I recently heard a new song for John 3:16. The line about everlasting life jumped out at me. In place of “whoever believes in Him has everlasting life,” the lyrics were, “whoever believes in Him will live forever.” Did you notice the difference there?
First, the Lord spoke of the present possession of everlasting life: “whoever believes in Him…has everlasting life.” Whatever it is, the believer has it. There is a future tense in John 3:16. The Lord said that whoever believes in Him will not perish. That is, the believer will not be eternally condemned at the future Great White Throne Judgment because his name is already in the book of life (Rev 20:15). But everlasting life starts the minute one believes, not when one dies or is glorified.
Second, everlasting life is not the same as living forever, at least not in the way most people understand living forever. If by live forever we mean will exist forever, then unbelievers will live forever as Rev 20:11-15 makes clear. They will spend eternity being tormented in the lake of fire. Of course, it is true that this is called “the second death” (Rev 20:14; 21:8). And Paul does say that before God made them alive (Eph 2:5-8), the Ephesians had been “dead in [their] trespasses and sins.” They were alive physically. But Paul calls that being dead. And so does the Lord, as we shall see.
The word death means separation, not cessation of existence. That is clear in both Rev 20:14 and Rev 21:8, both of which say that the second death is being cast into the lake of fire. The first death is physical death. The second death is eternal separation from God’s life and God’s kingdom. The unbeliever will be resurrected (Rev 20:12-13) and then forever will be tormented in the lake of fire.
Everlasting life is the life of Jesus (John 11:25; 14:6; 1 John 1:2; 5:20). He is everlasting life. Those who believe in Him have everlasting life. We will never be that life. But we have it now and we will have it forever. Nothing can reverse the new birth.
The unbeliever does not have that life. And if he dies in unbelief, he will never have that life. In the Biblical sense, unbelievers will not live forever.i
However, I bet you’ve had someone tell you that everyone will live forever and hence everyone has everlasting life. The problem with that argument is that the Bible does not call eternal existence living forever, and it clearly indicates that unbelievers do not have everlasting life.
Third, changing the present possession of everlasting life into a future reality could leave the door open to the idea that the believer will have everlasting life if he perseveres in faith and good works until death. Those who already believe in eternal security would not take “will live forever” that way. But those who do not believe in eternal security would.
Now to the places where the Lord promised that believers will live forever. In John 6:51 the Lord Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (emphasis added). John 6:58 says the same thing. Eating the Bread of Life is a figure of speech for believing in Him for everlasting life.ii
When the Bible speaks of humans who will live forever, it is speaking of those who have everlasting life right now and who will have that life forever. Living forever, Biblically speaking, is not existing forever.iii
(BTW, the expression He who lives forever refers to God in Rev 4:9, 10; 5:14; 10:6; 15:7.)
In addition, the context of John 6 is such that it sheds an important light on what Jesus meant by “will live forever.” Jesus had just fed the 5,000 with bread. They wanted that bread to continue always (John 6:34). Jesus went on to point out that their fathers had eaten bread from heaven, manna, in the wilderness and yet they “are dead” (John 6:58). But, Jesus said, if you eat the Bread of Life, then you will not die, but you will live forever. In this context, living forever is a guarantee of eternal security and it promises the present possession of everlasting life too. Compare John 6:35 and the words will never hunger and will never thirst. See also John 4:10-14. And John 11:26. The Lord not only promises that the believer has everlasting life, but also that he will never die (John 11:26), will never hunger and thirst (John 4:10-14; 6:35), will never perish (John 3:16), will not come into judgment (John 5:24), and will not be cast out (John 6:37).
John 3:16 is a magnificent verse. The Lord guarantees that whoever believes in Him will not perish (= be eternally condemned, John 3:17), but has everlasting life right now as a present possession. Believers will live forever in the sense that they have everlasting life and always will. Unbelievers will have conscious existence forever, but they will only live forever if they come to faith in Christ for everlasting life before they die.
i Of course, the Bible does use the words live and life to refer to ongoing existence in this life, even of unbelievers. See, for example, life in Gen 1:30; 19:17; Exod 1:14; Lev 19:16; 2 Kings 8:5; Prov 1:19; 1 Cor 6:3-4; 1 Tim 4:8; 2:2. See also the verb live in Gen 11:11-26; Exod 1:16; 22:18; Ps 69:28; 89:48; John 4:50, 51, 53; 11:26a; 1 Cor 7:39. But it never refers to men in general living forever. In Scripture, only believers live forever since only believers have everlasting life.
ii See also the much-misunderstood statement by the Lord, “Do this [keep the Law, that is, love God and love your neighbor] and you will live” (Luke 10:28). That was Jesus’ answer to the question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Of course, no one can keep the Law perfectly other than the Lord Himself. The Lord taught that only by believing in Him could someone be born again. But notice that He said that if someone did keep the Law, then he would live. The Lord taught that physically alive people needed to be made alive. That is, they needed His life!
iii Unbelievers will be raised (Rev 20:12-14) and will forever have bodies as well as consciousness and feelings. But that is not being alive forever in the Biblical sense.