John 17:3 Does Not Change The Meaning of “Eternal Life”

It should be apparent why evangelical conditionalists appeal to passages that use the term “eternal life.” The Bible only attributes the fate of eternal life (or life in general) to the redeemed, in contrast to death for the unsaved (e.g. Romans 6:23). At face value, the phrase “eternal life” would mean life that lasts for eternity. If only the saved inherit life that lasts for eternity, then the wicked do not live forever. And therefore, the wicked cannot be tormented forever.

For that reason, traditionalism requires that the life and death language in the Bible be metaphorical whenever it is applied to final judgment.

John 17:3 And “Eternal Life”

John 17:3 is one passage that is frequently appealed to in order to further this goal:

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. 1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

It is asserted that this passage defines the term “eternal life” as not living forever, but rather, as knowing God. 2 Of course, as is the case any time you cite the Bible in English, it is just a translation. We’re actually talking about the Greek term aiónios zóé (and grammar-based variations thereof). For the sake of ease, I will generally speak of the term “eternal life” to refer to the phrase when used in the New Testament. It is not talking about the duration of life, but the quality of it.

After all, Jesus said that eternal life is knowing God, right? That must mean that the term “eternal life” actually and literally means having a relationship with God – or so the reasoning goes.

Is Jesus Even Defining “Eternal Life” In the First Place?

Here’s a key weakness in this line of reasoning: Language really isn’t that precise or literal.

It makes perfect sense to interpret what Jesus says in John 17:3 as a figure of speech to mean that knowing God is what causes eternal life. One notable traditionalist who held this view was John Calvin, who described this position as follows:

He now describes the manner of bestowing life, namely, when he enlightens the elect in the true knowledge of God; for he does not now speak of the enjoyment of life which we hope for, but only of the manner in which men obtain life.” 3 John Calvin, Commentary on John: Volume 2, English Edition (CCEL, n.d.), 139, reproduced at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom35.html (accessed May 27, 2020).

Reformed theologian A.W. Pink comes to a similar conclusion:

Therefore “this is eternal life—that they might know thee” etc, obviously signifies, This is the way to, the means of eternal life, namely, by the knowledge of God imparted by Jesus Christ. 4A.W. Pink, “John 17,” A.W. Pinks Commentary on John and Hebrews, reproduced at studylight.org, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/awp/john-17.html#copyright (accessed June 18, 2020).

But why would somebody interpret the passage this way?

Different Traditionalist Approaches – And Their Weaknesses

The view held by many traditionalists that is being addressed here is the view that in John 17:3, “eternal life” actually means knowing God and not, as it would appear in English, living for eternity. That conclusion is the common element.

However, as is often the case, there can be multiple ways to come to this conclusion. In this case, the specifics of how one reaches this conclusion are not always clear, because many traditionalists do not go into depth beyond just pointing out that the passage says (paraphrased) “eternal life is knowing God.”

From what I can gather, there seems to be two main approaches.

The first is that the whole term, “eternal life,” is a term of art that simply is defined here as knowing God. Some lay this out explicitly. 5e.g. Tim Barnett and Greg Koukl, “Hell Interrupted-Part 2,” Stand to Reason [blog], October 31. 2017, https://www.str.org/w/hell-interrupted-part-2 (accessed June 10, 2020). This would also appear to be the point being made by a many who do not lay it out explicitly, although that is an inference and not a dogmatic assertion on my part.

The main weakness of this first view is that it requires one to take “eternal life” non-literally. The words, taken literally, would mean life that lasts for eternity. 6 For more on the language of life and death in the Bible, and how those and related terms mean what we would normally think they mean, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Life and Death in the Bible” Part 1Part 2, and Part 3. This approach applies a whole new meaning to the term.

That is not an insurmountable challenge, but it does refute the claim that we should interpret John 17:3 this way because it is literal. It is not literal, because in order to keep the literal meaning of “is” (i.e. establishing identity), you have to avoid the literal meaning of “eternal life”!

The second option is to assert that aiónios (translated as “eternal”) is meant more qualitatively. This interpretation of aiónios is not unheard of. It can mean something along the lines of divine, something emanating from God. For our purposes, we’ll refer to this interpretation of aiónios zóé as divine lifeSo rather than being a metaphor per se, Jesus is saying that aiónios/divine life is a type of life where you have a relationship with God, in contrast to lesser forms of life.

