Did Jesus say that believers would never ever die, indicating that even when their bodies die, they will live on with him in glory? You might have heard that, but what if he meant something different, promising that we would be spared the fate of disappearing into death forever?
I get some resistance to the biblical concept that human beings are frail and mortal, “dust of the earth,” that we return to the dust when we die, and that there’s no heavenly life to be had while our bodies lay in the grave awaiting the resurrection of the dead. Sometimes people even pit Bible verses against this biblical idea. One verse at a time, I think we can see that these objections fail, and the overall clear biblical portrait of human nature and death remains intact.
One of those objections comes from a particular interpretation of Jesus’ saying after raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11:25-26:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
Never die. That gives pause to some people when they consider my view that immortality is received at the resurrection and that the dead are really dead in the grave, not living on as immortal souls. They wonder if this claim by Jesus must mean that if we live and believe in him now, we cannot lie dead in the grave without our souls living on in glory, because we will “never die.” It’s a good question to ponder, but there’s already a reasonable response to this worry, quite apart from the observation I’ll make soon. Jesus is here talking about those who live the new life that he has just referred to: Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, will live – that is, via the resurrection. So when Jesus goes on to say “whoever lives and believes in me will never die,” he’s talking about the life of immortality after the resurrection.
Well and good, this is certainly possible. This falls into line with the way that Jesus unpacks the meaning of having eternal life elsewhere (e.g. John 6:40, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day”). But there’s more! Fasten your seatbelt. I’m going to suggest that “will never die” might be the wrong way to translate this saying of Jesus.
There are a couple of words in Greek commonly translated as “never” in the New Testament. I will use the King James Bible here for its literal wording. They are:
οὐ μὴ (ou mē). This is two words. Each part (οὐ and μὴ) is a negative particle, resulting in a strong negative. It means “not,” which in many (although not all) contexts means “never.” For example (there are plenty) John 6:35 – “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never (οὐ μὴ) hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never (οὐ μὴ) thirst.” The word “not” works equally well in these instances, and still conveys the meaning of “never.” Daniel Wallace explains that at “οὐ μὴ rules out the idea as even being a possibility.”1 Will X, which is possible, actually happen? Nope, οὐ μὴ says that it will definitely not happen.
οὐδέποτε (oudepote). This word more strictly means “never.” e.g. Luke 15:29, the parable of the prodigal son – “And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never (οὐδέποτε) gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:”
When we read “will never die,” we are reading a translation of οὐ μὴ (i.e. will not) plus something extra, and it’s that extra part that I want to look at. If Jesus meant that those who believe in him won’t die, then “will not die,” that is, οὐ μὴ + “die,” would be enough. But that’s not what we find when we look beneath the surface. The Greek says that whoever lives and believes in me: οὐ μὴ (will not) ἀποθάνῃ (die) εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (unto the age, or just “forever”). Follow what I’m about to say carefully, reading it more than once if the meaning isn’t clear, because this is an important point: In order to say that a person will never die, the Greek need only say that they will not/never (οὐ μὴ) die. That’s because οὐ μὴ is enough all by itself to deny the potential outcome of dying, as Daniel Wallace explained. Will they ever die? No, οὐ μὴ conveys that they will not. Adding εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (to the age, or forever) is not necessary to do this. Indeed, when the same writer, John, elsewhere reports Jesus saying that he is the bread of life so that a person may eat and not die (unlike the manna in the wilderness, which people ate but still died), he says that a person may eat καὶ (and) μὴ (not) ἀποθάνῃ (die) – and not die. There was no need to add “forever,” because that is already expressed by saying that a person will not die (and in that context, physical death is meant, in order to make the contrast with Israel in the wilderness work).
The concept of a thing “never” happening is not usually expressed by using the phrase “to the age” (εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα). That is not how those words normally function (exceptions exist, but are, well, exceptional). The phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα is used elsewhere in the New Testament and we can compare the meaning in those cases with this case. Adding εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα invites us to think that it’s not simply dying that believers in Christ will never do. Whoever lives and believes in me will not…. what? They will not die forever. “Dying forever” is a potential outcome. As I have gone to some lengths to show in many places, dying forever is, according to the New Testament, what will happen to those who are finally lost.
This phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, “to the age,” is the normal way of talking about doing a thing forever. Jesus said in John 6 that whoever eats this bread will “live forever” (ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα – “live to the age”).
In fact, John 8:35 shows us exactly what it looks like to deny that something will be the case forever and to affirm that something will be the case forever, and it confirms precisely what I am saying here:
“The slave does not remain in the household forever. The son abides forever.”
What does the slave not do? “Remain in the household forever.” What does the son do? “Remain [by implication, in the household] forever.” How is it expressed that the slave does not remain in the household forever? The slave: οὐ μένει ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. The negative particle οὐ is not quite the emphatic οὐ μὴ , but otherwise the construction is the same. The slave does not remain in the household forever. It would be a mistake to read this as though the slave will not remain in the house at all or ever. He will, but he won’t do it forever. By contrast, the son μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, “remains to the age,” i.e. forever. If we interpret Jesus in John 11 the same way, he is not saying that whoever lives and believes in him will not ever die. That is a different question. Maybe they will die and maybe they won’t. But they will not die forever.
Remember, even if Jesus’ words meant that a person will never die, it presents no a problem for the biblical portrait of human nature as mortal and death as sleep, because in context he is talking about what happens after the resurrection. But in fact the evidence shows that the translation “will never die” is disputable, and “will not die forever” is quite possibly the intended meaning.
The meaning of John 11:25-26, then, is this: Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Jesus, even though he dies, he will live, thanks to the resurrection of Christ. And whoever lives and believes in Christ will not die forever. You will be spared that, if you belong to the one who is the resurrection and the life.
PS An almost identical version of this article first appeared in From Death To Life. Check out the whole issue!
- Aquinas agrees: Jesus said we will “not die forever.”
- “Can These Bones Live”? is up at Afterlife
- A theological pet peeve
- Easter: The Mission is the Message
- The death of the Apostles: Why would you?
- Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 468. [↩]