Betting against the Bet: Can we know exactly what aionios means anyway?

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

ere, I’d like to think about a bet offered here by Stewart James Felker on the translation of the Greek word aionios:|

“That said, then, the viability of Christian universalism is dependent on its ability to interpret “eternal punishment” in an alternate way here.

The most well-known universalist strategy for doing this is to deny the true force of permanence to the word usually translated as “eternal,” by offering a different explanation and translation of the Greek (or Hebrew) words that underlie this. And this is where my challenge comes in.”

“I’m offering a starting pledge of $100 to whoever can demonstrate that any use of aiōnios in the Old Testament (e.g. in the so-called deuterocanonical literature originally written in Greek: the books of the Maccabees, etc.) or the New Testament can more plausibly be interpreted as “long-but-not-permanent/forever” or “eschatological” than as “permanent” or “everlasting/eternal” — especially if it can reasonably be brought to bear particularly on the issue of afterlife punishment. In fact, I’ll pay $100 to each person who puts forward at least one convincing demonstration of this. And so that this is all for a good cause, let’s say that this money will go to a charity of your choosing.”

I think that framing this discussion as a bet is interesting, but I’d like to challenge the entire idea that we can meaningfully have a bet about this. If that means Stewart won’t donate the money, I’m not bothered. He should make a donation because it is the right thing to do, not because someone has engaged in discourse with him. I’d much prefer to not have the discussion distorted either way by a promise of money, but would rather engage in an honest and broad-ranging discussion that can question and clarify the premises of his bet as well as the conclusions.

So to start, what’s wrong with this bet itself?

Why I think this whole discussion has been poorly formed by Stewart from the start

First, I don’t think this is a true claim:

“That said, then, the viability of Christian universalism is dependent on its ability to interpret “eternal punishment” in an alternate way here.”

And while this might seem like a side point to the bet, it is important to notice that it is explicitly the motive for the whole discussion. This is part of why I’m actually less interested in the bet than the broader discussion: faulty presuppositions like this have a way of coming to seem true when they are presumed in another discussion. And as Dale Allison has, I think, quite convincingly articulated, Biblical studies and historical study of Jesus are both highly underdetermined fields of study relative to the questions people are most interested in. There just isn’t enough data to reach a very firm conclusion about most things, especially when things get granular, and so normal human cognitive biases lead to an illusory sense of certainty and confidence for almost everyone involved in the field. While we have learned and are learning a lot that is fascinating and worthy of study, it very rarely leads to clear answers. And, crucially for our discussion, it rather rarely even leads us to the point where we can speak meaningfully and precisely about preponderances of evidence.

As Allison puts it in The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus:

After years of being in the quest business, I have reluctantly concluded that most of the Gospel materials are not subject to historical proof or disproof, or even to accurate estimates of their probability. That Jesus said something is no cause for supposing that we can demonstrate that he said it, and that Jesus did not say something is no cause for supposing that we can show that he did not say it.

~ Allison, Loc 731/1698

And while Allison is talking here about historical reconstruction, I think the same insights pertain directly to our current discussion in a variety of ways. Because, as we’ll see, one of the arguments I’d like to throw into the mix on my side (which is the side of “anything but what Stewart says”), hinges crucially on whether Jesus was thinking “eschatologically” or “apocalyptically”, fully aware that both of those terms are very hotly contested in scholarship as to what they’re even supposed to mean. But also, as Allison notes here, even the question of where the weight of current scholarship sits is hotly contested:

“One thinks, for instance, of Wolfhart Pannenberg, whose wll-known book on christology, Jesus — God and Man, is largely an exercise in vindicating an eschatological worldview, an exercise set in motion by the conviction that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. A few decades after Bultmann, however, Marcus Borg gave it as his judgment that “the majority of scholars” no longer attributes to Jesus the eschatological view that Bultmann attributed to him: that had, allegedly, become an antiquated position. Borg himself has gone on to do popular Christian theology and to speak to large crowds outside the academy in the conviction that it was Schweitzer, Bultmann, and Pannenberg who were wrong about Jesus, not Jesus who was wrong about the end.”

~ Allison, Loc 175/1698

So whether we’re talking about the practical viability of purgatorial universalism or broader theological or philosophical reflection, I think Stewart (perhaps unfortunately) overestimates the importance of this particular question. Whether purgatorial universalism has a come-back or not, I don’t think the opinions of eminent scholars, let alone a bunch of randos like us, will matter very much. Still less important is the elusive utter truth of the matter, which I’d very much love to know … although I don’t think we can, at the very least not through exegetical and historical debate. A time machine would be very useful in getting closer to a definitive answer, but even that probably wouldn’t be quite as useful as we might hope. As we’ll see, it is hard to nail down what we’re trying to say in English, today, among rather highly educated people. Why do we suppose we’d have more success in the ancient world, without computers or the data used by contemporary descriptive linguists or polling data or scholarly reference techniques or even affordable paper, even with a time machine? I imagine we’d learn a lot, and still not be able to nail the question down. We’d probably discover regional variations and debates that we have barely even contemplated.

At any rate, I think that the sociological questions related to the “viability of purgatorial universalism” are actually much more knowable than the matters at hand in this bet. I’m relatively confident that the rate and effectiveness of evangelism and child bearing among different groups is likely to matter in the flourishing of a religious movement, for example. I have my doubts about even the work of an eminent scholar, let alone the truth that eludes even Dale Allison.

And yet I think Stewart raises an interesting question, and something worth inquiring into in its own right, if only because it’s good for the humans to learn to cope with frustration, enjoying what they do find along the road to the impossible.

So while rejecting the sociological premise of the entire discussion as well as the presupposition that we are in a position to speak rigorously of preponderances, I’d say that a narrower scope of inquiry is possible. I think we can manage something like a textual-philosophical inquiry: we can ask after the internal consistency and relative compatibility of various readings of ancient texts, their possible accessibility to ancient people, how they relate to the broader implications we might draw from them, and whether they have some kind of legitimate claim to be a coherent and satisfying reading of the text itself in its original context and today. Maybe this less ambitious exercise, already surprisingly challenging and elusive, is a necessary prologue to any kind of rigorous assessment of preponderances, since textual coherence is certainly one important and basic factor among others to consider when trying to figure out what a text’s author(s) may have been trying to say to their initial audience(s), and what those audiences may have heard. So it is relevant to the bet (in a slightly sideways manner) that Stewart’s broader claims about purgatorial universalism don’t follow from his arguments here, even in the more narrow sense of holding together in a coherent way:

“I’m offering a starting pledge of $100 to whoever can demonstrate that any use of aiōnios in the Old Testament (e.g. in the so-called deuterocanonical literature originally written in Greek: the books of the Maccabees, etc.) or the New Testament can more plausibly be interpreted as “long-but-not-permanent/forever” or “eschatological” than as “permanent” or “everlasting/eternal” — especially if it can reasonably be brought to bear particularly on the issue of afterlife punishment.

