The story of humanity begins in the past, in creation. It continues in the future, an eternal future set by God on Judgment Day. Those whom God judges as not worthy of restoration will experience “tribulation and distress,” and eventually will be destroyed by God’s “wrath and fury.” Those who respond to his grace in this life, and spend their lives seeking “glory and honor and immortality” by “patience in well-doing” will receive an everlasting life of “glory and honor and peace.”1 This is the destiny of humanity. Without an understanding of this future reality, one can never hope to fully comprehend what human beings are.
This eternal destiny is at the core of the Gospel message which Jesus revealed to the world by his ministry, death and resurrection. It involves salvation by grace, the abolition of death, and a call to live eternal lives which manifest God’s purpose for life.2 Our destiny is much more than a nice place to spend eternity. The good news is that we will be completely changed into the kind of persons who can inhabit a sinless eternity. Yet, the fact that such a transformation awaits us implies that somewhere within us today is the yearning for it: human beings are by nature – not immortal like God – but immortable.
Our conscience within us strives to share in God’s attribute of holiness. We grieve over sin and the loss and death it causes. We feel guilty when we do not live up to God’s standards. We feel angry when others sin, and when we sin. In the same way, there is something within us that reacts strongly to death – any death. We know death is real, and that it is inevitable. Yet we also know on a deeper level that it is wrong.
In 1999 Robin Williams starred in a film called “Bicentennial Man” based on the Novella by Isaac Asimov. The movie centered on the “life” of a robot that somehow gained sentience and was like humans in every way except that he could not die. Having outlived everyone he knew and loved, the robot decided to take his own life, in order to be truly human. The film is a reminder of how death defines humanity now, but perhaps it sends the wrong message.
The Bible also preaches the reality of death, but it does so as the backdrop to the glorious good news that death is not what defines humanity. Our purpose is life and life forever. To insist that death is what makes us truly human is to miss that glorious truth.
Life as a Gift
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible depicts eternal life not as a present possession, but as a gift that is promised to believers by a loving, generous and kind God (who currently is the only one who possesses it). The tree of life that God planted in Eden was a symbol of that gift. God gave no prohibitions against the tree of life. Yet our ancestors, convinced that it was the other tree that would give them life, ignored the real opportunity until it was taken away from them.
A lawyer had once asked Jesus “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?,” and Jesus taught the parable of the Good Samaritan in reply.3 The question that the lawyer asked was actually quite perceptive. He knew that eternal life was not a given – not an innate characteristic. He should also be given credit for asking Jesus, because Jesus through his sacrificial death has made eternal life a possibility for all humanity again. It is “through Christ alone (that the) doom is reversed, and man becomes capable of immortality.”4 Unfortunately, Jesus knew that the lawyer’s heart was not right, although his question was. The lawyer was still “desiring to justify himself”5 which is a way of avoiding God’s grace – the only means of justification. He was determined to get life by taking of the wrong tree. Jesus left him with a means of measuring whether he was truly living up to the law that he professed to live by.
In many other places, the New Testament speaks of salvation as the gift of eternal life.6 To speak of eternal life or immortality as an innate possession cheapens this doctrine. The teaching about eternal life as a gift from God is the heart of the Gospel message. We humans know that we are facing death. The good news is not that death is an illusion, but that Jesus offers hope beyond it. That hope is the kingdom of God, ushered in by a resurrection.
The Kingdom and Eternal Life
In Christ, the opportunity for eternal life (lost at Eden) has been restored. When our Lord taught about his return for judgment, he said he will call all the nations to him, and separate people from each other, the sheep from the goats. They will be separated according to their destiny. Those goats destined for permanent destruction will be separated from the sheep who are destined for permanent life.7 Christ said it would be he who judges. Jesus calls this eternal life “the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.”8 By doing this, Jesus weaves together two biblical concepts into one fabric: the kingdom of God and the resurrection. Both concepts put together suggest that believers are destined to live forever, but unbelievers are not.
Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man afforded him another opportunity to talk about the kingdom and the eternal life it will bring.9 Again, it is clear that both concepts are woven together into the same issue. The young man asked “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”10 When Jesus’ answer did not suit him, the young man left. Jesus used that public rejection as an opportunity to teach about – the kingdom of God. He said “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”11
A Pharisee named Nicodemus was also privy to a discussion with Jesus on the same issues.12 Jesus taught him that one has to be born again to see the kingdom of God.13 He also said that he (the Son of Man) would be “lifted up” like the serpent in the wilderness was.14 The story from the Old Testament is important to review.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,
to go around the land of Edom. And the people became
impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God
and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of
Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and
no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the
LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit
the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the
people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we
have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the
LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses
prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make
a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is
bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze
serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone,
he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
(Numbers 21:4-9 ESV).
The people had sinned and the wages of that sin was death. They asked Moses to intercede for them, that God would take the serpents away. Instead, God instructed Moses to make a symbol of the curse itself, and set it up for all to see. Anyone bit by the serpents would be redeemed from the curse and gain life on the condition that they look on the symbol in faith.
Jesus taught Nicodemus that the Old Testament story was a simile for how God has chosen to deal with a rebellious, sinful people. Like the serpent in the wilderness, the cross is the symbol of death, the due punishment for our rebellion and sin. But God in his grace has offered a way to escape the punishment. Those who believe in Christ are reborn – not of the flesh (natural birth), but of the Holy Spirit (a supernatural birth. These can both see and enter the kingdom of God.15 They will have eternal life.16 They will be saved from the condemnation that will come upon all the rest.17
John (the Gospel author) comments later in such a way as to connect the ideas of the kingdom of God and eternal life. He says that “the Father loves the Son and had given all things into his hand.”18 He is referring to the authority to rule the earth: the kingdom of God. In the next verse, he says “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”19 Faith and obedience come together in the concept of the kingdom.
John also explains the details so that there is no mistake about what it means to receive eternal life by believing in Christ. Does it mean that believers will never die? No, it means that upon believing in Christ, believers will inherit the promise of eternal life in God’s kingdom. Believers continue to die, but that death is only temporary. The state of death will be interrupted by a resurrection. In chapter 6, John records Jesus talking about the promise of inherited life seven times.20 But he is careful to also point out that this inheritance will come to pass by means of a resurrection, which will take place “on the last day.”21 Believers possess eternal life now in the same way that a rich person’s young daughter possesses all the wealth she is due to inherit.
If there is an innate characteristic that gives hope to all humanity, it is not immortality. It is immortability. God created humans with the potential for immortality. It is that reality within each of us that drives us toward two goals that appear to be polar opposites. On the one hand, we see all human life as valuable (because God has invested it with immortability) and therefore seek to protect it. Every person on earth has a right to live, and that right should be protected. We believe in the sanctity of human life. Therefore, Christians should be on the front lines in the battle to protect the unborn, the aged, and all those who are in danger of being prematurely killed by a society which marginalizes them. This includes all those who are in danger of dying from starvation, war, domestic violence, or preventable disease due to government corruption and lack of accountability. To be pro life is to seek to protect it in all its forms, because all human life is potentially immortal life.
On the other hand, this chance to gain immortality by entering God’s kingdom through obedience to and faith in Christ is worth risking this present life for. We believe in persevering in our faith “even to death”22 if that is necessary. Our Lord said that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”23 The believer who is confident of his standing in Christ is willing to risk his life as a witness to that confidence. Both the sanctity of life and Christian martyrdom stem from the fact that humans are immortable: we have potential for life beyond the grave.
1 Romans 2:6-10.
2 2 Timothy 1:8-11.
3 Luke 10:25-37.
4 James Hastings, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 2 (New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2003), 548.
5 Luke 10:29.
6 John 10:28; 17:2; Acts 13:46,48; Romans 5:21; Galatians 6:8; Titus 1:2; 3:7; 1 John 2:25; 5:11-12; Jude 21.
7 Matthew 25:31-46.
8 Matthew 25:34.
9 Mark 10:17-31.
10 Mark 10:17.
11 Mark 10:23.
12 John 3:1-21.
13 John 3:3.
14 John 3:14.
15 John 3:3, 5.
16 John 3:15-16.
17 John 3:17-18.
18 John 3:35.
19 John 3:36.
20 John 6:27, 33, 35, 40, 47, 51, 53.
21 John 6:39, 40, 44, 54.
22 Rev. 12:11.
23 Matthew 10:39; 16:25.