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The Everlasting and Eternal God

Every now and then I come across a comment, an article or a discussion about the Eternal nature of God and what it means. This subject has always been very thought-provoking to me so I’d like to put down some thoughts on the matter.

Some who question Church doctrine quote Moroni 7:22 and Mosiah 3:5 which read:

Moroni 7:22 – For Behold, God knowing all things, being from everlasting to everlasting…

Mosiah 3:5 – …who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity…

These scriptures are brought up and compared to an excerpt from Joseph Smith’s “King Follet Sermon” where Joseph states:

We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see. These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did; and I will show it from the Bible.

It is claimed that Joseph’s ideas about God changed after the printing of the Book of Mormon and that he slowly evolved the faith to teach things different that originally “revealed”. I think this is a valid argument that deserves investigation so I will contribute some of my thoughts on this topic to the discussion.

Whenever topics like this come up, I think it is important to establish some solid premises before moving on.

I think a good place to start is by examining the background of the words that we find in the scriptures to see if they actually mean what we think they mean. Believe it or not, the meaning of a word can change dramatically over time, even to end up meaning the complete opposite of what it was originally intended to mean.

What do you think the words “eternal”, “everlasting” or “forever” mean? Think about it for a moment before reading the actual definitions of the words that are provided below from a modern dictionary.

Everlasting
1. Lasting forever or for a very long time

Eternal
1. Infinite or unending time.
2. A state to which time has no application; timelessness

Forever
1. For all future time; for always.
2. A very long time (used hyperbolically)

Did the definitions of some of these words surprise you or were they pretty much what you expected?

At this point it is time to move on to the next step: discovering the original words and contexts behind what we read in our English translations of Hebrew and Greek scripture.

Eternal, Everlasting and For Ever and Ever in the Bible

The Book of Mormon states that Hebrew was the language spoken and understood by the people. This makes the Hebrew text of the Bible a good source to look to for understanding of some of these words. I think the Greek New Testament can be helpful too, because we can examine the Greek for insight into how these concepts were understood around the time of Christ.

Let’s take a look at the word “eternal” first.

Eternal

Deuteronomy 33:27 – …the eternal God is thy refuge.

The word “eternal” here is the Hebrew word “qedem” which means:

Qedem

  1. east, antiquity, front, that which is before, aforetime
    1. front, from the front or east, in front, mount of the East
    2. ancient time, aforetime, ancient, from of old, earliest time
    3. anciently, of old (adverb)
    4. beginning
    5. east adv
  2. eastward, to or toward the East

Here is some more insight into the word qedem:

In the ancient Hebrew words that are used to described distance and direction are also used to describe time. The Hebrew word for east is qedem and literally means “the direction of the rising sun”. We use north as our major orientation such as in maps which are always oriented to the north. While we use the north as our major direction the Hebrews used the east and all directions are oriented to this direction. For example one of the words for south is teyman from the root yaman meaning “to the right”.

The word qedem is also the word for the past. In the ancient Hebrew mind the past is in front of you while the future is behind you, the opposite way we think of the past and future. The Hebrew word olam means in the far distance. When looking off in the far distance it is difficult to make out any details and what is beyond that horizon cannot be seen. This concept is the olam. The word olam is also used for time for the distant past or the distant future as a time that is difficult to know or perceive.

This word is frequently translated as eternity or forever but in the English language it is misunderstood to mean a continual span of time that never ends. In the Hebrew mind it is simply what is at or beyond the horizon, a very distant time. A common phrase in the Hebrew is “l’olam va’ed” and is usually translated as “forever and ever” but in the Hebrew it means “to the distant horizon and again” meaning “a very distant time and even further” and is used to express the idea of a very ancient or future time. – Jeff A. Benner [LINK]

Interestingly we find that the word eternal meant something completely different than what it means to us today. We cannot force our modern interpretations of words onto those of the past, we need to try as much as possible to understand these teachings in the context that they were intended.

The word “eternity” appears only once in the entire Bible and is found in Isaiah 57:15 where he states:

“For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”

The word “eternity” here comes from the word ‘ad:

from ‘`adah’ (5710); properly, a (peremptory) terminus, i.e. (by implication) duration, in the sense of advance or perpetuity (substantially as a noun, either with or without a preposition):–eternity, ever(- lasting, -more), old, perpetually, + world without end.

So in the Isaiah verse it is saying that God inhabits eternity which, in this case, IS understood to mean a duration of continuous existence, but note that this verse is speaking about the place where God resides and is not speaking about Him or His nature.

