How Can We Conceptualize Eternal Life?
When we reflect on the faithful Christian’s reward, we are made to wonder what is meant by the expression eternal life? Another way to say the same thing biblically are terms like everlasting life, et al. Does this just mean a life that is unending from the time of our physical death, or is it truly eternal life? Are we to think that time extends, and is present, even in the spiritual realm? If so, is God bound by time, or is the spiritual realm timeless? Was time created (in order to give us a history—a no more, not yet, and now) along with the physical universe, or does the physical creation act independently of time?
We all are in "the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago" (Titus 1:2), but we have to understand how Scripture describes this amazing promise. First, here is the general promise that applies to those who are the faithful followers of the Lord:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1)
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)
Second, God’s eternal purpose was such that the plan of salvation and the Christ of salvation was in the mind of God before the physical environment was created. In fact, it was in His mind from all eternity. Let the Scriptures speak to this issue:
This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:11)
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. (John 17:3-5)
The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:22-24)
Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21)
All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. (Revelation 13:8)
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. (2 Timothy 1:8-11)
Third, the extreme position of various premillenialists in their denial that the kingdom of God is a present reality prevents them from a proper view of this whole issue. The kingdom of God in its “earthly phase” is the church (Acts 2:30ff.; Mark 9:1; Colossians 1:13-14; 1 Corinthians 15:23-28; Hebrews 8:1, 4; cf. Zechariah 6:12-13, etc.), but the “heavenly phase” is what we know as eternal life in glory. Once again, let the Scriptures speak:
The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:18)
For in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. (2 Peter 1:11)
There is nothing clearer than the hope of eternal life for Christians who have maintained fidelity and loyalty to Christ. It is a fundamental teaching of the Bible. But, that still leaves open the question: how should we conceptualize eternal life?
The Cosmological Argument depends upon a basic premise: the Unmoved Mover is necessitated as the uncaused first cause of all contingent (dependent) and finite (limited) reality. Objectors try to avoid the force of this necessity by positing one of two ridiculous premises: (1) either the universe is a “self-caused” first cause (which is, of course, a counter-intuitive absurdity); or (2) the universe itself is the uncaused first cause. In other words, either the universe itself is eternal or the universe caused itself to exist. If either of these turn out to be false (and they both are), then the conclusion of the Cosmological Argument cannot be avoided. There are some who have sought to avoid this inevitability by positing the very strange multi-verse theory. The idea here is that, if we have an infinite number of possible universes, the chances are that one of them will actually possess the needed qualities to bring about the things that we discover our universe to possess, without the necessity of any Supreme Being to create it. Briefly put, it is a very imaginative, but fallacious, theory contrived specifically to avoid the conclusions of the Cosmological Argument. There is simply no credible evidence at all to suggest that there is (or even could be) universes other than the one that we presently have!
The Impossibility of an Infinite Series in Our World
Years ago, Aristotle denied that an actual infinite could be instantiated in the real world. Certainly, an infinite regress of temporal events is impossible. This means that the increase of moments, or other temporal events, by finite increments literally cannot add up to infinity. All one ever has is an indefinitely long series of finite events. Aristotle referred to this as a “Potential Infinite,” and even then defended the potential infinite as merely conceptual rather than actual. We can have a large number of moments, or descendants, or a large numerical series, etc., but we cannot have an infinite number of them. This is mainly discussed and argued in both the Physics and the Metaphysics. An actual number of infinite moments cannot be reached by successive and temporal addition. In other words, as long as we can add finite amounts of time to the time we already have, we will never arrive at an actual infinite amount of time, for either we already have an actual infinite amount of time or we will never have it, because we are continuously adding finite moments of time. Consequently, an actual infinite amount of time does not presently exist, nor can it ever exist.
It is clear that God is the non-contingent ground of all contingent existence, for (as has already been stated) either the universe itself is eternal (i.e., the universe is the non-contingent ground of all contingent reality), or it was created. The universe neither created itself (which is self-defeating) nor is it non-contingent (or eternal), since all parts of the universe are themselves contingent (i.e. dependent on something else for existence) and finite (limited in capabilities). A large number of wooden pieces that are glued together in strange configurations does not equate to something other than an incredibly large wooden structure. It will never be something else except arranged wooden pieces held together by glue. To argue otherwise is to commit the fallacy of composition, which means that the finished structure is no different in essence than the parts that make it up. The finished structure is not something other than glued together wood! A large number of finite increments of time grouped together as a total number of increments of time does not change the essence of those moments of time, into something eternal (or timeless).
