Broadly speaking, there are three main views among Christians on the fate of the damned:
- Traditionalists believe the damned will live forever separated from God in hell. They may disagree over the nature of hell, but they agree that the damned will spend an eternity in it.
- Annihilationists believe the damned will be annihilated. They may believe the damned will be punished in hell for a finite period of time, but at some point in the future all the damned will cease to exist.
- Universalists believe the damned will eventually repent and be saved. They may believe the damned will spend a finite duration of time in hell, but eventually all will turn to God and be saved.
One of the issues in the debate between these groups is the meaning of the Greek words aiônios and aïdios. Do the terms refer to eternity or not?
Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan have recently published Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts (Gorgias Press, 2013) to address the question. With its discussion of ancient foreign languages, I am not qualified to assess many of the book’s claims. Nonetheless, due to my interest in the subject of the fate of the damned, I’ve decided to take notes and summarize the book’s content to the best of my ability.
This book had its origins in Ilaria Ramelli’s study of the doctrine of universal salvation (apocatastasis). NT passages that mention “eternal punishment”, “eternal fire”, and “eternal death” seem to contradict the doctrine of universal salvation. The Greek word translated “eternal” in these passages is aiônios, a word which may sometimes mean eternal but also bears other meanings. When speaking of “eternal life” the NT also uses aïdios, which always means eternal in the strict sense. Aïdios is never used of future punishment, fire, or death. While studying patristic advocates of universal salvation (e.g., Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus, Evagrius) Ramelli noticed that they used aïdios to refer to eternal life but never to refer to eternal punishment, fire, or death. Ramelli enlisted the help of David Konstan to perform a systematic analysis of these terms in classical, biblical, and patristic writings. The two authors intend the present work to contribute to the study of apocatastasis and the conception of time and eternity in ancient Greek philosophy and literature, in the Bible, and in early Christianity.
The word “eternity” can have multiple senses. It can mean an indefinitely, but not infinitely, long time. It can be used of an action that is regularly repeated (e.g., he always brushes his teeth before going to bed). It can be used, for example, to say that the statue has always been at this intersection, meaning the statue has always stood in the location as long as it has existed but not that the statue itself is eternal. It can be used to mean something like countless or incomprehensible. It may have a beginning but no end. It may have an end but no beginning. It may have neither a beginning nor an end. It can also mean timeless, not subject to time at all.
This book is focused on the words aiônios and aïdios and what they meant through centuries of Greek writings. The authors describe the principal purpose of the book as follows:
[W]e hope to shed light on the meanings of terms for eternity, and in particular adjectives meaning ‘eternal,’ in classical thought and literature and in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, it is in respect to Christian theology in the first five centuries of the common era that the choice of vocabulary itself proves to be most revealing of larger doctrinal commitments. In this context, discussion centered above all on the question of eternal damnation versus the idea, deemed heretical in the Christian church after the formal condemnation of Origenism, of apocatastasis or universal salvation, that is, the belief that the wicked are not condemned to eternal punishment, but will eventually, in accord with divine mercy, be included among the saved. Terminology is often at the core of how these issues were debated, and indeed may help to identify which writers inclined to one or the other view of the matter. Each of the chapters that follow presents as full a range of evidence as is practicable, and is meant to be of independent value. But the various strands of the argument come together in the thought of the early Christians, who self-consciously deployed the vocabulary of eternity in the exposition of their views of the afterlife. By clarifying the meanings of the terms that they inherited from a centuries-long tradition of abstract theory and popular usage, we can better perceive their vision and their intentions. That, at all events, is the premise and the goal of this book. (pp. 3-4)
1. Classical Literature from the Archaic to the Hellenistic Period
Both the Greek terms aiônios and aïdios are commonly translated into English as “eternal”. Aiônios is derived from the word aion, which may signify a lifetime or a long temporal period (eon). Aïdios is apparently derived from the adverb aiei (“always”).
a) The Presocratics
The first securely attested use of aiônios is not found before the writings of Plato. Ramelli and Konstan survey how the Presocratics used aïdios in different senses and contexts. Among them, it could mean “eternal”, “permanent”, “enduring”, “ungenerated”, “imperishable”, or “perpetual”.
b) Plato and Platonism
Plato uses both aiônios and aïdios in the sense of “eternal”. He uses the term aion in the following senses: “long time”, “our times”, “life”, and “eternity”. He uses aiônios in the following senses: “eternal”, “continuous”, and “what is beyond time”/”timeless”. Later Platonists also used the terms in the senses that Plato did. Plotinus also used aïdios in the sense of “everlasting, uncreated”.
c) Aristotle and Hellenistic Philosophy
Aristotle never uses the word aiônios. He uses aion most often in the sense of “life”. Aïdios was Aristotle’s preferred term for “eternity”. Other Hellenistic philosophers used aïdios much more frequently than they used aiônios and they usually used it to refer to “eternity”. But Epictetus uses aïdios to say that temperance is an enduring ornament of a household. Hellenistic philosophers, particularly the Stoics, could use aiônios to refer to repeated world ages. Posidonius could use aiônios to refer to something recurring (e.g., the tides) or to something permanent or lasting (e.g., fame). Epicurus could use aiônios to mean “life-long”.
