I got a question from someone recently asking about the meaning of “eternal life” in the Gospels. He takes it that the expression “age to come” refers to the time after either the collapse of national Israel or the collapse of the pagan oikoumenē. That is also my view. But at the end of the story of the wealthy ruler Jesus appears to connect the age to come with “eternal life” (Lk. 18:30); and later it is closely associated with the resurrection (Lk. 20:35). Does this not suggest that “age to come” refers not to a historical but to a resurrected existence?
I want to answer the question a little indirectly—and perhaps incompletely—by considering the criticism of Tom Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ eschatology and kingdom ethics that Nicholas Perrin puts forward in .
Perrin appears to agree with Wright i) that the impending destruction of the temple should be identified with the “climactic end of exile”, ii) that this imminent disaster constitutes the “fundamental basis for Jesus’ kingdom ethics”, and iii) that this whole argument “provides a plausible explanation for Jesus’ social ethics” (107). He maintains, however, that this framework “does not serve very well for providing a coherent personal ethic”. This is a common objection to narrative-historical readings, that it creates a disconnection between the corporate response to Jesus—and the corporate outcome of national catastrophe—and the immediate personal response to Jesus. What has this historical Jesus got to do with me?
Perrin argues that, in fact, Jesus framed his invitation “both as a corporate call on Israel as a whole and as a personal call, with eschatological implications hanging equally in the balance in both spheres” (108). He gives as an example the story of the young man who comes to Jesus in search of “eternal life” (Matt. 19:16; Mk. 10:17; Lk. 18:18; cf. Lk. 10:25). The man is asking, in effect, “How do I know that I will attain to the resurrected state?” This is what “eternal life” means in second temple Judaism—Perrin lists a handful of texts, which are considered, along with a couple of others, below.
The destruction of the temple, therefore, as Perrin sees it, was “not the eschatological terminus but a milestone marker which demonstrated that the eschaton was underway” (110). Jesus had a number of things to say about the destruction of the temple and the historical decision that Israel faced. But he also spoke about a final personal eschaton, which presented individuals, such as the young man who came to Jesus, with “an existential choice that must either be refused or accepted in the immediate moment” (109).
I think that Perrin is right to highlight the personal aspect of the phrase “eternal life”. In that regard I need to modify slightly the conclusion I reached in a commentary on this passage:
So the man is not asking about how to get to heaven. Nor is he asking about how to participate in the final renewal of creation. He is asking what it will take to be part of Israel’s future and not find himself among those whose end will be “Hades and darkness and destruction”—those walking a broad path leading to the destruction of the Jewish War.
But I think that Perrin is wrong to dissociate the personal aspect from the national. The “eternal life” which the man seeks is not a remote outcome merely prefigured in the events of AD 70. It was part and parcel of the crisis for which Jesus was preparing his disciples.
These are the texts in which the phrase “eternal life” is found:
- The second of the seven brothers martyred by Antiochus Epiphanes declares that “the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life (eis aiōnion anabiōsin zōēs), because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc. 7:9).
- Rather than seeking the temporary preservation of her sons, the mother chooses piety, which “according to divine promise, preserves to everlasting life (aiōnian zōēn)” (4 Macc. 15:3).
- The destruction of the sinner is for ever (eis ton aiōna), he will not be remembered. But those who fear the Lord “shall rise up to eternal life (eis zōēn aiōnion)” (Pss. Sol. 3.16).
- Enoch claims that “the lot of eternal life has been given to me” (1 En. 37.4), and says of the angel Phanuel that he is “set over all actions of repentance unto the hope of those who would inherit eternal life” (40.9). The righteous elect will be “in the light of eternal life which has no end” (58.3). These passages exist only in the Ethiopic version.
- T. Asher 5.2 has “eternal life (hē aiōnios zōē) awaits death”.
Behind most of these texts lies Daniel 12:1-2 LXX, directly or indirectly. The angel Gabriel explains to Daniel that Antiochus Epiphanes’ assault against Jerusalem will result in an unprecedented day of affliction. At this time, “the whole people will be exalted, whoever is found inscribed in the book”; and many of the dead will be raised—”some to everlasting life (zōēn aiōnion) but others to shame and others to dispersion [and contempt] everlasting”.
The important point to grasp here is that this is not a general resurrection of the dead, such as we find in Revelation 20:12-13. It is a resurrection of Israel’s dead in the aftermath of a severe national crisis. The righteous are raised to share in the life of the age to come, the unrighteous to share in the humiliation of diaspora, which comes at the climax of Israel’s punishment (cf. Dan. 9:24-27). This is how the tension between the corporate and the individual is resolved. On the day when Israel as a “whole people” (pas ho laos) is delivered from its enemy, those individuals whose names are written in the book will be lifted up, and the righteous dead will be raised to share in their vindication. The other texts mostly presuppose the same eschatological setting.
If we now suppose that the young man came to Jesus asking about the eternal life that comes with resurrection, which I did not allow for in the earlier post, Jesus’ response becomes all the more pertinent. Eternal life is the reward for righteous Jews who suffer and are killed at a time of severe national crisis. The young man has fulfilled part of the requirement: he has kept the commandments (Matt. 19:18-20; Mk. 10:19-20; Lk. 18:20-21); he has remained faithful to the covenant. But there is one thing he still lacks. He must leave behind his wealth and follow Jesus, which means, of course, that he must deny himself, take up his cross, and lose his life for Jesus’ sake (cf. Matt. 16:24-26).
In other words, Jesus confronts the man with the fact that—even according to the understanding of second temple Judaism—the way to eternal life was a way of suffering and martyrdom.
At the corporate level, the life of the age to come was the life of God’s people following judgment and the ending of exile, as Wright would have it; and individual Jews would participate in this. ”Eternal life”, however, may have signified the manner in which a particular group of individuals—the righteous martyrs, the disciples who were to follow Jesus down a narrow road of suffering—would participate in this coming kingdom of God.