What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Richard R. Crocker
October 6, 2010
What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is a very difficult question to explore, much less answer, in less than ten minutes. I do note, however, that Jesus answered it in about 30 seconds.
The question requires that we answer three other independent questions. Those questions are: What do we mean by eternal life? Is there such a thing? If so, is it for some, for all, or for none of us? And, if it is possible for any of us, how do we get it? It is this last question that the man addressed to Jesus.
What do we mean by eternal life? Well, there is some confusion. Sometimes in scripture the word “everlasting” is used – which implies life that never ends. This is a popular understanding. We go to heaven and live forever – on and on and on and on…….. But the word eternal is different. It refers to life outside of time. Time is a dimension that dominates our earthly existence. There seems to be no escape from it. Yet, as we have come to surmise, reality has many dimensions, far more than the three or four familiar to us. Eternal life is life in a different dimension, outside of time.
If that is so, if eternal life is life in a different dimension, we may yet ask, “is there such a thing?” And the only honest answer to that question is, “we do not know.” Absolutely no one KNOWS if there is such a thing. It is beyond our comprehension, beyond our capacity. Many people today, convinced that human beings are essentially an assembly of molecules, assume that there can be no life apart from those molecules. But that is a belief, a faith, that goes beyond what we can possibly know. Others believe, hope, have faith that our essential life partakes of other dimensions, and that our lives are not conquered by time. The evidence for this belief is also not convincing to everyone. Although some belief in life beyond this one is present in almost every human culture, so much so that it seems intuitive, or ingrained in human being, the belief is not beyond question. For Christians, the evidence is in the transcendent life of Jesus, which was revealed in a new dimension after his death. But while this evidence is held dear by Christians, many others, especially in our materialistic world, cannot give it any credit. So the answer to the question, “Is there such a thing?”, is “We do not know.” But we do know that such belief is common in human life and is essential to the Christian story.
So the third question: if there is such a thing as eternal life, is it possible for any of us humans – and, if so, for only some or for all? Here again, traditional Christian thought runs up against the spirit of the age, which seems to convince many that eternal life is not possible for any human being. But, while Christians are united in their belief that it is possible, they are divided on whether it is for some or for all. Most have said it is for all – though traditionally, the bliss of eternal life is for some, while the torment of eternal life is for others. This great schema – the story of creation, the fall into sin, the redemption of the world through the sacrifice of Jesus, and judgment of the world, following which some will enter heaven and others will be condemned to hell – has been the organizing schema of Christian civilization. Both heaven and hell are seen as eternal. For many Christians this traditional teaching is still convincing. For others, however, the know about God through the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Given this quick exploration of the questions, let us return to this most interesting encounter described in Mark’s gospel (and Mathew’s, and, some think, also in John). It is a wonderful passage, because the questioner gets right to the heart of ambition. Wanting to work for Goldman Sachs and be rich is nothing, compared with wanting to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer to the question is also interesting: he does not say: “Well, I’m going to be crucified and resurrected, and if you believe that, you’ll have eternal life.” No, he says, “What does the law say? You know the commandments.” And the questioner replies, “I have always kept these commandments.” Then Jesus looked at him and thought to himself – this is a really good kid. He really has tried hard. He deserves the award of most likely to succeed. He even deserves to be admitted to Dartmouth. But he also knew that keeping the commandments with one’s whole heart is not possible. So he said, “You lack just one thing. Go sell everything and give it to the poor.” What, no Goldman Sachs after all? And the lovable man was shocked and went away grieving. He couldn’t do it.
The moral of this story is not that we should all give away our possessions, though some of us will want to do that, and all of us should give away far more than we do. The moral – the teaching – is that eternal life cannot be achieved. No one keeps the law perfectly. No one. No one has, except the holy one, Jesus, who did not claim any goodness at all. If there is to be eternal life, it is experienced as grace. Grace. Totally unearned. Grace.
So what must we do to inherit eternal life, if there is such a thing? There is nothing we can do to earn an inheritance. Rather an inheritance is something given to us, because we are all children of God, beloved in more ways, and in more dimensions than we can imagine. That is the gospel.