“Eternal Life” (zōē aiōnios) in Scripture
Word Study (below)
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of One New Humanity
N.T. Wright has been the prime mover in working a sea-change on how to interpret zōē aiōnios in the context of a major shift in understanding soteriology. God did not send Jesus to save a select number of human souls in order to evacuate them to heaven when they die, while banishing other human souls to eternal damnation. God sent Jesus in order to launch the project of New Creation — that is, the setting right of the entire creation from its subjection to corruption and futility. And a first step in this project is to create One New Humanity to reprise its vocation of image-bearing the creativity and stewardship of the Creator. Jesus is a “Son of Man” — Human Being 2.0 — who reveals and makes possible once again what it truly means to be human.
In short, salvation is not about receiving “eternal life” in the sense of ‘going to heaven when you die.’ It is about entering into God’s new age of working to fulfill creation. N.T. Wright was writing his “historical Jesus” book (Jesus and the Victory of God) in 1996 when the concluding section about Easter kept extending an already long book. He decided to close that book off basically at the cross and work on the meaning of Easter as a separate volume. It took six more years to complete the detailed argument which works the sea-change in Christian eschatology and soteriology — the 848-page The Resurrection of the Son of God, published in 2003.
Thinking about salvation has never been the same. The Resurrection of the Son of God argued the full case to the world of biblical scholars (and adventurous pastors); five years later Wright published his findings for the wider church in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008). But the theme of Christian salvation as New Creation dominates most of Wright’s subsequent work — hopefully to the point of also increasingly making its way into pulpits and classrooms of the church.
Wright’s soteriology has great import for interpreting and translating phrases like zōē aiōnios, “eternal life.” zōē is the easy part: “life.” No controversy. aiōnios presents a different story. aiōnios is the adjective related to the noun aiōn, “eon” or “age.” It is quite legitimate to translate the Greek adjective aiōnios as “eternal,” but the noun is mostly translated as “age” — a long period of time. And the Greek word group points to trying to translate the Hebrew word group ‘olam, which definitely has the connotation of “age,” a long period of time, rather than the Greek philosophical notion of eternity. In short, the problem of correctly translating zōē aiōnios into English must first come to terms with translating Hebrew words and thinking into Greek.
I think that Wright’s best treatment of the translation problems concerning zōēn aiōnion comes in his book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (2012). He is addressing the basic message of the Gospels and thus taking on what he sees as currently inadequate answers. The first is “that Jesus came to teach people how to go to heaven.” Closely related is the second inadequate answer, to which he writes:
The second expression that has routinely been misunderstood in this connection is “eternal life.” Here again the widespread and long-lasting assumption that the gospels are there to tell us “how to go to heaven” has determined how people “hear” this phrase. Indeed, the word “eternity” in modern English and American has regularly been used not only to point to a “heavenly” destination, but to say something specific about it, namely, that it will be somehow outside time and probably outside space and matter as well. A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible — and it’s a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom even realizes the fact. Anyway, granted this assumption, when we find the Greek phrase zoe aionios in the gospels (and indeed in the New Testament letters), and when it is regularly translated as “eternal life” or “everlasting life,” people have naturally assumed that this concept of “eternity” is the right way to understand it. “God so loved the world,” reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.
If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.” When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life. This is why, in my own new translation of the New Testament, Luke 18:18 reads, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” Likewise, John 3:16 ends not with “have everlasting life” (KJV), but “share in the life of God’s new age.”
Among the various results of this misreading has been the earnest attempt to make all the material in Jesus’s public career refer somehow to a supposed invitation to “go to heaven” rather than to the present challenge of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. Time would fail to spell out the additional misunderstandings that have resulted from this. . . . (pp. 44-45)
So a main pillar of Wright’s career has been working to clear up these misunderstandings whenever and wherever they arise — which is often and in many places! I hope that I have modeled his work well in raising the issue of “eternal life” as meaning “life in God’s new age” — that is, life in God’s New Creation — as a key notion to preaching the Gospel of One New Humanity (Eph 2:15).
Word Study of zōē aiōnios
Number of Hits: 46
Hits per Book
2 Maccabees: 1
Psalms of Solomon: 1
1 Timothy: 2
1 John: 6
- Half of the hits are from the Johannine tradition (23 of 46)
- Notice that there are none in the Book of Revelation
- Paul seems to have used the phrase only in what are considered his latest two letters
Complete Verse List
NRSV: 2 Maccabees 7:9 And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.”
