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.***

_______________

* 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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Spacious Salvation

Have you stuffed your idea of salvation into too narrow of a box?

Scripture text: Psalm 66:10-12

For you, O God, have tested us;

            you have tried us as silver is tried.

You brought us into the net;

            you laid burdens on our backs;

you let people ride over our heads;

            we went through fire and through water;

            yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

Well-meaning Christians sometimes come up to me and ask, “Are you saved?” I find more often than not that they are asking from a narrow understanding of salvation. What they mean is: Where will you spend eternity? Will it be in heaven or in hell? Salvation is thought of primarily as a spiritual form of fire insurance.

This understanding of salvation stuffs salvation into a too restricted theological box. It ignores the richer and more expansive understanding of salvation that I get from reading the Bible.

Yes, the Bible encourages us to hope that when we as believers die, we will be “with Christ,” as the apostle Paul expresses it (Philippians 1:23). The promise of eternal life to each of us as individuals is a precious promise of the gospel. But that does not exhaust the meaning of salvation.

Reclaiming Old Testament Roots

It is helpful to remember that the concept of salvation has roots in the Old Testament, especially in the Exodus story. First and foremost salvation deals with rescue and liberation. When a person or a people are in deep danger or bondage, a savior is the one who comes and sets them free.

God becomes such a savior when God comes and liberates Israel from bondage in Egypt. God leads them out into a new life, a life of freedom. Israel is set free from the constraints that keep Israel from being the people God calls them to be.

Those constraints are political. Pharaoh’s claim on them must be broken. The constraints are social and economic. Israel must be delivered from the literal bondage of slavery. The constraints are psychological. Israel must acquire a new mind-set. They are to live as responsible free people, not as passive slaves.

And the constraints are spiritual. Israel enters into covenant with God, a covenant that calls them away from all forms of idolatry. The first commandment is that “they shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

In the Old Testament salvation has a clearly this-worldly and communal quality. It is fundamentally an experience of liberation.

Salvation Is Enriched in the New Testament

When we get to the New Testament, none of this Old Testament understanding is abandoned. Salvation continues to have its political, economic, social, and psychological dimensions. But the concept of salvation is enriched. For what has happened since the Exodus event is that spiritually sensitive minds have come to realize that the constraints that hold human beings in bondage are more than political, economic, social, and psychological, important as they are.

What ultimately holds human beings in bondage is spiritual. These bonds are sin, spiritual powers of evil, and ultimately death. Against these powers human beings prove helpless. We need someone to set us free, to save us. That is the mission of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, as the Samaritans acknowledge him in John 4:42.

Jesus does this by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This is the saving work of Jesus. The Nicene Creed acknowledges this when it begins its recital of Jesus’ saving work with the opening phrase “for us and for our salvation.”

There are many dimensions to salvation as we encounter it in the New Testament. For one, it is certainly spiritual. Sins are forgiven. We receive reconciliation with God. We are adopted as God’s children to enjoy an intimacy with God.

But it is also much more. When Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34, he tells her that her faith has made her well. The Greek word translated “made well” can also be translated “saved.” In her healing she is experiencing liberation from her ailment, and in that physical sense she is experiencing salvation.

When Zacchaeus responds to Jesus by saying that he will change his ways as a tax-collector, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:1-10). Salvation embraces the dramatic change of mind-set and behavior that Zacchaeus has adopted.

Salvation = Shalom

I think the best synonym for salvation is the Hebrew word shalom, which we translate as peace. But the English word peace is an anemic translation. The English word usually means “a cessation of conflict or of war.” The Hebrew word is much more expansive in meaning. It embraces not only cessation of conflict, but also wholeness, prosperity, and social harmony. It is well-being in its many dimensions.

For the New Testament writers the greatest enemy of mankind is death. It is the one oppressor that no human being can break free from. So the ultimate gift of salvation is the gift of liberation from death. That is what the apostle Paul is celebrating in the glorious 15th chapter of First Corinthians:

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

            “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

            “Where, O death, is your victory?

            Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The Cosmic Dimension of Salvation

But I want to suggest that this final liberation from death does not exhaust the dimensions of salvation that we find in the New Testament writings. Salvation exceeds even the ultimate destiny of human beings. There is a cosmic dimension to salvation.

Two passages in the apostle Paul’s writings weigh heavily with me here. The first is in Romans 8:19-23. There Paul talks about all of creation awaiting its own liberation, a freedom from the bondage of decay, a freedom mirroring that of the children of God.

Human beings are not the only ones held in bondage to death and decay. All of creation is as well (as evidenced by the scientific law of entropy). In the day of final salvation, the whole of creation will share in God’s liberation. Our salvation as human beings is part of a much bigger story, a story that embraces all of the universe.

The second passage that rivets my imagination is Ephesians 1:9-10:

With all wisdom and insight, he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Here Paul envisions that in the day of final salvation, all of the cosmos will be brought into a profound unity with Christ at the center as the one who unites all things together in peace.

