It is no secret that traditionalists and conditionalists often disagree on what to make of the language of life and death in the Bible when it is applied to eternal destinies. Romans 6:23 paints this contrast well:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. 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.
The saved receive life, and the unsaved receive death. Because of this contrast, it is important to know what the Bible means by “life” and “death.”
Of course, at face value this would sound like annihilationism. It is not as though we are starting from a clean slate. In normal parlance, if you said someone was going to live forever and someone else was going to die, you would not think that the one who was going to die was going to have conscious existence forever.
As a result, traditionalism requires that “life” and “death” (or properly, their Greek equivalents in the inspired New Testament text), have metaphorical meanings when applied to the unsaved.
And one argument that pops up from time to time is that the word translated as “life,” when referring to the saved, has a special (so-called spiritual) meaning that doesn’t mean brute physical life, but instead is referring narrowly and specifically to a special quality of life.
The Greek Word Zóé: What Kind of “Life” Is In View?
The Greek word in question is zóé. If you were wondering why so many girls from Christian families have been named Zoe or some variation lately, that’s why. Baby names aside, the contrast is made between zóé and other words translated as “life” in the New Testament.
The contrast is usually made between zóé and the Greek word bios. The claim is made that bios means biological life, and zóé means spiritual life (i.e. a specific quality of biological life). The other term that is often translated as “life,” psuche, is largely not part of this particular discussion (although the fact that it is also translated as “soul” in places does make the word very important to other hell discussions).
According to this view, because the Bible specifically uses zóé to speak of the fate of the saved, the Bible’s life/death contrast is therefore no longer evidence in favor of evangelical conditionalism. This is because, according to this view, the Bible is not saying that after the resurrection, only the saved will have eternal conscious existence. It is just saying that only the saved have a unique, joyous form of life (called zóé), allowing for the unsaved to still have literal (and miserable) life in hell.
For example, William Lane Craig makes this claim here:
The damned in hell have everlasting existence but not everlasting life. In the New Testament everlasting life is not bios (physical life, from which our word biology derives), but rather zōē (spiritual life). The damned, even if they have physical life, having been resurrected, do not have zōē. 2 William Lane Craig, “584. Annihilationism,” Reasonable Faith [Blog], June 24, 2018, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/annihilationism/ (accessed June 18, 2020).
Claims About Zóé Only Meaning So-Called Spiritual Life Are Easily Disproved
But is this use of zóé, as opposed to bios, really as telling as Dr. Craig and others make it sound? The answer I give, as you might expect, is no.
It should be noted that this contrast has much more to do with zóé than bios, as zóé is used much more frequently in the Bible. For that reason, I will be putting much more focus on zóé than on bios (or psuche, which is rarely mentioned in this context by either side of the hell debate).
Now, I’m not making any bold or audacious claim here about the Greek language. I’m not disagreeing with the Greek experts. I’m the one agreeing with them. After all, when Greek experts get together and translate the Bible, they consistently translate zóé simply as “life.” My assertion here is that the Greek experts who translate the Bible were right to translate both zóé and bios the same because, although there are nuances, both effectively spell out what we mean by “life” in English.
Insofar as there is nuance between the two terms, the nuance is not in reference to normal, biological life (that both the saved and unsaved have) vs. special, spiritual life that is unique to the saved.
We know this because in Luke 16:25, zóé is used to describe the earthly life of the rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life [zóé] you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony (emphasis mine). 3 For more on this parable and what it says about hell, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-31 (The Rich Man and Lazarus)”.
In this verse, it cannot refer to the spiritual life that is unique to the saved, because we see it used here to refer to the earthly life of a damned person. This verse alone disproves Dr. Craig’s theory.
Nothing Inherent to Zóé Requires A Metaphorical, “Spiritual” Meaning
Luke 16:25 is an example of zóé meaning “life” in its normal, brute form. Although not all examples are as clear cut as Luke 16:25, it can be said that no use of zóé demands that it means a specific quality of life (as opposed to just life in general). This does not mean that it cannot refer to a specific quality of life in some uses, but no use requires it. 4 I find Biblehub.com with it’s lexicon and Strong’s features especially useful for broad, less technical word studies like this.
Some may object, noting that many passages that use the term “zóé” are those that refer to “eternal life” for the saved. Doesn’t that prove that some of its uses – indeed, many of them – do refer to a special, spiritual quality of life and not life in general?