I don’t know how many traditionalists actually go this route. Some universalists do, but I do not know about traditionalists. 7 e.g. Melchizidek, “What Is Eternal Life?” The Evangelical Universalist Forum [Message Board Discussion], posted October, 2011,  https://forum.evangelicaluniversalist.com/t/what-is-eternal-life/2297 (accessed June 10, 2020). Insofar as any traditionalists do interpret the passage this way, this second approach nicely fits the verse on its own and allows for a more literal, straightforward interpretation of it. However, this interpretation also has its own problems.

First, it puts any traditionalist who makes this claim in the unenviable position of having to say the translators are almost all wrong by translating aiónios as “eternal” in this passage. That challenge is not insurmountable, but traditionalists are quick to resist annihilationists and universalists when they make similar claims about aiónios.

Along those lines, if aiónios zóé means divine life, rather than literal everlasting life, then it opens up the possibility that numerous other uses of aiónios in the New Testament, when applied to the unsaved, are not speaking of eternity at all. While evangelical conditionalism is consistent with the standard translation of ‘eternal” or “everlasting,” traditionalists tend to be very emphatic that any relevant damnation passages are referring explicitly to the fate being everlasting. More on this, when applied to Matthew 25:46, will be discussed below.

Lastly, such an approach still assumes a normal meaning of the word “life,” meaning conscious existence (in that any entity that is conscious is also alive). The qualifier of aiónios would be what makes “eternal life” mean a special kind of life. The intimate tie between consciousness and life is untouched. Therefore, this interpretation of John 17:3 might take the force out of conditionalist appeals to the phrase “eternal life,” but it would be no challenge to conditionalist appeals to passages that speak of the saved receiving life without qualifications (e.g. Matthew 7:14, Mark 9:45, John 5:29). This interpretation defeats the whole purpose that this verse is used for, which is showing that references to life should be taken metaphorically.

My point with this second approach isn’t to build a strawman, but to try to figure out a reasonable way that some traditionalists might go about arguing that John 17:3 defines “eternal life” because many just do not explain how they get there.

All that is to say that neither interpretation that has Jesus defining aiónios zóé as knowing God is without problems. Even if the issues are not insurmountable, one cannot say that either interpretation is clear and without problems so that we therefore have no reason to consider alternatives.

With that said, what other reason is there to do like Calvin and Pink (and myself) and interpret the word “is” non-literally as part of a figure of speech? 8 I have not read a lot of Calvin or Pink, and would not be shocked if they advocated a more figurative definition of “eternal life” in other contexts. But regardless of what they think “eternal life” ultimately means, they are in agreement with many conditionalists that Jesus is not giving a special, technical definition for “eternal life” in John 17:3.

Affirmative Reasons For An Alternate Interpretation: Happiness Is Literally A Cat?

Even in English, it is common to see people say variations of “X is Y” figuratively, in order to demonstrate a close relationship between the two entities. Very often, it is a causal relationship, where one thing causes the other.

If every time someone said “X is Y” it meant that X literally is the same as Y, then a lot of things that people say would not make sense. And this is true today, in modern, western civilization where language tends to be much more precise and less full of figures of speech than in the ancient near east.

Consider the meme above, which says “happiness is waking up in the morning with a cat on your head.” Is the meme actually telling us that the definition of happiness is waking up with a cat on your head?

It would be, if we interpreted it the same way that many traditionalists interpret John 17:3.

But no one actually believes that the meme is (re-)defining happiness. We all understand that happiness is an emotional state, an abstract concept. We all understand that this is a metaphor, not a literal statement that the word “happiness” actually means waking up with a cat on your head. Similarly, if you type in “happiness is…” into a search engine, you’ll get lots of results. There’s even a famous song, covered by artists like Judy Garland and Etta James, called “Happiness is A Thing Called Joe.”9 Obviously I approve lol.

Whether we’re talking about Joe, a cat, a warm gun, or whatever else, the point is that these things, which are equated with happiness, cause happiness. They aren’t literally happiness, and we all know this. It’s a figure of speech. It is rhetorical. It just seeks to show the close relationship – in this case, a causal relationship – between two entities.

Not that this way of speaking is unique to the concept of happiness or to secular circles. Consider this line from the song “Salvation is Here” by Hillsong United:

Salvation is here,

Salvation is here and He lives in me,

Salvation is here,

Salvation that died just to set me free…10 Joel Houston (lyrics), Salvation is Here,” Hillsong United, 2010, retrieved from worshiptogether.com, http://www.worshiptogether.com/songs/salvation-is-here/ (accessed October 27, 2018).

Salvation is an abstract concept. How can it be said that salvation is a “he” or that it lives anywhere? How can it die? I’m going to go out on a limb here (by which I mean the hearty branch of a massive redwood tree) and say that the “he” is Jesus. But is Jesus an abstract concept like salvation? Certainly not!

