Letter to a friend: Eternity check

Dearest friend in Christ,

I am amazed at what I have found. Not that it surprised me to find it, because I believed all along in that truth – but surprised so few people care to know or express the facts of this truth! It is there for all to find and to understand.

If it is true, then let's get it out there, into the light! Why do we cling to the common, the time-honored, the comfortable, the traditional. Ugh, sorry, but that word is beginning to make me ill.

Alright, already – what is the great mystery, the big 'truth' that you are making such drama over, you say?

Well, it is this concept we use in the Bible (a lot) – eternal. Sometimes we say everlasting or forever. At times we even say forever and ever. As if forever somehow could be longer. What we have wrong is our idea or concept of what eternal/everlasting/forever is. Our English translations just don't measure up.

Let's start by backing up a bit.

Does God explain everything to us? The answer is, of course, no – at least not now on the earth. “For now we see in a mirror dimly (lit. in a riddle), but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully...” (1 Cor. 13:12)

Does God deal in mysteries? Yes! He seems to enjoy it. I counted 22 verses with 'mystery' in the NT from the NASB. For example: “...the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:26-27)

Would you agree that God is in the business of mysteries and hidden things? He is also in the business of revealing hidden things, but all in His perfect time. In one exhortation we read that those who are born again “...are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:5)

So, am I on a rabbit trail or what? Are you wondering why I am talking about mysteries and things to be revealed? What happened to eternal? You are right. Let's go straight to the Hebrew word used most often for 'eternal' or 'forever' (found 439 times in the OT) and learn the meaning behind the meaning. Don't worry, it will make sense soon. I hope you are as wowed by this as I am.

I use blueletterbible.com to look up Bible verses in various translations and also to view the Hebrew and Greek words, general meanings, root words and etymology. The transliteration of the word I am studying is spelled 'owlam (Strongs H5769). It is found, for example, in 1 Chronicles 16:34 where it says, “O give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting (H5769).” We also see the same word used in a situation that is obviously not literally forever: “Then David said, 'No one is to carry the ark of God but the Levites; for the LORD chose them to carry the ark of God and to minister to Him forever (H5769).'(1 Chronicles 15:2).

Blueletterbible uses Gesenius's Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon. About Gesenius's Lexicon:

This lexicon was originally written by Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842) in the German language. Gesenius's influence as a master of Hebrew is widespread. The editors of the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon refer to him as the father of modern Hebrew Lexicography. Gesenius first published a work on Hebrew grammar in 1817 before turning his efforts on lexicography.” 1

When we examine the meanings of 'owlam as described in this lexicon, we find the following:

A) what is hidden; specially hidden time, long; the beginning or end of which is either uncertain or else not defined; eternity, perpetuity.

OK, stop. Do you see that? This is exactly what I have understood from personal Bible study and from hearing the commentaries of Hebrew language experts. This word for 'forever' is sometimes about things that never end, but sometimes it is used for things that will eventually end, but the ending is either uncertain or else not defined. And it seemed to me that we needed a word that meant, “It will last as long as it will” or “it continues a long time until it no longer can”. I imagined we needed this word to make sense of so many verses in the Bible - and then I found it! 'owlam.

The root word of 'owlam is 'alam which means “to conceal, hide, be hidden, be concealed, be secret”. Do you see the hidden part? It means that the time is long but unknown. It will go on until it has finished its allotted course. Think of these examples: With everlasting mountains, they will last in this age until the Lord creates the new earth. For the everlasting God, He will continue on without ceasing, without beginning or end - truly everlasting.

This is so exciting for me! It all just falls into place. You know that nagging 'something just isn't adding up here' feeling? And when it gets confirmed and explained all at once – what a feeling.

So let's continue with 'owlam. We wrote out the first definition under A), but there is more!

A) what is hidden; specially hidden time, long; the beginning or end of which is either uncertain or else not defined; eternity, perpetuity.

It is used - (1) of time long past, antiquity;

(2)  It more often refers to future time, in such a manner, that what is called the terminus ad quem, is always defined from the nature of the thing itself.

