What is Eternal Life?

I often think  we haven’t done a very good job in setting forth the doctrine of Eternal Life. For most people the concept seems a rather flat one, namely, that we shall live for ever and ever and ever…. And frankly for many such a concept seems rather unappealing even if the place of it is heaven. Heaven too is often poorly understood. It is reduced to a rather egocentric notion of a place where I will be happy. I’ll have a mansion, I’ll see my mother again, I won’t suffer…. But most moderns in their description never get around to mentioning God. If God is mentioned at all he’s down on the list somewhere, not at the top where he belongs. This is sad for the heart of heaven is to be with God!

Pope Benedict in his Encyclical Spe Salvi also ponders the problem of the poor understanding of eternal life:

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable….The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. (Spe Salvi, 10, 12).

My own pondering and experience of the concept of eternal life is that ultimately eternal life is not about the length of life, it is about the fullness of life. To enter eternal life mean to become fully alive. For now we are not fully alive. We experience much of death in these lowly bodies of ours. However, most of us do get glimpses of eternal life and can experience aspects of it even now. For example, have you ever had a day when you had all the energy in the world. Not only did you feel energetic but your mind was sharp and your day was efficient and effective. Everything seemed to click and there was joy and contentment. Most of us have days like that from time to time but they don’t last. 🙁  But it is a glimpse of what eternal life might be like multiplied by a factor of 10 Trillion.

Another experience I have of eternal life I hope you share too. At age 48 my body is not in prime condition. It is aging to be sure and death will one day come to it. But my soul is more alive than ever. I am more joyful, more serene, more confident, more prayerful, more content. Many sins that used to plague me are gone or greatly diminished. In effect, I am more alive at 48 than I was at 28. And wait to you see me at 68 and 88! As I get older I become more alive. What I am saying is that eternal life doesn’t just begin after we die. It begins now and should grow in us more and more. It’s fulfillment will only be heaven but I am witness (and hope you are too) that eternal life has already set deep roots in me.

So again, the main point here is that with eternal life the word “eternal” refers not so much to the length of life as to the fullness of life. To enter eternal life is to become fully alive with God forever, to experience untold joy, serenity and peace in an eternal embrace with God forever. And having our communion with God perfected we will also have our communion with one another perfected. Who really needs a mansion when you can live in the heart of God? That is our true dwelling place that the Father is preparing. It’s not about houses and seats of honor its about a place in the heart of the God who made us and loves us. It is to become fully alive and perfect as the Father is perfect.

Pope Benedict also has a very beautiful image of eternal life in Spe Salvi:

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). (Spe Salvi, 12)

In the following video Fr. Robert Barron makes an interesting point, one that I have made elsewhere in these pages, namely, that when the Church fails to teach her doctrine well or casts aside her traditions, the world often picks them up but distorts them. In this rather Halloweenesque video Fr. Barron notes that as we have struggled to present well the concept of eternal life the world has taken up the notion of those “who can never die” in the vampire craze. Obviously the fact that they live forever is a horrible curse to them and any biblical notion of eternal life is absent. They are merely the “un-dead.” When the Church drops the ball the world pick it up but flattens and distorts it.


20 Replies to “What is Eternal Life?”

  1. Thanks Msgr, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a well-versed protestant where said we are “saved” by believing in Jesus, which is correct, he also pointed to having eternal life by believing in Jesus, also correct. Yet without the sacraments the flame can go out. For him he was mixing redemption and salvation in his explanation, because after belief there is nothing to stoke the fire save scripture. This struck me. His idea of eternal life was almost all limited to his place in heaven and little to do with fullness of life here and now. And I think part of him wanted that present fullness of life so much that he was beginning to see earth as heaven, that is, earth without sin. One can see the disconnect, this is not paradise, we can still sin.

    As a negative example Donna Steichen makes an interesting observation in her 1992 book “Ungodly Rage.” about one of the speakers of a pagan feminist conference speaking against the faith. Her “manner was conspicuously sad and listless.” (pg 51)

    Without the sacraments fostering eternal life can be like keeping a fire burning without more wood to put into the flames, and in open rebellion against Jesus and his church one can expect to chase almost all life out of one’s own heart, even and eventually eternal life.

  2. Eternal life is to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

    We do tend to complicate matters.

