In light of the colossal amount of scriptural evidence for literal everlasting destruction that we’ve amassed so far, how could anyone who knows how to read possibly adhere to the theory of eternal torment? What is it that prevents adherents of this position from accepting all this evidence for everlasting destruction literally? After all, don’t they generally adhere to a literal view of the bible? 19
Actually there are a number of reasons why they refuse to take the bible literally on this subject, such as the influence of religious tradition, denominational allegiance, job security and pride (we’ll take a closer look at these reasons in Chapter Seven). Yet, perhaps the strongest reason is that they foundationally adhere to the doctrine of “the immortal soul,” the teaching that every human being once created can never cease to live (a less common name for this theory is “the eternal spirit”). Supporters of eternal torture cannot very well take such words as “die,” “death,” “destruction,” “destroy” and “perish” literally if they believe that it is impossible for people to cease living.
Anytime you hear or read of “the immortal soul” spoken of as an unquestionable truth it indicates that the person is an adherent of eternal torment. For instance, simply scan the “Statement of Faith” of various Christian organizations—whether it’s for a church, denomination, magazine, college or website—and you’ll quickly be able to determine if they officially adhere to the doctrine of eternal torture. If they believe in “the immortal soul” they consequently must believe in eternal torture as well. If this is the case, their Statement of Faith will usually read something like this: “We believe in the immortality of the soul, that the righteous shall receive eternal life in communion with God and that the ungodly shall suffer eternal separation.” Some may say “eternal punishment” rather than “eternal separation” but, regardless, what they really mean by these words is “never-ending torment in the lake of fire.” You see, because these people believe human beings inherently possess undying souls they have no choice but to conclude that every person will end up either living forever with God in eternal bliss or apart from God in eternal torment. The fact that the bible continually warns that ungodly people will die, be destroyed, suffer death and be consumed by raging fire is rendered completely irrelevant because of the doctrine of the immortal soul.
It is this belief in unconditional human immortality that propels the traditional view of hell as perpetual conscious torture and prevents people from taking the bible literally on the subject.
The fact is that the doctrine of the immortal soul cannot be found in scripture. You can search in vain all you want, but you’ll find no scripture in the bible that teaches human beings possess immortality apart from Christ. That’s because this immortal soul belief did not originate from the scriptures, but rather entered Judeo-Christian thought through contact with pagan Greek philosophy (Crim 212). The bible teaches that God alone has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16) and He offers it to people only through the gospel: “… Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
The only support adherents of eternal torment can come up with for this immortal soul theory is to suggest that human beings are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) and therefore have an immortal soul and cannot die. Their reasoning here is that God is immortal and therefore if human beings are created in His image then they must be immortal as well—that is, some core aspect of them, namely the soul (or mind or spirit), must be immortal. This argument assumes that being created “in the image of God” must refer to inheriting God’s characteristic of immortality. The obvious problem with this line of reasoning is that God has other characteristics such as omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing) and omnipresence (present everywhere at the same time), yet we human beings have never possessed any of these characteristics even though we’re created in the image of God.
God did indeed bless the first man “Adam” 20 with the gift of eternal life when He created him; Adam had immortality. There was, however, a condition to maintaining this immortality as God clearly instructed Adam that if He sinned He would “surely die:”
And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; (17) but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” The Hebrew word translated as “die” in this text is muwth (mooth) which means “to die” or “kill” (Strong 63) and is repeatedly used in the Old Testament simply in reference to death, including the death of animals:
EXODUS 7:18 a
The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink;
EXODUS 14:11 a
They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?”
If Adam never sinned He would have never died. Yet He did sin, and the second that He did, part of him died—his immortal nature. We know this because the aging process started that very day culminating in his death many years later (Genesis 5:5). God foretold Adam’s death immediately after Adam’s fall, “For dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19c). This helps us to understand why muwth—“die”—is actually used twice in Genesis 2:17; a more literal translation of this passage would read: “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, dying, you will die.” In other words, the very day Adam sinned part of his being would die, leading to his eventual demise.
The Hebrew word muwth always indicates that something has died or will die. It does not mean “separation” as some claim; if God meant to warn Adam that He would “separate” He would have used the Hebrew word badal (baw-dal’). In Adam’s case the death of his immortal nature was merely the consequence of a much deeper death—spiritual death. Spiritual death simply means that the human spirit is dead to God. If the human spirit is dead to God it is impossible to have a relationship with Him because the human spirit is the facet of human nature that “connects” with God. As Jesus said: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). If a person is spiritually dead it is impossible to know and worship God in spirit and truth.
The immediate spiritual death of Adam and Eve is evident by the fact that they hid from God and were afraid of Him (see Genesis 3:8-10). Their relationship with God severely changed when they sinned, meaning the old relationship died. Humankind has been hiding from God ever since. Like Adam and Eve we’ve tried to cover up our sin with the fig leaves of religion, but religion can never solve the problem of spiritual death. That’s why Jesus, the second Adam, taught that we need to be spiritually born again to have a relationship with God (see John 3:3-6).
So God originally created human beings with immortality, but it was conditional immortality. Unfortunately our primeval parents failed to live by this condition and consequently passed on the curse of sin and death to us all.
For further biblical support that the human soul is not inherently immortal and can indeed die or be destroyed, let’s go to “the creation text” which describes exactly how God created human beings:
GENESIS 2:7 (KJV/NIV)
And the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul.
The word “soul” in this passage is the Hebrew word nephesh (neh-fesh’) which is equivalent to the Greek word psuche (psoo-khay’) used in the New Testament. 21 Psuche is incidentally where we get the words “psyche” and “psychology.” There’s much theological debate regarding the exact definition of what a human being is. Yet, if nothing else, we can all definitely agree that this verse reveals that human beings are, at their core, living souls. Isn’t this what this text clearly says? God formed the human body from the basic chemical elements of the earth, 22 breathed into it the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.
