The Life of the Age to Come
Focus on the Kingdom Vol. 15 No. 4
Nothing could be of greater importance to the disciple of Christ than to understand the nature of the goal for which he is striving. Yet so imprecise and vague is the prospect offered by traditional teaching that large numbers of would-be Christians now no longer even
believe in life after death! (Popular “near death” experiences tell us nothing about the true future life of the Bible, and merely deceive readers into not believing the Bible’s teaching about the sleep of the dead, Ps. 13:3). That such unbelief can still be described as Christian only adds to the confusion. The simple facts of the New Testament are that Jesus promised his followers “eternal life.” Without further explanation, the concept as it is presented to us lacks precision, and this is due to an inadequate rendering of the original Greek into English. The truth is that the term “eternal life” in its original Greek, as written by Hebrews, contains a wealth of data which unlocks the entire New Testament prospect for the future. This information is well documented, but never, it seems, reaches the average churchgoer.
The Concept of “Eternal Life”
The idea of life for eternity is founded upon the all-important passage in Daniel 12:2, where the resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous is clearly described: “Many of those who are asleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
It is from this passage that the New Testament derives its fundamental notion of “eternal life,” Daniel’s writings being accepted as an inspired authority by Jesus and the Apostles. Of primary importance is the fact that “eternal life” is the life to be gained through resurrection, i.e., from a condition described as “sleeping in the dust of the earth” to that of “awakening” to everlasting life. That great event is destined to occur at the end of a specified era of history, according to Daniel; this leads us immediately to the crucially important description of the divine program for resurrection as given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. There are to be stages in the plan for resurrection; each is to be resurrected in his proper order: “Christ the firstfruits; afterward, those who belong to Christ’s at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:23).
The well-known commentary on Mark by Vincent Taylor states that “eternal life” is “no mere immortality, but a gift which a man receives from God in the resurrection” (p. 426, emphasis mine). It is important to note that immortality is not an innate possession of man; it must be conferred upon him by a resurrection from death. The resurrection will occur for all the faithful, collectively, at the second coming of Christ. This means, of course, that no one except Jesus has yet been resurrected to immortality!
What is the nature of this eternal life? So far we have established only that it is to be gained through a resurrection from the dead. The Hebrew expression in Daniel 12:2 conveys the notion of life of the remote future, as well as life indefinitely prolonged. It might appear, then, that “eternal life” carries this idea with sufficient clarity. This is not quite true; for during the period preceding the time of Jesus, and after the Old Testament canon was complete, the idea of the remote future was gaining precision, based on the hope expressed by the Old Testament prophets that God would ultimately inaugurate a Golden Age of universal peace and justice on earth. Thus in the time of Jesus the life of the remote age envisaged by Daniel had come to mean “the Life of the Age to Come,” that Great Age of universal harmony which had been the vision of all the prophets. These facts are well established. In The Gospel According to St. John, by C.K. Barratt, we find the following: “The meaning of ‘the life of eternity’ (Dan. 12:2) was expressed by the rabbis as ‘the life of the coming age’” (p. 179). Vincent Taylor says, “In origin the conception [eternal life] is eschatological: eternal life is ‘Life in the coming age’” (p. 426). The same point is made by A.H. McNeile in The Problem of the Future Life: “Aonios (eternal, “ayonios”), for all practical purposes, when applied to things of the New Age means ‘belonging, or proper to the New Age’” (p. 48).
The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek in pre-Christian times had already rendered the expression in Daniel as “aonian life.” The Greek adjective used here really means “pertaining to the age”; it thus exactly defines the “life of the remote future” as “the life pertaining to the (coming) age.” This development is crucial for our understanding of the New Testament concept of “eternal life.” The matter is clearly outlined by the celebrated Lexicon of the New Testament by Thayer: “As the Jews distinguished ‘this age,’ the time before the
Messiah, and the ‘coming age,’ the time after the advent of the Messiah, so most of the New Testament writers distinguish ‘this age’ (or simply ‘the age — Matt. 13:22; Mark 4:19; ‘the present age’ — Gal. 1:4; 1 Tim. 6:17; 2 Tim. 4:10; Titus 2:12), the time before the appointed return or truly Messianic advent of Christ — and the future age (or ‘that age’ — Luke 20:35), ‘the coming age’ (Luke 18:30; Matt. 12:32), i.e., the age after the return of Christ in majesty, the period of the establishment of the Divine Kingdom with all its blessings” (Thayer’s Lexicon, p. 19).
