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).

Eternal Life?

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 , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. the best message I have ever heard on the phrase ‘eternal life’ is by Shane Hipps who is the new teaching pastor at Rob Bells old church… Mars Hill Bible Church. It’s from the free weekly podcast but it was a while back so it’ snot online anymore. I have uploaded the message to the following url if you’re interested. http://vinniethescribbler.com/beneath-the-waves.mp3

  2. Matt, I think that this post could be [mis]construed in a number of ways – ways that you may or may not agree with.

    Of course, you can never explain fully something like this in one post (or even a series of posts!), and so we all must remember that these sorts of things are but parts of a much larger conversation, and have to be understood in that tension.

    However, I think that there is the possibility for a little bit of collapsing to go on here, both due the topic at hand being studied through the very focused lens of one word/phrase (what else can you do in a short blog post? I don’t know…), and with the contextual (sometimes apocalyptic) language around those phrases (especially in Daniel) being conceptually collapsed.

    For example, you use the Daniel passage in a way that may sound to some to be totally ‘this worldly’ (Alexander and the diadochi), which, I think, is the equal but opposite error of those who take it as totally ‘otherworldly.’ Daniel, to my mind, is certainly not talking about about the annihilation of this whole creation and the whisking of faithful believers off to ‘heaven,’ but neither is he talking simply about the rise and fall of empires as a natural sort of state of affairs.

    He is taking a little from column A, and a little from column B.

    This is because, I think, he sees the great empires of his own day as the final affronts to God and his people in the world, and that God would soon act. Of course, you do mention this is passing with word ‘judgment’ slipped in there, but it’s a sort of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearance.

    The ‘great reversal’ idea present in Daniel (especially in Daniel 7) is certainly that anti-God empire will be overcome, but this takes a great act of God – the Day of the Lord. So, while Daniel might not be talking about the end of space and time as we know it, it will certainly take a mighty act of God to judge oppressive and exploitative empire and bring about a new future where empire doesn’t have the last word.

    Thus, there is a certain continuity and discontinuity at work here (in regards to the post-empire future envisaged).

    This same idea is picked up in the intertestamental literature (especially stuff like the Maccabean literature), and is, I think, the idea that Jesus and the New Testament writers work with.

    And here is where I note that you do pick up these ideas, but only at the very end of your post and in a way that I think might be missed by some of your readers.

    Of course, Jesus’ whole proclamation was that with him came the kingdom. With the pouring out of the Spirit, believers could experience this in-breaking of the kingdom-life-to-come now in the present.

    But it’s not in full.

    It does take the mighty act of God to judge and destroy all empire and to overcome evil. This is that same ‘Day of the Lord’ idea where the oppressors are judged and the ‘righteous’ are given new, resurrection life in a [re]new[ed], ‘resurrected’ creation.

    I don’t think it matters, then, to call that fullness of resurrected life ‘eternal’ (in the traditional sense of the word). What I think we should emphasize, though – and this is what you do so well – is that this liberating, life-of-the-kingdom-rule-of-God is available (in part) in the present, and it is this that spurs us on.

    We thus seek to help overcome oppressive and exploitative structures in the present, because of the hope to come that is partially present with us in the ‘now’ by the Spirit.

    I think that’s actually what you were saying all along (please correct me if this is not the case), but I just fear that your part of the ‘conversation’ above could be somewhat misunderstood through a collapsing of ‘the age to come’ fully with ‘this present age.’

    • I love when there is some good conversation about a topic like this.

      Firstly, I’ll speak to Josh’s valuable contribution. Of course you are right, Josh, that one blog post cannot ever adequately deal with any topic, this one definitely included. This is (almost humorously) indicated by the fact that your comment is as long as my post 🙂

      i am not in any way denying the “everlasting-ness” of resurrection life. While it could definitely be argued that this is an element of the “eternal life” spoken of by John, this is not, in my view, the central reality.

      Daniel is of course both earthly and cosmic as apocalyptic (you and I have the advantage of having discussed this at length in person so we have a fair idea of what the other thinks). But I want to push against you a bit here, Josh.

