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Eternal life in John's Gospel (G.G.)

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This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Grove, March 2007, Original article


The following is a 1,500 word theology (New Testament) essay answering the question: Discuss the nature and importance of eternal life in John's Gospel.

Eternal life is a central theme of the Gospel of John. This life is both a present reality as well as a future hope. It is unique in its nature, in both quantity and quality, and it comes by knowing God through his Son, Jesus Christ. It is life of critical soteriological importance because it endures despite the reality of physical death.

A surprising, but appropriate starting point for an analysis of life in John’s Gospel, is in the final portion of his book. Here the author shows the critical importance of eternal life by directly communicating his purpose for writing. He calls the reader to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and so “have life in Jesus’ name” (John 20:31). The theme of life permeates through the whole Gospel. At the very beginning of the Gospel, Jesus Christ is revealed to hold life (John 1:4). Jesus himself is recorded discussing eternal life on almost a dozen occasions (John 3:16, 3:36, 4:14, 4:36, 5:24, 5:39, 6:27, 6:40, 6:54, 10:28, 17:3).

The central importance of eternal life in John’s Gospel is even clearer when realising that the terms “eternal life” and “life” are often used interchangeably[1]. On some occasions the author writes “eternal life” (ζωη αιωνιος), and on others, simply “life” (ζωη)[2]. This observation is supported by John’s contrasting use of ψυχη (natural life) with ζωη[3]. Scholars, such as Dodd and Moffatt, have commented that in John’s Gospel, ζωη αιωνιος occurs with approximately equal frequency as ζωη alone, with no obvious change in meaning[4] Indeed, some passages in John use both “eternal life” and “life” in swift succession. An example of this is John 3:36 which states, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life.”

John’s Gospel portrays the nature of eternal life in both present and future senses[5]. The future aspect is evident in passages such as John 6:40, where Jesus states that “Whoever believes in him [the Son] shall have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day”. However, many other passages talk about believers already possessing eternal life. An example is John 3:36, in which Jesus says, “Whoever believes in the Son of man has eternal life”. In fact, eternal life is predominantly spoken of in the present tense[6], suggesting that the here-and-now meaning of eternal life is the more significant meaning in the Gospel. It seems paradoxical that eternal life could be both a present reality as well as a future hope, yet passages which state “a time is coming and has now come,” (John 4:23, 5:25) support this concept[7]. This is comparable to an inaugurated eschatological[8] understanding of the term “Kingdom of God”. Certainly many scholars agree that John uses “eternal life” in a similar way that the writers of the synoptic gospels use the expression “Kingdom of God”[9].

Eternal life in the Gospel of John is used not only in a quantitative sense describing duration[10], but also in a qualitative sense where God’s people enjoy a life of a different and higher character[11]. This life is life in its fullness and completeness. Jesus states that he brings life to its full (John 10:10) and describes a reality where God’s people enjoy God’s favour as they worship and serve him[12]. This life is sustained not by physical food and light, but by Jesus who is the spiritual food and light (John 6:33, 8:12).

Eternal life in John’s Gospel is clearly Christocentric. There is an undeniable connection between Jesus and eternal life[13]. Jesus reveals that he is the “resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), “the bread of life” (John 6:35) and the “way, the truth and the life” (John 14:16). Peter confesses that Jesus alone has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). Belief in Jesus is plainly shown to be a prerequisite for eternal life (John 3:16, 3:36, 5:24, 6:40, 20:31, 12:25 and 12:50). In his Gospel, John illustrates that to know Jesus is to know God the Father (John 10:30). This links eternal life with God the Father and the Son, and so, John reveals that ultimately “eternal life is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God sent” (John 17:3). This passage of scripture beautifully shows that eternal life is a present reality that is possessed simply by knowing God. Interestingly, some scholars have argued that there is no suggestion in John’s Gospel that eternal life and belief in Jesus link to the forgiveness of sins[14]. Others, such as Marshall, have convincingly argued, however, that the connection between eternal life through belief in Jesus and the forgiveness of sin is implied. For example, John 3:14-15 associates Jesus with forgiveness and eternal life through its link to Numbers 21[15].