Outside of philosophical discourse, we may observe that, in the Hellenistic period, Polybius employs both aiônios and aïdios of historical events, but shows a decided preference for the latter. Aiônios is attested only once, in connection with the “perpetual memory” that those who have performed heroic deeds leave behind after their deaths (8.12). Aïdios, in turn, is used in reference to an ongoing war between two peoples (4.45, bis), or else, as a technical term, to denominate the authority for life of the kings of Sparta (6.45). So too, the gifts of the gods are said to be perpetual peace and freedom (13.9). (p. 35)
2. From the Septuagint to the New Testament
a) The Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint
The Greek word aïdios only occurs twice in the LXX (4 Macc 10:15; Wis 7:26). In Wis 7:26 wisdom is defined as a reflection of the eternal light. In 4 Macc 10:15 the afterlife of the martyrs is called “eternal life”. It is noteworthy that 4 Maccabees uses aïdios to only speak of eternal life and uses aiônios to speak of punishment in the world to come. This distinction will be observed in the NT as well.
The Hebrew word olam stands behind the many uses of aiônios and aion in the LXX. Aiônios is commonly used in the LXX of things that last over the centuries and of things from remote antiquity. There are a number of passages where Ramelli and Konstan are unsure whether aiônios means “eternal” or merely “long-lasting” (e.g., Ex 3:15; Dan 7:14). These passages use the term in reference to God so the term may derive the sense of “eternal” only because God is by nature eternal. Job 22:15 uses it to refer to “this world”. Dan 12:2 uses aiônios to speak of resurrection in the world to come.
b) Around the Time of Christ
Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) usually uses aiônios of historical periods of long duration. It is only in reference to the gods that the term takes on the sense of “eternal”. He uses aïdios to mean “eternal” or “without end”. Dionysius of Halicarnassus uses aiônios in the sense of “continual” or “perpetual”. He uses aïdios to designate “an uninterrupted continuity over the space of an entire life or historical period” (p. 51).
Philo of Alexandria was familiar with both the LXX and Greek philosophy. He uses aiônios in different senses: “lasting”, “continuous”, “perpetual”, “long-lasting” and “eternal”. He uses it to refer to the “eternal life” of the virtuous. In Philo’s writings, aïdios almost always means “eternal” in the strict sense. In On the Posterity of Cain 39 he uses aïdios to refer to the “eternal death” of the impious. Since Philo believed only the pious will be immortal and that the wicked will perish forever, he is using the term “eternal death” in the sense of annihilation.
c) The New Testament
In the NT, when aiônios or aïdios is used in reference to God it presumably means “eternal”. But aiônios does not always mean “eternal” in the NT. In Rom 16:25 we read of revelation from time immemorial and of Christ having glory through the ages. In 2 Tim 1:9 it is said that God granted us grace before time immemorial. The NT speaks of life in the aion to come (e.g., Jn 4:14) as aiônios life (e.g., 1 Jn 3:15). Aiônios is used to refer to life in the world to come as opposed to life in this world. Ramelli and Konstan state: “Although one may infer that life in the world to come is eternal in the sense of unending, it appears that this is not the primary connotation of aiônios in these contexts, but it is rather the idea of a new life or aion” (p. 69).
Christ says that those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit do not have forgiveness in the world to come, but remain guilty of a sin that is aiônios (Mk 3:29). Ramelli and Konstan say that this would be an odd way to say they do not have forgiveness for all eternity and that it more likely means that the guilt endures into the aion to come. Jude 7 calls the fire that destroyed Sodom aionian. The fire that destroyed Sodom did not last for an eternity. The term is used because the fire was sent from the other world by God to destroy the evil city.
Aristotle says that kolasis “is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer” and that timoria is inflicted “in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction” (p. 67). The authors note that in the NT the punishment in the world to come is always indicated by kolasis. If Aristotle’s distinction holds for the NT, then the punishment in the age to come should be seen as purifying rather than retributive.
