Eternal And The Q Factor
Forever and Everlasting
Just a few thoughts regarding the various aspects of the words: eternal, everlasting and forever. It is possible to misconstrue certain passages of Scripture by reading such LANGUAGE in quantitative terms of much-ness, many-ness or longevity i.e., the quantity or length of linear time as in endless duration; instead of in a qualitative sense of total-ness, or that of wholeness, fullness and completion i.e., the full measure. Jesus said: "…you shall have LIFE! and have it more abundantly" [Jn 10:10] – to the FULL!! This fullness equates to eternal life and is more akin to quality in life now, as opposed to quantity of life to come.
Example: An older couple were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, and when asked about the success and longevity [quantity] of their relationship, in joyous unison responded "it seems but as yesterday" – they exuded such vitality, freshness and love it was plain to all present that they had such a depth [quality] of relationship built over the years that it was not to be measured by the distance or passage of time [quantity], but by the joy they shared along the way [quality].
Apart from direct references to God, His nature or His attributes etc, eternal, everlasting and forever, in relation to 'man' in most cases, does not carry the meaning of endlessness of duration. In other words, concerning the eternal – the traditional quantitative approach tends to furnish a future SPATIAL context view: a place to go – Heaven beyond. Whereas a textually understood qualitative approach points to a present RELATIONAL condition "in Christ" view: our standing in God – Heaven now. The qualitative view while not negating quantitative aspects of "eternal" better qualifies it. So, eternal, everlasting or forever are better determined by the subject to which it is applied, i.e., context. Thus these words only express the idea of endlessness of duration when connected with what is endless – the infinite Creator Himself.
We further find that John likewise supports this qualitative or relational understanding of eternal:
Jn 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
1Jn 5:13 These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. cf. Jn 20:31.
We see connotations of this eternal also in Paul's thoughts when he says "even so we also should walk in newness of life" Rom 6:4. This newness of life is that ever-present abundant life promised by Jesus and is NOT speaking of some ageless sweet by and by, but our present walk in Christ's righteousness. Even the "eternal life" of Jn 3:16 being in the aorist tense, is a presently accomplished reality. Likewise, those finding "the way which leads to life" of Mt 7:14 – this is not speaking in terms of post-death destiny, but is in the present tense and in the same vein as Jn 10:10. As with the "fullness of the Gentiles" [Rom 11:25] being qualitative and NOT quantitative, so too is eternal life i.e., it is covenantal and relational – something to be experienced in life, this life.
There is also the issue of God's covenantal dealings with Israel most of which are stated as being eternal, everlasting or forever, none of which however in their redemptive settings necessitates an endlessness of duration requirement; but are indicative of God's dealings with His specific people for a specific purpose, in a specific way, according to a specific period, epoch, era or age; thus longevity when dealing with man does NOT necessitate endlessness nor timelessness.
We have for example 'Sodom and Gomorrah' – Jude 1:7 tells us that these cities and their surrounds would suffer "the vengeance of eternal fire" yet none of these are still burning today – eternally. Clearly, the unquenchable fire was indicative of the TOTALITY of destruction that was wrought upon them.
Isa 34:8-10 For it is the day of the LORD’s vengeance, the year of recompense for the cause of Zion. Its streams shall be turned into pitch, and its dust into brimstone; its land shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night or day; its smoke shall ascend forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever.
Some suppose such words as "shall not be quenched" or "unquenchable fire" to mean such fire of endless duration, yet in the Scriptures such as an unquenchable fire is one that cannot be quenched nor extinguished until its full purpose has been reached and accomplished. If for instance a house has been totally consumed by fire, the fire it is said, strictly speaking, was unquenchable, and no effort made to put it out could extinguish it; yet no one would contend that the fire, left to itself, would never expire of itself – there was totality of destruction but not ongoing destruction.
To labour the point; these words eternal, everlasting and forever need not always be locked to the meaning of endlessness or longevity. Scripture gives many examples of life, land, laws, circumcision and time as being forever and ever, everlasting or eternal, yet in many of these instances they are governed or determined by a definitive period or time frame in which God is dealing with a specific people in a specific way for a specific purpose – and can in no way be seen as meaning ageless or ceaseless.
