World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts

Editor, Andrew Wilson


Eternal Life

The goal of the religious quest is often described as immortality or eternal life. Humanity has always chafed under the limitations of mortality, and people have found in religion the means to transcend the death which seems to proscribe the possibilities of human existence. Yet we have already gathered under Immortal Soul, pp. 326-34, passages from scripture which recognize that every person has an eternal spirit as his or her birthright. Everyone will continue eternally in some form of existence after the end of this physical life. The question of eternal life, therefore, does not mean eternal existence per se, but rather what form it will take, and whether death will remain a barrier to human fulfillment.

We find that the scriptures of many religions give two meanings to the terms "life" and "death." There is the physical meaning of life: existence in this physical realm, and there is the spiritual meaning of life: the state of blessedness which is enduring from life to life and hence transcends death. There is the physical death: the dropping of the body which is an event in the voyage of every soul, and the spiritual death: the condition of distance from God, ignorance, and a hellish existence in the hereafter.

Hence when the question of salvation is at issue, the outcomes called "eternal life" and "immortality" are often ciphers to describe the condition of blessedness. This condition is present already in the physical life of the person who realizes Truth or lives in God's grace, and it will continue, unabated, in the hereafter. The person who gains "eternal life" has accomplished the goal of life, and hence death is not to be feared as a limitation, as it is for a worldly person who has tied all hopes to his possessions and pleasures in the world.

Some Taoist scriptures, on the other hand, promote the ideal of physical immorality. The eternal youth of the Taoist Immortals is a consequence of their life being totally at one with the Tao of nature. Likewise, the doctrine of the resurrection is interpreted by some Christians, Jews, and Muslims as requiring the reconstitution of the dead in their physical bodies, to dwell forever on this earth. Yet these physical interpretations are also based on a spiritual concept of life and death: only the spiritually alive are qualified to enjoy immortality or the fruits of the resurrection.

We note that Buddhist scriptures generally avoid speaking of the state of blessedness as eternal life. Buddhist teaching views the desire for life as a kind of grasping, and hence a fetter to liberation.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Christianity. Bible, Romans 6.23

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."

Christianity. Bible, John 11.25

From the unreal lead me to the Real! >From darkness lead me to light! >From death lead me to immortality!

Hinduism. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28

All Israel have part in the world to come, as it is said, "and they people shall be all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands that I may be glorified" (Isaiah 60.21).

Judaism. Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11.1

Romans 6.23: Cf. John 3.16, p. 506; 12.50, p. 634; Midrash, Psalm 18, p. 575. John 11.25: Cf. John 12.24-25, p. 897; Mark 8.34-36, p. 897; Romans 8.9-17. p. 576; Job 19.25-26, p. 587. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28: Cf. Rig Veda 9.113.8-11, p. 354. Sanhedrin 11.1: All Jews are entitled to an eternal kingdom by virtue of membership in the Jewish people and God's heritage and promise which they have received.

Those who have faith and do righteous deeds, they are the best of creatures. Their reward is with God: Gardens of Eternity, beneath which rivers flow; they will dwell therein for ever; God well pleased with them, and they with Him; all this for such as fear their Lord and Cherisher.

Islam. Qur'an 98.7-8

Having realized the Self, which is soundless, intangible, formless, undecaying, and likewise tasteless, eternal, and odorless; having realized That which is without beginning and end, beyond the Great, and unchanging--one is freed from the jaws of death.

Hinduism. Katha Upanishad 1.3.15

Being in accord with Tao, he is everlasting.

Taoism. Tao Te Ching 16

Eternity does not exist apart from true love.

Unification Church. Sun Myung Moon, 8-18-88

Where one sees nothing but the One, hears nothing but the One, knows nothing but the One--there is the Infinite. Where one sees another, hears another, knows another--there is the finite. The Infinite is immortal, the finite is mortal.

It is written, He who has realized eternal Truth does not see death, nor illness, nor pain; he sees everything as the Self, and obtains all.

Hinduism. Chandogya Upanishad 7.23, 27

Then do I proclaim what the Most Beneficent spoke to me, The Words to be heeded, which are best for mortals: Those who shall give hearing and reverence Shall attain unto perfection and immortality By the deeds of good spirit of the Lord of Wisdom!

Zoroastrianism. Avesta, Yasna 45.5

The supreme stage of the Soul is free from birth, old age and death; he is supreme, pure, and devoid of eight karmas; he possesses infinite knowledge, intuition, bliss, and potency; he is indivisible, indestructible, and inexhaustible. Besides, he is supersensuous and unparalleled, is free from obstructions, merit, demerit, and rebirth, and is eternal, steady, and independent.

Jainism. Kundakunda, Niyamasara 176-77

Qur'an 98.7-8: Cf. Qur'an 25.75-76, p. 233; 56:10-27, p. 353. Katha Upanishad 1.3.15: Cf. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.25, p. 119; Bhagavad Gita 8.20-21, p. 122; 9.30-31, p. 519. Chandogya Upanishad 7.23, 27: Cf. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.6-7, p. 927. Niyamasara 176-77: In Jainism there is no pre-existent Supreme Being, but rather the state of Godhood (Paramatman) which is humanity's goal and highest good.