Now, if God is non-contingent He is not dependent on anyone or anything else for His existence. And, since He is also infinite in all things, including existence, His existence is unlimited as well. This means that it neither began nor will it end. It is incapable of being measured by time, so, God is neither “in time” nor is He bound by time. Since my actual physical existence began at a certain point (moment) in time, it is contingent existence and it is finite existence. Therefore, it was caused and it is limited.
Let us go back to our original question. How should we conceptualize eternal life? Is our eternal life or everlasting life really only a spiritual existence that is only a very large expanse of time that began but will never end? Or, is there another way to understand it? Do we really “spend” eternity? Is the fourth stanza of “Amazing Grace” really accurate? “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing His praise, than when we’ve first begun.” Do we really have years and days, and less as opposed to more? That we are presently bound by a temporal physical existence is clear. The fact that we have incredible difficulty conceiving of anything other than this contingent and finite existence is also clear. We think in finite terms, so the concept of eternal life is often understood as an incredibly long amount of time. But, is this correct?
Let us look at Scripture for some help in this area. In the “High Priestly Prayer” Jesus uttered shortly before His crucifixion, He said:
Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” (John 17:1-5)
Please notice that Jesus speaks of eternal life here and prays that we may know eternal life by means of obtaining knowledge of the Father Who sent the Son. Notice further that Jesus has actual eternal life, but that He was also brought into the same physical environment that we occupy by virtue of the virgin birth. Notice finally that He speaks of a period (once again, given in temporal terms) where He enjoyed that eternal existence “before the world was.” But, our problem is that this “world” is our present framework. When our dependence on this present framework is ended, will we still have this limited conceptual outlook? Let us look at some additional passages:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)
O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O Lord, You know it all. . . . Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them. (Psalm 139:1-4, 16)
Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity. (2 Timothy 1:9)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
So that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)
Please notice that there is much talk of God’s “eternal purpose” in these passages. For example, the church was in the eternal purpose of God. Salvation through Christ was also according to “His own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9). Consequently, the group that would experience salvation was chosen in Him “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). There are only two groups of people in history; those who are the saved (comprised of those who were never lost and those who have obeyed the gospel and remained faithful) and the lost. The eternal purpose of God had in mind the church, those who were saved, Christ’s sacrifice, and a whole host of other things related to these matters. Moreover, God had us in mind before any of us were born (see Jeremiah 1:4; Psalm 139:1-4, 16). For additional help in understanding the issues of foreknowledge, foreordination, and predestination, I would urge the reader to look at “A Study of God’s Omniscience” in my book Graceful Reason, published by the Warren Center. All who are not mentally infirmed have freedom to choose to love, honor, and obey God, or to reject Him. The results of that use of freedom places us in one of the two groups earlier discussed (i.e. the saved or the lost). But, when this life is over, what happens next? We have been asking this relative to eternal life.
It is time for me to draw the appropriate conclusions. Either we have an unending series of temporal moments that began at some point in time, but will continue indefinitely, or we have eternal existence in the Mind of God. Let me explain: If we have eternal existence (and thus, eternal life) in the Mind of God, and we also have been placed into a physical environment which has all the limitations of temporal existence, from which we are released at the point of death, then we have true eternal life in that sense. It is not just an incredibly long series of moments in time, but rather, since time has meaning only in this physical environment, a true eternal existence and life in the Mind of God. And, in this sense only, we participate also in His eternal existence.
It is true that the Bible uses accommodative language in order to communicate adequately to us, since we are creatures of time. This is to say that we are limited in our understanding, so, Scripture sometimes speaks of God as though His “years” would continue (see Psalm 102:26-27; Hebrews 1:12; etc.). But, this must be seen as a communication medium used by the Lord to explain to finite creatures such things as are their ordinary experience. Thus, instead of technical scientific language (such as the Earth rotates on its axis), the Bible speaks in phenomenal ways (the Sun rises and the Sun sets), which is how things are perceived by us in our ordinary experience. Eternal life, however, is not within our ordinary experience. Hence, the title of this essay: “How Should We Conceptualize Eternal Life?” Since God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9), He graciously accommodated Himself to our limited understanding. We experience long finite stretches of time, but long finite stretches of time simply do not and cannot add up to eternity! Consequently, eternal life must be understood much as I have described it in this essay: as rooted in the Mind of God and our participation in that eternal life with Him, in the heavenly realm.