“In solemn truth I am saying to you,” Jesus avows, “the one who continues to believe has eternal life” (John 6:47, my translation). But what is this “eternal life” in the Gospel of John? In what sense or senses is it “life”? And in what sense or senses is it “eternal”?
Some biblical scholars and theologians have often proposed that in the Gospel of John, “eternal life” is purely and completely here and now kind of thing. They talk about the “realized eschatology” of John’s Gospel – a notion that the end of the ages is taking place in the midst of this life rather than at the end of it. And there is much in John’s Gospel to commend this perspective.
The other view is that “eternal life” is not fulfilled in or encompassed by this life. On the one hand, there is the “delayed eschatology” of many traditional Christian perspectives. After we die, and after this cosmos has been brought to an end, God continues and we participate in a new and second life which has no temporal limits. This is the “when we die, we go to heaven to live with Jesus” view of eternal life.
On the other hand, there is the “inaugurated eschatology” perspective. N. T. Wright is a persuasive and detailed champion of this perspective, but he is by no means novel or alone in this view. Eternal life has entered into and even invaded the realm of this finite existence in Jesus. Eternal life as God intends it is inaugurated among us in the here and now, by faith embodied in love and hope in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that inaugurated eternity will not be fulfilled and completed until this finite and temporal existence has come to an end.
Inaugurated eschatology is a “now and not yet” perspective on eternal life. “The new life which will be consummated in the resurrection itself,” N. T. Wright argues, “works backwards into the present, and is already doing so in the ministry of Jesus” (page 440).
That working backwards is described in a particular way in the Gospel of John. Wright suggests “that Jesus’ public career [in John] is to be understood as the completion of the original creation, with the resurrection as the start of the new. The whole gospel is a kind of preparation for Easter,” he continues, “with signs of resurrection expected at several points” (page 440).
Wright urges us to resist the temptation to “flatten out” John’s understanding and articulation of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life “by marginalizing the ‘future’ emphasis or overemphasizing the ‘realized eschatology” (page 440). He notes that the Bread of Life discourse has some of the most striking statements in the Gospel of John about the present reality and power of eternal life in the existence of the believer.
“I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus declares again in John 6:48. “In the wilderness our fathers ate the manna and died,” he continues. “This is the bread, which is coming down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and may not die” (John 6:49-50, my translation). Just a quick translation note here. The “may” in the previous sentence does not indicate uncertainty, as it would in English. It indicates that the action and event have not yet happened.
But what does this “not dying” bit really mean? Everyone who ate the bread in the wilderness with Jesus had a funeral at some point. Even Lazarus, raised from the dead after four days, had a second funeral. We all understand that Jesus is not talking about the denial of death but rather it’s defeat. But in what sense do we understand this defeat of death?
“Eternal” life is not merely the unending continuation of this physical existence. For the great majority of human beings now and in the course of history, such a continuation would be hell, not heaven. “Eternal” does not refer primarily to duration but rather to quality. Eternal life is the experience of and participation in the Really Real, the basis and bedrock of the Divine.
We can imagine, in over-simplified terms, Eternal Life as something (or Someone) whom we consume. In the Eucharist we take “the medicine of immortality,” as Ignatius of Antioch described that meal. “It would be easy enough to assimilate the consumption of the Eucharist into a consumerist kind of spirituality,” William Cavanaugh writes. “The presence of Jesus could become another kind of commodity to be appropriated for the benefit of the individual user. Indeed,” he observes, “much of what passes for Christianity in our culture today is addressed to fulfilling the spiritual needs of individual consumers of religion” (Kindle Locations 596-598).
In this consumerist perspective, I take in “eternal life” and it participates in me. The perceived benefit is that my individual, conscious existence continues indefinitely into some future in some other sphere or plane. The goal is not that the existence will be the same as it is now. Instead, it will be materially better. This is the root of the haloes and harps perspective of heaven. This is the source of all sorts of positive and negative images and jokes about heaven, such as “In Heaven, There is no Beer.”
In next week’s reading, however, we will hear that the process is reversed. We do not consume Eternal Life. Instead, Eternal Life consumes us, takes us “up” into a qualitatively new mode of Being. It’s not that this Life participates in me – physically, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise. Instead, I participate in the New Life. I am made part of that new mode of Being, beginning in the here and now.
