We have already seen that the Jews expected in the Messianic Kingdom a higher form of existence, a blessed life free from the evils of the present. This life was defined by the term "eternal." This phrase, eternal life, is first met with in the prophet Daniel (xii. 2), and later in the Maccabees, and other Apocryphal books. It was one in common use in the Lord's day, and is often found in the Gospels. The young ruler, as also a lawyer, asked the Lord "what he should do that he might have eternal life" (Matt. xix. 16, Luke x. 25); and the Lord Himself often employs it. We must, therefore, ask what were the elements of this conception of eternal life in the Jewish mind?
A chief difficulty in our inquiry is the vagueness of the terms, "life" and "death." We have only the one term life, to denote several distinct conditions of human existence. It is applied first, to that condition in which man was created, when God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became "a living soul." The life of man as thus created in God's image, and for communion with Him, was complete as to its elements, body and soul being united; and was capable of development. But by transgression man came under the la.w of sin and death. This was a lower and evil condition of humanity, in which, and before the actual separation of soul and body, there could not be fullness of life, either bodily or spiritual. After this separation man is said to be dead, yet the separated soul continues in a state of conscious existence. Thus it has a life in the body, its normal state; and a life without the body, its abnormal state. Death is both the act of separation of soul and body, and the condition of separation that follows it; the dead are the disembodied.
We have thus three distinct states of human existence: first, that of man as he was created, and not under the law of death; second, that after the fall, when he had come under the law of sin and death; third, that of the disembodied soul. To all these the term life is applied. To these we may add a fourth, the state after the resurrection, soul and body having been re-united. And of the disembodied we may make two classes, according to moral position, — the good and the evil; and of the risen, also, two like classes, each having its own special conditions of life.
To which of all these differing states of human life, embodied and disembodied, good and evil, is the term eternal to be applied, using it in the sense of "everlasting," or "without end "? With the first, that of Adam as created, we are not here concerned, since it no longer exists. Nor can it be applied to the second, that of Adam as fallen, for all the fallen are under the law of death, and eternal cannot be affirmed of life in mortal flesh. Can we apply it to the life of souls disembodied, whether righteous or unrighteous? This cannot be, since disembodied life ceases in this form at the resurrection. We can, then, only apply "eternal" to that form of life which begins at the resurrection, and which is, therefore, without end; and it may be applied to all who are raised from the dead, both just and unjust. Thus, regarding eternal life as a defined form of human existence which continues without end, it must be the life that follows the resurrection, — soul and body being then re-united, — and not any that precedes it.
But eternal life thus defined may be good or evil, blessed or miserable, since there is a resurrection both of the just and the unjust; and we must take therefore into account another element than simple duration, and this element is a moral one. It is said by our Lord, "the righteous shall go into life eternal." In its common acceptation in the New Testament, it is a blessed life without end; and the chief element in this blessedness is full communion with God. We have, then, to ask to which of the possible differing states of human existence the term eternal life in the sense of full communion with God without end, may be applied?
Upon this point the New-Testament Scriptures are very emphatic; the term "eternal life," in the sense just defined, cannot be applied to any condition but that of the righteous after the resurrection, when they are brought into their highest and permanent form of being. There is, indeed, a life in communion with God common to the faithful on the earth and to the righteous departed. Both live in the Divine favor, and are spiritually blessed. But both are in a relatively imperfect condition, and one that is not permanent; the first being under the law of sin and death, the second being among the dead, — separated souls. There is in neither of them fullness of life, according to the measure even of their original constitution; and because of this their communion with God is necessarily limited and imperfect. He who is in his original goodness, like a vessel unbroken, can receive from God according to his full measure ; he who has fallen from it, like a vessel broken, can receive only in part. Neither the soul in the mortal body, nor the soul without a body, can enter into the most Holy Place, into the very presence of the living God. Fullness of life, and, therefore, fullness of communion with God, is given to him alone, who stands before Him in the perfect integrity of his nature, wholly set free from the law of sin and death, and exalted in the resurrection to the highest form of human existence.
Having now before us the two elements of the conception of eternal life as the perfected and final condition of humanity, attained through resurrection, and admitting into fullest communion with God; we see that it was one that the Jews could not have had till Christ died and rose again. Their teaching under the law had been negative rather than positive. A chief point to be taught them was that the dead, even the most faithful, were not in full communion with God. Disembodied existence was never the Jewish ideal of human blessedness; sheol is never set forth as a place where God is revealed. He dwells among the living; and the dead must arise, and return to the light of day, and stand before Him in His holy hill, if they would behold His glory. As the highest manifestation of Himself was to be made in the coming Messianic Kingdom, it was life in this Kingdom that was the object of spiritual hope.
