The Meaning of Eternal Life

John 3:16 is recognized as the most well-known Bible verse on the globe. In every copy of the Bible the Gideons International distribute is a translation of this scripture in several languages. Many sermons have been written and preached off this scripture, especially the message of God’s love for human kind. One part of the scripture that is not given much attention is actually the thrust of the entire passage: the purpose of God sending the Messiah is to give us eternal life. What actually does eternal life look like?

It may seem quite obvious that eternal life means unending existence, however it is not that straight forward. A continued existence could mean something ante-mortem (where a person does not experience death) or post-mortem (where a person in some way continues after death.) Most cultures are very aware of their own mortality. The age old question of what happens after the grave has been answered in many ways.

For the Hindu death is seen as a part of the unending karmic cycle of endless reincarnations. If you do not qualify the expression “eternal life” to a Hindu priest, he might think you are referring to karma in his own worldview, which very much contradicts Biblical teachings. At the opposite end of the spectrum eternal life is thought of as going to heaven after you die, or at least it is avoiding hell. As Christianized as this idea may sound, and irrespective of the many times this has been preached from pulpits, that is not the meaning of eternal life in the Bible. Another more recent interpretation of eternal life is that it is the life of God imparted into the human spirit when a person is born again. Instead of eternal life being in the hereafter it is envisioned as a present reality. This teaching is a staple of Word of Faith doctrine. This spiritualized understanding of eternal life is fraught with so many problems, it is simply wrong. To properly understand what eternal life is we have to anchor the phrase firmly in the scriptures and the worldview it inhabited.

Before we proceed I wish to address a certain controversy over the word “eternal”. Some say we should distinguish eternal from everlasting. According to them eternal means without beginning or end whilst everlasting implies without end but might have a beginning. Without spending too much time on this, it is quite a ridiculous notion. The Greek texts do not offer any such distinction. Also, in the English language both words are synonyms of each other. Check any reputable English dictionary and they essentially mean the same thing.

The main problem with eternal life as going to heaven after you die is that it is not life at all. It is actually death. Even though the scriptures do not give much detail on the matter when a person dies, whether they enter Paradise or they go to Hades below, that person was never said to have eternal life or immortality. Most people in the world of the Bible believed there was some kind of continued existence after death. In Revelation 6 John mentions the souls of the martyred in heaven. Even though they were in heaven, the scripture calls them dead and not alive. Jesus’ disciple’ for instance distinguished between ghosts and living people. N.T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God surveys beliefs about death and resurrection in the ancient world of the Bible. From the most materialistic Greek to the most devout Jew no one thought of eternal life as some part of the individual surviving death. The dead wherever they were found were dead.

The idea of eternal life was something rooted deeply in Jewish thinking. When modern Christians read Jesus’ statements about “entering into life” they assume he is referring to heaven because he seems to be talking about a place. What he meant was entering the world to come.

“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” – Luke 18:29-30 ESV

Jesus said those who followed him would have eternal life in the world to come. Eternal life is not only associated with the age to come but with the kingdom as well. The new age is when the kingdom of God will be established on earth as it is in heaven. When he preached that without him you could not have eternal life he was not talking about going to hell. He was saying that without him you could not participate in the future hope of the people of God. Without him you could not participate in the world to come. However, how is this new age meant to arise? The new world was to come through resurrection.

The Greeks denied it, the Jews believed it, and the Christians claimed it had already happened to someone. Resurrection is a thoroughly Jewish idea that was revolutionised in the Gospel. Great passages like Daniel 12 speak of a future where God will resurrect all his righteous people inaugurating a new world order where God’s people will have dominion over the world. The resurrection of the people of God was the principle act in the regeneration of the world, where God makes everything anew. Eternal life, resurrection, the age to come, and the new creation are interrelated concepts in Biblical eschatology. They all tell us what the end looks like according to the scriptures.

Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11:24-26 ESV

Martha, like many Jews of her time, had hope in the future resurrection at the end of time. Instead of simply reaffirming this belief, he redefined it around himself and challenged his disciple’s belief in him. Jesus said he was the author of life and the hope of Israel rested on his person. He himself was the resurrection. When God raised him from the dead he was the first example of God’s new creation, a sample of the world to come. Since he was raised “ahead of schedule” it means God had already started the new creation project. The apostle James describes followers of Jesus as first fruits (James 1:18.) This means we are the prime exhibits of what God is going to do to the entire cosmos.

The resurrection of Jesus assures us that resurrection happens and will happen to every person. However, not every person will participate in the age to come. Jesus often uses the imagery of Gehenna, a valley outside Jerusalem used to dispose of garbage, as the destination of those who will not participate in the kingdom of God. Revelation describes this final state as a fierce fiery lake burning with toxic smoke. Since Jesus was raised to the right hand of YHWH i.e. God has entrusted him with complete divine authority, he is the judge of those who can and cannot participate in the kingdom of God.

Eternal life is described as a promise and a hope (Titus 1:2.) Jesus assured Martha those who died believing in him will be raised by him. To borrow from N.T. Wright eternal life means the hope of life after life after death in the age to come, which the sovereign God has promised to those who are faithful to him. The Bible describes such people as heirs of the promise of eternal life. How do we know we have such an inheritance? How does the believer know that he is “saved”?

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. – Ephesians 1:13-14 ESV

For this passage I will let Paul explain it himself,

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:11 ESV

The indwelling of the holy spirit means we have been marked of for salvation from sin, death and everything the Lord Jesus conquered through the cross.

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