What Is Eternal Life?

This is the ninth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

I often think that we haven’t done a very good job of setting forth the doctrine of eternal life. For most people, the concept seems a rather shallow one: that we will live forever. Frankly, many may not consider it all that appealing if the place where we live forever is Heaven. Too often, Heaven is reduced to merely this: a place where I’ll be happy. I’ll have a mansion, I’ll see my mother again, and I won’t ever have to suffer. The description never gets around to mentioning God. If He is mentioned at all, He’s way down on the list somewhere rather than at the top where He belongs. This is sad, for the heart of Heaven is to be with God!

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Spe Salvi,” pondered the problem of the generally 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 has led me to conclude that ultimately eternal life is not about the length of life, but its fullness. To enter eternal life means to become fully alive. Here on this earth 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 some aspects of it. For example, have you ever had a day when you felt you had all the energy in the world? Not only did you feel energetic but your mind was sharp and you were efficient and effective. Everything seemed to click; there was joy and contentment. Days like that and feelings like that don’t last, but they provide a glimpse of what eternal life might be like—except that eternal life will be immeasurably better!

Another experience I have of eternal life is one that I hope you share. At the age of 56, my body is no longer in prime condition. It is aging and death will one day come to it, but my soul is more alive than ever. I am more joyful, serene, confident, prayerful, and content than ever. Many sins that used to plague me are gone or at least greatly diminished. In effect, I am more alive now than I was when I was in my twenties. Just wait until you see me at 75 or 90! 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. Its fulfillment will only be in Heaven but I am a witness (and I hope that you are too) that eternal life has already set deep roots in me.

This experience of being fully alive is to be contrasted with one of the descriptions of Hell in the Scriptures which refers to it as the “second death” (e.g., Rev 21:8). This means that the dammed, having died in the corporal sense, now descend to what is not really life. Yes, they have existence and experience, but their lives are dead because they are not living for what God made them for: His very self. Theirs is a “life” of frustration and emptiness because the whole key to happiness is missing. Having rejected God, His Kingdom, and His values, they have nothing left with which to fill the God-sized hole in their hearts. It is a life so far from eternal life that it is barely a life at all; thus Scripture calls it the “second death.”

Again, the main point is that “eternal” in “eternal life” refers not so much to the length of life as to its fullness. To enter eternal life is to become fully alive with God forever; to experience untold joy, serenity, and peace in an eternal embrace with Him forever. Having our communion with God perfected, we will also have our communion with one another perfected. We will be caught up in the great movement of love that is the life of the Trinity. 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; it’s 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 presents this beautiful image of eternal life:

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 from a few years back, Bishop Robert Barron makes an interesting point, one that I have made in other posts as well: 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 video, Bishop Barron discusses the current obsession with vampires. He 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. 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.” Yes, when the Church drops the ball, the world picks it up—but flattens and distorts it.

9 Replies to “What Is Eternal Life?”

  1. Many thanks for sharing your own experience of being 56 and tasting a bit of eternal life. This is an experience I have had and can never put into words. Yet, the very fact that one is baptized, the possibility of experiencing eternal life is opened to us by the Kingdom already established by Jesus here on earth which connects us with heaven. He invites us daily to walk with Him, enter within Him, here and now every day.

    Us little children of God, we are always children with learning disabilities. Poor God, everyday He tells His children, “Keep moving forward, persevere, stay on course and be faithful, your disabilities I will take away and you will know My Presence.”

    While on earth it is our work to enter into His Presence, into His day, letting Him open a bit of heaven to others through the life lived until that day that lasts forever.

    Again, many thanks.

  2. Also, it is crucial to define “eternal life” according to Scripture. Key verses I want to highlight are as follows:

    –John 4:14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

    –John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

    –John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

    –1 John 3:14-15 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

    In these passages from John, it is clear that “eternal life” is not something that comes in the future, it is not a ticket to heaven, but rather it is something you presently experience. In John’s mind, to have “eternal life” means you have a relationship with the Trinity, the Trinity dwells within you. You “know” the Father and the Son, you have a spring of water flowing within, you have passed from spiritual death to inner spiritual life. In short, you have “eternal life abiding within” yourself (1 Jn 3:15). So all those times in John when Jesus says “believe and you will have eternal life,” this is simply saying if you believe Jesus is your Savior, you will be in communal relationship with the Trinity. This communion can obviously be broken, as we see Adam originally had communion and fell, and 1 John 3:15 warns that mortal sin will result in no longer having eternal life in yourself (unless you repent).