Everlasting

Here is a verse in Psalms were we find the exact same language as found in Moroni 7:22:

Psalms 41:13
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting.

The word translated “everlasting” here in this verse is from the word ‘owlam which means:

or lolam {o-lawm’}; from ‘`alam’ (5956); properly, concealed, i.e. the vanishing point; generally, time out of mind (past or future), i.e. (practically) eternity; frequentatively, adverbial (especially with prepositional prefix) always:–alway(-s), ancient (time), any more, continuance, eternal, (for, (n-))ever(-lasting, -more, of old), lasting, long (time), (of) old (time), perpetual, at any time, (beginning of the) world (+ without end). Compare ‘netsach’ (5331), ‘`ad’ (5703).

The word ‘owlam is from a word alam which means to: “to veil from sight; conceal”.

There are four age-related words in Hebrew; aion, aionios, owlam and ad. These words in other places have been translated correctly to mean “age, ages, age-old or ancient, etc” but the translators of many versions of the Bible, KJV included, have instead used other words like “eternal” or “forever” to describe these concepts.

So “everlasting” as it reads in this example means an age outside of time (our time), that is veiled from the perspective of our mortal sphere of existence on this earth. Reread Psalms 41:13 again in this context and think about what it might really mean.

For Ever and Ever

Interestingly the word “forever” is actually not found anywhere in the Bible, it’s actually read separately as: “for ever”.

Galatians 1:4-5 reads:

Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father: To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

The word “ever” is from the Greek word aiwn (aion) which means:

properly, an age; by extension, perpetuity (also past); by implication, the world; specially (Jewish) a Messianic period (present or future):–age, course, eternal, (for) ever(-more), (n-)ever, (beginning of the , while the) world (began, without end). Compare cronoV – chronos

The word aion means simply “an age” and is used in several different contexts in the New Testament to describe the age of the world, a lifetime, or as indicated in the definition, a Messianic period of the present or future. Here we have the concept of an “age” appearing again. An “age” is indicative of a whole duration of a person, place, thing, etc. So the repetition of “for ever and ever” seems to indicate the idea of “age after age” which could be understood as a way to represent the idea of endless time, age after age, continuing perpetually.

This isn’t describing any kind of origin of things but, rather, the perpetuity of things. It says nothing of how something came to be, only that it will continue without end. It is a truth that God will always be God, both now and forever; this is not disputed.

Joseph Smith’s statement

Heading back to Joseph’s statement: “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.”

It appears that Joseph is seeking to clear up confusion on what would have been a modern interpretation of something that the Bible simply does not say when you look at the meaning of the words. But here we do have something new that has never quite been preached before in this way and he even states that “These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple.”

Joseph then states that God “was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did; and I will show it from the Bible.” and he goes on to make his points. This is a topic that might need to be covered in a separate article, but for now, you can read the sermon in it’s entirety below:

The King Follet Sermon Part 1

The King Follet Sermon: Part 2

The sermon is particularly fascinating because it covers some very interesting, and to some, controversial points:

  1. If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.
  2. The designs of God in relation to the human race, and why He interferes with the affairs of man
  3. God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man
  4. How God came to be God
  5. The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal [co-eternal] with God himself.
  6. Death is only the temporary separation of the spirit from the body
  7. Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle.
  8. God dwells in eternity, and does not view things as we do (Re-read this statement in light of what has just been presented on the topic of eternity. Here we have Joseph speaking in the proper context of the meaning of the word by stating that God dwells IN eternity; this is consistent with the Hebrew understanding of the concept. Isaiah said that God “inhabiteth eternity”)
  9. And much more (I suggest a full reading of the document)

When reflecting on these teachings it can be easy to think “This doctrine makes God too much like man” and that is one way to look at it. Initially, I think it is a very disturbing thought to some that God was once like us, on an earth like this and somehow became what he is now. This leads you down the road of considering “what kind of person was he?”, “was he like me?”, “was he better or was he worse?” or “how could I worship a being that was once in the same fallen state as I”?

I’ve often though about how difficult approaching truth can be. Sometimes we perceive certain truths as blasphemous or horrible when we first encounter them. Think of when you first learned that there was no Santa Claus or when you actually learned where babies really come from. Personally, I was shocked and horrified when I learned the truth about the birds and the bees; I could not believe that my parents could do such a thing! But now that I am grown and have married and participated in the process, I understand the beauty and sacredness of it.

But what about this topic? Is it truth or just a blasphemous idea? Why would we ever worship such a being that is so like us? Well, let’s flip that around a little and examine it from a different angle.

