What is Eternal Life?
"And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. (John 10:28 )
The search for the elixir of life or the potion of immortality fills the pages of human religion and history. While various religions affirmed immortality of the soul (or even a-soul as in Buddhism), the quest for the ambrosia (nectar or amrit) to enhance physical longevity could hardly be erased. The Bible records the Tree of Life in Genesis 2:9; however, we have less theological warrant to assume that it has power to give eternal life, separately of God. God cannot create a stone heavier than He can lift, because that would be a contradiction of terms. Similarly, a tree of life that can bestow immortality apart from God, immune against God, is a contradiction of terms. The statement “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Gen.3:22) must be understood not in the sense of eternal life but in the sense of “forever”. In that sense, it only logically indicates physical immortality in the sense of duration, not the eternal life of God. It is important here to distinguish between godless immortality (which is everlasting death) and divine immortality. The angels possess immortality, but that doesn’t mean that they are imperishable; the demons can be tormented and there are angels kept in chains. Also, in the resurrection, there will also be the resurrection of those whose names are not written in the Book of Life; they will resurrect to everlasting destruction (2Thess.1:9) and suffer everlasting torment (Rev.20:10). Actually, hell was prepared for the devil and his angels who do not have the possibility of atonement (Matt.25:41). The angels who fell, each made a separate personal choice to rebel and, possessing immortality, were damned to everlasting destruction. It seems only possible that Genesis 3:22 could point towards this kind of damnation that man could fall to (damnation without mediation or possibility of salvation), if they had extended their hand and eaten of the tree of life to become like the angels.
While there are “convictions” among some Christian theologians that eternal life can be granted apart from the life of Christ, the New Testament is very clear about this that this life is not something that can be segregated from the divine life of God—it is not like a candy or a toy that a parent gives to a child. In fact, it is not even like a mother giving birth to a child; in which case, the child is a reproduction and so can live without the mother after birth. In the case of eternal life, that is not the case, though the former picture is what confuses Christian theologians with regard to an understanding of the doctrine of salvation. For, if that were the case, then God would be reproducing gods, which is theologically absurd; the infinite cannot finitely beget the infinite.
With regard to the “candy” analogy, there are some who erroneously hold that God gives eternal life to those who believe in Him in the same way that a pagan god gives a particular magic gift or boon to a devotee. That would again take a person back to the ambrosia issue. But, eternal life is not like that. The reason is because eternal life is the life of God and God has given that life to us in the Son; only he who has the Son has the life of the Son (1John 5:11-12). Further, this life of the Son is communicated to us by the Spirit of the Son; therefore, he who has the Spirit has life. Eternal life, thus, is the life of the Triune God in us.
“But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you (Rom 8:9-11).
There are thus two aspects of this eternal life:
1. Present Aspect. Fellowship/Communion of the Way-Truth-Life (Jn.6:54; 12:25; 1Jn.1:3-7; 2:4-6,9; 3:6,10,15,23,24; 5:2-4,20). The Spirit of Christ in us, Life (Rom.8:9-10). Christ in us, the True God, Eternal Life (1Jn.5:20; Jn.14:6; 1Jn.1:2). The Father is the giver of Life in the Son to us (Jn.6:32; Jn.5:21; 1Jn.5:11-12). Therefore, the Son speaks of giving eternal life to as many as the Father has given to Him (Jn.10:28; 17:2,3).
2. Prospective Aspect. Resurrection (Matt.25:46; 1Tim.6:12; Tit.1:2;3:7; Jude 1:21). The Triune God is the Author of Resurrection unto Life. The Father raises the dead (Jn.5:21). The Son raises the dead (Jn.5:21). The Spirit raises the dead (Rom.8:11). Christ is the Resurrection and the Life (Jn.11:25).
Eternal life is assured to us on the grounds of faith:
1. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of Christ in us (Rom.8:9-11)
2. Through the witness of the Holy Spirit in us (Rom.8:14-17)
3. Through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us (Rom.8:1,2,13,14; 1Jn.4:4; 5:4,5; Eph.1:17-20).
4. Through the assurance of faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ and the promise of His return (Col.3:1-4; Phil.3:20,21; 1Jn.3:2; Heb.6:17-20).
5. Through His providential protection of us and guidance of our life in grace as we submit to His care (1Thess.5:23,24; 2Tim.1:12; 1Pet.1:5; Rom.8:28-39)