Rethinking Conditionalism (Part 6a) – Eternal Life and Immortality

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I read someone asking a conditionalist in a Facebook thread concerning how they define death. Then one of them responded with, “It depends on how you define life.” I couldn’t agree more! Unfortunately, this is an area that Chris Date and some within Rethinking Hell sorely deviate from. In a debate with Len Pettis during a Striving for Eternity Conference in September of 2016, Chris Date stated that Jesus does not define eternal life as knowing the Father and the Son just as He taught in John 17:3. Chris then wrongly exegetes this Scripture by comparing the translation of the Greek word “is” with other Scriptures that contain the same word. He neglects to make a linguistic and contextual interpretation of John 17:3 by failing to see the other words which Jesus used that explicitly define eternal life.  It is presented below in English and in Greek so that you can see why Jesus defines eternal life as knowing (having intimate fellowship with) God. And please don’t run. As I did in Part 2a, you don’t have to be a Greek scholar to understand what I’m about to show you.

John 17:3

  • (English – ESV) And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
  • (Greek – MGNT) αὕτη δέ ἐστιν αἰώνιος ζωή ἵνα γινώσκωσιν σὲ τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν καὶ ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν

Now, if you noticed, I highlighted the words that Chris used to make his case in blue. The Greek word ἐστιν is the conjugated form of the word “eimi” that he mentions in the video link above.  It is this word that Chris wrongly interprets in this context. But since conditionalists tend to define death in hyper-literal terms, it is no wonder that they look at Scriptures like this and have to make it fit their own annihilationistic hermeneutic. Nevertheless, Chris explicitly states that “is” does not “equate” eternal life with knowing God the Father and the Son. But let’s look at the other words within this context to help us to understand the semantic function of “is” in this context.

Here is the first part we will look at:

  • (English – ESV) And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
  • (Greek – MGNT) αὕτη δέ ἐστιν αἰώνιος ζωή ἵνα γινώσκωσιν σὲ τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν καὶ ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν

Notice, that the word “And this…” begins our verse, which means it was a continuation of Jesus’ discourse/prayer. Jesus is speaking to the Father about how He has been given authority over all flesh, and to give eternal life to all those who are the elect (John 17:1-2).  This is the reason why Jesus then says, “And this is eternal life…” This phrase seeks to emphasis and explain/expound upon a previous thought with something important. It is a linguistic marker that tells the reader that a special attention is to be given. And the demonstrative pronoun “this” (in Greek here, οὗτος – houtos) is used in language to point to something within any given context. We use “this” while physically pointing, or we use it grammatically to point to something we said, or are going to say. In this case, Jesus was pointing forward in commencing to define what exactly is eternal life. And He begins by saying that “this is” eternal life. What exactly is “this”?

Here is the text again with another word highlighted:

  • (English – ESV) And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
  • (Greek – MGNT) αὕτη δέ ἐστιν αἰώνιος ζωή ἵνα γινώσκωσιν σὲ τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν καὶ ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν

Notice how the word “that” is used in this context. It is used as an appositional clause to describe what “this” is. In other words, when Jesus said, “And this is eternal life,” the words “that they know you” further explains what Jesus meant by what this eternal life is. In the Greek, this clause can also be interpreted this way in English:

  • And this is eternal life, namely that they might know you, the only True God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.

The emphasis here is that knowing the true God and Jesus Christ is what explicitly defines eternal life. This is Jesus’ definition! This Scripture does not read the way that Chris Date and other conditionalists would have you to read it so that it fits within the erroneous framework of annihilationism. Even though it is true that in knowing Christ, we will one day be resurrected in a new body and be given immortality as the Scripture states in 1 Corinthians 15, it is not true that the promise of eternal life and immortality can be hyper-literally defined as exclusively something given only at the resurrection. We possess eternal life now by knowing the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ. And the Holy Spirit is what gives us the inner testimony of this knowledge (John 15:26). And since eternal life has a spiritual and relational element, we must understand that the opposite of this is indeed death. But not just physical death, and certainly not annihilation. Death is being out of communion with the Creator of the universe. And even though physical death will one day come as a result of natural corruption because of Adam’s sin, or through our own or God’s doing, we are still dead in our sins while we yet still live if we do not know Christ (Ephesians 2:1-5). More about this to come in later articles.

To expound the above a little further, John and other Scriptures reveal that knowing God is life, let alone eternal life.