Because humans are essentially souls, the bible often simply refers to people as such. For example, “All the souls (nephesh) that came with Jacob into Egypt” (Genesis 46:26 a KJV). “Souls” in this text simply refers to the people that accompanied Jacob to Egypt. Another example would be Joshua 10:28 where it shows Joshua taking the city of Makkedah and killing “all the souls (nephesh) that were therein” (KJV). In the New Testament Peter spoke of the “eight souls (psuche)” that were saved in Noahs ark (1 Peter 3:20 KJV); “souls” here obviously refers to the eight people that were saved in the ark. Most modern versions of the bible would translate nephesh and psuche in the above three passages as “persons,” “everyone” or “people” (see, for example, the New International Version).
In light of this biblical information it’s obvious that “soul” (nephesh/psuche) in its broadest sense refers to the whole person, the whole human being—spirit, mind and body. In a narrower sense these Hebrew and Greek words for “soul” can refer to various facets of human nature. For instance nephesh specifically refers to a “dead body” in Leviticus 21:11 and Numbers 19:11; in Acts 14:2 psuche refers to the “mind;” and in Revelation 20:4 psuche refers to disembodied saints and thus to the entire immaterial facet of human nature—mind and spirit. (See Appendix B for a more detailed study on the soul and human nature: spirit, mind and body).
Notice, incidentally, that the creation text quoted above also speaks of the “life” that God breathed into Adam. “Life” is translated from the Hebrew word chay (khah’ee) and is equivalent to the Greek word zoe (zo-ay’) which is used in the phrase “eternal life” throughout the New Testament.23 The kind of “life” (zoe) that God originally breathed into Adam was eternal life; but, as we’ve already seen, this God-given gift of eternal life was conditional. Adam sinned and therefore failed to live by this condition; consequently, He lost this gift of eternal life. It’s obvious that He still had life (zoe) after He sinned, as evidenced from the fact that He lived to be 930 years old, He just no longer had eternal life (zoe). All of Adam’s descendants—that is, every person born into this world since Adam—have inherited Adam’s life (zoe) because we’ve all been born in his likeness and image (Genesis 5:3).24 Thus no one born into this world intrinsically possesses eternal life because we’ve been born of the perishable seed of Adam. The only life (zoe) that people born of the perishable seed of Adam possess is the temporal life (zoe) which God “gives all men” (Acts 17:25). To inherit eternal life (zoe) we must be born again of the imperishable seed of Christ, the second Adam. This is what the gospel of Christ is all about. As it is written:
1 CORINTHIANS 15:22
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
1 PETER 1:23
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
This helps us to understand why Jesus said we must be “born again” to see the kingdom of God in John 3:3,6. Incidentally, notice, once again, the two polar opposite fates spoken of in the first passage above: “in Adam all die” but “in Christ all will be made alive.”
It’s interesting to note that the very same Hebrew word nephesh, translated as “soul” or “being” in the creation text, is used 29 times in the Old Testament in reference to animals, although most versions do not translate nephesh as “soul” when used in this manner. For instance, “let the water teem with living creatures (nephesh)” and “let the land produce living creatures (nephesh)” (Genesis 1:20,24). Psuche, the Greek equivalent to nephesh, is also used in reference to animals in the New Testament (for example, Revelation 8:9 and 16:3). As a matter of fact, “breath of life” is also used in reference to animals (e.g. Genesis 1:30). The question might be raised: If both humans and animals are “souls” animated or sustained by a “breath of life” from the Almighty, what’s the difference between humans and animals? The obvious difference is that human beings—unlike base, instinct-oriented animals—are created “in the image of God.” We thus have the capacity to know and worship God because we possess a higher spiritual dimension to our nature. Animals, of course, do not have a spirit as such. Our spiritual dimension is contrasted by the sinful nature (“flesh”), which is the human proclivity to rebel against God and do evil. Animals likewise do not have a sin nature; as instinctual creatures their actions are neither good nor evil. See Appendix B for more details.
The bottom line is that nowhere does the bible state the human soul, once created, is immortal and can never die. Nephesh, the Hebrew word for “soul,” appears over 750 times in the Old Testament and psuche, the Greek word for “soul,” appears over 100 times in the New Testament. These over 850 references should tell us all we need to know about the soul, yet none say anything about it being immortal by nature. If the immortal soul doctrine is true, why did God inspire hundreds of references to the soul without mentioning anything about it being inherently immortal? On the contrary, as already pointed out, God plainly stated to Adam, who was a “living soul,” that He would “surely die” if He sinned (Genesis 2:17). He also stated in Ezekiel 18:4,20 that “the soul (nephesh) who sins… will die.” And, as we’ve already observed, Jesus plainly declared that God would “destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). A usual knee-jerk, but hollow, response is to argue that these scriptures “are taken out of context.” I would like to use this same argument by pointing out that biblical references to the immortal soul are taken out of context, but I can’t because no such passages exist! (Griesmeyer 4:2-3).
Obviously this idea that a human soul cannot die or be destroyed is alien to the God-breathed scriptures.