NRSV: Psalms of Solomon 3:11-12 The destruction of the sinner is forever, and he shall not be remembered, when the righteous is visited. This is the portion of sinners forever. But they that fear the Lord shall rise to life eternal, and their life (shall be) in the light of the Lord, and shall come to an end no more.
NRSV: Daniel 12:2 Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
- NRSV: Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
- Wright’s ‘Kingdom’ Translation (WKT): Suddenly a man came up to Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what good thing must I do if I’m to possess the life of the age to come?” (N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament; all subsequent WKT references are from this book.)
- NRSV: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”
- WKT: “And anyone who’s left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or estates because of my name will get back a hundred times over, and will inherit the life of that new age.”
- NRSV: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
- WKT: “And they will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous will go into everlasting life.”
- NRSV: As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
- WKT: As he was setting out on the road, a man ran up and knelt down in front of him. “Good teacher,” he asked. “What should I do to inherit the life of the age to come?”
- NRSV: “who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life.”
- WHT: “will fail to receive back a hundred times over in the present age: houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and lands – with persecutions! – and finally the life of the age to come.”
- NRSV: Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
- WKT: A lawyer got up and put Jesus on the spot. “Teacher,” he said, “what should I do to inherit the life of the coming age?”
- NRSV: A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
- WKT: There was a ruler who asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?”
- NRSV: “who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
- WKT: “will receive far more in return in the present time – and in the age to come they will receive the life that belongs to that age.”
- NRSV: “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
- WKT: “so that everyone who trusts in him may share in the life of God’s new age. This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give God’s only, special son, so that everyone who trusts in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.”
- NRSV: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.”
- WKT: “Anyone who believes in the Son shares in the life of God’s new age; anyone who doesn’t believe in the Son won’t see life, but God’s wrath rests on him.”
- NRSV: “but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
- WKT: :But anyone who drinks the water I’ll give them won’t ever be thirsty again. No: the water I’ll give them will become a spring of water welling up to the life of God’s new age.”
- NRSV: “The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.”
- WKT: “The reaper earns his pay, and gathers crops for the life of God’s new age, so that sower and reaper can celebrate together.”
- NRSV: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
- WKT: “I’m telling you the solemn truth: anyone who hears my word, and believes the one who sent me, has the life of God’s coming age. Such a person does won’t come into judgment; they will have passed out of death into life.”
- NRSV: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”
- WKT: “You study the Bible,” Jesus continued, “because you suppose that you’ll discover the life of God’s coming age in it. In fact, it’s the Bible which gives evidence about me!”
- NRSV: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
- WKT: “You shouldn’t be working for perishable food, but for food that will last to the life of God’s coming age — the food which the son of man will give you, the person whom God the father has stamped with the seal of his approval.”
- NRSV: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
- WKT: “This is the will of my father, you see: that all who see the son and believe in him should have the life of God’s coming age; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
- NRSV: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.”
- WKT: “I’m telling you the solemn truth,” Jesus went on. “Anyone who believes in me has the life of God’s coming age.”
- NRSV: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. . . .”
- WKT: “Anyone who feasts upon my flesh and drinks my blood has the life of God’s coming age, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
- NRSV: Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
- WKT: Simon Peter spoke up. “Master,” he said, “who can we go to? You’re the one who’s got the words of the life of the coming age!”
- NRSV: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
- WKT: “I give them the life of the coming age. They will never, ever perish, and nobody can snatch them out of my hand.”
- NRSV: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
- WKT: “If you love your life, you’ll lose it. If you hate your life in this world, you’ll keep it for the life of the coming age.”
- NRSV: “And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.”
- WKT: “And I know that his command is the life of the coming age. What I speak, then, is what the Father has told me to speak.”
- NRSV: “since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
- WKT: “Do this in the same way as you did when you gave him authority over all flesh, so that he could give the life of God’s coming age to everyone you gave him. And by ‘the life of God’s coming age’ I mean this: that they should know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah, the one you sent.”
- NRSV: Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.”
