The Christian message is bound up in the Cross, namely, the death of God’s chosen King for the sins of His people. Yet the Cross cannot be understood or rightly treasured without the resurrection. And by resurrection, I do not only mean the fact that Jesus rose, but the earth-shattering, God-authenticating declaration that what happened to Jesus will happen to everyone who puts their faith in Him. The message we proclaim is this: “Christ died for our sins” and “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, namely, “those who belong to Christ”, who “will be raised imperishable” and “put on immortality” to “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:3, 20, 23, 52-53, 50). These are not my words, but the words of the Apostle who saw the risen Lord. The victory that is ours in Jesus is nothing less than this triumph over death on a real day in the future. In this way, we are motivated to stand firm (1 Cor. 15:58, Phil. 4:1). In this way, we rejoice in the face of difficult trials (1 Pet. 1:6, James 1:12). In this way, we know that our efforts of love have a true reward (Lk. 14:14). In this way, we boldly face the tragedy of death and dying that marks this evil age, “holding fast the word of life” (Phil. 2:16). How can we truly encourage each other if the words “resurrection” and “immortality” are absent from our ongoing conversation? Have we completely ignored the basis for which Paul commanded believers to comfort one another (1 Thess. 4:13-18)?
The Apostle John could not be more clear in his purpose for writing, “…these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Jn. 20:31) Again he writes, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn. 5:13) One of the greatest tragedies in Christianity is the apparent meaninglessness of this phrase: “eternal life”. We hear it often repeated in verses such as John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Yet, by not really providing any substantial meaning and color to this “free gift of God… eternal life” (Rom. 6:23), we don’t really understand the love of God.
On the rare occasion when “eternal life” is defined, it is often constrained to a narrow interpretation of one verse, John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Based on this verse, we determine that “eternal life” consists in knowing God, it is a relationship with Jesus. But how well does this definition play out? When the phrase is used throughout Scripture, could it mean something else? As we just looked at, John says, “I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn. 5:13) If we were to use the popular definition of “eternal life”, this would mean that the purpose of John’s writing was “so that you may know that you know Jesus.” Perhaps John could be saying that, but honestly, that makes little sense. John was not writing to let us know that we have a relationship with Jesus, he was writing to tell us that we have “eternal life” through relationship with Jesus. The distinction is massive. What if the translators of the NLT got it right when they translated Jn. 17:3 this way: “And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth”? What if Jn. 17:3 doesn’t really tell us anything about what “eternal life” actually is?
Not surprisingly, there are other passages which go into much greater detail about “eternal life”. Of any passage from Jesus regarding “eternal life”, I know none clearer than John 6 (a dialogue in which Jesus uses the phrase four times and mentions “life”/”live”/”living” no less than 17 times). What if we defined the phrase from there? Consider these words: “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (Jn. 6:47-51) In describing “eternal life”, Jesus was offering something very straight forward: not dying, living forever, i.e. immortality.
Paul writes how Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). Paul also writes, “God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, He will give eternal life.” (Rom. 2:6-7) What if, as Paul framed it, “eternal life” and “immortality” are synonymous? What if “eternal life” actually means living forever? Why wouldn’t we assume it simply means just that?
Since the Third Century, the church came to assume that humanity is universally endowed with immortality, therefore “eternal life” must mean something different. Yet this is an assumption we read into the Bible, not from Bible. Before the false doctrine of “the natural immortality of the soul” came to shape our gospel assumptions (a phrase first used by Tertullian around 208 AD), the earliest of the church fathers echoed the Apostles in hopes of God-endowed immortality, “Be sober as God’s athlete. The prize is immortality and eternal life, of which you have been persuaded.” (Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of John, c. 107 AD) “This able wrestler, therefore, exhorts us to the struggle for immortality, that we may be crowned, and may deem the crown precious, namely, that which is acquired by our struggle, but which does not encircle us of its own accord.” (Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 180 AD)
Eternal life and immortality does not encircle us of its own accord, it’s not something we posses by nature. Nor is it given to all men without condition, as Jesus said, “The one who believes has eternal life… Whoever eats this bread will live forever”. Neither is eternal life and immortality realized in this age. Eternal life is presented as something we wait to inherit (Mt. 19:29, Jd. 21, Tit. 3:7). It is “the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12, cf. Rev. 2:10) As many times as “eternal life” is used by Jesus in John 6, so many times does Jesus use another phrase: “the last day”. Consider these examples: “Everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” (vs. 40), and “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.“ (vs. 54) The reason eternal life is connected to being raised up on the last day is simply because resurrection is the means by which we will live forever. As Jesus says, “In the age to come, those worthy of being raised from the dead… will never die again“ (Lk. 20:35-36 NLT).
Right now, we are assured of eternal life. This promise is so sure that, using prolepsis (Dictionary: “the representation of a thing as existing before it actually does or did so, as in ‘he was a dead man when he entered’“), we can say that eternal life is something we already posses. It’s why, just before discussing “the resurrection of life“ (Jn. 5:29), Jesus says, “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.” (Jn. 5:24) Eternal life and immortality is no small biblical theme, it is our hope. It is the promise of God. It is “the eternal life to which you were called“, which we must also “take hold of” (1 Tim. 6:12). It is what humanity had lost because of sin (“‘he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’- therefore the Lord God sent him out”, Gen. 3:22-23) and it’s what God has restored to us through the blood of Jesus, which we shall receive on the last day (“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life“, Rev. 22:14).
“Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.‘ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” (Heb. 10:35-39 ESV)