what is 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.”
John 3:16 is possibly the most famous verse in the Bible. It is so often said that its promise is life everlasting for those who believe in Jesus.
Certainly in our modern vocabulary the word “eternal” means “forever” or “everlasting”. Eternal life is almost universally understood as everlasting existence, immortality or life “in heaven”.
(Type “eternal life” into Wikipedia or Google and you’ll see what I mean. It does, however, also yield the song “Eternal Life” by Jeff Buckley… sublime.)
But is eternal life (zōē aiōnion) really the same thing as “everlasting” life? Is that what is meant by the phrase in the Gospel of John?
The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) only uses the term “eternal life” twice, with one instance being a probable influence on John’s use of the phrase:*
“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 eternal life (zōē aiōnion), and some to shame and everlasting contempt…” (Daniel 12:1–2)
Based on what I was taught in church this sure sounds like forever. But surely we must read this verse in the context of Daniel 11 which precedes it. In Daniel 11 the subject is not the end of the world, but the “kings of the north and south” who are the successors of the king of Greece (11:2–4), that is, Alexander the Great who defeated Persia.
Daniel is not speaking about the end of the world, but about the destruction of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires (two of the successor empires that came from Alexander’s empire). Daniel 12:1–2 looks forward to the judgement of these empires in which the righteous will receive eternal life (that is, life in a new age, post-empire), or eternal contempt (the very opposite, judgement and, presumably, death).
This is complimentary to the fact that Daniel is told to “shut up the words and seal the book (of his visions), until the end of time”; this clearly cannot mean the end of the world. Indeed in 12:11–13 Daniel does not think the “end of days” will be very far away, a clear indication that none of these phrases (eternal life/contempt, end of time, end of days) refers to the literal end of the world, nor in any sense “forever”.
To drive the point further, the Hebrew word for “eternal” in Daniel 12:2 is olam. This same word is used elsewhere in the Old Testament:
Remember the days of old (olam), Consider the years of many generations. Ask your father, and he will show you; Your elders, and they will tell you. (Deuteronomy 32:7)
And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times (olam); and they served other gods. (Joshua 24:2)
“The earth with her bars was about me forever (olam).” (Jonah 2:6; talking about his time inside the fish, which was only three days)
We need to be careful of equating the meaning of the same word used in different contexts. But there are many more examples of this kind of usage of olam, and these are sufficient to show that the Hebrew concept of olam does not necessarily mean “forever” in our modern sense. The same can be said for aiōnios, or “eternal” in the LXX (translating olam) and the New Testament.
In taking Daniel’s Hebrew understanding of eternal life, or perhaps more accurately “the life of the age to come”, it is likely that John is echoing this same meaning. That is, John has Jesus promising a new age in which empires would be destroyed and life in its fullness (cf. John 10:10) would be experienced by his people. This life, says Jesus, is available now. God’s empire has begun to come now, says Jesus, and the current powers are fading away (John 5:24).
“Eternal life” for John is the equivalent of “the kingdom of God” in the other Gospels (a phrase John mostly avoids). It represents the fullness of God’s reign on earth. Like the kingdom of God, “eternal life”, or “life of the age to come”, is a gift that we receive in fullness following the Resurrection of the dead, but one that we also receive now in part.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have the life of God’s kingdom age.”
Perhaps you have something to add to this short exploration of an important phrase.
* The other use of zōē aiōnion is found in Psalms of Solomon 3:12, a non-canonical work.
Posted on October 20, 2011, in Biblical Studies, New Testament, Old Testament and tagged Eternal Life, Eternity, Everlasting Life, Heaven, John 3:16, Kingdom of God, Life of the Age to Come, Life of the Ages, Life of the World to Come. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.