Genesis states that man was created in the image of God, or that he was made after the same pattern of God. Why did God create us to be like him? Why not create just a planet full of animals that would live in harmony that he could come a visit for a pleasant getaway from time to time? Why did he place that tree in the garden and allow Lucifer to tempt man? After Adam and Eve partook of the fruit, why did God say “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil…”

Why does he teach us his law and command us to be perfect as he is? Why is it that he was given a Savior to enable him to actually achieve perfection and inherit a throne in his kingdom? Consider how C.S. Lewis put man’s process of perfection:

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said. – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

It is amazing and awe-inspiring to me that Christ lived a perfectly sinless life upon this earth. It is also equally impressive to me that through his atonement, he can make of us beings that are equal to him in perfection and glory, so in the end, is there really any difference if, to paraphrase Jesus, we are all one as he and the Father are one?

If God, through Christ can make each one of us as perfect as he and we all enjoy the same glory, we would never again look down upon ourselves, so why would we ever look down upon a being that stands just as perfect as we will one day? We worship and praise him because of who and what he is; our God and our Father. In the end, he will always be our father and we will always be his children, but not less than him, ONE with him as Jesus said (John 17).

This is the miracle of it all, that the fallen can become the exalted and that the exalted can raise the fallen in a process that continues eternally. This knowledge gives me an immense respect and sense of wonder for the miracle of forgiveness and the true power of the atonement. God is not just able to save a man, he is able to take man and make him into a being such as himself. But all things considered, “there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)

One other point; LDS theology is unique in that we have a belief in a pre-mortal state of existence for mankind. We believe that this pre-mortal state involved us living in the presences of God with a tabernacle of spirit, still matter, only more fine and pure than our current condition. But it goes back even further than this, we also believe that before we were born into a tabernacle of spirit that we existed in the form of an “intelligence”.

Doctrine & Covenants section 93 is probably the best resource for learning about intelligences. Not much is known about the nature of intelligences except for a few key points:

  1. Intelligences cannot be created or made, they have always existed (So, in this sense, God has always existed – and so have we. It is just that we are each partakers of this process that leads to exhaltation)
  2. The elements have also always existed and serve as a tabernacle
  3. Spirit and element inseparably connected receive a fullness of joy (hence the resurrection)
  4. Intelligence has agency and can make choices

LDS theology when properly understood does not lessen God, it exalts man, which is the very design that God has outlined in the holy scriptures. Even when reading the Bible it is plain to see that God gives us his law, calls us his children, promises us an inheritance, mansions in his kingdom and he “hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father…” Christ commanded us to be perfect even (or equal to) as God the Father; through Christ we can be perfect even as God the Father. As incredible or impossible or unbelievable as this sounds, this is what we are a part of and it’s all right there in the Bible plain as day; Jesus’ purpose was to make us one with himself and the Father through his atonement.

A deeper understanding and implication for these things may not be for us to understand in this current sphere. We may have to wait until we see what is on God’s side of the veil to understand it all. So for now we trust in the final admonition of Moroni to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:32,33)

Conclusion

In each of these instances, the words eternal, everlasting and forever, have different meanings in scripture than they do in our modern understanding. Joseph Smith’s challenge to the idea that “that God was God from all eternity” seems to be an attempt to correct an erroneous modern theological concept about God and his nature.

The words eternity, everlasting and forever seem to be explaining God’s life as it relates to being outside of the time of this world. Thus, anything “eternal” is that which exists outside of this world, both pre and post it’s current state of existence.

Another way of saying it is:

Time is not part of eternity. Eternity is not part of time. In time there is no eternity in eternity there is no time. Time is related to creation and time is relative to the physical world. [LINK]

1 John 5:11 says:

And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal (aionios) life, and this life is in his Son.

The word used here is “aionios”. “In general, the word depicts that of which the horizon is not in view . . .” (The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament p.16) So God has given us life that is outside of the view of the horizon, or in other words, life as He has it.

If eternal means forever, without beginning or end as we understand it in our modern usage, then how can we as mortals obtain “eternal” life? The answer becomes clear as you ponder on the true meaning of what “eternal” means.

I think there are some major misunderstandings in what many think the Bible says on the matter of eternity, etc. More study and research on this topic and also Joseph Smith’s teachings on the matter reveal that what he taught may not jive with what many religions today believe about the nature of God, but are also not contradictory with what the scriptures state about Him.

Other resources

  • Janet

    I love your research into the ancient meaning of words and that can really make a difference on our way of seeing things. I liked your statement that our doctrine does not lessen God, but exalts mankind. Thank you for your posts.