What is ‘eternal life’? Sometimes it is used synonymously with ‘heaven’, but is that biblically correct? By studying relevant texts, especially in the works of John, we will see clearly how this term functions in relation to new creation and eschatology.
General aspects of ‘eternal life’
Eternal life could also be translated as ‘life of the age’ (Gr.: zoe aionos), i.e. the age to come. This life, paradoxically, is to be found in Jesus now already (John 1:4; cf. 5:21, 26; 17:2; 20:31). It is an essential part of his identity. This becomes clear by looking at his ‘I am’-statements throughout the book: ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:35, 48). ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12). ‘I am the door. (…) I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:9–10). ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’ (John 11:25). ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6). Even when John uses just ‘life’, he has most likely ‘eternal life’ in mind (except maybe 1:4, which is an allusion to Ps. 36:9).
Indeed, the Gospel of John was written ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:30). Here we see another central thread in the book of John, namely faith. Those who see, experience and trust who Jesus is, i.e. those who believe, share in his life. ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life’ (John 6:47; cf. 3:15–16, 36; 5:24, 39–40; 6:40, 47, 54).
This faith in Jesus is tied to regeneration: ‘To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God’ (John 1:12–13). So also 1 John 5:1: ‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God.’ The concept of new birth is thoroughly eschatological (cf. Ezek. 36:25–27). Regeneration as spiritual resurrection by the Spirit is the commencement of eternal life and the entrance to the ‘kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). The life of the age to come has broken in from the future in the person of Jesus. The resurrection has been inaugurated.
So, ‘eternal life’ is bound up with the person and work of Jesus the Messiah and those who believe in him. But who is Jesus according to John? John uses the terms ‘truth’/‘true’ to capture an important aspect of Jesus’ identity, namely that he fulfils and surpasses the types and prophecies of the Old Testament and that he is the eschatological climax of the Biblical narrative. Jesus is ‘the truth’ (John 14:6).
The Law wrote about Jesus (John 1:45) but Jesus brings truth, i.e. fulfilment (John 1:14, 17). Jesus provides for his people like the manna and the water from the rock did in the desert, but he surpasses these types by far: he gives himself as the true manna and water from the rock: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. (…) My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink’ (John 6:32, 55; cf. 10:11, 15; 15:13). In this metaphor, believing is compared to ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ Jesus’ flesh and blood, and those who ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ receive eternal life. Jesus also fulfils the type of the serpent in the desert (John 3:15); whoever believes in him crucified, receives eternal life.
Jesus fulfils and surpasses the types and prophecies of the Old Testament and is the eschatological climax of the Biblical narrative
An important theme in John is the temple. The types of the garden of Eden, the tabernacle and the temple find fulfilment in Jesus. This is hinted at when John writes that Jesus ‘tabernacled’ on earth (John 1:14). Jesus presents his own body as the temple, which will be destroyed (i.e. killed) but raised up in three days (John 2:18–22). The new creation through resurrection is equated with the raising up of the eschatological temple. Those who believe in Jesus and share in Jesus’ resurrection constitute his Spirit-indwelt body and are the ‘true worshippers’ who worship in ‘spirit and truth’ (John 4:22–23).
Jesus also presents himself as the fulfilment of Israel. Israel failed to be a light to the nations, but Jesus is the ‘true light, which gives light to everyone’ (John 1:9; cf. Isa. 42:6; 49:6). In the Old Testament Israel was repeatedly compared to a vine (Ps. 80:8–16; Jes. 5:1–7; Jer. 2:21; Ezek. 15:1–8; 17:5–10; 19:10–14; Hos. 10:1), but Israel didn’t bear fruit. Jesus states that he is the ‘true vine’ (John 15:1). Jesus does bear fruit, and those who belong to him form the true, restored Israel.
This fulfilment theme is expressed in a number of other ways. For example, Jesus uses the title ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel 7 (see discussion below). Also, the title ‘Son of God’ is used, which was also used for Adam (Gen. 5:1–3; cf. Luke 3:38), Israel (Ex. 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1 [cf. Matt. 2:15] ) and Davidic kings (2 Sam. 7:14). In this way Jesus is portrayed as the true priest-king, fulfilling the commission of humanity. Finally, John describes the fulfilment of certain specific OT texts (John 1:23 [Isa. 40:3]; 6:45 [Isa. 54:13]; 6:38 [see discussion below]), in particular with regard to Jesus’ suffering and death (John 12:13 [Ps. 118:25–26]; 12:15 [Zech. 9:9]; 12:38 [Isa. 53:1]; 12:40 [Isa. 6:10]; 13:18 [Ps. 41:9]; 15:25 [Ps. 35:19; 69:4]; 16:22 [Isa. 66:14]; 19:24 [Ps. 22:18]; 19:36 [Ex. 12:46; Num. 9:12; Ps. 34:20]; 19:37 [Zech 12:10]).
So, Jesus brings the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. He is the true Adam, the true Israel, the true David who brings the narrative of the Bible to its climax. He is the one who brings the end-time resurrection and kingdom that the Prophets foresaw.
Son of Man
John 5:24–29 is worth elaborating on to show the eschatological nature of eternal life/resurrection and the already-not-yet tension in the Gospel of John. It reads as follows:
‘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. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment’ (John 5:24–29).