The idea that the “eternal life” passages show that “life” is referring to a specific quality of life must be read into the passages. There is nothing inherent to the term “eternal life,” or inherent to the fact that it is used to speak of the saved, that necessitates a special, metaphorical meaning – other than the assumption that everyone is immortal and lives forever in heaven or in hell. 5 For a refutation of the claim that one particular passage, John 17:3, shows us that the Bible defines “eternal life” as a special quality of life (as opposed to actually meaning eternal life), see “John 17:3 Does Not Change The Meaning Of ‘Eternal Life’“. The fact that the life we will experience in God’s kingdom is more than just floating in nothingness does not mean that the word “life” takes on any special, metaphorical meaning. Part of that world to come, part of what we will enjoy in the age to come is the fact that we will live for eternity, i.e. have eternal life. There just also is more to it. 6 For a more in-depth refutation of the idea since the life in God’s kingdom is wonderful, therefore the term “eternal life” must refer to a special quality of life (as opposed to a literal interpretation of “life that last for eternity”), see “The Eternal Joys of The Life To Come Do Not Change The Meaning of ‘Life’“.
A Survey of Zóé in the New Testament
Of the Bible’s uses of zóé, they can be broken up into three categories:
- Uses that unambiguously refer to the earthly life/conscious existence shared by saved and unsaved alike (e.g. Luke 16:25).
- Uses that give no explanation for whether zóé means physical life or whether it means a special quality of life.
- Uses that could be argued to belong in either group 1 or group 2.
The “Life” of the Saved/Group #2
The vast majority belong to group #2, and this leads to ambiguity. These ambiguous uses are those that refer to the life of the saved. In many cases, the reference to zóé is part of the term “eternal life” (aionios zóé). Other such cases use the term “life” on its own (e.g. Mark 9:45).
Although ambiguity is usually seen as neutral, in this case, I believe there is an argument to be made that the ambiguity here is not neutral. I believe that a case can be made that this ambiguity lends weight to the idea that, in the relevant passages, zóé is referring to life in the normal, general sense (which both saved and unsaved would experience under the traditional view). Some cases definitely mean “life” in the general sense, and the others are ambiguous and still make sense if they are referring to a more literal meaning of the term “life.” If every use of zóé in the Bible makes sense as referring to life in the normal, literal sense, and if the only clear examples refer to life in the normal, literal sense, then wouldn’t our inclination generally be to accept the normal, literal sense in the ambiguous cases?
Passages That Use Zóé To Describe Earthly Life (Group #1)
The passages that don’t speak of the fate of the saved (without explanation) show zóé being used in ways that we would expect, given that it is translated as “life.”
Of its other uses, there are several that, like Luke 16:25, further demonstrate that nothing inherent to zóé defines it as special, spiritual life. The rest, in group #3, can at least reasonably be read that way, although they are not as clear cut and therefore may potentially belong to group #2 instead of group #1. Note that at worst for the conditionalist, these less clear passages are simply ambiguous.
Note: bold and italicized emphasis of the word life in the following quotations are mine. Other italicized words are from the NASB translation itself.
- Philippians 1:20 – “…Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
In context, this is the passage where Paul goes back and forth about whether he expects that the Lord will keep him alive for a while or whether he will be martyred. Paul is not concerned about spiritual death, but whether his earthly life, his zóé on earth, will continue. It is biological death vs. biological life.
- Acts 17:25 – “…since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.”
In context, this passage is widely understood to be about how God creates everyone and gives everyone, saved and unsaved, physical life on earth.
- Acts 8:33 – “In humiliation His judgment was taken away; Who will relate His generation? For His life is removed from the earth.”
Acts 8:33 quotes Isaiah 53:8, applying it to Jesus. The passage is about the physical death of Jesus on the cross, and the physical life that was taken from him.
- James 4:14 – “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”
The context seems clear enough that James is not talking about the special, spiritual life of the saved only, but rather he is just talking about our earthly life. After all, those who have the eternal life of the saved live forever, so only in an earthly sense can any saved person – or any person at all if traditionalism or universalism are true – be said to be a vapor that vanishes. I don’t think this one is all that controversial.
Group #3/Less Clear Passages
Passages I would put in group #3, which do seem to be speaking specifically of earthly/biological life but maybe are not as clear, include the following:
- Luke 12:15 – “…for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”
In my experience, more often than not this passage is interpreted as talking about one’s earthly life, not the spiritual life unique to the saved.
- Romans 5:10 – “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”
Jesus’s life is contrasted with his earthly death, which would seem to indicate that Paul is referring to how Jesus is literally, physically alive now.
