Beware of defining it quantitatively.
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.