Tag Archives: eternal life

Afterlife, Eternal Life and the Life of the Kingdom

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

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)

Matthew 19: 16-30 The Life of the Coming Age

Matthew 19: 16-30

Parallel Mark 10: 17-31; Luke 18: 18-30

16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

27 Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

This encounter with the young man with an abundance of possessions provides a rich opportunity to reconsider several elements of Matthew’s gospel in a fuller light. Unfortunately Matthew’s usage of the kingdom of heaven in many places and what many translations render as ‘eternal life’ combined with the long history of the church’s proclamation about heaven being a place where one’s soul departs to after death makes this passage sound like it is primarily concerned about life after death, but that presents a stumbling block to hearing what is at stake in the dialogue between this young man, Jesus, and the disciples. All of the gospels are primarily concerned with life on earth, and while Jesus’ teaching does have an element of judgment and reward beyond this age it is, Jesus never focuses on Gehenna or heaven as destinations but is instead focused on the kingdom of heaven’s approach to earth. It is the interaction between the alternative values of the kingdom of heaven and the values of the empires of the earth that leaves both the wealthy young man and Jesus’ disciples perplexed.

The someone who approached Jesus, who we later learn is a wealthy young man, asks Jesus about what ‘good he might do in order that he might have the life of the coming age.’ There is a lot in this first line that needs unpacking and perhaps much acquired baggage that many modern Christians must leave behind so they might enter into a richer hearing of this interaction. The young man’s addresses to Jesus as ‘teacher’ should alert us that the young man’s understanding of who Jesus is comes from the perspective of how he views him within the structures of society and not with eyes that are open to who Jesus is. In Matthew’s gospel the term teacher[1] prepares us that this young man will leave unsatisfied even though Jesus will extend the invitation to this man to follow him. The question about ‘what good I might do’ (many translations limit this to state what good ‘deed’ he might do, but the question is broader than a single good ‘deed’) ‘in order that I might[2] have the life of the coming age.’ This young man has seen something of the life that Jesus and his disciples are living and he comes seeking a way that he might share with them in their experience of the kingdom of heaven’s approach. Before we encounter Jesus’ answer, let’s examine this idea of the ‘life of the coming age.’

When most Christians hear this story they think the young man is asking Jesus what he needs to do to get to heaven, but what this young man sees is the life that Jesus is partaking of now and he is asking how he can partake of it. The primary reason I render this ‘the life of the coming age’ is that our understanding of ‘eternal life’ often obscures what the New Testament is talking about (see Afterlife, Eternal Life and the Life of the Kingdom). This young man knows there is something missing in his own life, and he has come to Jesus who he sees as a teacher who can give him the answer that will fill the emptiness that apparently his possessions and current life are not.

Jesus’ initial response to the young man both points back to the center of the Jewish faith but also invites the hearer question Jesus’ identity beyond being only a teacher. The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) is the central confession of the Jewish people where they confess “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (or alone as the NRSV renders) and the Psalms and the prophets often link the LORD as the one who is good.[3] While the young man is called to center of God and God’s commandments as the revelation of goodness, we have also seen throughout Matthew’s gospel the continual drawing of Jesus’ authority and God’s authority close together and so the question of “Why do you ask me what is good?” also asks “how do you see my words and God’s words linked?” The young man is still viewing Jesus through the lens of a teacher, so he focuses only on the keeping of the commandments by asking a clarifying question of “which ones?”

Jesus’ answer joins Leviticus 19:18 to the commandments dealing with one’s relationship with others, emphasizing the communal nature of this life that the young man is desiring to enter into with the interesting omission of the command on coveting. The young man still realizes something is missing and desires what he is lacking, and this is where the command of coveting enters the discussion. Jesus’ final words to this young man are, “If you will/desire (Greek thelo) to be whole/complete (this is again the Greek telios[4]), go…” Will/desire has a stronger force than simply wishing for wholeness, there is an active element of the heart (the instrument of will in Hebrew thought) working towards that end. Again, we often think of perfection in terms of an individualistic moral perfection which would be alien to biblical thought which is communal. The term wholeness or completeness better captures what Jesus is offering this young man. The young man realizes something is missing, but what he fails to comprehend is that finding this new treasure will mean giving up all that he owns to possess it like the one who finds a treasure in a field or the merchant who finds a pearl of exceeding value. (13:44-46) The command to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and having a storehouse in heaven echoes the Sermon on the Mount when it talks about possessions (6:19-21) but it also is accompanied by the calling that the disciples received (4: 18-22) The lure of wealth (13: 22) perhaps chokes the seed of this calling to follow Jesus and the young man departs disappointed and the disciples remain perplexed.

As the young man departs, Jesus turns to his disciples who even though they have left behind their lives to follow him still remain bound to thinking in the terms of the empires of this world. If a person who is young, wealthy, Jewish and male has great difficulty entering the kingdom of heaven, a person who in the eyes of Judaism has every privilege, then how can a humble child? The values of this kingdom are truly upside down: where the last are first and the first are last. The saying about the camel passing through the eye of a needle is not about some mythical gate where a camel must be unburdened and kneel down to pass through (that is a story about a gate that never existed and obscures the meaning of the image) but instead the image points to an impossibility. A camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle, nor do a rich men give up their wealth and privilege without divine intervention. Yet, with the advent of the kingdom of heaven God is at work making incredible things possible.

Peter, on behalf of the disciples, asks what their reward is for what they have given up. Peter still thinks in the value system of the world and is focusing on what he and the other disciples have left behind instead of what they have gained. I do not say this as a critique of Peter, few if any followers of Jesus completely unlearn the values of the world they grew up with, but Jesus points Peter and the disciples to the ‘renewal of all things’ where they will have positions of honor and the investment they made in the kingdom of heaven will be revealed as they participate in this life of the coming age. But being the greatest in the kingdom is like being a child (18:1-5) or a servant  or slave (20:26-27), it is the upside down values of a kingdom which approaches the earth, of a Lord who serves, where the first are last and the last are first. This vision of the kingdom taps into the hope for the regathering of all of Israel, but as we will learn at the end of the gospel it will continue with the spread beyond Israel to all the nations.

[1] In Matthew when someone refers to Jesus as teacher it often indicated either that the person is challenging Jesus’ authority or that their insight into who Jesus is (faith) is not open to the answer he will give them (8: 18, 9:11; 12: 38; 17: 24; 22:16; 22:24; 22:36).

[2] The verb is an aorist (undefined) subjunctive which is the mood of possibility often expressed with ‘may’ or ‘might’ (Mounce 1993, 282-283)

[3] See for example Psalm 34:8; 100:5; 119: 68; 135: 3; 136:1; Jeremiah 33:11; Lamentations 3: 25, 28 and Nahum 1:7

[4] I’ve written about telios in both Perfection and Blamelessness in the Bible and when I discuss Matthew 5:48