The New Testament Hope
We see then that Jesus and the New Testament writers build upon the current idea of the Age to Come, putting their stamp of approval upon it since it accurately represents the hope of the prophets that the golden age, in which all the faithful will participate, will one day be
established. Christianity is centered therefore on the hope of the Coming Age, and promises as the supreme reward the life of that Coming Age. It will be seen at once that this proper understanding of the term originating in the book of Daniel provides a much more definite idea of the Christian goal. An authoritative confirmation of all this can be found in the writings of one of the most distinguished New Testament theologians of this century: “What appears in the English versions of the Bible as ‘eternal life’ or ‘life everlasting’ really means ‘the life of
the age to come’…Throughout the New Testament ‘eternal life’ means the ‘life of the age to come.’ It is synonymous with the Kingdom of God. Thus, in the discussion about the conditions of entry into the reign [Kingdom] of God, the rich man in Mark 10:17 asks: ‘Good master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’ Or again, if we examine the parallelism of Mark 9:43-47, we shall see that to enter ‘life’ and to enter the Kingdom of God are one and the same thing…The chief implication of ‘aonian life’ (‘eternal life’) is not eternal or everlasting life, but life pertaining to the age to come.”¹
A most significant additional piece of information emerges here: namely, that the life of the Coming Age is exactly the same as the life of the Kingdom of God. Thus we find the Dictionary of Christ and the Apostles saying that the phrase “‘eternal life’ is used synonymously and
interchangeably with the Kingdom of God…The Kingdom of heaven and the life eternal are very closely related in the teaching of Jesus: In the picture of the judgment (Matt. 25:31-46), the righteous who go into eternal life are said to inherit the Kingdom” (pp. 538, 539).
This unquestionable equation of the life of the Coming Age with the Kingdom of God may be further illustrated as follows, based on the passages already referred to:
- Mark 9:45: “It is better for you to enter life.”
- v. 47: “It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God.”
- Mark 10:17: “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” v. 23: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!”
- Matthew 7:14: “Narrow is the road that leads to life.”
- v. 21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
- Matthew 25:34: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the Kingdom.”
- v. 46: “The righteous to eternal life.”
In the light of the real meaning of “eternal life,” the Christian goal assumes a new, brilliant clarity as being equivalent to entrance into the Kingdom of God through a resurrection, for participation in the Life of the Age to Come. Participation in the Kingdom implies being
appointed as co-ruler with the Messiah. This is clearly stated by Jesus at the Last Supper when he promised that the Apostles would share, by covenant, the dominion which his Father had conferred upon him (Luke 22:28-30).
This appointment to reign was later extended to the church as a whole (1 Cor. 4:8; 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 5:10); it forms the very essence of the new covenant. The church now becomes what ancient Israel had forfeited through disobedience: the New Israel, appointed as kings and priests (1 Pet. 2:9; Gal. 6:16; Phil 3:3), and destined to reign as kings on the earth (Rev. 5:10). Under the Old Covenant this honor had been offered to Israel (Ex. 19:5-6). Under the New Covenant Jesus established the church as the new fellowship of the Messianic community. The Last Supper, inaugurating the Eucharist, is a celebration in anticipation of the banquet to be shared by the church in the coming Kingdom of the new age: “I appoint to you by covenant [so the Greek says] dominion, as my Father appointed dominion to me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom and sit on thrones governing the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:29-30).
No wonder that in view of these exhilarating promises, the Kingdom of God was the center of interest in the discussions between Jesus and the apostles after he had risen from the dead (Acts 1:3). Their eagerness is betrayed by the all-important, well-instructed question they put to Christ: “Is this the time that you are going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
When these simple New Testament facts are grasped, it will be seen how irreconcilable with the teachings of the New Testament is the popular notion that the Christian reward is “eternal life” to be gained at the moment of death. The traditional scheme virtually dispenses with the need for the future resurrection, since the faithful are already enjoying their reward “in heaven”! It completely obscures the fact that “eternity,” according to the New Testament, begins, in its fullest sense, with the advent of the Age to Come. The return of Christ can have little significance if, indeed, the dead have already “gone to be” with him. Moreover, it replaces the hope of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth with a shadowy realm of disembodied spirits. The belief in such departed spirits of the dead is utterly foreign to the New Testament. The offering of prayers to them is unthinkable.
The proper definition of the Christian goal as the attainment of the Life of the Coming Age through a resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:23) immediately rescues us from the popular misconception about “strumming harps on pink clouds,” and allows us to see that our aim is to attain to the corporate resurrection of all the faithful (in the first resurrection of Rev. 20). The change from a physical to a “spiritual body” will occur “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52-54). The new body will equip the resurrected believers for life in the Kingdom, the Life of the Age to Come. This goal is firmly rooted in history; it is tied to “that [well-known] Age” (Luke 20:35), which is to follow the “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). It will be no surprise to find that the doctrine of the second coming of Christ is central for all the New Testament writers — central to the saving Gospel of the Kingdom. It is that great event which will usher in the New Age, the Coming Age of the Kingdom of God on earth; it is then, and not before, that the righteous shall attain, in fullness to the Life of that Coming Age. Meanwhile we can enjoy the downpayment of the spirit which comes to us when we are baptized based on Acts 8:12 and receive from the risen Messiah, the lord (adoni) at the right hand of God, a foretaste of that energetic life of the future age, tasted in advance to sustain us in life’s present trials.
¹ Alan Richardson, Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, pp. 73, 74, 108.