Do Eternal Everlasting Forever Always or Ever Mean Without End?
Eternal, everlasting and forever are words of concern in relation to the character of God because they are commonly associated with never-ending punishment of the lost. This makes God to be very unjust – to punish forever the sins of a few decades of life – and discredits His character in many minds.
Traditional Legal Model – the lost are punished by God in a place of torment and that process is eternal, everlasting and goes on forever without end.
Biblical Healing Model – the “punishment,” in fact, lasts a relatively short time but the result – death (Rom 6:23) is eternal and is never reversed.
On the surface, there are verses that suggest the traditional understanding such as:
“And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matt 25:46)
How do we explain that verse in defense of God? First of all, we need to correctly understand the meaning of “punishment.” Please see the definition page for punishment. On this page, we will consider the meaning of the terms eternal, everlasting and forever as they come into the discussion of God’s treatment of the lost.
Eternal Everlasting Effects
If a child is abusing an electronic device and you take it away and destroy it, are they experiencing eternal punishment? We could say “yes” if it is never replaced. However, the act of punishing lasts only a short time. So the act of punishing is brief but the results are long-term, even forever.
There are verses that speak of fire lasting forever such as:
“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting (G166)] fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:” (Matt 25:41)
However, there are also examples of everlasting fire that actually do go out:
“Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal (G166) fire.” (Jude 1:7)
Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning today. In fact, you can travel to the area of the south end of the Dead Sea and find their remains today. There are mounds of ash complete with sulfur balls where buildings once stood even arranged in streets. (See the evidence: https://anchorstone.com/sodom-gomorrah/) So, it is the effect of the fire, not the fire itself that is eternal. Note that “everlasting” and “eternal” in the two verses above are from the same original word.
“Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;” (2 Thess 1:9)
If someone is punished by being destroyed, they are dead and gone; they are no longer experiencing the destruction once it has happened.
Eternal Everlasting Who?
“Eternal” occurs only twice in the Old Testament. Here is one use:
“The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them.” (Deut 33:27)
In that case, considering that it is used in reference to God, it does mean unending.
“And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matt 19:16)
Eternal life for the saved does not end as there will be no more death:
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev 21:4)
Notice the contrast within these two verses:
“That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:15)
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 6:23)
The opposite of eternal life is eternal death or perishing. Those verses are contrasting two groups. Some get eternal life; some get a death that is everlasting. “Eternal” refers to the result rather than to an ongoing process. See the definition of second death in the glossary.
In the following verse, the action of judging does not go on forever, but the results do.
“Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” (Heb 6:2)
Everlasting can Signify Durability or Stability
The word “everlasting” is applied to things in some Bible passages that, in other passages, are clearly not “everlasting.”
“The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.” (Gen 49:26)
“He stood, and measured the earth: he beheld, and drove asunder the nations; and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow: his ways are everlasting.” (Hab 3:6)
The Bible states that the hills are not “everlasting:”
“For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the LORD that hath mercy on thee.” (Isa 54:10)
“Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt.” (Amos 9:13)
Clearly the hills are not everlasting. This is just a Bible way of signifying durability or stability perhaps in contrast to things that are more transitory.
Everlasting can Mean Continuous to a Point
“And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment (Jude 1:6)
The angels remain under those (figurative) chains continuously until the judgement. The expression “a chain of circumstances” is commonly used today.
“And the angels who rejected the truth about God chose to leave heaven and have become so settled into lies about God that no amount of truth and love can reach them; their minds are bound in darkness, and they are awaiting the final Day when the diagnosis of all will be revealed.” (Jude 6, The Remedy New Testament)
Because they are “settled into lies” (their minds are made up) there is no change in their thinking. Their state is continuous and unchanging or “everlasting.”
A Long Time can Seem like Forever
When Jonah described his experience in the belly of whale. he said:
“I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever; yet has Thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.” (Jonah 2:6)
How could Jonah be in that condition “for ever” and tell the truth when he said, “Yet Thou hast brought me up”? For that matter, how could he have ever recorded his experience? In that case, “for ever” means as long as Jonah was inside the fish, which was three days and three nights. That might well have seemed like forever to Jonah. We use that term in the same way today as in “I had to wait in line forever.”
A Challenge re Forever and Ever
Here is an example of the belief that forever and ever must mean without end:
“The phrase “forever and ever” occurs 20 times in the New Testament. In each verse, it speaks of something that will never end. But, annihilationists deny that people will suffer forever and ever in the Final Judgment, so in three important verses, they interpret them to mean that the continued suffering will end or will never occur (Rev. 14:11; 19:3; 20:10.”
Here is one typical use in their list:
“Now unto God and our Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Phil 4:20)
That verse is speaking about God to Whom “forever and ever” certainly does apply. Then, here are the three verses they focus on:
And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” (Rev 14:11)
“And again they said, Alleluia. And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” (Rev 19:3)
“And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (Rev 20:10)
Note that the subject of those verses is not God.
The Meaning in the Original Languages
Jeff Benner, a teacher of Ancient Hebrew, says this of the word “olam” often translated ever and everlasting:
“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. This word is frequently translated as ‘eternity’ meaning a continual span of time that never ends. In the Hebrew mind it is simply what is at or beyond the horizon, a very distant time. A common phrase in the Hebrew is ‘l’olam va’ed’ and is usually translated as ‘forever and ever,’ but in the Hebrew it means ‘to the distant horizon and again’ meaning ‘a very distant time and even further.” (Jeff Benner –
So, it can simply mean beyond what we can see or perceive. Here is the definition for the Greek original word:
G165 αἰών aion ahee-ohn’
from the same as 104; n m;
AV-ever 71, world 38, never + 3364 + 1519 + 3588 6, evermore 4, age 2, eternal 2, misc 5; 128
1) for ever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity
2) the worlds, universe
3) period of time, age
Note that one definition is just an undefined “period of time.”
Forever and the Devil
“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:” (Matt 25:41)
Will the devil be in a fire that never ends? Scripture indicates otherwise:
“Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffick; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee.” (Eze 28:18)
“And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Mal 4:3)
Eternal, Everlasting, Forever – the Effects of Believing
The two main contexts in which these words are used are:
- Punishment lasting forever
- God and eternal life lasting forever
What is the effect on people who believe that punishment is from God and lasts forever? With that belief, wouldn’t it be hard to love God? That is way beyond “you reap what you sow.”
On the other hand, what is the effect on people who believe and really appreciate that life in heaven will go on forever with a God of love? Wouldn’t it fill them with wonder at such an amazing concept and inspire them to not miss heaven?
Most importantly, what is the effect of correctly understanding eternal, everlasting and forever on our understanding of the character of God?
Return to the Character of God and the Gospel Glossary Index