      Firstly, you point to Daniel 7 as an example of a great act of God which is not entirely natural. With this I agree, it is interesting that Jesus later uses this tradition to speak of the coming fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Rome (a conclusion many others disagree on, but one I know you and I share). How “unnatural” is this event? The NT obviously attributes this event as a judgement of God, a cosmic event if you will, but in another sense how is it anything other than an empire rising against another? There is nothing final about this event in terms of world history. The cosmic nature in terms of judgement does not seem to equate to the fullness of the new age. This I suppose is part of the current powers fading away, and the experience of eternal life now. These are more questions that answers…

      Secondly, how developed was Daniel’s “eschatology”? In fact, could it even be called “eschatology” in the sense we use the term? We tend to refer to the coming of Christ and the restoration of all things, but I’m not sure Daniel goes this far. Perhaps, as a suggestion, our eschatology should be stretched out to include events like Jerusalem in 70CE. Should eschatology include “cosmic” acts of judgement against powers prior to the resurrection and renewal of all things?

      I take your point about the kingdom having come, but not in full. This is indeed the essence of my saying at a number of points that we can experience eternal life now; I would not have need to say such a thing if (I believed) the kingdom had come in its fullness already.

      I still think that we need to pull people up on the use of the word eternal (as I would suggest with Craig), since the power this term holds is strong in terms of what many Christians place their focus on (i.e. the “forever-ness” of the next life, rather than the fullness of life now and then as experienced in God’s reign vs. empire).

      I take your concern as to a possible misconstrual of what I have written, though I should point out that the thoughtful reader will note that my translation of “eternal life” as “the life of the age to come” or “the life of God’s kingdom age” inherently implies and infers that this age is yet to eventuate in its fullness. That is, it is a future reality that we experience in part now. It’s just that the focus is not at all on it’s duration, but on it’s quality and it’s justice (contra empire).

      Looking forward to your reply.


      • Excellent reply Matt!

        And I do apologise for my lengthy initial comment… : )

        I think you have a really good point with John. While I don’t agree with some scholars that John is offering a “fully-realised eschatology”, I think he is certainly offering something that has a big focus on the (kingdom) life we have avilable to us now. As such, his “inaugurated eschatology” is probably weighted more heavily on the “now” than some of the other NT writers (though not by much, and perhaps this is a good point for your argument).

        In regards to Daniel, you certainly have a good point. I just think that Daniel (and the Maccabees, for example), had the idea in their head that God was going to act in such a dramatic way that there would be a complete reversal (with some of the Maccabean literature suggesting that this would be a great opportunity to put the boot into their former oppressors). Also, it is intrinsically linked to the idea of resurrection.

        In regards to Jesus’ use of the Danielic tradition, I think there is actually an element of ‘finality’ – in regards to God’s judgment on zealous, nationalistic religion. With the destruction of the Temple (and the sacrificial system), Jesus (and his message) is vindicated and “Israel-formed-around-Messiah” stands firm and is not rocked to its very foundations.

        I have also come to read this destruction of the “Jewish Empire” as something of a symbol and precursor to the destruction of the Roman Empire, which itself becomes a symbol of the final eventual destruction of *all* empire (and the fullness of [re]new[ed] creation).

        This has sort of side-stepped some of your direct points, but let me know what you think.

        Also, in reading back over your post, I think that you are right in that you have phrased things carefully enough that the attentive reader will be able to deduce these things.

        Perhaps I need to be a more attentive reader… ; )

        At the end of the day, your focus on living the kingdom-life now (in a way that identifies and seeks to undermine structures of empire) is certainly warranted, and thus your post is extremely important!

  3. I think that the life given is eternal. Other wise you will collapse the point of the resurrection to come as being limited in scope and eternal efficacy.

    However as Josh has rightly said, we live in the now of the recreation process and there should be an equal emphasis on the two.

    • Craig – The problem I have with this is that by using the word eternal to mean something it does not in the biblical literature (as I think you have), we can misinterpret the message of the authors.

      I am not denying the “everlasting-ness” of the resurrection, just that this is not John’s central point. If we want to talk about the infinite duration of the resurrection we simply need to look elsewhere, or see perhaps the implications of the coming restoration of all things. To argue that John in using “eternal” is talking about infinite duration of life after death is, in my view, mistaken, and distorts his point in addressing the issue of oppressive empires/structures and the quality of life God seeks to give.

      Does this help clarify what I mean? I think we are a lot closer than assumed.

  4. I think you are playing the wrong cards here. Within the framework of eternity, the message of eternal life is played against the wages of sin is death. Death is eternally finite and so the opposite of death is eternal life…and life that has all the fullness of God.

    John takes us back to the Genesis story In the beginning and therefore your pushing it by drawing Daniel into John. By referring to the Genesis story, John is referring to the pre sin state of humanity (whether you understand it as two individuals or a community is up for another discussion.)Within this framework of understanding, John shows that Jesus is talking of himself as being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Garden of Eden) and in doing so removes the swords that are guarding the garden.

