What Is Eternal Life?

I want to tell you of an encounter I had on Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. I am not speaking metaphorically here. I was in Jerusalem a couple of years ago. We were visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is a church in the old city of Jerusalem, where the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and of Jesus’ burial lie within one building. Many people, including me, don’t appreciate that Golgotha and the rich man’s tomb were so close together; but John’s gospel records that the place of crucifixion was in a garden. It was an ugly act placed in a beautiful place near the gate of the city. I expect it was to show Roman dominance.

When you enter at the ground level through the main door, the top of Golgotha (the place of the skull) is just up about the equivalent of two normal floors of a building to your right. The tomb is around a corner to your left. Our group went up to the Chapel on top of Golgotha first. The chapel is a somewhat sad story of in-fighting among the groups that control the church. There are three altars. The far right altar is Roman Catholic, the middle Orthodox, the left Arminian. We were in the middle and a group (presumably Catholic) was in the right portion of the chapel. I couldn’t help but overhear the presentation being made by the priest, who sounded American. To my shock he said, “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I think it has something to do with this Earth; we live on in the memories of people.”

I almost had a stroke. Here we are on the likely place where Jesus died and a member of the clergy suggests that eternal life is being remembered. In reflection on the statement made by the priest, I guess I assumed that everyone is clear about the nature of eternal life; and, clearly, I assumed too much. When we let worldly doubts, fears, and academic criticism get into our heads, we can believe that real existence beyond our deaths is impossible. The Jews also had a group, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the body. When this becomes your worldview, references to eternal life are nothing more than wishful thinking or, as the priest said, memories.

My question is, “What would Jesus’ dying on a cross 2000 years ago have anything to do with whether people remember me or not?” The answer is, “It doesn’t.” On that rock on which we stood Jesus literally suffered being forsaken by His Father. That selfless act enabled a promise of God to work. God extends to humans the opportunity to be connected to Jesus. When connected through baptism in the name of Jesus (not some other ridiculous formula), the forsakeness of Jesus becomes the fulfillment of what God’s law requires of us. Because we have not kept God’s Law, we are required to be damned (forsaken). Jesus takes that sentence for us. Having been made right with God, we can live with God in the joy and glory of Heaven (a real place and thus capitalized) and also in the New Earth (also real and as a proper noun capitalized). If you can’t tell, the failure of many books and bible translations to capitalize both Heaven and Earth when referring to the place is a pet peeve of mine.

It is also important to note here that eternal life does not just mean existence. After your death you will exist regardless of your standing with God. That is how you are made. You will actually exist, not just in memory. It is just that if you exist as a being forsaken by God, the experience will be so hopeless and horrifying that calling such an existence “life” is a gross disservice to the word. The Bible is not even thrilled with called our current existence “life”. Existence in Heaven and the New Earth is real life. Once there you will not care if people remember you. You will be having too much fun. Life after death is not some version of the Disney movie, “Coco”. Maybe that is where the priest learned his theology.

So take heart. Jesus has opened the door to life. This is not some vague concept. It is more concrete that you are now.

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