As many readers will likely be familiar with, one of the main questions in the debate over the nature and duration of hell is what is meant by the term “life” in the Bible when it speaks of the fate of the saved. 1 For more on the broader debate about the language of life and death as applied to final judgment, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Life and Death in the Bible” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Many conditionalists, of course, are happy to take such language at face value. But face value is not always correct, whether in regards to the Bible or in life, and so traditionalists often argue that there are good reasons to interpret such language differently. 2Regarding the matter of reading scripture at face value, see “Traditionalism and Annihilationism in Light of the Face Value Meaning of Scripture”.
One common traditionalist claim, in this regard, is that when the Bible speaks of life for the saved, especially when it uses the term “eternal life” (Greek aiónios zóé), it is speaking specifically of a special quality of life. They might concede that the traditional view does mean that everyone literally lives forever, but despite this, only the saved get the special life that the Bible speaks of. 3 For more on traditionalists openly stating that the unsaved live forever (and also are not destroyed, not consumed, have “eternal life,” etc.), see Episode 58 of the Rethinking Hell podcast, featuring Ronnie Demler. Therefore, in this view, eternal torment does not contradict the Bible because the Bible does not deny that the unsaved receive life in the most literal sense; it only denies that they receive the special quality of life that you have by knowing Jesus.
There are a number of arguments given in defense of this approach to the term “life” in the Bible, but the one that will be the focus here is the following theological claim:
Christianity teaches that the world to come, the eternal state of being for the saved, is not merely conscious existence. It is conscious existence in a state of joy, peace, love, and the abiding presence of God. Therefore, terms like “life” and “eternal life,” when applied to the saved, cannot just refer to brute conscious existence (in a physical body, for good measure) but must refer to a specific quality of life.
Our Eternal Hope Is Not Dependent on the Meaning of “Life” in the Bible
Of all the arguments that the Bible’s use of terms like “life” is consistent with the traditional view of hell, this is one of the easiest to refute. It may be the easiest. Such objections to taking “life” at face value are nothing but easily refuted hysterics that are borne out of fallacious reasoning.
Positive Assertions Are Wrongly Believed To Deny Other Truths
This whole line of argumentation is false and logically unsound. You listen to it, and it is as though traditionalists who make this kind of argument think that unless the word “life” has a special meaning, everyone will just sit in a gray cloud of practical nothingness for all eternity.
But that is not how it works. That is not how the meaning of words works. Yes, the Bible’s life-related passages are speaking specifically about the fact that all who end up in Christ live forever. But even if the term “eternal life” only means that you live forever, that does not mean that the only thing that happens in the world to come is that you live for eternity.
That would be an erroneous way to think. It is logically fallacious. If I say “it is raining outside,” that doesn’t mean that it is only raining outside, as though my statement excludes the possibility of wind or lightning or, for that matter, other non-weather events (like people walking outside with umbrellas).
Saying that the saved will live forever, which is what I believe is meant with terms like “eternal life,” does not deny any other qualitative aspects of the kingdom of God that we will one day enjoy.
The Bible Teaches Things About The World To Come Apart From the Term “Life”
In fact, not only does the Bible not deny that the life to come will be incredible and full of joy and love and only good things, but the Bible actually affirms it. It just doesn’t do so by changing the meaning of the word “life.”
Jesus and the biblical authors at large teach us much more about our eternal hope than just the fact that the saved are to be given what is called (in English) “eternal life.” The fact that we will live forever and never die again, i.e. have eternal life, is only part of what the Bible teaches. There are images and descriptions of there being no more suffering in Revelation 21-22 (cf. Revelation 7:14-17). Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God being worth more than all you own in Matthew 13:44-45. We will shine like the sun in our Father’s kingdom (Verse 43). Our bodies will not only be immortal but will also be raised in honor and power (1 Corinthians 15). We will all be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
These further teachings expand upon the promise that we will live forever in order to tell us what this future life will be like.
Further Joys About The Life to Come Are Implied
Beyond that point, while the word “life” may just be referring to continuing conscious existence after the resurrection, that does not mean that there is no additional significance when the scripture talks about the eternal life that Jesus brings. Since Jesus surely taught his disciples various things about the world to come, it follows that when he would mention the idea of eternal life to them, implied in the use of the phrase and concept would be more than just the meaning of the word “life.”
After all, if the world to come is as incredible as the Bible says, and you live forever, then it follows that for ever and ever, you will experience a state of existence as incredible as the Bible says. So mentioning the promise of living forever will bring to mind other things that we also know to be true and wonderful about the eternal state.
It’s like if you leave work and say you are “going home.” In and of itself, the term “going home” really just means that you are leaving your current location and going to your primary residence. That’s what the words and the term itself specifically mean. It says very little about the quality of experience.
However, that does not mean that you do not have a wife or husband whom you love deeply waiting for you there. That does not mean that you don’t have your children or your pet golden retriever to run to you when you open the door. That does not mean that there won’t be hugs and kisses and a hot, satisfying dinner and your favorite armchair waiting for you when you get home.
But none of that changes the definition of the phrase “going home.” The fact that you are going home in order to kiss your spouse and hug your kids and pet your dog doesn’t mean that the definition of the phrase “going home” now includes all of that. And it does not mean that someone who leaves work and goes to their residence without those things is not also “going home.”
It does not mean that anymore than you can say that since we know our future life will include wonderful experiences, therefore someone who is to have conscious existence in hell and have bad experiences does not also have life.
Put another way, the great experiences with your family that you have at home do not define “going home.” Rather, they are experiences you will have because you went home. Likewise, the wonderful experiences that we will have in the age to come do not define “life” or “eternal life”; rather, we will have them because we will have life.
This idea that because the life to come is really wonderful, therefore we shouldn’t take “life” literally is simply baseless. Beyond that, it forces core Christian doctrine to be based on reading figurative meanings into a single word, rather than on the actual elaborations and teachings in the Bible. It is okay to just let life just be life. God has revealed to us more than enough about what the life to come will be like.
|￪1||For more on the broader debate about the language of life and death as applied to final judgment, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Life and Death in the Bible” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.|
|￪2||Regarding the matter of reading scripture at face value, see “Traditionalism and Annihilationism in Light of the Face Value Meaning of Scripture”.|
|￪3||For more on traditionalists openly stating that the unsaved live forever (and also are not destroyed, not consumed, have “eternal life,” etc.), see Episode 58 of the Rethinking Hell podcast, featuring Ronnie Demler.|