I was telling a friend about visiting a Sunday School class in a pretty typical evangelical church a few months ago. The class was called "Thinking Rightly about God", and at one point, the teacher asked, "When does eternal life begin?"
I answered naïvely, "If it has a beginning, it's not eternal."
The look on his face told me all I needed to know about my lack of wisdom in answering that question.
I wasn't trying to be clever, I was just answering honestly. "Eternal" means without beginning or ending. Scripture doesn't confuse eternal life with everlasting life – they're not the same thing. Eternal life isn't just life that doesn't end.
(It's worth reading William Kelly's comments in The New Testament Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Chapter 1: "The New Birth and Eternal Life". There's a lot of meat in that chapter, and it's time well spent to read it.)
Colossians 3:4 starts out, "When Christ, who is our life, is revealed..." That's not a poetic statement. It's not hyperbole. It's telling us the nature of eternal life: Christ is eternal life. 1 John 5:11 makes the statement that we have eternal life, "and this life is in His Son" (NASB). Then we read that Jesus Christ is "the true God and eternal life" (1 John 5:20).
So eternal life isn't the sort of thing where I have one and you have another. It's not like my eternal life began when I believed and yours began when you believed. It's true that when we believed, we became partakers in eternal life. It's true that when we believed, we became possessors of eternal life. But that's not the start of eternal life, it's just the start of our claim to it. That's the start of our participating in it.
In a similar way, I don't say the highway begins where I start driving on it. My trip on it starts at that definite point, but it stretches for miles and miles and miles up to that point.
The statement in John 5:11 is remarkable: we have eternal life, and it's in the Son of God. We're not the guardians of eternal life, it's kept safe in God's Son. If eternal life were something we had to protect, if it was something we had to guard, then we certainly would lose it. Only one Man has ever been able to live up to His responsibilities, we'd be able to guard our eternal life to exactly the same degree Adam was able to guard Eden. But the fact is that God gives us eternal life in His Son, where we can't do anything to jeopardize it. He is guarding it, and no failure of mine can ruin it.
But there is a responsibility: "lay hold on eternal life" (1 Timothy 6:12). Eternal life isn't only a hope for the future – it's supposed to be something we experience here and now. It's great that I have title to eternal life. It's wonderful that God has hidden it in the Son, so there's nothing I can do to endanger it. But Scripture calls me to go past merely knowing it's mine to experiencing it. And I have to say this burns my conscience. Do I know what it's like to have eternal life?