Eternal Life, Eternality, Everlasting Life
The divinely bestowed gift of blessedness in God's presence that endures without end. This relates especially to the quality of life in this age, and to both the quality and duration of life in the age to come. Key to understanding the biblical meaning of these terms is the Bible's use of the word "eternal."
Old Testament Teaching. God is eternal (Deut 33:27; Psalm 10:16; 48:14). Scripture does not provide philosophical reflection on this fact but assumes it. The Lord is the Rock eternal (Isa 26:4) and the eternal King (Jer 10:10). God's word, rooted in his being and will, is likewise eternal (Psalm 119:89), as are his righteous laws (119:60), his ways (Hab 3:6), and his kingdom or dominion (Dan 4:3,34). Since God is eternal, so are his love (1 Kings 10:9), his blessings (Psalm 21:6), and all his other attributes and benefits. They endure without end; as long as God exists, so do they.
"His love endures forever" is repeated twenty-six times in Psalm 136 alone. Elsewhere in the psalms "forever" is used to describe God's reign (9:7), his protection (12:7), his plans (33:11), the inheritance of his people (37:18), his throne (55:19), his rule (66:7), his remembrance of his covenant (105:8), his righteousness (111:3), his faithfulness (117:2), his statutes (119:111, 152), and his name (135:13). Other Old Testament books offer abundant additional affirmation of these and other never-ending aspects of God or his saving provisions.
Some deny awareness of a personally significant eternity in most Old Testament Scripture and history. A prominent segment of modern biblical scholarship would concur that in Israel there was no belief in life after death. It is truth that many biblical characters, like some who study them, seem oblivious to their eschatological destiny. They show little awareness of a transcendent world order in which they will be personally involved, a divinely ordained future imposing imperatives on the present. It is likewise true that Old Testament awareness of eternal realities is less specific and complete than that of the New Testament. Yet the progressive nature of biblical revelation (as well as the necessarily restricted scope of each Old Testament book) should be borne in mind. Many central biblical doctrines (e.g., the Trinity, the incarnation, divine self-sacrifice for sin) are only adumbrated in earlier biblical history, to be fleshed out in the fullness of time. The numerous Old Testament references to the Lord's future and thus to the future of those who trust in him leave little room for insisting that the Old Testament contains no inkling of a life beyond the present world. Such insistence is understandable where Enlightenment or postmodern assumptions, methods, and conclusions are dogmatically embraced.
The Old Testament does not seem to conceive of eternity in purely abstract terms, as a static state of timelessness. The Greek word aion [αἰών] (age, era, lengthy time, eternity) in the Septuagint and New Testament corresponds to the Hebrew Old Testament's olam [עֹולָם] (a long time, eternity); neither word as used in Scripture answers to the notion of "eternity" that shows up in the ancient philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, eternity is a timeless and transcendent state totally outside the dimension of time. For Aristotle, as for Thomas Aquinas who followed him at this point, eternity "becomes known from two characteristics: first, from the fact that whatever is in eternity is interminable, that is, lacking beginning and end … ; second, from the fact that eternity itself lacks successiveness, existing entirely at once [tota simul]" (Aquinas, Summa, I, 10, 1).
In this view eternity is a motionless, changeless state, remote and qualitatively distinct from time. Time and eternity are antithetical, and eternity is accessible to human thought only by logical speculation that views God not as the personal, living, historically self-revealing being described in Scripture but as the inscrutable "unmoved first mover" of Aristotelian reasoning. This understanding has had great influence on Western theology and on the way many Christians even today understand "eternity" and "eternal life" when they encounter them in the Bible.
The Old Testament, like the New, resists this time-eternity dualism. True, it speaks of a coming age from which evil will be banished and for which God's life and glory will be determinative for all that exists and takes place. This is quite different from the current world order. But that age has points of continuity with the present one because the God of that age is at the same time the God of the present age (allowing for the presence of Satan and evil in this "present evil age" [Gal 1:4]; until they meet their final end ). His reign extends for all time and over all times.
