Eternal: as in Eternal Life
The word, eternal, creates a misunderstanding so significant that it completely upends the purpose of the gospel. The misunderstanding comes from believing that eternal is synonymous with “everlasting,” so when we are promised eternal life in the Bible, we think in terms of living forever.
It is easy to understand why this particular confusion is so prevalent; we want to believe it. We want to believe it badly. The human condition can be summed up in one phrase: existential anxiety. Simply put, existential anxiety is fear of death, but in practice, it is much more subtle and pervasive.
As far as we know, humans are the only creatures that can imagine the end of their lives. Much of our lives are spent reacting to it, albeit unconsciously; making our mark so that we will be remembered, creating things – in the arts, politics, science, families – that will embody our existence long into the future. One way we deal with it consciously is in the creation of beliefs about beating death, and all religions seem to include some form of everlasting life, whether it be reincarnation or life in heaven or deportation to an underworld.
Jesus dealt with existential anxiety, also; however, his “life eternal” was not about living forever, but about not caring about one’s own existence. If one doesn’t care, there is then no anxiety. “He who shall save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life shall save it,” is the refrain repeated six times in the four Gospels. It is the core of Jesus’ teaching. I think Jesus would say, if you worry about whether or not your life will be everlasting, if you even ask the question, then eternal life is certainly not yours. This is why misunderstanding the concept of eternal upends the gospel. If you seek everlasting life, then eternal life passes you by.
Everlasting and eternal are almost synonymous in English, but there is a subtle difference that makes for an important distinction. Everlasting means lasting forever in time; there is a beginning, but no end. Eternal refers to something that is outside of time; i.e. there is neither beginning nor end. One talks about time in a quantitative way (everlasting), but the other is neither temporal nor quantitative, but qualitative.
Everlasting life suggests that life is never ending, but eternal life is the quality of life that God meant for us from the beginning, and Jesus considered it so valuable that people would give everything they are and everything they possess in order to experience it,… which happens to be exactly what is required.