Eternal life is not about a place, it’s about a Person. It’s not about what you know but Who you know. It’s not based on believing the right things, although believing them is important, it’s about experientially knowing God as our Father and Jesus Christ. It’s participating in God’s very own life (2 Pet.1:4).
I know this is a recurring theme on my blog, but it’s critically important to get because everything else about our life in Christ flows from this fundamental understanding.
First and foremost, Jesus Himself defined eternal life so we shouldn’t be making it be about something else. Here’s what He told us:
3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3 NIV*)
The Greek words for “eternal life” are instructive. They are αἰώνιος ζωή. Most people get the first word:
Eternal = αἰώνιος (aiōnios): without beginning and end, that which always has been and always will be.
But this word for “life” is not our biological life. There are other Greek words for that. Here’s what ζωή means:
Life = ζωή (zōē): of the absolute fullness of life…which belongs to God.
Therefore, eternal life means that we have entered into God’s very own life, which is boundless and endless. And we can only get this by being placed in union with Christ. (For more on this, see my post: “Jesus is the only way to what?”)
This definition of eternal life may not be what we normally think of, partly because we still live with the deeply-embedded residue of Deism from our Enlightenment past, which also affects our theology.
Deism is a form of naturalistic secularism that separates us from God and makes salvation an abstract argument rather than a concrete reality found only in relationship. It’s forever learning about God but never actually encountering Him. It’s head knowledge but not heart knowledge, and only heart knowledge changes us. (See “Two Kinds of Knowing.”) The problem is, we’ve defined eternal life as “going to heaven when we die” for so long it’s very hard to change this mindset.
But here’s the danger if we don’t change this mindset. If I define eternal life as a place or thing, I will embrace a transactional gospel rather than a relational one. For one thing, this kind of faith is very fragile (if you were just talked into something, you can also be talked out of it). And it will not fascinate my heart enough to be truly transformed. I may learn a lot doctrinally, but I won’t look like Jesus.
It’s because I’m on the outside, looking in. I’m living from earth to heaven instead of from heaven to earth (Phil.3:20). I’m doing “things” for God out of duty and not fueled from passion and intimacy that comes from an overflow of His love (2 Cor.5:14-15).
If we believe in this transactional gospel we will cling to the Cross more than the Person who hung on it. It will become more about His death than His resurrection. In practice, we will see ourselves as pardoned criminals rather than an entirely new species (2 Cor.5:17). Our new identity becomes theoretical: a legal position rather than an actual one placing us in Christ (Eph.2:6; Col.3:3).
Furthermore, if my view of eternal life is not relational, I risk compartmentalizing my relationship with God and others. I may think it’s okay to say I love God but hate or mistreat others, which John made quite clear is impossible (see 1 John 4:19-21). This is why there have been so-called “Christians” in history who could do absolutely evil things in the name of Christ. They may have used His name, but they certainly didn’t know Him.
Jesus calls this kind of Christianity “lawlessness” (Matt.7:21-23).
Jesus said when we see ourselves in Christ, we will see each other there, too, Doctrinal knowledge can be divisive, but union with Christ unites us, and that’s a beautiful thing to behold, and it’s what will tell the world they are loved, too (See John 17:21-23).
I’ve witnessed this deepest of truths many times. One example: I conducted a devotional Bible study with a group of men several years ago. We met in a restaurant every Wednesday morning at 6:00 a.m. One of the men invited a retired pastor from a very Fundamentalist church in town. There probably wasn’t a lot we agreed on doctrinally, but this precious man absolutely loved Jesus. And we had the sweetest times of fellowship because of our mutual love for Jesus, not because we had the same doctrinal understanding.
I will finish with a quote from the movie “Furious Love” where Jan Sjoerd Pasterkamp sums this up so well:
“And there was an interview with a Dutch church historian, and they asked him what did he see about the people of the Dutch church. And he made the most interesting remark. He said, “We have dozens of protestant denominations and Christian groups, because,” he said, “to the Dutch person, truth is more important than unity.” And when I heard it, I thought, “I would have to write or say in a whole sermon what you said in one sentence,” because, what is truth?
“Truth is not a teaching. Truth is a person, and if you have that person, you have the Truth. And in that person there is always unity. But if we put our understanding of the Scripture and our doctrinal views higher than the person of Jesus, (and I’m going to say maybe something very sharp, and I want to say it respectfully and honorably) we worship idols. Anything you place above the Lord Jesus is an idol. Our unity is not in a teaching, it’s in a person. And in that person, we always find one another.”*