The bible reveals exactly where this immortal soul belief originated. Remember what God plainly said to Adam and Eve would be the consequence of disobedience? He warned that they would “surely die” (again, Genesis 2:17). Not only did God say that they would die, He said they would surely die. The LORD made it perfectly clear way back in the beginning that going the wrong way—the way of selfishness and rebellion—would lead to death. This is in harmony with the biblical fact that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Yet when Satan, “the father of lies” (John 8:44), tempted Eve to sin in Genesis 3:4, He contradicted what God said by stating that Eve would “not surely die” if she sinned. This is the very first lie recorded in the bible. The devil was saying in essence, “What God said is a lie, you will not surely die—you have an immortal soul.” Unfortunately people have been believing this lie about the so-called immortal soul ever since; this false doctrine infiltrated Christianity early on and has gone on to become the “orthodox” view, even though the bible does not teach it, thus proving the power of religious tradition and denominational allegiance. This long-lasting mass deception explains why I refer to this belief as The Great Lie.
After the unfortunate fall of Adam and Eve, notice what the LORD God says to Himself:
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
First of all, God would not say this if Adam already possessed an immortal soul (unconditional immortality). Secondly, this statement makes it clear that human beings can obtain unconditional immortality if they eat of the tree of life. The obvious reason God did not want Adam to eat of the tree of life is because He was unredeemed. If Adam ate of the tree of life in his unredeemed condition He would have attained unconditional immortality and thus would have condemned himself and his descendants to live forever in a fallen, ungodly state (like the devil and his angels, as we shall look at shortly). The LORD is just, righteous and merciful and didn’t want such a horrible tragedy to befall humanity, so He immediately banished Adam & Eve from the garden and was sure to guard the way to the tree of life (verses 23-24).
The LORD would have to redeem humankind before allowing us to eat “from the tree of life and live forever.” That’s what the gospel of Christ is all about. And this explains Jesus’ statement in Revelation 2:7, “To him who overcomes I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Notice clearly that only those who are born of God and overcome the world by faith (see 1 John 5:4) have the right to eat of the tree of life and live forever. That’s because, as we’ve already seen, eternal life and immortality are only available through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). God wisely doesn’t want sinful, unredeemed people to inherit unconditional immortality because then they’d have to live forever in a fallen state miserably separate from their Creator. In such a scenario they would indeed have the gift of immortality, but this “gift” would actually be a curse to them. After all, what good is living forever if you have to live it in utter misery?
Eating of the tree of life may simply refer to the resurrection of the dead unto eternal life. You see Jesus spoke of two different kinds of resurrections:
“for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice (29) and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” The two different kinds of resurrections are clear: the righteous—those in right-standing with God—will rise to live; the unrighteous—those not in right-standing with God—will rise to be judged and condemned.
Notice clearly that only the righteous will “rise to live.” Only the righteous will be granted “life and immortality” (2 Timothy 1:10). If only the righteous will rise to live, it naturally follows that the other group will rise to not live; that is, they will be judged and condemned to the second death, the lake of fire, where God will “destroy both soul and body.” We’ve already searched the scriptures to see how plainly evident this is.
According to 1 Corinthians 15:42-54, the righteous who “will rise to live” will receive an imperishable, glorified, spiritual body at the time of their resurrection. Verse 54 of this passage speaks of this: “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ” Incidentally, some adherents of eternal torment, apparently desperate for proof texts, will cite this passage to support their view that “every human being will have immortality” (Menzie 244), yet even a novice student of the bible can see that the passage exclusively refers to born-again believers (e.g. see verse 50 which plainly points out that the people addressed are to “inherit the kingdom of God”).
As you can see, this resurrection unto eternal life is a resurrection unto unconditional immortality. Those who “will rise to live” will never die—for “death has been swallowed up in victory.” Jesus made this clear:
“The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. (35) But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, (36) and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”
Firstly, notice that Jesus speaks of two ages here: “this age”—the present age we’re living in; and “that age”—the age that is to come of which only those “who are considered worthy of taking part… in the resurrection of the dead” will experience. “The resurrection from the dead” in this text only refers to the resurrection unto eternal life, not to the resurrection unto condemnation.
Secondly, notice what Jesus says about the righteous people who are worthy of partaking in this resurrection from the dead: He states that “they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.” This proves that the resurrection of the righteous is a resurrection unto unconditional immortality. We who partake in this resurrection “can no longer die;” that is, no matter what, death—the cessation of life—will never be a possibility for us throughout eternity. This is supported by Revelation 20:6 which states that the second death has no power over those who take part in this resurrection, which is referred to as “the first resurrection.” Since believers will be immortal and can never die, the second death has no power over them.
Thirdly, notice that Jesus states the righteous “can no longer die; for they are like the angels.” Jesus doesn’t say these righteous people would become angels, but that they would be like angels in the sense that they “can no longer die.” This proves that angelic beings possess the God-given gift of intrinsic unconditional immortality. No matter what, angelic beings can never die—even if they choose to rebel against their Creator, like the devil and his demons. We’ll look at this matter in a moment.
This resurrection unto eternal life and immortality is a very fundamental aspect of the gospel of Christ. Acts 17:18 states that Paul preached “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” and “for his hope in the resurrection of the dead He was put on trial” (Acts 23:6). Unfortunately you won’t hear much emphasis on the resurrection of the dead unto eternal life in many churches today. It’s more likely you’ll hear about “going to heaven” when you die, as this belief seems to have replaced the doctrine of the resurrection unto eternal life in importance. See Chapter Six for a brief biblical look at the nature of eternal life, i.e. the new Jerusalem, new heavens and new earth (in the section ‘What About “You Will Spend Eternity in Either Heaven or Hell”?’).
As noted above, Jesus made it clear that angelic beings can never die, that is, they intrinsically possess unconditional immortality. Therefore even if some of them would choose to rebel against their Creator—like the devil and his angels (Isaiah 14:12-14)—they would still possess immortality and thus can never die. Why? Because their immortality is unconditional.
