Jerusalem and will reign with Him "into the ages of the ages."
It is beyond the conception of our finite minds to grasp the grandeur of the glory which awaits the children of God. Paul in apocalyptic vision saw the future and exclaimed that the sufferings of this present world are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed to us. From the connection in Rom. 8 where this passage occurs, we can see that he was speaking of the Millennial Age when the curse will be lifted. Since it is impossible for mortal mind to conceive of the glory and the blessedness of the kingdom era, it goes without saying that it is utterly impossible for us now under our present limitations to comprehend even in the least manner the greatness of the glory that shall be the heritage of the people of God throughout all eternity.
Modifying the word "punishment": As the word aioniōs, everlasting, when modifying the life of the children of God indicates eternal, never-ending, so the same adjective when modifying the noun punishment can connote nothing less. Hence in Matt. 25:46, when Jesus said that the righteous go off into everlasting life, He indicated their eternal and blessed existence with God. In the same manner the adjective aioniōs when modifying the punishment of the wicked can only mean that they go off into everlasting, unceasing punishment--a banishment from the presence of God and the glory of His power.
This everlasting punishment is conscious existence under unfavorable circumstances. Some have erroneously understood that it means annihilation. Such an idea is not to be found in the Scriptures.
According to Rev. 19:20, the beast and the false prophet are cast into the lake of fire at the beginning of the thousand years of our Lord's reign. They are thoroughly conscious. At the conclusion of that period we see them there just as they were at the beginning. After the little space following the Millennium the devil is cast into the lake of fire along with the beast and the false prophet and they are punished for ever and ever. These facts indicate clearly that there is conscious existence in this place that is called "the lake of fire" throughout the ages of all eternity.
Some have considered the expression, "day and night," in the clause, "and they shall be tormented day and night unto the ages of the ages" (Rev. 20:10), as modifying or limiting the duration of "the ages of the ages." This theory claims that, when day and night in the ordinarily accepted meaning of the words cease, the period designated by "ages of the ages" likewise closes. Hence it is believed that the punishment in the passage ceases. In the light of this explanation it is affirmed that the punishment mentioned in the prediction is simply age-lasting and is by no means eternal. Will the passage yield such a meaning? Can the use of "day and night" in the sentence limit the eternal duration indicated by "into the ages of the ages?" An examination of other occurrences of this idiom must determine the answer.Proclaim the Truth in Love
In Rev. 4:8 we see that the living creatures who proclaim, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty," have "no rest day and night." What does this statement mean? It can mean only one thing--namely that the praise service continues without any interruption. These celestial beings will continue this praise of the Almighty forever without even any temporary cessation.
The same idiom is used in Rev. 7:15 to indicate the uninterrupted service which the Tribulation saints will render to God forever. Again the same expression occurs in describing the punishment of those who worship the beast (Rev. 14:11). For "they have no rest day and night." In the light of all these facts we must conclude that "day and night" in Rev. 20:10 does not limit the duration of "the ages of the ages" but simply connotes the unceasing character of the punishment of the wicked throughout all eternity.
It is very difficult for us at the present stage of our existence to comprehend eternal life and bliss in fellowship with God forever and ever, and at the same time to understand the clear Scriptural teaching of everlasting punishment. The punishment meted out to anyone must be commensurate with the sin or the offense. In view of the fact, however, that every inducement is made to each individual soul to accept life eternal and fellowship with God throughout all eternity, enjoying the riches of His grace in an ever-expanding and developing life of joy and service, the rejection of such light and blessings demands punishment that is commensurate with the sin. From this point of view, therefore, we can see faintly the philosophical justification for the institution of eternal punishment. When, however, this life with all of its shadows shall have passed, we shall be able to see things from God's standpoint and justify Him in all of His decisions which are holy, righteous and just.
Unfortunately the doctrine of eternal punishment--banishment from the presence of God and the glory of His might forever--is unacceptable to many in these days. The faithful minister of the Gospel will not, therefore, consider the question as to whether or not this tenet is popular, but will simply ask the question: Do the Scriptures teach everlasting punishment? And in his heart say to his Redeemer, "If so, I will proclaim the truth in love, and plead with men and women to flee to the Lord Jesus Christ from the wrath to come."
* See A.S.V. footnote or D.L. Cooper translation when words differ from K.J.V. and A.S.V. text.