It is very significant that John alludes to the Son of Man-figure from Daniel 7:
‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed’ (Dan. 7:13–14).
The ‘Son of Man’ is portrayed in Daniel as an Adamic figure who receives from God the kingdom over creation. In the immediate context he is interpreted as ‘the saints of the Most High’ (Dan. 7:18). Just as the beasts in Daniel’s vision represent enemy kingdoms, so the ‘son of man’ represents ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’ (Dan. 7:27). But Jesus takes up this title as if it referred to an individual.This can be explained by the concept of corporate representation: as king Jesus is both separate from his people yet also representative of his people. This background of the title ‘Son of Man’ is important to keep in mind: the Father has given Jesus authority as ruler over all the earth. Indeed, Jesus brings God’s kingdom.
The background for the term ‘eternal life’ also originates from Daniel, namely chapter 12, the only text in the Old Greek version where the term ‘eternal life’ is found. We read in Daniel 12:1–2:
‘At that time [OG: ‘in that hour’] 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.’
The similarities between Daniel 12 and John 5 are captured in the next table:
Especially striking is the twofold resurrection in both texts. John explains the role of Jesus in this twofold resurrection: the Father has given Jesus both life in himself (5:26) and the authority to give judgement (5:27).
The tension between inaugurated and consummated eschatology becomes very clear in this passage. On the one hand Jesus says that ‘the hour’ has already come here and now in his person. The end of the ages has arrived in Jesus; the ‘last things’ (Gr. ta eschata) have come. The new-creational kingdom of God has been inaugurated through the life, death and especially resurrection of Jesus, the Son of Man. This new creation became manifest in Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, and his resurrection of Lazarus, which pointed forward to the resurrection of Jesus himself. Whoever believes in Jesus comes to share in this life of the age to come (‘…has eternal life’ [5:24]). By means of their spiritual resurrection, believers share in the new-creation resurrection life of Jesus. (It is important to maintain that spiritual is literal. The promises of resurrection in the Old Testament are literally fulfilled in Jesus and believers, yet in pre-consummate form.)
Whoever believes in Jesus comes to share in this life of the age to come (‘…has eternal life’ [5:24]). By means of their spiritual resurrection, believers share in the new-creation resurrection life of Jesus.
On the other hand ‘the hour’ is still future. The full consummation of the new-creational kingdom is still to come. Jesus, the Son of Man who has inaugurated God’s kingdom on earth, will return on the clouds (cf. Matt. 24:30; Mk. 13:26). At that point the old earth will pass away in its totality. Sin and death will be no more. All people will rise, some to judgement, others to eternal life. The whole world, which now still groans (cf. Rom. 8:17–24), will be renewed, and the saints will rise to reign with Christ (cf. 2 Tim. 2:12).
To sum up, the resurrection life of the new creation-age to come is inaugurated through the resurrection of the Messiah Jesus and of those who belong to him. This eternal life will be consummated when Jesus returns. At that moment the life which believers possess and which till then was spiritual, will be consummated as their bodies are resurrected and sin and death are gone forevermore.
This same dynamic can also be applied to the concept of ‘knowing God’. Indeed, eternal life in a sense is knowing God (John 17:2), that is, the life of the age to come is centred around the restored relationship of knowledge and delight between God and his people. However, this knowledge is only inaugurated. Now we only know in part, but one day we will know in full (cf. 1 Cor. 13:9–12).
This eternal life will be consummated when Jesus returns. At that moment the life which believers possess and which till then was spiritual, will be consummated as their bodies are resurrected and sin and death are gone forevermore.
Risen to reign
Now we come to the last facet of eternal life which will be shortly adressed in this essay, namely the tight connection between resurrection life and rule, in other words between new creation and kingdom. Space does not allow to extend on this, but two comments suffice.
First of all, Jesus’ death and resurrection were royal acts. Through them he ‘destroyed the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8). The resurrection in itself is a kingly act of victory, namely over sin and death. Those who believe in Jesus and are born of God ‘conquer the world’ (1 John 5:4–5) and experience the victory of resurrection over sin in their lives. This victory will be consummated when sin and death will pass away forevermore at Jesus’ victorious return.
Secondly, the resurrection of Jesus is connected to his exaltation (cf. Rom. 1:4). The link between resurrection and exaltation is made especially clear by Paul in Ephesians 1 and 2 (see table below). Also, Paul stresses the union between Christ and those who belong to him. Remember in this regard the Daniel 7 background of the ‘Son of Man’, both as the individual figure (Christ) and as the saints (believers) receiving the kingdom.
The link between resurrection and rule/reign is also seen in Revelation, among others in these texts:
‘…Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth’ (Rev. 1:5a).
‘The one who conquers [death; cf. 5:5–6], I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne’ (Rev. 3:21).
‘They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. … Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years’ (Rev. 20:4, 6).
The exaltation of Christ to the seat of authority is an escalation of his resurrection. In the same way the saints, when sharing in Christ’s resurrection, are exalted to the heavenly places and are reigning with Christ now. This exaltation will be consummated when Jesus returns and they are raised to be kings and priests forever with Christ over the new creation.
This essay is written with the help of and on the ground of the work of G.K. Beale in ‘A New Testament Biblical Theology’ (Baker Academic, 2011). Beale argues convincingly that the new-creational kingdom of God is the most significant part of the meta-narrative of Scripture.