Jesus offers eternal life to his followers. But what sort of life is it? Some seem to think it is an endless stay at a sort of heavenly resort, our “best lives” extended indefinitely. Sometimes this idea is expressed in popular culture as heaven being a pleasant place of harps and clouds, often contrasted to hell as an unpleasant place of pitchforks and flames. But what is this eternal life really? If we look at what Jesus says about the eternal life he offers, we see that while the idea of unending pleasant life is not completely wrong, it does not go nearly far enough. The eternal life Jesus offers is far more than this.
To understand eternal life offered by Jesus, one needs to ponder for what purpose God has created the world, and people in it. Let’s consider this image of a heaven of harps and clouds, or similar images of heaven such as a sun-drenched blissful valley. One might envision that God enjoys his creation in an aesthetic way, like a person enjoys a terrarium or an aquarium. If so, God would make a beautiful place where people live their best lives for his aesthetic enjoyment. At first glance, this idea appears to have some merit: when God creates the world and human beings in it, he says it is “very good” [Genesis 1:31] and he plants a garden in Eden [Genesis 2:8] for human beings to live in. Perhaps the garden is intended to be a sort of terrarium? The purpose of fish in an aquarium or creatures in a terrarium is to live out their best lives in a visible way, so that their beauty can be enjoyed.
But it is when things go wrong that the aquarium analogy begins to break down. God places Adam and Eve, the first people, in the garden and imposes on them a rule, explaining that if they break it, they will die [Genesis 2:17]. This stretches the aquarium idea quite a bit. One can envision systemic things going wrong in an aquarium, such as the temperature being too high or low, or the chemical balance of the water being off, but the fish breaking rules? I suppose one could imagine some sort of intelligent fish capable of rational action, and an aquarium owner impressing upon those fish that they should not make ecosystem-destroying choices that would lead to death, such as eating all the other fish. As it happens, Adam and Eve break the rule [Genesis 3:6]. Like any aquarium owner experiencing a problem with the aquarium, God addresses the issue. But how God addresses it, and what he does, is really quite remarkable:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. [John 3:16-17]
Here is where we see the idea of the world as an aquarium break down completely. While we can imagine an aquarium owner loving their beautiful aquarium enough to take steps to remedy problems, what owner is going to send “his only Son” into the aquarium to save it? And what is this about “believing in him”? Clearly, creation is much more than an aquarium to God, and his relationship with people is far more important than the relationship of an aquarium owner to the fish.
So what is the right model? Perhaps God is looking for companions, like a dog owner wants a dog? Maybe the model is not fish but dogs? After all, dogs can believe in and follow their owners. One can envision a dog owner intervening to help a dog in trouble, asking it to obey and follow. Perhaps, then, the world is not an aquarium, but a dog-kennel, and people are meant to be to God what beloved dogs are to their owners?
This is better than the aquarium model, but it still falls short. God actually becomes a human being. Dog owners do not become dogs to interact with their pets: they do not put on fur, growl and bark. They lead as people lead: they expect their dogs to follow as dogs follow, nothing more. But God became a human being: Jesus. There is something more going on here than pets.
So what, then, is the proper model? Perhaps servant? Many pagan religions see servant (or slave) as the proper role of people towards the gods: to serve the gods and be rewarded for their service, with the most rewarding service being to wait closely upon the gods. Indeed, some of what Jesus says is suggestive of a close servant relationship:
Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. [John 12:26]
So perhaps servant is the right model? Perhaps God offers an eternal life of rewarded service? While this is not wrong as far as it goes, it is not fully right either. Jesus says:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another. [John 15:12-17]
What Jesus describes here is clearly more than servants: he calls his followers friends. The motivation in the relationship is not the master’s wish and the servant’s duty, but love. A master-servant relationship is unidirectional: the servant does what the master wants and it stops there. But God’s relationship with his friends is bi-directional: the friends do what God asks, and God does what the friends ask, and it is all done out of love.
Yet perhaps even friends is not quite good enough. Jesus, in describing the relationship, speaks a great deal about love, much more so than is typically done among friends. Perhaps this is a relationship that is “more than friends”? Indeed, at one point Jesus compares himself to a bridegroom [Mark 2:19-20]. Yet a lover or spousal relationship, which is what “more than friends” typically means, does not seem to quite capture it fully either. When we think about it, we should not be too surprised. We can expect a relationship between God and people to be somewhat different than relationships between human beings, because God is unique. Perhaps, then, we have run out of human comparisons? Indeed, God is not an aquarium owner, nor is he a pet owner. He is more than a master to servants, he is a friend, indeed, and more than a friend. Yet while he is more than a friend, lover or spouse does not fully capture it. So what is it? Let us look at Jesus’ own words more closely to see what he intends the relationship to be. He says to his followers:
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. [John 15:7-10]
What is this “abiding in my love”? Jesus is explaining that the love he intends for his disciples is the same love that exists between him and his Father. But the love between the Father and the Son is God’s own nature. God is “putting himself in the loop”. Jesus’ vision of eternal life for his followers is a sharing in the very life of God himself. This is revealed more fully in the Gospel of John, where Jesus prays to God the Father a most remarkable prayer.
First, he prays:
Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. [John 17:1-3]
Then he prays this for his followers:
Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. [John 17:11b]
He goes on:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” [John 17:20-26]
This is extraordinary. The eternal life that God is offering to human beings is participation in the very life of God, to be one with God as Jesus is one with the Father. It is more than a friend or even a spouse. God loves eternally, and he wants human beings to love eternally too, not just like him, but with him and in him. And yet he cares about who we are and what we want: enough even that he will do what we ask. To be part of God is thus not to be swallowed up, to be lost in a greater whole, as a river is swallowed up by the sea, but to be beloved, each as ourselves, a unique person, loving and being loved. It is to love God and be loved by him, not from outside, but from inside, from where Jesus is, in the very heart of God. This, then, is the eternal life Jesus offers to his followers: to share uniquely in the eternal life of God himself.