Wow, wow,...wow! Can you see how this makes the Bible come alive with meaning? The nature of the thing being described as 'eternal' or 'everlasting' or 'forever' is what defines its length of existence, in accordance with God's will. So those translated 'forever' words fall short in helping us understand Scripture - imagine how much we could get wrong because of that misunderstanding! (It reminds me of the bad translation of 'hell' in our English-speaking Bibles. See the post "Erasing Hell: what a good idea".)

Terminus ad quem means a final limiting point in time or “the latest possible date of a non-punctual event”.

Wow, right?

Don't you get excited when some confusing conundrum finally makes SENSE? Are you getting the idea of what a big deal this is to me? Do you see what this means, to the degree that these definitions are accurate? It is pretty huge. Think about it. This is something we need to get right. We are talking about GOD'S WORD.

Well, let's continue and get the whole picture of our word: 'owlam (I have condensed the outline, but look it up yourself! 2 Italics theirs, underlining mine.) To review and finish:

A) what is hidden; specially hidden time, long; the beginning or end of which is either uncertain or else not defined; eternity, perpetuity.

It is used - (1) of time long past, antiquity;

(2) It more often refers to future time, in such a manner, that what is called the terminus ad quem, is always defined from the nature of the thing itself.
(a) to individual men, it commonly signifies all the days of life. (b) it belongs to a whole race (dynasty), or people, and it comprehends all the time until their destruction. (c) the metaphysical idea of eternity, at least that which has no end. Ex: an eternal sleep, used of death (Jer. 51:39).  (d) The true notion of eternity is found... in those passages which speak of the immortal nature of God Himself.

(B) the world

There you have it. The examples of 'owlam in (a) through (d) demonstrate the wide usage of this remarkable word. Remember, it is used 439 times in the Old Testament! And that word and concept transfers to the New Testament. On top of all this, you notice the secondary meaning is (B) the world.

So, that is my summary of 'owlam and the deeper understanding of its meaning in Scripture. Our translators, as sincere as they may be, have translated with English words that don't quite reach the true meaning of the Hebrew. To assume 'owlam always means forever without end is JUST PLAIN WRONG. There is no good reason to be wrong in this. Think of the implications as we extend that meaning into the New Testament.

You may be wondering: What is your point in all this? The truth is that 'owlam means, in most cases, a future time that is very long, but the limit or end of that time is hidden or unknown to us. That leaves many things a mystery. It also messes with a bunch of our theology and doctrines and traditions. And, yes, you guessed it, I am thinking specifically of the doctrine of ETERNAL conscious torment.

Would God torment His created beings for all time without end? Here is yet more information. You be the judge.

If you are still with me in this letter, you really are a friend! Please leave a comment and let me know if this was 1) understandable? 2) convincing? 3) paradigm-shifting?

Yours, hidden in Christ,

1 comment:

  1. Seth at mercifultruth.com has compiled these quotes about this subject:

    "Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible" (Matt. 25:46). Everlasting punishment--life eternal. The two adjectives represent the same Greek word, aionios 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 N.T. to periods of time that have had both a beginning and ending (Rom. 16:25).

    "Hasting's Dictionary of the New Testament" (Vol. I, p. 542, art. Christ and the Gospels): Eternity. There is no word either in the O.T. Hebrew or the N.T. 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. (p. 370)

    Jeremy Taylor, a world famous Protestant hell-fire advocate wavers, and after his ebullient flashes of Systematic Hellology, he is constrained to the following modification in Jeremy Taylor's Works (vol. 3, p. 43): "Though the fire is everlasting, not all that enters it is everlasting," then adds, "The word everlasting signifies only to the end of its period." Would that other hell-fire advocates were so honest.

    "large Catholic Bible dictionary, The Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible" (p. 693): ETERNITY: The Bible hardly speaks of eternity in the philosophical sense of infinite duration without beginning or end. The Hebrew word olam, which is used alone (Ps. 61:8; etc.) or with various prepositions (Gen. 3:22; etc.) in contexts where it is traditionally translated as "forever," means in itself no more than ‘for an indefinitely long period." Thus me olam does not mean "from eternity" but "of old" Gen. 6:4; etc.). In the N.T. aion is used as the equivalent of olam"


I understand this is a difficult subject and there are different views from folks who all value God's inspired word. I value your feedback, corrections and questions. Please leave a comment!