God (Yahweh) as the Source and Sustainer of Life. According to Genesis 2:7, "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 being." This "breath of life" does not distinguish human beings from other animals, nor perhaps even plant life, as can be seen in Genesis 1:29-30. When God declared his judgment against Noah's generation, all creation in which there was the "breath of life" would suffer the destruction of the flood ( Gen 6:17 ; Genesis 7:15 Genesis 7:21-23 ). The breath of life distinguishes the living from the dead, not human beings from animals ( Eccl 3:18-19 ). Consistently throughout Scripture God is portrayed as the giver of life, which distinguishes living organisms from inanimate things ( Rom 4:17 ).
Life is contingent upon the continuing, sustaining "breath" of God. When God ceases to breathe, life is no more, "How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures When you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust" ( Psalms 104:24 Psalms 104:29 ). Death is frequently described as the cessation of this divine activity ( Gen 25:8 ; Mark 15:37 ). It is for this reason that the psalmist concludes, "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord" ( Psalm 150:6 ; cf. Rom 1:20-21 ).
The Quality and Duration of Life. Between birth and death, creation and cessation of life, the living experience varying qualities of life and length of days. On the one hand, the Creator is the sovereign Lord of the days of one's life. He sends poverty and wealth, humility, and exaltation, makes paupers to be princes and princes to be paupers ( 1 Sam 2:6-9 ). For this reason, those who live by faith are not to worry, for they rest in the assurance that God cares about their life ( Matt 6:25-34 ; Luke 12:22-31 ). One cannot add a single hour to the span of life by worrying ( Matt 6:27 ). "The length of our days is seventy years or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away" ( Psalm 90:10 ). Long life is viewed as the evidence of divine favor ( Exod 20:12 ; Deut 5:16 ; Psalm 21:4 ; 91:16 ; Prov 10:27 ; Isa 65:20 ), so to die in the midst of one's years was a calamity ( Isa 38:10-14 ; Jer 11:22 ; Lam 2:21 ). On the other hand, the situation and quality of life may be diminished and even destroyed by chance, circumstances, and the conduct of unrighteous or negligent persons. In such circumstances, the lowly pray for divine mercy and help. Worries, riches, and pleasures ( Mark 4:19 ; Luke 12:15 ), as well as hunger, sickness, sorrow, and sin can choke and even destroy life.
Life as a Choice. In Moses' third address to Israel ( Deut 29:1-30:20 ), he calls them to reaffirm their covenant with God. A choice, not a difficult one, must be made ( Deut 30:11 ), for God had set before them "life and prosperity, death and destruction blessings and curses. Now choose life" ( Deuteronomy 30:15 Deuteronomy 30:19 ). In a similar manner. Joshua appeals to the next generation after the settlement in the promised land ( Joshua 24:14-15 ).
The choice is not always one of obedience and disobedience, but rather one of wisdom that results in health, prosperity, honor, and a better quality of life ( Exod 15:26 ; Prov 3:22 ; Proverbs 4:13 Proverbs 4:22 ; 6:23 ; 8:35 ; Proverbs 10:17 Proverbs 10:28 ; 19:23 ; 21:21 ; 22:4 ; Eccl 9:9-10 ). Such a Person experiences the shalom and peace of God ( Prov 14:30 ; Gal 1:3 ). This choice is inherent in the psalms and the Beatitudes of Jesus. The promised blessed life is contingent upon the community and/or individual response of obedience to the will of God ( Matt 7:24-27 ).
The Sanctity of Life. In a physical sense, life is associated with the blood of an animal ( Lev 17:11-14 ; Deut 12:23 ). As long as there is blood, there is life. When the blood is drained from the body, so is life. The connection is so strong that the law forbade the consumption of blood or meat with blood in it ( Gen 9:4 ; Leviticus 17:12 Leviticus 17:14 ; Deut 12:23 ; Acts 15:20 Acts 15:29 ). Also, the blood of an animal could make atonement for the transgressions and sins of the people of God ( Lev 16:14-19 ). The life-blood of the sacrifice was substituted for the life-blood of the worshiper, although inadequate and creating a longing for the perfect sacrifice of Christ ( Psalm 49:7-9 ; Heb 10:1-4 ).
God demands a reverence for human life ( Psalm 139:13-14 ), and forbids murder ( Exod 20:13 ; Deut 5:17 ; Matt 5:21 ). Where violence has shed blood, there must be an accounting and a just penalty ( Gen 4:10-11 ; 9:5-6 ; Exod 21:23 ; Lev 24:17-22 ; Deut 19:21 ; Matt 5:38 ). Jesus enlarges this understanding of life to include more than physical life, proscribing angry words, insults, and name calling ( Matt 5:22 ), for these wound and kill the spirit, self-esteem, and well-being of another. The perpetrator becomes subject to judgment. The gospel of God extends a special invitation to the poor, the disabled, the weak, the oppressed, and the children, offering hope and new life.
Sin and Spiritual Death. Mortal humanity was created in the image of God ( Gen 1:26-27 ), and given the opportunity of eternal life in relationship with the Creator (Gen. 2-3). Central and vital to life in paradise was access to the tree of life in the midst of the garden of Eden ( Gen 2:9 ). There was one commandment, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 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." When Eve and Adam listened to the tempter and disobeyed the commandment, eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, they brought a curse upon themselves ( Gen 3:16-19 ), their descendants ( Rom 5:12-14 ; 1 Cor 15:21-22 ), and upon all creation ( Gen 3:17 ; Rom 8:19-22 ). The human race lost innocence, knowing right from wrong, and, even more, the disobedience abolished a continuing privileged access to the tree of life ( Rev 2:7 ; Revelation 22:2 Revelation 22:14 Revelation 22:19 ), and thus eternal life. Spiritual death, separation from the tree of life, and a broken relationship with God resulted. The human race was destined to die, as were all living creatures, but now without hope beyond the grave. Spiritual death reigned from Adam to Christ ( Romans 5:14 Romans 5:21 ; 1 Cor 15:20-26 ).