Both the expression and concept of “eternal life” already existed in both Jewish and Gentile societies at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. When writing his Gospel, it is likely that John shared these understandings, and that they partially reflect his theology of the nature of eternal life. In Jewish usage, eternal life tended to refer to future life beyond the grave[16] The only Old Testament (Septuagint) reference to ζωη αιωνιος is in Daniel 12:2, which speaks about a resurrection to either eternal life or to everlasting contempt. There are various references in apocryphal books that also portray eternal life in the far off future[17]. As John wrote his account, it is likely that he wanted to convey something of this nature to the intended readers. In addition, scholars have suggested that unlike the expression “Kingdom of God”, the term “eternal life” would have been better understood by John’s intended audience, who were more Hellenized and familiar with Platonic ideas[18].

One of the immediate difficulties in understanding eternal life, especially in a present tense, is physical death. How can death occur if a person possesses eternal life? In John’s Gospel, Jesus answers this with the seemingly impossible, “He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies” (John 11:25). Shortly after this statement Jesus raises Lazarus from death giving incontrovertible evidence that these were not empty words. Earlier in the Gospel, John shows that a final resurrection is part of the plan of eternal life[19] when Jesus says “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). As the scholar Schneider states, “Eternal life conquers death without abolishing it”[20].

The Gospel of John presents eternal life as critically important because it is synonymous with knowing God. John emphasises the importance of eternal life by his frequent references to it. The nature of this eternal life is unique; distinctly different from our usual human experience of life. Not only is it an everlasting future hope, but it is also a present reality that is possessed by those who believe in Jesus, whom God the Father sent.

References

  1. Dodd C, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 144.
  2. Schneider S.M, “Death in the Community of Eternal Life - History, Theology, and Spirituality in John 11”, Interpretation 41/1, (1987): 48. An alternative translation for ζωη αιωνιος is “life of the age to come”.
  3. Schneider, “Death in the Community of Eternal Life”, 50. An example of this is John 12:25, “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” In Greek, the first two uses of life (in bold) are translated from ψυχη; the last use of life (in italics and underlined) is translated from ζωη
  4. Dodd. Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 147.
  5. MacGregor G.H.C., The Moffatt New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John. Editor: Moffatt J., (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1949), 81.
  6. Schneider, “Death in the Community of Eternal Life”, 48.
  7. Carroll J.T., “Present and Future in Fourth Gospel ‘Eschatology’ ”, Biblical Theology Bulletin 19/2 (1989): 63.
  8. Carson D.A. The Gospel According to John. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 256.
  9. Thompson M.M., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Editors: Green J.B., McKnight S., Marshall I.H. (Leicester: Intervasity Press, 1992), 380.
  10. Peterson R.A., Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Editor: Elwell W.A. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 210.
  11. Dodd. Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 147.
  12. Peterson, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 210.
  13. Van Der Watt J.G, “A New Look at John 5:25-9 in the Light of the Use of the Term ‘Eternal Life’ in the Gospel According to John”, Neotestamentica 19 (1985): 72.
  14. Turner M., “Atonement and the Death of Jesus in John - Some Questions to Bultmann and Forestell”, The Evangelical Quarterly LXII (1990): 100.
  15. In John 3:14-15 Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” In Numbers 21, God sends poison snakes among the Israelites because of their sin, but shows them grace by asking Moses: “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8). This links sin and death to forgiveness and life.
  16. Dodd. Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 146.
  17. Multiple references to ζωη αιωνιος can be found in the apocryphal writings, especially in Psalms of Solomon and 1 Enoch. Examples include Psalms of Solomon 3:12, 13:11, 14:10 and 1 Enoch 10:14, 37:2, 40:9.
  18. Dodd. Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 150. Those who were familiar with Plato would most likely have appreciated the present and timeless sense implied by “eternal life”.
  19. Ridderbos H, The Gospel According to John: A Theological Commentary, Translator: John Vriends. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 397.
  20. Schneider, “Death in the Community of Eternal Life”, 55.




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