Aïdios is used rarely in the NT. Rom 1:20 uses it to speak of the power of God. Jude 6 uses the term to speak of the aïdios chains that bind the evil angels until judgment day. In this verse aïdios must refer to the uninterrupted binding of the evil angels, not their eternal binding.
3. The Early Church Fathers and their Contemporaries
a) Non-Christian Writers of the Early Empire
In the writings of Josephus, both aiônios and aïdios are used to mean “eternal” but also “perpetual, lasting”. He does not seem to make a distinction between the two terms.
Plutarch can speak of an aion that is not eternal, but he also uses aiônios in the sense of eternal. He uses aïdios in the senses “eternal”, “perpetual”, “continuous”, and “enduring”.
Dio Chrysostom uses aiônios in the senses “eternal”, “long-lasting”, and “perpetual”. Dio Cassius uses aïdios in the sense of “perpetual” not “eternal”. Sextus Empiricus uses aiônios in the senses “perpetual”, “for life”, “permanently enduring”, and “eternal”. Sextus uses aïdios to mean absolute eternity.
The above analysis confirms that aiônios is normally the more general adjective, and can signify eternal, perennial, perpetual, long-lasting, for a lifetime, or in the future or the remote past, whereas aïdios tends to have a more restricted connotation, and is more commonly employed to express eternity in the philosophical and absolute sense. (p. 82)
b) Early Christian and Christianizing Texts
In the Sibylline Oracles, aiônios is chiefly used in the sense of absolute eternity in reference to God. The phrase aiônios life may refer to life in the age to come instead of eternal life. Sibylline Oracles 2.53 speaks of hope for the next world instead of eternal hope. Sibylline Oracles 2.336 says those condemned to the fires of hell will be converted by God into the saved. In prophetic contexts, destruction is spoken of as aiônios in the sense of perpetual. The Sibylline Oracles use aïdios in the sense of eternal.
The Apocalypse of Esdra describes God as aiônios. In another passage, it mentions “judgments in the world to come” (not “eternal judgments”). The Apocalypse of Enoch uses the term aiônios in the senses “perpetual”, “lasting”, and “eternal”. The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs uses aiônios in the senses “enduring”, “perpetual”, “of the world to come”. The Apocalypse of John contrasts the fire of the world to come with this world, suggesting aiônios is used to refer to the age to come.
Ignatius of Antioch associates aiônios life with incorruptibility (1.18; 7.2), suggesting it is eternal. He says the resurrection of Christ is joy for the world to come (5.1). In 7.8 Ignatius says the recipients of the letter will be glorified by an act that is aiônios. He uses aïdios to refer to eternal life but never to death, punishment, or fire.
The Letter to Barnabas speaks of aiônios death. The Acts of John 36 calls the threats for the damned aiônios and speaks of the fire into which they are thrown as never going out. Athenogras of Athens employs aïdios in the absolute sense of eternal. In Apology 19.1 he says that the only thing that is eternal (aïdios) is God, who is ungenerated. The Shepherd of Hermas speaks of aiônios life in the sense of the future life (7.3; 16.5; 24.6).
Irenaeus can speak of both aiônios life and aiônios punishment. He never refers to punishment in the world to come with the term aïdios despite using aïdios in the sense of eternal in other contexts.
In To Autolycus 1.14, Theophilus appears to use aiônios in the future sense to refer to the world to come. Theophilus can also use aiônios and aïdios in the sense of eternal.
In sum, in these Christian texts of the second century, the vocabulary of the New Testament is in general respected; as in the New Testament, and indeed in the Septuagint, so too in these second-century texts one finds that for the most part the favored term is aiônios rather than aïdios. Occurrences of aïdios in the sense of “absolutely eternal” are not infrequent, but when it is not in a purely doxographical context or in a report of heretical doctrines, the term is almost invariably employed in relation to God. Rarely, it is employed of life in the next world, where the sense is clearly eternal life: this use too has scriptural authority, as we have seen. It is noteworthy, however, that it is never found in reference to fire or punishment in the next life.