Part of the issue rests in the highly questionable notion that “permanent” is an English word that works for Stewart’s side of this argument at all. What does “permanent” even mean in English, and does Stewart know? The word “permanent” as it exists in the dichotomy “temporary/permanent,” or as it apparently exists in the Greek dichotomy “proskairos/aionios,” already doesn’t really mean “everlasting” or “eternal”. So to humble our claims to know exactly what people meant by “aionios” 2,000 years ago, I’d like to start by seeing if Stewart, or we, know what “permanent” means today.

What does it mean, for example, for someone to be a permanent rather than a temporary employee? Or to have a permanent, rather than a temporary home? Stewart uses the term “relative permanence” but then defines that to mean “the totality of time that could transpire relative to the thing or phenomenon in question.”

While I’m quite happy with “relative permanence,” and depending on how we use it I’m untroubled by his “totality of time,” let’s start by exploring how these definitions (and another I’ll introduce) relate to how we actually talk about permanence in English.

Consider that you might move from being a temp to a permanent employee and die the next day. Permanent, in this case, was a day. So is “lifetime” as the “totality of time” an incisive and useful illustration of the limitation on the meaning of “permanent” here? I don’t think so. You might also become a “permanent employee” rather than a temp, but be fired within a week for gross misconduct. Or the company might shut down. Or the job class might be eliminated. And on and on. The force of “permanent” in this case is actually rather surprisingly weak, and there are plenty of “permanent” employees who discover (somewhat to their surprise!) the weakness of “permanent” as opposed to “temporary” every day. But the surprise isn’t clearly a matter of the denotation of permanent: on reflection, I think any competent and reflective English speaker will quickly realize that “permanent worker” as opposed to “temporary worker” denotes a general, indefinite, and relative kind of “lasting”. There is some greater degree of “lasting” that is expected relative to a “temporary” job, but the specific degree and the exact conditions of when something “permanent” ends are really very unclear. Now, we might well say that this definition of “permanent” as “lasting indefinitely” (which you can find in Google’s reference to the Oxford dictionary, reflecting the labors of contemporary descriptive linguists) is at least narrowly compatible with Stewart’s meaning for aionios: “the totality of time that could transpire relative to the thing or phenomenon in question”. After all, our friend who got fired after a week for gross misconduct was a “permanent employee”, but implicitly (and humorously) we might say that everyone knows that this meant that he was a “permanent employee” for “the totality of time that could have transpired relative to the phenomenon of him being an employee (given the way he acted, etc.)”. And here, if you’re following well enough to laugh at what I’ve said, what we find is that Stewart’s definition is actually surprisingly hollow: on this definition, permanent things last as long as they last. His definition at first looks like it might claim too much, but on inspection I think it claims too little for the word. Surely “permanent” says more than this near-tautology, if less than “everlasting.”

I think this is probably a feature of human psychology, at least as much as it is of the specific language of “permanence” in English. A lot of things, including things like direct temperature perception, are fundamentally experienced or perceived by people in a truly relative sense: if you put your finger in ice water, then dunk it in room-temperature water, the water feels warm. But if you first put your finger in hot water, then dunk it in the exact same room-temperature water at the exact same temperature, the water (surprisingly!) feels cool. I’d suggest that a contrast like this one between “temporary/permanent” or the one between “proskairos/aionios” (insofar as this opposite is informing our understanding of the meaning) is of the same sort: people experience these sorts of contrasting time categories in a truly relative sense, but can easily come to feel that they are absolute. And in the same way that we might all feel a bit perplexed by the slippery character of permanent, and might strain at times to talk about something that is “utterly permanent,” we also find plenty of evidence to demonstrate that “aionios” works much the same way in the LXX. A building may be “permanently destroyed” only to be later rebuilt, or a person may be a “permanent slave” only to stop being that person’s permanent slave when they die (and like our permanent employee, they would also presumably be a slave until they flee, or are captured by someone else, or the society collapses, or the jubilee, etc etc etc.) And we also find language like “eternity of eternities” and other extensions of “aionios” which seem to indicate writers seeking to amplify the meaning, maybe to mean “utterly permanent” or maybe to mean “at least more permanent than normal permanent.”

At points, I’ve seen Stewart argue that “permanent” means “as long as possible.” (Or we might also say that he seems to think the opposite of “perishing,” which would probably be “lasting,” means “as long as possible.”) But this doesn’t reflect an understanding of how “permanent” works in English, let alone in another language, especially in these sorts of dichotomies. In the sense of “not temporary”, it seems rather clear that even in English permanent doesn’t mean “as long as possible” but instead often means “lasting for an indefinitely long period of time” rather than “ending soon, or at a specific time.” And sure enough, this sense of “time of indefinite extent” is easily accessible to anyone in Strong’s, for aionios, based on its long-understood and common contrast with proskairos:

“partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting.”

Of course, Strong’s is far from the cutting edges of current research, but I’ll get to that stuff soon enough. The more standard academic reference works will, I think, catch up to the current state of play in the academic discussion in time.

So much for permanent. Before presuming to know what ancient people meant by their words, we’d do well to try to figure out what we’re doing with ours (if we can).

I’d add as well that “everlasting” and “eternal” are also not interchangeable here, with “eternal” in both English and ancient usage possibly referring to something “outside of time,” while everlasting mainly seems to indicate continuation through an endless extent of time. Are correction/punishment and rewards that exist outside of time endless in duration and therefore incompatible with purgatorial universalism? Conceptually, I would say this is very far from clear. While I could go down that rabbit hole, here I’d simply suggest that substantially more work needs to be done by anyone who wants to tell us what “eternal” is supposed to mean conceptually or in any particular literary context, modern or ancient, and how that ultimately relates to purgatorial universalism. There is more than a little room within “eternal (outside of time) correction” for a purgatorial universalist to make a plausible case that such a thing isn’t endless, but is rather “beyond time” in some other sense.

Finally, I’d add that even if a “correction” is itself “everlasting” that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is applied in an everlasting way. An eternal flame doesn’t necessarily burn someone forever, if it burns them up. A correction that is everlasting could be a correction which is always present, ready to be applied as necessary or until it is completely finished (ie, the last bit of debt is payed). Such a corrective capacity would be unlike that of a normal parent or government, in that it cannot be exhausted! As Stewart acknowledges with his nod to annihilationism, this is perfectly conceptually coherent as well. I think this may even be his preferred reading.

Now let’s throw in another possibility: maybe the idea is that the “old self” within an individual or “goats” among the nations are burned away, but the “new self” within an individual or “sheep” among the nations are left. Paul or ‘Paul’ routinely uses just this sort of language throughout his letters to refer to an older self being destroyed/passing away, even as the new self within the very same individual person persists (see Ephesians 4:22–23 for one example).

