The Problem with "Hard" definitions in Science, and "Soft" definitions in Theology

The definitions of words make a difference. In science words tend to be rather “hard” in their meaning. If something is so many inches long, then it can’t be less or more. Yet definitions in Theology tend to be very fluid, depending upon your interpretive frame work.

The example here is a discussion I was having in another topic which caused a discussion. The challenge was:

To start with, what does Eternal mean in Science versus what it means in Theology. And what difference does it make that when Christians talk about Eternal Life, do they actual mean Everlasting Life. And how does that error change our viewpoint of the mortality of mankind.
Are their other words in either category that require the same scrutiny?

If we are trying to integrate Science with Theology, then perhaps some rigor in theological definitions is needed to help the discussion.

Since this came from George, I’ll let him have the first shot. And it is 1:00 in the morning I can’t get to sleep until I posted this.

1 Like


Ray! As you might imagine, I think “Eternal” is not a word bandied about very often by Scientists. But if we were to hold a cyclotron to their head and compel them to use the word “Eternal”, this is what I would suggest:

  1. The evidence is overwhelming that there was a start to time - - back at the big bang.

  2. There are various arguments as to whether the Universe will continue to expand forever …

  3. Or, somehow, something will arrest the expansion ushering in a phase of contraction, to eventually arrive at the Big Crunch!

Ray, I think - - definitionally speaking - - if (3) above were true … nothing is Eternal. Everything has a finite timeline back to Creation … and a finite timeline back to the ultimate destruction.

But what if (2) is true? Can the Universe be said to be Eternal if it only has one timeline that is infinite ?

Some people like to use “Infinite” and “Eternal” as synonyms. Mathematicians would say that even if we only go in one direction on a number line, All Positive Integers would still be Infinite (a countable infinity, because discrete integers can be named, in order, as we proceed down the number line).

[For the curious, an Uncountable Infinity references such number sets as “All the Positive Fractions”: since no matter what fraction you start with - - say, 1/100 … or 2/34323938439 - - there is still a smaller fraction between the selected fraction and the number Zero! And so, this number set is “uncountable” … but still infinite like “All Positive Integers”!]

So while math folks would agree that an ever expanding Universe could be said to be Infinite, is this really the same thing as Eternal? I think most academics would say No. “Eternal” implies infinite in both directions. In a way, I’m glad I wasn’t an adult before the development of the Big Bang Theory. I would be a little embarrassed by the idea that the Universe “Always Existed”; this seems to be a fairly odd idea in my own personal view of things. And yet, for some reason, I have no qualms about thinking God is Eternal. I’ll have to ponder that.

But first, let’s move on to some of the final comments from Ray’s question:

Ray, I have to say I’m rather intrigued that you are so “taken” by this topic of Eternal. This issue must trigger some major gravitas in your noggin …

But as I mentioned last night, in reference to @Jonathan_Burke’s interest in the question of immortality when comparing Greek vs. Hebrew philosophies, my view is that this conundrum makes for a rather thin soup.

I assume you want to compare/contrast these terms like so:

"Eternal Life" - a soul that has always existed and will continue to exist forever.


"Everlasting Life" - a soul that is created or born at a finite point, and continues to exist forever.

So, first off, we must be setting aside the idea that God, or some other Being, can or will destroy souls (for whatever intentional or unintentional reason). However, if it is a “process” that leads to extinction - - like, say, “old age” - - well, that pretty much ends the whole discussion on “Eternal” or on “Everlasting” - - because neither would appear applicable.

Jon’s presentation on the Hebrew view of souls is that when the body dies, so ends the Soul (if I got this wrong, Jon, I apologize). I call this the light bulb analogy of the soul: as long as there is a filament, and power, there is light. Remove the filament [the body, or the brain, or just the neo-cortex unique to primates and/or humans], or remove the power [the body breathes, the heart pumps, etc.], the soul “goes out” like a candle flame.

Enoch, having been lifted up into the heavens while still alive, may live eternally - - because his body is presumed to be immortal in God’s heavenly kingdom. And the General Resurrection envisioned by some Jewish theologians is one where God re-creates the body. It’s a new body. But it brings back the associated soul just like replacing a broken filament with a new filament brings back the “light” produced by the light bulb.

Frankly, I reject this concept of a soul. It may be Hebrew, but that wasn’t the only Hebrew school of thought. I have long proposed that the Essenes (a Persian-influenced ascetic group) believed that the Soul (once born/created) could exist independently of the body of flesh! I believe this school of thought is indicated by Josephus’s Zealot Speech he describes made on the night before the Roman entry into Masada (see image below - click on image to enlarge text to full size!):


In this speech, he describes the ability of the soul to travel away from the deceased body. The specifics of such an afterlife are offered in the little known ancient writing called the “History of the Rechabites”. This work appears to have had a Jewish core, and then co-opted by an early Christian writer who apparently appended a Christian beginning and a Christian ending.

