These words can have a variety of meaning, depending on the context.
We addressed a related question in a Q&A, titled, “When the Bible uses the term ‘forever,’ does this always mean the same as ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternally’?
There, we pointed out the following:
“While ‘forever’ may indeed convey an absolute sense of being perpetual or interminable, ‘forever’ is also used metaphorically and in a conditional sense. The Hebrew word that is translated many times as ‘forever’, is ‘owlam.’ It can be found in Daniel 12:2. In this case, the English word ‘everlasting’ is used to translate the Hebrew word ‘owlam’: ‘And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to everlasting contempt.’ [The Revised English Bible says: “… some to everlasting life and some to the reproach of eternal abhorrence.”] This prophesied occurrence speaks of a future time when the fate of many humans will be decided on a perpetual and eternal basis.
“Jesus also taught about life that would be endless. In John 6:51, He states: ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.’ The Greek word ‘aion’ translated as ‘forever’ in this passage is used by John in a similar context as he contrasted that which is temporary to that which is permanent: ‘And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever’ (1 John 2:17).
“In numerous instances the eternity of God is revealed through the use of the word ‘forever.’ One such example… appears in Revelation 4:9-10: ‘Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever…’
“In this context, consider these parallel concepts about God’s existence–His life–being forever: Deuteronomy 33:27: ‘The eternal God is your refuge…’ Psalm 90:1-2: ‘LORD, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever You had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.’ Isaiah 57:15: ‘For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy…’”
We see from the foregoing that the concepts of “forever,” “everlasting” and “eternal” are used in a synonymous way. In all the passages quoted, they confer the concept of “without end.” But we will now see that these words can also have the meaning that something will end. We explain in the above-quoted Q&A:
“Look at this statement that appears in Exodus 21:6: ‘… then his master shall bring him to the judges, He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, AND HE SHALL SERVE HIM FOREVER’ (Compare Deuteronomy 15:17). Does this verse mean that a servant in this circumstance will continue serving the same master for all of eternity [that is, without end]? Obviously not, as both the servant and his master eventually died! The word translated here in Exodus 21 as ‘forever’ is the same Hebrew word ‘owlam’ that we have already seen used in earlier examples about living forever…
“Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible offers definitions for ‘owlam’ that include ‘eternal’ and ‘perpetual’ but also includes the idea of ‘lasting.’… the service of a particular individual was a life-long commitment—lasting as long as either the servant or master lived. In another place where ‘owlam’ is translated ‘forever,’ the obvious intent is for a lifetime. In this example, the mother of Samuel is quoted: ‘But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “Not until the child is weaned; then I will take him, that he may appear before the LORD and REMAIN THERE FOREVER”’ (1 Samuel 1:22). But we know that Samuel died—that he is not NOW still before the LORD! (Compare 1 Samuel 25:1). [Also, 1 Samuel 1:28 explains that “forever” means in that context, “as long as he lives.”]
“In biblical usage of the word ‘forever,’ we see that the context and application MAY be for something that will come to an end… When studying the concept of ‘forever’ in context, we see a variety of intended meanings. The word can express a never-ending condition or situation, but it can also refer to a certain limited period of time, based on the life of the parties involved and also dependent on relevant conditions.”
The same must be said about the terms “everlasting” and “eternal”. For instance, we read in Isaiah 60:15 that God will make “Zion” “an eternal excellence”, which is defined here as “many generations.” The Hebrew word is “owlam.”
Hebrew 6:2 speaks of “eternal judgment.” As we saw in a previous Q&A on Matthew 25:31-46, the meaning does not convey that God’s judgment will continue for all eternity; that is, that He will judge and judge without end. Rather, the term refers to God’s judgments with eternal consequences.
In addition, we read in Matthew 18:8 that people may be thrown into the everlasting fire (the RSV writes: “eternal fire.”). The warning that some will be thrown into the everlasting fire is repeated in Matthew 25:41 (the NIV, the RSV and other translations say, “eternal fire”; the Greek word is “aionios”; see below for an explanation of this phrase), and that they will endure everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46; NIV and RSV: “eternal punishment”). The Bible tells us that some will be punished with everlasting destruction when Christ returns (2 Thessalonians 1:9; RSV: “they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction”).
As we will see, these expressions do not mean that the everlasting or eternal fire will burn “without end,” or that people will be tortured and punished without end. Rather, these expressions refer to eternal or everlasting consequences. But in regard to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the expression of “everlasting” or “eternal” destruction only refers to a certain time span, because most of those mentioned in this passage will be brought back to life in a second resurrection. Their “everlasting” or “eternal” destruction “only” lasts during the time of the Millennium.