We see a similar dichotomy of ideal types in James 3:9-12, where the clearly drawn logical and practical contradiction of a single stream bearing salt and fresh water, or a fig tree bearing olives, is used to address a situation in which individuals necessarily ARE behaving in this “impossible” and contradictory way. (If they weren’t, why address it?). The rhetorical effect of the impossible contradiction is, precisely, to address a moral “contradiction” which is actually occurring. We see very similar language to that James 3 language used by Jesus in Luke 6:44, in another place where the contradictory language works very well if it is there to serve a morally corrective function in practice. The collision of two “impossible” ideal types in a single person’s behavior is often precisely intended as a powerful moral exhortation; to try to turn this moral exhortation language into an anthropological system and resolve its contradiction of two persons (an old and a new) in a single individual is to completely miss the point. The trouble is that we are confusing effective moral rhetoric for bad (or at least confusing) systematic theological anthropology. In a context where people apparently did this sort of thing a lot, there is no problem at all to argue that an “eternal” or “everlasting” flame or correction that is annihilating “old selves” or “goats” can refer to a process WITHIN individuals or nations, and not between them. As we see in language later taken up again after Paul and James by the likes of Clement, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, the notion of a logical contradiction between ideal types, even the destruction of a “self” or a “person,” doesn’t necessarily imply the destruction of a complete individual, but only a part. And so “everlasting destruction” language, however explicit, in this sort of rhetorical context is demonstrably and clearly compatible with something like “identity-based moral correction” and purgatorial universalism. This is probably especially applicable to other highly symbolic contexts, like apocalyptic and prophetic literature, that can easily trade in the same kind of rhetorically corrective mode as this language.

So before getting into whether “aionios” in my chosen passage (Matthew 24–25) means “long-but-not-permanent/forever” or “eschatological” (ie, Messianic age-ic”) or “permanent” or “everlasting” or “eternal” or something else, I’d like to clarify that NONE of these meanings necessarily lead to any kind of problem at all for patristic, purgatorial universalism. In terms of compatabilities and coherences (the standard to which I think we can reasonably argue), I think the case has already been well-enough made at this point: Stewart’s premises and conclusions don’t match up with each other very well.

Still, you might be more hopeful than me, and I wouldn’t want to discourage you from trying to rigorously determine a preponderance here about our core issue: what does aionios mean in some particular instance? Shoot the moon if you like, and I’ll do what I can to help you along! So I’ll add that for the sake of argument, I’ll choose one of the more difficult passages for my case, rather than an easy one (such as a simple opposition between proskairos and aionios) because I care about the fundamental points of this argument and having a good discussion. (He should give to charity now and evermore, because he’s a good guy.)

So just to be perfectly clear: I don’t think “everlasting” or “eternal” or “permanent” present a very big problem for purgatorial universalists as they stand, if we’re trying to get clear about the coherence of a system of belief, or a plausible interpretation of a passage. There are actually a lot of ways for them to read Matthew 24–25 with those translations which still comport perfectly fine with their views.

So let’s talk about what we need to do, in a minimal sense, to attempt a serious conversation about probabilities and preponderances of evidence.

In case you really want to try to get roughly Bayesian

So let’s say you think you can help us nail this Jell-o down. If we’re weighing preponderances in a rough sort of Bayesian exercise, I’d suggest that you need to add up the relative probability of all of the possible readings that do not fit Stewart’s rather narrow case, both the ones we know and the ones we don’t know, and then see what is more probable.

My bet is this: I’m betting on ANY POSITION AT ALL except for Stewart’s. So, for example, if I offer two possible meanings of “long-but-not-permanent” below, and then throw in a possible meaning of “Messianic age-related,” any judges are required to ADD UP the probability of each and every single one of those positions to get the total strength of my position. Imagine we’re betting on a roulette wheel, and Stewart takes 0 and 1. If I take 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, and each of my positions is only 2/3rds as strong as one of Stewart’s (maybe because the game is unfair) my position still wins overwhelmingly. But it’s actually even worse than that, because when I do something like suggest that “permanent” in English doesn’t even mean what he says it means, you have to account for me also owning some fraction of slot 0 or slot 1 as well. (That doesn’t quite make sense, I know. That’s the cost of poorly forming a question.)

So I’m not being evasive in arguing for a wide range of positions, and I’m not just throwing random stuff at the wall to see if anything sticks. I’m just describing some of the relevant chunks of the roulette wheel that have been left to me. You’ve got to weigh every single alternative possibility and add them all up, for starters. Then you have to consider that there’s no way for me to canvass all of the possible alternatives, and you have to make some guess about the scope of what all of those might be, both those known to current scholarship and those yet to be discovered. If you want my personal opinion (I don’t think you should care about that much, though) I think a case can be made that some of these positions, all on their own, are already substantially more probable than Stewart’s developed view. Sure, it’s a biased shot in the dark, but that’s all that even the best of us have. (Allison and I agree, at least on this.) This uncertainty also unambiguously adds to my share of the wheel: since I’m betting on “anything but Stewart’s” view, the wider the scope of the unknown, the wider the share of the wheel I’m buying. As we get into actual arguments, maybe the most important upshot of this is that my posture is not one of trying to “nail down the answer,” and so my case isn’t weakened by variants or uncertainty, but is instead strengthened by them.

Okay, so let’s describe and differentiate meanings of Stewart’s term “long-but-not-permanent”

Okay, I’m ready to start articulating a couple of arguments that I find illustrative and interesting, so that we can speak and think relatively clearly as we try to read the text of Matthew 24–25 itself. Going forward, to avoid needless confusion, I will use “permanent” in its normal English sense to indicate “lasting indefinitely rather than temporarily” and I will use “everlasting” to indicate “lasting for a truly endless extent of sequential time.” And we’ll assume that Stewart meant to say “long-but-not-everlasting” instead of what he said. What might we even be saying if we say that “aionios” specifically denotes “long-but-not-everlasting”? Well, to start, I’ll buy a slot on my roulette wheel with my arguments about the English meaning of “permanent” above: permanent refers to an ambiguous length of time that is “long-but-not-everlasting.”

But let’s come up with some more options. I guess I can just quote Strong’s on this to get another possible meaning, which you’ll also find in more respected reference material if you have it at hand:

“ partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting.”

And if you want to go WAY down the rabbit hole, you can also read Keizer’s Life, Time, Entirety, her successfully defended and published dissertation, available here. It gives you plenty to chew on with respect to both the Greek and the underlying Hebrew/Aramaic, which is usually the phrase le-olam or ad-olam. In Matthew 24–25, the underlying language is basically “ad-olam”. Keizer strongly criticizes those who would argue that any meaning of “age” as a discrete period of history characterized ancient Greek usage, but she doesn’t address the New Testament period. In her critical engagement with Ramelli-Konstan, who take an age-centered approach in Terms for Eternity, Keizer ultimately comes to the view that one possible meaning of “aion” is the entirety of a period of time whose limits are not known, but potentially limited. In this, she echoes our own previous discussion about the indefinite, rather than infinite, character of “permanent” in English. Her view can then be read as amounting to an important caveat here: if by “age” we mean some definite period of time, there’s some reason to be suspicious of that sort of translation. But if it is the entirety of a potentially limited but indefinite period, we have something that fits fine with some of the best and most detailed current work on the topic. Furthermore, if someone wanted to make the case that “age” becomes somewhat more definite around this period, perhaps because an age was seen by Jesus as coming to an end, all they need to do is argue that the language developed further at this time just as it did earlier. Remember, Keizer simply doesn’t address the New Testament time period in her work.

