I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
—John 10:10b

For many, the life of faith is a life dedicated to the achievement or assurance of a future existence in a heavenly realm, eternally communing with God and others. While certainly a consistent tenet of many faith communities, this idea of “eternal life” runs counter to the expectations expressed by the gospel writer of John. However, before we turn to consider John’s possibly surprising understandings of “eternal life,” we must understand the uniqueness that is John’s text and theology.

As a review, there are four gospels in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first three are often studied together because of their similar structure, theology, chronology, and emphases. For this reason, they are called the “synoptic” or “looked at together” gospels. John’s text is different, significantly different, and is frequently considered on its own.

For instance, John’s gospel takes place over three years, while the other three gospels have Jesus’ ministry taking only one year. John has Jesus returning to Jerusalem three times during his ministry. The only three have Jesus there just once. John lacks a birth narrative, the last supper, and the Friday crucifixion (and, the earliest manuscripts even lack the resurrection). In some combination, all of these elements are present in the other three. Also, most scholars feel that Mark was used as a common source for both Matthew and Luke, while John seems to come mostly from another independent source all together. Some of these textual differences are highlighted all the more vividly by a discrepancy in imagery deployed by the two gospel traditions.

In the synoptic gospels, a clear emphasis on the in-breaking of the kingdom of God/Heaven repeats itself over and over, again. The nature of this kingdom, its characteristics, its arrival, its fulfillment saturate the language and expectations of the writers. However, conspicuously absent for John, kingdom language and imagery is set aside for an emphasis less on God’s reign than on God’s arrival. For John’s gospel, the in-breaking of a new kingdom is replaced with the experience of a new encounter with God experienced as the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

While complimentary and connected, it would be difficult to overstate the significance these distinctive emphases have on the divergent theology and “good news” expressed in John’s gospel and the synoptic gospels. Moreover, it is this notion of the incarnation and its subsequent import for John’s notion of eternal life that is most interesting for our consideration, today.

In John’s gospel, the notion of the incarnation brings the reality of God and God’s existence into our reality and our existence. This incarnational advent does not allow for some future—either this or some other heavenly realm—fulfillment of life with God. On the contrary, a present alteration of this life and our ways of living is assumed. This alteration of the present is seen most vividly in John’s portrayal of eternal life. For instance, consider the intentional verb tense found in John 6:47. There, the gospel writer has Jesus say that whoever believes will not “have” eternal life but “has” it already! Eternality—a characteristic of the Divine—has been injected into our reality as a natural consequence to God’s material arrival in our time. In other words, the incarnation means, for John, that not just some of God’s attributes but all of what we associate with the Divine has been introduced into our existence via the Word/Logos becoming flesh. This concomitant effect means that one of the primary attributes associated with a life of faith, i.e., the achievement of eternal life, is already imparted through the incarnated presence of God in the person of Jesus.

Eternal life is not—in John’s reckoning—a future reward but a present fact. As such, John’s gospel reflects the common Jewish notion that the soul is not some immaterial element of our being that has the capacity to both live without our bodies and to achieve immortality. Rather, our soul is the very material merger of the stuff of creation with the presence of God. Eternal life for John is—as our above text implies—about a superior quality of life experienced now—i.e., abundance—and not a future quantity of life enjoy later. (John’s gospel does not preclude the possibility of some future, posthumous existence with God. It is just that such an existence is not John’s concern.)

Our lives are “eternal”—in John’s sense—to the degree to which we fully participate in the divine reality of God and the grace and love presumed in that participation. It is a quality alteration of our present reality and a call to awaken us to immediate action rather than delayed expectation.

In some ways, this dislodging of our notion of eternal life from its comfortable station as an eternal reward is a radical idea. But, isn’t that the very purpose for having a gospel, i.e., some good news, in the first place? If the gospel is a kind of pronouncement of victory over something, isn’t this kind of change in how we understand the world exactly what a victory means, i.e., going from one state of perception to another? Isn’t the pronouncement of a victory over a kind of faith built on a delayed reward system (inherent in many of our preconceptions about a life of faith) a good thing? Isn’t the gospel supposed to shatter our preconceptions about the world, turn them on their head, and set them right for a new purpose and work for our lives and God’s world? Doesn’t such a faith that injects the abundant reality of God into our seemingly limited existence alter how we see our present circumstances; our calls for austerity in scarcity; our engagement with those currently poor, powerless, and outcast; our claims about hell and suffering; our visions about heaven and joy? Does it similarly inject an impatience with systems that deny love and abundance every time those systems delay the realization of God’s eternality materially infused into our presence? Aren’t those notions of faith that see our faithfulness as a litmus test for future reward both (1) predicated on a kind of subtle selfishness that our faith is really something that—in the end—benefits ourselves and (2) a denial of the reality that if God really has come into the world that our world should look significantly different to us? Isn’t all this what John is saying?

Consider the fact that in John’s Revelation—a text believed to have come from the same community as the writer of this gospel—that the fulfillment of all our existence is not our leaving this place to receive our heavenly reward but the arrival of heaven to meet us in our here and now, removing all suffering, pain, and crying. If the Christian faith is to mean anything in John’s estimation it must mean that the incarnation changes everything, especially the here and now!

So, what is the claim of victory for John? For John, the victory is a winning of the present from the future, a present that is more about quality of a life in God than quantity of a life to come!


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