So deeply had this teaching respecting the imperfection of disembodied existence taken root in the Jewish mind, that it was not till the Grecian period (333-167 B.C.), and through the influence of Greek philosophy, that other beliefs began to find adherents. It was said, that the soul is a part of the Divine essence; that any union with matter as in the body, hinders and defiles it; that such union is, therefore, temporary; and that, when released from the body, it enters in virtue of its ethereal nature into its true and higher condition of being. It was under the influence of this philosophy that the disembodied state began to be regarded by some of the later Jews as the highest and most blessed state; and the resurrection of the body, and its re-union to the soul, as both unnecessary and unworthy. There is no reason, however, to believe that this philosophy, though it is reflected in some of the Apocryphal books, ever greatly influenced the popular mind. Its influence upon Christian doctrine through Origen and the Alexandrian school, it is not our place to examine.
We may, then, say that as regards the dead, the restoration of the integrity of man's nature — the re-union of soul and body in the resurrection — was a chief and indispensable element in the current Jewish conception of eternal life in our Lord's day. No Jew ever thought of the disembodied soul as to have part in the Messianic blessedness. It is, of course, to be remembered that this belief was modified in its details according to the spiritual discernment of individuals; and that in many minds there was, doubtless, great confusion, both as to the nature of the Messianic Kingdom, and of resurrection life, and very low conceptions of both.
We may now ask whether the Lord in His own teaching added any new element to the Jewish belief? Being Himself the promised Messiah, He claims the prerogatives that belong to Him as such; He alone has authority to admit to the Messianic Kingdom, and to participation of its blessed life. "Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life." (John v. 40.) "My sheep hear my voice, . . . and I give unto them eternal life." (John x. 27, 28.) "This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." (John xvii. 3.) But He teaches more than this. He not only admits those who believe on Him to life in the Messianic Kingdom, but He Himself is the source of this life. The Father had given Him "to have life in Himself," and so to be a fountain of life to others. "I am the Life." "I am the Bread of life." "I am the Vine, ye are the branches." "Abide in me, and I in you."
Thus to the elements already existing in the Jewish conception of eternal life, a new and higher one was added by the Lord in His teaching, — life in Himself. Those who would become partakers of this life must be made members of Him, regenerate or new-born. (John iii. 8-6.) But of this new element the Jews in His day could have no right knowledge, since they knew not that He was the incarnate Son; nor that through resurrection He should enter into an estate of immortality and glory. During His own lifetime, therefore, He could only indirectly teach them that the eternal life was something more than a blessed existence in the Messianic Kingdom. Nor till after His resurrection could the truth be presented by the apostles, that the Risen One had become the second Adam, the Quickening Spirit; and that He gave His own heavenly life to those who believed on Him. "The second man is the Lord from heaven. ... As we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly." (1 Cor. xv. 47-49.) As life derived from Him who can die no more, it is no longer under the law of death; as the life of the glorified Son, it is the highest possible form of creature existence; and all partaking of it are capable of entering into the closest communion with God, and so of attaining the highest conceivable blessedness.
In reading the Lord's words spoken to the Jews of His day, we cannot be surprised that there are in them such depths of meaning that they failed to understand them. Faith in Him and His Messianic claims as a condition of entrance into His Kingdom, they could imperfectly understand; but what did He mean when He said, "The bread of God is He which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. ... If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread which I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." "As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me "? These expressions and manifold others, speak of a communication of His life to all believing on Him, that was then incomprehensible. It was not till after the Day of Pentecost and the descent of the Spirit, that the apostles themselves knew the nature of the eternal life as life in Christ risen from the dead. It was not merely the cleansing and exaltation of the life received from Adam, but something distinctively new. To this they continually bear most emphatic witness. "The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. vi. 23.) "This is the record, that God hath given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son." (1 John v. 11.)
The term "eternal life " had thus to the apostles and disciples a largeness and a depth of meaning which it could not have had to the Jews. Having its origin in the heavenly Man, this life was heavenly. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." Abiding in Him, the sinless and holy One, holiness is its law. "He that abideth in Him, sinneth not." It is a life not subject to the law of death; for as the life of Him who is risen from the dead, it embraces both soul and body, and assures their future re-union if they shall be separated. But the possession of this life did not, indeed, assure against bodily death. "And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin." (Rom. viii. 10.) It did give assurance of resurrection. "The body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise us up." To be in Him "who was dead, and is alive again for evermore," makes it certain that the body of our humiliation will in due time be fashioned like unto the body of His glory. (Phil. iii. 21.)
