I doubt that I will ever write an autobiography or memoir. Nor do I think anyone else will ever take it upon themselves to write the story of my life.
Frankly, that would be a pretty boring read.
But if such a book were written, it would probably begin with the events surrounding my birth, and end with my later years or even my death. That’s how we typically frame the stories of our lives. We may go back a generation or two for context — the drama may begin with the choices of my parents or grandparents — but the story proper begins and ends with my biological existence on this planet.
And whether we realize it or not, that way of telling the story may influence how we read Scripture, including the way we understand the nature of eternal life.
Remember algebra class? (Okay, some of you need to breathe…) Remember that thing called the number line, that looked like a double-ended arrow with negative numbers on the left, and positive numbers on the right?
One way of thinking of eternal life is this: the origin or zero point represents the moment of our birth. We draw a line segment to the right that ends with a mark at the day of our death. My father’s line, for example, would have stopped just shy of the number 94. (Mine? Who knows. I ain’t dead yet.)
Eternal life is then erasing the mark and replacing it with an arrow. Life doesn’t stop there anymore. It just keeps going.
But as far as I can tell, that’s not the biblical view. Eternal life doesn’t begin when we die.
Listen to Jesus in the gospel of John:
I assure you that whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and won’t come under judgment but has passed from death into life. (John 5:24, CEB)
Jesus is speaking to his opponents in Jerusalem. The reference to eternal life, resurrection, and judgment is no surprise. The Jews already believed in these things. One day, God would bring forth the dead in a general resurrection and subject them to judgment. The faithful would enjoy eternal life, and the wicked would be condemned.
But as we’ve seen, Jesus scandalously claims the divine prerogatives of being both Judge and the Giver of Life (vss. 21-22). And more: he is saying that judgment is already happening. Those who hear and honor the Son are honoring the Father (vs. 23). They will not be condemned in the future judgment, which is still to come (vss. 25-29). But they have eternal life now; they have already passed from death into life.
How can this be?
It can’t — not if we only understand eternal life as something that begins with our physical death. In that way of thinking, our individual life stories are primary, and God graciously grants that the story doesn’t have to end.
But the Bible is first and foremost God’s story, not ours. God’s life can’t be mapped onto a number line, because God the Father has life in himself (vs. 26a). He grants that life to the Son (vs. 26b), and the Son in turn grants life to those who hear and believe.
In other words, we have eternal life in the present because we are caught up into God’s life. Similarly, it’s not a matter of prolonging our stories, but of our stories being caught up into God’s.
Yes, we will still die physically. But death is no longer the end of the story, because the story is no longer ours alone. Our life is in God, and God’s story has no beginning and no end.
What are the implications of understanding eternal life in this way? We’ll explore that in the next post.