Anyway, let’s just say that “lasts for an age” is another example (among an indefinitely large number of possible examples) of something that is “long-but-not-everlasting.” This is, I think, actually a pretty clear distinction in meaning: something that “lasts for an age” lasts for a specific period of time, but presumably a longer specific period of time than something that is “temporary” (which lasts for a much shorter period of time, perhaps a more specified time). At the same time, “lasts for an age” doesn’t denote “everlasting”, although it could connote it, if the specific age in view is an everlasting one. It also doesn’t denote “permanent” in the sense of “lasting indefinitely.” After all, something that “lasts for an age” has a definite conceptual end: it ends when the age ends, unless it is taken in a more figurative or hyperbolic sense.

I’d just add that in English, “lasts for an age” can also colloquially denote a QUALITY of temporal experience. For example: “that minute lasted an age” means “that felt like a long minute, for a minute.” In a somewhat similar sense, we find that some scholars argue that “aionios” can also focus on quality. Of course, the quality of “aionios” life wouldn’t generally be “agonizingly boring”, but would indicate something more exhalted: perhaps having an otherworldly or sublime quality. See Biblehub’s Strong’s reference for some of the most basic illustrations, which are worth a brief glance to illustrate a noteworthy concept that I won’t seriously explore here:

166 (aiṓnios) does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age (165 /aiṓn) it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal (166 /aiṓnios) life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession. (Note the Gk present tense of having eternal life in Jn 3:36, 5:24, 6:47; cf. Ro 6:23.)]”

Okay, so for now I’ve clarified two meanings among several that may fit under the umbrella of “long-but-not-everlasting”: “permanent” or “lasting an age/ages” in a durational sense or “lasting age(s)” in a qualitative sense.

But let’s buy one more possible meaning on my roulette wheel. Another example of “long-but-not-everlasting” could be “lasting through successive ages at intervals.” IE: “agely” in the same sense that “hourly” relates to “hour” or “yearly” relates to “year”. This is possibly the darkest horse of all our candidates, but it is actually rather interesting. So please pardon a fun little digression with a significant payout regarding the general relationship between temporal nouns and their adjectival or adverbial forms.

When considering the role of stars in time-keeping, for example, it really helps to make sense of Plato’s discourse about time in the Timaeus to contemplate the difference between a “year” and “yearly.” A year is a discreet unit of time over the course of which the stars move across their courses in a changing way. But once we start to talk about things that happen “yearly” (turning year into an adverb/adjective), we are talking about the cyclical persistence of those changing stellar movements. Some consistent pattern must repeat reliably “from year to year” in order for us to have any capacity at all to talk about “yearly” occurrences. Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying here that Plato thinks “aion” means “year” and that “aionios” means “yearly,” but I do think that the transition from noun to adjective with respect to a time word is instructive here, and a general feature of how we talk intuitively about time. Consider: generation vs generationally, day vs daily, hour vs hourly, age vs agely, lifetime vs lifetimely, etc etc etc. There is an interesting and general feature of the transition from noun to adjective which results in a spontaneous and intuitive sort of conceptual generalization. Whatever you conclude about Plato’s use of the term, I think that understanding this general relationship between noun and adjective/adverb makes reading the relevant passages in Plato’s Timaeus a lot easier! And I think it can help inform some interesting and grounded interpretations of what translations of “eternity” as “outside of time” might involve: maybe “outside of changing sequential time” is just what characterizes the relationship between “year” and “yearly.” To this I’d add that the interaction between aidios, aionios and aion here is part of what Ramelli-Konstan are considering in their own work, which I’ll get to later.

Now let’s bring these ideas and insights back to “aion” in the context of Matthew 24–25. In its original Greek meaning, and in some Biblical uses as well, we know that an “aion” can refer to a lifetime or life (see Keizer), and warnings about events happening within a generation structure Matthew 24–25. A generation is conceptually close to lifetime. “Aionios” is also routinely set alongside statements about things lasting “from generation to generation” in the LXX. So there is some conceptual parallelism and linguistic resonance between the notion of “the end of the age” that the disciples ask about at the start of Matthew 24, warnings about events happening within a generation (Matthew 24:34) (referring to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD), and a possible extension of this notion and illustration to a “generational” or “lifely” or “agely” correction in Matthew 25, where the sheep and the goats explicitly represent the nations. The nations may be personified later as they describe their failure to care for Christ’s little ones, or individuals among the nations may spring into view as they are brought before the Son of Man to be judged. In that context, we may be seeing something about a generational process among the nations, with the destruction of the Temple at the end of the Age serving a universal typological function.

While I don’t think this “generational” reading is the most supported by existing research, I do think it is interesting and plausible. The passage does read quite well if we consider an inaugurated eschatology (following N.T. Wright’s extensive work in this area) in which the resurrected Jesus (the Son of Man) has come to the Ancient of Days and already sits enthroned judging the beastly Empires of the nations for their injustice to the poor, or to the poor little Christs who necessarily live lives of solidarity with the poor (see the Danielic background of 6–8). In this sense, maybe aionios echoes with “from generation to generation” and means “agely” in the sense that this judgment carries on in the inaugurated eschatological age from one generation or age to the next. This meaning, among others for aionios, comports very well with the idea that the specific judgment on Israel that is discussed in Matthew 24, based on its treatment of Christ’s little ones, is then generalized to all nations. So does aionios mean “OK Boomer”, functioning as a sign of inter-generational strife? No more than it means “outside of time.” But there may well be more “OK Boomer” in it than there is “outside of time.”

I want to be very clear that this broad inaugurated eschatological reading in no way depends on this “agely” reading. It can also work very well with “of the inaugurated Messianic age”, for example.

How does “agely” relate to Stewart’s categories? In this sense, the duration is “long” because it pertains to each generation’s lifespan or each age (whatever that means), for an indefinite period of time. Let’s put this reading under this heading, rather than the next one, because it still involves a denotation of duration. For something to happen “agely” in a sense related to “generationally” or “lifetimely”, it still involves a sense of continuing time, and is not (as in the items considered in the next section) simply denoting a “when”. For a correction to happen “generationally” or “from lifetime to lifetime” or “agely” is not exactly the same as denoting that it is, non-durationally, “the correction of the Messianic/eschatological age.”

So to sum up briefly, under this heading I’m buying at least 4 sets of slots on the roulette wheel: aionios may mean “permanent” or it may mean “lasting an age” (durationally), or it may mean “lasting an age” (qualitatively) or it may mean “enduring from age to age” (agely, and perhaps carrying resonances related to “from generation to generation” or “generationally”). What is the probability of each of these meanings? Add them up. Then consider that like our own discussion of “permanent”, maybe native writers and speakers weren’t quite so clear about what the word meant as we are trying to be. Maybe the meaning was some strange mix of these, and of other resonances. Add up the probability of those sorts of options. I’ll buy those too. Then consider any other options I haven’t named, as well as the probability space of all unknown options under this heading. I’ll buy those slots on the wheel, too.