I think we all see what is going on here. Although it does not say “Jesus is Salvation,” the rhetorical point is the same. The song is about the abstract concept of salvation, but the bridge speaks of Jesus, the only source of salvation, as though he and salvation are one in the same.

With this in mind, it makes all that much more sense for Jesus to speak of eternal life and a relationship with God this way in John 17:3. Just like Jesus is the source of salvation, so God – and  knowing him – is the source of eternal life and the only way to obtain it.

But What About In The Bible?

This pattern of associating two closely related things by saying they are equivalent, that “X is Y,” is not unique to modern English. I pointed to its common use in English to set the stage and normalize the idea (because it is a normal thing). But more importantly, we see this in scripture. In fact, we see it several times right here in the Gospel of John itself:

  • “…the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63a).
  • “I [Jesus] am the resurrection and the life…” (John 11:25b).
  • “I know that His [the Father’s] commandment is eternal life…” (John 12:50a)
  • “I [Jesus] am the way, the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6b).

Another noteworthy example, one that comes up frequently in discussions of hell, comes out of an epistle by the same John: “God is love” (repeated twice, in 1 John 4:8 and 4:16). 11 Yes I know that not everyone agrees that the same John who wrote the Gospel of John also wrote the epistles of John. But it’s a pretty mainstream position within conservative branches of Christendom.

In Greek, there’s no material difference between what is going on above and in John 17:3. All instances of “is”/”am” use the Greek copula εἰμι (eimi) which gets translated as “is” (or “am,” when spoken in first person) 12 Christopher Date, “The Hermeneutics of Conditionalism: A Defense of the Interpretive Method of
Edward Fudge,” Evangelical Quarterly, 89 no.1 (2018): 78, reproduced at academia.edu, n.d., https://www.academia.edu/36022773/The_Hermeneutics_of_Conditionalism_A_Defense_of_the_Interpretive_Method_of_Edward_Fudge (accessed Jun 6, 2020).
 This is what we would expect, since they are generally all translated the same in English translations. 13 The one exception is in The New Living Translation – which only helps the annihilationist argument because it renders John 17:3 to reflect what I and many other conditionalists argue is the actual intended meaning: “And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.”

Jesus’s words are not literally life. That’s not how words or life works. Jesus’s words lead to life, and do so in many ways. As traditionalist Leon Morris notes, regarding John 6:63: “‘Jesus’s words are creative utterances. They not only tell of life; they bring life.” 14 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, revised edition (Eerdmans, 1995), 341.

Likewise, Jesus himself is not literally life (cf. John 11:25 and 14:6). We’re so accustomed to such language that it almost sounds blasphemous to say that, but it’s true. Jesus is the source of life. He is the source of resurrection. He is why we have that hope and the only way we can have it. And therefore, he can speak of himself as being those things themselves rhetorically. He’s earned it. 15 One could also argue that Jesus is not literally “the truth” in John 14:6. It would depend on what Jesus meant by “truth”, whether he meant the literal concept of truth, or truth as shorthand for “the true Messiah” or something like that.

God’s command is not literally eternal life. God’s command causes eternal life. For this reason, some of the less literal translations of John 12:50 even translate it as such. For example, the New International Version renders the passage “I know that his command leads to eternal life” (emphasis mine). 16 See also the New Living Translation, as mentioned previously.

And regarding 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16, God is not literally love. God is not an abstract concept, like love, but an eternal, living being. In this case, the relationship is not primarily causal (although God does cause his followers to love one another), but simply there to show the close relationship between God and the idea of love. God is not literally love, but love is such an important aspect of God’s character that John could rhetorically equate the two.

In all of these cases, two things that are not literally identical are spoken of as being identical. Four of these cases rhetorically equate life and its source. In other words: “X is life” means X causes life. And for good measure, one of those even does it with the supposedly distinct term of art, “eternal life.”

Context Matters More Than The Number of Verses

Now, one may argue that this construct is relatively rare in the Bible. After all, most of the time when someone uses the word “is,” they mean it in its literal sense of identity. So why should we think that what is in view here is something like John 12:50 or a small number of similar verses and not a more normative, literal use?

The reason is the same as the reason why we interpret John 12:50 and similar passages as figures of speech: context. Eternal life is literally not the same thing as knowing God. It just isn’t. And even the second form of this argument, that aiónios meant divine and not eternal in duration, doesn’t change the fact that this is phrase parallels a common figure of speech that makes perfect sense in the verse alone and especially so in the context of the Gospel of John. Just as God’s commands lead to eternal life (John 12:50), just as Jesus himself is the source of life and resurrection (John 11:25), so knowing God also leads to eternal life (John 17:3).

