Eternity is a long time

The Concept of Eternity in the Bible

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There are very few passages in the Bible that refer to our modern concept of eternity. The NT Greek expression: “into the ages” or “into the ages of the ages” is the closest the biblical writers come to expressing the concept of our modern ideas of infinite eternity.

N.T. Wright in his monumental book: The Resurrection of the Son of God, expresses a common discovery by scholars that the idea of conscious life after death does not occur to biblical writers until about 700BCE (chapter 3). Wright says the thing that spurs these writers to explore the topic of life after death was the martyrdom of so many Jews, who died fighting for the freedom of Israel. Those Jews needed to be rewarded for their sacrifice.

As a former fundamentalist, when I approached topics in the Bible, I would first assume that all writers in the scriptures were equally aware of the topic being written about, and that all writers completely agreed on each topic. This is a fundamental of fundamentalism: that God dictated the Bible word for word, such that the thoughts expressed are not the thoughts of the writer, but the thoughts of God. Therefore they are all completely correct, fully formed, and fully expressed wherever they occur in the history of humanity. As a fundamentalist I believed that all believers had believed this principal all along, and used the familiar passages of 2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:21 to prove this.

Non fundamentalists say that fundamentalism is new, that nobody in the Bible believed that every word was dictated by God. They nevertheless revered the Scriptures as having been God-breathed: generated by a higher Power, by the Holy Spirit, but certainly not infallible, only correct insofar as the listener to God’s breath was able to understand and convey what God was saying. So Martin Luther concluded that the book of James and the book of Revelation were only marginally inspired by God, and much of what they said would be burned up like straw when weighed on the Judgement Day. He gave several reasons for his thoughts. (He was not opposed to James’s concept that if you have faith, your works will show.)

N.T. Wright follows in Martin Luther’s footsteps when he traces the history of God’s revelation of eternal life throughout Scripture. Up until 700BCE there are only veiled references to life after death. He says that David’s question: “Won’t my God want to see my face after I die?” is a rhetorical question, the obvious answer being that nobody gets to see God once they are dead. I have difficulty with that, but he makes a good case for his point. N.T. Wright says there are no other statements previous to that that show a clear belief in life after death.

Jesus seems to disagree with N.T. Wright. Life after death was a hotly contested topic during his time on the earth. Jesus quoted God speaking to Moses: “‘Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. ”

N.T. Wright would argue that Jesus’ awareness of life after death was foreign to writers of the Law of Moses (pp. 424-430). His argument is that Jesus’ view was in the mainstream of Pharisaic views of the resurrection during the first century, but not the mainstream of ancient Jewish thought.

Footnote on Fundamentalism:

One of the quickest ways to stop being a fundamentalist is just to start saying: “the apostle Paul says…” instead of “the Bible says” or “the Word of God says”. In fact, the written Bible is never referred to as “the Word of God”. Some of the words of God have been recorded in the Bible, but the Bible, as a whole, is never referred to by any person in the Bible as “the Word of God.” Only Jesus Himself is referred to as the Word of God, in contrast to the Ten Words of God (the Ten Commandments) written on stone. Now we have the commandments written in our hearts.

In fact, instead of saying: “the Bible says to sing and make melody in the heart unto the Lord,” say, “The apostle Paul said to the church at Ephesus in the first century to sing and make melody in the heart unto the Lord.” That’s just as accurate, in fact, it is more accurate than saying, “the Bible says..” A fundamentalist from the Churches of Christ would never say, “The Bible says to praise God with the tambourine and with dancing!”
The Bible clearly says that, but a fundamentalist from the Churches of Christ would say, “King David in the Psalms under the Old Testament said to praise God with the tambourine and with dancing.” Somehow this is acceptable, even necessary to specify who is talking to whom, when, and where, but when I suggest we do that for the entirety of the Bible, it is seen as chipping away at our faith. To be faithful to the actual writing of the actual Bible it is necessary to specify Who is talking to Whom, When and Where. (Just like D.R. Dungan said in his text on Hermeneutics.)

To do otherwise is lazy scholarship. To do otherwise is jingoistic loyalty to a particular “ism” that may crumble under examination. If you have nothing to fear, then be more specific when you quote the Scriptures. Otherwise you are only speaking to your own tiny party.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
This entry was posted in Bible, Hell, Inspiration of the Scriptures, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Eternity is a long time

  1. Mike says:

    Eternity is not governed by time. Time was created for carnal man to express his life span and anything associated with that life span. Eternity has no beginning and no end.

    • Mark says:

      Mike, Eternity not governed by time is a construct modern humans have created to help us understand God and eternity, but it is technically not a biblical concept. There are theologians who are exploring the idea that God is limited by time in many of the same ways we are.

  2. Mark says:

    In re your last two paragraphs, this is why large portions of the Bible were not read in the cofC service. It would have contradicted the sermon. The smaller the piece, the more likely it would say what you wanted it to. I now get to hear positions of scripture in the Episcopal church that I never heard in the cofC and even parts about Paul being loving.

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