Eternal Life in the Bible1
by John Kohut
“You search the [OT] Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).
In my few short years as a Christian I have struggled with my walk in the light. Studies of God’s inerrant Holy Scriptures and His creations have often been confused and darkened by human writings and human creations, such as the different English translations and interpretations, various systematic theologies, and textual criticisms.
Different denominations and pseudo-Christian cults did not help matters either, even though many of their members were often kind, loving, and thoughtful, at least by human moral standards.
A few years of study in the basic Biblical Greek of the NT helped tremendously to clear away the dark veil for me. God’s Word is not vague, nor difficult, nor confusing, as most English translations and interpretations (as well as many sermons and commentaries) make it out to be.
To obtain the eternal life that Jesus Christ wants us to have is blessedly easy. Have you ever wondered how young children or the mentally impaired can be “saved”?
In the Gospel of John (written primarily to unbelievers), the emphasis is on eternal life as the present possession of all who believe in Jesus Christ alone for that eternal life. Believing (faith) in Jesus Christ alone is the sole condition or requirement for receiving eternal life.
This article on “eternal life” verses in the Bible was written to help the confused Christian perhaps see and understand the central, dynamic, and consistent idea of “eternal life” throughout the NT.
The OT authors wrote about the coming of the Messiah, Who is Jesus Christ. The NT gospel authors wrote mostly about the life of the Messiah here on earth. And the Epistles deal mostly with Christian discipleship for Jesus Christ. Throughout the NT the quoted words of Jesus Christ tell us how to obtain eternal life and the assurance of salvation.
In the original Greek NT three words (bios, psychē and zōē all of which have separate meanings in the Greek) are translated by the single English word “life.”
The Greek word bios means one's livelihood, the extent and course of one's living, or the material possessions and property by which one's life subsists.
On the other hand, the Greek word psychē means the basic physical human life, breath, and soul encompassing a whole person.
However, rather than a single limited definition, the Greek word zōē ranges in meaning from temporal, physical life to eternal, spiritual life.
When zōē is used in the sense of eternal, spiritual life it comes close to being identical to salvation itself, or other ideas such as “being saved” or “going to heaven.”
It is in this sense of salvation that Jesus speaks of Himself as Life, meaning Eternal Life: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life [zōē]” (John 14:6). In the books and letters written by the Apostle John and translated by the English word “life,” zōē is used almost exclusively as meaning eternal, spiritual life. An example is 1 John 5:11, “And this is the testimony; that God has given us eternal life, and this life [zōē] is in His Son.”
Furthermore, there is extensive use of zōē, not merely in John’s Gospel, but in all the books and letters of the NT.
Forty-Five Verses Contain the Words Zōēn Aiōnion,
Translated as Eternal Life or Everlasting Life
Twenty-three of the forty-five uses of zōēn aiōnion or just over 50%, occur in John’s Gospel or in his Epistles, but most uses, seventeen of twentythree, appear in the Fourth Gospel: John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68 (more uses than in any other single chapter in the NT); 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2, 3. The location of the remaining six uses of zōēn aiōnion is the Johannine Epistles: 1 John 1:2; 2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20.
Ten of the uses are found in Paul’s epistles, including Rom 2:7; 5:21; 6:22, 23; Gal 6:8; 1 Tim 1:16; 6:12, 19; Titus 1:2; 3:7.
There are also ten uses in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts: Matt 19:16, 29; 25:46; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25; 18:18, 30; Acts 13:46, 48.
Finally, there is one use in Jude 21 and one use in the LXX in Dan 12:2.
Nine Verses Containing the English Word Life (Zōē)
When Coupled in the Same Verses with Zōēn Aiōnion
Eight of the nine occurrences of zōē appearing with zōēn aiōnion in the same verse occur in John’s Gospel or first epistle. Here is a typical example: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). The life in the second half of John the Baptist’s statement is shorthand for the everlasting life in the first half. See also John 5:24; 39-40; 6:47-48; 1 John 1:2; 3:14-15; 5:11, 12; and Matt 19:16-17.
Thirty-Six Verses Where Life (Zōē) Refers to Everlasting Life,
Yet Without Aiōnion in the Immediate Context2
Not surprisingly, seventeen of the thirty-six uses in the NT are found in the Fourth Gospel. For example, in the Prologue John wrote, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). So also reads John 5:40, “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” The remaining verses in the Fourth Gospel are: John 5:21; 5:26 (twice), 29; 6:33, 35, 51, 53, 63 (twice); 8:12; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6; 20:31. Two more are found in John’s first epistle: 1:1 and 3:14.
Paul used zōē ten times by itself to refer to life everlasting: Rom 8:10; 1 Cor 15:45; 2 Cor 2:16 (twice); 5:4; Gal 3:21; Eph 4:18; Phil 2:16; 2 Tim 1:1, 10.
Matthew and Mark use zōē by itself to refer to eternal life five times: Matt 7:14; 18:8, 9; Mark 9:43, 45. The remaining two NT uses occur in Heb 7:16 and 1 Pet 3:7.3
The study of life and life everlasting is a wonderful study. I encourage every reader also to do this study. The message that we proclaim is, in a very real sense, the message of life or the promise of life. Interestingly, those exact expressions occur several times in the NT (cf. Phil 2:16 [translated word of life but logos could equally be translated message there]; 1 Tim 4:8; 2 Tim 1:1; see also Acts 5:20; 1 John 2:25), but that’s part of another study.
1Editor’s note: This article is a very condensed version of a longer article written by John Kohut on this subject.
2Editor’s Note: The author had nearly twice as many uses as are given here. Many were excluded because the context suggested that resurrection life, not everlasting life, was in view. The reader is encouraged to look up all NT uses of zōē and decide for himself. Even some of the thirty-six listed here might be questioned as to whether they refer to everlasting life or not. Bereans will figure it out (Acts 17:11).
3Other uses of zōē not mentioned by the author include references to the Book of Life (cf. Phil 4:3; Rev 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27) and the water of life in Revelation (cf. Rev 22:17).