Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
What does Jesus, as reported by John, mean when he says that whoever hears and believes has “eternal life”. Answering this question requires us to work with a series of difficult concepts. First we need to get an idea of what “eternal life” might be and secondly we need to understand what “having” eternal life means. Having grasped these things we then need to work out what “hearing” and “believing” are, in this context and finally we might want to think about how hearing and believing are conferring possession in this case.
None of these steps seem easy.
Beginning with “eternal life”. One suspects that the definition of “life” (Greek zoe) that is at work here is something more elusive than the “signalling and self-sustaining processes that Wikipedia offers as distinguishing the living from the non-living (here). Jesus does not, I think, intend us to understand that whoever hears and believes will be able to carry on regulating their internal environment, the integrity of their structures, metabolising, growing, responding and reproducing for ever.
“Life” must mean something other than these purely biological phenomena and “eternal” something other than “unending”.
“Eternal” here links to the enduring existence (beyond the limits of the created order) associated with God and “life” implies a form of existence connected to that of God, which does not imply these dynamic bio-chemical processes. On the other hand both words can only mean something to us in connection with time and biology. We are being offered a vision of our connection with the divine that draws on and is in fact inseparable from our experience of being living beings and as such a bundle of processes in time but which differs markedly from it.
“Eternal life” in this sentence of Jesus’ can’t just be an infinite extension of the life we currently know but neither can it be something unrelated.
So what would it mean to “possess” this “eternal life”? I’m not sure that we would normally talk about something “having” life, except metaphorically. We would more naturally talk about “being” alive. Once the living thing is no longer living it can’t “have” anything. Being alive might be thought of as the precondition of possessing rather than as itself a possession. When life is gone possession also ends, on the biological understanding of life.
My feeling is that this remains the case where we’re talking about the “eternal life” here. A person (and this can only be people, I think) can be alive without having eternal life. Eternal life is something extra that might be added to one alive. It is not, simply, life. What’s more those who do so have passed through death, have emerged from death into life.
The biological life that does not possess eternal life is already death. To live simply biologically, simply as processes in time, is to live within death. The phrase “dead man walking” applies to us all, except insofar as we come into possession of eternal life by hearing and believing. “Life” in this restricted sense is a few moments snatched against a background of death and in its permanent shadow.
“Eternal life” reverses this picture. Eternal life is God’s life which is the precondition for biological life. It is misleading to say, even, that God’s life pre-exists biological life, because that would put it within the sequence of time whereas God’s life is outside time altogether and forms the background against which all temporal processes take place.
On this understanding all life that is bound to God’s life steps, in that way, outside temporal process. In this perspective it is death that is passing, as is the biological life that is bounded by it. The participation of the process of “life” in “eternal life” suspends death within this broader (non temporal, eternal) horizon. Death is passed through, even while life persists.
From this viewpoint before and after themselves lose their meaning. All of time and its passage resolves to an “eternal now” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich). This is why one can possess eternal life while still facing biological death. Eternal life is “always already” beyond death because it is a- or post-temporal.
Why then are hearing and believing important?
This is a difficult and intractable problem in the realm of soteriology, the speaking about salvation. In John’s gospel having eternal life IS what being saved is about. Eternal life IS about being profoundly connected to, partaking in, the realm of the divine, of the life of God. The way in which this is possible is through connection with Jesus, the incarnate Word, the one who is both a human being and God.
Jesus has, perhaps even is, eternal life for human kind. By being at once a biological, a temporal, being, and also God, outside time and beyond death, Jesus makes possible, is the very possibility of such life. When we hear and believe we are joined to Christ and when we do so we are given possession of this eternal life.