But wait, I’d like to buy some more spots on the roulette wheel, under the heading “eschatological”

One standard-bearer for the view that “aionios” in a text like Matthew 24–25 probably means “of the Messianic age” is Professor Illaria Ramelli, with David Konstan. You can find a summary of their book “Terms for Eternity” here.

As this summary says, their view can be summed up this way:

“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, Terms for Eternity).

If you want a bigger taste of Ramelli-Konstan without buying a $100 book, you can find a briefer article that they wrote before completing the larger volume here:

Or if you’re in the market for a less expensive summary of Ramelli’s work (including an appendix on aionios) along with a bunch of patristic and Biblical stuff, you can always buy her new book A Larger Hope. And while you’re over there at Amazon, consider the mechanically brutalizing working conditions of temporary workers in a quickly automating sector and, instead of just boycotting, go ahead and completely reform your life monastically from the ground up.

And for a review of the book that criticizes some of its methodological shortcomings, arguing that at points they could have made their case more strongly, while at other points they overreach, but that basically you can get to their desired conclusions in a slightly different way, feel free to read Keizer’s review of their work here:

Please be aware that Stewart has done his own review of Ramelli. I haven’t had a chance to review his work, but insofar as he considers a large number of instances of the language and interprets each, he is following the same method as Ramelli. That the same method and consideration of the same scope of material can yield different results should not surprise us: this method has obvious problems of the sort explored so well by Allison and quoted at the start of the article. It is all too easy, especially in this field, to formulate a theory and then read the data in a way that conforms to it. However, in addition to being a widely respected scholar with a broad and deep command of the material, Ramelli is also making substantial and significant contributions to the scholarship around our precise topic. And while “Terms for Eternity” does not engage in deep excurses of the particular usage-cases she analyzes, Ramelli’s method is still very respectable: based on the broader agreement that figures like Clement and Origen and Nyssa are purgatorial universalists, she canvasses the scope of their writings to illustrate a clear and consistent contrast in the way they use “aionios” as opposed to “aidios”, and that this consistent pattern comports with Scripture’s pattern of usage. While it is not difficult to get lost in the weeds when discussing any single use case (as we’re doing here), Ramelli recognizes this difficulty and tackles the problem from a methodologically intelligent angle: arguing from an area of general agreement (the Alexandrians she explores were purgatorial universalists), she finds a consistent and important pattern in how they write that comports with their views. (Note, I updated this section on 12/29, after Stewart kindly provided me with access to Terms for Eternity, which I read about 5 years ago; I was working from memory before that.)

Whatever one thinks of the specifics of her arguments, I’d just point out that Ramelli and Stewart can both read a large number of relevant texts and make a case for very different meanings of aionios. And Keizer can come along and make a case for still other meanings. This broader pattern is powerfully illustrative of the broader points I’m making here about the limitations of our knowledge. The fundamental issue is that the question is, unfortunately, underdetermined by our available evidence. We already have a hard time agreeing on and clarifying the meaning of “permanent” in contemporary English! Why should we think the ancients had more clarity on this than us? And still more, why should we assume that they had more clarity and that we can nail their Jell-o to the wall, when we have trouble nailing our own?

So if/when Stewart engages in complete dismissals of Ramelli’s work, take it with a very large grain of salt. Ramelli’s work is clearly far from perfect (she is human, after all), and scholars with relevant expertise have critiqued aspects of the work (we all know that this is what scholars do all day), but Ramelli’s work is in fact still substantial and useful. At the very least, it is worth some space on the roulette wheel. After all of the critiques are done, I think a fair reader will conclude that she makes a case that is at least conceivable, perhaps plausible, that throughout the NT and into patristic writings the word “aionios” is so deeply marked by the specific Messianic claims of Jesus that it frequently refers to this very transition between the non-Messianic and the Messianic age, and could well be translated “of the age” (or something similar) in this particular context. And even one of her harshest and most informed critics, Keizer, comes down at the end of her review in about the same place practically:

“A positive observation can be made inasmuch as the hypothesis investigated in Terms for Eternity appears to be largely confirmed — a nuanced reformulation of the conclusion is, however, called for, which may be as follows: Scripture and the Church Fathers offer a basis to say that the aionios life is to be understood as really without end, whereas aionios death or punishment can be understood as once meeting its limit; aidios appears to be used by the Fathers far more freely for future life than for death or punishment. This state of affairs, it can be added, is bound up with the fact that aionios is very much more a biblical term than aidios as an obvious result of the respective frequency of the terms in the Bible (OT + NT): aionios 222 and aidios 4 times. It can be concluded moreover that aidios regularly expresses endless duration in time, while aionios, as derived from aion, regularly refers to an entirety of time, the limits of which are not know or not there; both adjectives may also be employed to refer to a supra-temporal condition.”

Keizer has plenty of more detailed critiques of their method and particular claims, especially the claim that before Jesus there was a concept of “aions” as much shorter ages (such as hundreds of years) which might succeed each other in something like a dispensationalist scheme. Here, I’m going to go against my prior strategy of buying up “anything but Stewart” slots. I won’t use Ramelli to buy a dispensationalist slot on my roulette wheel. I’m just going to skip that entirely out of rank personal prejudice against the view, and (more seriously) for the sake of clarity about a single highly plausible reading that we can get with one good reading of Ramelli’s work. I’d put that view this way:

The Hebrew Bible looks forward to a single great and terrible “Day of the Lord” which will mark out an enormous and singular transition between exactly two ages (but let’s say that it decidedly does not have an indefinite succession of ages in view). In the New Testament, Jesus claims to inaugurate this grand and singular transition in some way. In the specific context of NT writing then, on this view, language about “aionios life” or the coming age, etc etc etc, is persistently and overwhelming keying into precisely this sense in which Jesus claimed to inaugurate some kind of grand and singular historical transition for the Jewish people (and by extension the world), related to his claims to be the Jewish Messiah.

The paragraph above is controversial in the way that all scholarly claims in this field are controversial, but something like it finds remarkably broad assent across a wide range of the most prominent scholarship today; while NT Wright is probably the most prominent single standard-bearer of a broad inaugurated eschatological view, many others have taken up this general line of argument because it really makes very good sense of a great deal of material that is otherwise confusing. Of course, that doesn’t prove it right, exegetically. Far from being some kind of marginal view (as Stewart is fond of claiming about anything that he disagrees with), the situation with respect to inaugurated eschatology in the scholarly literature is really very much the opposite of what Stewart seems to think it is. The scholarly work and trends are very much on the side of this view, and Schweitzer is a significantly more marginal figure today than he was 20 or even 10 years ago. Whose pet views are more influential in scholarship today: those of Wright or of Allison, who is largely a Schweitzerite? Even this question is contestable, but you’d have to be a Right Octoberist to think that someone who chooses “Wright” has chosen the short straw.