Nothing Here Requires Something Unusual Or Obscure In Greek

I must emphasize that I am not suggesting that the translations are wrong or that the Greek eimi in John 17:3 shouldn’t have been translated as “is.” I am not saying anything that is not apparent from reading the English translations.

Some traditionalists I have interacted with have tried to argue that the wording suggests identification, but I am already granting that. I fully grant that eimi should be translated as “is.” And I am well-aware of what the word “is” means.

The whole point of all the English examples above is to point out that this is a figure of speech. Literally, “X is Y” would mean X and Y are identical, but the actual point of saying “X is Y” is to emphasize their relatedness (often in the context of one causing the other).

And this figure of speech pops up several times in John, just as it does for us in our daily lives now.

A Word About Matthew 25:46

There is a notable inconsistency when it comes to the common traditionalist interpretation of the phrase “eternal life” in John 17:3 and Matthew 25:46.

John 17:3 – “Eternal Life” Is About Quality of Life, Not Everlasting Duration

In John 17:3, the phrase “eternal life” does not literally mean living forever. Either the whole phrase “eternal life” is a term of art for knowing God, or aiónios is meant qualitatively to mean divine, rather than everlasting. Either way, aiónios zóé is being used to mean something other than life with an eternal duration.

This paradigm, this definition of the phrase “eternal life” isn’t restricted just to John 17:3. John 17:3 is just the passage that is said to give this definition in the Bible. For example, according to an article from Reasons For hope *Jesus: “‘Eternal life’ is a quality of life, and this quality is found in our living in a intimate, knowing relationship with God.” 17 “Eternal Life, A Quality of life,” Reasons For Hope *Jesus [blog] October 10, 2017, https://reasonsforhopejesus.com/eternal-life-quality-life/ (accessed May 31, 2020).

However, this goes against the entire crux of the traditionalist argument from Matthew 25:46.

Matthew 25:46 – Aiónios in “Eternal Life” Must Refer to Everlasting Duration

Traditionalists tend to put great emphasis on the argument that the Greek word aiónios, translated as “eternal” both times it is used in Matthew 25:46, is in fact speaking of an eternal duration. It speaks of an eternal duration in both “eternal punishment” and “eternal life.”

Although there is no need for conditionalists to disagree with this, some do. Furthermore, usually all annihilationists are assumed to disagree even when they don’t, and for that reason, you’ll rarely see a defense of eternal torment that doesn’t appeal to Matthew 25:46 this way.

And while the key term for eternal torment in Matthew 25:46 is “eternal punishment,” the reason traditionalists give as to why aiónios must (and I emphasize must) refer to an eternal duration is because of the passage’s use of “eternal life.” It is asserted that aiónios must mean an eternal duration in the phrase “eternal life” because otherwise, the life of the saved in God’s kingdom is not eternal in duration. And because aiónios in “eternal life” must mean an eternal duration, it must also mean an eternal duration in “eternal punishment” since it is the same word in both. 18 There’s no actual rule in language that requires aiónios to mean the same thing in “eternal life” and “eternal punishment,” but those who say that it does mean the same thing are in a good position since it is used twice in the same sentence.

Again, this argument doesn’t actually challenge annihilationism, but that is an aside. 19 For more on this, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment – Part 1.

The key point here is that if aiónios zóé (translated “eternal life”) doesn’t actually mean eternal/everlasting life, but instead is referring to something else, it is argued that this would deny the core Christian doctrine of everlasting life for the saved.

The Inconsistency

You may already be seeing the inconsistency here. If the phrase “eternal life” can be used in John 17:3 in a qualitative sense without destroying core Christian doctrine, why can’t the same be true in Matthew 25:46?

The whole argument that the phrase “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46 must be speaking of eternal duration is dependent on the parallel with the phrase “eternal life” (which must be speaking of eternal duration to avoid heresy). But if John 17:3 is using “eternal life” without specifically meaning life with an eternal duration, this whole argument falls apart.

And it should fall apart. I will give this to traditionalists who think John 17:3 is using the term “eternal life” qualitatively: interpreting the phrase this way, such as meaning divine life, does not challenge the Christian doctrine of everlasting life for the unsaved.

It doesn’t challenge it if used this way in John 17:3. It doesn’t challenge it if used this way in Matthew 25:46. It doesn’t challenge it even if aiónios zóé always means divine life instead of everlasting life. The belief that everyone (in Christ) lives forever doesn’t rise or fall with the meaning of aiónios zóé. 20 We know from various other passages that the saved will live forever (e.g. Luke 20:36, John 11:25-26, 1 Corinthians 15, Revelation 21:4).