So, at the end of this age, what has God decided to ultimately do with the devil and his angels who have chosen to rebel against Him and who are, evidently, beyond redemption? The bible teaches that the lake of fire is an “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41 b). This passage makes it clear that God originally created the lake of fire as an eternal habitation for the fallen angels who decided to reject his Lordship. Revelation 20:10 reveals exactly what will happen to the devil and his angels when they’re cast into the lake of fire at the end of this age: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
It’s important to point out that, as the above text from Matthew plainly states, the lake of fire was not prepared for human beings, but for the devil and his angels. Yes, God will use the lake of fire to execute “the second death” of human beings as we have already clearly seen, but the lake of fire was not originally created for people. Obviously the nature of the lake of fire is such that it will utterly extinguish any being that lacks immortality.
The devil and his angels, on the other hand, will not experience death in the lake of fire because they possess unconditional immortality; the very nature of Gehenna will torment them. This explains why the lake of fire is never referred to as “the second death” in reference to the fallen angels; it is only called such in regards to human beings (e.g. Rev. 2:11, 20:6, 14 & Rev. 21:8). Why? Obviously because people will be utterly destroyed there, not perpetually tormented.
Adherents of eternal conscious torture often cite the above text, Revelation 20:10, to support their view by suggesting that "the beast and the false prophet” are human beings and this text shows that they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Their suggestion is that “the beast” refers to the antichrist and the false prophet is his prophetic cohort. Well, what does the rightly-divided Word of God teach on this matter? The antichrist is indeed a human being and is described in scripture as “the man doomed to destruction” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). However, “the beast” from Revelation 19:20 and 20:10 is not at all referring to this man, but to the evil spirit that possessed him. This is clear because the bible plainly states that the beast originated from the Abyss (Rev. 11:7-8). “The Abyss,” according to scripture, is the furnace-like pit where evil spirits are imprisoned, not human beings (see Luke 8:31, Rev. 9:1-2 and Rev. 20:1-3). I can therefore confidently assure you that “the man doomed to destruction” from 2 Thessalonians 2:3 did not originate from the Abyss, but from his mother’s womb! Likewise, the false prophet is referred to as “another beast” ( Rev. 13:11-17, 16:13, 19:20). The Greek for “another” here is allos (al’-los), which means “another of the same kind.” Therefore the false prophet is an evil spirit that originated from the Abyss as well.
For further proof that the beast and the false prophet are evil spirits and not human beings, consider Revelation 16:13: “Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon (Satan); out of the mouth of the beast; and out of the mouth of the false prophet.” First of all, notice that the beast and the false prophet are spoken of on a par with the devil himself here; this signifies that they are evil spirits of the highest ranking, not mere human beings (in fact they may be separate manifestations of Satan).25 Secondly, notice that evil spirits come out of the mouth of the beast and false prophet just as they come out of the mouth of the devil.
Lastly, the bible shows both the human antichrist and his human prophetic partner performing awe-inspiring miracles, such as “causing fire to come down from heaven” (e.g. Revelation 13:1-18, 19:20). To do such they would have to be possessed by high-ranking demons or even Satan himself, as no human being could perform such miracles. Such miraculous phenomena always stem from a supernatural source. The source of these miracles, in this case, is the beast and the second beast, called the false prophet, who will possess the antichrist and his partner.
At this point some might argue that I’m admitting that God will allow some of his created beings to suffer everlasting conscious torment. In light of this, why do I have such a problem if this were to apply to human beings? Mainly because I understand what God’s Word clearly teaches from Genesis to Revelation regarding the eternal fate of ungodly people as revealed in this study. Secondly, because I am a human being and consequently have firsthand personal knowledge of the human experience and condition. I therefore have the capacity to make sound judgments regarding human affairs based upon the universal moral and judicial instincts that God has granted all people created in His likeness. And my judgment of this doctrine of never-ending torture of human beings is that it is a heinous, revolting, perverse teaching—completely blasphemous to the just, moral, loving, merciful name of the Almighty. Thirdly, because I am not an angelic being, have no comprehension of the nature of their existence in the spiritual realm, and only know about these entities by faith through a handful of non-detailed passages in the scriptures. I therefore have no recourse but to trust that God’s eternal judgment of the fallen angels is just and righteous. Lastly, because the devil is directly responsible for the fall of humankind and, hence, all the horrible evil and suffering that’s ever been experienced on earth throughout history. I’m therefore not too overly disturbed by the idea that He and his colleagues have to suffer forever in a state of torment. I admit that the thought that any being has to suffer such a fate is tragic, but I think the devil and his angels—who, unlike humans, have existed for millennia—were quite aware of the consequences of their foolish rebellion against the Almighty. Naturally I can’t help but feel that they perhaps deserve their fate.
Remember Jesus’ statement from Luke 20:35-36 that, at the resurrection from the dead, the righteous “can never die; for they are like the angels?” The righteous will become like the angels in the sense that they will inherit unconditional immortality and thus will never again be able to die. The righteous will in essence become “immortal souls;” this is the only sense that the immortal soul doctrine is biblically valid. The only bad side to this I can think of is that if any of the partakers in this resurrection should choose to rebel against God at some point in the age to come, they will have to suffer the exact same fate as that of the devil and his angels. Why? Naturally because they possess unconditional immortality and can never die. Let me add here that I seriously doubt any of the righteous would ever foolishly rebel against God after their resurrection unto eternal life (no doubt the everlasting example of the fallen angels will be enough to deter them).. After all, God would take little joy in creating robots programmed to love and obey him.
I should add here that there are many adherents of literal everlasting destruction who reject this position that the fallen angels will suffer eternal conscious torment in the lake of fire. They believe that such angelic beings will ultimately cease to exist as well, and they present a pretty good argument. I have open-mindedly considered their view on this matter, but am persuaded by scripture in maintaining the position presented above. Regardless, this is a detail matter and should not cause division.