At any rate, I’d sharply distinguish this sort of singular focus on a unique transition between two ages, and the looser kind of thinking we sometimes find in Ramelli which suggests a succession of various ages. This is especially true when talking about the NT context in particular and the set of views which we might loosely classify under “eschatological”. Or to sum up the scholarship around “aionios” here more briefly, we can happily critique Ramelli much as Keizer does, while taking a modified inaugurated eschatological approach to Ramelli’s data: perhaps aionios in the NT routinely refers specifically to a singular Jewish Messianic age that is, according to Jesus, inaugurated by Jesus, and not merely a transition between “ages” which might be any old periods of a couple hundred years. On this reading, “aionios” routinely answers the question “when” rather than the question “how long”, but doesn’t depend on transposing Ramelli’s patristic arguments onto Matthew 24–25 in every respect. And the answer to the “when” question that is provided by Jesus when he talks about “aionios events” is basically: “Starting now” precisely because he claims (in a highly controversial and apparently unique manner) to be the Jewish Messiah who inaugurates the Jewish Messianic Age, when this figure will usher in the now global blessing too all nations/reign of Israel/ingathering of the nations. Of course, lots of people claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, but Jesus rather clearly seems to have done it in a distinctive and distinctly historically impactful way.

Okay, let’s touch on the actual text at hand: Matthew 24–25

So what do these various possible meanings or resonances of “aionios” have to do with the text at hand? My comments here can illuminate a lot of possible and good readings.

The core of my argument is that the use of “aion” to indicate an ending age at the start of Matthew 24 sits in close literary and conceptual proximity to the use of “aionios” at the end of Matthew 25. As such, the temporariness of the “aion” and the fact that Jesus is answering a question about an end of an aion needs to be accounted if we hope to find a meaning for “aionios” that fits well in context.

One of the key questions that is hotly contested here is precisely where, and whether, there is a transition in Matthew 24 between talking about the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming of Jesus. You can find a nice and relatively brief summary of some of those voluminous discussions here.

Here I’d commend something along the lines of Allison’s broad skepticism about our ability to establish details with much certainty. The contentious and voluminous and highly informed debate itself is, substantially, indicative of the more fundamental issue. What we really want is aioniously, tantalizingly beyond our grasp, because it is simply underdetermined by the available data. As we slowly circle around our questions again and again, our methods do not bring us to an end, because there are very good but inconclusive reasons to think many things. While Allison joins in these disputes as a partisan himself, he also knows to step back afterward and shrug. Good shrug.

While those fine-grained debates are interesting and worth following down to the bitter conclusion of underdetermination, I’d like to take a rather Allisonian step back and blur our eyes a bit by discussing the literary structure of Matthew 24–25 and genres referenced. We may not know where, exactly, a transition between 70 AD and a Second Coming happen, or whether that is even the right question. But I think we can establish how a competent reader would best read the related genres.

Matthew 25 appears to be carefully and artfully integrated with the older texts behind Matthew 24 as a fresh literary unity: the closing parable of Matthew 24:45–51 is closely linked to the previous sections about the Temple’s destruction and the ensuing spread of the Gospel (if we follow Wright) by repeated markers such as “therefore keep watch” and “who then is the faithful servant”. One simple and coherent synthesis of the ideas leading up to and explicitly rhetorically linked to the parable is this: “The Temple and Jerusalem will be destroyed within a generation, but at an hour and day that no one knows, so be ready in this generation for it to happen at any time.” This would be practical advice, much like the advice we might give to organizing Amazon workers that their job categories will be gone within their lifetimes due to automation, although we don’t know exactly when. Useful stuff to be sure, with no need to conjure up contradictions between “generation” and “day and hour” to create tension in the text; I hope we can all distinguish between a generation (in its various possible meanings) and a day. Of course, if we prefer to consider or conjure up tensions here, that can be cool too; I have plenty of slots on the wheel that work with that as well. My point is this: all three of the following parables that take us from the end of Matthew 24 on up to the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25 (sheep and goats) can work very nicely as warnings to the immediate generation. This also makes a lot of sense in light of the cotext.

This first parable is then continuously linked in the same way to the next two parables with repeated language from the previous section, and they have no trouble carrying just the same message. The virgins and their lamps, which carries the same basic message, is linked with “At that time” (v. 25:1) and with a conclusion that mirrors the previous language directly, and communicates the basic message: (vs 25:13) “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

And the linkage of these three parables on the same basic theme doesn’t stop there. The next one starts with an “again,” indicating that this is yet another parallel parable that does a very nice job of making the same point: be ready and dutiful in this generation for a return at an unspecified day and hour. Is this the only good reading of these parables? Not at all. But the parables do work very well in that sense.

And while I don’t want to make too much out of a loose conceptual chiasm which I think we may be dealing with here in Matthew 24–25, I would add that what we find next in Matthew 25 (the parable of the sheep and goats) unambiguously draws on the same Danielic language of “the Son of Man” that you’ll also find in Matthew 24:27 and 24:30. Notice that 24:4–27 talks about a judgment on the nation while Matthew 25:34–45 describes a Danielic judgment of the nations, and that Matthew 24:1–3 raises questions about the destruction of the Temple, which is closely and directly associated with “the end of the aion.” For my purposes, I don’t need to deny that some kind of “return on the clouds” could be in view here, rather than the “coming TO the Ancient of Days” that Wright argues for at points; both can give me space on the roulette wheel.

Still, I would say that this apocalyptic “coming” or “return” in the highly symbolic setting of Daniel is, as a literary matter, best taken figuratively. The sort of apocalyptic we find in Daniel 7 and 8 (with a background in Daniel 6, considering the parallel language there about the eternal reign of Daniel’s God) is an explicitly figurative and political genre. Read the political (and possibly parabolically intended) setting of Daniel 6, then the apocalyptic vision in Daniel 7 (with its clear socio-political explication that mirrors the conclusion of 6 in some of its language), and then the ram-goat parable of Daniel 8. (Ah, here are a goat and a ram, a he-sheep representing the Persians who acknowledged Daniel’s God, for us to contemplate!) Whether a given reader is competent or not is one question. But I think we can rather plainly see that a competent reader is unlikely to leap from an utterly explicitly figurative socio-political set of texts like Daniel 7 and 8 into a non-figurative conclusion. IE: if there’s really supposed to be a fireriver-shooting throne flying around on the clouds with books, letting the other beasts live for a while after it flame-blasts the one that followed the winged leopard, then I also want my real live winged leopard. Daniel 7 and 8 may well have found plenty of incompetent readers in the ancient world, as they do today, but that doesn’t mean that all of their readers were incompetent. It certainly doesn’t mean that the originators of any oral background to Matthew 24–25 or its later authors, who were keen to “let the reader understand,” were incompetent.

Back to Matthew 24–25. Notice that the three parables about waiting then sit in the middle of two blocks of Danielic interpretation, perhaps forming their own little mirror-structure, closely connected with clear rhetorical markers: a parable about good and wicked servants, a connected parable about wise and foolish virgins, and then another connected parable about good and wicked servants.