The protagonist convinces the Divine to let him visit Paradise. The Paradise described is very much like one Greek version - - where there is an impassable river that separates all living humanity (and unworthy souls) from a sacred island - - Elysium (Elysium is sometimes presented as an underworld Paradise, also usually unapproachable except by the Worthy Dead. On this island, we learn that the righteous gather, and pursue meritorious thoughts and prayers, as they wait for the End of Days (where they may or may not receive an even newer body of flesh) - - or until God suddenly needs one of them at His side. If the latter occurs, angels arrive to wisk away the soul (with a spiritual body) to attend to God at his side until the End of Days.

I have always been amused by what I think is a fairly obvious development. The American popular notion of death is that the soul is, more or less, immediately available as a disembodied soul, heading off to God’s bosom (or some other divine location). If a child dies, this soul might tarry to be a guardian angel to his or her parents.

If we compare this popular modern view to the views of the afterlife described by Josphus, it is clear that the best match is not the view of the Priests (Sadducees) or the Pharisees - - but of the Essenes! They would have been delighted to know that some of their ideas would become the most popular ideas of the Western world.

Tag! Ray, you’re it now!

That’s correct. But please note that it’s not simply my presentation; this is the understanding of the Hebrew view which is typically found in the literature. There is broad agreement that this view is also found in the New Testament. Consequently it no surprise to find this view in Second Temple Period Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, and early Christianity (typically among the Syrians).


Yes, yes … with the notable (and, frankly, crucial) of Eleazar’s speech at Masada, which eliminates the body as any important consideration - - with the possible requirement, yet to be discovered, for a physical body at the End of Days.

Reminds me of Wordswoth’s poem "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood " which my favorite name for a poem, as it tends to flow off the tongue, an exerpt of which is here, though I do not really agree with the soul theology:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
1 Like

Allow me to nitpick in the midst of your game of tag with Ray, George, but what you said above needs correction. The “positive fractions” (or “rational numbers” -we can throw in the negative ones too and it won’t change what I’m about to say) are actually yet another countable infinity. You can line them up strategically (I can show you if you’re curious) in such a way as to count them without leaving any out. If you want a simple example of an uncountable infinity just refer to any continuum, like … all the reals between zero and one, or … all the reals, or even just all the irrationals or so forth.

So now we’re just left with the question … is eternity a countable or uncountable infinity? Methinks this might be like asking what color the number 5 is. But I do like the (apparently old assumption) that assumes eternity has no endpoints (on either end) like a line that goes both ways forever. Where as infinite can refer to just the one-way infinities like a ray with its singular end point.


I find your challenge difficult to believe. Between 0 and 1/1,999,999,999, there is still an infinite number of fractions. So perhaps you are offering one of those gem-like “visual tricks” with which math teachers like to taunt their students? I look forward to your demonstration when the time suits you.

As for the final question … I don’t think I was concerned about whether they Eternity only applied to one or the other categories of infinity.

[[ @RLBailey, please note - - it is at this point that I despise the disputed difference between “Eternal & Everlasting”. It has already triggered two non-issues from just one perfectly pleasant and collegial BioLogos correspondent . . . which wouldn’t have been necessary at all under normal circumstances. ]]

As far as I’m concerned, anything with “… one Infinite endpoint pointing into the future” can be Everlasting. But unless something has two infinite endpoints, I am inclined to not apply the adjective “Eternal” to it.

Eternity can include either countable or uncountable infinities in my view; but Eternity needs to go in both directions (into the future and into the past), not just into the future.

Here is a way to “denumerate” every last rational expression without skipping any which is what is key here. I.e. we then have a one-to-one correspondence with the set of naturals, and that is what demonstrates that the rationals are an “Aleph-naught” infinity equivalent to the naturals (and of course throw each negative in as well --still a one-to-one correspondence.) I got the picture below from the first site I found to have a good pic – some homeschooling web site. You can probably find good explanation there if you don’t find this sufficient, but here it is. Check out the chart below and follow the diagonal arrows as they move down from the upper left corner and sweep through each successive diagonal. There is no fraction (of non-zero integers) that exists that will get left out of this scheme. All will be accounted for (in fact each one is counted infinitely many times! Such as 5/2, 10/4, 20/8, …). So now you have a way to count all the fractions without leaving out a single one! You can’t say that about the real numbers --even just the ones between zero and one.