    However, I also realise that I’m engaging more with your conclusion where you draw John into the discussion, than the thrust of your post which is more to do with Daniel and within the construct of Daniel I agree that he is saying all political systems will fail and come to an end.

    • Hi Craig,

      I’m not sure what the basis of you first paragraph is. It seems you are importing Pauline concepts into John. This is not inherently wrong, except John makes no mention of them. On what basis can you intertextually equate “eternal life” and “wages of sin is death”?

      When I read John and read about “life in abundance” I view it in terms of the narrative – Jesus acts in ways that confront imperial “death”, such as feeding the hungry, healing the sick, casting out demons, speaking out against economic and social oppression etc. etc. This is life abundant, or at least signs of it. Indeed, the context of John 10 is not a contrast with sinful existence, but with the life wrought by those in power (the “thieves”). In John’s narrative I don’t see any significant focus on eternal life being the opposite of literal death.

      I completely agree with you that John takes his readers back to Genesis in his opening chapter. I do not, however, think that this is meant to allude to a modern vision of salvation history vis-a-vis the Fall dividing between a pre-sin state and post-sin state. I think John is referring to, as Josh and I have alluded to, Genesis as God’s creative act, and the implication that he is in the process of re-creating.

      I think this is one of the implications of Jesus breathing on his disciples in John 20, connecting this action with the Spirit. I also think this new creation theme is implied in John calling the day of Jesus’ resurrection “the first day of the week” – an obvious allusion to the act of creation (thanks N.T. Wright for that little piece of gold).

      What I am saying is that I think John’s narrative and conjuring of the creation story is about more than personal sin and individual everlasting life – it is about God’s renewal of all things, including the overturning of empires that stand for the perpetuation of the status quo. In the meantime we must be “born again” or “born from above”, that is recreated.

      i’m also not sure why I cannot bring Daniel into John after he has alluded to Genesis – why must his intertextual references be limited to one source? Can he not refer to Genesis and Daniel?

      In regards to the Lamb – remember that the sacrificial lamb (and other sacrifices) of the OT did not remove merely personal sins – the sins were equally social and economic. This is the nature of the OT Law.

      As a tangential note, it is interesting to notice that in the Eden story Adam and Eve’s sin is to desire to choose for themselves what is right and wrong, what is good and evil. Have you ever noticed that this is exactly what Solomon asks for in 1 Kings 3? Could it be that the creation story is, in part, a later criticism of Solomon’s reign, since the “original sin” of humanity is exactly what this imperial head seeks?

      That was much longer than I had planned. Sorry for the waffle. Look forward to your reply.


  5. Josh,

    (Apparently WordPress only allow a few “nested” comments, so I can’t reply directly to your last comment.)

    No apologies needed about the long comments – the best thing is when there is good dialogue around these issues.

    I make no pretensions to be a Fourth Gospel expert, in fact it is probably the Gospel I am weakest on. I agree that John probably has the most “fulfilled” eschatology out of most of the NT, perhaps due to his later date of writing and retrospective advantage. He knows about the Temple’s destruction, perhaps by up to two or more decades, and is probably aware also of the so-called “failed” “Jewish mission,” the continuing marginalisation of the Church and the perpetual strength of Rome. I do think for John Daniel is multi-referential, though to what degree i do not know. I think though that the eternality of life in Daniel and John does not refer to duration, though this is a peripheral implication.

    I completely agree about the cosmic eschatology of Daniel and Maccabees, though I am also suggesting an exploration of the scope of eschatology i.e. does every “eschatological” reference in these books simply refer to a final judgement etc.

    I wish the finality you mentioned re: Jesus’ use of Daniel was actually the end of zealous nationalistic religion… 😉

    100% on the destruction of the Jewish empire as a precursor for Rome et.al. Warren Carter argues that; 1) God opposes empire; 2) God uses empire to bring about his purposes, and; 3) God brings salvation from empire – This is a fairly universal approach that works overall and fits in with what you said. Howard-Brook’s case in “Come Out, My People!” also works in this regard – the historical battle is between imperial religion and creational religion.

    You must have been an attentive reader, since you understood what i was saying 😉

    • Your point about more exploration into the idea of “eschatology” is a great one. It seems that we still have a long way to go on this, even after (especially) the last 100 years of work on this issue (from Schweitzer to Wright).

      I think, though, that Wright does have some really good stuff to say on all of this, and sets a good course for more thinking.

      I know you and I have discussed this issue personally before, and I would love to hear more of your thoughts on the topic (as it does my head in a little bit, to be perfectly honest…).

