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John 17:3 (ESV):

3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

The wicked who will experience the second death do not and will not truly know God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. As Matthew 7:23 eloquently states: And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (ESV).

But if the wicked, in virtue of not knowing God, will not have eternal life, does it mean that they will cease to exist? In other words, does lacking eternal life entail lacking eternal existence? Is that an implication of the definition of "eternal life"? What does eternal life mean to begin with?


Two additional passages that may be relevant to this discussion:

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Greek Gehenna).
[Matthew 10:28 ESV]

13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
[1 Timothy 6:13-16 ESV]


Related questions


BONUS: some thoughts I've shared on John 17:3 in answer to this question.

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    'Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord : we persuade men.' Those who have experienced this terror (Who shall live with everlasting burnings ?) know that supposed 'annihilation' is not a 'terror'. Many long to end their existence (once they have enjoyed life 'to the full'). The terror is of that which never ends. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 12, 2022 at 15:27

2 Answers 2

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There is such a thing as "a living death". It stands in stark contrast to eternal life, in Christ. A living death is being alive without belonging to Christ. Billions of people throughout the centuries have experienced that on earth, even before they die physically. They have lived and died without Christ, and when they die physically, the state they were in when they died continues for eternity because people who die step out of time and enter eternity.

Paul explained this in Romans chapters 7 and 8. There's too much to detail here so I shall just refer to those chapters as they relate to the one verse Jesus spoke in John chapter 17.

Jesus spoke of all the people God had given to him, who were to enjoy eternal life, which Christ would give them (vs.2). They stood in stark contrast to those others who would not get that gift from Christ. Those ones were identified by Christ in chapter 17 as those who hated his people. Why? Because Christ's people "are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil" (vss.14-15).

This means that those who will not get this life eternal in Christ are those who hate those who do have that gift, identified by them not being in the world. Worldly people are not spiritual people who belong to Christ by faith; they are in the world, and they are not kept from the evil. This happens while they are in the flesh, living on earth. They are dead to Christ, even while living on earth.

This is where Paul's explanations are helpful. He spoke of how Christians (including himself) used to live while in the world:

"For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter...

For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died... For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me" (Romans 7:5-11).

There you have it - how people who remain in the grip of sin are dead though they live - a living death is their portion, even before their mortal bodies die physically!

Have you heard the expression, "He's a dead man walking"? That is said of persons on Death Row, in prison, those who will be executed. They have been found guilty of crimes that warrant (in that country) execution, and the idea is that they are as good as dead already. That has a chilling application spiritually, with regard to this question.

Paul knew what it was to be under that sentence of spiritual death, due to the sins against God that he had committed. He knew that, no matter how hard he tried, he could not stop sinning and cried out in despair, "O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (vs.24) Then he exclaimed that it was Christ who had delivered him from that living death, so that:

"There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit... For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace... And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness" (vss.1-10).

This means that whenever Christ removes that condemnation (sentence of death), they then enter into life eternal, even while in the flesh (John 5:24 & 6:47.) It happens the moment a repentant sinner truly believes in Christ. Conversely, unrepentant sinners are "dead men walking" and that will remain their state when their mortal bodies die; they will step out of time and enter eternity in that unforgiven, condemned state, without Christ. There is not one bit in the Bible that says the wicked will cease to exist. There is no mention of 'soul annihilation'. If there was, nobody would need to ask questions about that.

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    'The body dead : and a living Spirit within because of righteousness' (the righteousness of God satisfied in justification, thus the living Spirit is given as a gift). Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 12, 2022 at 15:32
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The phrase "eternal life" occurs very often in Scripture and always means the eternal life with Jesus and God.

  • John 3:31 - Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. Whoever rejects the Son will not see life. Instead, the wrath of God remains on him.”
  • John 4:36 - Already the reaper draws his wages and gathers a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may rejoice together.
  • John 6:54 - The one eating My flesh and drinking My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up in the last day. [That is, the wicked will not share this blessing!]
  • John 10:28 - I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them out of My hand. [That is, the wicked will not have eternal life.]
  • 1 John 3:15 - Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that eternal life does not reside in a murderer.
  • Rom 6:23 - For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

... and so forth. Now, prevarications and confiscations about death not meaning death, etc, are just that. One cannot have eternal life in hell. Therefore, when Jesus says that we have eternal life only in Christ (1 John 5:11, 12, John 17:3) mean exactly what they say.

