What is eternal life?

All people want eternal life. At least, all those that love life. But eternal life seems to be reserved for believers. At least, if they believe in the right way. Thus, eternal life seems to be quite conditional. But is that so? Is eternal life really living for all time or is it meant figuratively? What is written about it in the Bible?

By Marco van Putten

Life is defined by being aware that one exists and by applying that awareness in the reality of one’s life [1]. These together determine life [2]. If one is lacking this then that actually equals to being ‘dead’. However, God is the God of the living (Lk 20:38). The dead are of no use to God (Ps 115:17; Is 38:18). This explains why life has the focus in the Bible. But the Bible is only about religious living. Living which is covenanted with the Eternal God.

Eternal means ‘without end’, ‘continuous’ and ‘for all time’. This is often mentioned in the Bible. It is a Characteristic of God’s Personality and is related with certain things He does. Still, eternity is incomprehensible for humans. Not only that, it seems to go against the reality of something that is created (physical or non-physical). In the Creation everything is determined by finiteness and mortality. Creation requires a beginning and that in itself rules out eternity. Although, in the current Creation there seems to work endlessly continuous cycles and laws. But even these appear to be relative and breakable. Absolute eternity, as far as humans can image it, is a ‘higher’ dimension then Creation. It can only exits outside of Creation. Does eternity then has a use or a purpose for man?

Word study
The word ‘eternal’ is the translation of different words in the original Bible text. Each with its own nuance. The Hebrew word ’olam with this meaning is used most frequent. However, mostly it represents ‘Creation’ of ‘the universe’. Of these it is now known that they self-devaluate (depreciate, become older and wear off) [3]. Also in the Bible it is announced that the current Creation will be replaced by a new, better one (Is 65:17; Rev 21:1). Therefore, ’olam cannot represent absolute ‘eternity’. Even more so, since the word is based on the root ’alam – hide/snatched (from sight).

The Hebrew word ’ad is also translated as ‘eternity’. This word is based on the root ’adah – pass through/pass over. This also doesn’t represent eternity exclusively. The Hebrew word netsach from the root natsach – being persistent/insistent is also translated as ‘eternal’. But this word is linked with an existence in Creation and thus always finite.

The Greek word aioon is also translated as ‘eternal’/‘eternity’. But this represents actually more a time period which is always coming to an end. Also the Greek word combination dienekes (Hb 10:14) is used. This is made up from the words dia – through and nike – conquer. But ‘conquering’ or ‘enduring’ is however bound to a moment or an event, and thus not eternal per se.

Eternity and God
Despite that in the Bible, just as in Creation, absolute eternity doesn’t seem to exist [4]. However, God and some things He does still seem to be exactly that. That throws a different light on the subject. God is absolute eternal (Gn 21:33; Rm 16:26). That marks a fundamental difference between God and His Creation. Compared to God eternal means endless and unperceivable [5]. Therefore, God cannot be a part of Creation, since the latter is per definition limited [6], ending and has to be perceivable to a certain level, whilst God has logically Characteristics which are the opposite [7]. Still, there are manifestations of God in Creation.

If God is eternal, in the way as it is described so far in this article, then eternity is determined by the following examples from the Bible:


Eternal love [8] (Dt 33:3; Ef 2:4)


Eternal covenant [9] (Gn 9:16; Hb 13:20)


Eternal priesthood [10] (Ex 40:15; Hb 7:3, 21)


Eternal house [11] (Ecc 12:5; 2 Cor 5:1)


Eternal sign [12] (Gn 9:12)


Eternal light (Is 60:19; Rev 22:5)


Eternal King (Ps 29:10) and eternal Kingdom (2 Pe 1:11)


Eternal word [13] (Is 40:8; 1 Pe 1:25)


Eternal promise of Land [14] (Gn 13:15; 2 Chr 20:7)


Eternal judgment [15] (Hb 6:2)


Eternal damnation (2 Th 1:9), eternal fire (Mt 25:41) and eternal wrath [16]


Eternal salvation (Hb 5:9)

From these examples it becomes clear that in the Bible eternity represents matters that remain, that have value, that are reliable and that are true.

Invention of ‘time measurement’
In the Bible eternity seems to be connected or derived from God. However, man gave it its own, limited meaning when they invented meticulous time measurement. From then on eternity was understood relatively and mostly as ‘timelessness’ [17]. Due to that, eternity was viewed in a negative sense. It thus was seen as boredom, hopelessness and uselessness. Despite that through time measurement life for most people became more exiting, challenging and useful. Time was even imagined as characteristic of Creation [18]. Strangely enough, time didn’t have much importance for earlier generations [19]. Also, God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. It specifically seems to be a useful concept for unbelievers, who measure the time left since their birth until their death. For them their time left should be as enjoyable as possible. Time measurement thus became an idle.

Dependent on belief?
According to some eternal life is the most important gift which only true believers in God will receive. But this is however contradicting the fact that God created each creature mortal and thus also man (Gn 3:19). From its beginning man could die. Still, man is the only physical creature that exists eternally like God. Dying is the transition to a state in which life doesn’t exist (for God). Thus, even believers will become once they die useless for God during an eternity [20], since they cannot be of any use for God while their dead (Rm 8:8) [21]. This explains why in the Bible death is depicted as something negative.
All men shall die, but all man shall also be resurrected from death and become literally living again. But if all men will exist in eternity, being the only physical creature that will experience that, why does the Bible urge them to believe in God?