    1. Very nice Quote. Thank you for it. Perhaps though you think that any commentary on it “complicates” things? I am not sure. I do not suppose to that average worldly person today this quote would sound much more appealing than to live forever since most people today think of knowing merely in an intellectual way. The biblical concept of “knowing” is far richer. It means to have deep, intimate and personal experience of the thing or person known. And this of course makes the text a very rich description of eternal life. However, my experience is that it is not usually enough to quote the Bible verse, we have to teach as to what it means. And thus enter what you seem to call “complications” I would prefer to call them ellucidations. 🙂

      1. Yes, Father.

        I was going to put in parentheses after “know” just that: “interactive, ongoing, growing, relationship.”

        It seems you read into my comment a bit. It was “enough” to say that, in that it was good enough for Christ. It was not “enough” to say that, in that there is a lot more to John 17, to John, the NT, etc. I certainly hold no brief against elucidation, from Augustine to Aquinas to Anselm or, for that matter, Chesterton, O’Connor, and Percy. However, I am finding it constantly useful, as I have become more constant in remembering, for me and for my sons and for my (amateur) sermonizing, to start with Christ.

        Of course it isn’t enough to quote at people. But it is often quite good to start there — usually without saying it is a quote, I think — and then proceed. To unabashedly say what Jesus said is simply good and good will come of it. This would of course be followed by, in this case for instance, talking about “knowing” perhaps. Then maybe all that you posted originally. No problem at’all. Never did I mean hurling verses or carrying placards.

  3. Ah, the problem of the limitations of language, e.g. “eternal,” and the problem of considering things from the perspective of man and the world, and from the perspective of God. Quite often they are not the same.

    For most of us, considering the matter from man’s point of view, the idea of “eternal” is a temporal idea, grounded in time. But for God, it is not like that. God is not bounded by time, He transcends time. God may be eternal, but that does not mean that He is billions of years old. Rather, God is ever new (Rev. 21:5).

    Eternal life is not eternal in the human-sense, but since it involves being one with God, it is eternal in the God-sense, an ever-new encounter with Love and Truth.

    Now, does the same hold for “eternal death”? Inasmuch as Hell is detachment from God (to the extent that one can be detached and still exist (see St. Augustine)), is such eternity more like the human-sense, an excruciating slave to time?

  4. Eternal is, in fact, Bender, the opposite of temporal. It is, as the Holy Father suggests, a full and complete existence not divided or segregated by time or change, whose measurement time is. We temporal creatures can have eternal life only because God allows us to unite with Him in a “blessed communion,” as the Catechism puts it (Para. 1027). That is, God allows the blessed to enter into the divine life in heaven, so that God’s eternal life, in a real way, becomes their life (see Para. 1024).

  5. Thank you Msgr. Charles and i too would like to share my piece of experience of “eternal life” in Spirit and in Truth. Am a catholic and tested my faith by just being me. Once I asked God to tell me the meaning of “eternal life” and if this is true I asked God thru Jesus to show me the “father”, i am referring to our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, in person – in Spirit and in Truth. In Spirit because I believe that only God can give life back even if the person is long time dead and in truth because i also believe that only God can let things happen in reality, in the present time. I told God that I will offer prayer and fasting for my request and when He allows me to see Rizal, I will follow the church where he was baptized and follow his teachings too. True enough to God’s teaching of “faith” on the 3rd day of my prayer and fasting..God in His Holiness and Divinity..showed me the “father”, it happened March 10, 1973. I gave thanks to God for listening to my prayer and giving me the privilege to know the meaning of “eternal life” in my own simple way. It is really living the life in its fullness, holding on to the faith, to knowing the real church, the catholic church. God bless us all and let that faith stay in our heart and “live” by it, applying it into action, we’re not dead…aren’t we…because God is not dead, He is alive if we keep that fire burning in our hearts and action. Peace be to all believers. GOD LOVES US…that is the message that He wanted to tell us..so let us remain in HIM forever and share with Him in the Holy Communion…there in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar where he assigns His Holy Priesthood as His Living Covenant here on earth.

  6. What is the meaning of being punished in hell for ever and ever? What kind of suffering will it be, to what extent and for how much duration? What will be that condition when compared to eternal heaven? What is the latest teaching of Catholic Church in these matters?

