What is eternity?

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Eternity is seen as a Characteristic of God. Therefore it is imagined that most of what He owns and does is also eternal. Still, from the Bible, but also from daily practice, it becomes clear that eternity has to be nuanced. For example, think about the assumed ‘eternal’ kingship of David, which in reality has ceased to exist on earth some 2600 years ago. What is written about eternity in the Bible?

In the world nothing is eternal. Therefore humans struggle with its meaning[1]. Does it represent timelessness or that which is unending? Meanwhile everything around them is aging. There is decay, wearing off of things and ultimately a pulverization into dust (Gn 3:19). Still, humans have tried to imagine eternity. For example, by imagining time not in a linear (chronological) sense, but cyclic.

But what is the source of the assumption that eternity, which seemingly doesn’t exists in the world? Is it a fantasy or a great sense of imagination? Or does it put the finger at the residual awareness of encounters with God or angels in the past?

Does eternity exist somewhere and then what is it? In human sense it is a dreamed utopistic state. In Biblical sense eternity really does exist. In that sense of eternity at least time is lacking[2]. In the Bible God is described as the source of eternity (Is 40:28).

When God acts[3] in the physical[4] creation and resides there[5], He restricts Himself[6] in the sense of eternity although without losing His Characteristic of eternity[7]. So, eternity does point to a distinction between God and creation[8]. That is also what is written in the Bible (57:15)[9]. But what does that mean for eternity?

Word study
The Hebrew word ’olam is commonly translated as ‘eternal’. It is based on the verbal root ‘alam – hide/keep secret. ’Olam is also translated as ‘age’ or ‘universe’.

Another Hebrew word translated as ‘eternal’ is netsach from the root natsach – sustain/being clear. A rather different meaning then ’olam and even somewhat opposite to it. Also, the word tamied, from a non-existing root meaning ‘stretching (in time)’, what is being translated as ‘continue’ or ‘ongoing’.

Then there is the word ’ad, from the root ’adah – continue/ungoing. The translation ‘eternal’ for this and the previously mentioned words depend on the context in which these words are used . The word ‘rega’, from the root raga’ – blick (with the eyes)/a fraction of time, is being translated as ‘ongoing’ and ‘continuous’.

In Greek texts the word aionos is translated as ‘eternal’. But this word is also translated as century/age. In a way, this word does come close to the meaning of the Hebrew word ’olam.

Just like the Hebrew word ’ad the Greek language has the concept eis – until/towards in the sense of eternity (Jh 8:35). Greek also has word combinations, like ekperissou (Ef 3:20) to express ‘eternity’.

Non-physical worlds eternal?
If the physical creation doesn’t have the characteristic of being eternal, what about the non-physical worlds? The fact the angels and later the Lord Jesus can ‘descend’[10] from heaven to earth and can return again means that heaven cannot be pure and completely eternal.

The same can be said about the realm of the dead, the other non-physical world within creation. Humans and angels can ‘ascend’ into it, but some can also be raised from it (Mt 27:52). The Lord Jesus is most well-known example of it.

The conclusion has to be that nothing in creation, physical or not, can be really eternal.

Divineness eternal?
If eternity is a Characteristic of God, has it then something in common with divineness? Has divineness (being God-like[11]) also eternity as characteristic[12]?

For it is assumed obvious that the Lord Jesus and the angels of God are divine[13]. But it also has to be clear that the consequence of the Lord Jesus becoming Human this made Him mortal[14]. Also, that He literally died on Golgotha to fulfill the reconciliation of humans with God.

It seems that angels live eternally[15]. Still, it is remarkable that the Lord Jesus was proven to be mortal and could decrease in divineness by becoming Human., but above all by taking upon Him the anger of God. Decreasing divineness also means decreasing eternity[16]. This has as consequence that a different light is cast on eternity.

Purpose of eternity
God uses eternity as part of His promises to humans for now and for the future (Mc 10:30). This is then about an eternity in wellbeing. Because humans can also exist in eternity, although mortal, but the question is in what state[17] they experience that eternity.

