Universalism is the teaching that God will ultimately bring all people, in all times, and all places to a state of reconciliation with Him. In other words, everyone who ever lived will be saved. Consequently, universalism cannot allow the possibility of an eternal hell as a realistic biblical teaching.
To get around the problem of the English Bibles translating Greek words into "eternal," "forever," and forevermore" when describing fire (Matt. 18:8) or torment (Rev. 20:10), the universalists go to the Greek. The Greek word that is translated into eternal is "aionion." It comes from the Greek root "aion" meaning "age." This fact combined with the various uses of Greek words derived from the root "aion," are what the universalists use to attempt to show that "aionion" does not always mean "eternal" but can refer to a finite period of time.
The truth is, they are right. It can be translated into a temporal sense as it is in Rom. 16:25: "Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages (aionios1) past." But the reason it is translated that way is because of context, and that is extremely important. Context determines meaning, as you will see later.
With the claim that "aionion" can be translated into something temporal and that its root means "age," the universalist then says that any reference to "eternal fire," "eternal torment," or "eternal punishment" is not really eternal. Instead of "eternal torment," it is "aionion torment." Instead of "eternal punishment," it is "aionion punishment." That way, to the universalist, there is no eternal hell, no eternal punishment, and no eternal damnation. Everyone will be saved.
This approach by the Universalists can be confusing to someone who doesn't understand Greek, and that is part of the reason that Universalism has followers. It is true that the root "aion" means age. But just because a root means age does not mean that every word derived from that root means a limited duration of time. For example, consider this verse that is speaking about God:
who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen, (1 Tim. 6:16)
The context is obviously dealing with God's eternal nature. The word in Greek for "immortality" is "athanatos." The Greek word for death is "thanatos." The "a" in front of the word is the negator -- without, non, etc. It means that God is deathless; hence, immortal. This is an eternal quality of God. Likewise, the verse states that God has eternal dominion. The word for "eternal" is "aionios" which is derived from the Greek root "aion" which means age. But, God is not immortal for only an "age," nor is His dominion temporal. The word "eternal" is absolutely the best way to translate the Greek "aionion" because God is immortal and eternal. Therefore, it would be wrong to translate the verse by stating that God has "aionion" dominion. Rather, He has eternal dominion.
How is "aionion" used in the New Testament?
The following two sections are verses that contain the word "aionion" which is translated as "eternal." Notice how using the word "eternal" in the first group is no problem. But, it is the second group with which the Universalists object. Nevertheless, the same word is used in both. See for yourself.
- John 6:47, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal (aionion) life.
- John 10:28, "and I give eternal (aionion) life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand."
- Acts 13:48, "And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal (aionion) life believed."
- Romans 2:7, " to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal (aionion) life."
- Romans 5:21, "that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal (aionion) life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
- Rom. 16:26, " but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal (aionion) God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith."
- Gal. 6:8, "For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal (aionion) life."
- 1 Tim. 6:16, "who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal (aionion) dominion! Amen."
- 1 John 1:2, "and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal (aionion) life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us"
- 1 John 5:11, "And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal (aionion) life, and this life is in His Son."
The following set of scriptures divulge the nature of eternal damnation.
- Matt. 18:8, "And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal (aionion) fire.
- Matt. 25:41, "Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal (aionion) fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;"
- Matt. 25:46, "And these will go away into eternal (aionion) punishment, but the righteous into eternal (aionion) life."
- Mark 3:29, "but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal (aionion) sin."
- Mark 10:30, "but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal (aionion) life.
- Luke 18:30, "who shall not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal (aionion) life."
- 2 Thess. 1:9, "And these will pay the penalty of eternal (aionion) destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,"
- Jude 7, "Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example, in undergoing the punishment of eternal (aionion) fire."
It should be quite obvious that there is an eternal punishment and that universalism is nothing more than a hopeful wish. The Universalists are not justified in picking and choosing the meaning of a word based upon their interpretations of "aion" that suits them and depending on which verse is used.