Dr. Charles Ryrie famously said, “If everlasting life could be lost, then it has the wrong name.” Everlasting life is ever-lasting life.
Recently, however, I came across an article from a Free Grace friend arguing that there is no Greek expression for everlasting life. He says, “zōē aiōnios…is not endless life, but life pertaining to a certain age or aeon, or continuing during that aeon.” (He also writes, “There is really no word for ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ in the Greek text of the N. T.”) For proof he showed that the word aiōn means age and he concluded that the sense is life for the age, that is, life for the age to come.
As Shawn and I were discussing this in the office, he asked me, How would you counter that argument? This blog grew out of our discussion.
I first heard this argument around forty years ago during my days at Dallas Theological Seminary. Another Free Grace guy who was also a NT major argued that we confuse people by talking about eternal life or everlasting life. He suggested that the life God gives us is life fit for the life to come.
Both that young man and my friend whose article I recently read believe in eternal security. That is, they both believe that once one is saved, he is saved forever. They also believe that everyone who has life for the age to come has life that will never end. They simply think that it is more accurate to call this life for the age to come.
There are five lines of support for my view that everlasting life is the best translation of zōē aiōnios.
First, in nearly every place in which zōē aiōnios appears in John’s Gospel, the life in question is identified as permanent by other words in the context. For example, in John 3:16, the Lord said that the one who believes in Him will not perish but has everlasting life. The life is set in contrast with perishing. Perishing is explained in verses 17-18 as eternal condemnation. In John 4:14 one drink of the living water springs up in someone to everlasting life so that he never needs to drink again. One drink and you have life that can never be lost. See also John 5:24 (triply emphatic) and John 10:28 (the one with everlasting life is secure in Jesus’ hand and in God the Father’s hand). There are also many references to life in John’s Gospel that refer to everlasting life that can never be lost (see, for example, John 11:25-26).
Second, the Jewish idea at the time of Christ was that the life in the coming kingdom lasts forever. Compare John 5:39-40, which uses the expression everlasting life. While most Jews thought that coming life did not start until after you died and that the life was gained by works, not faith (see John 5:39-40), they did believe that anyone who gained this life for the age to come would be in the Messiah’s kingdom forever.
Leon Morris comments:
A feature of John’s understanding of life is his insistence that it has no end. Seventeen times he has the expression “life eternal” (zōē aiōnios), where the adjective points us to what is endless. The word derives from aiōn, or “an age,” and signifies “pertaining to an age.” The Jews divided all time into the age before creation, the present age, and the age to come, that is, the age ushered in by the coming of the Messiah, an age that will have no end (Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John, p. 204).
Paul explicitly affirms Morris’s point in 1 Tim 4:8 where he says that godliness has promise for the life that now is and for the life which is to come.
Third, John calls the Lord Jesus everlasting life (1 John 1:2; 5:20). Jesus in fact called Himself the life in two of his “I am” statements: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25a) and “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a). He never said, “I am the age to come.” Nor did John ever call Him the age. When explaining what He meant by “I am the life,” He said, “He who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:26b). The words shall never die are an emphatic statement of the eternality of the life which He gives to believers.
Fourth, everlasting life is a present possession. Jesus said, “He who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). Compare John 5:24. One does not get this life after this life. He gets it the moment he believes in Jesus for it. In fact, if someone of sound mind attains the age of accountability and does not believe in Jesus for everlasting life (1 Tim 1:16) before he dies, then he will never have it (John 11:25a; Rev 20:15).
Fifth, I find a measure of support that nearly every English translation renders zōē aiōnios as either eternal life (e.g., NASB, NET, NIV, HCSB, LEB, RSV, MEV, CEB, GNT, WEB) or everlasting life (e.g., KJV, NKJV, WYC). In addition, nearly every commentary understands zōē aiōnios in that way as well. And the dictionaries for NT Greek do also.
I certainly think it would be helpful for a Bible teacher to explain that the everlasting life that we as believers have is not only everlasting and full of potential for glorifying God and capable of being experienced more fully, but it is also the very life of the Lord Jesus Christ, life which we have now and which we will have forever in the coming age.