1 Like

Ha! That’s amazing. Good job, @Mervin_Bitikofer!

I should be able to torment any number of people (< see what I did there?) with this classic piece of visualization… But I won’t … unless they start talking about politics… then I’ll just have to do it …

1 Like

But so what?

Perhaps one way of thinking (with modern theoretical physics in mind), theologically eternity transcends the time-space continuum, and scientifically eternity is similar to infinity, which is a term found in mathematical expressions. A Christian can talk of life in God as free from any space-time constraints, or eternal life.



1 Like

(And I’m sure @Mervin_Bitikofer knows the above post reflects by my undying admiration and jealousy of his ninja-like math moves, and was not intended to violate our gracious dialogue policy in any way. :wink:)

The Zealot/Essene version of the Afterlife does not require a body of flesh… making the human soul more parallel to a divine being. The Greeks as well as the Hebrew were influenced by Persian metaphysics.

What argument are you trying to make with your single data point?

I just said it: the Essenes didn’t require a body of flesh to have an afterlife.

But how is that relevant to the issue of the scholarly consensus and how is it relevant to the fact that the Bible doesn’t contain that view? I’m trying to understand how your post was related to the topic we were discussing.

Gentlelady and Gentlemen,

I sat to read the posts and was (literally) moved to tears!. This is the first time in my life I have asked such a question and received such a wealth of glorious responses! My entire life has been asking questions of this type and being disappointed in the results without having to spend multiple hours searching sources.
Thank Elohim for BioLogos!
And to all of you for responding.

Thank you George. This is part of my conundrum and why it’s a bee in my bonnet! It is why I struggle with Eternal being the word currently accepted for the theology of the soul. That’s why I think the use of the word Eternal is misapplied and propagated by the translations that have moved that direction instead of using Everlasting.

Exactly! I have been looking for this kind of source! God made man and the first act of the “making” process (in YEC terms) is “breathing the into him (archetype) the Breath of Life” which is to me - the soul.
Yet to my way of thinking the body is what enables that soul to exist. Without the body there is no place for the soul to reside. It requires a container because we are made within the strictures of Time & Space.

Thank you Mervin.
I love mathematics though I am (literally) challenged by multiplication and division (I can do calculus just fine as long as I have a calculator to do the simple maths for me! - something in my head refuses to do simple math. My early math education was dismal until I was allowed to use a slide-rule, then calculator!).

Yes, exactly. The translation of the word Eternal in science is to “rotate” it through a dimension into that of being Infinity. I am a fan of dimensional analysis and am constantly referring to changing the axis of something 90* to achieve a new perspective.
My analogy is usually that of a mobius strip. Draw a line across the short width on a strip of paper. At the top long edge start counting to the left (no negative sign). Do the same on the bottom edge with positive numbers to the right. Now join the two ends together with a half-twist. Now you have an illustration of the Infinity factor in number lines! And that at the same time that Time/Space leads all directions back on itself.
There cannot be an Eternal Soul confined within the Time/Space without another factor being involved!

So thanks to GJDS for making my point!

I guess what I am getting at, is that even the Idea of an Eternal Being inside the Time/Space Continuum is not possible! Elohim’s creation may become Everlasting (having a beginning) but it is designed as a container that encapsulates everything there is. Even “Heaven” (more on that later).

I will elucidate my chain of reckoning from this point in later posts:grinning: but here are a few of the things we need to rethink:
What is death: It is the Knowledge of Death, not death itself that was the issue in the Garden.
The gift of Everlasting life (the continuance of the Soul) is dependent upon the Resurrected Body.
Everybody gets a “renewed” body at the Resurrection–including the lost. Just at separate times.
The lost are punished by the lake of fire.
The lake of fire burns the body and its soul.
When the lake of fire is finished consuming the body with its soul, the punishment is finished.
Our existence is to live in a New Earth and have access with our new body to the New Heavens (of which we are not sure what that means at this time. We are told by Paul “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

Whew! Nice start

Oh, and Christy, I resemble that remark! I maxed the Nerd Test as I am sure many others here would!


1 Like

That leads me to the next one.
What is Death in Science versus Theology?

George, I overlooked a response to this one in my previous post.
If the Soul and Body are inseparable, then how do we understand the death of an individual, while we continue to exists after they are dead.
Theology has traditionally used metaphors that are accessable by the culture of the time. “Sleep” being the primary metaphor.

Science has provided us with access to Time. How does what we think of as Time in our culture change the definition of “sleep” and the “Bosom of Abraham”?

I reserve my thoughts until I read some replies.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.