Never see death? Jefferson Vann shares his translation notes on John 8:51. He clarifies what Jesus actually promised as recorded in that verse. He shows that what Jesus actually said made it clear that he was promising rescue from the second death; he was not teaching universal innate immortality.
“Truly I tell you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (CSB).
“I am honestly telling you, if anyone keeps my message, he will certainly not experience permanent death.” (Jefferson Vann’s translation).
Here are my translation notes on this verse:
the integrity of Jesus
ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν,
This phrase appears 20 times in the Gospels. Jesus used it to accentuate the veracity of his statements. The repetition of ἀμὴν is retained by several versions: [Truly, truly (ESV, RSV); Verily, verily (KJV, ASV, DBY, WEB)]. But I did not feel that a mere repetition in modern English made the same kind of impact as it did in NT times. The CSB “Truly I tell you” ignores the extra emphasis altogether. The NIV does better with “Very truly I tell you.” NKJV and HNV render the phrase “Most assuredly.” NLT renders it “I tell you the truth. I like the phrase “I am honestly telling you” because it stresses the integrity of the speaker as well as the veracity of the words. After all, this passage records a conversation with Jesus in which we learn who he is in relation to Abraham, and in relation to God.
keeping the message
ἐάν τις τὸν ἐμὸν λόγον τηρήσῃ,
The verb τηρέω is used of guards who keep watch over prisoners (Acts 12:6). It is also used of a product which is held back to be consumed later (the wine at the wedding feast in Cana, John 2:10). It is used of the fallen angels who did not keep the place God had prepared for them, but are now being kept in darkness until judgement (Jude 6). It can refer to remaining unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:37). But the three most significant uses are when Jesus prays that the Father keeps all believers in Christ’s name (John 17:11), when Paul affirms that he has kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7), and when Jesus uses the word to describe keeping the commandments (Matthew 19:17).
I used the word “message” for λόγος here because Jesus is talking about the whole gospel message of the kingdom which he has been preaching all along. He is not talking about a mere word, or some kind of secret password. He is referring to the whole of his preaching about himself, humanity, God, and his promises and predictions of the end. I like the phrase “if anyone keeps my message” to indicate that idea.
οὐ μὴ θεωρήσῃ
The words οὐ and μὴ are both negative particles. Used together, they express negation emphatically. I express this idea with the phrase “he will certainly not.”
The verb θεωρέω is one of the many ways to express seeing with the eyes in scripture. It is not the most common verb for mere sight. Instead, it stresses observation of an event or phenomenon or person of unusual importance. Our English word theory is related to this word. A theory is an idea one comes to after close observance of all the facts. But the verb is also related to the English word theatre. A theatre is a place where people can see something important and unusual happening. It goes beyond merely seeing the spectacle; it is experiencing it. I use the word “experience” to capture that impact.
Θάνατον … εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.
“Never (see) death” is an unfortunate translation of this phrase because it has Jesus promising something that had already been shown to be impossible. His listeners knew that Abraham (and all the faithful children of Israel after him) had already died. I take the prepositional phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα to be the equivalent of the adjective αἰώνιος, and translate it “permanent.” That way, Jesus is promising – not that believers will never die – but that they will not die the second death, the permanent death from which there can be no resurrection.
It is possible for the prepositional phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα to modify a noun. But the translators will usually take it as modifying a verb if it is in close proximity of the verb. Such is the case most of the time in the NT (Matthew 21:19, Mark 11:14, Luke 1:54, John 6:51,58; 10:28; 12:34;13:8, 1 Cor 8:13, 2 Cor 9:9, Hebrews 6:20; 7:24, 1 Peter 1:25, 1 John 2:17, 2 John 1:2). That is probably why translators render this text the way they do. However, there are some cases in the NT that the very same phrase is used adjectivally, to modify a noun (Mark 3:29, Hebrews 5:6; 7:17; 7:21), a participle (John 4:14), or even another prepositional phrase (John 14:16).
Jesus is talking about death here. It is not something else. It is not a process of living while enduring torments for eternity. It is θάνατος – the same word Jesus used to denote his own death on the cross (John 11:13). Paul used the same word to describe the penalty of adamic sin (Romans 1:32). We die because of sin. We die the first death because of Adam’s sin. But the Θάνατον … εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα of John 8:51 is the same thing as the ὁ θάνατος ὁ δεύτερος (the second death) of Revelation 21:8. We will die the second death, the permanent death for our own sins – unless Jesus saves us. But Jesus promises to do just that if we remain faithful to him:
Be faithful to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. … The one who conquers will never be harmed by the second death (Rev. 2:10-11 CSB17).
Jesus never promised anyone that the first death could be avoided. The Bible teaches that everyone dies that death (1 Corinthians 15:22). But he did promise to rescue us from the second death – the permanent death. So, this text in John 8:51, which has often been used to teach innate immortality, in fact teaches conditional immortality. It is a promise that anyone who dares to trust Christ has the potential to live eternally. It is a promise of a resurrection from the first death, and a guarantee that those raised by him will never experience the punishment of the second, permanent death.
a similar statement
Jesus makes a similar statement further on in John’s Gospel which shows what he was referring to in 8:51. Martha was mourning at the grave of her brother, Lazarus. She assures Jesus that she believes her brother will be raised again in the resurrection at the last day. In that context, Jesus says “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:26 CSB). Here Jesus uses the exact prepositional phrase as in John 8:51. The difference is that he uses the verb ἀποθνῄσκω (to die) instead of its noun counterpart θάνατος (death). A better translation of the text οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα would be “will certainly not die permanently.” This makes more sense in context, seeing as there was no question that Lazarus was already dead.
What Jesus actually said in both of those passages made it clear that he was promising rescue from the second death. He was not promising that believers are excluded from the first death by any sort of natural or innate immortality. He was most certainly not asserting that everyone has an immortal nature and thus can never die. His promises to believers will never fail. But we must be careful not to read into those promises anything like the doctrine of universal innate immortality. Doing so would be hermeneutical foolishness.