During the summer, people generally prefer to swim outside. Although it is common to swim in pools these days, old-school swimming facilities usually depended on natural water features: ponds, rivers, and oceans. An ideal natural swimming location would have clean water, a gradually sloping, sandy bottom, and very little current. Such places existed, of course, but they weren’t as common as one might hope. In response, waterfront staff developed a variety of work-arounds to allow swimmers to safely use the water in the absence of perfect conditions.
In situations where the water was very deep, or the current too fast-moving, one of those work-arounds was called a swimming crib. The crib was basically a very large wooden crate, ballasted and tethered to function sort of like a ‘swimming pool’, immersed in the lake or river. (You can see an example here.) One of the most basic uses for a crib was to provide a shallow area for beginners to swim in water that was naturally very deep. The lake bottom could be thirty feet down, but a 3-foot crib provided an artificial ‘shallow end.’
One typical take on eternal life is that it’s “living forever with God” — a simplification that I have certainly been guilty of, myself. The focus is revivalistic, focused on a heaven-or-hell afterlife. A person who ‘has eternal life’ is ‘saved,’ which means that he’s going to go to heaven when he dies…and that’s pretty much it.
Given that definition, the Gospel of John, which is very, very focused on eternal life, takes on the appearance of being all about whether people go to heaven or hell. The purpose of the book, “that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in His name” is understood to be about taking people who were going to hell and making it so they’re going to heaven…and that’s pretty much it.
This is the theological equivalent of building a 3-foot swimming crib in some very deep, very fast-moving water. Problem is, what we’re protecting people from, in this instance, is God.
Eternal life has to be “living forever” — otherwise, as Zane Hodges aptly observed, “eternal life” isn’t a very good name for it — but is that all we need to say about it? Jesus didn’t think so. “And this is eternal life,” Jesus prayed to His Father, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.”
Eternal life, according to Jesus, is knowing God. How? Through Jesus, who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” That’s inexhaustible. It’s far, far deeper than “going to heaven when you die.” And while, of course, lip service is paid to this notion, in fact it is largely ignored. We keep everybody in the 3-food swimming crib of going to heaven, when they could be diving deep into relationship with God Himself.
The solution? We need to knock the bottom out of the crib. This will undoubtedly be the occasion for much whining, but we have no right to speak in a way that stands between people and a living relationship with God.