The Meaning of “Life” in John’s Gospel

Tuesday, 18 Jun 2019

Richard from St. Petersburg, FL writes: 

The distinction between ‘eternal life’ (aeon zoe) and ‘life’ (zoe) in John, is, exactly, what? Zoe-life is itself eternal, yes? Why does John’s Gospel have a hundred references to zoe with only 17 of them joined with the word eternal?”

Thanks for your question Richard. The Greek word zoe, can be used to refer to ordinary human life, and to eternal life as well. The way to spot the difference would be to pay close attention to the context. As with some of the cases you mentioned, whenever “life” is modified by the word “eternal,” it’s easy to tell that our never-ending life in heaven is in view. Elsewhere, contextual factors make clear that ordinary human life is in view. This is evident in texts such as Luke 16:25 in which a rich man is told, “Child, remember that in your life (zoe) you received good things,” or John 4:50 in which Jesus tells the royal official, “Go, your son will live (zao).” The context of both those passages make clear that the word “life” refers to our temporal earthly existence.

Now there are passages in John in which the word “life” appears without being modified by the word “eternal,” and yet the context makes clear that “eternal life” is actually the focus. This can be seen in a verse such as John 20:31 in which the narrator explains his own motivation for writing this Gospel:  “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life (zoe) in his name.” Though the word “life” here is unmodified, we know what the author is getting because he has made similar statements throughout his work, and has connected “believing” with “eternal life” (cf. Jn. 3:15-16, 36, 5:24, 6:40, 47).

Essentially, the word “life” as it is used in John 20:31 serves as a kind of shorthand for the longer phrase “eternal life.” This sort of thing happens frequently in English as well. For example, a friend once told me that while he and his family were on a road trip, his son noticed a billboard which said, “Don’t Drink and Drive!” The son then scolded his father, since he happened to be drinking a soda at the moment. The misunderstanding of course is related to the way in which the prohibition against “drinking and driving” should not be taken literally (as if it referred to all liquids), but is understood to be a kind of shorthand way of saying that we should avoid “drinking (alcohol) and driving.”

The key thing we need to realize about the way Jesus is revealed in the Gospel of John, is that he’s not presented merely as someone who can help us to get access to eternal life, but rather, he’s actually presented as source of life itself. Right at the very opening of this Gospel we’re told, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” In other words, Jesus is Yahweh, the great-self existent one (cf. Ex. 3:14, Dt. 32:39, Rev. 1:8).

In terms of the stats, I was able to find 56 examples of different forms for the word “life” (zoe, zao, zoapoieo), and 30 examples of the word “eternal,” and/or “forever” (aeon, aeonios) used throughout the Gospel of John. I was also able to find around 20 or so examples of instances in which those two words interacted with each other.

I hope this helps!

Shane Rosenthal
White Horse Inn


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