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Eternity: A New Testament understanding | W. David Phillips

Eternity: A New Testament understanding

The Old Testament did not define eternity as limitless time, that is more philosophy than Old Testament theology. So how does the New Testament define eternity? After the explanation, make sure you look at the questions that arise from this. Also, this information comes from the New International of New Testament Theology, volume 3, pg 830-832.

In the New Testament, the noun aion occurs over 100 times. The adjective aionos, eternal, occurs 70 times. The noun has the following meanings:

1. A long time, duration of time, where both a specifically limited period of time as well as an unlimited period can be meant. This is chiefly linked with a preposition. The meaning “eternity” is only appropriate with certain qualifications, in that the OT idea of time, which conditions the NT, does not regard eternity as the opposite of temporality.

2. An age, epoch, era of the world). The underlying idea is that the world runs its course in a series of successive ages.

The grammatical evidence of the use of aion in the New Testament points back to two sources: the Old Testament and Judaism colored with Parseeism (possibly the Irani version, not those who now reside in Southeast Asia). The prepositional use of the word in the New Testament does not elucidate the connection between aion, time, and life quite as well as the Old Testament version does. When a preposition precedes it, one can only consider the designation of “antiquity” or the “far future” as the essential New Testament use of the word. The meaning of antiquity is rare.

Regarding aion with the preposition eis (into), these passages are speaking of a future within time which is linked with the duration of that to which a reference is made. As with the Old Testament, the statements reveal the background conviction that God’s life never ends. Everything belonging to God can also never come to an end. In this we must also understand that God is the final judge, so that even perdition (utter destruction, hell) must be called aionios (eternal).

3. The expression, “eternal life” corresponding to the basic meaning of aion, lifetime as defined by the Old Testament, is to be understood primarily as life which belongs to God. From the book of Daniel onwards, eternal life is an expression of the longed-for eschatological blessings of salvation, life in the age to come. In the Pauline letters, the synoptic Gospels, and Jude 21, there is a temporal understanding o eternal life. This is a life that is awaited in the future along with the resurrection of the dead, just as the term can be used in Judaism alternately with basileia tou theou – the kingdom of God – to denote salvation.

John understands eternal life in relation to Christ through faith, love and in keeping the commandments of Christ. The word “eternal” here indicates a definite quality. It is a different life from the old existence typified by hate, lack of love, sin, pain and death. Eternal life does not therefore just begin in the future, it is already the possession of those who have entered upon fellowship with Christ. John 3:15 talks about having eternal life in the present. But there is also a temporal sense, so that eternal indicates the quantity of this life. Because it belongs to Christ, who himself is the Life, it has no end. It will not even cease at death.

We must also realize that the New Testament does not speak of an eternal death, because the idea of eternity is so closely connected with life that the negation of eternal life can also only be understood as the experience of ruin. Even here, eternity remains time in and through which one lives.

1. If hell (perdition) is eternal, it has a relationship with God. Therefore, humans also have a relationship with God while they are in hell. What kind of relationship exists? Is it the relationship as Grenz noted of isolation and failure?

2. This may be a matter of semantics, but should the term separation from God be modified to isolated from God? I picture a child in “time out” whose parent will not acknowledge them despite the parent and the child being in the same room.

3. Did Jesus’ word on the Cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” represent an isolation, and if so, was it hell?

4. If eternal life begins in the present, does eternal ruin (not eternal death) also begin in the present? If so, might NT Wright’s idea of a dehumanizing journey make even more sense? And how does this affect Rob Bell’s contention that hell is not only in the future but the present. The difference between eternal life and eternal ruin is that eternal ruin can be reversed.

5. Does the Johannine understanding of eternal life change how we declare the message of Jesus? Does it change how we approach and frame salvation? Should it?

How would you answer these questions?

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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