It was from not knowing that this new life in Christ is still subject to death as the dissolution of soul and body, till the number of His elect in the Church is completed, that the early Christians at Thessalonica were so troubled when some of their number died. How could they who had been made partakers of the life of the immortal One, go down, as all before had done, into the grave? Probably, as they expected the speedy return of the Lord, they thought that death must be a special judgment from God; and that those visited by it would be excluded from the Messianic Kingdom. This error the apostle Paul corrected, and taught the Church that the power of death would not be overcome till the Lord's return; and that those sleeping in Him would enter the Kingdom at the same time with the living. "We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep." (1 Thess. iv. 15, etc.)
If a special vital relation with the Risen One is thus established in those regenerate through the Holy Spirit sent by Him, as symbolized by the Vine and the branches; we may find here the ground of distinction between the dead in Christ and those who died before He became the last Adam, the Quickening Spirit. Doubtless all in every generation before He came who died in faith, are blessed in their communion with God. But there seems good reason to believe that those made members of Christ since He ascended, continue in the invisible world to stand in a special relation to Him, and through Him to the Father. However this may be (and positive assertions would be presumptuous), it is obvious that the language of the apostles respecting them that "sleep in Jesus," is very unlike the language of the Old Testament respecting the departed. All who have been made partakers of His life continue to be one in Him. They do not through death cease to be branches in the Vine. The dead are separated in body from their brethren on earth, but they are not separated in spirit either from them, or from the Lord. Through the one Spirit there is community of life. Of the communion which the faithful departed have with Christ we cannot adequately speak, for it is spiritual; but it is of such a nature that the apostle could say, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain," and he is "in a strait" whether to choose to live or to die. But in view of the labors and sufferings before him, he says that "to depart and to be with Christ is far better." This language could never have been used of a state of unconsciousness, an error which, indeed, is refuted by the presence of the one Spirit in the one body, binding all, both those living in Christ and those sleeping in Him, into unity. It is impossible that a part of the members of the same body and having one life, can be in a state of consciousness, and a part in a state of unconsciousness.
Yet the apostle does not look upon the dead in Christ as having fullness of life, and so prepared to be His helpers either in His present work or in the future Kingdom. The goal to which he looks forward is the resurrection: "If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead;" or more literally, "from the dead." (Phil. iii. 11.) "Not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life." (2 Cor. v. 4.) Fullness of life can only be possessed by those who are made in resurrection like the risen Lord, immortal and incorruptible; and thus are they prepared for His service, as He at His resurrection became the perfect servant of the Father. Then may they be His kings and priests.
It is most remarkable that with the supreme importance given in the New Testament to the fact of resurrection, first of Christ and then of His members, it early began to be regarded by some in the Church as comparatively unimportant, although holding a prominent place in its creeds; and now by many the body is regarded as constituting no essential element of the eternal life. The disembodied saints are believed to be not only at rest and in peace, but already glorified, and even exalted to be rulers together with Christ. This point in some of its bearings has been elsewhere noticed. This premature exaltation of the faithful departed has not been confined to any part of the Church, though assuming somewhat different forms in the Roman-Catholic and Greek communions on the one side, and in the Protestant on the other. The latter have been contented to affirm that faithful souls do "enter at once into glory," but assign them no official place in heaven; the former, dividing them according to spiritual condition, make a part to be now reigning with the Lord, priests to whom intercessions may be addressed, and princes whose help may be implored. It is difficult to see how, if already glorified, and able to fulfill heavenly ministries, and to be now kings and priests unto God, any element of the full eternal life is wanting in them.
But high as the position of the dead in Christ may be, and great their blessedness, they are, nevertheless, the dead; in a condition the fruit of sin, and in which there is necessarily, therefore, imperfection and weakness. They rest from their labors. Their active service does not begin till He calls them to come forth from the invisible world, and, clothed in immortal and incorruptible bodies, to take part with Him in the administration of His kingdom. It was a true perception of their imperfect condition, and a right feeling that led the early Church to say in her worship, "May they rest in the peace of God." But we must note how inconsistent is this prayer with the actual exaltation of the dead to a place of rule and intercession. To complete the prayer we must add: "And may they awake to a joyful resurrection."