Jon: If you know very much about the story of the Bible, you’ve probably heard that Jesus offers “eternal life.” Sounds nice, but what does Jesus mean by “eternal life”?
Tim: Well, Jesus adopted this phrase from the Hebrew Scriptures. In English, it’s translated “eternal life,” or sometimes “everlasting life.” But the phrase literally translated from Hebrew is “life unto the age.”
Jon: “Life unto the age?” What does that mean?
Tim: Yeah, it’s a dense phrase, and to understand it, we need to first talk about what an age is in the Bible.
Jon: Let’s do it.
What Is an “Age”? [00:36-01:37]
Tim: So, the Hebrew word for “age” is ‘olam, and it refers to a period of time.
Jon: What length of time?
Tim: Well, any length of time, actually, and it can be in the past or in the future. What matters is that it’s a period of time with some common attribute that remains constant.
Jon: So for example?
Tim: So, like the time of Abraham and his descendants, all the way up to Moses. The common attribute is, it’s the time of Moses’ ancestors. And so Moses can say “remember the days of the age, the years of past generations and elders.”1
Tim: Or an age can be shorter and in the future. Like Samuel who is going to spend his whole life serving in the temple. During his dedication, his mother Hannah calls this “an age.”2
Jon: So, an age is a period of time that has a unique and constant characteristic.
Jon: And there could be all sorts of different ages, depending on what you want to focus on.
Tim: You got it. And so someone could live in two ages at the same time if those ages happen to overlap.
The Age of Life vs. the Age of Death [01:38-02:50]
Jon: Okay, so back to this phrase “life unto the age.” What age is this talking about?
Tim: Okay so, in the beginning of the biblical story, humans are made from the dust of the ground. This is a common biblical image for creatures that are mortal, that is, they live in an age where they could die. But, God takes humanity and places them in a sacred garden, where they’re invited to experience a new and deeper kind of life.3
Jon: By eating from the tree of life.
Tim: Yeah. We’re told it offers them “life unto the age”—a life of infinite potential because it connects them to God’s own divine life.
Jon: But the story takes a turn, and instead of accepting life unto the age, they eat of the tree of knowing good and bad.4
Tim: Right. Taking from this tree means seizing life for themselves, on their own terms, apart from God’s wisdom.
Jon: And so they’re exiled from life unto the age, and they go into the age of death. They mistrust each other. They do what is right in their own eyes. Things get really violent.5
Tim: Exactly, and so the whole rest of the story of the Bible can be thought of as a choice between two different ages—the age of life on our own terms that leads to death, or the age of God’s own life.
Jesus Offers Access to the Age of Life [02:51-03:53]
Jon: And while humanity has rejected God’s life, God promises he’ll open the way back.
Tim: Exactly! And it’s that promise that ultimately leads the story to Jesus. He’s presented as God’s own life become human so that both ages overlap in him. He lives in the age of mortality and death and in the age of eternal life, at the same time.6
Jon: And so, he can offer people access to “life unto the age.”
Tim: Right, it’s like what Jesus says in the Gospel of John:
“This is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”7
Jon: Yet, just like humanity rejected God’s life in the garden, Jesus was rejected and put to death.
Tim: But God’s life is more powerful than death. And so Jesus rises from the dead and he can offer God’s life to others. Like the Gospel of John also says…
Jon: “Whoever trusts in him will not perish, but has eternal life.”8
Tim: That is “life unto the age.”
The Age of Life Now and in the Future [03:54-05:30]
Jon: Cool! Now, most people think of eternal life as something that happens after you die. But in the Bible, access to this age is something I could have right now.
Tim: Yeah! Remember, Jesus was the place where the age of God’s life meets the age of death. And that means that when people trust him, they can experience eternal life here and now.9
Jon: But we also still live in the age of death, so what happens when I die?
Tim: Well, just like death couldn’t overpower God’s eternal life in Jesus, similarly, we can remain alive to God even if we’re physically dead. In the Bible, this is called being “with Christ,”10 and it’s not talked about very much because it’s not how the overall biblical story ends. The focus of the Bible is about when the age of life completely overcomes the age of death, and those who are with Christ are recreated to share in God’s eternal life11.
Jon: A world where the age of death no longer has any power.
Tim: Exactly. Because life that is fully connected to God’s own eternal life and love is a life that will never end.
1. Deuteronomy 32:7
2. 1 Samuel 1:21-28
3. Genesis 2:7-9
4. Genesis 3:1-7
5. e.g. Genesis 3:8-24, Genesis 4:1-8, Genesis 6:5