Is there a word in Scripture that conveys the idea of endlessness?
The phrase eternal punishment found in most English bibles (New Testament) is translated from a Greek phrase containing a word pronounced aionion. The meaning of the noun aion and its adjective form aionion have been the subject of a lot of debate. Aion and the Hebrew equivalent, usually translated age, appear 652 times in the Old and New Testaments in their noun and adjective forms; it's an important word family. This note by Aaron Locker has a list of authoritative quotes on the meanings of these terms; this touches on only one side of the argument but it is the side that most people never get to hear:
I think there are some really authoritative quotes here. Of course, none more than the Bible itself, but when it is translation that is in question; consulting the translation itself will usually only cause circular reasoning:
“It must be admitted that the Greek word which is rendered ‘eternal’ does not, in itself, involve endlessness, but rather, duration, whether through an age or succession of ages, and that it is therefore applied in the New Testament to periods of time that have had both a beginning and ending”
– Charles John Ellicott, Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible.
“an interval denoting time”
– Theodoret's (A.D. 300-400) definition of "aion".
“the time of life”
– Hesychius's (A.D. 400-600) definition of "aion".
“Primarily signifies time, in the sense of age, or generation”
– International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (page 1010).
– W.E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary.
“A period of time related to the subject”
– Charles J. Wilhelm, Biblical Dyslexia (2004), Page 80.
“Any space of time whether longer or shorter, past, present or future, to be determined by the persons or things spoken of, and the scope of the subjects; the life or age of man. Aionios, a definite and long period of time, that is, a long enduring, but still definite period of time.”
– John Schleusner, Novus Thesaurus Philologico-Criticus (1829)
“The life that hastes away in the breathing of our breath, life as transitory; then the course of life, time of life, and general life in its temporal form, then, the space of human life, an age.”
– E.W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance.
“A period of existence; one’s lifetime; life; an age; a generation; a long space of time. A space of time clearly defined and marked out; an era, epoch, age, period or dispensation.
– Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon.
“Time; space of time; life time and life; the ordinary period of man’s life; the age of man; man’s estate; a long period of time”
– James Donnegan, A New Greek and English Lexicon (1839).
“Aion: A space of time, as a lifetime, generation, period of history, an indefinitely long period”
– Abbott-Smith, Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament.
“The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world [aion]; and the reapers are the angels”
– Matthew 13:39
“As He spake by the mouth of His holy prophets, which have been since the world [aion] began”
– Luke 1:70
“And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world [aion] are in their generation wiser than the children of light”
– Luke 16:8
“Since the world [aion] began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind”
– John 9:32
“Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world [aionios] began”
– Romans 16:25
“Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world [aion] standeth, lest I make my brother to offend”
– I Corinthians 8:13
“Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world [aion] are come”
– I Corinthians 10:11
“That in the ages [aion] to come He might shew the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus”
– Ephesians 2:7
“Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages [aion] and from generations, but now is made manifest to His saints”
– Colossians 1:26
"Interestingly enough, our English word “eternal” comes from the Latin æternus which means, literally, “lasting for an age.”
– Walter Skeat, The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, 1882.
“lasting for an age”
– John Kennedy, (etymology of eternal), Word Stems: A Dictionary, 1996 (page 128).
– Robert K. Barnhart, (etymology of eternal), Barnhart’s Concise Dictionary of Etymology, 1995 (page 254).
– Ernest Weekly, (etymology of eternal), An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 1967 (page 526).
“No doubt it was right at one time to translate aion by eternal, and would be right again could we reinstate the original significance of the word: for, strangely enough, the word ‘eternal’ originally meant age-long.”
– Samuel Cox, Salvator Mundi, or Is Christ the Saviour of All Men? 1877 (p. 119).
“Let me say to Bible students that we must be very careful how we use the word ‘eternity.’ We have fallen into great error in our constant use of that word. There is no word in the whole Book of God corresponding with our ‘eternal’ which as commonly used among us means absolutely without end.”
– G. Campbell Morgan, God’s Methods With Men (p. 185).
