CHRIST AND THE JUDGMENT
No portion of the Word of God exceeds in sublimity, and wide and enduring influence, the account of the judgment given by Christ, the final judge. A full history of the modes in which it has been understood, and of the influence it has exerted, would be of intense interest, for it has been the great channel of thought and emotion in the Christian ages. The views taken as to the time of the judgment, its nature, and the duration of the consequent retributions, if fully set forth, would make an extended history. But at present we shall consider only the last point, and this brings up the history of opinions on the meaning of the word aionios used by Christ and translated eternal and everlasting. After all, the main question that most deeply moves the mind of man is this: Did Christ, in his account of the judgment, proclaim endless punishment to the wicked?
It is not wonderful that this question moves the world. The nations must stand before his judgment-bar. No investigation as to the nature of the threatened penalty can be too exact or profound. This has created an earnest desire for the testimony of some witness as to the import of his words whose testimony shall be absolute and decisive. The question is, Does ainios mean endless?
The history of ecclesiastical opinions on this point does not go back to the apostolic fathers, for, as we have before stated, there is no reference to Christ’s account of the judgment in their writings.
But some have thought that they have found the desired witness in the eminent philosopher Aristotle. They regard him as declaring that the word aion, from which aionios is derived, denotes originally and primarily eternity, in the absolute sense, and hence that aionios must mean eternal in the same sense.
This supposed testimony of the illustrious philosopher has exerted a great influence in producing an assured conviction on that point, in the minds of many, which leads them to assume that the idea of eternity is so plainly declared by the words of Christ that to call it in question is a sinful evasion or denial of the Word of God.
This great philosopher has in fact stated that aion is derived from two Greek words, the adverb aei, always, and the participle on, existing. Hence, assuming that aei always denotes eternity, is adapted to exert great influence on candid minds, and has extensively done so.
The eminent Andrew Fuller, in his letters to Mr. Vidler, refers to this passage of Aristotle as deciding the original sense of the word and its usage in the days of Aristotle. (“Works,” i., 349). The same passage is also referred to as decisive of the question in the “Encyclopaedia of Religious Knowledge,” of which the eminent Prof. B. B. Edwards, of Andover Theological Seminary, was one of the editors (p. 73, aion). The passage referred to in support of these assertions occurs in the treatise of Aristotle, “De Coelo,” i., 9. On it two questions arise: First, is the etymology of Aristotle correct? Second, admitting it to be correct, does aei always denote eternity and does it sanction the translation of the passage given by these writers, and their inference from it that aion originally and primarily means eternity? On the first point it must be said that by the general consent of scholars, though Plato and Aristotle were great philosophers, they were very poor etymologists. The true principles of etymology they neither understood nor acted on. For a full view of the facts in the case see Grote’s “Plato,” vol. ii., pp. 500-550. Sufficient reasons could be given for rejecting this etymology. Yet, though some lexicographers of repute reject it, others of equal authority accept it. And as I prefer to meet the question radically, and to test the argument in its full strength, I will for the present concede the correctness of the etymology of Aristotle.
But, in reply to the second question, I remark that even if the etymology of Aristotle were to be accepted, it is not at all decisive of the question; for the word aei does not always or even commonly denote or imply eternity, and in this passage it manifestly does not, and to give it that sense involves Aristotle in inconsistency and absurdity, and in a war with notorious facts in the history of the Greek language. But as this passage has exerted so extensive an influence, I propose to pay particular attention to these statements. Any careful study of the word aei will show that singly or in compounds it does not always denote or even imply eternity, but more frequently continuity of being, or character, or action, or habitual action in a given way. The same is true of our English words ever and always. An evergreen [Greek letters used here!] is not a tree green to all eternity, but a tree continuously green during its life. In the New Testament aei is never used in the sense of eternity, but always to denote habitual action, or a stated mode of action at all proper times. It was Pilate’s usage to release yearly unto the Jews one prisoner. The mob, therefore, desired him to do as he had ever (aei) done unto them, not to or from eternity, but as an annual usage. Peter exhorts the Christians (1 Epis. iii. 15) to be ready always (aei) to give a reason of the hope that is in them, that is habitually, at all proper times, not to all eternity. The same usages are found in the Latin semper (always), and in the German. Aristotle, moreover, refers to the ancients as sanctioning this etymology of aion. But in Homer, the great leader of the ancients, aei is rarely used to denote eternity. Damm, in his elaborate “Lexicon and virtual Concordance of Homer,” thus defines the word aei:
“Ever, always, perpetually, constantly. It does not always denote duration to infinity, but often continuity of action in a small space of time, or assiduous and earnest action in a limited time, or frequent, or oft-repeated, or habitual action. Often aei is completed on the same day, and denotes great earnestness and effort.” A few illustrations may suffice. Achilles says to Calchas, “It is ever (aei) pleasing to you to foretell evils to me” (Il., i., 107); Menelaus says, “Always (aei) the minds of the young are unstable” (Il., iii, 109); Homer says that “Atreides took a knife that always (aei) hung by the sheath of his great sword (Il., iii, 272); Jupiter says to Juno, “The laughter-loving Venus is always (aei) near to Paris, and averts death from him” (Il., iv. 11); Jupiter says to Juno, “It is always (aei) pleasant to you to engage in clandestine counsels apart from me” (Il., i., 541). In all these cases, not eternity, but continuous or habitual action in a limited time, is denoted. Damm in his “Lexicon,” derives aion from a intensive and on. Yet he looks at it as possibly derived from aei and on. On this assumption he introduces the idea of continuity of action as involved in it, and rejects the idea of absolute eternity. He thus defines it: “Continuance or duration to the end; any perpetuity. It denotes properly the whole duration of the life of man, the duration of mortal life. Hence, to finish one’s aion is to die. The words aei on denote existing perpetually, and without any intermission, until the end comes.”
It is the neglect of these plain and undeniable facts and principles that has led to a false and absurd translation of the passage of Aristotle on which so much has been made to rest. I shall now translate it, after premising that it contains certain peculiar views of Aristotle based on the assumption that the earth is the centre of the universal system; that the sun, moon, and stars, revolve around it; that all the matter in the universe is included in it, and yet that, beyond the extreme limit of all revolving worlds, other beings exist. He has been speaking of these spiritual beings beyond all the revolving bodies of the whole material system, and he attempts to prove that there is to them neither matter, nor time, nor a vacuum. Of these beings he says: “they are not in place, nor does time cause them to grow old, nor is there any change in them. But without change, and enjoying the best and the most satisfying life, they pass their whole existence” (aion). We are here to remember that, according to Aristotle (it matters not whether we can receive his ideas or not), to these beings there is neither time nor place, but only existence, and we are bound not to translate aion eternity, which is infinite time, but existence, continuous existence, as it is defined by Damm. He next proceeds to say: “And indeed this word aion, by a divine inspiration, was employed by the ancients; for they called the boundary which surrounds and takes in the time of the life of every man, beyond which, by necessity of Nature, no action exists, the aion; that is, the whole continuous existence of the man.” This statement, in fact, agrees with the usage of the ancients, for, as we shall see, they did use aion to denote the whole duration of the life of man. It is also a demonstration that by aion Aristotle did not mean eternity. Is a definitely bounded human life eternity? To call such a life eternity would be absurd and contradictory. And yet most translators have so absurdly rendered Aristotle. Grote is an exception.
Aristotle proceeds: “On the same principle, the boundary of all the heavens, and the boundary that incloses [sic] and comprehends all time and space, is aion, a continuous existence, immortal and divine, deriving its name from [two Greek words appear here – using Greek letters], to exist continuously.” On this passage, Liddell and Scott say that aion denotes the complete period of the universe, as previously it denoted the complete period of human life. It is manifest that this aion is repeatedly said to be a boundary or limitation inclosing [sic] the universe. But eternity, from its very idea, is not a definite boundary of anything. Therefore, to translate aion eternity would be contradictory and absurd. It is a continuous existence.
Moreover, as human existence implies a being who exists, so here the existence (aion) of the universe implies a being who exists in the aion. Hence, Aristotle calls the aion immortal and divine.
In this case, the being who exists can be no other than the Supreme God, the immovable mover of all revolving worlds, of whom Aristotle says so much. He, too, is beyond the revolving universe, where there is existence, but not time.
That Aristotle meant this Supreme God by aion is plain from what he adds: “On whom the being and life of all other beings and things are dependent, in some cases more clearly and obviously, in others more obscurely.”
Of eternity none of these things are true. It is not immortal and divine. On it the being and life of all other beings and things are not dependent. Hence to translate aion eternity is absurd.
I have thus shown that, if aion is rendered eternity in this passage, it involves Aristotle in self-contradiction and utter absurdity. Hence, the argument from his testimony utterly fails.
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