The eternity in wellbeing, like Adam experienced that in the garden of Eden, is however lost as consequence of the falling away from God; the fall of man[18]. That is why eternity in Biblical sense above all points towards the coming of the new world. Only then creation, with man within it, will come to its fulfillment like God has meant it to be.

Eternity is given and guaranteed by God. Even when eternity is lost. Eternity makes the difference between Creator and creature clear.

Eternity levels
Eternity seems to have levels. In order of pureness[19]:

– Actual eternity
The eternity which God has as Characteristic (Ps 48:14), but which goes beyond human understanding[20].

– Everlastingness
Closest to the actual eternity of God is that which is called everlasting (10:16). It is the level of eternity which God allows to exist in creation. For it is God alone Who can determine what is eternal. It is the eternity of things which God has instituted, like His people[21].

Something being everlasting in the sense of eternity has meaning and purpose for humans. Despite that even this level of eternity they can only partly grasp. Still, something everlasting is no actual eternity, since ultimately it is limited (i.e. having a beginning and ending).

– A very long time
If something exists much longer then a human life-span and even after several generations remains then that is called ‘everlasting’. When it however eventually ends after many generations, but when its origin is still remembered then its everlastingness is nuanced to ‘a very long time’.

– Not endless/ending
Eternity’s low end is everything which has an ending after a not to long a period. That is the inherent characteristic of all which is created. The fact that God promised that creation would be everlasting declares therefore that all which is ending exists within that everlastingness.

Alternative concepts
Several concepts are used in relation to eternity, like:

– Timelessness
Eternity as concept of time. When (measurement of) time becomes irrelevant, then there remains no valid reason to reckon with the assumed scarceness of time. Still, timelessness is not eternity per se, since eternity is more then time (measurement).

– Endlessness
Eternity expressed in the lack of an end. Then also time (measurement) is no longer relevant or at least less scarce. But creation is not endless and represents all that has an end. In it endlessness is therefore an illusion.

– Immortality
The prospect of the coming death of all living things puts time (measurement) and set goals in another light. But immortality is not the end to life’s struggle. That is assumed to be ungoing. So, immortality seems not to be what eternity is about.

Mortality stresses dependence, limitation and scarcity. The Godless humans long to break free from mortality[22]. God will ultimately not allow a physical entity outside Him to exist eternally (Gn 3:22). A human will never become immortal.

– Imperishability
This seems comparable with immortality, but imperishability focuses on things humans achieve and which are under danger of decay. Sustenance of legacy. That things man did will not be lost in oblivion. Still, also imperishability is not eternity per se, since eternity is more.

Nuances
The following are some nuances of the concept eternity from the Bible:

– The ‘eternal’ Name of God
In the Bible more then once a new Name of God is revealed. Several of them were said to be ‘eternal’. Still, These Names are determined by their historical context. The further a generation will stand from such a revealed Name, the less relevant that Name can become, like ‘the God of your [Israel’s] fathers (Ex 3:15).

– The ‘eternal’ Word of God
The Bible as a whole would exist eternally, but that doesn’t mean that all words always in all times have an equal meaning. In the Bible it is explicitly stated that some regulations will be lifted or replaced by others.

Also, completely fulfilled prophecies have become less relevant by their fulfillment. Historiography, which forms a large part of the Bible, also becomes less relevant (or understandable) when time passes.

– The ‘eternal’ Covenant of God
God made for the first time a covenant with Noah and that was supposedly eternal (Gn 9:16). That covenant had to make close contact with Him possible, despite the disturbed relationship between God and the physical creation.

But God had also announced a new creation in which the relationship between God and that creation and all what is in it would be good (Is 65:17). It is evident that God will no longer make a covenant in the world to come. So, God’s covenant lasts[23] until that moment[24]. The Covenant of God has an end.

– The ‘eternal’ Messiah
Of the Son of God it is said that He would remain high priest eternally, but He became high priest only just after His ascension to heaven and will lay down that office once He becomes Messiah[25]. There is a beginning of the office as Messiah, but logically also an end (1 Cor 15:24-25). Everything which has a beginning and/or an end is by definition not purely eternal.