In our study so far we’ve examined countless passages that mention God’s gift of “eternal life” (or “everlasting life”) such as John 3:16 and Romans 6:23.
Yet, what exactly is “eternal life”? What precisely does it mean to possess “eternal life”? Does “eternal life” simply refer to life that lasts forever? To find out we’ll need to dig a little deeper in our study.
First of all, let’s examine the word “life.” As shown earlier in this chapter “life” is translated from the Greek zoe. The popular Greek and Hebrew scholar, James Strong, offers a one-word definition of zoe, stating that it simply means “life” (35). The Greek scholar W.E. Vine states that zoe “is used of that which is the common possession of all animals and men by nature” (368). Vine then cites Acts 17:25 as an example. Let’s go ahead and examine this text, along with the verses that bracket it:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hand. (25) And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives all men life (zoe) and breath and everything else. (26) From one man (Adam) He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”
The apostle Paul, the man God used to write over one-third of the New Testament, is speaking in this passage, and He plainly states that God gives all people zoe. Every human being alive on this earth has zoe—“life.” In fact, as Vine tells us above, animals have zoe as well. The scriptures support this statement because the Hebrew equivalent to zoe, chay, is used in reference to the life of animals:
“I (God) am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life (chay) in it. Everything on earth will perish.”
Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life (chay) in them came to Noah and entered the ark.
This agrees with E.W. Bullinger’s definition of zoe as “life in all its manifestations, from the life of God down to the life of the lowest vegetable… Each living person or thing has that portion of it which is needful for his or its designed position or purpose. Its only one source is God, who is ‘the living One’ ” (453). This explains why Paul stated “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Bullinger’s initial definition of zoe is “life, the perfect and abiding antithesis of thanatos [death].” This is supported by Paul in Romans 8:38-39 where He lists a series of complete opposites: “For I am convinced that neither death (thanatos) nor life (zoe), neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, (39) neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As height is the express opposite of depth and angels the antithesis of demons, so zoe is the exact opposite of death.
All this information helps us to understand zoe simply as life—the state of being alive or consciously existing, the express opposite of death. There’s nothing bizarre or mystical about zoe; it refers to “life” and that’s why English bibles unanimously translate zoe as such.
Now let’s examine the word “eternal.” The Greek for “eternal” is aionios (ahee-o’-nee-os) which means “perpetual” (Strong 9) or, more literally, “age-lasting.” This is understandable since aionios is derived from the parent noun aion (ahee-ohn’) meaning “an age” (Strong 9). With this understanding let’s re-examine a passage that uses aion twice, in reference to two different ages:
Jesus replied, “The people of this age (aion) marry and are given in marriage. (35) But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age (aion) and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, (36) and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.
Jesus here speaks of two ages—two aions: “this age”—the age (aion) that we are now living in; and “that age”—the age (aion) that is to come which, according to Jesus above, will only be experienced by “those who are considered worthy of taking part… in the resurrection from the dead.” The age to come will officially begin when God creates “a new heaven and a new earth” (see 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22). There are many other biblical texts which plainly speak of “this age” and “the age to come,” for example Matthew 12:32; Mark 10:30; Ephesians 1:21 and Hebrews 6:5.
The apostle Peter incidentally taught that Christians are to be “looking forward” to this age to come (2 Peter 3:13). Why? Because the age to come will be a world and universe where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). The age to come will be the way God wants it to be with no more death, crying or pain! This is in contrast to “this age” that we are presently living in. The bible refers to this age as “the present evil age (aion)” (Galatians 1:4). Why do the scriptures bluntly describe this present age as “evil”? Because this world is not the way God wants it to be—it’s marred by death, pain, sin, disease, war, famine, injustice, crime, greed, prejudice, perversion, immorality, etc. These maladies are clear evidence that this age is under the control of Satan who is referred to in scripture as “the god of this age (aion)” (2 Corinthians 4:4; see also 1 John 5:19 and Revelation 12:9). We will look at the nature of “the age to come” in more detail in Chapter Six.
In light of all this information regarding aionios zoe it becomes clear that the phrase “eternal life” in its original Hebraic context refers to “age-lasting life”—“the life of the age to come” or “life in the age to come” (Wright 7). Since the age to come is never-ending, “eternal life” (or “everlasting life”) is a very sound translation.
This helps explain the seeming conflict between biblical passages which state that Christians presently have eternal life and passages which state that eternal life is something that will be granted in the future. For example these two passages clearly show that born-again believers presently have eternal life:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.
1 JOHN 5:13
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
These next two texts reveal that eternal life is something to be obtained in the future (at the first resurrection):
a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time,
so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
These verses adequately explain that Christians “have eternal life” in the sense that we have “the hope of eternal life.”
Jesus makes it clear in this next passage that eternal life is to be obtained in the age to come:
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers and sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel (30) will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (aion) (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them persecutions) and in the age (aion) to come, eternal life.
As you can see, perpetual life will be granted to faithful Christians “in the age to come.” This is why Jude stated:
Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.
Christians are waiting for the Lord’s mercy to bring them to eternal life.
These four passages explain why the scriptures speak of eternal life as something “promised” to believers (see 2 Timothy 1:1 and 1 John 2:25) and something believers are “heirs” to (1 Peter 3:7). We’re heirs to eternal life but we haven’t inherited it yet.
Understanding that “eternal life” (aionios zoe) literally means “perpetual life in the age to come” helps us to make sense of these seemingly conflicting passages. Christians presently have eternal life in the sense that we have the hope of life in the age to come even while we’re still living in this present evil age—we have “life in the age to come.” Christians have “the life of the age to come” in the sense that, because our spirits have been reborn and we are in communion with the living God, we are able to manifest “the life of the age to come” to a cold, bloody, sinful age. We can do this because “the life of the age to come” is inside of us. We are ambassadors of the coming age to a dark and dying world. God is in a sense kick-starting “the age to come” through His church on earth who have “the life of the age to come.”
