One of the Ten Most Misunderstood Words in the Bible: Eternal Life

By Bob Wilkin

Okay, I realize this is actually two words in English (and in Greek). However, it still fits as one of the most misunderstood words in the Bible. It is misunderstood in a number of ways.

Most Miss It’s Eternality

If you talk with a typical churchgoer today, most will tell you that you can lose eternal life. They might call it salvation. But when you point them to John 3:16 and ask about eternal life, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s the same thing. Eternal life is salvation and it can be lost prior to death.”

Yet even the most superficial reading of John’s Gospel shows that this simply is impossible. Jesus said that the one who drinks the water of life will never thirst (John 4:10-14; 6:35). That means that the one who believes in Him will never lack everlasting life (see John 4:14-15). Similarly He said that the one who eats the bread of life will never hunger (John 6:35). Again, the believer will never lack everlasting life. In John 5:24 Jesus directly said that the believer has, present tense, everlasting life, and that he shall not, future tense, come into judgment (regarding his eternal destiny), and that he has passed, past tense, from death into life. It would be hard to be clearer than that. Similarly in John 11:26 the Lord said that the one who lives and believes in Him shall never die. In the previous verse He promised that he would raise from the dead the one who believes in Him who dies. That was a reference to physical death and physical life. But in verse 26 He spoke of spiritual death and spiritual life. The one who believes in Him will never die spiritually. It would be hard to put it more emphatically.

So if anyone who believed in Jesus later lost eternal life, for any reason, the Lord Jesus would be proved a liar. That He is not.

The first thing we can say about eternal life is that it is eternal life. It is life that will never end. It will never be taken away. It can’t be given back. Even if the believer later decided he would prefer to return the life, he can’t do it. Jesus guarantees that.

Misunderstanding this truth means that a person is not yet born again. Don’t get me wrong. A person can be born again without ever hearing the words everlasting life. However, a person must believe that concept in order to believe in Jesus for that life. A person might believe that by faith in Jesus he is saved once and forever. He might believe he is justified and can never be unjustified. A guaranteed eternal home with God in heaven for the one who simply believes in Jesus would be another way of believing the same concept.

But if a person has never believed that simply by faith in Jesus his eternal destiny is secure and cannot be lost or revoked or returned for any reason, then he clearly has not yet believed the truth of John 3:16; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:35; or 11:26.

Many Miss Its Variability

Eternal life is more than unending life. It is more than a quantitative truth. It is also a qualitative idea.

Just as physical life here on earth is experienced in varying degrees of fullness, so is everlasting life now. In fact, eternal life will be experienced in varying degrees of fullness in the life to come as well.

Let me explain. Let’s start with the experience of life here and now. I came to faith in Christ 36 years ago. My experience of that life is much fuller now than when I first believed. At the start I didn’t know anything about the doctrine of eternal rewards. I wasn’t able to share my faith clearly. Most of the Bible was a mystery to me. I didn’t understand that growth in the Christian life came by the Word of God renewing my mind. I was struggling with legalism as a means of sanctification.

I have grown much in nearly four decades. But I have not arrived. Having come from an alcoholic family, I’ve had much to overcome. My wife, Sharon, can tell you that I’m better than I used to be, but I still have my moments. I once was a horrible perfectionist. Now I’m a recovering perfectionist. I once struggled with lots of anger within me that I denied and tried to overlook. Now I struggle with anger within me that I accept and turn over to the Lord.

On a scale of 1 to 100 I’d say my eternal life was a 10 when I came to faith and maybe it is a 50 today. It’s hard, of course, to make a good estimate of our spirituality. However, I clearly see that I’ve made lots of progress—and that I have lots more growing yet to do.

Maybe some people start the Christian life with an experience of eternal life that is 40 or even 50. I know as I look at other believers I am impressed and challenged to see how beautifully eternal life is manifesting itself in them. Their life is full and a joy to observe.

The same will also be true in eternity, though most miss this truth. Remember that Jesus said that many who are first now will be last in the kingdom and that many who are last now will be first in the kingdom. Clearly this means that there will be gradations in something in the kingdom. At the least this looks at authority and honor and power. But it surely also looks at fullness of life as well.

While all believers in the kingdom will be in the kingdom forever, the quality of each one’s life will vary depending on what they did with this life. Paul makes that clear in 2 Cor 5:1-11. We will be recompensed for the deeds done in the body. That is, our future recompense at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10) will be based on what we did in these fallen, dying bodies.

It is a truly sobering truth that our fullness of life forever will be determined by what we do with the few decades that He gives us in this life. That is why it is so important that we endure to the end of our Christian lives (1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26).

Many if not most church goers today are just trying to be good enough to make it to heaven. They don’t know anything about fullness of eternal life now or forever. They just hope they make it to the streets of gold.

And of those who know for sure that they have everlasting life that can never be lost, the durative aspect of eternal life, many of those don’t realize that the quality of their eternal life forever will depend on what they do in this life.

Wake up and get to work, believers (Rev 3:14-21). It’s later than you think. The Judge is at the door (Jas 5:9).

Most Are Confused by Passages that Speak of Eternal Life as a Possible Future Reward

One of the reasons why people miss both the quantity and the quality of eternal life is that there are a handful of passages in the New Testament that speak of eternal life not as a present possession, but as a possible eternal reward. Those passages clearly indicate that to gain this future possession one must endure in good works.

The solution is to realize is that when we read of the present possession of eternal life the emphasis is most often on its eternality, its permanent duration. Though the idea of its potential fullness is surely in the background, it often is not in the spotlight.

However, whenever we read of the possible future gaining of eternal life by works done in this life, the emphasis is always on its potential fullness. The idea of its eternality is of course in the background. But its potential fullness is right in front of you in these passages.

Consider, for example, Gal 6:7-9. Here Paul uses a farming analogy: sowing and reaping. No one who has ever worked on a farm thinks that reaping a harvest is a free gift. It is very hard work both to sow and reap.

Paul says the believer who sows to the flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, or loss. And he says that the believer who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. He then says, “Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap, if we don’t lose heart” (Gal 6:9). This is unmistakable rewards language, not free gift language.

We see eternal life as a potential future reward also in Matt 19:29 and 1 Tim 6:11, 19. In these passages where the life is a possible future reward, its potential fullness is in view.

Get to Know This Word Well

I consider it a tragedy that it is so rare for believers to use this word when evangelizing. Why not use the word the Lord Jesus regularly used? This word is so clear and so powerful.

I realize that many of us were not evangelized with this word. So what? If you were evangelized in a way that wasn’t crystal clear, do you really want to repeat that flawed method? Why not change and use the words of our Lord Jesus?

I also consider it a tragedy that those who disciple others rarely use this word to discuss the potential fullness of life we can have now and forever. This should be a regular part of the mentor’s vocabulary.

Isn’t it cool to talk about eternal life? That’s what we as believers in Jesus have. That’s what the world doesn’t have, but needs. And once we have it, we can grow in that life! We are storing up now the capacity to glorify Christ forever. How full our ability to serve Him will be then will be decided by how much we grow now.

I love eternal life. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for giving it to me and challenging me to experience it fully.


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