Most of us have a working definition of what life is. We can tell that a couch is non-living and that the cat sleeping on its cushions is alive without thinking about it much at all. But ask the question, “What is life?” and we have a little more trouble answering. We might fall back on a biology textbook definition and list properties of life like organization, metabolism, homeostasis, growth, and response. Or maybe we’ll go with a more philosophical approach and discuss the meaning or purpose of life. Either way, you’ll find there isn’t a single consensus on how we should define and think about life.
As people who believe in a creator God, Christians have another factor to consider when coming up with a definition of life. We have God as the starting point for all life, and so our definition could add a phrase such as, “Life is something given and sustained by a creator.” And more philosophically, we can talk about human life as distinct from animal or plant life because we have a chance at eternal life.
Bible Definitions of Life
There are several words in the New Testament translated “life.” Of the two we’re going to look at, one’s only used 11 times while the other is used 90 times. Together, they give us key insight into how God views life. The more commonly used word is zoe (G2222). It generally refers to “physical life and existence” with the implication of “the element or principle of the spirit and soul” (Zodhiates’ entry on G2222 and G979).
This is contrasted with bios (G979), which “refers to duration, means, and manner of life” while here on this earth. Bios is used when scripture talks about someone’s “living,” as in the prodigal son who devoured his living with harlots or the widow who tithed her last penny thereby giving “all her living” (Luke 15:12; Mark. 12:44). It’s also used of this present, physical life choking out the word of God in a person’s heart (Luke 8:44), of our hope to “lead a quiet and peaceable life” (1 Tim. 2:2, KJV), and of the way we lived before we knew God (1 Pet. 4:3).
Zoe is the kind of life we’re meant to pay more attention to. It’s the life we’re living now that has ramifications into eternity. It’s also the word used when talking about eternal life, sometimes on its own and sometimes with the word aionios (G166: without beginning or end; never to cease). Our life (zoe) is “a vapor, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away” (Jas. 4:14, WEB). But we’re offered the opportunity through Christ to make this life keep going in a better way.
The Source Of Life
Zoe and bios both come from the same place: God as the creator. There’s something special about zoe, though. This is the word used then it says of the Word who became Jesus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4, WEB). He’s also called “the originator of life” (Acts 3:15, LEB), the “bread of life,” and “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 6:48; 14:6, WEB).
For as the Father has life in himself, even so he gave to the Son also to have life in himself. (John 5:26, WEB)
As the Ones who have and are life, it’s the Father and Son who give life to us (Acts 17:24-28). By virtue of that role, they have certain claims on our lives. And because Jesus gave His life to save ours, we owe Them even more. We’ll never repay what the Lord has done for us and we don’t have to, because salvation is a free gift (Rom. 6:23). But knowing the truth about life should still have a profound impact on how we live.
Walking In New Life
Once we realize we owe our lives to God on every level, it should change how we respond to Him and how we live. For one thing, we need to believe in the Bread of Life if we want a chance to live longer than our human lifespan (John 3:16; 6:47-48). We also need to follow Him and stop walking in darkness (John 8:12).
If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col. 3:1-3, WEB)
Life isn’t something that belongs to us. It’s a gift from God and He wants us to commit our lives to Him. Paul goes on in Colossians to say that because our lives belong to God and are “hidden” in Christ, we’re supposed to live differently while here on this earth. The parts of us that aren’t God-like should be “put to death” so we can live more like Jesus lived (Col. 3:4-10, WEB).
So what is life? For Christians, in addition to the other biological and philosophical answers, life is a gift direct from God. And then our lives are something we offer back to Him (Rom. 12:1). Life for us is more than our human lifespan. As we live out our bios, we’re also to “walk in newness of zoe” as Jesus brings us toward eternal life in God’s family (Rom. 6:4, KJV).