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According to the Apostle John, eternal life begins when we believe in the Son:

36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
[John 3:36 ESV]

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
[John 5:24 ESV]

11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
[1 John 5:11-12 ESV]

But, according to Matthew 25:31-46, eternal life seems to begin on Judgement Day:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
[...]
46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

When does eternal life begin? When we believe in the Son (1 John 5:11-12, John 3:36) or on Judgement Day (Matthew 25:31-46)?

3 Answers 3

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The verb ἀπελεύσονται (“will go away”) in Matthew 25:46 is decidedly in future tense - how does it interact with the testimony of John?

A gift has been given

In 1 John 5:11 ἔδωκεν (aorist indicative active) is straightforwardly rendered “has given”.

The gift of God’s son has indeed been given (see John 3:16). That it has been given does not mean it has been (fully) received.

Born of the spirit

I have argued elsewhere that death is a separation and birth is a joining together. This definition offers substantial insight to Jesus' words to Nicodemus in John 3:

6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

Jesus is not saying that we stop being physical entities and become only spirit; when we are physically born our self (more on that in the linked post) receives a physical body; when we are spiritually born we receive the Holy Ghost.

Birth does not imply, however, that development is complete. A biting but witty saying on mortal life is that birth is followed by a quarter-century of physical growth and then a half-century of physical decay (I’m over 25 so I can say that =) ).

We are not done developing when we are born of the Spirit.

The Earnest of the Spirit

Paul taught the Ephesians of the earnest of the Spirit:

13 In whom [Christ] ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,

14 Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:13-14).

He gave a very similar teaching to the church at Corinth:

21 Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God;

22 Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts (2 Cor. 1:21-22, see also 2 Cor. 5:5).

The word rendered “earnest” (or “pledge” in some renderings) is ἀρραβών (“arrabon”). In a financial transaction an earnest is:

earnest-money, a…part of the payment, given in advance as a security that the whole will be paid afterwards (source)

A buyer gives earnest-money to demonstrate sincerity; a seller will sometimes require earnest-money in order to commit not to sell the possession to another prospective buyer.

The Biblical application of the word:

A pledge or security. The word thus translated is a commercial term denoting the deposit paid by a buyer on entering into an agreement for the purchase of anything. As used by Paul… it means that the Lord gives us His Holy Spirit in this life as a foretaste of the joy of eternal life. The Spirit is also the Lord’s surety that He will fulfill His promise to give eternal life to the faithful. (source)

God gives us a guarantee–a portion of His fullness–as a pledge for what is to come.

Let’s say (hypothetically) I sell God a house. We decide we want to make a deal, and we draw up the covenants. We agree to the terms, and God makes a pledge–a down-payment–earnest money–we now have a binding agreement. We have (present-tense) a deal.

There will still be an inspection before the key is handed over, and if the inspection finds that I have made misrepresentations, under some circumstances the contract could be invalidated (separate discussion).

One of the keys to this (admittedly mundane, earthly, imperfect) parable is that 1) the agreement is made and 2) the key is transferred – on distinct occasions, but it doesn’t make the covenants any less-binding.

We can rest assured that we’re working with someone who does business the right way–we can trust God’s promises:

I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it (Isaiah 46:11).

This is what hope is, in the Biblical sense. It’s not “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow”, it’s something much more well-founded: “I am motivated by what God–whom I trust–has promised me”.

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Immortality

Immortality is not a uniquely theological word–in both religious & secular use, immortality means living forever–the focus is on time and an absence of decay, not on quality.

Immortality–through the resurrection–is promised to all the family of Adam (see 1 Cor. 15:22).

Eternal life, however, is only promised to the faithful (for example, see the passages in the OP). What then is eternal life?

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That they might know thee

As described in Matthew 25:34-46 (see also Rev. 20:12-13), giving an ultimate accounting to our Maker, standing on the right hand of God and entering into the kingdom of the Father, is well beyond the scope of our mortal experience.

