Eternal Life in John by Craig S. Keener

The Gospel of John often speaks of “eternal life,” most often on the lips of Jesus and as a divine gift available through faith in Jesus. John’s emphasis resembles that of other gospels yet is also distinctive in other respects.

How do other ancient Jewish sources typically understand “eternal life”?

In the Gospel of Mark, probably the first gospel written, Jesus sometimes contrasts future “life” with the fiery judgment of Gehenna, the Greek word typically rendered “hell” (Mark 9:43, Mark 9:45). “Life” is equivalent to “eternal life” in Mark 10:17, Mark 10:30. In Matt 7:14, Jesus speaks of future “life” for those who follow the narrow way (see salvation in Luke 13:23-24), in contrast to the fate of the wicked (Matt 25:46).

Contemporary Jewish literature also spoke of “eternal life,” or sometimes simply “life,” as the life of the age to come, following the future resurrection of the dead. (This use of “eternal life” is first attested in Dan 12:2.) Jewish sources sometimes contrasted eternal life with judgment in Gehinnom, which some Jewish sources connected to annihilation and others connected to prolonged or eternal torture.

How is the Gospel of John distinctive in its understanding of “eternal life”?

John uses “life” language far more abundantly than the other gospels. Indeed, the purpose of the gospel is to engender trust in Jesus and consequent “life” in him (John 20:31). John uses this language most frequently in the major part of the gospel that narrates signs (especially John 2-12), that is, before the final discourse (John 14-17).

John also uses this vocabulary in a more distinctive way than the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Instead of Gehenna, John speaks of wrath or condemnation (John 3:18, John 3:36; John 5:29). In John’s Gospel, one has life through Jesus (e.g., John 1:4; John 6:27, John 6:51, John 6:57-58; John 14:6), through entrusting oneself to him (John 6:47; John 20:31); it is again equivalent to “eternal life” (e.g., John 3:15-16, John 3:36).

Most distinctively, instead of relegating eternal life only to the future, John begins eternal life in the present. Eternal life begins after one has been “born from above” (John 3:3) and thus become a child of God (John 1:12-13). Fairly consistently in this gospel, a follower of Jesus already “has” eternal life in the present (e.g., John 3:15-16; John 6:47, John 6:54, John 6:68). Although John’s Gospel does not neglect the future era (e.g., John 6:39-40; John 12:48), it emphasizes God’s present saving activity more (e.g., John 5:25; John 11:25-26).

The Synoptic Gospels also speak of a dimension of Jesus’s kingdom activity in the present or impinging on the present, even though they often use different language (Mark 1:15; Mark 4:26-32; Mark 10:15; Matt 13:33 // Luke 13:21). Some scholars see John translating “kingdom” language into “life” language more familiar or intelligible to his diaspora audience; Paul’s churches were already familiar with this language (e.g., Rom 2:7; Rom 5:21; Rom 6:22-23; Gal 6:8).

Like other sources speaking of future salvation (Mark 10:26; Mark 13:13; Luke 8:12) and Jesus coming to save the lost (Luke 19:10), so in John’s Gospel Jesus comes not to condemn those already under condemnation but to save them (John 3:17; John 12:47). This saving happens through Jesus (John 10:9) and is equivalent with receiving eternal life (John 3:15-17). Yet John’s Gospel also implies that just as one may grow beyond birth, so this life is meant to be experienced more fully than merely embracing its inception (see John 7:37-39; John 10:10).

Craig S. Keener, "Eternal Life in John", n.p. [cited 18 Dec 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/passages/related-articles/eternal-life-in-john

Contributors

Craig S. Keener

Craig S. Keener
F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary

Craig S. Keener (PhD, Duke University) is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He has authored nearly one hundred academic articles and twenty-four books, including The Gospel of John: A Commentary (2 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). His books cumulatively have sold more than one million copies.

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

the Hebrew word for Gehenna, typically rendered “hell”

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

Mark 9:43

43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

Mark 9:45

45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.

Mark 10:17

The Rich Man
17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mark 10:30

30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come ete ... View more

Matt 7:14

14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Luke 13:23-24

23Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them,24“Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and w ... View more

Matt 25:46

46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Dan 12:2

2Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

John 20:31

31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 2-12

The Wedding at Cana
1On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited t ... View more

John 14-17

Jesus the Way to the Father
1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.2In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it ... View more

John 3:18

18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of ... View more

John 3:36

36Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.

John 5:29

29and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

John 1:4

4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

John 6:27

27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Fath ... View more

John 6:51

51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my ... View more

John 6:57-58

57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.58This is the bread that came down from heaven ... View more

John 14:6

6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 6:47

47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.

John 20:31

31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 3:15-16

15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not peris ... View more

John 3:36

36Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.

John 3:3

3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

John 1:12-13

12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of ... View more

John 3:15-16

15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not peris ... View more

John 6:47

47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.

John 6:54

54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;

John 6:68

68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

John 6:39-40

39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.40This is indeed the will of ... View more

John 12:48

48The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge,

John 5:25

25“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.

John 11:25-26

25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,26and everyone who lives and believes in me w ... View more

Mark 1:15

15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 4:26-32

The Parable of the Growing Seed
26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,27and would sleep and rise night and day, ... View more

Mark 10:15

15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Matt 13:33

The Parable of the Yeast
33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until ... View more

Luke 13:21

21It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Rom 2:7

7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;

Rom 5:21

21so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our ... View more

Rom 6:22-23

22But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.23For the wages of sin is deat ... View more

Gal 6:8

8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Mark 10:26

26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

Mark 13:13

13and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Luke 8:12

12The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.

Luke 19:10

10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

John 3:17

17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 12:47

47I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.

John 10:9

9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

John 3:15-17

15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not peris ... View more

John 7:37-39

Rivers of Living Water
37On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,38a ... View more

John 10:10

10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

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