“The act of consumption is thereby turned inside out,” Cavanaugh writes, “instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it” He quotes the words of St. Augustine in the Confessions who hears God say, ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me’” (Kindle Locations 603-605).
I participate in the New Life. I am made part of that new mode of Being, beginning in the here and now. I wanted to write, “and continuing into the New Life.” Of course, that’s part of the problem. We are creatures of time. And time is one of the creatures of God.
God does not exist in time. Time exists in God. While I’m at it, I can remind us that God does not exist in space, but rather space exists in God. To talk about time and space as being features in which Eternal Life “exists” is to confuse categories and to speak theological and philosophical nonsense.
The Gospel of John often uses the Greek faith for faith that most literally translates as “believing into” rather than “believing in.” We find this construction, for example, in John 3:16. Whoever “believes into” the Only Son will not perish but rather will have Eternal Life.
It may be that John’s Gospel has a funny way of putting things, although this construction is not exclusive to this Gospel, just predominant in it. But I think the writer knows how this faith business works. When we put our trust in Jesus in life and in death, our believing takes us “into Jesus.” We are caught up into and participate in the Divine Life when we follow him. That Divine Life is “eternal,” in the only sense of that word that matters. That Divine Life transcends and contains the limits of space and time.
When we consume the Bread of Life, we take into ourselves that Divine Life. So, we are changed, as Cavanaugh notes, from the inside out. We are reclaimed and renewed as the image and likeness of God in Creation. We can, therefore, resume our roles as pointers toward the Creator. As the image and likeness of God, we represent that God to the cosmos (since we are the Body of Christ). And we represent the cosmos to God, since we are creatures of dust and breath, imprinted with that image and likeness.
Indeed, God is reclaiming the entire cosmos as the signs which point to the glory of the Divine Life. “A sacramental view of the world sees all things as part of God’s good creation,” Cavanaugh observes, “potential signs of the glory of God; things become come less disposable, more filled with meaning. At the same time, a sacramental view sees things only as signs whose meaning is only completely fulfilled,” he concludes, “if they promote the good of communion with God and with other people” (Kindle Locations 645-647).
This is not to denigrate or depreciate human beings or the Created cosmos. It is, rather, to put us all in our appropriate and life-giving places. A highway exit sign is not the exit itself. Instead, it points to the location of the exit. This does not make the sign any less real or less valuable than the exit. Instead, the sign is extremely valuable for the information it provides. If the sign were in the wrong place or pointing in the wrong direction, it would be useless and perhaps even dangerous.
I hope that’s a helpful metaphor in the current discussion. We are taken up into the Divine Life through the Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus. We can be restored to our rightful participation in that Life by believing into that Life. In that process we will be consumed, used up, absorbed into the Divine Life – if we are open to being used up to our full potential. That’s what Eternal Life looks like here and now.
Next time, more on being consumed…or not.
References and Resources
Anderson, Paul N., “Anti-Semitism and Religious Violence as Flawed Interpretations of the Gospel of John” (2017). Faculty Publications – College of Christian Studies. 289. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/289.
Anderson, Paul N., “Navigating the Living Waters of the Gospel of John: On Wading With Children and Swimming With Elephants” (2000). Faculty Publications – George Fox School of Theology. 283. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/283.
Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Kindle Edition.
Dennis, J. “Exodus Imagery in John 6.” In STUDIEN ZUM NEUEN TESTAMENT UND SEINER UMWELT (SNTU), Serie A, Band 30. https://kidoks.bsz-bw.de/frontdoor/deliver/index/docId/300/file/2005_105_121.pdf.
Hylen, Susan E. “Seeing Jesus John’s Way: Manna from Heaven.” Word and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pages 341-348. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/33-4_Bread/33-4_Hylen.pdf.
Kloppenborg, J.S., 2011, ‘Disaffiliation in associations and the ἀποσυναγωγός of John’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 67(1), Art. #962, 16 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v67i1.962.
Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. https://www.thespiritlife.net/warfare-publications/3203-the-great-divorce-by-cs-lewis-chapters-7-9.html.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996. Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.