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"Eternal Life?" Eternity: Part 2
The phrases "everlasting life" and "eternal life" come from two Greek words, the adjective, aionios (αἰώνιος), which doesn't really mean "eternal," and the noun, zoe (ζωή), a word meaning "living" both in the sense of existence and "making a living." Jesus uses these words together eighteen times as ζωὴν αἰώνιον, a phrase translated as "everlasting life," "eternal life," and "life everlasting." This concept in modern Christianity means life in heaven, but today’s concept of “heaven” was unknown in Jesus’s time (see this article for the details about why) except among those who followed Zoroastrianism.
People of Jesus's era would have heard these two Greek words as “continued physical life.” They wouldn't have thought of this life as "eternal" as much as "on-going." Jesus himself defines this phrase as to "keep living" or "maintaining life" in John 5:40 after using it in John 5:39. This idea is not far from “reincarnation,” but not reincarnation as taught by the Hindus as new individuals on this world, but as a “raising of the dead” at some specific point in time.
The word translated as “eternal” is aionios means "lasting for an age," or “lasting for a lifetime,” and from that idea, “on-going,” “continued,” and "perpetual." It has come to mean "eternal" in Greek, but that concept arose from the Bible itself. It is an adjective from the Greek word, aion (αἰῶν) which means a "life," "lifetime," "age," or "generation." This noun is also translated in the Bible as "world," but it only means "world" in the sense of the current era. The meaning and history of this word is discussed in Part 1 of this series on the eternal.
What Kind of "Life" is Zoe?
The noun, zoe, means "living," "substance," "property," "existence," and, incidentally, "the scum on milk." It has the sense of how we say "make a living" to mean “property.” Homer used it often to mean the opposite of death. Jesus uses it forty-two times to refer to life in various ways, but only once as the opposite of "death," and that verse uses the phrase "everlasting life." For more on how Jesus uses this word with other words about human existence (“soul,” “heart,” “spirit,” “body,” etc.), read this article. In that article, we discuss a different Greek word, psyche, that is also translated as "life" but which has more the sense of internal life—our conscious awareness and memory. Psyche is never the word used in any phrase translated as “eternal life.”
Zoe is the life that comes from our "substance,” by which the Greeks meant our personal property, as well as our physical existence. Their thinking was that we spend our time working, generating our property. We convert the time of our lives into our property. In its verb form, it is a metaphor for "to be full of life," "to be strong," and "to be fresh.” The basic concept is that this "life" union of flesh, sarx, with spirit, the "breath of life," pneuma. Jesus specifically says that this pneuma is what gives life in John 6:63.
The word zoe also implies a productive life, one that earns its keep. Our ability to live means our ability to earn a living, maintain our bodily health by finding food, drink, shelter, and so on.
The Concept of Eternity
Did people of Jesus’s era have a similar concept of “eternity?” The ancient Greek philosophers used the phrase"for all ages," using the plural of aion, to come closer to describing"eternity," or more simply "for ages." Another word, athanatos, (ἀθάνατος) literally meaning "not dying" was much more commonly used to express this idea as "undying" and "immortal." This word was used to describe the lives of the Greek gods. For example, we see this word in Pindar’s Pythian:
ἀθάνατον σπεῦδε, τὰν δ’ ἔμπρακτον ἄντλει μαχανάν
to eternal life do not aspire, but exhaust the limits of the possible.
However, we must remember that even the Greek gods were not seen as lasting for eternity. They could be destroyed even though they did not die through aging. The gods themselves had destroyed their own parents, the Titans.
Ancient people did not have the same concept of "eternity" that we think we understand today. They saw the world as constantly changing. Nothing was unchanging, not even their gods who could be destroyed. In my years of work translating ancient Chinese, I never ran into the concept of “eternity.” Indeed, much ancient Chinese philosophy holds that nothing can last for all time or outside of time. The concept of eternity is an invention of religion, not ancient or modern science.
We see this inability to express the idea of "eternal" among ancient Judeans. The word "eternity" only appears once in the KJV translation of the Bible, in Isaiah 57:15. The source Hebrew word is 'ad, עַדI which means "perpetually," and "into the future." While it is translated as "eternity,” its sense is more “ongoing," which is a pretty good way to translate the Greek aionios. In the Greek Septuagint, the word “eternity” in Isaiah 57:15 was rendered literally as "an age of holy awe," which is kind of a cool way to describe a long time. Despite the focus on "eternity" in modern Christianity, this is as close as the KJV translators could honestly come to finding the concept in the Hebrew books.
Jesus very seldom even uses the common, everyday word that is translated as “always.” That Greek word is pantote (πάντοτε), a word that literally means “all when.” However, Jesus only uses this word in eight verses out of the two thousand or so verses recorded in the Bible. He uses it three of those times to say that “the poor will always be with you” in each of the Synoptic gospels. So I guess he could mean that some of us will be poor in our “ongoing lives” as well.
The concept of "eternal life" is a religious dogma that has arisen from the teachings of Jesus, but it wasn't a part of them. Jesus promises only a "life after life," that is, an ongoing life. This is not a life outside of time or beyond time as we see the eternal Divine. For a specific example of how this concept is created by mistranslation, see this article on the problems in John 10:28. It is a life that continues to its next stage, whatever that might be. Jesus said he knew where he was going but that we don’t. After my last series of articles on “hell,” I feel pretty sure that he wasn’t threatening anyone with eternal punishment. Which is a relief.
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