Is “aionios” punishment not really eternal?

Q. Some websites and teachers say that “eternal” punishment and  separation from God is not really forever. This position seemingly stems from the Greek aionios, which, according to them, can mean an age or a short time. How can this match up with the holiness of God? Holiness demands justice and judgment, does it not? I am attempting to get in my mind how God could be both holy and just by letting those unrepentant sinners who spend a short time in Sheol, Hades, or whichever term may be chosen to then enter the joys of heaven. If this were true, wouldn’t Jesus’ death on the cross have been a farce?

I had previously heard the idea that “eternal” punishment does not go on for eternity but rather remains in force for eternity–that is, it is “permanent punishment,” not “everlasting punishment.” People who have this understanding of the term “eternal” often argue that the wicked are annihilated after their death and final judgment, they aren’t tormented forever. I discuss this view in a series of posts that begins here.

You are describing a different view, one that I hadn’t heard before, according to which the Greek term aionios, typically translated “eternal” in English Bibles, can actually refer to various lengths of time, potentially short or long. I looked around on the Internet to see whether I could find someone presenting that view, and while I didn’t find it exactly, I did find some people arguing that aionios actually means “pertaining to an age,” and so what is often called “eternal” punishment is simply punishment that relates to the period when God is punishing people after their deaths for what they did during their lives; that period won’t necessarily last forever.

I don’t find this argument convincing because, as I understand it, aionios actually means “of unspecified duration,” that is, pertaining to an age of its own, not measured or demarcated by any other time reference. I see it as the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘olam, meaning “to indefinite futurity.” So this  effectively means that anything that was aionios would be “eternal” in the sense of unending.

That is my response to your question about the word aionios. But you had a theological question as well: If “unrepentant sinners” (that is, people who chose with determination not to follow God’s ways in this life) who were sentenced to punishment after death could be pardoned after a relatively short time, wouldn’t that mean that Jesus had died for nothing on the cross?

I would actually say just the opposite. What if there actually were people who wanted to cry out to God for mercy after they had been sentenced to separation from God for the choices they  made in this life? If such people could not seek and find mercy based on what Jesus did on the cross, then it could be argued that there was indeed a sense in which Jesus’ death was not completely effective in satisfying the justice of God.

I realize that I’m tipping my hand here and admitting that I believe there could be such people.  As I say in another post, “It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who truly want to come in.” However, I go on to say that “I recognize that people of genuine faith, who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, disagree about this matter.” The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like to know about the afterlife, and so we have to live with some unanswered questions and differences of opinion.

To get some further background to my perspective on this, you might have a look at this post as well: Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?

I realize that I may be opening up even more possibilities than you were trying to get your mind around when you asked your question, but I hope that even so this response might be helpful to you.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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