The following table shows this to be the case; promises are made "eternally" yet with a Divinely predetermined end or fulfilment in view:
FOREVER <— EVERLASTING COVENANTS —> CEASE
Gen 17:10-13 – CIRCUMCISION – Gal 5:1-6; 6:15
Ex 12:14, 17, 24 – PASSOVER – Col 2:16-17
Ex 29:9; 40:15 – AARONIC PRIESTHOOD – Heb 7:11-17
Lev 16:29, 31, 34; 23:31 – DAY OF ATONEMENT – Heb 9:23-28; 10:1-18
Psa 119:151-152, 160 – RIGHTEOUS ORDINANCES – Gal 3:24-25; Heb 9:10
Ex 31:16-17 – THE SABBATH – Col 2:16-17
Further, we must consider "how" language is used in the Bible – if we stick dogmatically with what is called a "wooden literalism" modality for understanding Scripture, then we will invariably become hamstrung in our understanding of truth, as these examples will demonstrate:
Psa 21:4 He asked life from You, and You gave it to him-- Length of days forever and ever. ["Length of days" is a reference to physicality – hence limited]
Psa 119:44 So shall I keep Your law continually, forever and ever. [Poetic licence]
Isa 30:8 Now go, write it before them on a tablet, And note it on a scroll, That it may be for time to come, forever and ever: [Time, epochs i.e., eras]
Jer 7:7 …then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. [Continuance in the Land was always conditional upon Israel's obedience, even though initially all these promises were fulfilled Josh 21:43-45]
Gen 17:8 Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." [As above]
Gen 17:13 He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. [Are we bound to this everlasting type? – as someone once said: "well it's no skin off my nose". Deut 30:6 shows circumcision's true intent in]
Lev 16:34 This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year." And he did as the LORD commanded Moses. [Fortunately for us, Jesus was the everlasting or ultimate sacrifice Heb 9:26; 10:12]
Num 25:13 …and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel." [What a difference a new covenant makes – Heb 7:12]
Isa 24:5 The earth is also defiled under its inhabitants, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant. [Can logic allow for that which is supposedly "unending" if that's what "everlasting" means, to be broken?]
Again… each various expression as outlined above is determined by and is to be understood in terms of "the age" in which each is applicable – thus any sense of unending or never-ending are clearly bracketed by predetermined ends.
Lastly, we come to the literal text, for although it can be abused it certainly carries clout and cannot be ignored. Again, from the pantelistic perspective when it comes to life eternal, everlasting or forever it is NOT speaking post-mortem existence, but as the apostle, John clearly signified it relates to the totality and comprehensive nature of our vital relationship with God in this present life. Conversely, John's everlasting "condemnation" of Jn 5:29 speaks of the total and comprehensive nature and gravity of the historic shame experienced in this life by those who were thus "judged" [same Greek word as "condemned"] in that "end of the age" period culminating in the AD70 Parousia. For them, this was their perpetual shame or historical contempt as is testified in this life. This however in no way takes away from the fact that where sin abounded, grace, mercy and peace much more abounded in forgiveness from God toward them in Christ – God above all remained and remains faithful to His Word, Rom 3:3-4a; 11:32-33.
When speaking of the nature and attributes of God we speak in terms of His "eternal love" etc, and understand such qualitatively so, i.e., the comprehensive or total extent and reach of His love – in other words, it is not limited by measurable or fathomable human terms and definitions. Yet even in the hidden-ness of the eternal can a sense of finite-ness be understood as reaching both backward and forward, from time immemorial into the far-reaching future, and can possibly be illustrated accordingly:
Antiquity <— ETERNAL —> Perpetuity
And in capturing this thought the Psalmist so simply and succinctly says: …even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. Psa 90:2
Now when speaking of "eternal" as it relates to man this "qualitative" nature of "eternal" always fits within man's earthly timeframe – thus "eternal" can rightly be understood as "unto or into the age" as it is often rendered in 'Young's Literal Translation' when translating the words "eternal" or "everlasting". This is further evidenced in the following Old and New Testament Greek texts where "forever" [eternal] and "the age" are both designated by the one Greek word aionos:
Gen 13:15 …for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever.
Gen13:15 οτι πασαν την γην ην συ ορας σοι δωσω αυτην και τω σπερματι σου εως του αιωνος.
Mt 24:3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"
Mt 24:3 καθημενου δε αυτου επι του ορους των ελαιων προσηλθον αυτω οι μαθηται κατ ιδιαν λεγοντες ειπε ημιν ποτε ταυτα εσται και τι το σημειον της σης παρουσιας και της συντελειας του αιωνος.
So we have the literal Greek text tou aionos – του αιωνος, being variously translated as above and unmistakably indicative of the limited or defined nature that the words "forever", "everlasting" and "eternal" can have when ascribed to man and his age of existence, i.e., aionos fits within a specified era relative to the subject matter at hand.
And lastly; in the Bible, the notion of "unending" or "endlessness" can be expressed either by the use of particular negatives such as "not", "no not", "un" or "less", or more directly by specific Greek words meaning such. There are a number of examples to draw from: Lk 1:33 "…and of His kingdom there will be no end." – ouk estai telos [ουκ εσται τελος]; Heb 7:16 …according to the power of an endless life. – akatalutou [ακαταλου]; …nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies… 1Tim 1:4 – aperantois [απεραντοις]; and Rev 18:21-23 "…shall not be …anymore" – ou mē …eti [ου μη …ετι].
Not one of these specific words are ever used in the context of punishment beyond the grave, and certainly, these could have been used IF such was the case; they were not for there is not.