This means that the temporal order has redemptive potential as the sphere in which God's Spirit, the Spirit of the incarnate and risen Jesus Christ, works out his will in human affairs. History, while it cannot fully contain the reality of the transcendent God, also is not incapable of receiving and responding to his presence. The incarnation offers abundant proof of this fact. And eternity, while it lies chronologically beyond temporal life in the here and now, is not in all respects qualitatively remote and aloof from it. We may thus look to biblical revelation as descriptive of God's presence in and intent for both the present world order and the coming one; we need not turn from Scripture to atemporal philosophical idealism for normative insight into the nature of eternity and its relation to present time.
The Old Testament, then, encourages us to define eternity in terms of the duration of the revealed God's dealings with his people in times past, now, and always. This God has ever been solicitous for his name and for the people with whom he has deigned to share it. This past state of affairs will continue for eternity, so long as God who lives and loves endures. To define eternity more closely, the Bible would seem to call for laying hold of personal relationship with God. To trust him is to begin to realize what "eternal" signifies. To live responsively before him means to gain understanding, indeed induction, into "eternal life."
Eternal Life. A dominant theme of the New Testament, though not without Old Testament grounding, is eternal (or everlasting) life. Eternal life is therefore one of the unifying themes of the New Testament. It is a term that describes the salvation that God bestows on those who trust and serve him. It denotes not only the length of time that God's favor extends to his people but also the quality of existence that they may enjoy as they worship and serve him.
John's Gospel is rich with references to eternal life. Nicodemus' questions about Jesus' ministry and teaching lead Jesus to speak of it (3:15-16). It is a gift to all those who believe in the Son but will be withheld from all those who reject him (3:36). Jesus likewise speaks of eternal life during his brief early ministry in Samaria. He assures the woman at the well that trust in him will slake the thirst of her soul; she will receive "a spring of water welling up" within her "to eternal life" (4:14; cf. 4:36). In response to charges of Sabbath breaking in Jerusalem Jesus urges listeners to heed his message and trust God; to do so is to have "eternal life." This means escape from condemnation on judgment day and in the age to come. In the present it means a crossing over "from death to life" (5:24). Eternal life is available through study of the Scriptures as they relate to Jesus Christ (5:39).
Jesus urges a crowd by Galilee's shores not to "work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you (6:27). God wills that "everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life." This will result in resurrection "at the last day" (6:40). Jesus' difficult statement that everyone "who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" (6:54) is a summons for sinners to make the Father's will their meat and drink, by trusting in the Son, just as the Son made the Father's will his own daily fare (4:34).
The Christocentric nature of eternal life is underscored by Jesus' own words in prayer on the night he was betrayed. First, he reminds the heavenly Father that he gave the Son "authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him" (17:2). Next he furnishes a succinct description of what eternal life involves: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (17:3).
Eternal life as presented in John's Gospel forms a solid core within apostolic preaching and teaching in the decades subsequent to Jesus' death and resurrection. Predictably, it receives repeated mention in John's own longest extant epistle (1 John 1:2; 2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20). Both Paul and Luke speak of it, too, in connection with Paul's first missionary journey (Acts 13:46,48). In Paul's earliest extant epistle he avows that whoever "sows to please the Spirit" will also "reap eternal life from the Spirit" (Gal 6:8). Paul refers, of course, to the Spirit of the living God, the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Rom 8:9-11). The Epistle to the Romans reveals that God grants eternal life "to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality" (2:7). Yet eternal life is won not by human effort but by divine self-sacrifice as Christ undoes the woe that Adam's fall helped unleash on the human race (5:12-21). Through Christ grace reigns "through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (5:21; cf. 6:22, 23).