Now that we have a proper understanding of what aionios zoe biblically means, let’s read the most popular passage accordingly:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have perpetual life in the age to come.”
God doesn’t want anyone to reap the wages of sin and perish forever; He gave His Son Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for our sins so that we can have the gift of life in the age to come—the age of the new heavens and new earth which will last forever.
Does Aionios Zoe (Eternal Life) Mean “Living Forever”?
I felt it was necessary to go into detail about what exactly “eternal life” means in the scriptures because there are some strange, unbiblical doctrines out there. For instance, I’ve heard it taught that “eternal life” (aionios zoe) does not refer to living forever when, in fact, this is exactly what it refers to—living forever in the age to come. The English rendering of aionios zoe as “eternal life” (or “everlasting life”) is indeed the best English translation; and this is why English bibles unanimously translate aionios zoe as such.
Furthermore, “eternal life” (aionios zoe) is used interchangeably with “immortality” in the bible:
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, He will give eternal life.
“Immortality” in this passage is the Greek word aphtharsia (af-thar-see’-ah) which simply means “unending existence” (Strong 17) which is another way of saying “living forever.” Notice plainly what the passage states: those who seek immortality will be granted eternal life. “Immortality” and “eternal life” are used interchangeably. Those who seek immortality will be granted immortality, those who seek eternal life will be granted eternal life. (For a more detailed examination of this passage see Chapter Five). This interchangeability is further supported by a previously viewed text:
2 TIMOTHY 1:9 b - 2 TIMOTHY 1:10
This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, (10) but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life (zoe) and immortality (aphtharsia) to light through the gospel.
Because zoe is used in connection with “immortality” here, we know for certain it’s a reference to aionios zoe—eternal life—and not merely to zoe (we would naturally assume this because all people and animals have zoe, but eternal zoe is only available through the gospel). With this understanding, note plainly that eternal life and immortality are used interchangeably in this passage. Until Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification, eternal life and immortality were not available to us. Eternal life and immortality are essentially one and the same, they both refer to “unending existence” in the age to come, “perpetual life” in the age to come; the difference is that “immortality” refers to the inherent nature of a person and “eternal life” refers to the result of that person’s inherent nature.
Perhaps the best proof that “eternal life” simply refers to living forever is that it is continually contrasted by such easy-to-understand words as “death” (Romans 6:23), “perish” (John 3:16) and “destruction” (Matthew 7:13-14; Galatians 6:8). Since “eternal life” is repeatedly cited as the express opposite of death and destruction, it can only refer to living forever.
Think about it, what is humanity’s greatest desire—a greater desire than wealth, fame, true love or sexual gratification? From the ancient epic of Gilgamesh to Ponce De Leon’s obsessive search for the fountain of youth to our modern-day compulsion to remain youthful-looking as long as possible, humanity is obsessed with the idea of immortality, the idea of living forever. Wise King Solomon reflected on this fact:
I have seen the burden God has laid on men. (11) He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
Although everything in all creation, whether living or non-living, is beautiful in its prime—women, men, animals, trees, mountains, buildings—they all ultimately crumble into dust. Everything has its set time but ultimately decays or dies. The bible refers to this as the creation’s “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). Yet, in our hearts there is a yearning to live forever, a yearning to never die, a yearning for immortality or “the fountain of youth.” This yearning stems from the fact that we instinctively know that we were originally created for immortality, but that our immortality was somehow lost. Our foreparents, Adam and Eve, originally possessed immortality but lost it due to their sin. We therefore have this natural emptiness inside of us, an intense yearning for that which was lost—immortality and communion with God.
This deep yearning is what prompted a young rich man to approach Jesus and ask: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). The man was rich and consequently had everything money could buy, but He lacked immortality. He knew He was inherently mortal and doomed to perish one day, despite his great wealth, and this explains why He asked Jesus how He could obtain eternal life. Jesus answered him: “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments” (verse 17). The Lord pointed the rich youth to the Old Testament law because the law is the schoolmaster that ultimately leads us to Christ, through whom is eternal life. Notice that Jesus didn’t contest the man’s question, He didn’t say, “Young man, you already possess immortality and thus have eternal life.” Jesus didn’t say this because it’s simply not true, instead He explained to him what He had to do to obtain eternal life.
On another occasion an expert in the law asked Jesus a similar question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Like the rich man, the lawyer knew He was mortal and doomed to die one day. He didn’t believe He had some “immortal soul;” He thus asked Jesus what He must do to inherit eternal life. And, once again, Jesus didn’t contest the man’s question. He didn’t assure him that He inherently possessed immortality. No, like the rich man, Jesus pointed the lawyer to the law and said, “Do this and you will live” (verse 28).
My point is that Christianity at its core is the answer to humanity’s age-old quest for immortality. If you’re searching for the “fountain of youth,” the answer is revealed clearly in the Holy Scriptures which is the revelation of Jesus Christ. Religionists may have obscured this truth over the centuries with their tangled web of life-stifling lies, but the truth is still there, it cannot be quenched: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Biblical Christianity is the true “fountain of youth” that humanity’s been seeking since time immemorial.
NOTE: The remainder of this chapter involves an examination of the Greek words zoe and psuche, both of which are translated as “life” in the scriptures. This examination is only intended for detail-oriented readers; those not interested in such a study are encouraged to skip ahead to Chapter Five.
