How Long is Forever?

My transcript of the above:

Eric: Hey there folks. It’s Hell Week on The Eric Metaxas Show. Chris Himes it’s Hell Week.

Chris: Yeah, I thought it was just the thermostat but no, it’s the theme.

Eric: We’re talking about hell. It’s such a serious topic that I have to joke around. We’re talking to George Sarris. George, we just have a few minutes left in this program, we’re going to have you back for a second program because there’s just so much talk about. So tell us—people are listening all over America, all around the world—what else do we need to know about hell?

George: The biggest issue that most people have relates around Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 25 verse 46, where it says, “Those who are following God will go into life everlasting and those who are not will go into punishment everlasting.” So the real issue is the word of “everlasting.”

Eric: Okay. And, by the way, you’re Greek, I’m Greek, just so happens the New Testament was written in Greek.

George: Amen.

Eric: So what is the word?

George: The word is aion. It does not mean never-ending. What it means is, “the end is not known”. Not never-ending, the end is not known. For example, if you’re in the middle of the ocean and you look around, you say, “Wow, there’s no end to this ocean, it just goes on and on.” There is an end, you just don’t know where it is.

Eric: So it means “seemingly endless”?

George: Well, not necessarily even “seemingly endless”, it just means “the end is not known.” For example, Jonah, when he’s in the belly of the great fish, he says, “The earth beneath him barred him in forever” (according to the English versions) but what it means is “The earth beneath barred me in for, I don’t [know], for this extended period but I don’t know what it was.” It was only three days—that’s how long he was in the belly of the great fish.

Eric: Right.

George: It talks about the sacrifices in the temple of the Lord will go on forever. No, they just went on until there’s no more need for them—when Christ came there was no more need for those sacrifices at all. In fact, if aion actually meant “never-ending”, the Jews of Jesus day would have had an unanswerable objection to Christianity because they were told, according to their scriptures, that the sacrifices in the temple were to last “forever” but they didn’t, they lasted only until Christ came. The reason [they didn’t make this objection] is because the word “forever” didn’t really mean forever in the original language.

Eric: Now that’s the Hebrew obviously.

George: That’s correct—that’s olam. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, they used aion in place of olam in just about every single place. So they’re pretty much synonymous at that point. It means “an age”. What Jesus is saying, by the way, in Matthew chapter 25 verse 46, is that, “There will be punishment in the age to come, there will be life in the age to come.” But they don’t have to be the same. If I said to you, “Dwight Howard is a tall man he’s standing before the Empire State Building, which is a tall building.” Does that mean the Dwight Howard and the Empire State Building are the same height? No, the word “tall” is a relative term relating to what it’s modifying. The same thing with aion, it’s a relative term, depending on what it’s referring to. If you’re referring to God it’s referring to something everlasting.

Eric: So it doesn’t necessarily mean “infinite”?

George: That is correct. It means “the end is not known.”

Eric: Okay. Wow! Speaking about the end, this is the end of this program. We’re going to do a second program with George Sarris. The book is Heaven’s Doors: wider than you ever believed. Thanks for listening.

Punishment’s Duration―Engaging Burk’s View of Hell―Part 3

Denny Burk
Denny Burk

I’m blogging my way through Four Views on Hell: Second Edition. The biblical and theological case for the first of the views, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT), is written by Denny Burk. In this post I’ll look at Daniel 12:2-3, which is the next passage he examines.

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.Daniel 12:2, NIV

Burk highlights Jesus’ allusion to this passage in John 5:28-29. This seems to imply that both passages describe the universal resurrection and judgment at the end of the age. Most Evangelicals Universalists and Conditionalists that I know don’t dispute either event, but disagree about what happens after the judgment.

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.John 5:28-29, ESV

Burk recognises that the Hebrew word olam (translated “everlasting” in the NIV) “has the connotation of time extending into the distant past and into the future indefinitely.”1 Note that neither “distant” nor “indefinite” is necessarily “everlasting”. But he then claims the separation in the passages above is permanent because olam is used to describe both the life and the contempt. As the former is everlasting, he concludes the latter must be too.

