Defining Eternal Life: Who, What, When, and How

The expression ‘eternal life’ is used in the New Testament 43 times. And it is commonly used in the conversation of Christians throughout history. But I wonder how well we understand this term today. Does it just mean living forever? Or is there more to it than that? This post will take a look at defining this life based on how the expression is used by the New Testament writers. What did it mean to them when they were writing it.

First, Some Definitions

Eternal is the Greek word aiōnios, used 71 times in the New Testament, and is translated in the NIV as eternal 63 times. This word is used to describe duration, usually an endless duration, but not always. In Romans 16:25 it is translated as ‘ages past’ referring to a more limited duration of time. But the majority of the time the word is used in regards to duration without end. God is eternal (Rom. 16:26), he endures without end. And his honor and power are forever (1 Tim. 6:16).

Life is the Greek word zōē, used in the New Testament 135 times and almost always translated as life. Life is used both in the physical sense (Luke 16:25) and the spiritual, with the spiritual sense far and away the greatest usage. Christ has life in himself (John 1:4), and he gives that life to all who will come to him.

The Who of Eternal Life

The ‘who’ of this life has at least two answers.

Jesus

In John 1:4, John says that life, the light of mankind, was in Jesus. Later, in John 14:6, Jesus himself says that he is the way, the truth, and the life. In these passages John would seem to be referring to something other than the physical life that is characteristic of all living things on earth. Life is inherent to Jesus’ nature. It is not something that he obtained at some point as is true of us. Rather he is life.

John elaborates on this more in his first epistle. In 1 John 1:2 he says “The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.” It is clear here that John is talking about Jesus, and he calls him “the eternal life”. And he repeats this claim in 1 John 5:20 when he says about Jesus that “He is the true God and eternal life.

It seems strange to us to identify Jesus as ‘eternal life’, rather than that he has eternal life. But that is John’s claim here. And I believe it is an important claim as the next section will point out.

Those In Christ

In 1 John 5:11 we are told that “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Eternal life is given to us by God. But this life is in Christ. It is given to those who are ‘in Christ‘. This is not a very common expression for John, but it is one that Paul uses frequently. As believers, our identity is in Christ. And, as such, his experience becomes our experience. In Romans 6:3-4 Paul says that we were crucified, buried and resurrected in Christ. And in Colossians 3:1-4 he says that we were raised with Christ and seated with him at the right hand of the Father.

So it should be no surprise to see that since Jesus is eternal life, and we are in him, then we also have this same life. But we do not have this on our own; it is not something I actually possess. Rather I have it so long as I am in Christ.

What Is Eternal Life

Based on the definition of the individual words it would appear like eternal life would most likely refer to life without end; life with an endless duration. But I believe that if we look at the context of how it is used we would discover that it is much more than just life without end. I believe that it is describing a quality of life rather than the duration of that life.

For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

John 17:2-3 NIV

I believe this passage has a lot to say about what eternal life is. And it is the one place in Scripture where it is actually defined.

It Is a Gift

The first thing Jesus says about eternal life in this passage is that the Father has given him the authority to give it to others. Eternal life is something that can be given by God and received by humans. It is not something we have in our natural state. It is a gift given to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23).

Since eternal life is a gift, there is nothing I can do to earn it. Nor can I find it in any source other than through Christ. No amount of self-sacrifice or good deeds will earn it. No amount of money can buy it. And it cannot be obtained via some secret knowledge. It is a gift that God gives to whom he chooses.

It Is a Relationship

In this passage Jesus explicitly defines eternal life as knowing both God the Father and Jesus the Son. While the Holy Spirit is not mentioned here, I do believe that it is through the work of the Holy Spirit that we can know God. Eternal life is a relationship with the triune God. While its duration is implied here, the quality of that life is really on center stage here.

Eternal life consists of having a personal and intimate relationship with God. It is a restoration of the relationship described in the first couple chapters of Genesis. A relationship that was broken by our rebellion against God, setting ourselves up in his place. A rebellion that resulted in death. But now we are offered life and peace with our creator.

The When of Eternal Life

Eternal life is not something that we are born with. Not is it something that generally happens to people at some time in their lives. Instead, it is given to those who live by faith in the risen Christ. But does my entry into this life begin at conversion. Or does it wait until I have physically left this life behind?

Now

When you read John’s writings you will find that he speaks of eternal life in the present tense. John 3:36 says that “whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” The one who believes already has this life. And in the context of John’s writing this makes sense. John describes eternal life as both Jesus himself, and a relationship with the triune God. So as believers, being in Christ, we have eternal life now. It is not something that we are waiting for at some point in the future.

Later

The other New Testament writers tend toward looking at eternal life in a future sense. In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats he closes with the goats going away to eternal punishment while the righteous go to eternal life (Matt. 25:46). In Mark 10:30 Jesus says that those who have left everything for him will receive eternal life in the age to come. And in Titus 1:2 and Titus 3:7 Paul looks to the hope of eternal life. In all of these passages, it is something that the believer is looking forward to.

Already but not Yet

So do we have eternal life now as believers? Or are we looking forward to it? The answer is, both. As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we currently have entered into eternal life, into a real relationship with God. But we cannot fully experience that relationship so long as we are in the flesh. We are looking forward to the life that is to come when we will more fully experience that relationship. This is commonly termed “already, but not yet.” It is something we have, but do not yet fully experience and so look forward to its completion.

How To Inherit Eternal Life

How does a person get eternal life? In John 3:15, 15, 36; 5:24; 6:40, 47 Jesus says that eternal life is given to those who believe. Eternal life is a gift (Rom. 6:23) given to those who put their trust in the crucified and risen savior; Jesus. It is not something that I can earn in any fashion. It is something that I receive when I put my hope and trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior and follow him by faith.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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