  7. Dear Monsignor,

    This quote of yours really hit me to the core.
    “Another experience I have of eternal life I hope you share too. At age 48 my body is not in prime condition. It is aging to be sure and death will one day come to it. But my soul is more alive than ever. I am more joyful, more serene, more confident, more prayerful, more content. Many sins that used to plague me are gone or greatly diminished. In effect, I am more alive at 48 than I was at 28. And wait to you see me at 68 and 88! As I get older I become more alive.”

    It hit me because I too am 48 and sense the failing of my physical self, yet while I do find that some of my sins are diminishing, I still struggle with some old sins. I also find myself lacking in joy, serenity, confidence and contentment. I find myself feeling too many times at the end of the day that I have not used it to the fullest; that I am not using my gifts as well as I could, that I am failing God as I feel I am failing my wife, children and myself. That there is more I should or could be doing with my talents yet I can’t seem to find the avenue for them. And I am guilty of envy of other men my age who seem to have the focus, direction and success in this area that I so greatly lack.

    At the same time I am feeling very dry spiritually, as though He is very far away. I struggle to maintain, let alone grow, in my spiritual life. Reading scripture and the commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict – I am an oblate, which used to be something I cherished, now seems almost impossible to get in the proper frame of mind to do.

    I fear that I will one day come to my judgment and rather than be told “Well done good and faithful servant.” I will be asked “Why did you squander the skills I gave you? Why did you not do what I put you on earth to do? Why did you not grow in the spiritual life as you should have?”.

    Any wisdom you could offer to overcome this challenge would be greatly appreciated.

  8. To feel dry spiriutally is not a failure in the spiritual life. It is the common experience of the some the great saints. To experience something of a peace about this is a gift to ask for. If you do not already consult with a spiritual director I might encourage you to do so. It sounds like you may undergoing a transition from discursive prayer to a more contemplative form of prayer. THis often happens with those who pray. They lose their ability to read much in prayer and engage in discursive thought. Again this is not a failure, just a transition to a more contemplative experience of God. But here again, I would encourage you to work more with a sp, director who can make a better diagnosis than I can over the internet. But for now do not presume that you have not grown in the spiritual life as you claim. It may be something of growth that you are experiencing, growing pains to be sure but growth nontheless

  9. Great post…I actually watched the movie Twilight tonight before reading this blog. I like the twilight series, but I struggled with Bella’s desire to be turned into a vampire because in essence she would be denying herself the opportunity to go to heaven.

    Anyways, I really enjoyed the video clip and I am going to look into those books by Anne Rice!

  10. Hello,

    I believe I have just aquired the original pencil drawing of the “Lord holding the Lamb” that is on your website. I am trying to track down its history. Do you have a contact for whomever gave you permission to use this picture on your website?

    Thank you,

  11. You’re right. I’ve not thought much about eternal life except in very concrete terms — mangos, no more sore knees, the people I love accessible, including my family and friends, Jesus and Mary, and my favorite saints. But you’re right that heaven (or hell) begins here.

    I can’t help but have some Hindu ideas permeate my Christianity … I cannot shake the idea that reincarnation is possible, that when a person has not learned his lessons in this life, he comes back to learn them again, and it is only when he has finally learned them, that upon his death he becomes one with the Supreme Being. It sure beats the idea of eternal damnation, to be severed from God. I can only imagine a merciful God, one who will allow me to take the test over again, until I get it right.

    Just a year or so ago, I read Anne Rice’s book about her journey back to God and I could finally understand some of this vampire craze. Half my students can only talk about reading and re-reading the Twilight series. I often suggest Dracula. Thank you for this wonderful post.

    1. Hello Vijaya and God bless you! Your comments are really interesting to me, and I wanted to offer my input, but I hope I do not come across as an enemy. We are children of the same God.

      Your Hindu ideas of reincarnation mixing with your Christianity strike me with the sense that you have a tremendously high view of God’s mercy. God is infinite mercy, yes. But, I have a question. Well, it’s more like a thought and a question. Say a person knew for sure that if he wasn’t able to reach Heaven by the time he died due to bad circumstances or something, then out of God’s mercy, he would be reincarnated so that he could try again and that he wouldn’t go to Hell. Would the person have the motivation, then, to keep trying in his next lifetimes? Or consider the doctrinal foundation for why there is reincarnation: karma. If we lived in the slums, utterly poor and starving, and we believed that our situation was due to karma, that we were there because that’s what we deserved from the evil of our past lives, would we be motivated to work towards something better, or would we rather accept our hopeless situation with resignation? The fact, based on how many Hindus live in India, is that people live in total hopelessness, resignation (and not the peaceful resignation of knowing God is guiding us, but that resignation of total pessimism), and perpetual poverty. This is fact.