1 John 5 has this truth sprinkled all throughout the end of the chapter:

  • v11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
  • v12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
  • v13 I write these (plural form of “this”) things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.
  • v20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

Notice the language here. John says that we possess eternal life now because we know Jesus. It is not just a promise of a future resurrection, it is fellowship with Him now! It was even prophesied by Jeremiah (31:33-34) that the New Covenant would bring us in intimate fellowship with God, and that by knowing the LORD is how we would partake of that covenant. If John 17:3 should be interpreted that we only possess eternal life at the resurrection, instead of right now by knowing Jesus, then either John is wrong, or Chris is. I think you know what I think.

Furthermore, the grammatical use of “this” and “that” is a stylistic attribute of John’s writings. Depending on the context, these words can be used appositionally, as described above, or in order to describe a purpose statement (Ex: I write this to you that you may understand). If we are to exegete John 17:3 as how Chris Date interprets the text, then some of the texts below must change with his interpretation since they possess the same grammatical and semantic clause:

  • John 15:8 By this my Father is glorified, [namely] that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
  • John 15:12 This is my commandment, [namely] that you love one another as I have loved you.
  • 1 John 3:23 And this is his commandment, [namely] that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
  • 2 John 1:6 And this is love, [namely] that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.

The emphasis could not be clearer. If it is true that John 17:3 only means that knowing God “leads” to eternal life as Chris Date asserted, and that we do not actually and presently possess it, then grammatically, as the some of these Scriptures above demand, we must conclude that some of John’s statements are not presently valid. But if you try to read that back into these texts, it would make absolutely no sense. This is why you cannot proof text or do word studies and hastily compare other passages without taking the surrounding words and other contextual identifiers into consideration.

(Note: I suspect a rebuttal will/could be made by some conditionalists to say that we possess the promise but not the fulfillment. That is, we are given the present promise of eternal life (if we interpret eternal life as merely resurrection), but it has not yet been fulfilled. Although we are indeed given a down payment of the Spirit as a guarantee of our future resurrection, we still currently have eternal life because we know God. The above interpretation by Chris Date is still erroneous and not within the linguistic framework of John 17:3, because in knowing Jesus and the Father is how we posses and gain eternal life.  Chris Date and those that share this interpretation have two choices – abandon their erroneous exegesis, or figure out another linguistic nuance that fits their view.)

Lastly, I want you to notice something really cool. Another stylistic gem found within John’s writings is  how he uses the demonstrative pronoun “this.” If you take a quick look at 1 John 5:20 above, John says that Jesus is eternal life (and the true God of course). Another way to word this last part of the verse is “This is the One True God and eternal life.” In John 17:3, the demonstrative pronoun “this”  is also used in reference to Christ. The wonderful part is that, according to linguistic analysis of John’s gospel**, of the approximately 70 instances that this pronoun is used to reference a person, about 40 of them refer to the Son, Jesus Christ! That means over two-thirds of the time, when John uses the Greek word οὗτος (houtos, or its conjugated forms), he uses it in reference to Jesus. John 17:3 being part of that count.

Considering the above information, when we read John 17:3, it is a beautiful definition of salvation that is characterized by intimacy with God as defined by Jesus Himself. Jesus is the very definition of eternal life. He gives it to all who believe on Him. When we believe, we possess it through fellowship with God until the day of the resurrection. And in knowing Jesus, we are born again, made alive by the Spirit, and we are no longer dead in our sin. And even though we die, death has no power over us. We are free from sin, the victory of the curse, and the power of death and God’s wrath because Jesus became a curse for us and took our punishment on the cross. What a glorious gospel!

There are many roads I’d like to travel regarding this topic of immortality and eternal life, especially in relation to death. I will expound more upon the conditionalists model of death and contrast that with the biblical model of how death is used in the Scriptures in the near future. But what you, reader, must understand is the linguistic lengths that some conditionalists will go in order to make annihilationism fit their ideology. The hermeneutic they use to tread upon even the most basic and fundamental portions of Scripture that have defined salvation for centuries is not good enough to convince them of their error. I mean, think about this for a second. Let’s forget making this a hell debate. This is talking about Jesus’ definition of salvation! What is eternal life! This is soteriology in its most basic form! And yet they cannot get this right? I pray Chris, Rethinking Hell, and any other conditionalists will read this and take a breath to realize what must be done to the most fundamental truth of salvation in order to remain unbiblically consistent. They don’t just flirt with heretics and subtly change the application of how the atonement works, they also redefine how one possesses eternal life. And this is just another reason why Rethinking Hell needs to also rethink their hermeneutics.

-Until we go home

**Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, by Dan Wallace. pg. 327

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