– The ‘eternal’ Dwelling place of God on earth
King Solomon was convinced that God would reside in the Temple, His common center of worship in Jerusalem, for all eternity (1 K 8:13). But this Temple was destroyed in the 6th century BC. Such a Dwelling place of God today doesn’t exist any longer on earth. For the time being believers are left only with God’s Dwelling place in heaven (Rev 15:5).

– ‘Eternal’ life
People who become believers, them that submit to the will of God, in the Bible are promised eternal life (Jh 3:15). But all humans originally exist eternally. That is a creation order and that separates them from other creatures. Humans are created in God’s Image and Likeness. Thus what the promise entails is that believers will ‘go into His rest’ (Hb 4:10). That is, come to the destination which God has intended for them. Now and in the future.

This promise also represents being granted access to the coming physical world. Not heaven! It also means being acquitted from the final judgment of God (Jh 5:24).

Future
Even in the new creation there will not be eternity, since God will need to provide ‘water of life’ and ‘trees of live’ (Ezek 27:9; Rev 22:1-2)[26]. So, heaven and earth will not merge then, as some assume. Since that is clearly impossible and unwanted in the sense of the order of creation. So, there will always remain a need for a heaven, as a home for the non-physical creatures.

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[1] Therefore mistakes and errors are made about it.
[2] I.e. the existence of it. That explains why in Judaism God is also named with the Hebrew words Ejn Sof – without end (to His existence).
[3] Something He has done repeatedly according to the Bible (For example: Gn 11:5; 18:21; Ex 3:8; 19:20).
[4] In fact, this also happens in the non-physical part of creation, like heaven.
[5] Like His Presence in the garden of Eden and in the Holy of holies of the central sanctuary, which He commanded to put up.
[6] It would explain why God uses His Sjechienah or that He only is experienced with a wondrous appearance (For example Ex 24:10).
[7] How this is possible can’t be explained and shows that He is completely different then all things created; His uncreated state. It proves that He does not partake in creation.
[8] This is an important statement in the so-called Actual Theology, which remarkable is hardy been integrated into Christology. It is an important given about God.
[9] It is a logical conclusion based on the fact that God created the world. In other words, He had to exist before creation came into existence and had to have made creation outside of Himself (Is 29:16; Rm 9:20).
[10] The word ‘descend’ expresses the thought that heaven is ‘above’ the physical world. Of course this hardly agrees with reality. Since heaven is another dimension which has no positioning towards the physical world.
[11] Not in a literal sense, since there exists only but One God. This is about being intimately connected with Him without being part of Him.
[12] Since, being God-like means having characteristics of God.
[13] Everything that dwells in heaven is in principle divine (i.e. more divine then physical creatures). That explains why physical creatures cannot enter heaven.
[14] The fixed characteristic of humans created by God. Adam was created mortal en thus needs to eat from the Tree of Live. Human mortality has got nothing to do with the so-called ‘fall of man’. His falling away from God made that death followed mortality, since access to the Tree of Life was from then on denied unto him.
[15] I.e. that they are immortal. So also, satan and the demons.
[16] But divineness seems to be able to increase as well. This became clear when He was raised up of from the realm of death and with His ascension to heaven back into the non-physical world of heaven.
[17] In eternal wellbeing or eternal punishment (Mt 25:46).
[18] That even has negative consequences for the non-physical creations, like those in heaven.
[19] This is meant as a suggestion and not meant to be thorough.
[20] Pure eternity cannot be understood by humans. It is however not the subject of this article. It is useful as ‘top-level’ in the definition of eternity.
[21] Not specifically Israel.
[22] The thought that medical science will reach a level at which physical creatures can live eternally is not only nonsensical. It also displays an arrogant overestimation of humans.
[23] The covenant of God is repeatedly renewed, which ended the one preceding it.
[24] Although Israel has broken the covenant of God for their part, His covenant (i.e. the New Covenant) with them is active. Still, Israel is under the Covenantal conditions at the moment they have broken it (i.e. the Old Covenant).
[25] The two offices are in Biblical sense impossible to combine. For example, God has ruled that a high priest may never leave the central sanctuary (Lv 10:17; 21:12).
[26] This proves that humans then will remain mortal. Even though they have logically received a new body granting them access to the new creation.