Far from treating eternal life as a rudimentary or unimportant matter, in Paul's last extant letter he is still extolling its glories. "The hope of eternal life" is in fact foundational to faith in and knowledge of God (Titus 1:1-2). Here, as elsewhere in Paul, "hope" denotes a sure, if not yet fully realized, reality (Rom 8:24). Paul, originally the arch-enemy of Christ, tells Timothy that his conversion serves "as an example for those who would believe on [Christ] and receive eternal life" (1 Tim 1:16). He exhorts Timothy "to take hold of the eternal life" to which he was called (1 Tim 6:12). It may have been in the same general span of time late in the apostolic era that Jude encouraged his readers, "Keep yourselves in God's love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life" (Jude 21).
If in Jude eternal life seems to be a future possession, many other references speak of it as a present reality. Which is it? The answer seems to be both. Eternal life has both an "already" and a "not yet" dimension. Interpreters have sometimes erred in stressing one to the exclusion of the other. Biblical statements taken in their entirety counsel careful regard for both aspects of a two-sided truth: eternal life is a present possession in terms of its reality, efficacy, and irrevocability (John 10:28). Yet its full realization awaits life with the Lord in the age to come.
"Eternal" Elsewhere in the New Testament. "Eternal" (Gk. aionios [αἰώνιος]) occurs as an adjective in a number of noteworthy connections. In Luke 16:9 Jesus speaks of the "eternal dwellings" that await those whose use of mammon, or worldly wealth, is pleasing to God. This appears to be another way of referring to heaven using an earthly, spatial metaphor (John 14:2-3). Paul speaks of the "eternal house" that awaits humans after death (2 Cor 5:1), but he has in mind the resurrection body rather than a heavenly dwelling place in terms of a building. Further, Paul uses this figure of speech to underline the temporary nature of life, not to speak of the Platonic release of the soul from captivity in the body. In the New Testament as in the Old, "eternal" carries a different connotation than it does in Greek philosophy.
God's "eternal power" is evident even to nonbelievers from the grandeur of the created order (Rom 1:20). "Eternal" describes God himself, the King in his regal splendor who is at the same time "immortal, invisible, " and unique (1 Tim 1:17). Paul speaks of the "eternal God" whose command undergirded the apostolic proclamation to the nations (Rom 16:26). God presides over an "eternal kingdom" (2 Peter 1:11), grants "eternal encouragement" (2 Thess 2:16), works to effect his "eternal purpose" (Eph 3:11), and offers "eternal glory" (2 Col 4:17; 2 Tim 2:10; 1 Peter 5:10) to the elect who suffer for the sake of his kingdom and his Son. Enjoyment of "eternal glory" in the wake of suffering is explained elsewhere as one of the great privileges and assurances of union with Christ: Christians are "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (Rom 8:17).
The writer of Hebrews speaks of Jesus Christ as "the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Heb 5:9). "The resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment" are rudimentary truths that mature believers should long since have learned (6:2). Christ's blood, in contrast to that of Old Testament sacrifices, won "eternal redemption" (9:12), and it was by "the eternal Spirit" that Christ offered himself up to God (9:14). By faith in Christ "those who are called … receive the promised eternal inheritance" (9:15) by virtue of "the blood of the eternal covenant" (13:20).
In the same sense that "eternal" describes the boon that those who seek the Lord receive, now and forever, eternal condemnation threatens the rebellious and indifferent. Jesus speaks of the "eternal sin" of blaspheming the Holy Spirit; for this there can be no forgiveness (Mark 3:29), in part perhaps because the perpetrator of such a heinous act cannot muster the will to seek it (Heb 12:17). The ultimate outcome of rejection of Jesus Christ is "eternal fire" (Matt 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7), "eternal punishment" (Matt 25:46) and "eternal [NIV: "everlasting"; the Greek word is aion [αἰών]] destruction." While such bleak pronouncements seem hard for some to square with the idea of a loving God, there is no linguistically convincing or theologically satisfactory way to avoid the conclusion that just as joy in the Lord's presence will endure for all timefor eternity—so will the experience of his hot displeasure.
