Friday, June 2, 2017

"Eternal Life" according to Scripture

I thought I had written a dedicated post about the Biblical teaching on "eternal life," but after doing a search it seems I only wrote about it in passing (e.g. Here and Here). As with many of my posts, the heart of good apologetics is defining key theological terms according to the Bible. Most theological errors are due to people unconsciously assigning their own definitions to key theological terms, which results in building other theological conclusions on an faulty foundation. In this case, many people will read verses such as "whomever believes in him will have eternal life" (Jn 3:15) as if it were saying once you accept the Gospel your spot in heaven is secure forever. This is understandable, but it's a serious mistake and even misses the beauty of such texts. 
Doing a simple word search, the term "eternal life" appears in approximately 45 verses in the Bible. To keep this post short, I wont go through every verse, but you can and should follow the link to see the verses for yourself. The key verses I want to highlight are as follows:
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
  • 1 John 3:14-15 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him
In these passages from John, it is clear that "eternal life" is not something that comes in the future, it is not a ticket to heaven, but rather it is something you presently experience. In John's mind, to have "eternal life" means you have a relationship with the Trinity, the Trinity dwells within you. You "know" the Father and the Son, you have a spring of water flowing within, you have passed from spiritual death to inner spiritual life. In short, you have "eternal life abiding within" yourself (1 Jn 3:15). So all those times in John when Jesus says "believe and you will have eternal life," this is simply saying if you believe Jesus is your Savior, you will be in communal relationship with the Trinity. This communion can obviously be broken, as we see Adam originally had communion and fell, and 1 John 3:15 warns that mortal sin will result in no longer having eternal life in yourself (unless you repent). 

It is understandable why the term "eternal life" would confuse many, but it's pretty clear once you stop and try to understand the term from John's mystical perspective. That said, now it's time to look at how the term "eternal life" is used by Paul and other Apostles, because we will see a different usage than John's. 

The verses I want to highlight for the 'second' Biblical usage of "eternal life" are the following:
  • Matthew 18:8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.
  • Matthew 25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
  • Mark 10:17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
  • Mark 10:29-30 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.
  • Romans 2:7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life
  • Romans 6:22 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.
  • Galatians 6:8 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.
  • 1 Timothy 6:19 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 [Greek: "eternal"] life.
  • Jude 1:21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.   
In these verses, the focus isn't on eternal life being experienced now, but rather a future reward you attain for living an upright lifestyle. Notice that none of these verses are speaking of when a person first believes and converts. Paul doesn't speak of "eternal life" in places like Romans 3-4 and Galatians 2-3, where Protestants typically focus on how we 'get saved'. Since Paul doesn't speak of "eternal life" in these places, it would mean Paul does not link "getting saved" with securing a spot in heaven when you die. In Paul's mind, you don't have eternal life yet. These are two different events in your salvation experience. Protestants conflate the two events into one, while Catholics properly separate the two: conversion and reconciliation at the start of your walk with God, and judgment based on your works at the end of your walk deciding your final destiny. As Paul puts it beautifully, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing." (2 Tim 4:8)
Failure to define "eternal life" from Scripture will lead to serious errors, most notably assuming your salvation is secure and that you are guaranteed heaven the moment you believe. As I noted in the first link above, any "saved by faith" debate is a waste of time if the Protestant is going to be presuming more than what the Biblical author actually intended.


Mark Thimesch said...

Excellent post, Nick! Very well articulated.

Nick said...


Revert 101 said...

Great post. I am wondering about how much of a distinction you intend to make regarding John's usage of "Eternal Life" versus Paul's, Jesus's, etc. I am a revert to Catholicism and I found my way back through the work of great apologists, but in a way I am quite new to thinking like a Catholic. I am better at discussing and thinking in Buddhist and Hindu terms despite not believing in their doctrines. My naive take on the usage of the term "Eternal Life" is that it has to be the same reality, infact doesn't John's epistle (1st I think) make it clear the "Eternal Life" is Christ? Nonethelss, the two sets of Nick assembled in this post do very clearly point to a difference which when not recognized has cuased a great deal of confusion. When we think of the different usages, can we say that John's quotes emphasizes the reality of being in a state of grace in the present, whereas the other quotes refer to the "goal" of being in that state in the life to come? That might seem obvious to most readers, but I am new to thinking this way. Please help.