Brother Beebe: - I see that Brother William Moseley of Georgia, requests, through the Primitive Baptist, that you or I, or both, would give the legitimate meaning of the terms everlasting and eternal; and to show the difference, if any, between them. As he includes you as well as myself in the request, I presume he expects the answer through the Signs; and as you are absent, I will take it upon myself to attend to the request.
The etymology of our English word everlasting, ever lasting - that is, lasting unlimitedly, shows the import to be unlimited duration. The words eternal and eternity are from the Latin words aeternus and aeternitas, signifying infinite or unlimited duration.
But the import of these words as found in the Scriptures may perhaps be more accurately defined by an examination of the Hebrew and Greek words so rendered, and the subjects to which they are applied, &c. 1st. In the Old Testament there are several words which, by the translators of our Bible, are rendered everlasting, eternal, forever, &c. The word more frequently found in the Hebrew as answering to these English terms is from a root which signifies to hide, conceal, &c.; and therefore denotes primarily, hidden, or unknown duration. It is applied to time things and thus used necessarily implies a duration limited by the continuance of time or perhaps, in some cases, by a shorter period. We thus find it used to denote a temporal, but otherwise a continued, unknown duration, in Gen. 17:8-13, as applied to the Abrahamic covenant and the land of Canaan, and in other instances. It is used in other cases without any such limitations being implied in the application or connection, and therefore with propriety in such cases is considered as conveying the idea of duration, unbounded, or extending ad infinitum. This word also is used both in reference to past and to future duration. Another Hebrew word rendered everlasting, &c., has for its primary idea beyond, further, &c.; and as a noun denotes time or duration, and hence when not limited in its extent by the connection or the nature of the subject to which it is implied, it denotes an unlimited or infinitive continuance onward that is most generally an eternity to come or future. The two words above defined we find sometimes combined, and translated world without end, evermore, &c., that is, as denoting an eternity to come. Again, these two words are frequently found connected, but not combined, and according to the import of the particles by which they are connected, they are either both considered as having a future reference and are translated forever more, henceforth even forever, and forever and ever, &c., as Psal.10:16; 18:50; Isa.9:7; (in Isa.57:15, they are rendered eternity); or one has a past, and the other a future reference, and are translated from everlasting to everlasting.
The word translated eternal in Deut. 33:27, is from a root signifying to remain, dwell, &c. Another Hebrew word which we find translated evermore, eternity, &c, has for its primary ideas, superiority, enduring, &c., and when applied to time or duration imports continuing, enduring, &c., that is, overcoming and outlasting all the changes of time.
In the New Testament we find different Greek words used corresponding to the Hebrew words above noticed, and translated everlasting, eternal, forever, evermore, &c. AIONIOS in its formations is that which is principally used. This word is from AION, signifying eternity, age, &c.; this again is from AEI, always and on, being, that is always being the proper import of the word. AIONIOS is sometimes doubled, and then translated, forever and ever.
From what has been said, it is evident that the translators considered the words EVERLASTING and ETERNAL as being of the same import, as are also forever, evermore, &c., excepting that these latter words are confined to the idea of future duration, and the other are used both in reference to past and future duration. There are other equivalent words used in our translation confined in their idea to past duration, as ancient times of old, &c.
But from the diversity there is in the applications of the same original words, as well as of the English words: ETERNAL and EVERLASTING, it may appear on a superficial observation that there is a good deal of uncertainty in their use, whether importing future, or past duration, or both; and whether importing a temporal duration, or absolutely an infinite one. But not so, in reality, if common sense be allowed to decide on the point. It is unfortunately the case, however, that there are those who are so exalted with their attainments as linguists, that they would think it vulgar to submit to a common sense exposition of the expressions of Scripture, and who think their learned verbal criticisms lead them to a deeper and more refined understanding of the Scriptures than the common people can have. These often mistake the plain import of scriptural expressions, being led into mazes by their critical definitions.
Unprincipled cavilers also, by a resort to verbal criticisms, can make a show of establishing their own positions and of overturning the arguments and proofs of those whom they oppose, when in fact it is all a deception. It is a matter of manifest fact that what would be called learned criticisms upon the Scriptures have tended as much as any one circumstance to darken and confuse the plain meaning thereof. It is equally manifest that the Scriptures, as originally written, were adapted to the understanding of uneducated and common sense readers, and that this excellent trait in them has been preserved, with few exceptions, in our common translation, through the interposing providence of that God who has all hearts in His hand and under His control.