The eternal life Jesus speaks of in John 17:3 is past the confines of our mortal comprehension:

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

Truly knowing someone does not happen at a distance. In the days before caller ID there were a handful of people I knew so well, I could recognize their voice from a single word. At "hello" I knew exactly who I was talking to. Developing that profound, up-close familiarity with someone is a process, not an event.

This profound, up-close familiarity with God is maximized only after we receive a resurrected body capable of existing in that state of glory (see 1 Cor. 15:40-42).

The Eternal Nature of God

In this mortal existence, everything we create, everything we experience, and everything we agree to, has a beginning and an end. Whether it’s human life, or the pyramids, or a mountain range, or even a star, none of it lasts forever.

Psalms 90 & 102 make this contrast explicit:

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God (Psalm 90:2)

25 Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.

26 They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:

27 But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end (Psalm 102:25-27)

Whatever plans we make or agreements we enter into, once we are dead we will have no ability to carry them out or enforce them–even a last will and testament relies entirely on the living left behind to be put into effect (this is the point being made in Psalm 146:3-4, contrasted with God’s eternal power in v10 of the same Psalm)

Eternal, then, is an attribute of God. God has the power to speak and it will be done (e.g. Genesis 1:3, Isaiah 46:11); God can command and enforce with efficacy beyond the grave; God possesses the attribute of eternal in a way nothing we make or do ourselves does. A few example passages:

The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms (Deut. 33:27)

Thy throne is established of old: thou art from everlasting (Psalm 93:2)

Thou, O LORD, art our Father, Our Redeemer from everlasting is Thy name (Isaiah 63:16)

Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever (Hebrews 13:8)

Endless in duration and godlike in quality

Eternal describes Deity in a way it doesn’t describe anything else.

I will suggest an interpretation here that will make some uncomfortable–if you’re feeling queasy, skip the next two paragraphs.

That which is eternal is of God; eternal is a descriptor of God. This interpretation is not unique to me but I offer it as something I have found persuasive:

Eternal fire is God’s fire. Eternal reward is God’s reward. Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. Eternal judgment is God’s judgment. Eternal life is God’s life.

As succinctly stated by Dr. Jason Carroll:

Eternal life is a life that is both endless in duration and godlike in quality

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Conclusion

By covenant God offers eternal life, the kind of life that He has (see Romans 8:17). The investment God makes in who we are and what we know does not mature at spiritual rebirth.

Eternal life is pledged in this life (it's been given, we have an agreement); the realization of that blessing comes when we are ready for it, after resurrection & judgment.

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There is a consistent tension between the "now" and "not yet but then" throughout the New Testament theology. For example:

  • Eph 2:6 - And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus [This is the now by faith]
  • Rev 3:21 - To the one who overcomes, I will grant the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. [This is the future promise of actuality]

The same is true of eternal life:

  • John 5:24 - Truly, truly, I tell you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come under judgment. Indeed, he has crossed over from death to life. [This is the now by faith]
  • John 3:36 - 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 6:54 - Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
  • 1 John 5:11, 12 - And this is that testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
  • 1 Tim 6:12 - Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession before many witnesses.

Note that in all of these, the gift of eternal life begins as soon as the believer accepts Jesus. However, the actuality begins when Jesus returns:

  • Titus 1:2 - in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began.

  • Titus 3:7 so that, having been justified by His grace, we would become heirs with the hope of eternal life.

  • 1 John 2:25 - And this is the promise that He Himself made to us: eternal life.

  • Luke 18:30 - will fail to receive many times more in this age—and in the age to come, eternal life.”

  • Rom 2:7 - To those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, He will give eternal life.

  • Matthew 25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into eternal life."

  • Mark 10:30 - will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields, along with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.

  • John 12:25 Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

  • Galatians 6:8 The one who sows to please his flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; but the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

  • Jude 1:21 keep yourselves in the love of God as you await the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you eternal life.

