When we think of eternal life, we usually think of life after death in heaven. While that is a true definition, we often forget another aspect of eternal life - that eternal life starts now in the present, not just after we die.1 Interestingly, in the Jewish culture of around Jesus' time, they discussed what it meant to live in eternity while here in this world. Often when Jesus uses the term "eternal life", he also seems to be referring to the present world, and if we read his words thinking about only heaven, we may miss his point. Not only does looking at this Jewish idea clarify our reading, but it will give us wisdom about to live in the world today.
In the Talmud, from the first few hundred years after Christ, there are several references to the rabbinic concept of Hayei Olam (Hi-YAY Oh-LAHM) - meaning eternal life.2 Often it was contrasted with Hayei Sha'ah (Hi-YAY Sha-AH) - which means fleeting life, or earthly life. Usually they didn't speak of one as before death and the other after death. Rather, hayei olam, was "lasting life", and it referred to living a life focused on matters of eternal importance - living now as if you were living for eternity. In contrast, hayei sha'ah was to living a life that is only concerned about the short term material needs of today - working, making money, eating, etc.
The rabbis considered the study of Scripture one of the most important ways you could partake in eternity while on earth. A story is told about a rabbi who spent years in study of the Scriptures, and then walked past farmers tilling their land. He remarked, "they have abandoned lasting life (hayei olam) and involve themselves instead with fleeting life (hayei sha'ah)." 3
The rabbis had a humorous way of describing a person who only lives for today - they said that they had "the soul of a cow", meaning that just as a cow stands all day long slowly munching grass, only thinking about where the next mouthful will come from, when people only focus on daily cares and material things, they live life no more towards eternity than an animal does.
Jesus' Words About Hayei Olam
Jesus often mentions "eternal life" in the gospel of John, and often he seems to be referring to hayei olam - having a life in eternity here and now. For instance:
Using our more typical definition of life after death, this line doesn't quite make sense. We may try to read it as, "We will have eternal life after we die if we know God and Jesus Christ." But if we hear its intent to focus on the present life, we understand that Jesus is saying that knowing God intimately and living with Jesus Christ as Lord, here and now, is living as if you were already in eternity. This makes a lot of sense - what thing in our lives has more eternal significance than that?
Jesus makes one comment about eternal life that makes little sense without a knowledge of his Jewish context. As mentioned above, the rabbis considered the study of the Scriptures truly living out one's "eternal life" - rising to a higher reality beyond everyday life by contemplating God's eternal truths. Jesus makes a comment that seems to critique that idea:
Jesus is speaking to some of his fellow Jews who did not see that the Scriptures ultimately pointed toward him. Eternal life is not had even in studying the Scriptures, but in finding in them that Jesus is our Lord, and we can know and serve him.
Paul's Words About Life
It appears that Paul also spoke about hayei olam. He points out that just as Christ died and rose again into eternal life, if we partake in Christ's death through baptism, we now have this eternal life as well. We have been brought from death into life, and this eternal life is very much in the present world:
To Paul, if we now are living in our "eternal life" we should not let sin reign over us, but live the way God designed us to live. Just as Jesus now has eternal life, we have it too, here and now, and extending after we die. Paul exhorts us to "pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called." 1 Tim 6:11-12. We need to take hold of our eternal lives and live them well now, not just wait for them in the future.
How Do We Live Eternal Life Now?
This question was essentially what the rich young ruler said to Jesus - how can I acquire eternal life? (Luke 18:18-22) Our traditional reading assumes he is asking about eternal life after he dies. While we can't be sure, it is interesting to read that story with the idea of hayei olam in mind. The man has read and obeyed the Scriptures, but Jesus sees that his wealth is what keeps him bound to hayei sha'ah - fleeting life - an empty life focused only on material gain. Jesus says that if he wants true life, he should give away the wealth that binds him, and follow after him as one of his disciples. Then he would have hayei olam as in John 17:3 - knowing Christ and the Father intimately, in this life and for eternity. The ruler declines the offer, to Jesus' sorrow. We should look at ourselves in the rich man too - are we so distracted by our material wealth that it keeps us living for what will not matter in eternity?
Jesus made another statement about wealth and eternity that can also give us direction for today. He says, "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (Luke 16:9) We are not obligated to give all our money away, but our focus should be to use it to invest in eternal things - sharing the gospel, deepening our relationships, and helping others in need. We have Jesus' blessing to spend our money extravagantly on things that will show God's love. We should also look at how we spend our time - on ourselves; or else on God and others. Do we fill our extra time with mindless entertainment, empty TV shows or godless living? Or do the things we do invest in people who will live forever, like nurturing friendships, showing hospitality, raising children, and loving others? As Paul says,
The Challenge of "Here and Now" Eternal Life
When we only think of eternal life as "going to heaven when you die", and not a new life in this world, we actually can distort the gospel's message. Sometimes the gospel is presented starting with the question, "Do you know what would happen if you died tonight?" And then the next statement is, "If you receive Christ, you can know where your eternity will be spent." If nothing else is added to this, the gospel becomes a hollow kind of "fire insurance" that has nothing to do with our lives, but is just concerned with what will happen after we die. It's an easy thing to offer people, because their lives don't need to change, and it is easier on us too because we can go on as shallow people of hayei sha'ah - living only for today.
In contrast, Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10) Following Christ is what gives our lives here eternal meaning and purpose. How can we forget to share that with people? The world is full of people who see no meaning in life here on earth - perhaps we would have a stronger witness if we had obviously different lives, and we invited others to join us in investing our lives in eternity with Christ.