While reading an article about Sergie Bulgakov, an early 20th century theologian, I was reminded how our modern conception of time is so different than that of the ancient world. Time, for us, is not substantive. Like a clothesline that stretches into both the past and future, time is something we hang events on. It’s how we order events.
I suspect this process of emptying out time has been going on for millennia. The Greek word aion (eon), for instance originally meant “life force” and had little, if anything, to with time. By the time of Plato, “eon” had lost this primary sense of life force and had come to mean something a bit more familiar to us, but time had not yet become the clothesline stretching infinitely into past and future; it was more akin to a realm where beings existed and less like the clothesline, or “arrow of time.”
The Hebrews had a somewhat different perspective, but it included the idea of time as realm more than clothesline. It is this Hebrew (and then early Christian) sensibility that I want to focus on. One convenient point of entry is Jesus’ Parable of the Seeds found in Mark 4.
And [some of the seeds were] sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. (Mark 4:18-19)
Of interest here is that word “world,” which isn’t world at all. What Jesus says is “the cares of this eon … choke the word.” “Eon” is a time word, and while time (as we think about it) is not completely absent from this sentence, what Jesus has in mind is not the passage of time, it is rather the quality or realm of the time. Sometimes when “eon” is used in this sense, it is translated as “age” (“cares of this age”). Here in Mark 4, this age is marked by cares and distractions. It is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes: “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (1:14),
So far I’ve talked about “eon” as a noun, but it is far more common in the New Testament in its adjectival form. Jesus speaks frequently of “eonic life” (if we turn the noun “eon” into an adjective), or as it is typically rendered in the New Testament, “eternal life.” But just as “eon” is better translated “this world” rather than “this time” or “this age” in the Parable of the Seeds, in order to get the true sense of what Jesus is saying, so the sense of “eonic life” is not best expressed with the word “eternal” because “eternal” (as we use the word today) only expresses the time sense of eon and not the sense of place or quality.
Contemporary translators are aware of this problem and render the term “eonic life” rather differently on occasion. For instance, the KJV renders the term as “eternal” in 1 Tim. 6:19. “Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” But the context isn’t about time, it’s about how we live our lives. Here is 1 Tim. 6:17-19 from the NRSV, which better catches these sense in this context.
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life [“eternal life’ in the KJV].
Jesus expresses something similar in John 10:10. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Here Jesus does not use the word “eternal,” but what we see is that “abundant life” is a synonym for “eternal life.”
We need to avoid thinking about this in an either/or manner. The word “eon” and its adjectival form “eonic” are both time words, so they also include a sense of time (thus “the cares of this age” and “eternal life”). My point is that in Scripture the sense of eternity (as we think about it) is a consequence of the more fundamental sense of the term. The life that we receive from God is not corrupted life that is full of cares and distractions and ultimately withers away because it lacks solidity and the proper connection to the source of life. The life we receive from God, on the other hand, is rooted in God’s being and is thus, solid, full, and complete. It is “life that really is life.” Because this is the case, it will last forever. But the forever part is a consequence of the quality of life that God gives us, not vice versa.
Remember, for the Hebrews, time is less a clothesline and more a container. For us, time has completely lost its “container” or “realm” sense and is almost exclusively a clothesline. We therefore need to work hard at thinking about the word in its fullness rather than in its stripped down and narrow sense when we are reading scripture.
Because we think about time differently than how Jesus or Paul thought about it, we also tend to think about salvation differently. Salvation, for us, tends to be something that happens on the clothesline of time, making the clothesline continue infinitely past the clothesline pole of our own death. But salvation, for Jesus and Paul, is not about the length of the clothesline, its not even about the clothesline. It’s about the container: a water pot gushing over with water or a wine skin that bursts with the bubbling expansion of new wine.
That doesn’t mean that our modern sense of eternity is absent. Scripture does talk about eternity in the manner we typically think about it, but it is necessarily described a bit differently, using the phrase “from ages to ages,” If we think about the prepositions “from” and “to” as arrows, one pointing backward and one pointing forward, this phrase will make sense. The two prepositions essentially place the eons (the container of time) on the clothesline and extend it forward and backward. This, by the way, is the scriptural phrase Michael Card and John Thompson picked up in their well known song, El Shaddai, when they say “[from] age to age you’re still the same.” This is the biblical phrase for eternity.
Finally, I want to reiterate the scriptural sense of time but specifically in the context of the incarnation. Again, if we think of eon as a container or realm rather than a clothesline, God dwells in one eon and we dwell in a different eon. When the Son of God became human, he not only entered created and fallen space, he entered created and fallen time. He entered the fallen human eon. As one who properly dwells in the divine eon, but lives in the human eon, he offers us a way to enter into the divine eon. This, I would argue, is a more accurate way of conceptualizing the gift of eternal life.