What Is Eternal Life?

Beware of defining it quantitatively.

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If we believe that eternal life means solely living on forever without an end, then the curmudgeonly Jonathan Swift pops our balloon.

In his novel Gulliver’s Travels, Swift recounts how Gulliver visits an island kingdom named Luggnagg. There among his adventures, he meets a resident who tells him about a special category of people on the island, named Struldbrugs. The Struldbrugs are born with the rare gift of immortality.  But as Gulliver hears more about their story, we come to question whether it can rightly be called a blessing.

It is true that the Struldbrugs cannot die, but with the gift of immortality they are not given the gift of perpetual youth.  Instead each year they grow older and older … becoming ever more wrinkled, feeble, and disagreeable with each passing year. In the end their lives become so miserable that families on Luggnagg regard the birth of a Struldbrug as a curse on the family.

I think we need to recall this story whenever we are inclined … thoughtlessly … to define eternal life quantitatively … as everlasting longevity. Swift is saying to us, “If that is what you hope for, beware of what you ask.”

Eternal Life in the Gospel of John

This is not eternal life as the author of the Gospel of John proclaims it. Eternal life is an important concept for John, but it is certainly something more than longevity.

We get at John’s understanding in the prayer that Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples at the end of the Last Supper. In that prayer Jesus says:

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. [John 17:3]

That statement by Jesus has always stopped me in my tracks. Jesus says nothing about the longevity of eternal life. Rather he focuses entirely on its purpose.

There is a peculiar twist in the syntax of that verse in the original Greek. The first part of the verse sounds as if Jesus is going to give us a standard definition—This is eternal life…

 But immediately after this phrase in Greek comes the word hina. Hina is a conjunction that points to purpose. The NRSV translates it that. It would be more accurate to translate it so that, or for the purpose of.

This strange twist in the grammar suggests that Jesus (and John) knows that eternal life does involve immortality, but he does not want the accent to be on that quality. He wants to emphasize that what most constitutes eternal life is not longevity and agelessness but its purpose. And that purpose is that we may know God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

The Semitic Understanding of Knowing

To understand the significance of this knowing, we must read the verb know in a Semitic way, not in a Greek way. For the ancient Greeks, to know meant to perceive intellectually. They wanted to understand the world and human beings factually. Their goal was to express their perceptions in abstract, philosophical principles.

In this Greek usage, if you knew a person, you could recount facts about his or her life. You could tell something about who they are or what they do.

The Semitic understanding of knowing, however, was very different. For the Hebrew used in the Old Testament, knowing was more practical, experiential, and emotional. To know a person did not mean you could talk about a person, but that you had some kind of relationship with that person. It had a connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.

The Hebrew understanding of knowing a person is captured in several different places in Genesis where to know is used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The classic text is Genesis 4:1, where Adam is said to know his wife Eve and she conceives a son. Knowing is an experience that leads to a form of union in relationship.

British Biblical scholar E.C. Blackman captured this special Semitic flavor when he said that for the Old Testament, …knowledge of God meant not thought about an eternal Being or Principle transcending man and the world, but recognition of, and obedience to, one who acted purposefully in the world.*

American Biblical scholar Raymond Brown agreed with Blackman. He commented on the use of know in this verse: For John, of course, knowing God is not a purely intellectual matter but involves a life of obedience to God’s commandments and of loving communion with fellow Christians…This is in agreement with Hebrew use of the verb ‘to know’ with its connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.**

The apostle Paul also holds to this experiential dimension of knowing. We see that caught in Philippians 3:10: …that I may know him [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings…. Paul is clearly implying that he seeks to know by experience, rather than by abstract thought.

Although the verb to know would mean something to both a Greek and a Jew, I think it is absolutely essential that we understand that Jesus–and the gospel writer–are thinking like Jews, not like Greeks. The Semitic understanding of knowing can issue in intellectual understanding. But intellectual understanding is its fruit, not its defining characteristic.