When traditionalists appeal to Matthew 25:46, the implication is that if aiónios zóé ever means something besides eternal duration in any passage at all, then that passage would therefore teach that life is not eternal. And that is just poor reasoning. The fact that a given passages doesn’t itself say that life is everlasting is not the same as saying that life is not everlasting. 21 For more on this, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment – Part 2.

The fact that many traditionalists hold this qualitative understanding of “eternal life” in John 17:3 simply demonstrates this fact.

Conclusion

As is so often the case with traditionalism, something only seems clear cut and straightforward because the doctrine of eternal torment is such a dominant tradition and so we are used to it. When you step back and question it, everything changes.

At the very least, it’s not a given that Jesus is re-defining anything. At the end of the day, so much of this seems to be little more than a false narrative, built upon tradition, that tells us that life and death language just obviously is metaphorical and it would be downright outrageous to suggest that a straightforward, face value reading of such language actually could tell us what hell entails.  Based on the points made above, this John 17:3 certainly doesn’t give much help to that narrative.

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1. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2. Of course, as is the case any time you cite the Bible in English, it is just a translation. We’re actually talking about the Greek term aiónios zóé (and grammar-based variations thereof). For the sake of ease, I will generally speak of the term “eternal life” to refer to the phrase when used in the New Testament.
3. John Calvin, Commentary on John: Volume 2, English Edition (CCEL, n.d.), 139, reproduced at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom35.html (accessed May 27, 2020).
4. A.W. Pink, “John 17,” A.W. Pinks Commentary on John and Hebrews, reproduced at studylight.org, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/awp/john-17.html#copyright (accessed June 18, 2020).
5. e.g. Tim Barnett and Greg Koukl, “Hell Interrupted-Part 2,” Stand to Reason [blog], October 31. 2017, https://www.str.org/w/hell-interrupted-part-2 (accessed June 10, 2020).
6. For more on the language of life and death in the Bible, and how those and related terms mean what we would normally think they mean, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Life and Death in the Bible” Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.
7. e.g. Melchizidek, “What Is Eternal Life?” The Evangelical Universalist Forum [Message Board Discussion], posted October, 2011,  https://forum.evangelicaluniversalist.com/t/what-is-eternal-life/2297 (accessed June 10, 2020).
8. I have not read a lot of Calvin or Pink, and would not be shocked if they advocated a more figurative definition of “eternal life” in other contexts. But regardless of what they think “eternal life” ultimately means, they are in agreement with many conditionalists that Jesus is not giving a special, technical definition for “eternal life” in John 17:3.
9. Obviously I approve lol.
10. Joel Houston (lyrics), Salvation is Here,” Hillsong United, 2010, retrieved from worshiptogether.com, http://www.worshiptogether.com/songs/salvation-is-here/ (accessed October 27, 2018).
11. Yes I know that not everyone agrees that the same John who wrote the Gospel of John also wrote the epistles of John. But it’s a pretty mainstream position within conservative branches of Christendom.
12. Christopher Date, “The Hermeneutics of Conditionalism: A Defense of the Interpretive Method of
Edward Fudge,” Evangelical Quarterly, 89 no.1 (2018): 78, reproduced at academia.edu, n.d., https://www.academia.edu/36022773/The_Hermeneutics_of_Conditionalism_A_Defense_of_the_Interpretive_Method_of_Edward_Fudge (accessed Jun 6, 2020).
13. The one exception is in The New Living Translation – which only helps the annihilationist argument because it renders John 17:3 to reflect what I and many other conditionalists argue is the actual intended meaning: “And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.”
14. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, revised edition (Eerdmans, 1995), 341.
15. One could also argue that Jesus is not literally “the truth” in John 14:6. It would depend on what Jesus meant by “truth”, whether he meant the literal concept of truth, or truth as shorthand for “the true Messiah” or something like that.
16. See also the New Living Translation, as mentioned previously.
17. “Eternal Life, A Quality of life,” Reasons For Hope *Jesus [blog] October 10, 2017, https://reasonsforhopejesus.com/eternal-life-quality-life/ (accessed May 31, 2020).
18. There’s no actual rule in language that requires aiónios to mean the same thing in “eternal life” and “eternal punishment,” but those who say that it does mean the same thing are in a good position since it is used twice in the same sentence.
19. For more on this, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment – Part 1.
20. We know from various other passages that the saved will live forever (e.g. Luke 20:36, John 11:25-26, 1 Corinthians 15, Revelation 21:4).
21. For more on this, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment – Part 2.
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