One of the reasons people get so confused about the conditions for receiving eternal life is that they equate terms and ideas in the Bible with eternal life which do not refer to eternal life. Ever since the Black Plague swept through Europe, Western Christianity has had an unhealthy preoccupation with what happens to people after they die, and as a result, has often read the Bible through life-after-death colored glasses so that everything seems to be teaching about what happens to people after they die.
The truth is that there is relatively little in the Bible about what happens to people after they die, and most of the terms and ideas in Scripture which we think teach about heaven or the afterlife are actually teaching about how to live our lives here and now on earth. (Interestingly, not even “eternal life” means only life after we die…)
There are very few synonyms for eternal life
Numerous problems arise in the thinking of many Christians from the mistaken belief that the Bible has numerous synonyms for eternal life. It doesn’t. Most often, when the authors of Scripture want to write about eternal life, they use the words “eternal life” (or “everlasting life” in some translations).
However, there are numerous other terms and phrases in the Bible that modern readers often confuse with “eternal life,” and as a result, end up with confused theology as well. Below is a brief description of five of these terms with an explanation of what these terms actually mean.
Saved and salvation.
We have already discussed the words “saved” and “salvation” in previous posts but the misuse of this word as a synonym for eternal life is so prevalent, I thought it would be wise to mention it here again.
When the Bible uses the words “save” or “salvation,” it is almost never talking about eternal life, but is instead referring to some sort of temporal or physical deliverance from sickness, death, enemies, or other calamity.
Sin has disastrous consequences in our life, and when Scripture talks about being saved from sin, it is not referring to deliverance from hell and going to heaven when we die, but about being delivered from the damaging effects of sin in our lives here and now.
Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God.
Many Christians believe that these terms refer to “heaven” itself, and more specifically, when Scripture talks of entering or inheriting the Kingdom, that this refers to going to heaven when we die.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God are two terms which refer to the rule and reign of God. God does reign, of course, in heaven, but God also seeks to rule and reign in our lives, and on this earth. This rule and reign of God is accomplished in various ways, but primarily as people start living according to the principles of God’s guidelines for how life is to be lived.
This begins in our own life, and moves outward from there. As such, entering and inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven is not about receiving eternal life or going to heaven when we die, but is concerned with how we live our lives right now on this earth as citizens of God’s Kingdom. If you want to read more on this subject, I strongly recommend How God Became King by N. T. Wright.
In future posts we will look at other terms that are often confused with “eternal life,” so stay tuned!