A popular teaching suggests that the Greek Word zoe refers to “the God-kind of life,” that it means “eternal life, or God’s life” (Hagin 1,9). The only problem with this teaching is its narrow implication that zoe only refers to “the God-kind of life,” and the insinuation that Christians have already attained eternal life.
Although we examined zoe earlier in this chapter, considering the validity of this teaching gives us an excuse to conduct a more extensive examination here.
We’ve already deduced that zoe simply means “life”—“life in all its manifestations, from the life of God down to the life of the lowest vegetable.” Let’s observe six different uses of zoe in the New Testament:
Zoe refers to the temporary life that all people possess as a result of being born of the perishable seed of Adam. The only life that unbelievers have is this temporal life (zoe); to receive eternal life (zoe) they must be spiritually born-again of the imperishable seed of Jesus Christ, the second Adam. We’ve already gone over scriptural support for this earlier in this chapter. We even saw how the Hebrew word chay, the Old Testament counterpart to zoe, refers to the life of animals.
Zoe refers to spiritual life. What exactly is spiritual life? Human beings are a unit made up of three facets: spirit, mind and body. The part of our being that is aware of God and desires to “connect” with him is our spirit. We can only commune with God through our spirit because, as Jesus stated, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). The problem is that everyone born into this world is born of the perishable seed of Adam and thus naturally inherits the condition of spiritual death. This simply means that a person’s spirit is dead to God and cannot do that which it was designed for—commune with God. This explains why Jesus taught that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless He is born again” (John 3:3). Jesus made it clear that He was talking about a rebirth of the human spirit (verse 6). When a person accepts the gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ s/He is spiritually reborn as his/her spirit is made alive unto God. As it is written:
But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.
Spiritually reborn Christians can actually have a relationship with God because their spirit is alive to him. This relationship can only develop based upon the growth of the reborn spirit. In other words, the reborn spirit is born as an infant and must be nourished and trained to reach maturity. This explains Peter’s statement: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Some Christians, unfortunately, never grow up spiritually; they remain spiritual babies throughout their entire Christian walk.
This statement by Jesus is one of only a few New Testament passages wherein zoe refers to spiritual life:
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; He has crossed over from death to life (zoe).”
When a person is born-again spiritually He or she passes from a state of spiritual death to a state of spiritual life. Regardless of whether a person is spiritually dead or spiritually alive, it is a present state in his or her life. Both spiritual death and spiritual life have natural results: spiritual death ultimately results in eternal death—absolute death with no hope of resurrection in the age to come. Spiritual life ultimately results in eternal life—perpetual life in the age to come. Spiritually reborn Christians have eternal life in them in the sense that they have the seed of eternal life; this seed is spiritual life which ultimately blossoms into eternal life in the age to come. See Appendix B for more biblical details on spiritual life, spiritual death and human nature: spirit, mind and body.
Zoe refers to the spiritually born-again believer’s new life in Christ. This usage of zoe goes hand and hand with the previous usage and, in fact, could be viewed as synonymous. This is obvious because the very reason a Christian has a new life (zoe) in Christ is because of the spiritual life (zoe) s/He has as a result of being spiritually born-again. Here are three texts in which zoe is used in this manner:
“Go, stand in the temple courts,” He said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life (zoe).”
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (zoe).
They (unbelievers) are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life (zoe) of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.
Zoe in all three of these texts refers to the new life that a born-again Christian experiences as a result of being spiritually alive to God. The teaching that zoe refers to “the God-kind of life” best fits this usage of zoe. There are a handful of passages in which zoe is used in this manner. Christians have “the God-kind of life” simply because their spirits have been born anew and they have communion with the Creator of the universe. They have “the God-kind of life” because they are “new creations” “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Ephesians 4:24). The born-again spirit acts as a kind of sixth sense, tuning them in to God and the realm of the spirit. Unbelievers of course lack this “sixth sense” because they are spiritually dead to God.
Zoe refers to life in this present age, as opposed to life in the age to come, which is perpetual. Zoe is biblically used numerous times in this manner. Here are two examples:
Then He said unto them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed: a man’s life (zoe) does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
JAMES 4:14 b
What is your life (zoe)? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
As you can see, in both of these texts zoe is used in reference to a person’s life in this present temporal age, as opposed to life in the everlasting age to come. The second passage likens life in this present age to a mist that appears for a little while but then disappears.
Zoe refers to eternal life—perpetual life in the age to come. Zoe is most often used in this manner in the New Testament and we’ve seen numerous examples of this in our study. As already pointed out, believers only possess eternal life in the sense that they have the hope of eternal life. Because they have accepted the gospel, they have been spiritually born-again and are reconciled to God. Born-again Christians thus have the hope of perpetual life in the age to come. If believers only presently have the hope of eternal life, where is their gift of eternal life now? Who has it? And when do they get it? This next text explains:
Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (3) For you died, and your life zoe) is now hidden with Christ in God. (4) When Christ, who is your life (zoe), appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Paul is writing to the Colossian Christians here and He tells them that they have “died.” They died positionally in God’s eyes when they were spiritually born-again. Consequently, as far as God is concerned, they are dead to the sinful nature and dead to the world. This explains why Paul made the statement, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
As born-again believers who had accepted the gospel, the Colossians were heirs to God’s gift of eternal life, just as Christians are heirs today. This is the major benefit of the gospel, along with reconciliation with our Creator. Notice clearly in verse 3 where Paul states the Colossian’s gift of eternal life is; He states that it is with Christ in heaven. He then tells the Colossians that they can expect to receive this gift when Christ appears.
Zoe refers to “the Lamb’s book of life” which contains the names of every redeemed person throughout history who is an heir to the gracious gift of eternal life. A good example of zoe used in this manner would be Revelation 21:27.
