eternal life

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

eternal life, a life uninterrupted by death. It is surprising to learn that in ancient Israel there was no belief in a life after death. Ezekiel 37 speaks of life returning to dry bones, but that should be understood only as a metaphor for the restoration of Israel after the Exile.

The Idea of an Afterlife: The idea of an afterlife or eternal life came late in postexilic times and is attributed to Jewish contact with Persian doctrines. Dan. 12:1-2 is conceded to be the first biblical reference to an afterlife (ca. 175 b.c.); it speaks of a time of terrible persecution of Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes who ordered loyal Jews to give up their ancestral faith or face death. He martyred many of them. Their survival of death is announced in Dan. 12 in terms of their resurrection, which is God’s radical vindication of his faithful ones. The same historical background illuminates 2 Macc. 7 where the seven brothers die in defense of the Torah, confident that ‘the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws’ (7:11).

In the Wisdom of Solomon we are told that God created Adam deathless: ‘God created man for incorruption and made him in the image of his own eternity’ (2:23). Death came because of sin: ‘The day you eat of it you shall die’ (Gen. 2:17; 3:19). Yet the Wisdom of Solomon is unusual in Jewish literature for it speaks not of resurrection from death but of the immortality of the soul by which humankind survives after death: ‘Their hope is full of immortality’ (3:4). The wicked would seem to vanish at death, while ‘the righteous live for ever’ (5:15).

Despite Daniel, 2 Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon, however, not all Jews believed in life after death, whether by resurrection or through immortality. In describing the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Jewish historian Josephus contrasted their views on postmortem existence. The Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife; God does not reward or punish and certainly not in the afterlife. The Pharisees believed in ‘an immortal soul,’ and so in an afterlife when God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (Bella Judaica II.162-166; Antiquities XVIII.11-22). Acts 23:6-9 records a dispute between Sadducees and Pharisees over the resurrection (see also Mark 12:18-27). The Sadducean position is not so implausible when one recalls that until Daniel, there was no notion of an afterlife in the Hebrew scriptures. We know, moreover, from the targumic discussions of Gen. 4:8 (see Tgs. Yer. I, II Gen. 4:8), that the issue continued to be debated in Jewish circles.

Eternal Life in Early Christian Preaching: Afterlife and eternal life become an essential part of Christian preaching in virtue of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. That survival of death enjoyed a variety of interpretations: it was the vindication of the Son of man (Mark 14:62), echoing God’s vindication of the Maccabean martyrs in Dan. 7; it was a new creation in which the new Adam, who is sinless, is restored to deathlessness (Rom. 5:12-21); and it was a heavenly exaltation, an ascent like that predicted in Ps. 68:18 (see Eph. 4:6-8). nt authors regularly speak of the prophecy of the resurrection in the Scriptures (see Luke 24:44-46), alluding to Psalms 110 and 16 as well as Hos. 6:1-3. But this is surely Christian commentary (midrash) on those texts.

In Christian preaching, Jesus is said to offer his followers eternal life, not just in the future, but now: ‘he who hears my word…has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life’ (John 5:24). In John, this mode of discourse is related to the claim that Jesus’ truth, sacraments, and rites are superior to those of the synagogue: ‘This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever’ (John 6:58). Thus, Christian baptism allows one to ‘have eternal life’ (John 3:15); unlike Jacob’s well, Jesus’ waters will become a spring welling up to eternal life (John 4:14); unlike those who ate Moses’ manna, those who eat Jesus’ bread of life ‘have eternal life’ (John 6:40, 47).

This type of discourse, while understandable in its dialectical context in John, nevertheless led to problems. Some took the preaching literally and considered themselves already beyond death and in the resurrection (see 2 Tim. 2:17-18; perhaps also 1 Cor. 4:8). Some who took this literally were shocked by the death of a beloved disciple such as Lazarus (John 11). These problems led to adjustments in the understanding of eternal life. The importance of present conversion to Jesus’ group is still underscored by the assertion that one has passed from death to life (1 Pet. 1:3); but this is balanced with other statements that remind converts that, while there is a realized aspect to this eternal life, it remains a promise to be realized fully in the future. Converts may have crossed from death to life in baptism, but it is also affirmed that Jesus ‘raises them on the last day’ (John 6:40; 11:25).

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