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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Eternal Life

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The quality of life including the promise of resurrection which God gives to those who believe in Christ. This important term in the New Testament is emphasized in the Gospel of John, but also appears in the other Gospels and in Paul's writings. Eternal life in the New Testament eliminates the boundary line of death. Death is still a foe, but the one who has eternal life already experiences the kind of existence that will never end.

Yet in this expression, the emphasis is on the quality of life rather than on the unending duration of life. Probably some aspects of both quality and duration appear in every context, but some refer primarily to quality of life and others point to unending life or a life to be entered into in the future.

“Quality of life” involves (1) life imparted by God; (2) transformation and renewal of life; (3) life fully opened to God and centered in Him; (4) a constant overcoming of sin and moral evil; and (5) the complete removal of moral evil from the person and from the environment of that person.

Eternal Life As Experience in the Present This term in John has important implications. The one trusting in the Son has eternal life; the one disobeying the Son has the wrath of God abiding on him (John 3:36 ). Trusting and obeying go together; they leave no room for neutrality. The one who hears Christ's message and believes or trusts in the Father who sent Him has eternal life. This person does not come into condemnation but has passed out of death into life (John 5:24 ). The perfect tense—one who has passed and remained in the state of having passed from death into life—emphasizes eternal life as a permanent, present reality. But no presumption is possible here. Eternal life is a present reality for the one hearing and trusting (John 5:24 ).

The bold metaphors of eating and drinking point to active involvement with Christ. “The one eating my flesh and drinking my blood, has eternal life” ( John 6:54 ). (Translations in this article are the author's.) John 6:57 explains: “The one eating me will live because of me .” Since Christ is our life, we must make that life part of us by “sharing in Christ,” by actively coming to Him and drawing life-giving strength from Him.

Eternal life is defined in Jesus' high priestly prayer: “Eternal life is this: that people be constantly knowing you, the only genuine God and Jesus Christ whom You sent” (John 17:3 ). The present tense of the verb “to know” indicates that this knowledge is by experience—not from intellectual facts. Genuine knowledge of God by experience brings eternal life. Such experience transforms life.

Eternal Life as Experienced in the Present and Future John compared the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness to the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross and His exaltation to heaven. People who respond to Christ by constant trust have eternal life (John 3:15 ). They have healing from something more deadly than snakebite—the destructive effects of sin. Here eternal life involves a present healing, a present reality. But John 3:16 refers both to the present and the future: “Now God loved the world in this fashion; as a result he gave his unique Son, that everyone believing or trusting in him should not perish but should be having eternal life.” Perishing is contrasted with having eternal life. “Eternal life” here is both present and future and is the alternative to “perishing.”

Christ defined His true sheep as those who hear or listen to His voice and follow Him (John 10:27 ). To such disciples, He gives eternal life, and they will not perish (John 10:28 ). Again, no presumption is possible. Those are secure who persistently listen, hearken, and follow. For such people eternal life is both a present and a future reality.

Eternal Life as a Future Experience “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” the rich young ruler asked. (Mark 10:17; compare Matthew 19:16; Luke 18:18 ). He saw eternal life as a final inheritance. His earnestness moved Jesus, and Jesus loved this young man (Mark 10:21 ). But he had to make a decision: Would he follow Jesus without his possessions? (Mark 10:22 ). He answered, “No.” He could not part with his possessions first and then follow Jesus.

In Matthew 19:27 Peter asked Jesus, “What then shall be to us?” The disciples had left their dear ones and their possessions to follow Jesus. Jesus promised them loved ones and lands (possessions) with persecutions. Then He added: “And in the coming age, eternal life” ( Mark 10:30 ). Eternal life here refers to an unending future reality.

John 12:20-26 tells of some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. We do not know how Jesus interacted with these Greeks. We do know He spoke about His death and what it meant to be a disciple: “The one loving his life [or soul] will lose it; but the one hating his life [or soul] in this world will guard the soul unto eternal life ” (John 12:25 ). Jesus here contrasted eternal life with the present life. Believers are to guard their persons or souls by serving Christ and following Him (John 12:26 ). Such servants will be where Christ is, and the Father will honor them (John 12:26 ). To be where Christ is means to come into eternal life—a life freed from sin or moral evil.

Paul declared that “the one sowing to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Galatians 6:8 ). Eternal life is given by Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This future reality, already experienced to some limited degree in the present, involves the Father, Son, and Spirit. Fellowship in life eternal means fellowship with the Triune God.

A. Berkeley Mickelsen

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Eternal Life'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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