In my circles, talk of God’s kingdom resonates well. It’s earthy. It’s life-affirming. It’s a call to be out in the world working, creating, even reforming as agents of the King. The kingdom of God feels relevant, and it is.
Eternal life, on the other hand, can come off as merely an amorphous alternative to hell. At best, it can be difficult to connect with. At worst, it can seem like a diversion from things that deserve our attention—a distraction from the beauty of this world or an attempt to escape from its problems.
This reaction to the promise of eternal life is as old as the promise itself. In John’s gospel, where eternal life has an especially prominent place, Jesus’ relentless focus on eternal life drives many of His hearers away.
Consider John 6. Jesus feeds five thousand people with a few loaves and fish. The crowds then track Him down, hoping for more. Jesus, sensing their true motive, says: “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life” (vv. 26–27).
In other words, they see His power but miss His point. They want to leverage His power for the agendas they have brought with them. He wants to shift their focus altogether and spends the next forty verses teaching about eternal life. “After this,” John tells us, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (v. 66). Eternal life was off topic, even then.
But I’m struck, too, by how Peter responds when Jesus asks him if he wants to leave with the others. Peter says: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68). For the crowds, talk of eternal life left them uninterested. For Peter, this promise is the reason to stay. This is what made Jesus irreplaceably necessary for him.
How can we see what Peter saw? How do we see that eternal life, rather than a diversion, is the key to the relevance of Jesus and to experiencing His relevance in our everyday lives?
I want to suggest one helpful step toward experiencing the relevance of eternal life to the life we’re living now. When eternal life sounds otherworldly and remote for us, it may be because we’re not paying close enough attention to the truth about life under the sun.
A couple of years ago, my family spent a month’s sabbatical in Cambridge, England. At some point in that trip, I took a photo of my two little boys standing in front of their favorite local attraction—a bizarre and unforgettable piece of public art called the Corpus Clock. The clock includes some of the basic elements you’d expect: it’s covered in shiny gold, a pendulum at the bottom swings with the seconds, and its round face with lights marks the minutes and the hours. But there’s also a ring around the clock’s face that rotates click by click with each passing second. And perched on top of that ring is a hideous mechanical locust. The whole mechanism operates when the arms of this locust reach forward, grab the ring, and pull it in toward its mouth. Every passing second feeds its appetite, and it’s never satisfied.
Looking at the beautiful smiling faces of my kids in that photo, seeing how much they’ve changed even in the short time since I took it, I can’t miss the metaphor in the grotesque locust just above their heads. For a five-year-old boy, what’s not to love? But for those of us who take the point, it’s a perfect, haunting image of how time works. “Time,” C.S. Lewis said, “is one more name for death.” Like a swarm of locusts on a newly sprouted field, it destroys everything we love in this world.