What is Eternal – God or Rewards and Punishment?

Multiple teachings of the Bible (e.g. the Temple as microcosm, image bearing, resurrection) pertain to the two-fold interdependence of humans and the world and humans and God. But what must be included in the mix is the overlapping of time or of the “ages” with eternity. The heavenly and its earthly entrance point are not distinct but are pictured as overlapping[1] and this is reflected in the Biblical words for time and eternity. There are a series of words in both Greek and Hebrew that often get translated as “eternal” and yet they are specifically references to time. The question arises if any stretch of time is an eternity? Or as David Konstan has posed the question, “If one speaks of the next life, or something that happens in the next life, as aiónios, does it mean simply the next era or eon, or does it carry the further implication of ‘eternal’?”[2] Is the next age either an eternity in hell or in heaven or does this way of putting it miss the intersection of time and eternity?

To pose the question in terms of the cosmology represented by the Jewish Temple, it is simultaneously a spatial and temporal microcosm in which a peculiar sort of temporal passage is represented spatially, but how can the two (the finite and infinite) be sorted out? It is not simply that the outer court is representative of the visible land and sea and the Holy Place representative of the visible heaven and the garden of God (the finite), but these realms are conjoined in the sabbath time with the Holy of Holies (the infinite or eternal). The picture is of the invisible heaven of God, and perhaps passage beyond time, somehow connected with the visible and finite. As the priest would pass into the Holy Place, he also made a temporal transition, as the garden motif in which it was decorated simultaneously pointed to the garden of Genesis and its future restoration (eternity once again intersecting time). If the Temple is taken as illustrative of an infinitely enduring state, creation (the garden, time, embodiment) will always be the meeting place between God and humans but it cannot itself be equated with the Holy of Holies or God’s eternality.

As the book of Timothy decisively states it, God “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:16). God’s immortality or eternality are not something that can be appropriated by humanity or invested statically in creation. Eternity, as a predicate of God (τοῦ αἰωνίου θεοῦ, Romans 16:26), like immortality, is of a different order which transcends time and is not simply unending time.[3] Other things might be derivatively eternal (according to TDNT – such things as divine possessions or gifts, the Covenant, or the Kingdom) but only God is intrinsically eternal. This would include rewards and punishments of God or the age in which they exist. God is the singular eternal causal source, so that to speak of eternal punishment and reward is simply to identify the source and not the duration.

As David Bentley Hart notes in the concluding postscript to his translation, aiōnios or aiónion (as found in Matt 25:46 describing future punishment) is drawn from αἰών (aiōn or aeon), might “mean a period of endless duration, but which more properly, throughout the whole of ancient and late antique Greek literature, means ‘an age,’ or ‘a long period of time of indeterminate duration, or even just ‘a substantial interval’.” The adjective aiōnios never clearly means “eternal” in an incontrovertible sense.

So, for example, it is not as the Revised Standard Version would have it, that some “shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Th 1:9, RSV). But as Hart translates it, they “will pay the just reparation of ruin in the Age, coming from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might.” The two renderings give two very different notions of the location of eternity and thus two very different ideas of its duration.[4] In the RSV the eternality occurs in an impossible category for the Bible, in its exclusion from God. It is not as Hart translates it “from the face of the Lord” but the RSV assigns eternality to what cannot be inherently eternal. This is why Hart can say, in That All Shall Be Saved, an eternal hell is “entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint” (p. 93). It seems to be an intrinsic impossibility. By the same token this gives us a very different picture of the coming Kingdom.

The age of the Kingdom is parallel to the age of punishment, not as an alternative end point, but as an alternative reception of that which emanates from God and resulting in a final Age or a consummate summation of all things, which I will take up in my next blog.

[1] In one of the first Biblical images of this overlap, the breath breathed in the breathing (living) Adam is repeated in the tree of breath (life). The tree is the mediating point of God’s life giving (eternal) presence (Genesis 2:8). Eve will “breathlessly” go “breathing after” (the image of her desire) the second tree which circulates only an immanent self-referential frame (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil).

[2] Found on this internet forum https://forum.evangelicaluniversalist.com/t/terms-for-eternity-aionios-aidios-talk-part-2/1392#p27926 and referenced here https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/10/08/sometimes-eternity-aint-forever-aionios-and-the-universalist-hope/

[3] Sasse, H. (1964–). αἰών, αἰώνιος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 208). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] This piece runs this down more – https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2020/02/05/apprehending-apokatastasis-what-the-bible-says-and-doesnt/?fbclid=IwAR1_okyxztphkhJxz1mqOeDPqw3b6o8qS84TPni6xhAj2j5f

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

3 thoughts on “What is Eternal – God or Rewards and Punishment?”

  1. So TDNT (nor anything else, as far as I know) doesn’t actually support that “to speak of eternal punishment and reward is simply to identify the source and not the duration.”

    The challenge, as it’s always been, is for anyone anywhere to be able to cite even just a single text in the entirety of ancient Greek literature where aionios is better understand as “of the age to come” as opposed to a durational sense. Hart certainly doesn’t offer this; and to my knowledge no one has.

  2. I look forward to developing this more. I am finding that this is a critical thought concerning exactly what is eternal and also what is not. I have also found it fascinating that many times ones atonement theory dictates how one sees these issues.

    1. Good point. The human problem and its resolution (atonement theory) and one’s view of God are all integral to our understanding of this key issue.

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