For more information, see appendix below.

APPENDIX - Theological Implications – the Nature of God

The idea of an immortal soul has other practical and logical problems quite apart from the explicit statements of Scripture as listed elsewhere; for example:

  • If the soul is immortal it does not depend on God for life. “He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else . . . For in him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:25, 28. “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” 1 John 5:11, 12. Thus, the assertion that we are somehow immortal and do not depend on God for life and all else, is blasphemous! Further, by definition, people in hell do not have the Son and so cannot have life!
  • If the soul is immortal, God cannot destroy it - God would therefore not be omnipotent (not all powerful). See Job 42:2 and Matt 19:26. Thus, the assertion that the soul is immortal and indestructible (apart from contradicting the plain statements of Scripture, eg Matt 10:28, Eze 18:4, 20, 24), limits the power of God!
  • Some will object to the above assertion by suggestion that our souls are dependent on God for life and that God could destroy the soul if He so chose. However, this leaves us with an even bigger problem that God then keeps people (souls) alive in hell eternally in order to torment them! This makes God, as Ingersoll asserted, into some kind sadistic monster that is inconsistent with His fundamental essence of love (1 John 4:8, 16).
  • If the soul is immortal, God could not ultimately destroy evil and eradicate sin from the universe. See Heb 9:26, Nahum 1:9. In fact, God took specific steps to avoid sinful man living forever - see Gen 2:24. Again, the idea of an immortal soul for the wicked, limits God’s ability to solve the sin problem.
  • If the soul is immortal and the wicked are tormented forever in a fiery hell, God is not just because such an outcome for sinners is not justice when they would serve an eternal sentence for a finite crime. “God's judgment is right … God is just” 2 Thess 1:5, 6. See also Rom 3:23-26.
  • If the soul is immortal, what need is there of a resurrection? If the saints are already enjoying the heavenly paradise, what purpose does the resurrection serve? (Some say the resurrection is to reunite the soul with the body - but why if they already have their reward?) Paul asserts that if there is no resurrection then our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:12-20). Even William Tyndale arrived at a similar conclusion in his book, “An Answer unto Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue” –

“Nay, Paul, thou art unlearned, go to Master More and learn a new way. We be not most miserable, though we rise not again, for our souls go to heaven as soon as we be dead, and there as in great joy as Christ that is risen again. And I marvel that Paul had not comforted the Thessalonians with this doctrine, if he has wist it, that the souls of their dead had been in joy, as he did with resurrection, that their dead should rise again. If the souls be in heaven as in great joy as the angels, after your doctrine, shew me what cause should be of the resurrection?”

  • Even worse than this, if mankind is already immortal, why did Jesus come to give immortality for the faithful if they already possess it? Peter Peckard observed in his book, “Observations on the Doctrine of an Intermediate State Between Death and the Resurrection” (1756), page 19:

“Jesus Christ came into the world on purpose to redeem men from death and to give them life and immortality. It is very certain the he could not redeem them from a state in which they were not, nor give them that life and immortality which they already possessed. So that by this scheme [the natural immortality of the soul] the whole notion of redemption by Jesus Christ is absolutely destroyed.”

  • Worse than all this is the problem of the consequences of Jesus’ atonement. If there is an eternally burning hell where sinners suffer an eternal punishment for finite crimes, then Jesus’ atonement was nothing of the kind – it was inadequate. However, Scripture tells us that Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient for all! See Rom 3:21-26, 6:10, 2 Cor 5:21, Heb 7:27, 10:10, 1 Peter 3:18, among many other references. Thus, the doctrine of an immortal soul depreciates the centrality of the Cross, and its all-sufficient nature! Note this well – Jesus has already paid the penalty for our sin and endured our punishment. God will not administer a second lot of punishment on the wicked, other than to eternally destroy them (2 Thess 1:8, 9).
  • Isaiah 53:10 contains a fascinating prophecy that Jesus would give his “soul” as an offering for sin. If this is understood literally (as immortal soul advocates insist) then the text makes no sense at all. However, the NIV correctly renders the phrase, “the LORD makes his life an offering for sin”.

Therefore, mortal man is just that and dependent at all times on our heavenly Father via Christ for our life. “For to me, to live is Christ.” Phil 1:21.

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