Yet "the eternal gospel" (Rev 14:6) offers hope, the entré into an unending blessed future before the Lord rather than banishment from it. While the background assumption of both Old and New Testament is a coming judgment with eternal implications for every single soul, its prominent and urgent plea is for all people to heed the gospel, thereby being reconciled to God (cf. 2 Col 5:18-21).
Ethics and Worship. A major assumption of virtually all biblical writers is that the eternal has weighty and necessary implications for the temporal. They are aware that God is the "Everlasting Father" (Isa 9:6) who gives good gifts to all, just and unjust alike. But they also insist that he will one day appear as eternal judge of all the earth (Gen 18:25; 1 Sam 2:10; 1 Chron 16:33; Psalm 9:8; John 12:48; Rom 2:16). What lies in the future—eschatological judgment—should be regarded as determinative for human thought and action in the present. "For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil" (Eccl 12:14; cf. 1 Col 4:5; 2 Tim 4:1). "But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken" (Matt 12:36). If words will be so gravely assessed, how much more all human actions?
Eternality is, then, not a philosophical category serving sheerly speculative ends. It is rather a dimension of God's established order that calls people to seek God's pleasure here, making it their highest priority to further his interests and kingdom in every way, so they may enjoy his favor in the hereafter. In this sense reflection on eternality and eternal life is never complete without sober contemplation of ethical corollaries. The Lord who is "our king" and "our judge" is also "our lawgiver" (Isa 33:22; cf. James 4:12). Unlocking the mysteries of eternity begins with careful attention and trusting response to the precepts and commands of the "righteous judge" (Psalm 7:11). Paul voices a fundamental if optimal Christian conviction regarding that day when God brings all things to light: "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing" (2 Tim 4:8). Eternity—with the assurance of vindication before the eternal judge—rightly shaped Paul's present.
If ethical focus is one corollary of a biblical theology of eternity, another is worship. Eternity is the basis for doxology. Already in Moses' hymn of victory, God's eternal reign is the basis for praise: "The Lord will reign for ever and ever" (Exod 15:18). David picks up and continues the strain: "The Lord is King for ever and ever" (Psalm 10:16). The place of God's dwelling is "secure forever" (Psalm 48:8); his "praise reaches to the ends of the earth … for this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end" (vv. 10, 14).
Sinners receive access to God's everlasting throne (Psalm 45:6; Heb 1:8), promised to David's descendants (2 Sam. 7) on behalf of Abraham's heirs (Luke 1:33,55), through the priestly ministrations of Jesus Christ, "a priest forever" (Heb 5:6; 6:20; 7:21). In keeping with the sober historical integrity of the four Gospels and Acts, the accounts of Jesus' life and ministry are not studded with lofty ascriptions of praise to Christ. His earthly rigors hid his eternal glory. But this alters perceptibly in the Epistles. Most of them well up in worshipful exclamation linked explicitly to God's, or Christ's eternality. He is praised "forever" or "for ever and ever." Other Epistles imply the same praise by extolling the Lord's eternal rewards: "a crown that will last forever" (1 Cor 9:25); life "with the Lord forever" (1 Thess 4:17; cf. Php 1:23). As John writes, the person "who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17) because of the gospel's "truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever" (2 John 2).
But it is Scripture's last book that most sweepingly links God's eternality to worship. John's vision begins with praise to God "for ever and ever" (1:6). The exalted Jesus Christ declares that he is "alive for ever and ever" (1:18). The Lord's power, reign, and glory in their ceaseless duration dot the literary landscape of subsequent chapters. Also never ending is the torment of God's enemies, the smoke of whose "torment rises for ever and ever" (14:11; cf. 19:3; 20:10). Yet happier prospects await all who have received the grace of the eternal God through his Son in this present life: in worshiping the eternal King "they will reign for ever and ever" (22:5).
Robert W. Yarbrough
See also Faith; Grace; Heaven, Heavens, Heavenlies; Salvation
Bibliography. J. Auer and J. Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life; O. Cullmann, Salvation in History; G. Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death; A. T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet; O. O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order; B. Witherington, Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World.
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287. All rights reserved. Used by permission.