In chapter 18 of our free booklet, “Is That In the Bible? The Mysteries of the Book of Revelation,” we address the “torment of the wicked,” stating this: “Does the Bible, particularly a passage in Revelation 14:9–11, teach that the wicked will be tormented forever in hell fire?”
In that passage, we read that “the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever.” We explain in this chapter that the Bible does not teach an ever-burning hell fire, but that the wicked will be burned up in the THIRD resurrection—that is, after the Millennium and the Great White Throne Judgment period (compare Revelation 20:4–15).
We continue: “One key point is to realize what it says and what it does not say. It DOES say that the torment of their SMOKE will ascend forever and ever. It DOES NOT say that THE WICKED will be tormented forever and ever. Rather, the wicked will be burned up in fiery plagues, and it is their smoke—evidence that the fire has done its work—which ascends forever and ever. Smoke results from something burned. This indicates that they were consumed and that all that remains is smoke. We also read in Malachi 4:3 that the ASHES of the wicked will be under the feet of the righteous. Psalm 37:20 tells us that the wicked shall ‘perish’—‘into smoke they shall vanish away.’ It is not the punishment of the fire, but the result of that punishment, which is being addressed in Revelation 14:11.”
We continue to state in our booklet:
“We also need to understand that the biblical expression ‘forever’ does not have to mean ‘for all eternity’ [that is, without end]. The words are often a translation from the Hebrew ‘olam’ [or ‘owlam’] and the Greek ‘aion’ or ‘aionios,’ meaning ‘age,’ or ‘age-lasting’ (compare Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible). In Revelation 14:11, the Greek words translated as ‘forever and ever’ mean, according to Young’s, ‘to ages of ages.’ The Englishman’s Greek New Testament translates this verse as follows: ‘And the smoke of their torment goes up to ages of ages…’
“In Jonah 2:6, the term ‘forever’ describes the time span of ‘three days and three nights,’ as made clear in Jonah 1:17. Jonah, when in the belly of the sea monster, prayed about the earth with her bars being about him forever. What he was actually saying here is that as long as he was in that particular situation, the earth was about him.”
In addressing the use of the word “eternal” in this context, we state this:
“Jude 7 speaks of the vengeance of eternal fire that burned Sodom and Gomorrah, though these cities are not still burning nor are the people still suffering that vengeance. The fire only burned for a while. An ‘aeonian fire’ does not refer to a fire that never goes out. After it completely destroyed and obliterated those ancient cities, it burned itself out when there was nothing else left to consume. The smoke from that fire ascended for a while. It is not still ascending today. Jesus shows that the people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be resurrected in a period of judgment yet future (compare Matthew 10:15).
“The people worshipping the political and religious leaders of the end-time Babylonian system will be tormented ‘forever’—that is, until they die. They ‘have no rest day or night,’ as long as they are alive and remain part of that system falling under God’s wrath; that is, before they are destroyed by the fiery plagues of God’s last seven bowls judgment (Revelation 16:1–21)… The smoke of their torment will ascend for a while—as long as the necessary conditions exist to allow smoke from burned bodies to ascend… We read that the smoke from the Babylonian system… will rise up ‘forever and ever’ (Revelation 19:3—based on the Greek, it should say, according to Young’s and the Englishman’s Greek New Testament, ‘to the ages of the ages’)… This is a reference to the smoke from buildings, but the fire won’t burn for all eternity [that is, without ever ending]…
“Likewise, we read in Isaiah 34:9–10, that the smoke from the land of Edom will ‘ascend forever’—that is, until the fire has burned up all consumable material. As in the case of the burned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, that fire of Edom will not burn for all eternity [without end].”
When speaking of eternity, we also need to realize that there are all kinds of spirits. There are Spirit BEINGS. God is a Spirit Being. And so, there is God’s Holy Spirit—emanating from both the Father and Jesus Christ. It is through the Holy Spirit of God that both the Father and the Son dwell in us (John 14:23). That Spirit, although not a person, is clearly eternal and immortal, because it emanates from GOD—and GOD is immortal and eternal, that is, He will never cease to exist. As God cannot die, so His Spirit cannot be extinguished. We read that we can quench the Holy Spirit WITHIN US (1 Thessalonians 5:19)—but that does not mean that somehow God’s Holy Spirit would cease to exist. This is just referring to the dwelling of His Holy Spirit IN US. When a person loses the Holy Spirit—that is, when God withdraws from that person by removing His Holy Spirit from such a person—then of course THAT portion of the Holy Spirit does not “die”—since it was part of GOD all along.
When we become immortal Spirit beings in the Family of God, we too—everything that we will be—will be eternal, in the sense that there will be no end for us. That is, our “human” spirit will become eternal as will be our “bodies”—they will be spiritual or Spirit bodies—and we, as eternal beings without end, will have God’s eternal Holy Spirit abiding in us forever. We will be GOD—full-fledged members of God’s Family.