The Good News of the Gospel. Life is a central motif of the four Gospels. John summarizes his purpose in writing the Fourth Gospel: "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" ( 20:31 ).
Jesus announced that he alone is the narrow gate or entrance into the way that leads to life ( Matt 7:13-14 ; John 10:7 John 10:9 ; 14:6 ). As the Son of God, he had been active in creation ( John 1:1-4 ), and came to give new life or birth ( John 3:3 John 3:5 John 3:7 ; John 6:33 John 6:51 ) to all who believe in him ( 3:16 ). Those who experience the new birth are described as having been formerly dead ( Luke 15:32 ; John 5:21 ). Thus, Jesus stands alone at the center of history as "the Author of Life" ( John 5:40 ; Acts 3:15 ). This life is nearly synonymous with entering into the kingdom of God and experiencing the restoration of the divine-human relationship intended in creation. When Jesus healed the sick, exorcised demons, and cleansed lepers, he was restoring life to its intended, physical wholeness ( Luke 4:18-19 ; 6:9 ). When he proclaimed the good news of God, he was seeking to save and restore the spiritual life lost in Adam's sin.
Eternal Life. There is only an embryonic understanding of eternal life in the Old Testament. The psalms frequently reveal a deep longing to be permitted entrance into the presence of God, which goes beyond earthly, temporal worship in the sanctuary or temple. In Psalm 71:9 the psalmist prays in his old age, not that he might escape death, but rather that the Lord would not forsake him as his strength fades and death approaches. It is pious Job who becomes the champion of eternal hope ( Job 19:25-27 ). This hope, which seems to burst through the boundaries of death, is expressed in more apocalyptic terms in Isaiah 65:17-19. Daniel envisions a resurrection and judgment assigning those raised to everlasting life or everlasting shame and contempt ( Dan 12:1-3 ). To die, however, generally meant that one entered the mysterious underworld beyond of Sheol or Hades.
Life in the New Testament, beginning with Jesus, predominantly has a metaphysical and spiritual meaning, an indestructible quality, which supersedes physical death and the grave. This life is more important than eating, drinking, and clothes ( Matt 6:25 ; Luke 12:22-33 ), and more valuable than physical wholeness and health. The distinction becomes clearer when Jesus commands disciples to deny themselves, take up the cross daily, and follow him ( Mark 8:34 ; par. ). There is a tension, even a conflict, between the present physical existence with its passions, and the spiritual life that will continue beyond physical death. Whoever loses or denies the present life for the sake of Christ, finds eternal life, life in the age to come ( Mark 8:35-37 ; 10:30 ; par. John 12:25 ). The rich young ruler desired to inherit eternal life, but to him the cost of denying his present life by selling all that he had and giving to the poor in order to gain the eternal was too great ( Mark 10:17-31 ; par. ).
"Eternal life (zoen aionion)" becomes a common phrase in the Johannine writings. Jesus is life ( 1:4 ; 5:26 ; 11:25 ; 14:6 ; 1 John 1:2 ) and the giver of life ( John 5:40 ; John 6:33 John 6:35 John 6:48 John 6:51 John 6:63 ; 10:10 ; 17:2 ; 1 John 5:11-12 ) to all who believe in him ( John 1:7 ; John 3:15 John 3:16 John 3:36 ; 6:40 ; 11:26 ; 12:46 ). The beginning of life as a child of God is likened to a new birth ( John 3:3-8 ; 1 John 2:29 ; 3:9 ; 4:7 ; 1 John 5:1 1 John 5:4 1 John 5:18 ), which is not of human decision, but the result of the divine, spiritual action of God ( John 1:13 ; 3:5-8 ; 6:63 ). It is a transformation from death to life, becoming a present reality. This life is available to "all who believe" in Jesus, the Son of God.
According to Paul, the death of Jesus on the cross opens the way to reconciliation with God, and it is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ that gives life to those who believe ( Rom 5:10 ; 6:3-4 ; Gal 2:20 ). Those who have experienced the free gift of life from God ( Rom 5:15 ; 6:23 ) are led in triumphal procession spreading the knowledge of the gospel of Christ everywhere ( 2 Cor 2:14 ). They walk in newness of life ( Rom 6:4 ; 7:6 ), and the righteousness of God reigns in their mortal bodies to eternal life through Jesus Christ ( Rom 5:21 ; Romans 6:13 Romans 6:22 ). The Spirit of God at work in them gives life, peace, and freedom ( Romans 8:6 Romans 8:11 ; 2 Cor 3:6 ), which is witnessed by the present world in their love for one another.
Melvin H. Shoemaker
Bibliography. G. R. Beasley-Murray, SJT27 (1974): 76-93; G. Bornkamm, Early Christian Experience; F. F. Bruce, SJT24 (1971): 457-72; R. Bultmann, G. von Rad, and G. Bertram, TDNT, 2:832-75; J. C. Coetzee, Neot 6 (1972): 48-66; C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel; A. J. Feldman, The Concept of Immortality in Judaism Historically Considered; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament; J. Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture; H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel; R. Schnackenburg, Christian Existence in the New Testament; V. Taylor, ExpT76 (1964-65): 76-79; H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Life'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".