Let’s Talk About Eternal Life


The following is an email I received and my response.

Dr. Back,

I've been noodling the synchronizing of experiencing, that is, personally realizing the status of the gift of eternal life and the believers' resurrection of the body in the future eternal state.  Do you have a Bible reference or an article to recommend that might act as grist for the mental mill? The gears between my ears have jammed here:

I've been given a gift. eternal life. I know in a limited sense what it is by biblical description and by reason. It is now mine and I won't / can't lose it because God won't rescind it. I haven't yet fully realized my experience of receiving this gift, however, because I'm still in a mortal body, a sinful body. I'm anticipating that when I receive a resurrection body, I will be in a condition to better understand and exploit this gift I've received. I'm curious about why I feel this way and if I'm on or off track in some way. I'm curious whether progressive sanctification would lead me nearer to experiencing eternal life. I’m curious whether ultimate sanctification removes all limits to experiencing eternal life or whether the resurrection body is needed to remove all limits to this experience.


* * * * *

Dear ___________,

Your question is truly food for thought, particularly for those of us who find our bodies deteriorating and/or not doing what we want them to do. This, coupled with nearly overwhelming turmoil and change in the world around us, makes it more difficult to trust our feelings.

I cannot fully comprehend what you are going through with regard to your Parkinson’s Disease. I have sought to discipline myself to never say, “I understand,” when speaking to anyone who expresses concerns, doubts, frustration, depression, etc. I learned long ago that this is not helpful and does not meet the criteria of “bearing one another’s burdens.” I do not mean to imply that what you are asking stems from any of the above. Perhaps quandary may be a better term or maybe just you are curious.

What I can say is, I can appreciate what you are experiencing because of what I have experienced in my past and am experiencing now. I will not enumerate my experiences here. You are familiar with some of them.

One of the effects of my experiences is an inability to sense the presence of God in my life. Perhaps this is near the heart of your question. I have suffered bouts of depression most of my life. A few of these brought me close to suicide. A few occurred before the Interferon treatments for cancer that damaged the lower cortex of my brain. For this reason, I have been on medication for this. I think the street names might be uppers and downers taken at the same time. These have done a job on my ability to feel emotions, especially those I long for from the past when I sensed the presence of God in my life.

My Ph.D. dissertation was going to be on the doctrine of the soul. For years I sought a clearer definition of the soul believing that the soul of man is what we do based on the decisions we make under the sun. These decisions come from what we think and feel, the attitudes we derived from the information we glean from what we allow into our minds. A major health event prevented me from completing my dissertation, but I have continued to research this vast subject.

The soul is not something we can measure. Like the leading of the Holy Spirit, we can only detect the soul in retrospect when we look back and see whether or not what we thought and felt, and our attitude and actions, were correct. This leads me to Hebrews 4:12. I have a PowerPoint slide show taken from my Basic Seminars in Conflict Manage illustrating what I see in this verse.

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

The following diagrams are taken from that seminar. The first slide notes the impossibility of knowing experientially the distinction between soul and spirit. The second slide illustrates that God's Word enables us to make this distinction.

                               Slide 1

                              Slide 2

The only way we can discern the difference between soul and spirit is by God’s Word. It is not empirical.

God created man to feel and experience His creation. The soul of man is how we experience His creation. While this experience is felt in a moment of time, it will last for eternity. God is a Spirit and, as believers, we can experience God while under the sun with our spirit. Since it is a function of the spirit within us, it is not a physical experience but primarily mental.

Unfortunately, communion with God was interrupted in the fall. It is restored when we are born of God. At the point in time when this takes place, we have eternal life. This is not simply unending existence. The unbeliever will live forever as well. However, that existence is apart from a relationship with God. It is imperative that we recognize that eternal life is first and foremost a relationship with God.

This you know as expressed in your email. This is where understanding biblical love is vitally important. See Part III of my book on my website. (see)  Agapao is an act of the will. We demonstrate our love for God by choosing to do His will. Phileo is the love of attraction. It is a response to something or someone in our apperceptive mass, hence it is relational. It involves self-disclosure and may extend to secondary objects (Jn 5:20; cf. w. Jn 16:27). This is why the church, in its biblical form, is so important. The Church is one of the ways we experience God. It is through our relationships with one another. Phileo is a factor in burden bearing and all of the rest of the One Anothers.

While eternal life is a relationship, it also involves corporality because we are sentient beings. As such, we are able to feel. Since our relationship with God is spiritual, we should not expect to feel God. But we can have feelings about God, sometimes ecstatic. It is important to accept that we have control over our emotions, especially as mature believers. In doing so, we also must accept our responsibility, to the extent possible given limitations due to our physical state, to control our emotions with our minds.