    It is understandable why the term “eternal life” would confuse many, but it’s pretty clear once you stop and try to understand the term from John’s mystical perspective. That said, now it’s time to look at how the term “eternal life” is used by Paul and other Apostles, because we will see a different usage than John’s.

    The verses I want to highlight for the ‘second’ Biblical usage of “eternal life” are the following:

    –Matthew 18:8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.

    –Matthew 25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

    –Mark 10:17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

    –Mark 10:29-30 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.

    –Romans 2:7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life

    –Romans 6:22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

    –Galatians 6:8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

    –1 Timothy 6:19 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly [Greek: “eternal”] life.

    –Jude 1:21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

    In these verses, the focus isn’t on eternal life being experienced now, but rather a future reward you attain for living an upright lifestyle. Notice that none of these verses are speaking of when a person first believes and converts. Paul doesn’t speak of “eternal life” in places like Romans 3-4 and Galatians 2-3, where Protestants typically focus on how we ‘get saved’. Since Paul doesn’t speak of “eternal life” in these places, it would mean Paul does not link “getting saved” with securing a spot in heaven when you die. In Paul’s mind, you don’t have eternal life yet. These are two different events in your salvation experience. Protestants conflate the two events into one, while Catholics properly separate the two: conversion and reconciliation at the start of your walk with God, and judgment based on your works at the end of your walk deciding your final destiny. As Paul puts it beautifully, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2 Tim 4:8)

  3. Everyone shares in the truth (Catechism 319) We only know eternal life insofar as God has revealed it to us. Before we only knew eternal life in relation to our hearts’ desire: to not die, and so, to live forever. This is why most people think eternal life is immortality, especially given the word “eternal” in the name: it’s not secularism, it’s a lesser share in the truth than us and it’s the same desire for the truth as us. So let us be sympathetic to others, rather than blame “secularism” or label people “secularist.”

  4. Honestly, I never heard the mansion thing. All I ever hear is that heaven is “union with God.” I love God . . . but this seems boring. It makes me feel like I have to see everything beautiful now — the grand canyon, montana, etc. — while I can because none of these things are in heaven. What on earth will we do in heaven? Sing psalms all day?!

  5. Eternity has two meanings: a less strict one, which is simply time with no end, and a strict one, which is the total and perfect possession of being (life).
    God alone has by nature this second sense (“I am Who am”). Heaven is a sharing in God’s eternity, since heaven is essentially a share in God’s life. The souls in Hell will have everlasting existence, but not God’s eternity.

    1. Actually, by definition eternity transcends time. In eternity, for example, there is no linear progression of days – yesterday, today and tomorrow. Instead, all moments exist as a singularity AND SIMULTANEOUSLY, individual moments exist in perpetuity. In eternity, “beginning” and “end” — and everything in-between — exist as one reality.

      With respect to God — He is eternal. We also know that the universe is about 20 billion years old. So does that mean that God is at least 20 billion years old? No, He is eternal. That means He is effectively now and always “new” (“behold I make all things new”).

      If eternity was “simply time with no end,” that would indeed make eternal life excruciatingly boring. As Pope Benedict put it, “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.” (Spe Salvi, 10).

      Thankfully, that is NOT what eternal life is about. In fact, it is eternity which frees us from such a fate.

  6. Thank you, I love what you say: To enter eternal life is to become fully alive with God forever; to experience untold joy, serenity, and peace in an eternal embrace with Him forever. Having our communion with God perfected, we will also have our communion with one another perfected.
    So it is no wonder then why “a thousand years is like one day.” We will be in perfect communion with God and one another and it will be nothing like what we experience here and now with so many fears and divisions and misunderstandings and worse. Maybe it is just hard to imagine a world with absolutely not one drop of conflict, nor sorrow, no fear, no remorse, no death. Maybe we have become so accustomed (poor banished children of Eve) to the struggle of life, pitted against one another and the constant and ever present reminders of death, that we cannot or do not ponder a moment of Heaven. But mercifully God does give us glimpses of Himself in life and beauty and joy and wonder, calling us to desire Heaven. Perfect communion with God and with one another perfected in a Love that has no fault, no doubt, no fear, no end.

  7. Nick, Thank you for listing the scriptures that discuss Eternal Life. While I agree with Msgr Pope, Eternal Life is living in communion with God in this life and after our present bodies wear out. I also believe Eternal Life is more. In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians 4, Paul says believers are not to grieve like the non-believers do. 13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

    So Nick, what do you think? Do we have the hope of coming to life again with a new body and being recognized by those who have loved us and God down through the ages–like Jesus does?

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