I believe in Eternal Life
John 1:1-4, I John 1:1-5, Ezekiel 37:1-14
We come to the final phrase of the Apostle’s Creed. These last words end on a high note; a note of triumph. “I believe in the life everlasting.”
As I have noted several times before, the lines of the creed were spoken to oppose the heresies and misunderstandings that the church encountered in its interaction with the Jewish and Greek thinking world. This final phrase too is a response to a set of ideas current in that day.
At the close of the first century the Christian Church still identified itself with its Jewish roots. The Sadducees, who included most of the Priests, said that this life is all we get, and when death comes, it is the period at the end of the sentence. There is no beyond. Death is our final destiny.
But why would they hold this view, and why would most of Judaism today still hold to that idea?
1. Its absence in the Old Testament
One of the great conundrums is that the entire Old Testament was silent on the questions about life after death. The Jewish scriptures never introduce any answers to the question, what happens after a person dies. There are no teachings about a heaven to win and a hell to shun. The Law of Moses and the Prophets, the great teachers of Israel breathe not a word about life after death. In some of the psalms there may be intimation or two about such a thing, but they are only faint hints and hopes.
All this, of course, is very strange. Why wouldn’t God tell them the good news, and tell it early and tell it often? There may be several reasons but one of the most crucial is that God does not want his people to become too heavenly minded. He is creating them to be salt and light in the world. He wants them to live out life here in justice and compassion. This life is real life, not simply the place to get prepared for a more important life beyond. So God is silent about another life after this life, lest it abort His purposes for this life.
So Israel was left uninformed and so was always ambiguous about whether there was life beyond the tomb. So the Sadducees said, “There is no life beyond death” and the Pharisees said, “we think there is.”
2. Its Presence in the New Testament
But that all changes in the New Testament. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the teachings he left, and the promises he gave, all changed that for those who followed Him.
His own resurrection was for them the proof undeniable and incontestable that there was life beyond death. They had encountered him for 40 days after he had died. The Tomb had been empty, and His resurrected presence continued with them.
But his words were the clincher. He had taught very clearly about life beyond death. Even in the very last moments of his life he had said to the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” To his followers in the upper room on the betrayal night he says, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, there you may be also.”
3. Some Qualifications
But the Christian Church is not naive about its understanding. When the New Testament writers speak about life beyond the grave there are some important qualifications that it wants to make.
It is interesting to note how the New Testament speaks about life beyond the grave. It is never used as a bribe or a lure to turn anyone to God. Neither Jesus nor the church ever promise eternal life in order to persuade someone to become a Christian. It may be one of the reasons that God is silent about it for so long in the Old Testament. God wants people to be good, for goodness sake, not for heaven’s sake. He wants his people to live a holy life, because it is right, and not because it pays in heavenly dividends.
When the New Testament speaks of life beyond the grave, the words are spoken to those who are suffering and whose lives have become difficult. To those who are suffering from injustice he offers them justice in the life to come. Teaching about life beyond is used to comfort suffering saints, but not to entice sinful humanity to serve God.
Have you noticed that Jesus when drawing people to himself always paints the high cost to the person, not the rewards?
“Foxes have holes… I have no where:”
“Unless you hate your father & mother…”
“Unless you eat by flesh and drink my blood…”
And to cap it all, to The Rich Young Ruler he says. “Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow me.” No bribery here!
Heaven is not the lure to attract people to God. Nonetheless, eternal life is still the end result of following Him.
Everlasting or Eternal
There was a second qualification that the church made. Though the older English translations use the word “everlasting” when speaking about life beyond the grave, the translation that is more accurate is the word “eternal”.
John 3:16. KJV. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” But the more recent translations read, “should not perish but have eternal life.”
The promise is not for everlasting life, but eternal life. You ask, “What’s the difference?”
In the Hebrew language there was no word for “everlasting”. They never spoke about “never ending time” as we might. When the O.T. uses the word “forever or everlasting” that is our translation of the word “olam” which translates “unto the ages” which means “a long time”. It would be closer to the North American First Nations’ concept of “many moons”.
Everlasting Life is concerned with the quantity of life. It is interested in its duration. Everlasting life is asking the question, “how long shall we live?” and the answer comes back, “centuries, millennia, millions of years, and then some.”
But the word “Eternal” is concerned less with the quantity of life, and is more concerned with the quality of life. It is more interested in abundant life, whole life, renewed life, transformed life. It shares the conviction that we shall not simply live forever, but we shall live life to the full, forever.
That of course does not mean that eternal life is not everlasting, it simply means that longevity is not its chief characteristic.
Future and Present
But there is another qualification the early church made.
The Sadducees had said. “This life is the only life, so make the quality and quantity of this life your priority. Let us live a life that is full and fruitful here and now. It is the only life there is!” And so they said let us get all the wealth we can, to buy all the comforts we can, for as long as we can. Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.
The Pharisees on the other hand had made eternal life entirely a future thing. “Eternity” they said, “begins after time ends. We get eternal life after this life comes to a close.” So they said in their own words, “this world is not our home. We’re just a passing through.” It’s just the dressing room for eternity. They despaired of ever seeing the transformation of their nation or their world, so put all their hopes in a better world to come. They were escapists.
The Christian Church was born in the middle of that debate. It understood the temptation suggested by both sides. But the early Christians had experienced something dramatic, in both the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and from the gift of the Holy Spirit. Eternal life they knew was a gift already given in the moments of a person’s conversion into the Christian community. The gift of new life was a not only a promise for the distant future, but a gift both for now and forever. They knew that they had received the down payment on eternal life while still living out their mortal lives.
The church knew that Eternal Life, in full flower, will take place only after the resurrection of the body and after the healing of the ancient hurts of our lives. But they knew that already they had experienced the first installments of that greater life which still awaited them.
That is why the aged Apostle John could say, “Already He has given to us eternal life. This life is in His Son. He who has the son has life,” and St. Paul can say, “We have already passed from death unto life” where life is filled with “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
This is the good news about God and the gospel. Through the love of the Father, and the self-giving of his Son Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit as our traveling companion, we can proclaim with the creed:
We believe in the forgiveness of sins
We believe in the resurrection of all that we are
And we believe in life that is eternal, for both the present and the forever future.
Thanks be to God!