What Does “Eternal” Mean?

What Does “Eternal” Mean?

Even for the greatest Christian thinkers in history, eternity has always been a tricky subject. Most scholars would agree that eternity has to do with God’s relationship with time, and that it might also describe the relationship with time that people have after death. Some would go farther, and say that eternity is an expanse of time without an end and perhaps also without a beginning, or even that eternity is a way of existing outside of time altogether. There has been lively debate about all this for centuries among philosophers and theologians, and even today there is no clear consensus, because whenever we talk about time or eternity we are also deciding how we want to understand ourselves and what, if any, freedom we have to make meaningful choices. For example, if God is outside time, that could mean that for God our futures have already happened, and we are not free to choose our own actions.

Part of the problem is that the words in the Bible that we render into English as “eternal” and “eternity” come from two different languages—ancient Hebrew and first-century Greek—each of which comes with its own set of assumptions about God’s time. Furthermore, those assumptions themselves changed through the centuries as different interpretations of the Bible gained and lost support. Finally, over the past hundred years or so, our ideas about what time is like have changed radically, and those changes have thrown new light on old arguments about God’s time. In this article, we will summarize what this all means for eternity.

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