Spirituality for Today – December 2007 – Volume 12, Issue 5

What Is Eternal Life?

By Rev. Msgr. Frank Wissel

Photo of snowy mountains, snow on large pine trees and bright blue skyThe longer I live, the more I become aware of a deep contradiction at the very center of our existence. On the one hand, I see life as essentially good. This is not to say that it is easy or always pleasant. We all know that life is often difficult and sometimes painful. Still it is good.

Most people want to go on living, and many are enthusiastic about it. We all have a deep love for life. We love our families, we love our friends and most of us love our work. We love the wonders of nature, the laughter of children, a good joke and the competition of sports. All around me, I see people involved in a love affair with life. On the other hand, I am increasingly aware that life is short. It doesn't last long and the more we love it, the shorter it seems.

How can we reconcile those two thoughts that life is essentially good, and that one day soon it is going to be over? Some people do not try to reconcile them. They simply focus on the goodness of today, and refuse to think about the end of life.

This approach works most effectively for young people. Someone once said that childhood "is a kingdom where nobody dies." But we are never entirely safe, even when very young, from the reminder of our mortality. As the years go by, the brevity of life and the certainty of death become more and more evident. However, much we may love this life that we are now living, the day is rapidly approaching when we will have it no longer.

The Gospel reconciles these two conflicting facts in one great truth. That truth is expressed in the term "eternal life." Jesus said, "The Son of Man must be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life in him." Then he said, "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not die, but may have eternal life."

In the minds of many people, this term means the same as "immortality," that after death we somewhere, somehow go on existing forever and ever. Many people do not find that very reassuring. This is the only life that they have known and are troubled by the thought of giving it up for some sort of undefined, non-stop existence.

This is not what eternal life means. Immortality may mean that, but eternal life means more than that. It describes another kind of life. It is a life as we now know it with something extra added. It is life with another dimension. Someone may wonder, how can that be? How can life have another dimension?

Think about it for a moment. We would all agree that people share a common life with other animals. Dogs, for example, eat, sleep, drink and reproduce. People do the same. Dogs need affection, so do we. Dogs enjoy play, so do we. But at some point, our kinship ends. We are about things and enjoy things of which they are not even aware. We have a dimension in our lives that other animals do not have.

Since that is so plainly true, perhaps it is also true that there is another dimension to life above the one we now enjoy. Perhaps it is a life that is not bound by the limitations of time and space. It may be an expanded version of the life that we are now living, not just the same thing going on forever, but a fuller, richer, higher kind of life. Something like this is what the New Testament has in mind when it speaks of eternal life. It includes immortality, but it is so much more than that. It is not only an existence that never ends. It is a quality of life that is worth living forever. Right there in the middle of this everyday world, another world is pressing in upon us. It is a spiritual world. It is God's world and to live in that world is to have eternal life.

This is how Jesus lived, and he offered the same kind of life to all who believe in him. We do not have to wait for eternity. It is here, all around us. There are things in our lives right now that link us to God's eternal world. Deep within us are immortal longings. A conviction that we were not born for death.

You see a beautiful painting, portrayed on a piece of canvas. Eventually, that canvas will rot, but the beauty that the artist captured on that canvas will still be here. It belongs to a higher realm. It is painted on your mind. We are involved with eternal things right now. The important thing is not to convince ourselves that there is a heaven to come. What we need to do is strengthen our ties with the heaven that is here.

To know Christ is to have eternal life now. And to know him now is to know him then, when this earthly life is over, and our eyes are closed in death. He is the one that confers on us a higher kind of life, which begins right now and carries over into eternity.

There is an old adage that says, "All this, and heaven too." To be more accurate, we ought to say, "All this, and heaven now."