What is eternal life?
The Bible is about believing in God and thus about believing in Him. If in the Bible ‘life’ is described, then that is life according to God’s will; thinking and acting – living – that obeys Him. This explains why the Bible is useless to unbelievers.
It seems that in the Bible eternal life is mainly involved with the future (Lk 18:30); when God’s Kingdom is established on earth. It seems that just then it is given by God to the believers. That is the end-time element of eternal life. Something that will become a reality at the end of time. Like a reward. But it is more to the point to see that reward as acquittal of God’s judgment and sharing in the new Creation. Being forever near to God. However, in God’s Kingdom all acquitted will be appointed a function. Having something to do. Having its own contribution to serving and honoring God. That is the real eternal life. It will not be a state of dullness or uselessness [22].

Here and now
The prospect of true eternal life for God in the new Creation is magnificent, but what does that mean for today? Of course, the prospect of God’s final judgment and the question who will or will not be acquitted must have consequences for today. The question needs to be asked how someone can be sure to be acquitted. What ensures that? According to some only through faith. It’s important to look at the earliest statement in the Bible about that and what is probable the oldest testimony on it. This is found in Genesis 3:22: ‘… he [Adam] could also take from the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever.’ (NASV)
Is that verse about belief or also about the act (of taking and eating)? Taking and eating of the Tree of Life is however, besides other issues, about fighting human mortality which Adam from the beginning had to deal with. This verse regards the eating by Adam as a fact and not as a possible future act, which is also the case with many other verses in the Bible (Jh 6:47; 17:3). Thus, Adam ate from the Tree of Life in the past and that did cure him from mortality for a while. So he could continue to honor and serve God (Gn 2:15) and he wouldn’t die in His presence. ‘Eternal’ life nowadays requires continuously the following four things: 1. Bible study, 2. Fulfillment of the Holy Spirit (Jh 4:14; Gal 6:8), 3. Bearing fruit and 4. Pleading of the Lord Jesus. This is today’s surrogate for the Tree of Life. Thus, believers also live ‘eternal’ in the here and now. Their fruit testifies of that. For who knows when death occurs? Dying and being dead comes also in many forms. It, for example, occurs when God’s Spirit is resisted (Jh 3:36; 12:25; 1 Jh 3:15) and a believer falls away from God (Hb 6:4-8). But let the aim be to continue to want to live ‘eternal’ (Hb 10:24).


[1] Life means ‘thinking’ (being aware of existence and being able to feel) and doing (act and react).
[2] That is why sick, handicapped and old defective humans find it hard to appreciate their life. To say the least about people that are in a coma or are paralyzed.
[3] This is separate from the (purposeful or unpurposeful) damage, pollution and destruction of Creation by creatures.
[4] Many generations or a very long period is more common.
[5] From the viewpoint of man the universe also has those characteristics. The universe ‘displays’ thus the Characteristics of its Creator.
[6] To create principally means making something and that point to limits.
[7] Although God let’s Himself be determined by what He has set out.
[8] Still, God punishes. Love and its eternity point to the long term or to a ‘higher’ purpose.
[9] So far, God has renewed His Covenant four times. That means, God’s Covenant will remain intact, but its content changes. Eternity thus also means that it is changeable.
[10] The priesthood of the Levites has been replaced by that of Melchisedek. Eternity thus also means replaceable by something better.
[11] This is used for both the underworld as for the Kingdom of God. According to the Bible the underworld however is destroyed in the pit of fire (Rev 20:14) and the Kingdom of God still has to be established fully on earth. Eternity thus also means destroyable or pointing towards a future fulfillment.
[12] If the covenant with Abraham is eternal, then circumcision also. Thus, eternity is also visible.
[13] The explanation of God’s word changes constantly. This is first of all a consequence of the fact that God renews His Covenant. But even when a Covenant is enacted it changes and is amended. This becomes for example clear in the ‘eternal’ prohibition not to allow Moabites access to Israel (Dt 23:4). Still, for the Moabite Ruth and her offspring an exception is made. The Torah of God is supposed to be eternal, but also to serve man and not the other way around (Mc 2:27). Thus, eternal must also mean reinterpretable and amendable.
[14] But Israel needs to receive the ownership of the promised Land from God, but has lost that ownership already twice. Thus, eternity is conditional.
[15] God’s judgment, which He shall pronounce in the end of days regarding Creation and its creatures, shall be once and irreversible. Thus this is also a characteristic of eternity.
[16] This, of course, doesn’t mean that God will be eternally infuriated, but that the consequences of God’s judgment will remain and be permanent. Thus, likewise determines eternity.
[17] Within eternity time cannot be measured relative to eternity.
[18] The imagined fourth dimension.
[19] They only regarded the large units of measurement, like hours and months. They lived mainly within the ‘here and now’, being conscious of the cycles and the laws of Creation.
[20] After dying there will be no immediate blissful life with God in heaven, but an ‘eternal’ existence of being dead in the realm of the dead.
[21] God judges the life that man lived on earth. Strangely enough there seems to be an awareness in death and therefore it remains possible to receive Torah in that state (1 Pe 3:19; 4:6).
[22] Even more so, since time measurement will no longer matter.