“…this is the promise that he made to us- eternal life.”1
For many world religions, the ultimate goal of life is to escape it, because it is seen as a curse. People have to be reincarnated because they do not achieve the highest of realms, and so are condemned to keep coming back as living creatures, and keep trying again. All the suffering has to keep happening until souls can overcome their imperfections, and melt into the nothingness of nirvana.
The Bible does not depict life that way. In biblical Christianity, the ultimate goal is not escaping life, but experiencing it as God intended it. It is not escaping our desires, but realizing that God himself is the fulfilment of those desires.
Before the ages began, God made a promise.2 He promised that all the things which make life unbearable will one day be removed. He made this possible by sending his only Son to remove the one thing that had made life something other than what God intended: sin.
Now, the crucified and resurrected Son of God stands as a marker in heaven. He is the visible symbol of all of the sons and daughters of God who will live forever. All those who are not in Christ will perish. But all of us who are in Christ will overcome all the pain, suffering and death that humanity has purchased by the original transgression.
the last day
Jesus’ promise to us is that he will raise us up on the last day.3 Death is not an illusion, and the grave is not a recycling bin. It is a real dying, and a complete loss of life. But the Bible does not leave us there for eternity. Martha spoke to Jesus of “the resurrection on the last day.”4 Jesus explained to her that he is that resurrection. On the last day, all who have died, believing in him, will be raised again to life.5 All who are alive (on that day) and believe in him will be instantly transformed into immortal beings, who will never die.6
Non-Christian religions teach that life is the curse, and death is the way to get beyond it. The Bible teaches the opposite: death is the curse, and the promise of eternal life is the only way to overcome it.
This is precisely why Christians should stop talking about death as if it is some gateway to a better life. The better life that the Bible speaks of will only begin at the resurrection. Death is not an entrance, it is an exit. It is not a friend; it is an enemy.7 It is not a blessing; it is a curse.8 It does not take us home. Jesus will take us home, when he comes back for us.9
a different promise
I know a lot of people who became Christians because they wanted to go to heaven when they die, and not the other place. They have essentially been promised a different promise. For example:
“Christ’s promise to his followers is that we shall join him in Heaven and partake in an everlasting life of joy, love, fellowship and purposeful activity.”10
“As you profess your faith in Jesus Christ, you have a steadfast promise that heaven is your eternal destination.”11
“In Revelation 2:7 Jesus said ‘to him who overcomes I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God’ … The tree of life symbolizes eternal life; the ‘Paradise of God’ is heaven. The promise to overcomers, then, is that they will live forever in heaven.”12
“To long for Christ is to long for Heaven, for that is where we will be with him.”13
“…the spiritual part of us relocates to a conscious existence in Heaven.”14
The Bible nowhere promises a change in location at death. God told the Israelites “you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.”15 Jesus spoke of an hour which is “coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out”.16 The promise is life from the dead, not a different location at death.
What would happen if believers in Jesus Christ suddenly decided to do our evangelism by sharing what Jesus actually promised? We would have to do the mature thing, and explain to people that the world has taught them that they have immortality, but the Bible says only God has immortality.17 We would have to explain to them that their hope of life after death has nothing to do with their possessing a “soul.” Animals are called “living souls” in Scripture.18 Our hope is a Saviour, who can raise dead souls to life again.
Plato or Paul?
What would happen if the church discovered that its theology of life beyond death was borrowed from the teachings of Plato,19 and not the epistles of Paul? Paul believed in the promise of a resurrection unto eternal life. He spoke of Christ as being the second Adam. The first Adam brought death, Christ will bring the resurrection of the dead.20 And this will happen, not when the believer dies, but when Jesus comes again.21 Paul wanted to know Christ, and to attain to that promised resurrection.22
lost means lost
What would happen if we told people that their lost loved ones are really lost. They will not be kept alive somewhere so that God can torture them perpetually because he made a mistake and made them immortal. They will be raised, punished according as their sins deserve, and then experience what the Bible calls “the second death.”23 Hell will exist, not because God is helpless to destroy evil, but because God plans to destroy evil. And God should be feared exactly because he can “destroy both soul and body in hell.”24
The LORD promises eternal life, not to everyone, but only to those who believe in his Son. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, and those two are opposites. Death in hell will not be another form of life, but its absence. The story of salvation is not a retirement plan, but a rescue.
hope for now
The hope the Bible gives us is an affirmation of life today. It tells us that sin and all its consequences will be overcome and obliterated, and those who get eternal lives will be free to live them without the limits and pain and sorrow that exist today. But, other than that, our eternal lives will be, well… lives. They will not be some other kind of existence. Our creator made us to reflect his glory and his image. He intends us to do that for more than just threescore-and-ten.
But, since we are here now, and since Jesus is Lord of our lives now, there is no reason why we cannot start reflecting that glory and being remade into that image now. The Bible’s answer to the ugliness of life now is to replace it with the beauty of Christ now. For that reason, the Bible sometimes speaks of believers having that eternal life already.25 It does not mean that we are already immortal, but it does indicate that our eventual deaths are no longer a thing to be feared. Death is now seen as a mere hurdle in the race, not the finish line.