My argument in no way depends on the tightness or even the presence of a conceptual chiasm, any more than it depends on the specific debate about whether the “Coming of the Son of Man” is a coming TO the Ancient of Days or a return. Still, I think that a conceptual chiasm is a bit of nice frosting on a cake that I can already build out of direct references and rhetorical markers without the need to quibble over whether this is a “true chiasm” or not. Even without any chiasm, the direct references and markers draw Matthew 24–25 together, a fresh literary unity that builds on the prior text that serves as a basis for Matthew 24.

Still I’ll mark up the extensive parallelism chiastically:

Matthew 24–25:

( A ) Questions about the “end of the aion” (24: 1–3)

( B ) Judgment on the nation (24: 4–26)

( C ) Prophetic/apocalyptic language about the Danielic Son of Man coming to judge the nation(s?) (24: 27–44)

( D ) Parable enjoining the audience to wait and be prepared, good advice for a generation waiting for something at an unknown day and hour: wise and foolish servants (24: 45–51)

( E ) Parable enjoining the audience to wait and be prepared, good advice for a generation waiting for something at an unknown day and hour: wise and foolish virgins (25:1–13)

( D’ ) Parable enjoining the audience to invest wisely and be prepared, good advice for a generation preparing for something at an unknown day and hour: wise and foolish servants (25:14–30)

( C’ ) Prophetic/apocalyptic language about the Danielic Son of Man coming to judge the nations (25: 31–33)

( B’ ) Danielic judgment of the nations, dividing them into “sheep and goats” (24: 34–45)

( A’ ) Aionios reward and correction

Now even without the conceptual chiasm, there’s still a notable nearness between “aion” and “aionios” more generally, because the beginnings and endings of pericopes are routinely closely connected in well-formed literary units, much as they are today: a good end to a book or argument often calls back to the beginning in an interesting way.

The upshot of all of this is to simply suggest that the general trend in scholarship toward an inaugurated eschatological reading of these sorts of texts, rooted in their clear socio-political framing and context, fits very nicely with the literary unity that seems apparent in Matthew 24–25. To suggest that “aionios” in this case refers in an expanded sense to “the life of the inaugurated eschatological Messianic age” and the “correction/chastisement of the inaugurated eschatological Messianic age” seems like it is worth at least some space on the roulette wheel. There are, within the basic argument I’ve made, a lot of different nuances and interesting debates and shades of possible meaning. I’ll buy all of those slots up, thanks.

I’ll close this segment by suggesting that a great deal of ink has been spilled over questions of how to define Hebrew “prophetic” and Hebrew “apocalyptic,” both of which are crucial genres to understand because Matthew 24–25 directly cites Daniel’s Son of Man image at two crucial points for our discussion, AND also directly cites Isaiah. Here, I’d simply suggest that ‘Daniel’s’ apocalypse is really very explicit with us about its socio-political framing and meaning, and the text of Daniel 8 is really perfectly explicit with us that the nation which is a “goat” in that parable is the Greek Empire (which then spawns others). Hebrew prophetic poetry is also, really very explicitly at many points, interested in using exaggerated and poetic language to talk about the enormity of sociopolitical events. (And for the Hebrew people as with most ancients, sociopolitical events are always also spiritual events.) There’s also room in this for symbolic realities such as meaningful earthquakes or signs in the sky, but no competent reader could think that the winged leopard or goat in Daniel, or the entities that interact with them in that conceptual space, are that sort of thing. (They may, however, be taken to refer to that sort of thing, like the signs in the sky over Jerusalem before its destruction that Josephus described.) The bulk of ancient Hebrew prophecy concerns the destruction of the first Temple, although Malachi’s prophecies seem to concern the second one, as do the prophecies attributed to Jesus. On this basis, I’d suggest that even a minimally competent reader should easily be “lead to understand” the basic normal logic of this sort of analogy:

Goat with Horn that splits to the Four Winds: Greek Empire :: Fireriver-shooting throne: W :: Aionios reward/correction: X/Y.

I’ve already written more than enough for this little project, and I don’t feel a need to resolve exactly what “W” or “X” or “Y” may have referred to, or refer to for us now. (I’ll buy up every possible reference you can imagine that could fit with any possible meaning of aionios that Stewart doesn’t like, plus the ones we can’t imagine at the moment.) Still, it seems to me that the presence of both Daniel and Isaiah in the mix of Matthew 24–25 do more than enough to warrant consideration of this sort of analogy. When we talk about this sort of “apocalyptic” or “eschatological” writing, a competent reader should definitely understand the genre and the way it works, and that it routinely and explicitly uses highly symbolic and evocative language to dramatize religio-socio-political events. When trying to figure out what is happening with the judgment on the nations which are explicitly identified with the sheep and the goats at the end of Matthew 25, we’re dealing with a Danielic background genre that is something like “ancient visionary political cartoons”. The texts themselves tell us as much.

In this sort of context, what does “aionios” specifically denote, and what does it “mean” more broadly, especially when paired with notions of reward and correction/punishment? I think solid cases can be made for all of the following denotations (with possible extensions of meaning coming from the broader context, depending on the specific noun or verb being modified by aionios): “long-lasting-but-not-necessarily-everlasting” or “permanent/lasting”(as opposed to proskairos) or “lasting ages” (in a qualitative sense) or “eschatological” (whatever that means) or “agely” (perhaps with resonances with “generationally”) or “of the Messianic age” (perhaps in an inaugurated eschatological sense, but perhaps in other senses too). And to these, you may also indulge me by adding at least some meanings that are within Stewart’s claimed territory, but which I don’t think necessarily lead to his desired conclusions about purgatorial universalism: “eternal” (outside of or beyond time, perhaps in a sense informed by our discussions about Plato’s Timaeus) and even “everlasting” (although perhaps only everlastingly available or functioning, like an everlasting flame that doesn’t necessarily cause the things it burns to also be everlasting, or perhaps everlastingly destroying the “old people” while leaving behind the “new people” within individuals.)

To all of these denotations, which may be just precise enough or too imprecise or overly precise for the task at hand, I’d add the possibilities of ambiguity (such as our own ambiguities and resulting confusions around “permanent”), intentional wordplay with multiple meanings or aspects of the semantic range, and “none of the above.”

The various forms of possible word-play around the notion of an “age” with the word “aionios” are all especially available in this context, due to the parallelism of “aion” at the start of the pericope and “aionion” at the end of the pericope. This becomes even more clear if you want to look into the Aramaic, where ܕ݁ܥܳܠܡܳܐ and ܕ݁ܰܠܥܳܠܰܡ related to“ad-olam”, are used interestingly throughout. The genitive nature of these constructs also lends some weight to those who feel like using genitives such as “of the age” in English, even beyond the relative felicity of “of the age” compared to “agely/age-ic”, since a genitive provides the most likely background language. The Aramaic also opens up whole areas of meaning regarding translations related to “world” or “world system”or “within the perceivable horizon (of space and/or time)” and play with “ancient/hidden since the foundation of the world” that I haven’t even touched on here, although Keizer is a helpful guide to some of that background terrain if you want to continue further down the rabbit hole. The types of linguistic play that we have to consider, in a context as rich with puns and wordplay and deep reflection on specific words as we find in the ancient Jewish world, can vary from types of meaning-making that extend deep into denotation, on out to poetic resonances that shape and reshape the ultimate meaning of the sentences and phrases.