- WKT: Paul and Barnabas grew very bold. “God’s word had to be spoken to you first,” they declared. “But since you are rejecting it, and judging yourselves to be unworthy of the life of God’s new age, look! We are turning to the Gentiles!”
- NRSV: When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.
- WKT: When the Gentiles heard this, they were thrilled, and they praised the word of the Lord. All those who were marked out for the life of God’s new age became believers.
- NRSV: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
- WKT: When people patiently do what is good, and so pursue the quest for glory and honor and immortality, God will give them the life of the age to come.
- NRSV: so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- so that, just as sin reigned in death, even so, through God’s faithful covenant justice, grace might reign to the life of the age to come, through Jesus the Messiah, our Lord.
- NRSV: But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- WKT: But now that you have been set free from sin and enslaved to God, you have fruit for holiness. Its destination is the life of the age to come. The wages paid by sin, you see, are death; but God’s free gift is the life of the age to come, in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord.
- NRSV: If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
- Yes: if you sow in the field of your flesh you will harvest decay from your flesh, but if you sow in the field of the spirit you will harvest eternal life from the spirit.
1 Timothy 1:16
- NRSV: But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
- WKT: But this was why I received mercy: so that in me, precisely as the worst, King Jesus could demonstrate the full scale of his patience, and make me a pattern for those who were going to believe in him and so attain the life of the age to come.
1 Timothy 6:12
- NRSV: Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
- WKT: Fight the noble fight of the faith, get a firm grasp on the life of the coming age, the life you were called to when you made the noble public profession before many witnesses.
- NRSV: in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began —
- WKT: in the hope of the life of the coming age. God, who never lies, promised this before the ages began. . . .
- NRSV: so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
- WKT: so that we might be justified by his grace and be made his heirs, in accordance with the hope of the life of the age to come.
1 John 1:2
- NRSV: this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us —
- WKT: That life was displayed, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and we announce to you the life of God’s coming age, which was with the father and was displayed to us.
1 John 2:25
- NRSV: And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.
- WKT: And this is the promise which he himself promised us: the life of the age to come.
1 John 3:15
- NRSV: All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.
- WKT: Everyone who hates their brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has the life of the coming age abiding in them.
1 John 5:11
- NRSV: And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
- WKT: This is the witness: God has given us the life of the age to come, and this life is in his son.
1 John 5:13
- NRSV: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
- WKT: I am writing these things to you so that you may know that you, who believe in the name of the son of God, do indeed have the life of the age to come.
1 John 5:20
- NRSV: And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
- WKT: We know that the son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we should know the truth. And we are in the truth, in his son Jesus the Messiah. This is the true God; this is the life of the age to come.
- NRSV: keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.
- WKT: Keep yourselves in the love of God, as you wait for our Lord Jesus the Messiah to show you the mercy which leads to the life of the age to come.
Word Study on aiōn, “age”
In order to catch the full import of translating the adjective aiōnios, “eternal,” in terms of its related noun, it would be helpful to see the instances aiōn in the New Testament, revealing the Jewish thinking (as N.T. Wright argues above) about two aions or ages.
Number of Hits: 122
1 Corinthians: 8
2 Corinthians: 3
1 Timothy: 4
2 Timothy: 3
1 Peter: 4
2 Peter: 1
1 John: 1
2 John: 1
Partial List of Verses
Note: a common use of aiōn is to use the plural to indicate a long period of time — “for ages,” would be a rendering in English. But many of the English translations render this use of aiōn as “forever.” In the Book of Revelation there are 13 instances of doubling the plural (so 26 ‘hits’), “for ages and ages,” but is most often translated as “forever and ever.” I do not include the instances as “forever” in the following list.
Matthew 12:32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
Matthew 13:39-40 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.
Matthew 24:3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Matthew 28:20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Mark 10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life.
Luke 16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
Luke 18:30 who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Luke 20:34-35 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.
Acts 3:21 who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.
Acts 15:18 known from long ago.’
1 Corinthians 1:20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
1 Corinthians 2:6-8 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
1 Corinthians 3:18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.
1 Corinthians 10:11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.
Galatians 1:4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,
Ephesians 1:21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
Ephesians 2:7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 3:9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;
Colossians 1:26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.
1 Timothy 6:17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
Titus 2:12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly,
Hebrews 6:5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,
Hebrews 9:26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.