This is about as cosmic as it can get. The kingdom of God, the realm of salvation, embraces not only human beings, but all of the cosmos, including its billions upon billions of galaxies and its many infinitesimally small atomic particles. Now that is breathtaking to me.

I’m not sure any human being has expressed the vision more expansively than has Dante in his final canto of The Divine Comedy. There we experience a vision of the triune God as the center and unifying force of a great mystic and cosmic rose that choirs forth God’s praise.

Spacious Salvation

I love the phrasing of Psalm 66 that I quoted at the start of this posting. It sings of the troubles that Israel has been through in its pilgrimage with God. They have passed through fire and water. But says the psalmist, God has brought them out into “a spacious place.”

I love that word “spacious.” It captures for me the whole vision of the Bible. What God is up to is nothing less than a “spacious salvation.” Now that is worthy of the jubilation of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Watching a Biblical Insight Emerge

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?

            Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend to heaven, thou are there!

            If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!

If I take the wings of the morning

            and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there thy hand shall lead me,

            and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalm 139:7-10 (RSV)

When Christians read the Hebrew Psalms, many will claim that Psalm 139 is one of their favorites. The psalmist says there is no place we can go in life where God’s Spirit is not present with us. Given the many vicissitudes of life, this is a profoundly consoling message.

Few who read this psalm, I suspect, have any idea that they are also watching a world-changing insight emerging in these words.

It comes as a stark surprise for many Christians when they first learn that the ancient Israelites of these Old Testament eras had no belief in a heaven or a hell as the our destinations after death. Christians just assume that the ancient Israelites believed just as we do. They did not.

The prevailing belief among Old Testament Israelites was that when people died, all of them (whether righteous or evil) descended to a land under the earth, a land of the dead. It was a gray and shadowy land where people experienced a gray and shadowy existence. One could hardly call it an afterlife, for it was devoid of all that makes life alive for us. The dead existed in a state we might compare to zombies.

This land was called Sheol, or the Pit. And we find references to it throughout the Old Testament, but most especially in the psalms.

What was most distressing about Sheol was that God was not there. It was a godless world. And so in Sheol no one praised God or enjoyed the comforts of being in God’s presence. (For an example, see Psalm 6:5.) In Sheol, the relationship the righteous had established with God in this life was shattered. It was gone.

This accounts for the desperation we often find in the psalms when the psalmist pleads with God not to let him be swallowed into Sheol or to let the Pit close its mouth over him. (For an example, see Psalm 69:15.)

A belief in an afterlife and in a resurrection of the dead did not make its appearance in Judaism until late into the post-exilic period. And the Christian belief in a heaven and hell is largely a Christian development.

We see an insight, however, that death does not lead to a godless existence emerging in Psalm 139. When the psalmist says, “If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!”, he is saying something revolutionary for the Old Testament world. In that world, Sheol was godless. The psalmist, however, senses that maybe Sheol is not godless after all. God’s Spirit is present there as well as in heaven.

This is not a full-blown declaration of a belief in an afterlife, in a heaven and hell. But it is a suggestion that there is a mystery about what happens after death that the old settled dogma of Israelite religion cannot conceive. The ground is shifting. What is emerging in this small seed of an insight will ultimately blossom into the fully developed ideas of the afterlife that we find in rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

What I find striking about all this is how it speaks to our modern world. The ancient Israelite mind is not that far away from the mind of many modern secularists. They believe that when we die, we just cease to be. There is nothing to expect after death.

Well, in a sense, so did those ancient Israelites. A relationship with God was important, therefore, not as fire insurance, ensuring that we go to heaven when we die. It was important for the way in which that relationship served as the core of life in this world. To be truly alive here and now was to be in close relationship with God here and now. When a belief in an afterlife emerges, it comes as the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

And I would contend that that is still the case in a biblical faith, despite Christianity’s exuberant development of ideas about heaven and hell. The point of evangelism is not to get people saved so they will go to heaven when they die. It is to invite people into a relationship with Jesus Christ that will transform life here and now.

In John 17:3, Jesus defines eternal life as knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. Eternal life is defined as a form of knowing, i.e., relationship, not by how long life continues after death.

Christians are too inclined in their descriptions of the afterlife to get too graphic. We seem to know too exactly, as Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped, the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.

That is why I read a book like Heaven is for Real with great skepticism. I am not sure we are ever given the kind of details about heaven and hell that such a book claims to give. More importantly, it distracts our attention from the real issue, which is our transforming relationship with God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. The focus of that relationship is first and foremost a changed life here and now, not the here after.

Interestingly, the apostle Paul never goes into the detailed description of heaven and hell that the Book of Revelation does. Instead he says simply, when we die, we are with Christ. What does being with Christ look like? Paul never says, nor should we. That is the big surprise that awaits each of us at the moment of our death. And I am willing to let it remain a surprise.