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Eternal Life in John

The Gospel of John presents a specific vocabulary for salvation and the coming reign of God.

Hieronymous Bosch
Hieronymous Bosch

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

    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.