Is human life eternal?
The information to answer this question cannot be definitively discovered by human beings as they are governed by the dynamics of mortality. Even ‘near death’ experiences have the limitation that the person revived and survived.
Some philosophers argue that eternity is not necessary to enjoy a life experience, and therefore eternity does not exist (particularly as we cannot prove it). However, the overwhelming philosophical and religious view throughout the world is that this life is not the sum total of existence. They argue that annihilation of a life is a huge waste and cannot be logically expected from the depth and complexity of the human being. Others put a case for eternal reincarnations on the basis of the value of a human being.
However, the only satisfactory argument must come from someone who has intimate knowledge of eternity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The Bible was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which explains why 40 authors who wrote over a period of over 2000 years (often without access to each other’s material) present such a consistent picture of the character of God and the reasons behind His actions.
Jesus Christ (God the Son) has a particular contribution to understanding eternal life. He said Himself that, “ Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.” (John 3:11-13). In that passage, Jesus claims to be one person of ‘we’; He also claims to have come down from heaven and goes back to heaven. His sayings, parables, and narrative discourses all have internal integrity and connect immaculately with other parts of the Scriptures. So we will look more at those passages in a little while.
But first we need to examine the beginning of the human story.
Human beings were created separately and differently from the animals. They were made ‘in the image of God’ and were delegated God-like authority over all animal life (including fish and birds) and plant life: Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image,in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’9 Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.” (Genesis 1:26-30)
God’s design for human beings was to include intelligent decision-making, co-ordination and management of natural resources. The ‘image of God’ includes all of His personal qualities – one of which is to be eternal and never ending.
God uniquely breathed into man the ‘breath of life’ – something that was not part of the creation of the animals: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7).
The Garden of Eden experience was designed to be eternal in God’s presence because the sanction for disobedience was death: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:15-17). And that is what happened. “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’” (Genesis 3:22).
And so the mortality of man took a hold on the human race. And yet the difference between a dead body and an annihilated soul was clear to Job (one of the first books to be written in the Old Testament): “ I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27). Not only does Job understand that his soul is immortal, but that he will be given a new body when his Redeemer (Jesus) comes again – and that the Redeemer is God! A lot is packed into this passage but it correlates well with Jesus’ saying, “ ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31-32).
Jesus made very strong comments about eternal life and made clear that after death there were only two possibilities: heaven or hell.
Luke 16:19-31 makes clear that there is an afterlife for both the righteous and the wicked: “ ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 ‘The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” 25 ‘But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” 27 ‘He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” 29 ‘Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” 30 ‘“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” 31 ‘He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’ ”
That story/parable meshes with Jesus’ statement to the religious ruler, Nicodemas (who did believe in Jesus and was one of the two men who buried His body): “ For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18).
Matthew chapters 24-25 are full of parables which make the same point with conclusions which clearly show that those who do not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ have the prospect of a remorseful eternity: “He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:51); “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:30); “ ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’” (Matthew 25:46).
By contrast, Jesus states the eternal security of those who believe in Him: “ Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’” (John 6:35-40).
And Jesus links this God-filled eternal life with the sacrifice of His body: “ No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’” (John 6:46-51).
Jesus linked eternal life with His substitutionary sacrifice and the shedding of His innocent blood, when He was the host at the Last Supper: “ While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28).
Jesus provided evidence of eternal life as He raised the dead on three recorded occasions.
The daughter of the synagogue ruler: “ While Jesus was still speaking, someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. ‘Your daughter is dead,’ he said. ‘Don’t bother the teacher anymore.’ Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.’ When he arrived at the house of Jairus, he did not let anyone go in with him except Peter, John and James, and the child’s father and mother. 52 Meanwhile, all the people were wailing and mourning for her. ‘Stop wailing,’ Jesus said. ‘She is not dead but asleep.’ They laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and said, ‘My child, get up!’ 55 Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up. Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat. Her parents were astonished, but he ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened.” (Luke 8:49-56).
The widow of Nain’s son: “ Soon afterwards, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out – the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’ Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. They were all filled with awe and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’ 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.” (Luke 7:11-17).
Lazarus: “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. ‘Take away the stone,’ he said. ‘But, Lord,’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’ Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” (John 11:38-45).
These three events demonstrated that death as well as life is in Jesus’ hands and that the dead (people with dead bodies) have an ongoing existence. The same was true after His resurrection: “… and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” (Mathew 27:52-53).
Of course, the major event of resurrection was of Jesus Himself – matters which you have already studied in depth.
The last book of the Bible contains vivid impressions of the end of time, after many people have died: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:10-15).
So, to summarise this brief survey:
- God designed mankind with an eternal soul.
- Mortality was a part of the punishment for sin; but the soul remains eternal.
- Heaven is eternal life in God’s presence: hell is eternal life with everything good stripped out of it.
- God the Holy Spirit (the inspirer of the Bible) knows the soul is eternal.
- God the Son demonstrated that He is Lord of living people and those whose bodies have died.
- God the Father raised Jesus from the dead.
- God will eternally reward those who believe in Him and eternally punish those who reject Him.