Limited probing into the meaning of the commonly used New Testament phrase “eternal life” can produce surprising results. One might have assumed that given the frequency of its use – over 70 times in the NT – and the substantial reliance on such references especially in many Protestant traditions, that there would be little more to say about it, that the sense would be clear one way or the other.
However this does not appear to be the case. Basically there appears to be a confusion, in many popular and evangelical uses of the phrase, between eternal and immortal life. The imperatives, promises, and redemption that might be associated as belonging to eternal life need to be evaluated separate to the theme of immortal life. The latter theme is undoubtedly present in the NT and the bible as a whole, and it is possible that in some references to it the word “eternal” is used. Unfortunately, in many minds, “immortality” corresponds exactly with “eternal life.” However, they are not the same.
Closer attention to the Greek words for eternal life, aionios zoe , and their particular use in some well known NT verses, provides the basis for a fresh account of a phrase that has been taken, in modern times, as central to NT teaching.
First, there is the simple grammatical point that most uses of the phrase are in the present tense. For example, 1 John 5:11,13 “and this is the testimony: that god has given us eternal life, and this life is in his son … these things I have written to you who believe in the name of the son of god, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the son of god.” Then John 17:3 “and this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true god, and jesus christ whom you have sent, 1 John 3:14-15 we know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
Note in the preceding, the immediacy of the act of redemption and its ethical and behavioural basis. Eternal life is a quality of actual lived experience, lived according to a dynamic ethical imperative those substitutes for the narrow regulation of everyday behaviour under religious law. Eternal life in this passage cannot refer to a transcendental state of immortality. To see the latter in the verse would be meaningless – the common act of hating one’s brother cannot be seen to have consequences extending beyond this mortal life. “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” John 5: 24. The passage from death under the law, to everlasting life, has occurred already – it belongs to the past, not the future and not only the present. It is accomplished and experienced in the everyday. (1)
The biblical teachings on immortality are eschatological, and they do exist. (Phillipians 3. 20). They speak of a dramatic, future resurrection of bodies and individuals, as part of a new creation. Yet aionios zoe clearly has a present or existential sense, bringing meaning to life as it is lived in the present, not only in the future. Zoe means, in Greek, the principle of life, life in an absolute, actual, lived sense. It follows that eternal (aionios) life (zoe) “is the present actual possession of the believer because of his relationship with Christ.” (Zines Dictionary) (1)
In the first instance what is eternal and present is spiritual as well as bodily, and immediate. The terms on which that quality, of boundless life, is the basis of immortal life, needs careful attention and cannot be presumed, and could be the subject of further study.
“We see that eternal life is a present-tense possession which affects the nature of a person.”(1)
“The Translator’s New Testament contains a note which says, ‘In the New Testament eternal life is that kind of life which is given to all true believers in Christ. The word `eternal’ draws attention to the quality of that life, not to its duration in a temporal sense. Thus eternal life can be experienced by believers even while subject to the temporal conditions of earthly life. Translators should be careful to avoid expressions which mean no more than a timeless continuation of life after death.’ (1)
What is important is that “eternal” is defined in opposition to a myriad of terms for spiritual judgment and death that hold way in this life. The sense of many of the terms to the original Jewish audience of Christ has been lost. It is clear that “death” and “judgment” in the preceding references are to spiritual states, according to Jewish law. Ephesians 2:1 speaks of being “dead in trespasses and sins,” not literally in a material sense. There is a real danger in reading terms like “death” literally and out of historical context, as has frequently been done in much modern preaching, when the spiritual imperative for first century followers of Jesus would have been in terms of the strict moral codes of orthodox belief.
Instead of the oppressive requirements of Talmudic belief, followers of the non orthodox son of David were assured of a forgiveness without limit or constraint. Ainonis is in contrast to proskaira, or conditional forgiveness that is “for an age” or limited in terms of the sin or wrongdoing involved. “Eternal” forgiveness offers an umbrella promise that relative to the specific and innumerable requirements of Mosaic law was unlimited. In this sense, “eternal” is also known as “everlasting”, but not necessarily in the sense of immortal.
What is everlasting in eternal life is the unconditional and unending nature of forgiveness and pardon (“salvation”) from the system of religious law that judged individuals to be in perpetual sin. In addition what become immediate for individual believers comes from a sense of eternal life or forgiveness intended by or coming from the life of God, the Eternal One. What could not be forgiven except in proskaira or exceptional (timed) circumstances, in measures that belongs to a particular age or period, has been transformed, because now there is no limit or withdrawal of the promise or grace (apeiria)
Thus the phrase “eternal life” remains at the heart of any understanding of the epic narrative of Christ’s ministry, including his crucified death. While assuming the priestly authority of the Son of God and anointed one, in Jewish terms, Christ then gave up or sacrificed that power and in doing so abolished the systems of law and sacrifice that kept people in a state of everlasting sin and death. However could they continue when authorised to uphold them died, and in circumstances that were, according to tradition, unholy and spiritually impure.
In biblical terms Christ abolished spiritual death, and the power and paraphernalia of judgment that oppressed religious followers of his time. By doing so he brought eternal life, a state of human liberation and fulfilment unparalleled in the age it was first taught. “And you He made alive who were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1)
The benefits of much of this historical drama of faith, that lies at foundation of Christian faith, have been played out. The redemptive act occurred in a past time, and it is its consequences that can be felt two millennium on. We are called to a life of grace, paradoxically operating at both personal and social levels. The term ‘eternal life’ is more vague and open than when it was first pitched in opposition to systems of religion that no longer hold sway. As a result of teachings of eternal life we are hopefully less oppressed by teachings of sin and judgment.
The imperative now is not to stress simplified and dogmatic sense of ‘eternal life’, in a constant replay of exaggerated doctrines of sin and judgment, but to see the consequence of this conceptually and historically rich term, in two distinct perspectives that seem to paradoxically coexist in the Gospels and the New Testament generally. These are the offer “eternal life” that is personal and immediate, in Paulean terms, yet also belonging to a worldly kingdom, in terms of Christ’s teachings.