- Romans 8:38-39 – “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities…will be able to separate us from the love of God…”
It would seem odd to speak of the special, spiritual quality of life that belongs only to the saved as separating them from God’s love, especially since its opposite, so-called spiritual death, is one thing that obviously would separate someone from God’s love (unlike the “death” mentioned in this passage). Earthly life makes the most sense here, although I do grant that since the point of the passage is hyperbole, we cannot press the point that hard (which is why this is in group #3).
- 1 Corinthians 3:22 – “…whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you.”
This passage is similar to Romans 8:38. Since earthly death, not final or so-called spiritual death, is what could be said to belong to the saved, one would expect the same of “life” in this context
- 1 Timothy 4:18 – “…but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
In context, the idea of a “present” life, in contrast to the life to come, sounds like the focus is on this current state of existence – which is shared by saved and unsaved alike.
What About Bios (and Psuche)?
The existence of different words that correspond to the English word “life” suggests some distinctions, but not necessarily large, material differences. That is why they are all translated the same.
The word bios is used less frequently than zóé. In some cases, it has largely the same meaning. For example, Luke 8:14 refers to “the pleasure of this life” which ensnare a person who has heard the gospel but falls away. That idea of a life is like that of Luke 16:25, where it talked about the life of the rich man, i.e. the time that he lived.
Other uses don’t speak of life itself, but rather, to related ideas. In some passages, it speaks of one’s lifestyle (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:12). In others, it speaks of wealth, probably because wealth is necessary to sustain physical life (e.g. Luke 15:12, 1 John 3:17). It’s a bit like how in English, we might refer to one’s job or business as their “livelihood” or way to “make a living.”
And so as to not totally neglect the other major “life” word in scripture, there is psuche. The word psuche is often translated differently, such as “soul” (e.g. Matthew 10:28) or “mind” (Acts 14:2). But in some cases it does correspond to what we would call “life,” and is translated that way. For example, we see this in Matthew 2:22, where King Herod sought baby Jesus’s “life.” Also, see Matthew 6:25, where Jesus says “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Note the similarity between psuche in Matthew 6:25 and zóé in Luke 12:15 above.
These words have considerable crossover, and where they may have different nuances, none of those nuances spell out the contrast that traditionalists attempt to make when they appeal to zóé in contrast to bios.
With all of this in mind, it should be clear that zóé at least sometimes does refer to brute, physical life, to conscious existence, etc., and not a quality of life that is unique to the saved. Claims that it should be assumed to mean a form of life that belongs only to the saved while allowing the unsaved to have a lesser form of life are largely without merit.
It is true that the life to come will differ in many ways from our current life now. Nothing here is to deny that the world to come will not be full of everlasting joy and peace and love. But as noted previously, none of that allows us, let alone requires us, to re-define the word “life,” because none of this great biblical truth about our eternal hope is dependent on what zóé means. 7For more on this, see “The Eternal Joys of The Life To Come Do Not Change The Meaning of ‘Life’“.
The claim that zóé has a special meaning which deflates the conditionalist balloon is questionable at best. The word clearly has no such inherent meaning, given its uses in scripture. Contrasts between zóé and bios fall flat. And none of this requires special mastery of the Greek language to understand. When we first read “life” in various passages that contrast the fate of the saved with the coming death for all who are not ultimately redeemed, and we saw a real problem for the traditional view, we were right the first time.
|￪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||William Lane Craig, “584. Annihilationism,” Reasonable Faith [Blog], June 24, 2018, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/annihilationism/ (accessed June 18, 2020).|
|￪3||For more on this parable and what it says about hell, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-31 (The Rich Man and Lazarus)”.|
|￪4||I find Biblehub.com with it’s lexicon and Strong’s features especially useful for broad, less technical word studies like this.|
|￪5||For a refutation of the claim that one particular passage, John 17:3, shows us that the Bible defines “eternal life” as a special quality of life (as opposed to actually meaning eternal life), see “John 17:3 Does Not Change The Meaning Of ‘Eternal Life’“.|
|￪6||For a more in-depth refutation of the idea since the life in God’s kingdom is wonderful, therefore the term “eternal life” must refer to a special quality of life (as opposed to a literal interpretation of “life that last for eternity”), see “The Eternal Joys of The Life To Come Do Not Change The Meaning of ‘Life’“.|
|￪7||For more on this, see “The Eternal Joys of The Life To Come Do Not Change The Meaning of ‘Life’“.|