Many Bibles use words like forever in numerous verses. For example, according to the King James Version, Psalm 37:29 says:
‘The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever.’
And the Jubilee Bible 2000 says:
‘The righteous shall inherit the earth and live upon it for ever.’
Yet does this accurately convey what King David wrote?
The Greek words
Only two Greek words directly imply infinity (such as ‘forever’) in the Bible. One is the Greek word athanasia (undying), which is only found in two places, 1 Corinthians 15:53, where it mentions resurrected ones as clothing themselves with immortality, and at 1 Timothy 6:16, where Paul speaks of Jesus alone as having it.
The other Greek word is aidios, which is used at Romans 1:20 to describe God’s Power and Might as eternal, and at Jude 6, where it speaks of the rebellious angels being confined in a perpetual state of gloomy darkness.
However, the Greek word which is used throughout the Bible and often translated as eternal and forever, is aionos. It’s where we get the English word eon. It means an undefined period of time, and there is no exact English word to translate it.
The best equivalents are age or era. That is how the 2001 Translation translates the word.
- The singular form (aionos) appears to mean a period such as a lifetime, generation, or era.
- The plural form (aiōnōn) refers to a longer time, at least multiple generations.
- Neither of these mean forever.
Where the term, ‘ton aiona tou aionos’ (the age of the age) is used (extensively in the Greek Septuagint version of Psalms), it may refer to a coming better age for mankind.
However, the term ‘tou aionos ton aionon’ (of the ages of the ages) is usually used in reference to The God, so we would assume that this truly means forever (e.g. Ephesians 3:21).
Important to get right
It’s easy to see why it’s so important to translate these words correctly. Not only could we be led astray by wrong interpretation, but getting it wrong can also discredit the Bible. How so?
Well, there are many prophecies about cities, peoples, and lands which state these were to be destroyed for a portion of time, not forever, as other Bible translations say. So when others translate these words incorrectly, and these places are later rebuilt or re-inhabited, the mistranslations make it look like the Bible got it wrong, when it didn’t. Bible critics are then given ammunition to make false claims about ‘failed’ Bible prophecy, when no such ‘failures’ really occurred.
It’s noteworthy that aionos is also the word used in the Greek Septuagint to translate several Hebrew words which usually appear in modern Bibles as forever. Yet other Bible translators have taken this one word (aionos) and display it in English as everlasting, eternal, system of things, time indefinite, [end of] the world, long ago, from of old, etc. Obviously, something is very wrong here! The same word cannot mean a defined period of time in one place, but then mean infinity in another.
End of the world?
Consider the unique way that aionos is used in Matthew 24:3 (NLT):
‘Tell us, when will all this happen?
What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?’
Yes, many Bibles translate aionos as world here. Yet, if the Apostles were asking about the world, then they would have used the proper Greek word for it: cosmos (world, system of things, or arrangement), not aionos (age/era).
Thus it shows just how problematic it is to translate the word as forever. They weren’t asking Jesus when forever, everlasting, or eternal would end, nor were they asking when the world would end. Rather, they would have been asking when that particular age, or period in which they were living, or the age of God’s dealing only with the Jews was about to end. That then happened shortly afterwards in 70 CE with the destruction of JeruSalem and its Temple. Indeed, several Bible translations agree on this point, such as the NIV, which translates the verse thus:
‘what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’
The point is that aionos does not mean forever.
(Note: it’s possible that the Apostles didn’t ask this question at all.)
Another good example of mistranslation of aionos is found at Acts 3:21. There, other translators have rendered it as, long ago, ancient times, from the beginning, since the world began, since the beginning of the world, and since time began.
For example, the King James Version says:
‘...which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.’
The context clearly shows that aionos cannot be translated as eternal, everlasting, or forever here. Therefore, we have correctly translated it as age, at it makes perfect sense:
“...that God told us through the mouths of the holy [ones] in His age of the Prophets...’
Could we ever translate aionos as forever?
There are places where some forms of the word could imply forever, such as when we find it in the form aiōnōn. This is an adjective (a describing word) in the singular, which, when combined with the Greek word zoe (life), is usually translated in other Bibles as, everlasting life, but is this totally accurate? Not exactly.
In the past, we had tried to reconcile the term zoe aiōniōn as meaning, life in the age. However, the word age in this instance would not be an adjective. The two words appear to be combined into a term, that is, a name for something. So, we have chosen (in most cases) to translate it as age-long life, which we will agree could indeed imply everlasting life.
All the various ways that this word (aionos) has been mistranslated into English well illustrates why we created this Bible translation. Translators of most Bibles have simply translated in ways that promote existing religious doctrines, not in ways that would accurately reflect the true meanings of the words. When this happens, it creates a catch-22 situation for the religions that use, sponsor, and promote the use of such Bibles. They ‘verify’ their doctrines through dishonest translating, which they then use to promote their doctrines!
Admittedly, our translating of aionos as age/era probably doesn’t change how many people understand God’s purposes for righteous mankind. However, it does well illustrate how words can be twisted by Bible translators to imply things that the ancient Bible texts never said.
For a discussion of this topic, please see the scriptural commentary, Does the Bible Promise Everlasting Life?