Conclusion and a side note

I think that a number of my slots on the roulette wheel may well win over any particular judge in this discussion all on their own, depending on your particular affinities and prejudices. Or you may well think that Stewart’s positions add up to more than all of mine put together, if your affinities and prejudices point another way.

Whatever the case with that may be, please remember that I didn’t just buy one slot. I bought a bunch of ’em, including the extensive set of Bayesian “unknown” slots, and any one of them may well be the winner. To weigh the true strength of my ‘wager’ here, you need to add up all of these possible meanings that I’ve purchased, and see if those are more probable than Stewart’s more narrow (and I think conceptually messy) reading.

At any rate, what interests me vastly more than your personal opinion on any of this is your actual math, or “math”. How are you tallying them and adding them up? Do we even know how to do that? If you do know how to do it, I’d like to see your math, whatever it may be! Far more than hand-waving about your opinions or someone else’s opinion, or the opinions of your preferred experts or someone else’s preferred experts, I want to see some serious number crunching. So if you know how to do that, please teach me, I’m eager to learn. And if that’s not something you can do, that’s okay. Seriously, let’s just talk. Mostly about how to help Amazon workers. But sure, also about this super-weird bet.

Wait, you’re still here?

Bonus Round: Maybe avoid being too impressed by the parallelism in Matthew 25:46

While scholars quite widely agree that the meaning of “aionios” isn’t enough to settle this debate, there is a popular and really quite weak argument from the parallelism in this verse:

“Then they will go away to aionion kolasin (correction/punishment), but the righteous to aionion zoen (life).”

I’ll address the common argument from parallelism here, in response to this article by Professor Alan Gomes. Here’s the relevant piece:

//Hart himself trots out some thoroughly discredited, long-in-the-tooth arguments based on the idea that the adjectives ‘olam and aiōnios, which appear in these passages, can often refer to a finite and not an eternal duration — a fact readily acknowledged by all adherents of the traditional view. But what is striking is that Hart completely ignores the antithetic parallels that employ these terms, both in Daniel 12:2 and Matthew 25:46. Here, commentators ancient and modern have pointed out that one cannot with any rational consistency limit the duration of punishment for the wicked unless one wishes to limit the duration of bliss for the righteous.//

Remarkably, this theology professor claims (against interest) that at this point in time literally no adherents to the traditional view grant Stewart’s basic position. Is he right? I don’t think so. But the fact that a theology professor makes this kind of remarkable claim against interest tells us a lot about (1) the sorry state of the field and (2) that at a minimum, it is very far from clear to relatively informed observers that “aionios” means what Stewart says it clearly means in all cases, according to a scholarly consensus. Forget about figuring out what ancient people meant by this word. Can we even figure out what scholars today think ancient people thought this word meant?

But let’s look into this venerable argument from parallelism, with a pedigree going back to Augustine. It is a surprisingly weak argument, although its repetition through centuries has helped make it rather widespread. These are centuries characterized by long periods of persecution for those who disagreed, which does much to explain the repetition of the arguments but little to establish their truth.

And while Gomes may give up more than he needed to, it is good that he acknowledges that the force of the word aionios, on its own, isn’t enough to establish the case.

It is simple to add that the parallelism is also not enough to establish the case, especially once the ambiguity of aionios is granted, and especially in a highly symbolic apocalytpic/prophetic setting.

Why doesn’t the parallelism establish the case?

Granting that “of the age” isn’t a perfect translation of aionios, it is still serviceable enough for this demonstration because the argument hinges on illustrating a general principle which fundamentally undermines the “parallelism” argument.

Here we go:

Some people got the life of the age, and others got the punishment of the age.

By the way, the life of the age never ends, because it is life in God.

See?

The “life of the age” or ad’-olamic life or aionios life can be endless for another reason, which is associated with it from another statement.

As it turns out, the parallelism argument, here, is basically a mask over an assumption of the conclusion. It slips in its conclusion under the guise of parallelism. But Gomes starts his argument by dropping the ball that is to be hidden and so comes up truly empty-handed at the moment of the great reveal. At this point the argument is carried by nothing but the familiarity of its incantation.

Still, we’ve already granted Gomes too much, in claiming that we need a consistent denotation within a parallel structure anyway. Let’s think a bit more about the relationship between denotation and parallelism.

Let’s start with a fun and stretching example:

I ate the most amazing sandwich. Then I ate up all of America’s roads for the rest of my life, looking for another one half as good.

These sentences are parallel. Parallelism in no way requires that the words even have the same denotation (here, I played with two), let alone anything else in common in particular. Although they will probably have something in common, outside of the context we can’t determine what that something in particular will be.

Now that’s not a near match at all for our case. So let’s look at one that is quite a lot nearer to our text:

My sister lived a long time. My mom died a long time.

What, exactly, does this mean? It could mean a lot of things, but one good reading would be that my sister lived a long life (for a life…maybe 90 years?), and that my mom died a long death (for a death … maybe a year?). There’s no implication, in this parallelism, that “a long time” even means a comparable length of time, on an absolute scale. In a parallel like this, it is also easy to imagine “died a long time,” especially, carrying a qualitative rather than a temporal meaning. Maybe my mom never truly lived. Parallelism involves people naturally and spontaneously engaging in all kinds of “mutatis mutandis” adjustments. The force doesn’t extend from an illegitimate totality transfer between the elements of the parallel, but instead the complex play of the parallel.

The problem with the arguments from parallelism is that they display a profound ignorance about the way parallel structures actually work. They should be opposed for the damage they do to the study of parallelism in language, if nothing else.

In fact, we can state the underlying insight here quite generally:

Nouns consistently modify adjectives (and so it isn’t just that adjectives modify nouns.)

Consider what “long” means in the following phrases:

long road
long turtle
long house
long molecule
long speech
(etc)

Does “long” denote a similar distance in any of the first 4 phrases? Not at all! In each case, “long” arguably means something like “long for X”. Although in “long house,” house might be further modifying long on an entirely different basis as well: the influence of the Iroquois longhouse. And in the fifth instance, “long” seamlessly transitions between denoting time and space, much as “*-’olam” transitions in Aramaic, maybe starting around the first century, between denoting an expansive time-related limit concept and toward an expansive space-related limit concept. (It is interesting to me, at least, that this happens around the time that Aramaic speakers are experiencing new spatial limitations as a result of Jerusalem’s fall, and at the early emergence and rise of Christianity.)

So really, the argument about aionios doesn’t depend on our broader discussion about parallelism in literature. Instead, it depends on a more simple and I think really quite easily generalized understanding that nouns modify their adjectives.

— — — — —

I’d like to dedicate this article to my mom. She was raised in the wilderness, in part by feral nuns. The first conversation I remember having about this happened years ago, where she expressed discomfort with the sheep and goats passage, and especially the notion that there are basically two types of people in the world: good ones and bad ones. She wasn’t crazy. Some of those nuns were, though.

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store