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What does it mean to have eternal life?

The phrase ‘eternal life’ is found 43 times in the ESV Bible. The words seem simple enough that it is easy to miss the nuanced way it is used is in the New Testament.

Understanding the phrase correctly has some important consequences. For example, it provides a key defense for the doctrine of eternal security.

John 3:15-16 tells us that whoever believes in Jesus Christ will “have eternal life.” If a person were to be promised eternal life, but then have it taken away, it was never “eternal” to begin with. If eternal security is not true, the promises of eternal life in the Bible would be in error. (

So what does eternal life mean?  The common belief seems to be that ‘eternal life’ is synonymous for ‘eternal living’. In this sense eternal life is describing a state of being – of being alive forever in a blessed state. It could be more broadly understood as ‘being saved’. That is, we are already saved from eternal death and thus we have now already begun to live for eternity – we have eternal life now.

How the bible uses the phrase ‘eternal life’

However there is problem with this position. The New Testament more often describes eternal life as something we receive or inherit in the future.  How should we understand this difference? 

The phrase ‘eternal life’ is used in two very distinct ways in the New Testament. First, there are at least 6 verses that state emphatically that the believer has eternal life right now. For example,

Joh 6:47 ESV Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.

However, there at at least 12 verses that present eternal life are something we receive in the future.

Mar 10:30 ESV who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

Rom 6:22 ESV  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

How John defines eternal life

First, it should be noted that all the verses that affirm that we presently have eternal life are found either in the Gospel of John or in John’s letters. It’s surprising that all other New Testament authors describe eternal life as something received in the future.

Second, John is the only author who gives a direct definition of eternal life. In fact, he defines or describes eternal life five times. 

Joh 12:50 ESV  And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”

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

1Jn 1:1-2 ESV  That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—  2  the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us

1Jn 5:11 ESV  And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.

1Jn 5:20 ESV  And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

When John defines eternal life he does not think of it as ‘eternal living’. He defines eternal life as:

  1. God’s commandment
  2. Knowing God and knowing Jesus
  3. Jesus himself

Although John also on occasions refers to eternal life in the future sense, his definition helps us understand why he often describes eternal life has something we possess right now.  According to John, we have eternal life in the present sense because we have God presently abiding in us. Eternal life is in Jesus (1 Jn 5:11) and Jesus lives in us right now through His Spirit.

How others writers understand eternal life

Unlike John, the other writers do not give any simple definition of eternal life. However we can determine the most likely meaning based on how they contrast eternal life with other ideas.

Mat 25:46 ESV  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Luk 18:18 ESV  And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”… 24 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  … 24  Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!

Rom 2:6-8 ESV  He will render to each one according to his works:  7  to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;  8  but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.

Gal 6:8 ESV  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

So, eternal life in the future sense probably includes:

  1. The absence of punishment, wrath and fury
  2. Heavenly reward and access to the kingdom of God
  3. An absences of corruption
  4. Eternal living

Put succinctly, we have Jesus now and, because of Him ,we start to live eternally later. Or, we have eternal life now and eternal living later.

When do we obtain future eternal life?

We receive eternal life in the future sense when Jesus returns to earth the second time.  

Mat 19:28-29 ESV  Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  29  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

1Co 15:20-26 ESV  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  21  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  22  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  23  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  24  Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  25  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  26  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

How do we obtain future eternal life

First, eternal life is a gift from God. It is not earned.

Rom 6:23 ESV  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is more often described in the context of an inheritance. An inheritance is simply a special type of gift.

Luk 18:18 ESV  And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mat 19:29 ESV  … will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

The recipient of the gift is usually in a special relationship with the benefactor.

Eph 1:11 ESV  In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,

And, important to this discussion, an inheritance can be lost.

Heb 12:15-17 ESV  See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;  16  that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.  17  For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

This idea of being disinherited was very familiar to the Jews. God had threatened it and then, due to their sins, they lost the land that God had promised to them.

Num 14:12 ESV I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”

The future inheritance of eternal life, although not earned, is gained through our Spirit empowered actions:

Heb 6:12 ESV  so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Gal 5:16,19-21 ESV  But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh…. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  20  idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  21  envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

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