There are other spirit beings—angels and demons. And they too, possess a spirit. But again, their spirit is eternal, without end, if you please, as THEY are immortal beings. They cannot die, and neither can their spirit, which is emanating from them, be destroyed.
Then there is the human spirit which distinguishes man from the animals (1 Corinthians 2:11). But there is also an animal spirit (compare Ecclesiastes 3:19). We read in Genesis 7:21-22 that all flesh outside Noah’s Ark died in the Flood—birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing, AND every man; that is, “ALL in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on dry land, died.”
But neither the spirit in man nor the animal spirit are conscious “entities,” nor are they the same as the Holy Spirit of God or the spirits of angels. The unrepentant and incorrigible wicked will be destroyed and totally annihilated. It will be as if they had never existed. The soul that sins shall die (Ezekiel 18:4)—and unless the soul repents of its sins, it will die the second, final and eternal death. This includes their spirit in man—it too will be destroyed.
In our Q&A, “What will happen to the spirit in man of those who die the second death?”), we stated this:
“Isaiah 42:5 says that God, after having created the heavens and the earth, gives breath to the people on it, and ‘spirit to those who walk on it.’ But there is no breath in a particular person prior to his existence, and by extension, there would not be any spirit either. That is, neither the breath nor the spirit of man exist prior to the ‘creation’ of that particular person. We also read in Zechariah 12:1 that God FORMS the spirit of man within him. Again, this seems to imply that God actually creates in man the human spirit when man comes into existence. The connection between God’s breath and the spirit in man is also expressed in Job 32:8. The New Jerusalem Bible translates Job 32:8, ‘There is, you see, a spirit residing in humanity, the breath of God conferring intelligence.’ …
“Paul prayed that God would preserve blamelessly spirit and soul and body of a converted Christian (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Paul wished that God would preserve blameless the Christian’s human spirit, his temporary physical life and his physical flesh. All of these ‘components’ are mentioned together, to describe the entire being. In addition, 1 Corinthians 5:5 says about a Christian who sinned gravely to ‘deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.’… The fact that Paul prayed to God to ‘preserve blameless’ the body, soul AND spirit of a person shows that it is possible that body, soul AND spirit may not be preserved ‘blameless’—or not at all. And if they are not preserved, then they cease to exist…”
We continued to address Isaiah 57:16, which says: “For I will not contend forever, Nor will I always be angry; for the spirit would fail before Me, and the souls which I have made.”
“The commentary of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown explains correctly that the ‘spirit’ in the passage refers to the spirit in man—not the Holy Spirit of God… In referring to a passage of Numbers 16:22, where God is referred to as ‘the God of the spirits of all flesh,’ the commentary states that the word ‘spirit’ in Isaiah 57:16 refers to ‘the human spirit which went forth from Me (Numbers 16:22).’… The Hebrew word [for “fail”] is ‘ataph’ and has a variety of meanings… German translations point out that the word ‘ataph’ can also mean ‘cease to exist, get destroyed, become annihilated.’ For example, the German Luther Bible [Revised 1984]; the Elberfelder Bible; the Menge Bible; the Schlachter Bible and the Pattloch Bible all use the expression, ‘verschmachten,’ which is a word describing the death of a person in the desert, who is dying of thirst… [The Revised Luther Bible 2009 says, “vergehen,” meaning, “pass away” or “die.”]
“The Amplified Bible renders Isaiah 57:16 as follows (brackets in the original): ‘… for [where it not so] the spirit [of man] would faint and be consumed before Me, and [My purpose in] creating the souls of men would be frustrated.”
“Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible comments regarding Isaiah 57:16: ‘The simple meaning seems to be, that if God should continue in anger against people they would be consumed. The human soul could not endure a long-continued controversy with God. Its powers would fail; its strength decay; it must sink to destruction.’”
In conclusion, the foregoing shows that the expressions “eternal” or “eternity,” when applied to God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Christians made immortal, angels and demons, do in fact describe an eternal, everlasting existence which will never end. On the other hand, those who have committed the unpardonable sin will be destroyed in the lake of fire. They will not be tormented forever in an eternal never-ending hell fire. Rather, their existence will cease. Even though they will be burnt up in the “everlasting” and “eternal” Gehenna fire which will burn “forever,” these words do not mean here, “without end,” but they describe a state of affairs which will endure as long as certain conditions prevail. Once the conditions do no longer exist, the “eternal” fire will cease to burn. At the same time, the eternal fire will have eternal or never-ending consequences for those human beings who will be thrown into it. Their punishment (not punishing) will be of eternal consequence, as they will cease to exist and never come back to life.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link