Does Eternal Life Mean Going to Heaven?
There are many passages in the gospels where the term “eternal life” is mentioned. One of the most famous is John 3:16. In the New King James translation it reads like this:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
What does the phrase “eternal life” mean? Does it mean to live forever?
Here is another famous passage: A man runs up to Jesus and asks him,
“Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
“And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:24-26)
Most Christians when reading these passages automatically associate the phrase “eternal life” with “living forever with God in heaven.” This is the way this phrase has been explained, taught and preached for a few hundred years now, so no wonder…. However, is this really what Jesus meant? Is this how his first century Jewish audience would have understood this phrase?
The phrase in the Greek actually says nothing about heaven and nothing about living forever. The Greek phrase that is translated “eternal life” is actually “aionios zoe.” The first word “aionios” means “of the ages.” The second word “zoe’ mean “life”, and it’s usage in the New Testament has to do with that particular life belonging to God Himself which was also manifested in His Son Jesus.
So then, perhaps a better translation of the phrase is “the life of God, the life of the ages.” So these first century Jewish people were not asking Jesus “How can I get to heaven?” In fact, there was no Jewish concept of, “going to heaven when we die,” at this time in history. The Jewish followers of God believed in a final judgment and then a resurrection in which those who were faithful to God would live again in physical bodies on the earth.
This belief is what the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection) were referring to when they told the story about the woman who was married to a man and then the man died and so the man’s brother became her new husband. This process continued occurring until she had been the wife of seven brothers in succession. The Sadducees then mockingly asked Jesus, “So whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” (Matthew 22:28)
We can see this belief also in Martha’s statement to Jesus as recorded in John 11. When Jesus came to see Martha four days after her brother Lazarus had died, Jesus said to her,
“Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:23-24)
So the Jewish followers of God in first century Israel believed in a bodily resurrection after the final judgment. They did not have a concept of “going to heaven” when they died. That concept really came into Christian thought later on from Greek philosophy and not from the Bible or from the teachings of Jesus.
So what these Jewish believers were asking Jesus in the passages that I began with was the question, “what must I do to inherit the life of the ages –the God kind of life?” This question had nothing to do with heaven or life after death. It was a question related to a new quality of life right here and now.
I imagine that this question was created in people’s minds as they listened to Jesus teaching on the new life of the Kingdom that He was offering them. He came to bring a life more abundant – a life of intimate relationship with God as one’s Father.
In fact, Jesus Himself explains for us what the phrase “life of the ages” means in John 17:3 as He is praying to the Father God:
“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
So the phrase “eternal life” simply means to know God intimately and as a result to have a new kind of life.
So now we can understand John 3:16 in a fresh light. Here is my paraphrase:
“For God so loved the people of the world that He gave His only Son so that those who believe in Him should not be destroyed but have the new life that comes from knowing God intimately.”
Now, before you worry that the New Testament does not teach a post-mortem life for believers, let me assure you that it does. Paul writes to the Corinthian believers along these lines:
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” (2 Cor. 5:1-5)
In other words, God has prepared a resurrection body for each one of us who are believers. The Spirit's presence in our lives now is a guarantee of our future resurrection body. At some point in the future we will receive these resurrection bodies and we will live on a restored earth. (Romans 8:18-25). God’s purpose has always been to have a family of sons and daughters made in his image who will manage the earth on His behalf (see Genesis 1:26-27). The Kingdom of God coming on earth in fullness is simply the final manifestation of that original plan. When we surrender our lives to the Lordship of Christ, we receive the life of the ages – the new kind of life that comes from knowing God intimately. Some day in the future we will carry this new kind of life in a resurrected body.
I challenge each of my readers to go through the gospels, and everywhere you see the phrase, “eternal life,” substitute the phrase, “a new kind of life from knowing God intimately.” You will be surprised at what you will discover!
Lord, continue to set us free from the traditions of men and lead us into your truth.