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What does the Bible say about eternal life?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Chris Elkins: Hello, I’m Chris Elkins with Denison Forum, and I’m here today with Dr. Jim Denison to ask a question that’s complicated. I want to talk about eternal life, probably one of the most significant themes in God’s word.

Do Christians receive eternal life when they die?

Jim Denison: That’s a real common belief. Absolutely. The idea that when you die, that’s when you go to heaven. That’s when you step into eternity, and that’s when you have eternal life. That’s the common idea. I thought that growing up. A lot of folks think that’s the case.

But that’s not at all what Jesus said.

In John 3:16, which Martin Luther called the gospel in a nutshell—the most famous verse in Scripture clearly—Jesus says, “God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Present tense, right now—have everlasting life. Not “you could.” Not “you might.” Not “you will.” But you do, right now, already.

Wherever you are, if you’re a believer, if Jesus is your Savior and Lord, you have eternal life right now.

Second Corinthians 5:17 makes the same point a little differently. It says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” We already have eternal life if Jesus is our Savior and Lord.

The Bible says that the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us; we become the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). First Corinthians 12:27 says we’re the body of Christ. And that’s not just metaphorical.

The Bible makes it very clear that the moment you ask Jesus to forgive your sins and be your Lord, in that moment, he gives you eternal life. You don’t have to wait till you die to have that life.

You can have it right now.

Why is it significant to remember that our eternal lives have actually already begun?

There are several reasons why I think this is a really important fact that you see in Scripture. It was clear to the early believers that this was the case. They had seen the risen Christ. They had witnessed what it was for Jesus on the other side of death to be able to say, “I am the resurrection and the life and he who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25). That was obvious to them.

So they had incredible courage about their faith, didn’t they? They were willing to share Jesus at any cost. Wherever the Lord asked, whatever the Lord called them to do with anyone: they were willing to go to prison, they were willing to testify before the Sanhedrin, they were willing to be martyred for their faith because they knew they already had what the Romans couldn’t take from them. The Romans could take their freedom but not their eternal freedom. The Romans could take their life but not their eternal life. They knew that. They already had that fact. And so that gave them an incredible intensity, courage, and passion for serving Jesus.

On a second level, it motivated them to understand that everybody needed what they had. In so many words, C. S. Lewis said, “You’ve never met a mortal. Every person you meet today is going to spend eternity, either with God in paradise or separated from him in hell.” All of us have eternal life in that sense: either eternal life or eternal death. And the early believers knew that. They knew that fact. They knew that they had received something everybody needs. And that motivated them, not only to have courage about their faith but to be passionate about sharing their faith as well.

If Christians are destined for heaven, why does God leave us on earth?

Why are we still here on this fallen planet? Why do we have to live in these fallen, broken bodies? Why are we still dealing with all the issues that this fallen world presents to us when, obviously, we have eternal life already? Why aren’t we just already spending that with our Lord?

Well, there are a lot of answers to that question, but three come to mind.

First, we’re here to steward his creation until there’s a new creation.

What was given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to do so for us? It is a fallen world, the world “groans and travails,” as Romans 8 says. The fall affected all of creation. But nonetheless, we are to steward God’s creation until we see him again. We’re to care for those in need. We’re to minister to those that are hurting.

Jesus said in Matthew 25 that what you do for the least of these, you do for me. And so there’s a ministry we’re to be about. There’s a stewardship of God’s creation and of God’s children that we’re to be about until we see Jesus again.

On the second level, God is using this fallen world to prepare us for our eternal life with him.

It says in Romans 8 that we’re to be conformed to the image of Christ. In the meantime, the Lord is using where we are now, what we’re experiencing now, to make us more like Jesus, to draw us closer to him, to make us ready to be with him one day.

And then third, God wants us in this life to share with everybody the way they can experience eternal life.

I had a good friend that once, as a means of encouraging people to share their faith, asked this question: “If you were to stand before the Lord in judgment one day and he were to ask you, ‘Who did you bring with you?’ What would be your answer?”

We only have today to be ready to answer that question.