Monday, January 17, 2011

Thoughts on Eternal Life

The Greek words for "eternal life" are  zoe aionios.  Aionios comes from the Greek word for age.  Zoe means life.  Unless I am mistaken, I think the basic idea is “the life of the age.” The "age" in view here is the life in "the age which is to come". There is a clear idiom here that implies duration, but there is also much teaching on the quality of this life.

Essentially what I understand is that zoe aionios, eternal life, refers to both:

1) to a quality of life. "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." (John 10:10 ESV) This is the quality of life that is found in the age to come. This is quality of life that is of such a high quality because it involves a deeply intimate relationship with God through Christ.  "And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." (John 17:3 ESV)

2) to a duration of life. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26 ESV) This is the unending duration of the life to be found in the age to come. Because we have eternal life, our life will never end. Our life will never end because the age to come will never end. "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." (John 5:24 ESV)

Some say eternal life is ONLY a quality of life with no implied duration.  Some say it's ONLY a duration.  I think that the tendency to restrict the meaning of "eternal life" to only one of these two aspects is overly simplistic.  I think it's quite probable that there are shades of meaning here. Different verses emphasize different meanings in this phrase, and some verses emphasize many meanings at once.  It isn't a cut and dry, black and white thing.

Also, by way of a rabbit trail, what we have here is a simultaneous now/not yet paradigm.

We have eternal life now, yet we have not yet entered into the full experience of that life.  The power and presence of "the age which is to come" has invaded "this present evil age". The kingdom is here, but it isn't fully realized. "The age to come" has commenced and is running along side "this present evil age". When you become a Christian, you are transferred from one age to the other, yet this is only fully realized at the consummation.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  One day "this present evil age" will be gone and all that will be left is "the age which is to come".

From the NET (New English Translation) Bible Translation notes on John 17:3:

This is eternal life. The author here defines eternal life for the readers, although it is worked into the prayer in such a way that many interpreters do not regard it as another of the author’s parenthetical comments. It is not just unending life in the sense of prolonged duration. Rather it is a quality of life, with its quality derived from a relationship with God. Having eternal life is here defined as being in relationship with the Father, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom the Father sent. Christ (Χριστός, Christos) is not characteristically attached to Jesus’ name in John’s Gospel; it occurs elsewhere primarily as a title and is used with Jesus’ name only in 1:17. But that is connected to its use here: The statement here in 17:3 enables us to correlate the statement made in 1:18 of the prologue, that Jesus has fully revealed what God is like, with Jesus’ statement in 10:10 that he has come that people might have life, and have it abundantly. These two purposes are really one, according to 17:3, because (abundant) eternal life is defined as knowing (being in relationship with) the Father and the Son. The only way to gain this eternal life, that is, to obtain this knowledge of the Father, is through the Son (cf. 14:6). Although some have pointed to the use of know (γινωσκω, ginosko) here as evidence of Gnostic influence in the Fourth Gospel, there is a crucial difference: For John this knowledge is not intellectual, but relational. It involves being in relationship.


Mark said...

Good post Matt.

I agree--we can't limit ourself to either duration or quality when we think of "eternal life". If its only quality, then its just a good run in the present life. If its only duration, then everyone has it (in virtue of having a soul).

But that said, does anyone seriously maintain that its only duration, or only quality? If so, who? Just curious as to who the "some" is, because I don't really remember ever hearing that position being maintained.

Matthew said...

It isn't a common argument among orthodox historical Christian groups. However, some fringe groups, and cults will offer the statement that it isn't about duration. The WT society is an example of a group that says it's only duration. I have never read anything that details it as being qualitative. They view it as a duration of life, particularly in the New Word.

Some EX-JW groups and thinkers have thrown the baby out with the bath water and said it's only qualitative. An example of that can be found here:

Matthew said...

There is also some interesting stuff from the site "Word Gems".

A few comments on this article:

* The essential point in this picture is that eternity is always the same and always indivisible; in it there is no being created and no becoming; there is no such thing as being older and younger in eternity; there is no past, present or future.

* There is no was or will be but only an eternal is.

That is the essential definition of "eternity" and what I mean by "duration". Because we our bound to time, we can not help think but in terms of time. That is why God describes himself in the Old Testament as living from Forever to Forever. He is giving us baby talk to help us to understand. When that site says, "eternal life is nothing less than the life of God himself" I understand that as a statement of quality.

Notice what the article also says eternal life is put simply:

If we wish to put this very simply, we may say that through Jesus there is possible a relationship, an intimacy, a unity with God which are possible in no other way. Through what he is and does men may enter into the very life of God himself.

That was the point I made about quality. I said, "This is the quality of life that is found in the age to come. This is quality of life that is of such a high quality because it involves a deeply intimate relationship with God through Christ."

The emphasis of the New Testament is clearly on the kind of life being discussed. It's about it's quality. That quality can be summed up in the word "relationship". We get God. That is the blessing of the Gospel. In fact, God IS the Gospel. We get to have the kind of life that will be experienced in the Age to Come. We get to have the kind of life that is experienced by God. This is quality.

But notice also that he does not deny that it also has to do with duration, but simply that duration doesn't go far enough. That is, it isn't the whole story. To quote the article again: "Simply to take is as meaning lasting for ever is not enough". The implication here is not that there is no hint of duration, but that there is more too it then that. Based on the fact that it is eternal life, that is, life with no no past, present or future, it therefore, has an unending duration.

Once again:

We shall never enter into the full ideas of eternal life until we rid ourselves of the almost instinctive assumption that eternal life means primarily life which goes on for ever.

This is true. The idea of duration is neither the full nor the primary meaning of this phrase. However, there is not a denial here that the implication is unending existence, but that unending existence is only a small hint.

I know that the Watchtower doesn't see the qualitative aspect that this article has pointed out to us. All they see is duration. However, I do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water on this. Eternity partially implies a duration, viz. a duration of no past, present or future.