I received the following question.
You speak of eternal life in your writings. Shouldn’t everlasting life be used instead of eternal? In my understanding God alone is eternal. We will be given everlasting life, not eternal life. Eternal being time past and future time. Everlasting being limited to future time.
When I write, I sometimes use the familiar term that is found so often in the King James Version of our English Bibles, especially in the book of John (3:15, 4:36, 5:39, 6:54&68, 10:28, 12:25, 17:22&23) and Paul’s letters (20 occurrences, if Hebrews is included.) The term “everlasting,” while much more common in the Old Testament, is less common in the New (for example, John 3:16&36, 4:14, 5:24, 6:27,40,&47, and 12:50, one less than “eternal,” and only 9 occurrences in Paul, 11 less than “eternal.”) I merely chose “eternal” as the more common, New Testament term.
The truth is that both “eternal” and “everlasting” are translations of the same Greek word, aionios, so whatever their definition in English, their definition in Greek is the same. Unfortunately, neither “eternal” nor “everlasting” is a great translation for the word aionios. The word is the adjectival form of the Greek noun aion.
“Aion” is the word translated “ever” in the phrase “for ever.” This is a very bad translation, however, since “ever” is an adverb, and thus is a totally inadequate word to use in translating a noun. Basically, this turns a prepositional phrase, “for the eon,” into an infinitive phrase, “for ever.” It is dishonest to alter language thus. Moreover, when the noun aion is used alone without the “for,” it is translated “world.” Since “world” and “ever” obviously are not the same thing, it is dishonest translation to make a totally different translation of the word aion depending on if “for” is before it or not.
Many today try to correct this dishonest translation of aion by translating it “age.” This is a noun, and can work in both “for the age” (where it is a prepositional phrase) and “age” alone, so it is a better translation. However, the logic here is that an eon covers a certain period of time, so it must mean a period of time. By this reasoning, a “Presidency” covers a period of four years, so the word “Presidency” must mean a period of four years. Did I go to high school for a “Presidency?” No, certainly not! For, though a “Presidency” is a period of four years, it is also much more than that. In the same way, an eon is much more than just a period of time.
Ultimately, the word aion in Greek (and the word olam in Hebrew) both mean the same thing. They have the basic idea of that which flows, especially that which flows out or flows down. Thus, the adjective aionios or “eonian” has the meaning of “out-flowing.” So eonian life is life that flows or flows out, out-flowing life.
We can see that the idea of “everlasting” might be derived from this. We know that our life now is not out-flowing. When we are born, our life is gushing out. Very quickly we grow and develop and mature, and life is working in a mighty stream. As we get older, however, life begins to wind down. Sometime in your 20s you start to realize that “older” doesn’t mean “better” anymore like it used to. Instead, “older” starts to mean “harder,” to mean another ache or pain, to mean another thing that you can’t do like you used to. It doesn’t happen all at once, of course, and so slowly that we barely notice it at first, but eventually this life we are living starts to slow down. The flow that seemed so powerful and consuming at first starts to slow down and decrease, finally reaching a crawl, then little more than a trickle, and finally comes to a stop altogether. The flow of our lives ends, and we are dead.
This is not the way it is with eonian life. Eonian life does not just start out with a rush, but it continues that way. It does not start to slow down or decrease. It does not start to flow less rapidly. Instead, eonian life flows on for ever.
Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that this is all there is to out-flowing life. I look at my life now, and I ask myself, “Would I really want to live forever with conditions the way they are now?” And my answer has to be no. With all the sorrow, all the heartache, all the unfairness, all the pain that exists in this world, I just would not want to live for ever. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I would like to die tomorrow! In fact, if I could increase my lifespan, I would gladly do it. If I could live twice my normal lifespan…spend 20 years in my 30s, 20 years in my 40s, and so forth…I would be most happy and eager to do it! Even three or four times my lifespan I could handle. But to live for ever in this life? No, I don’t think I’d want to do it. Eventually, as the centuries and the millenia roll on, the sorrows and cares of this world would get to the point where they would drive all the joy out of living, and it would be nothing more than a burden. No, living for ever in this condition of things is just not appealing.
Yet that is not the way it is with outflowing life. Outflowing life is not just a life for ever, but a life you would WANT to live for ever. Its flow does not just cover time, but also includes every good thing from the hand of God that would make a life for ever worth living. The bottom line is that eonian life is a life that you would want to live for ever.
Finally, we need to realize that God, in His basic nature, is a “flow-er.” Not a “flower,” but “FLOWer.” That is, He flows out to the world. We see His first flowing acts in creation. Yet all throughout history, whenever God dealt with men, He was flowing out to them: with His power, with His word, with His leadership and guidance, through His Spirit and His Son. Yet ultimately, His flows in the past were always limited. Yet there is a time to come in the future when God will flow out to the world in such an overwhelming way that it can be called, above all other flows that God has ever made, THE flow of God. This time is what we more commonly know as the Kingdom or the government of God. At that time, God will flow down to the world in such a mighty stream that the governments of the world and every man will be overwhelmed by it. Thus, this time period above all others can be called “THE eon.” And eonian life likewise will have its beginning in the eon. It will flow from God, even as God flows to the world in His Kingdom. That is also the meaning of aionios or “eonian” life.
So ultimately my answer is that I was not too careful with my terms, mostly because I don’t think either English term is that great a representation. You are probably right about the English definitions, but if you tried to carry this idea into the Bible and use them to interpret the verses where “eternal” appears versus those where “everlasting” appears, you would find that such an attempt would be utterly futile. Our Bible translations make no such distinction…at least, not those I am familiar with.