What does John mean when the writer promises eternal life? A critic recently said all the talk about acceptance in the church today is good, but what about telling people how to get to Heaven? Does going to heaven mean eternal life? A lot of people raised in churches today think so. Is having eternal life the same as having abundant life (John 10:10)? The Johannine letters and gospel speak the most on this subject. Matthew 25 makes the comparison about the goats receiving eternal fire while the sheep inherit the kingdom and eternal life.
What Is Eternal?
The word aionos could be translated as eon, very long time, or eternal. The image I provided is something that supposedly stands as a sign for eternity. My Appalachian Mountains have existed for a long time. They are older than the Rockies or the Himalayas. The Appalachians were hear before human beings entered North America. They will out last us too, it seems. These mountains have been here for eons. But no one believes they will exist forever. They just may as well do so as far as most of us are concerned.
Being finite in nature ourselves we point to something far older to begin thinking in terms of eternity. We make a comparison of two finite things. The difference is human beings are considered alive while mountains are not. Interestingly, the mountains are younger than the river system flowing through them. For something to be alive the place that provides life must be older, far older than the living things existing on it. The rivers and mountains are not alive in themselves. But, they provide what life needs.
What is Life?
I was asked recently what gives me joy in ministry. The answer is simple. I love seeing people thrive. People who are simply maintaining their lives are not able to pursue their happiness. Hunger, ignorance, addiction, and disease robs lives of this quality. When Jesus speaks of abundant life in John 10:10, he speaks of lives that thrive. It is the gift that comes from connection with the divine.
John characterizes eternal life by such a comparison. People whose experience of life is simply maintenance – work, eat, and sleep – do not thrive. In like manner, people whose lives are merely self-seeking are not thriving. Jesus claims the people who thrive are those who have lives that are full. Giving life abundantly, he offers the community and turns Jean Paul Sartre’s hell (other people) into the kingdom. What maintains life is not living. Being has to do with thriving.
We are neither immortal nor eternal beings. Anything with a beginning cannot be either of these things. In fact, the gospels and 1 Corinthians 15 tell us human life is finite and mortal. St. Paul argues the corruptible and mortal body must “put on” incorruptibility and immortality.
John promises a new eternal life that begins in this one. We are putting on the garments of immortality and eternity when we demonstrate truth, grace, and love in our lives. Acceptance in our churches is telling people how to get to heaven. The red herring argument never stands up. Living in truth, grace, and love is the way to heaven. It is the gift of life John describes. Those who do not love do not know God. What else is eternal?
Jesus says something about eternal fire. The inhospitable goats find their way there in Matthew 25. The fire illustrates the way of death for the self-absorbed, inhospitable, and vicious who turn their backs on the poor and the vulnerable. The conscience of such people are scarred over like “the spirits who speak with the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.” (1 Timothy 4:2).
My mountains have suffered impossibly large fires that are eventually extinguished. I do not know of many that are allowed burn themselves out. There are too many people in the way. Other places have naturally begun fires that burn until it rains or like the Yellowstone fires of 1988 that began in June and ended when the snow began on September 11th of that year.
Why does Matthew/Jesus use that term? Fire is often compared to life. Fires need fuel and oxygen just like we do. While I am no eternal infernalist, the comparison is important. Life is constructive, while fire is destructive. Fire can be a tool. Life cannot be controlled as easily and makes a bad tool. Fire must be maintained. Life must thrive. The contrast is too great. The people for eternal fires are destructive people who do not see how they can be so. What happens, though, when their eyes are opened? Will their hearts follow? It is quite possible that it will.