      If I knew that I would just be reincarnated next lifetime, that Hell wasn’t something to worry about, then I would give free rein to my sinful desires. Why not satisfy my lusts if God is infinitely merciful? Infinite mercy could not and would not condemn a sinner like me, which is what I am. I am being who I am, am I not? Psychologically speaking, most people as well, matter of fact, would do likewise. And if Jesus Christ is still being reincarnated, as some Hindu gurus claim, Jesus Christ who is model of perfect morality, what hope do we average humans have of breaking free of the cycle?

      But here is the second fact I would like to bring you to, if I may be permitted. We as Christians both know and believe that God’s infinite mercy is one with His infinite justice. They are the same thing, but we can’t realize how this is possible this side of Heaven. We see the rainbow on earth, but in Heaven, we shall see how they come together to form one single, magnificent, white light, which is God Himself, Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity. God is just, but He is also merciful. If we read the Bible together, we get a striking sense of God’s finality. What He commands, is done, immediately. We also never get a sense of any reality like reincarnation in the Biblical worldview. The ways of sin are death, we are constantly reminded by St. Paul and the epistles. What sort of death? Jesus Christ Himself tells us (these are His words, not mine!): the hellfire, where the worm does not die, the flame does not go out, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Horrible, scary imagery, but the fact is that Jesus is the original fire and brimstone preacher.

      BUT! The same man, the same God-Man, Jesus Christ, told the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you” but He adds, most importantly here, “Go and sin no more.” For if she were to continue sinning after being shown such mercy, it would be the utmost arrogance and contempt towards God. We must put on the new man, put on incorruption, put on the spiritual being, or else we shall die, as St. Paul tells us. There is a finality to nature, we see everyday, and likewise there is a finality to the supernatural. The fact is, we can’t, in this lifetime, imagine God as He really is in Himself–how His infinitely generous mercy and helpfulness is the same as His infinitely strict and rigid justice. If we see one side of God without the other, we inevitably reduce God to something that He is not; we reduce Him to an idea in our heads. We must take God as He has revealed Himself to us and believe what He has told us to be so; He has shown that he is infinitely just and merciful; the two cannot be separated or else we split God in two, and that is not God but only half.

      Consider the worldview from which reincarnation comes from; now meditate on that worldview from which resurrection comes from (there shall be one resurrection of the dead at the end of time, as the Apostles’ Creed affirms). I think we will both readily admit that the two worldviews are incompatible and fundamentally opposed even if there are shining grains of truth in Hinduism, and this is true! Hinduism, as well as every other religion, appeals because there is genuine truth in them! But the fullness of Grace and Truth can be found only in Jesus Christ (see John 1).

      These are merely my thoughts. I hope I do not come across as pretentious. My aim is only to edify although I am very crude and can appear harsh at many times, which if I am, I am very, very sorry. We can continue this via email if you’d like ([email protected]). God bless you!

  12. I started reading Huckleberry Finn to my children last night, and winced a bit when I came across the part in the first chapter where Huck decides he’d rather go to “the bad place” because Miss Watson did a poor job of describing what “the good place” was all about:

    “Then she told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then, but I didn’t mean no harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular. She said it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn’t say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it. But I never said so, because it would only make trouble, and wouldn’t do no good.

    “Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”

    I am sad to think how many people have been seduced away from hope in God and life everlasting by reading celebrated and classic literature such as this which are venerated in our culture, but which undermine faith.

  13. I was about to object — “hey, I didn’t comment here, someone is impersonating me.” Then I saw that this is a republishing of a post from a few months ago.

    But my thoughts are the same. We don’t need to worry about the curse of time in heaven, being bored out of our mind, even though in paradise, because it is just one endless day after another. Rather, heaven being eternal, it is outside of time. Rather than living to be millions of years old in heaven, every “moment” is ever new.

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