Book review: Eternal Life: A New Vision

by John Shelby Spong


For all you Spong fans who were beginning to grow frustrated at his vagueness, this book tackles an important subject head on. What are liberal Christians (at least those in the Spong mold) supposed to make of the Bible’s promise of eternal life?

We needn’t depend upon the supernatural in order to grasp eternal life, for all life is deeply linked. Spong quotes Einstein’s provocative claim to explain: “I feel myself so much a part of everything living that I am not the least concerned with the beginning or ending of the concrete existence of any one person in this eternal flow.” Spong wants us to “embrace infinity,” to “transcend time.” But he hopes for us to discover the eternal in a very practical way. Eternity is within us, it is what it means to be human.

Spong writes, “The power of love flows through all forms of life, but it ceases to be instinctual and comes to self-consciousness only in human beings. That power of love is also part of who God is for me. This means that the more deeply I am able to love, the more God becomes a part of me. This is why no religion can in the last analysis ever really be about proper beliefs and proper practices … Religion has to be about the enhancement of life through love.” You’ve probably heard this before if you’re a Spong fan, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. Love is, after all, the key to finding life eternal.

But what about reward? Spong is quite happy to rid religion of both heaven and hell, having never been a fan of either. “The fact is that if you and I live our lives motivated by our desire to gain paradise or to avoid eternal punishment, then we have not escaped the basic self-centeredness of life that is so natural to survival-oriented, self-conscious creatures.” In other words, eternal reward only gets in the way of the true Christian message.

Uplifting and timely, this is a book worth reading twice. I have.


  1. “The power of love flows through all forms of life, but it ceases to be instinctual and comes to self-consciousness only in human beings” is a pretty strange thing for someone like Spong to write, since it’s a statement that doesn’t really have any legs unless you’re a fundamentalist.

    If you believe that God’s process for creating people was fundamentally different from Gods’ process for creating animals (as many Biblical literalists do), then you can accept the assumption that love and self-awareness are somehow fundamentally different in humans and animals.

    But for anyone else, it should be clear that such an assumption is based more on ancient and medieval biases than it is in reality. Anyone with common sense knows that various species of non-human animals have self-awareness. And though such a thing is hard to prove (since we can’t step directly into the mind of another being) scientific evidence has nevertheless confirmed the existence of self-awareness in at least several species.

    As for love, there is nothing particularly *human* about it. Love is first and foremost a mammalian trait: mammals bear young who are helpless, weak, and dependent upon their parents and communities for survival. As such, mammals needed to evolve a strong sense of empathy and kinship – one that could at times even compel them to choose self-sacrificial actions – in order to thrive.

    This goes beyond the family unit of course. One of the major reasons that humans have thrived is because of our capacity to from co-operative societies. Again, this required us to evolve a strong sense of compassion and empathy for others, an understanding of other people’s needs, and a sense of profound connection and responsibility to those beyond our own self. Though humans have arguably developed these traits more than other species have, there is nothing uniquely human about them – we didn’t evolve them because we are human, we evolved them because we are social animals.

    All of this might seem like pointless sidetracking and splitting of hairs, though I would argue that basing one’s worldview and/or theology on such an anthropocentric assumption has made a profoundly negative contribution to Christianity (and by extension, to humanity). And it disturbs me to so-called progressive Christians like Spong run with the same baton.

    Not only does anthropocentrism provide us with the blinkered hubris that causes us to destroy much of the planet (and ironically, our own future), it has enabled us to think nothing of incarcerating entire species (such as chickens or pigs) into profoundly abusive concentration camps. Neither of these things seem remotely in tune with the general messages of the scriptures.

    Furthermore, Christians’ anthropocentric worldview has more often than not caused them to paint God in their own image, and see God as little more than a slightly fancier version of a man, with human traits, human emotions, predominantly human concerns, and human callousness. It seems to me that this is not only inaccurate, but blasphemous, and can only drive us further away from the real God (whoever/whatever that may be)

    Phew. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let me add that I enjoyed reading this review, as I do with just about all of your reviews 😀

  2. David, that line from Spong’s book caught my attention as well. As is obvious, I guess, since it remained in my mind long enough for me to dig it up and repeat it. Speculation about how much deeper humans go into consciousness and self-awareness, and related emotions like love, really is a controversial subject! I haven’t formed much of an opinion on this, other than to marvel at evolution. Thanks for the comments!

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