      • Agreed, Wright is a breath of fresh air and a major step. I also think Ched Myers was into something with his reading of Mark back in 1988 (Binding the Strong Man).

        Do you think it would be justified to say that eschatology becomes too easily misguided once it goes beyond being seen as a helpful anachronism? That is, it is an artificial label that can be helpful to identify a broad range of related material (kind of like apocalyptic…) that can too easily take on a life of its own.

        I don’t know…

  6. I think your initial reference to Daniel was more to do with the apocalyptic writings of John – aka Revelation – which I believe was written much later than the Gospel of John. I believe that Revelation has themes within it that John didn’t write nor intend to be read into his Gospel and his other 3 Epistles.

    So I believe you can compare Daniel to Revelation…but I don’t think its a fair call to compare him to his Gospel or his Epistles.

    Within the framework of eternal life…Jesus speaks a lot about it within the 4 gospels and therefore its a fair call to say that its a theme that John was conversant with. I feel your making a juxtaposition between the two, which the Scriptures don’t make or intend.

    I don’t think John does talk about overtly overthrowing any empires or political system. Rather it seems to me there is clear talk within the context of Scripture about how to live within the framework of existing political systems and honour those authorities that God has placed to lead those systems. Off course you could say that John and Paul and Luke all had vastly different agendas and belief systems as to what the Gospel story meant….but I don’t believe that is true.

    Also yes I do believe that the was a post exilic editorial work done to the Pentateuch. But that still doesn’t create a strong link between Johns Gospel and Daniel.

    Rather I would say that the work Jesus did in feeding the hungry, healing the sick, casting out the demons etc..was the fulfilment of what was meant to happen within the social welfare commandments within the framework of the OT…and therefore Jesus wasn’t into overthrowing anything…rather was into completing what was started – hence his word…IT is Finshed – or it is completed.

    • Hi Craig, sorry for the delay on this one.

      I don’t actually think Revelation was written much later than the Gospel of John, it was perhaps even written earlier. These assumptions may affect our conclusions, but they would open up a whole new conversation…

      What I don’t understand is why you think Daniel should be excluded from the Gospel of John, particularly when the reference to eternal life finds it’s only OT reference in Daniel. I think it is a far stretch to say John’s Gospel does not employ Daniel, particularly given the 11 or so ‘Son of Man’ references throughout the text (cf. Daniel 7).

      So on what basis should Daniel not find reference in John?

      Moreover, on what basis does eternal life in the 4 Gospels mean something different to what Daniel means (again, the only reference in the OT)?

      John doesn’t talk about overthrowing empires, you are correct – he talks about God’s judgement of them. I think it is a far stretch to say the NT authors counsel submission and honour to authorities. To do so leaves far too many passages of Scripture in conflict with that conclusion, not least Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of Romans.

      Just to clarify, my talk about Genesis in my last reply had nothing to do with Daniel, but about concerned with empire.

      I think your last sentence above makes a big logical jump. How does Jesus’ social works, which fulfil the OT laws & commands (I agree with this) mean that Jesus wasn’t also opposed to empire (again, remembering that I never said Jesus counselled overthrowing political powers by force)? Also why does Jesus’ statement “It is finished!” relate to “his word”? Where is that made clear in the narratives?

      Sorry Craig, that’s a LOT of questions.


  7. Lots of questions… You could be right about Johns Gospel being written before Revelation as I believe its written to address the destruction of the Temple…70 AD.

    The crucifixion scene is a perfect example of submission to authorities. Jesus totally submitted to the crucifixion judgement and rulings….within the framework of authority…Jesus said himself that the rulers only rule because God allows them to.

    Within the framework of the OT – Jesus said the greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart / mind / strength and the other to love your neighbour as yourself. Here we see a concise pithy statement which covers the OT genre…and the work of Christ.

  8. Craig,

    I was suggesting that Revelation might pre-date John. But this is all conjecture.

    I disagree with you about the crucifixion. Jesus’ submission to Rome’s execution demonstrated the injustice of it all – it was not a vindication of authority, if anything it was the opposite. In fact the Resurrection functions as both the vindication of Jesus and a judgement against Rome; it suggests that Rome throwing it’s worst at Jesus (and us) is not the end of the story, and thus Rome does not hold ultimate power.

    I believe God uses the powers (just as he used Assyria, Babylon etc. etc.) but this does not mean he approves of them, nor does it mean he expects people to become their doormats.

    Overall I agree with your last statement, as I implied in the last paragraph of my last comment.

    I still don’t see how a man executed by crucifixion, a death specifically reserved for those who rebelled against Rome, could be said to teach submission to empire.


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