Semitic Knowing and Christian Faith Today

I think this Semitic understanding of knowing is essential as we try to present the Christian faith to both believers and unbelievers today. There is a prevalent idea out there in our churches and in the broader culture that Christian faith is all about believing certain intellectual doctrines. Such faith turns into something dry and unemotional.

I suspect we owe that understanding of the Christian faith to the scholastic theologians in the late 16th and the 17th centuries who followed in the wake of the Reformation.  For the Reformers like Luther and Calvin the experiential dimension of the Christian faith was preeminent. It was what fired their preaching and writing. But their scholastic heirs turned the Reformers’ ardent faith into an intellectual affair. Faith was believing the doctrines, not a personal trust in God.

Intellectual knowing, however, seldom transforms a person. Rather it tends to make a person, especially scholars, arrogant and conceited. It is the personal relationship –with God and with other Christians–that changes minds and behavior. That has been proven time after time in the stories of the great conversions in Christian history.***

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* Entry on “Know, Knowledge” in Alan Richardson, editor. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950. Page 121.

** Raymond E. Brown, S.S. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel of John (xiii-xxi). New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970. Page 752.

*** As a great resource for reading about these conversions, I recommend John M. Mulder, editor, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.

 

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The Sign of Conversion

A puzzling parable offers a sure-fire sign of full conversion.

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One of the most troubling of Jesus’ parables is his story of a landowner who goes out into the village marketplace to hire laborers to work in his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). He hires some in the early morning, then returns every three hours to hire more, including some just a hour before the work day ends. Yet all the laborers, regardless of when they began work, are paid the same wage.

The workers who began work in the early morning complain about the landowner’s unfairness. They should be paid more, they argue, because they worked through the scorching heat of the day. That deserves greater remuneration.

The landowner denies their request, saying:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)

Most of us are troubled by this parable because we agree with the aggrieved laborers. By our standards of good business practices, the landowner is indeed being unjust. The workers deserve a reward commensurate with the depth of labor they put into the task.

But if we are to understand this parable, we must leave behind our ideas about fair business transactions. When Jesus begins telling his story, he says it is an analogy to what happens in the kingdom of God. All who enter into the kingdom are beneficiaries of the generous grace of God.

All receive the same gift of God’s gracious salvation. That is a gift of surpassing worth. And anyone who receives that gift should take delight that everyone else is receiving that same surpassing gift as well. That, in fact, becomes a sign of full conversion (conversion understood as a radical change of mindset as I describe in my June 2 posting Transforming Repentance).

If I have been truly converted, then I will rejoice in the fact that God is sharing so widely the same gift that I have received. For that gift is such a superlative gift that I cannot hoard it to myself. I want everyone around me to share it too.

Such an attitude shows that one is no longer dominated by an egocentric religious mindset. Such a mindset is always concerned with what I will get from my faithfulness, devotion, and obedience. If we are dominated by that mindset, we will be consumed with our demand that we get what we feel we deserve. We will resent someone getting what we feel they have not deserved as much as we have.

The Character of Conversion

Conversion involves a reorientation of our mindset from an obsession with our own survival and wellbeing to a delight in the great and glorious cosmic plan that God is at work to bring into being, That includes a joyful acceptance of our own humble place and role in that plan whether that place and role always involve our immediate wellbeing or not. The surpassing worth and beauty of the kingdom so captivates us that we cannot help but rejoice when others come to share that same gift that we have received.

Now I think this parable speaks very pointedly to our spiritual situation as Christians. Egocentric concerns may play a huge role in bringing us to a conversion experience. (And there is nothing more egocentric that being worried about whether we are going to heaven or hell when we die.) When we begin our spiritual journey, we begin where we are as egocentric persons most concerned about what affects us personally.

But as we mature into our conversion, a shift begins to take place within us. We begin to be more concerned not with our own spiritual fate and wellbeing, but with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Jesus describes that shift when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, …strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well (Matthew 6:33).

That does not mean most of us reach that level of spiritual maturity easily or quickly. For most of us, including myself, it is a long, slow, and gradual process of reorientation lasting a whole lifetime.

