One of the great things about going to seminary is that you learn some really helpful things about the Bible. I know you are thinking that this is obvious. But sometimes one learns something that simply changes the way you understand, well, almost everything. Learning the Greek behind the phrase “eternal life” is one of those bits of learning that change almost everything.
Most of us, I suspect, think the phrase “eternal life” refers to what happens after we die. Eternal life means going to heaven, being with Jesus forever. While that is not wrong, it is too small an understanding.
In the ancient world people thought in terms of ages, past ages, current ages, future ages. For us thinking about the Bronze Age, or the Golden Age. What helped me understand this was reading Lord of the Rings where the characters talked about the end of the age of Elves and the beginning of the age of Men. The world, itself, didn’t change but the way the world worked, how people lived, was changed.
The “eternal” in eternal life is αἰώνιος, agelong, eternal. It is derived from the word for an age, a period of time. There is a sense of something that lasts verses something brief or insubstantial.
“Life” should also be read as a big idea. It means more than just the state of not being dead. Rather, life, live in the fullest sense of living.
So, when you come across the phrase “eternal life”, the speaker is not particularly concerned about what happens after they die. What they are referring to is a life lived fully in God’s kingdom, in God’s presence- now and in the future.
More than once in the gospels, someone asks Jesus what they must do to get or inherit eternal life. Jesus answers with parables, either the “Good Samaritan” or the “Rich Ruler”. Does your response to these stories change if the person is asking how to live fully- right now and forever- in God’s present kingdom?
How about these familiar verses from John 3:16-21?
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned,but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
In John’s gospel, Jesus has quite a bit to say about “eternal life” You might find it interesting to read what Jesus says.
Does thinking about eternal life as something that begins now, a way of participating in the world, change anything for you?