Of the 124 N.T. occurances of 'aion' in its various forms, sixty cases are in the plural. In twenty-two cases, the plural is implied by the expressions 'this aeon' or 'that aeon'. This obviously rules out the possibility of 'aion' in the singular ever meaning, eternity; we cannot have several eternities; but it may be asked whether eternity itself may consist of an infinite number of such time periods. Philosophically such an idea appears attractive since an infinite series of any time spans short or long must amount to infinite duration: but our task relates solely to biblical usage not to philosophy as such.
In I Cor.10:11 we find,
'These things (O.T. records) were written for our admonition unto whom the ends of the ages have reached along, (or maybe 'come down').'
If the N.T. aeons here meant eternity, their end or ends could never be realized; but a purpose of the ages (Eph.3:11) must come to fruition during the ages or at any rate at the consummation. In N.T. thought then, the aeons have a goal, an objective 'to which the whole creation moves'. (Rom.8:19-21). This of course does not imply that time then ceases, nor that other ages may not follow. These are matters about which the sacred scriptures say nothing and speculation is useless.
But during the ages God has a purpose, 'to head up all things in Christ'. This Paul calls the mystery or sacred secret. (Eph.1:9,10 and 3:9,10). In Eph.1:9, the apostle says this sacred secret 'had been hidden away from the ages in God...in order that NOW God's manifold wisdom might be made known'. the tenses of the verbs and the adverbs 'now' show that these spans of time are past.
Heb.1:2 tells us that the ages were made by God through the Son, and in 11:3 we read 'By faith we understand the aeons to have been fitted together( or adjusted, arranged) by God's command'. The whole context refers to faith regarding the future fulfillment of the promises, not to an understanding of how the physical universe was created - an erroneous idea suggested by the common rendering 'worlds' in both the above texts.
the concordant translation 'aeon of 'ages' is therefore urged for 'aeones' and the concept commended is that out of the infinity of endless duration, God prepared a period - the ages - for the accomplishment of a certain purpose. The process began with creation effected through the Son, whose revelation of the Father in his life, death, and resurrection, formed the midpoint of redemptive history and predictive prophecy, and whose ultimate presentation of a perfect universe to the Father will complete the purpose and plan for which the aeons were prepared and 'fitted together'. I Cor.15:28.
In keeping with these thoughts, the scriptures tell us of God's activity before the aeons. I Cor.2:7 Paul writes, 'We speak God's wisdom in a sacred secret - that hidden wisdom which God marked out before the aeons for our glory.' and in II Tim.1:9 'God hath saved us and called us...according to his own purpose and that grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before times of the aeons.'
Further in Titus 1:2 we read, 'In hope of life aeonian which God...promised before times of the aeons.' The phrase 'before times of the aeons' must provide a most decisive argument against regarding the plural, 'aeons' as equated with eternity. The absurdity of defining eternity as duration without beginning or ending and then speaking about some period before eternal times must be self evident.
Not only does Paul refer to aeons past, as we have seen in Eph.3:9, but he also mentions ages to come. In Eph.2:7 he states that God's redemptive activity for sinners is 'in order that he might show, in the coming aeons, the surpassing riches of his grace'. This reference to future ages, accords with the plural in Luke 1:33, 'He shall reign over the house of Jacob for the aeons.' and in Rev.11:15, ' He shall reign for the aeons of the aeons.'
Further in the doxology of I Tim.1:17, God is given the title 'King of the ages', implying, one should think, that the existence of these periods and the activities therein are under his control.
From the above survey the conclusion may be drawn that the N.T. writings envisage a span of time from creation to the consummation of world history covered by at least five ages, the use of the plural 'aiones' respecting both past and future times, taken to mean at least two aeons in each case.
Now the majority of the occurrences of the plural of 'aion' appear in the phrases 'aeon of the aeons' or 'aeons of the aeons'. Such expressions are foreign to Greek literature outside the N.T. books and would appear to be meaningless if considered apart from the Hebraic background of the inspired authors. In the Hebrew language the superlative degrees is expressed in polytotonic phrases such as, 'The book of books' is the best book, 'the song of songs' the finest song, 'the holy of holies' the most sacred spot, and 'the King of kings and Lord of lords', the supreme potentate than whom no other can rank higher. If we remember that all the N.T. writers, with the possible exception of Luke, were Hebrews, and consider the phrases 'aeon of the aeons' and 'aeons of the aeons' as Hebrew constructions in Greek words, we may regard their meaning to be that the future ages in which God's purpose is approaching realization, will be the finest, the most blessed, of all the times covered by the sacred scriptures.