How are we to interpret this skewed distribution of these two terms that are conventionally rendered as “eternal”? The early Christian writers may simply have followed the usage of the New Testament (and of the Septuagint) in the unvarying association of aiônios with life and with torments, whatever the meaning that they ascribed to the adjective. Alternatively, they may have had a lively sense of the special significance of the term as pertaining to the world to come, irrespective of duration. If this is indeed the case, and various instances in which aiônios is contrasted with expressions referring to this world seem to point in this direction, then the apparent hesitation in applying the alternative term aïdios to punishments in the afterlife may reflect a certain doubt as to whether damnation was truly eternal, in the strict philosophical acceptation of the idea, or rather something due to befall sinners in the next aion, to be sure, but without necessarily implying the foreclosure of ultimate salvation to sinners. So far, the evidence, while suggestive, is inconclusive, and different authors may well have held various views on the matter. When we come, however, to thinkers whose commitment to the principle of universal salvation or apocatastasis is unequivocal, as we shall see in the next section, and above all in the case of Origen, the meanings of these words, and the use of one or the other in a given context, will have major theological implications. It is to this later development that we now turn. (pp. 94-95)
c) From Tatian to Clement of Alexandria
Tatian speaks of aionion fire and the damned not sharing in aïdios life. He only uses aïdios to refer to life, never to punishment. However, he may have believed in eternal damnation.
Justin Martyr says the damned person will suffer in proportion to his actions with fire in the next world (First Apology 17.4). This may suggest the damned will suffer the fire for a finite amount of time. In First Apology 52.3 Justin says the senses of the damned will be active in the next world, not that the damned will have “eternal sensation”. Justin uses aiônios in the senses “eternal”, “of the world to come”, “perpetual”, “long-lasting”, and “imperishable”. He uses aïdios only once and it is in the sense of “eternal”.
Clement of Alexandria believed the apostle Paul taught (Rom 6:22) that the end/goal is the hoped-for apocatastasis, final universal restoration. He believed there would be an end of punishment in the next world. Clement uses aiônios in the senses “pertaining to the future world”, “eternal”, and “long time”. Clement uses aïdios extensively, usually in the sense “eternal”. Clement speaks of aïdios death, but as a threat not a reality thanks to divine mercy. Otherwise, punishment is never said to be aïdios. He says the wicked angels are bound in aïdios chains until the day of judgment, so aïdios can’t mean eternal in this passage.
Origen believed damnation and punishment in the next world would not be eternal in the strict sense. He thought the punishment after death was purifying or correcting. He believed that all human beings would eventually be saved and evil would be wholly abolished, although this might take many ages. Origen uses aiônios in the senses “pertaining to the next world”, “from time immemorial”, and “eternal”. He uses aïdios in the sense of eternal. He never speaks of aïdios punishments because he did not believe they were eternal, strictly speaking.
4. Church Fathers after Origen
This chapter is, by far, the longest of the book. I will merely note what I take to be the most important points since many of the usages mentioned earlier reappear in these writers.
a) From Gregory the Thaumaturge to Athanasius
In this section, Ramelli and Konstan cover the works of Gregory the Thaumaturge, Hippolytus, Didymus the Blind, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Athanasius.
Although Hippolytus believed in eternal punishment he never uses the word aïdios to describe it. He always follows the biblical usage and uses aiônios.
Didymus the Blind explicitly explains various meanings of aiônios in Commentary on Job 76.11ff. If it is used of God it means without beginning or end, not subject to time. If it is used of humans it means the continuation of this life in the life to come.
b) The Cappadocian Fathers
In this section, Ramelli and Konstan cover the works of Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, and Gregory of Nazianzus.
Gregory of Nyssa says that for aion to mean “eternity” this must be indicated by the immediate context. When speaking of eschatological punishment, Gregory always uses aiônios, never aïdios. He did not believe the “unquenchable” fire and “undying” worm would torment sinners forever. He believed in universal restoration after an aion of purifying punishment.
In one place (Moral Poems col. 663.2), Gregory of Nazianzus speaks of a worm that devours eternally (aïdios) but he may use aïdios instead of aiônios because he is constrained by the meter of the poem.
The authors quote a passage attributed to Basil (Brief Rules PG 31 1264.30-1265.47) answering a question about whether eschatological punishments will come to an end. “Basil” says they will not end but admits that many people, by the devil’s deceit, believe there will be an end to such punishment. Ramelli and Konstan argue that this passage is an interpolation since it contradicts Basil’s use of aiônios and aïdios elsewhere; seems out of character with Basil’s other statements; and because it is highly unlikely, given Basil’s close relationships to and regard for defenders of universal salvation, that he would attribute belief in universal salvation to the devil’s deceit.
c) Evagrius to Maximus the Confessor
In this section, Ramelli and Konstan cover the works of Evagrius, Diodorus of Tarsus, John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Proclus of Constantinople, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and Maximus the Confessor.
