Whether we can be absolutely sure that we’re going to heaven is a hotly debated topic among Christians. For those who argue that we can have absolute assurance, John 5:24 is a go-to passage. It reads:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
The late Norman Geisler interprets this passage to mean, “Those who truly believe now can be certain now that they will be in heaven later.” This leads him to conclude, “Eternal life is a present possession the moment people believe, and this assures Christians they will never be condemned.”
Does John 5:24 mean what Geisler thinks it means? Let’s take a look.
The first thing we can say is that the present possession of eternal life via belief doesn’t mean a person will never be condemned. For a believer to never be condemned, Jesus would have to have said that a person who currently possesses eternal life via belief always remains in possession of this life, which in turn would mean that such a person would always remain in a state of belief. But Jesus doesn’t say that.
And the mere affirmation of the present status of a believer possessing eternal life doesn’t entail this either. It only proves that as long as a person believes, he has eternal life. And having such life when we stand before Christ in judgment at the end of our lives is what excludes us from condemnation.
Moreover, the New Testament teaches that a believer can fall away from faith, and thus lose possession of eternal life. For example, in reference to some who “hear the word” and “receive it with joy,” Jesus says, “they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13). Since a believer can fall away from faith, it follows that a believer can lose the eternal life that is presently possessed. This being the case, the present possession of eternal life via belief doesn’t mean the believer will never be condemned.
A second response is that the logic embedded in Geisler’s interpretation of John 5:24 proves too much when applied elsewhere. Consider a parallel with John 3:36b:
|John 5:24||John 3:36b|
|“He who believes . . . does not come into judgment.”||“He who does not obey the Son (believes not) . . shall not see eternal life.”|
Notice how the grammar and the syntax are parallel in structure. Each stipulates a condition and a consequence when the condition is met.
Now, on Geisler’s interpretation of John 5:24, once the condition of belief is met, the consequence of not coming into judgment is secure. If we were to follow this line of reasoning when interpreting John 3:36b, we’d have to say that once the condition of not obeying the Son (or not believing) is met, then the consequence of not seeing eternal life is secure.
But this would mean that anyone who currently doesn’t believe can never repent of his unbelief and receive salvation. This contradicts Jesus’ call for repentance: “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). It also contradicts the apostolic call for repentance: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Neither John 3:36b nor John 5:24 is addressing the issue of whether the condition of the person involved (believer or non-believer) can change. Rather, as New Testament professor Robert Picirilli points out, the emphasis is on the fulfillment of the promise “to those who persist in the respective state described” (emphasis added).
Since Geisler’s line of reasoning cannot be applied consistently throughout Scripture without leading to conclusions that contradict New Testament teaching, we’re justified in rejecting it, and consequently his interpretation of John 5:24.
Here’s a third response, one used by apologist Jimmy Akin: the Bible doesn’t only speak of eternal life as something presently possessed by believers. Rather, it also speaks of it as something believers have not yet achieved. Consider, for example, Romans 2:7: “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” Similarly, Paul writes elsewhere, “He who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8). If there is a not yet dimension to receiving eternal life, then you can’t simply assert that believers are secure in the aspect of it that they currently possess. The not yetness allows for the possibility to lose it—that is, if a believer stops believing, stops seeking for glory, honor, and immortality, stops sowing to the Spirit, etc.
Now, a believer in the doctrine of eternal security might counter, “You’re gutting the meaning of eternal in the phrase ‘eternal life.’ Eternal life would not be eternal if we could lose it.”
This counter-argument assumes that the term denotes merely a quantity of life, in the sense of living forever. But this can’t be what Jesus is referring to because he says a few verses later that “those who done evil” will rise “to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:25, 29). If by “eternal life” Jesus meant simply that we will live forever, then it would appropriately be ascribed also to the damned. But surely, the damned don’t have “eternal life” in the same sense that believers do.
So what does the phrase refer to? As Akin concludes, “eternal life thus deals not just with a quantity but a quality or kind of life.” It is the life of God that we as believers participate in. This is what Peter means when he says, “We become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
May we, by God’s grace, always strive to remain partakers of the divine nature, holding “fast to our confession” (Heb. 4:14) so we may have eternal life until the moment of death and beyond, where we will experience it in full.