Living eternally: heaven can wait

We know the phrase, we know the question, and we even know the answer. . . . Or do we?

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the expert in the law asked of Jesus. Eternal life – that's the phrase, question and answer, all wrapped up into one. It’s the answer to our search – eternal life!

The prospect of heaven is touted as the reward for believing in Jesus Christ. People with bullhorns standing on the street corners, people with sandwich boards draped over their shoulders, people with tracts depicting the reward of heaven versus the curse of hell; all strategies of evangelism! While we didn't participate in that kind of outreach, our attitude was that we were going to heaven, and everyone else is going to hell.

And lately there has been a resurgence of this kind of thinking. The movie Heaven is for Real reawakens us to the hope we have within us – that we are going to heaven when we die! A recent documentary about heaven and hell reminded us about the reasons why we believe we are going to heaven and others are not. Heaven is our reward for believing in Jesus Christ.

What was the expert getting at when he asked the question about eternal life? Was it the question “what happens to me after I die?” We like to think so. Somehow we have equated salvation with heaven. But heaven was not the answer Jesus gave, nor was it the answer Peter gave when confronted by the convicted peoples at Pentecost, nor was it the answer Paul and Silas gave to the jailer when he asked what he must do to be saved. Somehow we have tagged heaven onto the answer that Jesus gives to the expert in the law. And, for that matter, we also tagged heaven onto the answer Jesus gives to the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16). But eternal life is not about heaven.

Heaven is surely where we will go after we die, do not mistake me. Jesus promised that, after he goes to heaven, he will come back for us, and take us to where his father is, for there are many rooms there. But the expert and the ruler were not asking about heaven. They were asking about life here on earth.

A good life
The literal translation of the word “eternal” has a qualitative connotation to it, as in: how well can I live this life I have been given? Our NIV Bibles would have served us better if they had translated the word “eternal” as “good,” as in, “What must I do to obtain a good life?” Instead, we have been left with the notion that eternal life is quantitative, as in, how long will I live past my death? where the answer to that question would be – forever – eternally! But Jesus came to show us how to live: he came that we might have life, and have it to the full. Eternal life is meant to be all about the life we live now, here on earth.

One of the pitfalls of adopting this translation is what is commonly known as the Prosperity Gospel, where all you have to do is “Name It in order to Claim It.” I am confident that that is a “broad” application of Jesus’ promise that we will have an abundant life, (broad in the sense of the path that leads to destruction is broad). I am confident of this because the Prosperity Gospel is a self-centred religion where Jesus is but the vehicle that delivers your every desire to you. Beware of this application of the “good life.”

Jesus’ response to both the expert and the ruler are highly consistent with the interpretation of eternal life as the “good” life. In the first case, Jesus tells the expert to live out the two greatest commandments through the story of the Good Samaritan. In the second case, Jesus tells the ruler to abide by the commandments as the way to live the good life. In both cases, Jesus’ answer is life oriented, not life-after-death oriented. – Jesus instructed them to live good lives, and he told both of them how. Eternal life is all about action here on earth!

One of my favourite challenges to give to Christians is this: if you believe that you have been saved by Jesus Christ, and that you have been given eternal life, then know this: eternal life starts now! Heaven can wait, you are already living eternally!


  • Dale Melenberg

    Dale is Pastor of Hope Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Courtice, Ont.

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