Evagrius was a universalist but can speak of aiônios punishment and death. For him, the aion is an intermediate eschatological phase instead of a definitive end. The authors note that, if we did not know better, we might have taken Exhortation to Monks PG 79.1237 to be an indication that he believed in eternal punishment. The passage provides an example of how terms like aiônios, asbestos, and athanatos could be used to speak of transcendental, not necessarily everlasting, states of affairs.
Diodorus of Tarsus was another universalist. He explicitly states that aiônios does not mean eternity.
In only one place, John Chrysostom speaks of aïdios punishment to arouse fear in his listeners. John says the power of the devil is aiônios, bound to this aion, and will therefore come to an end. While apparently believing in eternal punishment, he is aware that others disagree.
Theodore of Mopsuestia was another universalist who spoke only of aiônios punishment but never aïdios punishment.
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, another universalist, explicitly says that aiônios in Scripture does not always mean absolutely eternal.
d) Anti-Origenist Writers from Methodius to Epiphanius
In this final section of the chapter, Ramelli and Konstan look at theologians who largely condemned the teaching of universal restoration. Few Greek works surviving from the third and fourth centuries display overtly hostile stances to it (Latin writings, which obscure the difference between aiônios and aïdios by translating both as aeternus, provide more examples). The authors cover the writings of Methodius, Eustathius, Peter of Alexandria, Apollinaris, and Epiphanius.
Apollinaris explicitly says aiônios life is reserved for the blessed alone. The damned will be rejected for the rest of time.
We have seen that the term aïdios has its roots in the earliest Greek philosophical vocabulary, and more or less consistently refers to a strictly eternal stretch of time, without beginning or end, or at least endless. This use obtains in later pagan as well as Christian writers. The term aiônios, which seems to have been introduced by Plato and comes into its own in the Scriptures, is more complex: it may indicate a long period of time, or, in Platonizing writers, an atemporal or transcendental timelessness. Very broadly, aiônios corresponds to the uses of aion, which means a lifetime, a generation, or an entire age or epoch, particularly in Stoicizing contexts; in Christian writings, aion may refer to the temporal age prior to creation, to this present world, or, more often, to the epoch to come in the next world. Aiônios may also acquire the connotation of strict eternity, particularly when it is applied to God or divine beings: here, the sense of the adjective is conditioned by the subject it modifies. There is also a technical sense in Christian theology, in which aiônios may refer more specifically to the aion that follows upon the resurrection but precedes the final reintegration or apocatastasis, which in the view of Origen and his followers will signal the salvation of all, including those who have until this moment been subject to redemptive punishment. With the apocatastasis, all time, and hence all aiones, come to an end.
Writers who accept Origen’s doctrine, accordingly, naturally interpret the use of aiônios in reference to punishment in the afterlife as referring to the world to come, that is, to the future aion, as opposed to the strict sense of “eternal.” They are correspondingly disinclined to apply the alternative and more philosophical adjective aïdios to the fire of damnation and other torments in the next world, in this observing the usage that can plausibly be ascribed to the Scriptures. Even where Christian writers have not taken a clear stand on the issue — something that many may have been reluctant to do as a result of the intense controversy surrounding it — there use of the two terms under investigation may be a clue to their convictions on the subject of universal salvation. It is remarkable that the great majority of Christian texts that have come down to use from the third and fourth centuries do observe the distinction indicated above, which suggests that Origenism, at least in this matter, was more widely held than is sometimes supposed. There is, indeed, direct evidence of its popularity as well.
Even among those church fathers who were explicitly opposed to the idea of apocatastasis — and such writings from this era, prior to the formal condemnation of Origenism in the early sixth century, are surprisingly scarce — we often find a certain ambiguity in relation to the possible salvation of all. Sometimes they appear to grant aiônios life to everyone after the resurrection, although at other times they evidently restrict it to the blessed. There is no such ambiguity among those theologians who, like Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius, Isaac of Ninevah, and many others, regarded not just the resurrection but also salvation (the spiritual resurrection) as universal. Thus Gregory, at the end of his dialogue On the Soul, after having described the universal resurrection and the different lengths of time required for the purification of unequal degrees of sin, characterizes the zoe aiônios as a festival for all human beings who, having been restored to the Good, will rejoice with God endlessly.
It is not always easy to identify the precise sense of the term aiônios from its context; this is why we have identified and often quoted the relevant passages at length, so that readers may evaluate our interpretations for themselves. We believe that we have shown that Christian writers were in generally fully aware of the implications of the terms under discussion, and that they applied them carefully, particularly in respect to the question of eternal punishment in the next world. What emerges from the present analysis is that, apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aiônios does not mean “eternal”; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” In particular, when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to the Biblical usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come. (pp. 237-8)