“That aiónion, does not mean endless or eternal, may appear from considering that no adjective can have a greater force than the noun from which it is derived. If aión means age (which none either will or can deny) then aiónion must mean age-lasting, or duration through the age or ages to which the thing spoken of relates.”
– Nathaniel Scarlett (1798).
“Since aion meant ‘age,’ aionios means, properly, ‘belonging to an age,’ or ‘age-long,’ and anyone who asserts that it must mean ‘endless’ defends a position which even Augustine practically abandoned twelve centuries ago.”
– Frederic William Farrar, Mercy and Judgment, (p. 378).
“The Bible hardly speaks of eternity in a philosophical sense of infinite duration without beginning or end. The Hebrew word olam … in contexts where it is traditionally translated ‘forever,’ means, in itself, no more than ‘for an indefinitely long period.’ … In the New Testament, aion is used as the equivalent of olam.”
– Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible.
“There is no word either in the Old Testament Hebrew or in the New Testament Greek to express the abstract idea of eternity. (Vol. III, p. 369): Eternal, everlasting-nonetheless ‘eternal’ is misleading, inasmuch as it has come in the English to connote the idea of ‘endlessly existing,’ and thus to be practically a synonym for ‘everlasting.’ But this is not an adequate rendering of aionios which varies in meaning with the variations of the noun aion from which it comes.”
– Hasting’s Dictionary of the New Testament (p. 370).
“The conception of eternity, in the Semitic languages, is that of a long duration and series of ages.”
– J.S. Blunt, Dictionary of Theology.
“The word aion is never used in Scripture, or anywhere else, in the sense of endlessness (vulgarly called eternity, it always meant, both in Scripture and out, a period of time); else how could it have a plural -- how could you talk of the aeons and aeons of aeons as the Scripture does?”
– Charles Kingsley (1857), Endless Torments Unscriptural.
“Aion means ‘an age,’ a limited period, whether long or short, though often of indefinite length; and the adjective aionios means ‘of the age,’ ‘age-long,’ ‘aeonian,’ and never ‘everlasting’ (of its own proper force), it is true that it may be applied as an epithet to things that are endless, but the idea of endlessness in all such cases comes not from the epithet, but only because it is inherent in the object to which the epithet is applied, as in the case of God.”
– Thomas Allin, Christ Triumphant.
"Etymologically, the words “age” and “eternal” are from the same source. This can be verified by checking any dictionary on word origins. As an example, Eric Partridge in his work, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1983) has the following listed under “Eternal”: – “See Age.”"
– Clyde L. Pilkington, Jr.
As Clyde Pilkington mentioned in the last quote, age and eternal are from the same place. Merriam-Webster Dictionary's etymology on the words shows this as well. I will follow the suggestion at the end of the entry and see "aye”:
Middle English, from Middle French, from Late Latin aeternalis, from Latin aeternus eternal, from aevum age, eternity — more at aye
also ay \’ā\
Middle English, from Old Norse ei; akin to Old English ā always, Latin aevum age, lifetime, Greek aiōn age
As you can see, the etymology is riddled with words from the past all of which are said to mean something limited except for a couple occurrences when the word is used to define itself. Now here's the etymology of "age" according to Merriam Webster:
Middle English, from Anglo-French aage, age, from Vulgar Latin *aetaticum, from Latin aetat-, aetas, from aevum lifetime — more at aye
Again, you can see that age and eternal have their beginnings in the same place. However, both "aye" and "age" came along in the 13th century. "Eternal" came from them a century later. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, any English word that came from "aion" for an entire century could only mean age or lifetime. Eternal then came in the 14th century, but it still meant age. Eventually, down the road, the word picked up the meaning "never ending" and that's what we know "eternal" by today.
The etymology suggests that if we could go back and talk to Wycliffe, Gutenberg, Linacre, Colet, Erasmus, Tyndale, Coverdale, Calvin, Knox, Foxe or any well-studied person from that time, they would all agree that eternal life was age-long. They might agree that it lasted for an indefinite amount of time, but they would not call it "endless life".