There is the nine-portalled lotus covered under three bands, in which lives the spirit with the Atman within, that the Veda-knowers know.

Desireless, serene, immortal, Self-existent, contented with the essence, lacking nothing, is He. One has no fear of death who has known Him, the Atman--serene, ageless, youthful.

Hinduism. Atharva Veda 10.8.43-44

Death is but another phase of the dream that existence can be material. Nothing can interfere with the harmony of being nor end the existence of man in Science. Man is the same after as before a bone is broken or the body guillotined. If man is never to overcome death, why do the Scriptures say, "The Last enemy that shall be destroyed is death"? The tenor of the Word shows that we shall obtain the victory over death in proportion as we overcome sin. The great difficulty lies in ignorance of what God is. God, Life, Truth, and Love make man undying. Immortal Mind, governing all, must be acknowledged as supreme in the physical realm, so-called, as well as in the spiritual.

Christian Science. Science and Health, p. 427

Higher than this is Brahman, the Supreme, the Great. Hidden in all things, body by body, The One embracer of the universe-- By knowing him as Lord men become immortal.

I know this mighty Person Of the color of the sun, beyond darkness. Only by knowing Him does one pass over death. There is no other path for going there.

Than whom there is naught else higher, Than whom there is naught else smaller, naught greater, The One stands like a tree established in heaven. By Him, the Person, this whole world is filled.

That which is beyond this world Is without form and without ill. They who know That, become immortal; But others go only to sorrow.

Hinduism. Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.7-10

Atharva Veda 10.8.43-44: The 'nine-portalled lotus' is the 'city of nine gates' (Bhagavad Gita 5.13), that is, the body. Cf. Kena Upanishad 1.1-2, p. 117, Svetasvatara Upanishad 2.12, pp. 824f. On immortality in the Sikh scriptures, see Ramkali Dakhni Onkar, M.1, p. 776. Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.7-10: Cf. Rig Veda 90.1-4, p. 97. Note the image of the tree--compare Bhagavad Gita 15.1-3, pp. 382f., and of the Supreme Being likened to the Sun--see Isha Upanishad 15-16, p. 74.

Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Christianity. Bible, Luke 9.60

Can he who was dead, to whom We gave life, and a Light whereby he can walk among men, be like him who is in the depths of darkness from which he can never come out?

Islam. Qur'an 6.122

"For the living know that they shall die" (Ecclesiastes 9.5): these are the righteous who in their death are called living... "but the dead know nothing": these are the wicked who in their lifetime are called dead.

Judaism. Talmud, Berakot 18ab

Thou bringest forth the living from the dead, and thou bringest forth the dead from the living.

Islam. Qur'an 3.27

For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on the immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written,

Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christianity. Bible, 1 Corinthians 15.52-57

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; it was full of bones... and lo, they were very dry. And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord God, thou knowest."

Again he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones, Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live. And you shall know that I am the Lord."

So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And as I looked, there were sinews on them, and flesh came upon them, and skin covered them.... and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.

Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people, and I will bring you home into the land of Israel.... And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord."

Judaism and Christianity. Ezekiel 37.1-14

Luke 9.60: Jesus uses two different meanings for the word 'dead' in this proverb. The first 'dead' are those that are physically alive but spiritually dead, in contrast to the true follower of Jesus who shares in eternal life. Qur'an 6.122: Cf. Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah, Arabic 7, p. 897. Berakot 18ab: Cf. Asa-ki-Var, M.1, p. 456. 1 Corinthians 15.52-57: The resurrection brings immortality and victory over death only by virtue of Jesus' victory over death. It is through faith in Jesus that Christians have confidence in their immortality. Otherwise, they will be stung by death, as 'the sting of death is sin.' Cf. 1 Corinthians 15.21-22, p. 547; 15.24-26, p. 1116; 2 Corinthians 4.16-5.10, p. 329; Romans 6.3-11, pp. 854f.; 8.9-17, p. 576.

Nan-po Tsek'uei said to N Y, "How is it, in spite of your great age, you have the freshness of a child?"

N Y replied, "Through living in conformity with the Tao, I have not become exhausted."

"Could I learn this doctrine?" asked Nan-po Tsek'uei.

"You do not have the qualifications. There was Puliang I; he had the disposition required. I taught him. In three days, he had forgotten the outer world. Seven more days, he had lost the notion of objects which surrounded him. In nine more days, he had lost any sense of his own existence. Then he acquired clear penetration, and with it the science of the uninterrupted chain of momentary existence. Having acquired this knowledge, he ceased to distinguish the past from the present and the future, life from death. He understood that in reality killing does not take away life, nor does giving birth add to it, that Tao sustains the being across its endings and becomings. Hence It is justly called the Fixed Constant, since from It, the Fixed, are derived all changes."

Taoism. Chuang Tzu 6

Ezekiel 37.1-14: This passage is traditionally understood to be a prophesy of the resurrection of the dead. In its literal, historical sense it speaks figuratively of the reconstitution of the nation of Israel after years of exile in Babylon. Cf. Berakot 15b, Qur'an 41.39, Yakima Tradition, p. 331. Chuang Tzu 6: On the little child, cf. Tao Te Ching 10, p. 840; 20, p. 608; 55, p. 231.


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