Let’s talk about eternal life. This is a topic that has been simmering in my head since the start of 2020. It’s a concept that has changed my understanding of who I am, what my purpose is, and how I live out my faith in the world.
If you stop a random person in the street and ask them what the phrase “eternal life” means (especially where I live in the middle of the Bible Belt), you might get a response similar to this: “Eternal life is living forever with God in heaven, which is our hope for the future, sealed by the Holy Spirit, etc. etc.”
This was my understanding of eternal life for a very long time. But the problem with this definition is that it finds its essence in the future. By this understanding, eternal life is not really something that we can experience in this lifetime. But I believe that contradicts what Jesus himself said about eternity.
I’m starting to realize that eternity is a characteristic of the divine that transcends our temporal minds. To sum it up in a sentence, the definition of eternal life that I’m coming to believe is this: “Eternal life is living in and fully experiencing the full breadth and depth of the presence of God.” Let’s unpack this definition.
This is the concept that most people think of when they hear the phrase “eternal life.” Think of the breadth of God’s presence like an eternally-long timeline. It has no beginning and it has no end. And since we are invited to partake in eternal life, our future hope as Christians is that our own temporality will merge with this divine eternity, drawing us into the breadth of God’s presence.
In the Evangelical world, we called this dying and going to heaven. For many people I know, this is the ultimate goal of the Christian life. To escape the present evil age as fast as we can and live forever in a Utopian community with all of our like-minded friends and family (while living in blissful ignorance when it comes to our friends and family members that are also experiencing eternal breadth, but one characterized by a lake of fire).
This picture of eternal life completely misses the point. It takes something transcendent and incomprehensible and flattens into to a single temporal dimension. But there’s an irony here. Since the nature of eternity is that it exists outside of time, the second we put our own temporal expectations upon it, it stops being eternity.
Since Jesus declared the he came to give abundant life, there has to be something more to eternity, something that we’re able to experience right here. I think there is. I think we spend too much time focusing on the never-ending breadth of eternal life that we fail to notice just how infinitely deep it is.
Our definition of eternal life often does not align with Jesus’ definition. Even though it’s laid out as clear as it can be in the book of John chapter 17.
The Book of John is an interesting book. And by interesting, I mean weird. It’s mysterious. It’s uncomfortable. Jesus says a lot of strange things. It’s hard to understand. Rarely does John spell out exactly what he’s trying to say. He likes to be vague and abstract. But in John 17:3, he breaks from his ambiguous nature and gives us the definition of eternal life.
“When Jesus had spoken these things, He lifted up His eyes to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You. 2For You granted Him authority over all people, so that He may give eternal life to all those You have given Him’” (John 17:1–2).
Now this sounds a lot like the Gospel of John. It’s not super clear what he’s talking about, but it sure does sound good. Then we get this next verse to really drive his point home.
“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Boom! How can he be any clearer? Eternal life, in the words of Jesus as recorded by John, is knowing God. It’s not dying and going to heaven. It’s not something that finds its fulfillment in another life. Eternal life is knowing God.
When I look around at the world, and especially when I look inwardly at my own life, I see surface-level engagement. I see people rushing through life, concerned with the hustle and bustle of the day, not allowing themselves to fully experience the present moment. I see shallow, transactional relationships between people that are more focused on what’s ahead of them than what’s right in front of them. I see time flying by before our eyes, because we’re always trying to get to the next thing, rushing to the next second, or minute, or hour, or day. We spend Monday through Friday longing for the weekend, then when get surprised when Sunday night rolls around in a blink. I don’t believe this hurried lifestyle is fully embracing the eternal life preached by Jesus.
I believe there is a depth to eternity that upends and transcends the superficiality of our earthly lives. A way to embrace and experience the divine in such a way that every passing second drips with the magnitude of eternity.
In our mortality, we humans live on a temporal timeline. Which is why it makes sense that we focus so much on the breadth of eternity. Our earthly lives are characterized and limited by our breadth. We’re prisoners of the finality of our past and the uncertainty of our future.
But if we can learn to know God, to experience God’s presence in each moment, our present can become the key to escaping our own single-dimensionality.
Eternity is infinitely broad, but it’s also infinitely deep.
There’s a concept that the early church fathers talked about called otium sanctum, or holy leisure. On the one hand, this concept describes the importance of restful, restorative times of leisure. But on the other hand, otium sanctum can also be a way of life. Living with a deep awareness of and sensitivity to the depth of God’s presence in each moment. A way of tapping into the richness of eternity within the confines of our own temporality.
How do we achieve this lifestyle? Ancient Christians found that the best way to experience the fullness of God in their lives was to practice spiritual disciplines. Physical actions such as prayer, fasting, communion, reflection, scripture study. These disciplines were tangible ways for human beings to experience the embodiment of eternity.
So with the book Spiritual Disciplines as my guide, I’m going to spend the next year diving into these spiritual disciplines and experimenting with the concept of otium sanctum. My goal is to find a tangible way to experience God’s presence and my own presence in every single moment.
There’s one more thought I want to close with. In high school, I had the opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama speak, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso. As a high schooler, most of what he said went way over my head, but there is one concept that has stuck with me ever since. He said that we should be like the ocean. The surface of the ocean is tossed and turned by the crashing waves. But deep down below the surface, there is stillness and peace. So many of us live life on the surface of the water, allowing the waves to take us where it wills. I believe the concept of otium sanctum and the experience of God’s eternal presence can take us to a point of depth where all we experience is the steadiness of the ocean, no matter what is going on at the surface.
I’m excited to begin my experimentation with the spiritual disciplines, and when I do I will track my progress here. In the meantime, I would love to connect with you in the comments below. What are some ways that you have found to counteract the flatness of our temporality and experience the full depth of eternal life in the here and now?