A relationship with God is now something worth pursuing, because not even death will end that. It is a pearl of great value,26 and I can spend everything I have on it. Even if it costs me my life, it is worth it, because “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”27 All these things that people live for and die for – you cannot take any of them with you. But a relationship with God – that is what eternal life is for.
loving our neighbours
Some of our neighbours will be joining us in that eternal life. They believe in the promise, too. God loves them, and it makes sense for us to love them too. We will be sharing eternity together. But we have other neighbours who do not yet know about his promise, or have not yet chosen to believe it. How we treat them could make the difference. Either way, it makes sense to love them.
Without the promise, love is hard. Asking me to invest my time and resources in another person’s life is asking a lot. But, if I am assured that my time and resources are actually limitless, then loving does not seem such a challenge. Jesus once told a story about a man who was forgiven a great debt, and then refused to forgive someone else who owed him less.28 Now that we realize the great weight that has been removed from us, forgiveness and love should come easy.
The Lord who gave us the promise of eternal life also gives us the joy of sharing that hope with the rest of the globe. He said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.””29 The “all nations” is the location of our discipleship, and the “end of the age” is its duration. Jesus’ promise to be with us fits both. No matter where we are, no matter when it is, he is with us. His Holy Spirit empowers us to testify of him.
The hope of eternal life is sufficient to win every nation to Christ. There is no need to bolster the biblical promise with an imaginary location that spirits supposedly go when they die. Christ promised to come back and raise us from the dead. That promise is enough. Almost every culture has a mythology of life beyond death. Early theologians chose to borrow into some of those beliefs, adding them to what the Bible says. Now, evangelical theologians are pressed to continue alluding to those syncretistic concoctions, or else be branded as heretics.
Conditionalists call on the church of Jesus Christ to go back to what the Bible tells us Christ promised. We ask believers to stop using the words “eternal life” as if they are code words for “go to heaven when you die.” They are not. Those words in John 3:16 are contrasted with the word “perish” which has also been stripped from its true meaning and used as a synonym for “burn forever in hell.” Perish is what people without eternal life do. Perish is what happens to an unbeliever when God destroys his soul and body in hell. Perish is what happens when a sinner collects the wages of sin: death.30
Moses used the word for people who do “not live long in the land” because of their disobedience.31 To him, it was not a codeword for something that happens at death, but a description of death itself. Asaph said that people perish when God puts an end to them for being unfaithful.32 Jesus said that people perish when they are killed by the sword,33 or when they are crushed by a tower.34 It simply means dying as opposed to living, and those are our choices in John 3:16.
Our plea is not just about quibbling over which words to use as we evangelize. The promise that John records comes in this context: “So you must remain faithful to what you have been taught from the beginning. If you do, you will remain in fellowship with the Son and with the Father.”35 Being faithful to what we have been taught requires us to pass on the promise without the pagan embellishments added by centuries of theological mismanagement. Being faithful requires that we preach the gospel as Jesus preached it.
But that is not what happened. Roman Catholic theologians, wishing to advance their syncretistic doctrine of purgatory, taught that the Old Testament was wrong, and the Greek philosophers were right about human nature: all souls survive death. Jesus’ simple promise of a resurrection unto eternal life made no sense if that was the case. So, they simply reinterpreted his words. Some of the reformers dared to challenge this abuse with all the others, but in the end, this misrepresentation of the promise continued to hold sway.
Every generation there have been bold voices who speak up and ask the church to re-evaluate her stand on this issue. That is what we conditionalists want to do. We want to steal the hope of heaven at death, and replace it with the blessed hope, which is Christ’s return.36 That blessed hope has been overshadowed by a false, unbiblical hope for much too long.
- 1 John 2:25 ESV.
- Titus 1:2.
- John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24.
- John 11:24.
- John 11:25.
- John 11:26.
- 1 Corinthians 15:26.
- Genesis 2:17; Deuteronomy 30:19.
- John 14:3.
- Grant R. Jeffrey, Heaven: The Mystery of Angels. (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1996), 7.
- Patricia Elliot, Heaven or Hell (Apopka, FL: NewBookPublishing.com, 2011), n.p.
- John F. MacArthur, 1-3 John – MacArthur New Testament Commentary. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 184.
- Randy Alcorn, 50 Days of Heaven. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2006), 6.
- Randy Alcorn, TouchPoints: Heaven. (Carol Stream IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), 6.
- Ezekiel 37:13 ESV.
- John 5:28-29 ESV.
- 1 Timothy 6:16.
- Genesis 1:20, 24, 30, 2:19, 9:12,15;,16; Ezekiel 47:9 (although translators biased toward innate immortality usually translate nefesh chayah as something like “living creatures,” it is the same phrase which refers to humanity in Genesis 2:7.
- Dinesh D’Souza, Life After Death: The Evidence . (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2009), 48. “Christianity since Augustine does not espouse life ‘after’ death, but rather life ‘beyond’ death.” D’Sousa attributes this change to the influence of Plato’s writings on Augustine.
- 1 Corinthians 15:21-22.
- 1 Corinthians 15:23.
- Philippians 3:7-11.
- Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8.
- Matthew 10:28.
- John 6:47, 54; 10:28; 17:3; 1 John 5:11-12.
- Matthew 13:46.
- Mark 8:35.
- Matthew 18:23-35.
- Matthew 28:19-20 ESV.
- Romans 6:23.
- Deuteronomy 30:18.
- Psalm 73:27.
- Matthew 26:52,
- Luke 13:4-5.
- 1 John 2:24 NLT.
- Titus 2:13.