The parable also speaks, I believe, to our relationship with other Christian groupings and other religions. When we see the fruits of God’s kingdom manifest in them, if we are truly converted, we rejoice to see the Spirit at work in them as well as in us, regardless of whether they conform to our particular doctrines and practices.

When we have reached that depth of conversion, we can begin to hear Jesus’ parable not as a frightful malpractice but as a vision into the glory of God’s beneficent grace.

 

Beware of Baptism

Scripture text: Galatians 3:27-28

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In many American churches today, like the one I serve, baptism has become something of a defanged sacrament. We perform it most often on babies. And so a congregation tends to coo like the baby itself, as people in the pew admire the little child in its white gown.

This experience of baptism makes it hard for us to appreciate what a serious, indeed often a disturbing and revolutionary act baptism was in the early church, like the churches in Galatia to whom the apostle Paul wrote the words quoted above.

Baptism was that decisive moment when a person made the transition from an identity as a pagan or Jew to an identity as a Christian. Up until that moment, a person might believe deeply in the doctrines of Christianity, one might practice its morals, one might attend church services regularly, but in the eyes of both pagans and Christians one was not yet a Christian.

That changed, however, once a person had been immersed in the waters of Christian baptism. In the eyes of both non-Christians and Christians, one was now a Christian. One had adopted a Christian identity. Paul puts it in the figurative language that now one was clothed with (or had put on) Christ.

This meant baptism was an existentially weighty act. One has to understand that to understand a strange incident that St. Augustine reports in his Confessions.

In Book 8 he tells the story of a Roman philosopher named Victorinus who became convinced of the truth of Christianity. His friend Simplicianus urged him to complete his Christian conversion by coming into the church through baptism. Victorinus saw no need to take this step and argued his position with the question, “Is it then walls that make a Christian?”

Baptism incorporated a person into the community of faith, which was the church. (And in Augustine’s time, Christian congregations were constructing church buildings as their gathering places.) So in the eyes of the church, one did not become a Christian until one did indeed come within the “walls” of the church through baptism.

Victorinus understood being a Christian as believing certain doctrines. Simplicianus, along with Augustine and orthodox Christianity, understood being a Christian as something existentially deeper. It was nothing less than a spiritual union with Christ effected through the sacrament of baptism. That union had psychological and social dimensions to it in addition to intellectual and spiritual ones.

Baptism represented a new beginning for a person. This was expressed in the very act of baptism. In many churches of that early era, when one was baptized, one stripped off one’s street clothes, stepped into a pool of water naked, and was immersed in the water. When one emerged, one was then clothed in a new (often white) garment and led into the church’s congregation for one’s first participation in the Eucharist.

My wife Ginny and I saw a clear example of one of these baptismal pools in the ruins of the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus during our recent trip to Turkey. I include a photo. 

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In the act of baptism, one also renounced sin, evil, and the devil, and proclaimed one’s trust in Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior.

As a result of all this spiritual weight associated with baptism, one could truly speak of baptism as a spiritual washing, a new birth, a death and resurrection, an act of new creation, and also a Christian participation in a spiritual crossing of the Red Sea and an entrance into the heavenly Promised Land.

Baptism was therefore not something to regard lightly or take on lightly. It was serious business. And it signaled that one was entering into a spiritual journey that could be profoundly transforming.

One aspect of that transformation for the apostle Paul is expressed in the Galatians passage I quoted above. Baptism for Paul effected a union between the believer and Christ. And as a result of that union, deep and long socially sanctioned social divisions were relativized. What was now primary was our oneness in Christ. The divisions of Gentile and Jew, of slave and free, of men and women could no longer be primary in the way Christians lived.

That this was revolutionary stuff is shown by the inability of most Christians through the ages to relativize these distinctions. Witness our long Christian history of anti-Semitism, racism, upholding of slavery, and gender discrimination. We still want to tame and defang the power of baptism. It can be too toxic for our comfort.

So when I counsel parents who ask me to baptize their child, I am beginning to feel I ought to say to them, “Beware of what you’re doing. It may turn your and your child’s life upside down.”