I presume that I shall be understood as speaking here of the literal import of Scripture, not of that hidden wisdom, that spiritual mystery, which none of the princes of this world knew, and which the Holy Spirit alone can make known to any. But to return to the subject under consideration. There is perhaps no word that is always used to convey the same one definite idea, hence the connection in which a word is used must be taken into consideration in order to decide on the precise idea intended to be conveyed by it. So in reference to the words eternal, everlasting, &c., their connection as used in the Scripture will be found to have some bearing on their import, and will enable a candid, common sense observer to determine in any, or at least most, cases, whether they are used to denote duration absolutely infinite, or simply duration unknown in its extent to man but limited by the continuance of time; also whether they refer particularly to duration either past or future, or absolutely' to the eternity or existence of God.
The primary ideas of the original words which they represent as has been shown, are those of continued and unlimited or indefinite duration. Hence when used in reference to existence, either before or after the period bounded by time and its changes, we can conceive of no periods by which they can be limited in their import and are therefore necessarily led to understand them as conveying the idea of duration extending to infinitude. On the other hand, when either of these terms are applied to a subject that we know belongs exclusively to time, surely common sense would forbid our supposing that it was there used to convey the idea that such a time subject had infinite duration belonging to it. As, for instance, when hills and mountains are spoken of as everlasting, we certainly cannot, with propriety, suppose that literally there are any hills or mountains belonging to this earth which will escape the general conflagration of the world; neither that the literal priesthood of Aaron, because said to be an everlasting priesthood, was actually to exist beyond the limits which the purpose of God had fixed to that dispensation. But at the same time this term denotes that these time subjects were to have a continuance, and that of a duration unknown and unlimited in its extent in reference to the knowledge of those to whom these things were addressed. And further I think it will be found that all those time subjects to which the term everlasting is applied have a figurative reference to things not temporal in their duration, but heavenly and truly eternal.
In reference to a distinction to be made between past duration and duration onwards, I have already noticed that in the Hebrew this distinction is generally marked by the use of distinct words. The words eternal and everlasting, as used in our translation, do not of themselves mark this distinction, they being used indiscriminately to denote past duration or future, or the existence of God absolutely without the intervention of time, as when God is said to inhabit eternity. The translators, however, have frequently substituted other words, more definite to denote duration onward or an extending forward ad infinitum, such as forever, ever more, world without end, &c. And the instances are, I think, very few where the words everlasting or eternal are used in which there will be any difficulty in deciding whether such terms denote past or future duration, or duration undivided by time. For instance, when the existence of God or the actings of the Divine Mind are spoken of, it would be absurd to suppose them bounded in either sense by the limits of time. Thus the terms eternal and everlasting prefixed to the purpose of God and the love of God, as these are the actings and exercise of the Divine Mind, must import that such purpose and love exist exterior to all the changes of time, and unchanged by them.
Again, when terms are used in the connection pointing out the beginning of a thing which is said to be everlasting, I should suppose that common sense would at once decide that the term everlasting or eternal in such case was intended to convey the idea only of duration onward ad infinitum. Thus when Messiah is spoken of as bringing in, within a limited time (seventy weeks), everlasting righteousness, (Dan.9:24,) if the terms, bring in do not import the bringing into actual or manifest existence the particular righteousness there intended, I do not know what they can import in that case. And if that is their meaning, then the term everlasting denotes only the infinite continuance of that righteousness. Should any one say, not so; the term everlasting must denote the past duration of that righteousness to have been infinite as much so as the future; then I will say that if such idea is absolutely essential to the use of the term everlasting, we must suppose that circumcision actually existed in the flesh of Abraham and of his seed from everlasting, that is from before the foundation of the world, for this is said to be for an everlasting covenant in their flesh. Gen. 17:13, compared with verses 10,11. The same remarks will hold good concerning the expression eternal redemption (Heb.9: 12) as the expression having obtained imports a beginning to that redemption, if it imports anything.
I would remark further that when the terms eternal and everlasting are used in relation to that whose existence is manifestly after the dissolution of the world, as God has revealed no after terminating period, the Holy Ghost, in directing to the use of these terms in such relation, must surely have designed to convey the idea that such things are to have an infinite duration, as when we read of everlasting punishment and life eternal as existing after the close of time or the final judgment. And this, for this very plain reason that these terms as have been shown, denote of themselves continued, indefinite or unlimited duration, and if therefore there is nothing in the connection implying a limit to the extent of such duration, they necessarily denote its continuance ad infinitum.
I have thus, Brother Beebe, given in obedience to the request of Brother Mosely, what I understand to be the manifest import of the words everlasting and eternal as found in different passages of Scripture. If what I have said should be of any use to him in defining their import, he can apply it as he may have occasion for, whether in reference to the doctrine of justification, or to the sentiment of universalism, or to any other subject. I remain yours, and His, to serve.
Centreville, Fairfax County, Virginia,
June 13, 1839.
From: SIGNS of the TIMES: Vol.7(1839)
Select Works of Elder Samuel Trott