When I was in Bible College, I took a class on the gospel of John and my “smarter than anyone I’d ever met” Bible College professor told me that my understanding of the phrase”eternal life” had, up until that point, apparently been quite mistaken. Up until then I had thought that it was basically everlasting life (the unending life that Christians life after the resurrection), but my professor told me that “eternal life” was actually “life lived in the light of the eternal”; some sort of qualitative life on earth in the here and now (which basically meant feeding the poor, abandoning materialism, etc.). That definition has always left me somewhat suspicious because, beyond being skeptical anytime an intellectual ex-hippie pulls the “we, I used to believe that…” line (which happened an annoying amount in Bible College), I struggled to find that esoteric nuance in the scripture. As I’ve read and studied the scriptures more and more, I’ve come to increasingly understand that the scriptures are less esoteric and ambiguous than some of my professors in Bible College led me to believe.
(Some of my professors had strange ideas, but none of them were this bad…)
A little while ago I returned to the phrase “eternal life” and did some exhaustive biblical study, in order to settle the annoying doubts that were buzzing in the back of my mind. What I learned actually was somewhat surprising to me. Allow me to share:
First of all, I was struck by how, in the gospels, Christ simply showed up and talked about “eternal life” but didn’t define it. This suggested to me that Christ’s audience already knew what he meant by the phrase, which then sent me to the Old Testament.
So what is “eternal life” in the Old Testament?
The phrase only appears two places, believe it or not:
1. Psalm 133:3 – The phrase “eternal life” first occurs here in the OT, but it’s a simple passing reference made by David with no real explanation as to what it is beyond being “a blessing”.
2. Dan 12:1-2 – “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” This sounds a whole lot like a straightforward discussion of the coming resurrection.
– When Jesus mentioned “eternal life” in the NT he was referring to was the teaching of the resurrection in Daniel 12:1-2. That’s interesting…
So what was Jesus’ teaching on eternal life?
1. Eternal life is a coming future reality for believers/the righteous:
1a. Matthew 19:29 – “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (cf. Mark 10:30, Luke 18:30)
1b . Matthew 25:46 – “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
1c. John 3:14-16 – “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
1d. John 12:25 – “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.“
2. Belief in Christ means that believers currently posses, eternal life:
2a. John 3:36 – “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life”
2b. John 5: 24 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
2c. John 6:47 – “ Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.“
3. Christ gives eternal life:
3a. John 4:14 – “but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
3b. John 5:39-40 – “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life”.
3c. John 6:27 – “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.“
3d. John 6:68 – “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,’“
3e. John 10:28-29 – “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand”.
4. Eternal life is both a work of the Father and the Son.
4a. John 6:39-40 – “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”.
4b. John 3:16-17 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”.
4c. John 10:28-29 – “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand”.
4d. John 17:1-2 – “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”
5. Eternal life is inseparably related to being raised from the dead on the last day:
5a. John 6:39-40 – “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”.
5b. John 6:54 – “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”.
5c. John 11:24-26 – “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?”
6. Eternal life is synonymous with obeying Christ’s commands:
6a. John 12:48-50 – “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”
7. Eternal life is synonymous with knowing God:
7a. John 17:3 – “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
– So Jesus established fairly clearly that “eternal life” is life that is everlasting. It follows this current life, it comes after the resurrection “on the last day”, it is something that is a coming reality and it is also a current possession of believers/those who are righteous. Eternal life is inseparable from obeying Christ’s commands and knowing God. It is a work of both God the Father and God the Son that is received exclusively through believing both God’s testimony about Christ and Christ’s testimony about himself (i.e. believing the testimony they offer regarding the person and work of Christ).
So what was the apostles’ teaching on eternal life?
1. Those who are elected unto life are synonymous with those who believe the Gospel.
– Acts 13:48 – “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
2. Eternal life is a coming reality:
– Romans 5:20-21 – “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”.
– Romans 6:22 – “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life”.
– Gal 6:8-9 – “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up”.
– 1 Timothy 6:12 – “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses”.
Clarification as to the present/future confusion of the “take hold” language in 1 Timothy 6:12 can be found in 1 Timothy 6:17-19 – “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life”.
– Jude 20-21 – “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life”.
3. Eternal life is given by God:
– Romans 2:7 – “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life“.
– Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord“.
4. Christians believe in Christ for eternal life:
– 1 Timothy 1:16 – “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life”.
5. Eternal life is the hope of the believer:
– Titus 3:7 – “so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life”.
6. Eternal life is the promise of the believer:
– Titus 1:1-2 – “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began“.
– 1 John 2:25 – “And this is the promise that he made to us— eternal life”.
7. Eternal life is made manifest through preaching:
– Titus 1:2-3 – “in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior“.
8. Christ is the manifestation of eternal life:
-1 John 1:1-2 – “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us”.
9. Righteous action is evidence of possessing “eternal life”:
– 1 John 3:15 – “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him”.
10. Christ is synonymous with “eternal life”
– 1 John 5:20 – “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life”.
11. The testimony of God to his Son is that we have been given eternal life through belief in Christ:
– 1 John 5:10-13 – “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life”.
So, Christ is synonymous with “eternal life”. God’s miraculous testimony to his Son verifies the truth of his claims to give spiritual life (i.e. John 4:14), and that testimony is encountered through the preached word of God and must be believed in order to attain the post-resurrection, eternal life. Believers are synonymous with those who are elected unto “eternal life”, and “eternal life” is a present (i.e. certain) possession of believers, evidenced by their actions, and also a future expectation (hope), both of which are given by God.
In other words, what I was told when I was young was essentially right and apparently my pastor (ThM from DTS) was not as misinformed as my Bible College professor (MA from Regent College) led me to believe. Not only that, but my Bible College professor apparently hadn’t actually studied the scriptures at all; I’ve looked through every single reference to “eternal life” in the Scripture and have not found anything close to the idea he was trying to pass off as “biblical”.
So what’s the moral of this story?
Not all scholars are created equal! (Acts 17:11)