When most people who grow up in a Christian church talk about eternal life they are talking about ‘going to heaven’ or what happens to the ‘soul’ after death. Many Christians who faithfully come to worship each week do not realize that this is not the primary direction of Christian hope, instead most of this idea comes from the interaction of Greek philosophical worldview and the language of Christianity. Unfortunately, this focus on the soul’s ascent to be with God in heaven has transformed the profoundly grounded hope of the early followers of Christ into an otherworldly escapism which is often disconnected the horizontal dimension of faith which involve my neighbors and the world.
The Jewish covenantal understanding of their faithful relationship with God and their neighbor is the foundation upon which Jesus builds his vision of life under the kingdom of heaven. Despite Matthew’s frequent use of the kingdom of heaven, instead of the kingdom of God as predominant in Mark and Luke, what Jesus is referring to is God’s kingdom coming to earth. The entire direction of the New Testament’s hope is God’s coming to dwell among God’s people on earth. This is not unique to the New Testament, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there is in the tabernacle and the temple a place where God can dwell among the people, the prophets dream and the psalms sing about the transformations that will come into the world when God reigns not only among Israel but among all the peoples. Just as the people of Israel were to be an alternative community among the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Rome, these followers of Christ were to be an alternative community with alternative values to Rome or whatever society they found themselves within. When Paul, for example, in Philippians 3: 20 can state that, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is talking about living as person of an alternative community, the kingdom of heaven, and embodying those values within the space of the Roman empire and teaching others to do the same. Paul’s descriptions of the future glory in Romans 8: 18-27 beautifully dreams the interactive way that the unveiling of the children of God, those who are living under God’s calling and have been transformed for the sake of the world, is precisely for the liberation of the creation (not an escape from it). It is also why Paul ends 1 Corinthians, with the exception of the final travel plans and greeting, with a long discussion about the implication of the resurrection of Christ for the resurrection of all people. Paul is specifically arguing against a ‘non-bodily’ and ‘non earthly’ resurrection, even though many in the Hellenistic (Greek speaking) world would have embraced the idea of the ‘salvation of the soul’ willingly and viewed this bodily resurrection as scandalous. The book of Revelation is often thought of as the destruction of the earth, but what it narrates is the final coming of God to earth and the last but futile resistance of the forces aligned against God’s coming kingdom.
When the gospels speak of ‘eternal life’, the phrase that is translated is the Greek zoe aion. Zoe is where we get the feminine name Zoe from and it means ‘life.’ Aion is where we get the English word ‘eon’ from and while it is often translated ‘eternal’ but when most Christians think of ‘eternal life’ they think of life in heaven. For another perspective on how to think about the term ‘eon,’ it occurs as a noun at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” While some might argue that Jesus really is talking about being with the disciples for ‘eternity,’ what I believe Jesus is telling the disciples is, “I will be will be with you to the end of this age” which will end when the kingdom of heaven/God comes to earth.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke when zoe aion is only used when either the rich young man (all three gospels) or in Luke when a scribe asks (Luke 10:25) Jesus always points them back to the commandments of how they are to live in this life. In both cases the question is not about how to get to heaven, but how to participate in the life of the kingdom of God in the present and Jesus’ answer reflects that earthly reality. John’s gospel uses this term more than the other three gospels combined, but John has long been associated with a ‘realized eschatology’ where the promises of God’s kingdom are already being realized. For example, in John 17 Jesus can state,
since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17: 2-3)
“Eternal life” in John’s gospel is already realized in knowing Jesus and the God who sends Jesus. This life is revealed by participating in the faith and life of Jesus
While the New Testament can use a diverse set of language to talk about the approaching of God’s kingdom to this world, the movement is always God’s movement towards the world instead of the escape of the soul to join God. There are at best hints of some immediate experience of an afterlife and they often come in parables (like the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel) or when Jesus (again in Luke) tells the bandit on the cross “today you will be with me in paradise.” Portions of the church in the last several decades have begun to rediscover the centrality of the resurrection and the coming of God to dwell among the earth instead of the otherworldly focus of much of the church in the previous centuries. It is a subject that pastors and teachers have to approach delicately because it is a drastic change to the imaginations of many of the faithful, but it also invites the faithful into a closer relationship with the world and with the neighbors God has placed within it. In Paul’s rich language it is a call to join in the groaning labor pains of creation while we and the world await the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23)