However, even according to his own definition of olam, that seems like a huge leap. If I say X occurred in the distant past and Y occurred in the distant past, that surely doesn’t mean both X and Y had to occur at the same instant and for the same duration. Similarly, if I say event X is indefinitely long and event Y is indefinitely long, it seems that logically there’s no necessary link between the durations of X and Y.

If I tell you that, “Tomorrow I’m going to the gym and tomorrow I’m reading a book”, does that mean I must be doing both activities for exactly the same duration? Unlikely. Or even an example where we have a clearer idea of the duration of the first thing, “Tomorrow I’m moving to the US and tomorrow I’m reading a book”, again does this imply I must be reading the book for the entire journey and forever in the US?? I see no reason to think that.

It’s also worth considering how olam is used in Hebrew.

Hebrew words used for space2 are also used for time… The Hebrew word olam literally means “beyond the horizon.” When looking off in the far distance it is difficult to make out any details and what is beyond that horizon cannot be seen. This concept is the olam. The word olam is also used for time for the distant past or the distant future as a time that is difficult to know or perceive.

Ancient Hebrew Research Center

That the life and contempt both occur “beyond the horizon”, in the ages to come, surely doesn’t mean they are necessarily of equal duration.

Here are two more examples of scholars who don’t think “everlasting” is the best translation:

The word [olam] itself simply means “long duration,” “antiquity,” “futurity,” “until the end of a period of time.” That period of time is determined by the context. Sometimes it is the length of a man’s life, sometimes it is an age, and sometimes it is a dispensation.

The second thing to keep in mind is that there are two Hebrew forms of olam. The first form is le-olam, which means “unto an age.” And the second form is ad-olam, which means “until an age.” However, neither of these forms carry the English meaning of “forever.” Although it has been translated that way in English, the Hebrew does not carry the concept of eternity as the English word “forever” does.

The third thing to keep in mind is that the word olam, le-olam, or ad-olam, sometimes means only up “to the end of a man’s life.” For example, it is used of someone’s lifetime (Ex. 14:13), of a slave’s life (Ex. 21:6; Lev. 25:46; Deut. 15:17), of Samuel’s life (I Sam. 1:22; 2:35), of the lifetimes of David and Jonathan (I Sam. 20:23), and of David’s lifetime (I Sam. 27:12; 28:2; I Chr. 28:4). While the English reads for ever, obviously from the context it does not mean “forever” in the sense of eternity, but only up to the end of the person’s life.

The fourth thing to keep in mind about the meaning of olam is that it sometimes means only “an age” or “dispensation.” For example, Deuteronomy 23:3 uses the term for ever but limits the term to only ten generations. Here it obviously carries the concept of an age. In II Chronicles 7:16, it is used only for the period of the First Temple. So, again, the word for ever [olam] in Hebrew does not mean “eternal” as it does in English; it means up to the end of a period of time, either a man’s life, or an age, or a dispensation.

Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Ariel Ministries Manuscript 176, p323

Olam: Jenni holds that its basic meaning “most distant times” can refer to either the remote past or to the future or to both as due to the fact that it does not occur independently (as a subject or as an object) but only in connection with prepositions indicating direction (“since,” “until,” “up to”) or as an adverbial accusative of direction or finally as the modifying genitive in the construct relationship.

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament3

Here’s an example of a translation that I think better captures the broad scope of the word:

I have sunk down to the underworld; its bars held me with no end in sight [olam]. But you brought me out of the pit.

Jonah 2:6, CEB

Interestingly, in this case, olam turned out to be only 3 days!

Burk says the use of “contempt” suggests punishment, and it probably does. However, the question isn’t whether or not there’s punishment but whether or not God rescues everyone. Personally I think there are many biblical and theological reasons for thinking that He does. I’ve posted some of them on this blog and when we get to engaging with Robin Parry’s chapter, we should find some more.

Anyway, hopefully from all of the above you can see that the “contempt” in Daniel 12:2 is indefinite in duration, and therefore doesn’t necessarily support ECT.


1. p25
2. The connection with location is interesting when you consider how the Greek equivalent, aionios (which I’ll look at in a future post), also carries the idea of “in or of the age to come”.
3. As cited by HaDavar Messianic Ministries.