The passages in which the above phrases are found may be divided into two groups, (a) doxological expressions (Rom.11:36; 16:27; II Cor.11:31, Gal.1:5, Phil.4:20, Eph.3:21, I Tim.1:17. II Tim.4:18, Heb.13:21, I Pet.4:11 and 5:11, Rev.1:6 and 18; 7:12) and (b) statements in the Book of Revelation (Rev.4:9 and 10; 10:6; 11:15; 15:7; 19:3; 20:10; 22:5). The doxologies employ terms such as 'blessed', 'honor', 'glory' and 'praise' calling for worship of the Deity and contain no contextual evidence respecting the time element. If these be read as ascriptions of praise and calls to worship God throughout the coming ages viewed as the best periods of all humanity's history, then no difficulties arise either linguistically or theologically. There is no suggestion that worship will cease at the end of the ages mentioned in the N.T. but speculation beyond that point ventures outside the biblical frame.
Of the nine examples of the polytotonic phrases in Revelation, four refer to the Deity living 'unto the ages of the ages', two to 'smoke ascending from the punishing o the devotees of the wild beast' and from the destruction of Babylon, one each to the torment of Satan, the reign of Christ and of his people with him. (Rev.4:9 and 10; 10:6; 15:7; 14:11; 19:3; 20:10; 11:15; 22:5). With respect to the first four, it may be said that if these were the only cases of the use of these phrases, then 'for ever' or 'eternally' might well be accepted in English, but unless these aeons can be shown to express the concept of infinite duration in other contexts, there appears to be no good reason to so render them here especially as these texts are quite meaningful and consistent when the phrases are considered as applying to the time periods discussed in the Apocalypse itself, that is, to the future aeons. As three of these cases are quotations from the O.T. (Rev.4:9,10; 10:6) and the fourth (Rev.15:2-7) in a section of four sentences contains more than a dozen O.T. expressions, the influence of Hebrew thought and language must be recognized and since the O.T. contains no references to "eternity' it appears improbable that the seer of the Apocalypse was thinking in terms of infinite duration.
The interpretation of the symbolism and time points of Revelation is a baffling task. No two expositors appear to agree on all matters and it would seem hat those most positive in their opinions are most likely to be wrong. Still one point is almost unanimously accepted - that the apocalyptic survey include the closing periods of world history as envisaged in the N.T. In these far future times the aeonian drama will reach its consummation with all creation in harmony with the Creator. The periods during which this is accomplished by judgment, cleansing, restoration, creation renewed, and God, All in All, are aeons of time.
Beyond this point, the biblical revelation goes no further, other than in the 'mighty negatives' such as 'immortal', 'incorruptible', 'indissoluble', 'fadeth not away', and 'never any more' (I Cor.15:42,53; I Pet.1.4; Heb.7:16; Rev.18:14,21,22,23).
It seems reasonable then for the seer to assure his readers that throughout all the titanic, cataclysmic upheavals of the unparalleled visitations of judgment, God still lives on in supreme majesty, the forces of evil receive their appropriate final annihilation, and the Lamb once slain by and for sinners receives the highest station and with his saints rules and reigns, but not 'for ever'. It comes as a surprise to uncritical Bible readers to be shown that our Lord's ruling and reigning is to continue only 'until he shall have put down all rule and authority and power', 'for he must be reigning until he should be placing all his enemies under his feet' (I Cor.15:24-28).
When a perfected universe shall have been given over to the Father at the consummation of the aeons (I Cor.15:24, Rom.8:19-23) there will be no more occasion for ruling or reigning in the harmony of loving loyalty in the Family of God. This point is significantly brought out in Luke 1:33 by the contrast, "He shall reign for the aeons, and of his kingdom there will be no end'.
Regarding the torment and smoke (fumes?) some interpretation must follow exegesis. It would be naive in the extreme to hold with the medieval fantasy of a sulfurous pit of subterranean flames. Without attempting any dogmatism one may suggest that the 'torment' of the personified evil forces or the personal embodiments of these, may consist in their loss of control over the world of humanity, and their complete subjection to Christ, and that the 'smoke' may be warning recollections and evidences of the fires of suffering consequent upon sin and enmity against God. it seems reasonable to believe that this process and these signs will continue to have significance only until the consummation of the aeons, that is for or during the ages. (Note - for more information on 'The Lake of (the) Fire' see article ABC047.DOC) Any suggestion that such signs will continue without end, 'for ever' seems too much at variance with the nature and purpose of our God to be taken seriously.
The material in the above survey of the use of the phrases 'aeon of the aeons' and 'aeons of the aeons' suggested that the simple process of regarding these polytotonic expression as Hebraisms (idioms of one language expressed in words of another) applied to future periods of time within the scope and frame of biblical history and prophecy, leads to a rational, easily comprehended view of the revelation of future eschatology as to its times and timing, and avoids the conflicts and incongruities caused by the introduction of 'eternal' and 'everlasting'.
It is therefore urged that these phrases be treated as relating to spans of future time.