Spoiler alert: this blog post may contain themes to be explored in Sunday’s sermon 😉
It’s Friday. Cue the “tgif” facebook posts, the end-of-work, end-of-week blowout plans. We like endings. We like our time packaged into boxes with sides and floors and flaps that we can close down and tape up so as to store them away into our memories. We like endings in the books that we read and the movies that we watch – and heaven help the author or director that screws up the ending. They make us angry. We demand satisfaction; closure.
We mortal creatures, finite in our physical and temporal reach, like to know where the beginnings and the endings are, so that we can plan the time in between. We like to know that the world is arranged the same way as we are: bounded, limited, its flights of fancy encompassable by our imaginations.
Yet religious types persist in talking about eternity, about eternal life. Is there a conflict here between culture and theology, between real life and religion?
Not if we take seriously the theology of eternity as it comes to us from scripture, from the Greek philosophers who influenced its development as a scriptural concept. Not if we take seriously our relationship with God.
If we talk about eternal life as some everlasting, never-ending existence like the one we know now, it is an intolerable proposition. We need endings, as already mentioned. We crave closure. The Greek myth of Tithonus tells of a mortal man condemned to immortality by the careless goddess of the dawn, Eos, who forgot to gift him with commensurate preservation of his youth and powers. Tithonus found out the pain of endless life, aging past the point of endurance, but unable to stop, to end, to die.
But eternal life as promised by the gospel of Christ is no such thing. It is not something that comes to us by the stretching out and drawing length of time. It is not something even that comes to us on the other side of death – waiting for eternity makes no sense, when you think about it, given that eternity has no beginning. How can we wait for something that never starts? (Movies and books that fail to begin are as bad as ones that fail to end, in my opinion.)
William Barclay’s study of the word “eternal” traces it back to Plato, who described it as a word belonging to the realm of the divine, unable to describe anything created: “The essential point [in Plato’s picture] is that eternity is always the same and always indivisible; in it there is no being created and no becoming; there is no such thing as being older and younger in eternity; there is no past, present or future.”*
Eternal life, then, is not ours to come into at some point in the future – after death, for example. It does not describe our life before our conception – it has no before, no after. It does not belong to us at all, but only to God.
Yet the gospel of Christ, especially as given us by the Johannine school, tells us over and over that eternal life is God’s gift to us through Jesus Christ. (John uses two words for life: one to describe mortal life, and the other to describe that life which Plato says cannot be applied to the created realm but belongs to the Divine.) “Whoever has the Son has life,” writes 1John 5:12, using the word for eternal life, that life of God which is not mortal, which is unbounded, which does not belong in the created realm.
In Jesus, God has shown us eternal life, the divine life, the life with which God gifts us, the ones made in God’s own image. It is not an alternative to life that ends in death. We need our endings. It is not a second life that we wait for, after death. It is life that beats within us, that is as close as the divine spark that galvanizes us, that lives, dies and rises with us. It is the life within us that gazes upon the timeless face of God.
*William Barclay, New Testament Words (SCM Press Ltd, 1964)