Now that we understand the six different ways in which zoe is used in the New Testament, let’s utilize all six of these definitions in one succinct paragraph: Every person born into this world has life, the temporal life inherited from Adam. Only believers have the hope of eternal life because they’ve been spiritual born-again of the imperishable seed of Jesus Christ, the second Adam; they thus have spiritual life and their names are written in the lamb’s book of life. Spiritual life enables a believer to live a new life in Christ and ultimately blossoms into eternal life in the age to come.
Our conclusion regarding the teaching that zoe refers to “the God-kind of life” is that zoe can only be defined as such in the handful of passages in which zoe refers to a believer’s new spiritual life in Christ. To suggest that zoe always refers to “the God-kind of life” is unscriptural. If this were the case then we would have to absurdly conclude that spiritually dead pagans and animals have this “God-kind of life” just as much as spiritually born-again Christians. The people who teach this may be sincere Christians and may be doing a great work for the Lord, but they’re sincerely wrong on this specific issue nevertheless. Needless to say, they should endeavor to be more thorough in their biblical studies.
If we were to accept this teaching that zoe always refers to “the God-kind of life” it would make nonsense of the scriptures. For instance, remember from the previous section the question that the rich man and lawyer asked Jesus? They both asked Jesus how to obtain eternal life (Matthew 19:16 and Luke 10:25). If we interpret zoe to always refer to “the God-kind of life” then we would have to translate their question as such: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal God-kind of life?” Is this what these men were asking Jesus? No, they were simply asking Jesus what they must do to inherit immortality and live forever—physically, mentally and spiritually.
There’s another biblical word translated as “life” in addition to zoe; it is the Greek word psuche, which we briefly examined at the beginning of this chapter. What is the difference between zoe “life” and psuche “life”? Generally speaking, psuche refers to the individual life, the living being itself, whereas zoe refers to the life of that being (Vine 368). To understand this difference let’s take a look at a statement by Jesus in which He refers to both psuche “life” and zoe “life”:
“The man who loves his life (Psuche) will lose it, while the man who hates his life (psuche) in this world will keep it for eternal life (zoe).”
Since we already examined the meaning of this passage in Chapter Two, we’ll just focus here on the subtle difference between psuche life and zoe life. Psuche in this text, as you can see, refers to the person himself—his very soul or being—and zoe in this context refers to the perpetual life of the person in the coming age. Understanding this subtle difference helps us to see why psuche is often translated as “soul” or “being” as observed earlier in this chapter.
Notice, incidentally, the contrasting fates of the two individuals that Jesus speaks of: The man who “loves his life (psuche: soul)” so much that He rejects Christ’s Lordship will end up losing it; whereas the man who “hates his life (soul)” to the point of accepting the Lordship of Christ will keep it for everlasting life in the age to come.
The fact that the foolish man will literally lose his psuche (life/soul) is what this study is all about. And this is exactly what Jesus himself solemnly declared:
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psuche). Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell.”
Notice that “soul” (psuche) is distinguished from “body” in this text. In other words, psuche refers to the individual being as separate from the body. It’s obvious therefore that psuche, in this specific context, refers to the disembodied soul, which would include both mind and spirit. Thus “soul” (mind and spirit) in this passage would refer to the non-physical individual life whereas “body” refers to the physical individual life. This coincides with the usage of psuche in Revelation 20:4 wherein psuche refers to the disembodied souls of people, and thus to the non-physical essence of their being (i.e. mind and spirit).
The reason this is important to bring up is that there are some who erroneously teach that psuche only refers to physical life (Lindsey 195-196). Yet, we see here clear scriptural evidence that this is simply not the case. It’s true that psuche can refer to physical life in the bible, for instance Revelation 8:9 wherein psuche refers to the life of sea creatures, but psuche in this context would technically refer to the life of the creature itself, and not solely to its physical life; regardless, there are only a few such passages. Psuche can also refer to the whole human being, physical and non-physical (e.g. 1 Peter 3:20), but more often than not psuche refers to the non-physical facets of human nature, the mind or mind & spirit (see Appendix B).
Why is this important to bring up in our study? Simply because the people who argue that psuche “life” only refers to physical life are advocates of the eternal torture doctrine. The obvious reason they invented this completely unbiblical theory was to “write off” the passages we’ve looked at which clearly state that the person who rejects Christ will “lose his life (psuche).” If we take such passages literally and at face value, as we should, they clearly support the view of literal everlasting destruction. Since this is unacceptable to supporters of eternal torture, they had no choice but to come up with this theory that psuche refers only to physical life in such passages, but not to the soul, the disembodied being (even though Jesus’ usage of psuche in Matthew 10:28 completely dispels this theory). Here’s how we would have to interpret Jesus’ words in John 12:25 (quoted above) if this absurd theory were true: “The man who loves his physical life (psuche) will lose it, not his whole life, but only his physical life, his immaterial soul, however, will suffer never-ending conscious torture in the lake of fire.” Is this what Jesus really meant to say in this passage? Of course not, the idea is absurd. This is nothing more than a clear-cut case of subtracting the truth and adding to the God-breathed scriptures.
As we’ve seen in our study, Paul stated that “all men [have] life (zoe)” (Acts 17:25). This refers to the temporal life (zoe) that God grants all people and is simply attained by being born of the perishable seed of Adam. Thus everyone born into this world has temporal life (zoe). To receive eternal life (zoe), on the other hand, people must be born again of the imperishable seed of Christ, the second Adam (see 1 Peter 1:23; Romans 5:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:45). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is what the gospel of Christ is all about, and it’s all summed up very nicely in the famous simple passage, John 3:16 (a passage that could never be quoted often enough):
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Everyone has zoe, but only those who believe have aionios zoe.