Thus, the believing Christian has eternal life in the present age by faith but the new heavenly body (1 Cor 15:31-49) will only be granted a reality in the next life.

One of the functions of the great faith chapter of Heb 11 is to illustrate this many times over with examples from the OT people.

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  • I agree. If we truly believe in the Son, we'll act accordingly, the way we should for the rest of our lives on earth. Doing so, we're promising ourselves eternal life, determined at Judgement Day. Feb 13 at 16:41
  • @Rajesh - many thanks for fixing this error.
    – Dottard
    Mar 30 at 21:50
  • @Dottard No problem! Have a great day. :)
    – Rajesh
    Mar 30 at 21:51
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Both, because eternal life is granted to believers by faith with regeneration:

“But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we did in righteousness, but in accordance with His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He richly poured out upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” ‭‭Titus‬ ‭3:4-7‬

Notice the connection of 1.) “He saved us”, 2.) “in His mercy”, 3.) “not according to works” 4.) “washing, regeneration & renewing by God’s Spirit” 5.) “through Jesus Christ our Savior”

6.) justification through grace makes us heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

So point 6 ^^ means we are currently heirs according to the hope of eternal life even despite our lowly bodies awaiting the resurrection. (Temporal aspect of having eternal life)

So to conclude your question, we are justified/saved in this present time (temporal evil age) & we actually do posses eternal life. Albeit, we await the resurrection at the last day as part of the consummation of our initial receiving of “eternal life”.
See also: (John 6:37-40, John 11:24)

Besides Titus 3:4-7, we read of this “temporal aspect” of receiving eternal life now:

“Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.” ‭‭Galatians‬ ‭1:3-5‬

It goes hand in hand: “eternal life received now, eternal life in its fullness via the resurrection later.”

APPENDAGE:

On the flip side of those who object to receiving eternal life "now", as in this present life, there are some texts in the New Testament that give us clues about the intermediate state of believers after physical/biological death.

For example Paul says:

"My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: 23 I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, 24 but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body." (Philippians 1:20-24)

We gather from Paul here that to die would be to depart and be "with Christ" Paul doesn't mention being with "the grave" nor does he mention the "resurrection at the last day" here.

What Paul does later in his letter to the Philippians is mention the resurrection:

"My aim is to know him[Christ], to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3:10-11)

So between the 2 Philippians texts there is continuity between being dead and away from the body which is to be with Christ, and awaiting the resurrection at the last day. Reading primarily from verse 21-24 in Phil chapter 1; we see the back and forth of dying and remaining in the body, this is contextual proof of the intermediate state.

For those who would object, they may say that I am reading into the text since there are no extra details that Paul provides. Yet, Paul made his case clear as I just argued above.

Furthermore, Jesus said:

"Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, 26 and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

It would be most obvious that our Lord is referring to "eternal life" from possessing it now in this earthly life by faith in Him, and that such a believer will live despite his earthly death.

Our Lord also said:

"He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:25)

There is something to be said here about keeping your life for "eternal life" by hating your own life in this world.

For consciousness of believers in the intermediate state, see also: (Revelation 6:9-11)

Final note: Ecclesiastes 9:10 must be regarded in its context and must not be isolated from the whole witness of Scripture on matters of the afterlife. (66 Books)

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  • If eternal life begins now, what are the implications for the intermediate state between death and the resurrection? Does eternal life continue during that interval? Feb 13 at 3:00
  • 1
    @Spirit Realm Investigator That wasn’t part of your original question, but I can add an appendage later. ;)
    – Cork88
    Feb 13 at 5:52
  • 1
    Some context so you understand why I asked you this question: christianity.stackexchange.com/q/89602/50422 Feb 13 at 6:20
  • @Cork88. "Both"? If one believes and dies is that eternal life. How do you define eternal? Feb 13 at 6:24
  • @Spirit Realm Investigator Ahh, I see. Let me get some dinner; I’ll get back to this thread with some edits.
    – Cork88
    Feb 13 at 6:24

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