Christians commonly think that eternal life will begin at Christ's second coming. However, John Brunt points out that Jesus had a much different idea.
We live in a world of trouble and pain. Worst of all, we dwell in a world of death. We face the threat of mushroom-shaped clouds; we see passenger planes hijacked to become weapons of mass destruction; and we will bury our loved ones unless they bury us first. Yet despite all of this, the apostle John, writing in the New Testament, has the audacity to suggest that we can have eternal life now—in this world.
We can understand how the promise of eternal life might find reality in the future, in God’s new world that’s free of sin and death. But John speaks of eternal life as a present reality for those who believe in Jesus Christ. John 5:24–30 records Jesus saying: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live."
For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And He has given him authority to judge because He is the Son of Man.
“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgement is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me”.
Notice several things about those who hear Jesus’ words and believe them:
- They have eternal life. The tense is present, so Jesus is talking about a present reality.
- They have already passed from death to life—another present reality.
- He says the hour is coming and has now come when the dead will live. Obviously, Jesus has in mind spiritual life and death here because He contrasts this with the literal resurrection.
- Those who have eternal life have gone from death to life.
This does not negate the promise of a literal resurrection in the future. Jesus says the hour is coming—He does not claim that it has already arrived—when the dead who are in the graves will rise to live again.
Jesus makes a distinction between eternal life and the future resurrection of the dead when Christ returns to our world. Eternal life includes the future resurrection and subsequent eternity with God, but there’s more. Eternal life also has a quality of life that the believer possesses now in Jesus Christ.
If we are connected to Christ, we not only have eternal life, but will know that we have it. The apostle John said, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13, emphasis added).
To trust in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and our Saviour means freedom not only from God’s wrath but also from fears about the judgement. It indicates that we have already passed from death to life, even though we may die in this world. For believers, death at the end of life is just a temporary sleep until the resurrection of the dead at the second coming of Christ, when He will raise them to live with God forever.
So what difference does this make? We still live in a world of death in which we bury our loved ones. Is this more than mere words? I believe Jesus’ message transforms our lives in the present in three ways:
1. It frees us and gives us confidence
We don’t need to worry about the status of our relationship with God. We have eternal life now and it isn’t arrogance that causes us to think this way. Because Christ is our source of life and hope, we must always keep our eyes focused on Him.
When we pat ourselves on the back and look to our own supposed achievements, we take our eyes off Christ. Or, when we kick ourselves and worry that no-one who is as bad as we are could ever be saved, we are no longer focused on Him. Either way, we’re being self-centred and that puts us in spiritual danger. But when we make Christ the centre, we can have confidence. No longer will we have to worry about our salvation.
Scripture promises that the God who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion in the day of Christ Jesus (see Philippians 1:6).
2. It changes our perspective
Instead of nervously trying to figure out which events are harbingers of the end of time, we look forward to and long for the second coming of Jesus Christ because it means seeing Him face to face.
We do not panic about the close of time because we realise that we are already living in the end by knowing Jesus and being in a relationship with Him now. While we do not yet have a face-to-face fellowship with Jesus, our present experience with Him gives us the assurance that that face-to-face fellowship will come soon.
3. It helps us help others
In Matthew 10:39, Jesus said that those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will find it. We find true life in spending our lives for God. Our confidence in Christ frees us to take risks for the sake of God’s kingdom.
God isn’t asking us to take risks for the fun of it, but He invites us to give ourselves in service for others rather than selfishness. Our confidence of eternal life frees us to do so.
I think of a friend of mine who is no longer living. He grew up in and loved New York. A successful teacher and engineer, he had a wonderful family with a wife and two small children. Then he received an invitation to leave his beloved city and his successful life and move to a little town in southeastern Washington State called Walla Walla to start up an engineering program at a small Christian college.
Sensing that God was in the invitation, he and his family travelled across the country. The culture shock was amazing. Walla Walla was not at all like New York City. He and his wife spent their first few weeks on their hands and knees scrubbing an old army barracks that would serve as the location for his new engineering department.
Ed Cross stayed in Walla Walla until he died. And he built an accredited engineering school that is now named after him: the Edward F. Cross School of Engineering of Walla Walla University. A plaque on its wall quotes him, at his retirement, saying, “This was not a job; it was a call from the Lord.”
Our assurance of eternal life in Christ, both now and in the future, frees us to accept God’s summons to give ourselves in self-sacrificial service for others and for Him.
What the Bible says about eternal life
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
The apostle declares that whoever believes in or trusts the Son (God’s Son, Jesus Christ) has eternal life. He doesn’t say that they might have or could have eternal life. Nor does he claim that they will have eternal life sometime in the future. Rather, he says that they have eternal life now. Also, he implies by contrast that they are free of God’s wrath.
“Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day’ “ (John 6:53, 54).
The believer receives spiritual nourishment through Christ and has eternal life now, and Jesus will raise him in the resurrection when He comes again. Eternal life is a quality of life that we can experience at the present moment, but it also includes a future resurrection when the dead will be raised from their sleep in the grave.
“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
In His prayer to the Father the night before His death, Jesus defined what eternal life really is. It’s knowing God and His Son Jesus Christ. God, after all, is the very source of life, and when we are in connection with Him we have life—eternal life. This is the quality of life that comes from knowing God and the promise of resurrection, as well as living forever with God in the future.
This article is adapted, with permission, from How to Survive Armageddon, Review and Herald Publishing, Hagerstown, Maryland, USA. Click here for a free book offer.