It has occurred to me recently that what the Bible calls eternal life is not about existing forever. The Gospel and epistles of John include a lot of teaching regarding life and eternal life and it does not appear to be about length of existence.
The book or Revelation describes those who enter eternity allied with the beast rather than in Christ describes them in this way: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev 14:11). Even though this is eternal existence, the Bible never refers to this type of existence as eternal life.
Jesus gives a completely different dimension regarding eternal life in his prayer. Jesus stated, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). This indicates that eternal life is not about eternal existence but is about knowing God.
What does it mean to know God? It is much more than just knowing some facts about God, but involves living in faithfulness to him. Throughout 1 John, John teaches that in addition to accepting the Son and the Father and keeping God’s commands, one must love as God loved. He wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8).
If one knows every fact about God, but does not love, then one does not know God. Love is central to God’s character and therefore central to our relationship with God. This is why Jesus identified love for God and love for neighbor as the central and foundational commands of God (Mt 22:36-40). This also is why Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” in Matthew 12:7. Steadfast love (hesed), which does not have an exact equivalent in Greek or English, is translated as mercy in Matthew because it fits with the context. In effect, Jesus is making steadfast love, expressed as mercy/compassion, an interpretive principle of God’s law. If we correctly understand love as central to God’s character, then we will better understand how to apply God’s law. Our motivation for obedience, faithfulness and service must be from love. In fact, Paul states that all kinds of religious service without love is nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3). Truly love is the greatest thing.
Here is what is interesting. In 1 John chapter 3, John connects this love with eternal life: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 Jn 3:14-16).
This means that eternal life is about knowing God, which is about loving as he loved, which is one of the indications that we have eternal life abiding in us. This seems to suggest that eternal life is not about length, but about depth. It is about knowing God, which includes loving as God loves. Remember this the next time you state that you have eternal life. Your compassion, benevolence, and service in the name of Christ is a demonstration of eternal life in you.