How do we know we are eternal beings? Jesus one day near the close of His sojourn here stood and cried out to the Jerusalem crowd:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” John 6:51 NIV
But what does “forever” mean?
According to Aristotle, this word means,
“Having of all time no beginning and no end. The complete summation of … time … is called “forever.” According to this idea, all that encompasses the heavens, and time and infinity has always been known to be: “without death and divine.”
Huh!?!? Okay my translation is rough. I apologize for pulling up short on my education.
According to Philo: Time is the life force of the cosmos; “forever” the life force of God. Proclus in his theology (5 AD) argued: Always is not perpetual but temporal, whereas the word “perpetual” is “forever.”
I guess I needed just one more year of college to more fully appreciate the Classics. Kittell’s theological dictionary (Kittell volume 1 page 198) pontificated:
Only in the light of the context can it be said whether “forever” means “eternal” in the strict sense or simply “remote” or “extended” or “uninterrupted time.”
The problem, as I see it, is that we tend to think of eternity in terms of time when in fact eternity is mutually exclusive of time. Even Aristotle’s use of “always” (which stems from the same word as our word “forever”) makes his reasoning circular and we are not sure if like the Latin term, aevum, he is referring to “life” or “life force” or “lifetime.”
And what might the formula: “Forever AND ever” mean? (Galatians 1:5) How can we add 1 second more unto “eternity”? (“From eternity to eternity”?)
Kittell again concludes:
The Old Testament uses our word “forever” to translate different Hebrew terms, among which the most important always contain the idea of prolonged time, and referring only to hidden or distant time belonging to the remote inscrutable past or future from the standpoint of the present.
It is often correctly translated “days of old.” Perhaps, the best word in English to use for “forever” is “epoch” or “ages” (The ages to come, etc.) So, how are we to understand “eternity” as ascribed to God? Kittell, again,
“In the older writings of the Old Testament, there is a very simple concept of eternity. The being of God reaches back into times past. God has always been. Hence he is the “God of old,” as we are really to construe our word (Genesis 21: 33). Again He always will be. In contrast to men, who are subject to death (Genesis 6:3), he is the living God Deuteronomy 5:26.”
This is all so philosophical, so metaphysical. I have often wondered why a God who is from eternity past waited so long to make man for companionship. [haha] We tend to leave this part, “forever past” out of our debates since, in all honesty, we cannot wrap our brains around this concept. And that’s the rub! In John 9:32, the NIV translators chose to drop the phrase “since the world began” (this is a translation of our word “forever”) which is correctly found in the KJV and the original. We are creatures locked in time and our language even betrays are limited ability to fathom the idea of “forever.” Even science when it hits this wall, it runs out of math.
This does not mean that forever is not for real or that God does not exist. In fact, if God were a figment of our philosophical imaginations, the term “forever” would probably be a well-defined term to us—but it isn’t.
There is an intuitive understanding that somehow this life is not all there is and when we become believers in Christ and read John 6:51 we are almost overcome with the exciting sense and conviction that this is true. (2 Timothy 1:12) Even though we have little idea what God is talking about or what He has in store for those who love Him (1 Corinthians 2:9), our hope is very much alive and well. We just need a new language to say it!