In my situation, I recognize that I must constantly bathe my mind with God’s Word so that my attenuated emotional responses do not overtake my knowledge of my God and Savior Jesus Christ. This has saved me from despair on many occasions. This must have been what Paul was referring to when he wrote: “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9 NASB).

Granted, Paul was facing far more pressure in his life than we face today. But he repeatedly demonstrated his humanity in his writings. I have found this comforting in my struggles in my life. Would that God had taken me home when He saved me so I did not have time to stumble and fall as often as I have in my life. Yet, how could He gain any glory through me, His creation damaged by sin, if I had not struggled, and am still struggling, within my body and soul under the sun? Only when I am able to overcome my struggles with my mind, the mind of Christ, am I able to bring glory to my God.

Eternal life is both relational and experiential. However, the experiential must always be governed by the Holy Spirit through the knowledge of God’s Word. Our spiritual relationship with God which we have come to know through God’s Word must always be primary and must govern and supersede our experiential aspect of eternal life.

Setting aside my attempt at defining eternal life for a moment, I want to address your reference to progressive sanctification. My understanding of sanctification, perhaps too simplified, is it means set apart for holy service. When we were born from above, we were set apart for holy service. As we grow in knowledge and experience of the truth of the gospel, we are being set apart for holy service. When we die or are raptured and are with our Lord, we are once and for all set apart for holy service. “Progressive sanctification” is therefore the transformation that takes place as we learn to love God as we should, i.e., are more obedient. Since we have experienced son-placing (adoption), we are old enough to understand and obey our Father’s will. This is agape. Progressive sanctification is learning to choose and do God’s will which glorifies God as we serve our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul refers to this ongoing transformation in his life in Roman 7 where he confesses his struggle with the flesh. In Philippians, he describes this as a race that he is running for a prize. He hasn’t won the prize yet, but he presses on. He is not yet perfect (teleios.).[i] He then challenges those, including himself, who are perfect (teleios) to maintain the correct attitude of those who are perfect (teleios).[ii]

One final thought regarding eternal life. Toward the end of the first century, the apostle John, in his first epistle wrote:

And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.[iii]

This couplet of verses was part of the Navigator Topical Memory System I learn soon after receiving Christ as my Savior. Comforting as it was in my early spiritual life, it became even more comforting years later as I studied the text in its context. The preceding verse reads:

The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son.[iv]

The grammar of this verse requires attention. Both the one who believes and the one who does not believe are Present Active Participles, placing emphasis upon the nature of the subjects. A paraphrase would be, the believer, and the unbeliever, respectively. This is followed by the causal clause, because he has not believed. The verb is a Perfect Active Participle. This refers to action completed in the past with continuing results.

This takes the reader back to the beginning of the epistle:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life — and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us — what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.[v]

When faced with difficult circumstances in life, we have the privilege and joy of looking back over our past and recalling that we received the message of salvation through Jesus Christ, the Word of God. If circumstances drive us away from believing this, we make God out to be a liar and declare that we really never believed in the first place. On the other hand, if we remember what we believed and Who it was in Whom we believed, we are able to hold on to our confession in spite of the circumstances.

Many years ago, I was called alongside a friend who was considering suicide. To my question “what’s going on?” his response was, “Jerry, I have lost my faith.”

Here was a man who was a seminary graduate, one who served successfully as a pastor and a comforter to others. My answer to him was, “Here, use my faith.” After further words of comfort and encouragement, he put aside thoughts of suicide and went on to minister to others both as a pastor and as a comforter to other pastors.

I did not quote to him this passage from John’s first epistle. Nor did I even think about it. It must have been the Holy Spirit that brought my response. However, reflecting on the event and now on this passage, this is what John was telling his readers during their difficult circumstances in the early church. And we must not stop there. He went on to write:

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.[vi]

If someone has eternal life, why would John need to tell them that they have eternal life? Clearly, eternal life is not an experience without a relationship. And this relationship is not dependent on how we feel. It is dependent upon God. It is first and foremost a relationship guaranteed by God and not by how we feel.

Your email touches on so many aspects of our salvation, it is exciting for me to attempt to give feedback. I feel as if I could write a whole book trying to respond to all the points you touched on.

I know that you are strong in your faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Your ability to “experience” eternal life may be waning, but your ability to know the love of God for you is strong. Let this be your guide. Don’t attempt to restore past experiences. Instead, recall them. Cherish them. Remember Paul’s response to his difficult circumstances:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?[vii]

And again:

“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.”[viii]

May this be an encouragement to you. Please let me know if this is beneficial.

In Christ,


[i] Phil 3:12.

[ii] Phil 2:15.

[iii] 1 Jn 5:11-12.

[iv] 1 Jn 5:10.

[v] 1 Jn 1:1-4.

[vi] 1 Jn 5:13.

[vii] Rom 8:31-35.

[viii] 2 Cor 4:16.