How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Eternal life and the story of Israel

Read time: 6 minutes

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 [amazon:978-0830838974:inline].

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.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 02/14/2013 - 10:27 | Permalink

Andrew, can you clarify something. When you say -

The important point to grasp here is that this (Daniel 12:1-2) 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

The ‘severe national crisis’ you refer to is, historically, the AD 70 crisis, I assume. The ‘life of the age to come’, according to you, is historically, the life following ‘the collapse of national Israel or the collapse of the pagan oikoumenē’.

Can you clarify what happens, historically, at this time, to the ‘righteous (who) are raised to share in the life of the age to come’?

Where are they? Wouldn’t a historical narrative reading (and the understanding of the Maccabean literature) require that they are present on earth?

If they are whisked away to heaven, would the absence of their dead bodies, now resurrected, not be noticed and be the subject of comment?

It’s a fair question. Daniel 12:2, assuming it is to be read literally and not as a metaphor for the lasting reputations of the righteous and unrighteous, suggests that some of the dead are raised to an everlasting existence on earth. The problematic resurrection of the saints at the time of the crucifixion (Matt. 27:52) presupposes this idea.

But the New Testament mostly appears to envisage a resurrection of the martyrs at the parousia to reign with Christ in heaven. Perhaps this would have been understood to entail a literal raising of their dead bodies from the tombs, as was the case with Jesus, of course, but this is getting on to rather speculative ground. 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 rather suggests a fundamental ontological disjunction between the body that dies and decays and the body that is raised.

the New Testament mostly appears to envisage a resurrection of the martyrs at the parousia to reign with Christ in heaven

Obviously, I’m going to disagree with this somewhat in the historic sense in which you mean it, since the only place where it is suggested in anything like an explicit form is the disputed passage Revelation 20:4-6. (Matthew 27:52-53 describes the resurrection of an unspecified number, “many holy people who had died”, who were distinct from the judges, martyrs and faithful believers of “the first resurrection” of Revelation 20).

As regards the foregoing definition of “eternal life” as “life of the ages”, it seems to me to be capturing one side of the meaning: a life this side of the grave, whilst missing the other: life in the Spirit, which is its key meaning. The latter is a life brought forward from the final eschaton, to be lived in the present.

On a related note, the concrete historical vindication of Israel was not, I believe, in the preservation of faithful Israel through the disaster of the temple’s destruction, nor in the shifting sands of Roman politics following the judgment on the pagan oikoumenē. Rather, Israel’s vindication was in the resurrection of the one person and messiah Jesus, and the forming of a people in and through him.

This people would be neither abstractly detached from the world in spiritual suspended animation, nor concretely attached and identified with any political or religious power bloc. The focus would be as it remains to this day, on a dynamically active king and kingdom. It would be at one and the same time both not of this world, and therefore never totally identified with any political or religious power, but powerful within the world, and therefore constantly confronting, subverting, and renewing all power systems, including its own.

Of God’s wisdom expressed through this king and his kingdom it was rightly said that “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”. The rulers of this world continue to fail to understand it. The same incomprehension through absence of adequate defining categories is true of the powers: political, religious, and one might cheekily add theological, to this day.

You’re entitled to disregard the historical dimension of the New Testament. Lots of people do. You appear to have misread the article, though, if you think it defines “eternal life” as “life of the age”. It actually makes a distinction between the two expressions.

I don’t think the vindication of Jesus and the vindication of the historical community are opposed in the way you suggest. I think we do better justice to New Testament apocalyptic thought if we see the vindication of Jesus as an anticipation of the concrete historical community of the faithful. Modern evangelicalism doesn’t know what to do with the parousia, but it was clearly of enormous importance for the early churches.

Peter Leithart makes a similar point in [amazon:978-1608998173:inline], 37:

This is the gospel of Jesus, the good news of empire: The time has come for God to defeat the principalities and powers, take His throne, and deliver the dominion of the nations to the Son of Man—and His saints.

No, I haven’t overlooked the distinction you were making between ‘eternal life’ and ‘life of the age(s)’; my reply acknowledged the distinction. I simply don’t think there is such a huge distinction as you are making, given the defining characteristics of ‘life of the age’ as the more literal translation of the Greek phrase.

My more important point was that the vindication the NT speaks of is of Jesus, and then only through and in him of those who believe in him.

In this sense, “the concrete historical community of the faithful” which you describe was not a ‘Christianised’ Roman empire, but a community which was and is never to be totally identified with any world power system, be it political or religious. The community of the faithful always remained and remains in tension with any such system, critiquing it, and critiquing itself where it exhibited or exhibits symptoms of having become another such system.

This is the nature of the transcendent kingdom of God in its immanent expressions. It always looks beyond the immediate to the more complete expression which is to come, and never entirely identifies itself with systems in the now, until the transformative power of the return of Jesus.

There is nothing intrinsically disjointed about a pneumatic body resurrection that is invisible, but which is also the real body of the believer.  Take a look at Martin’s “The Corinthian Body”.  In the cosmology of Paul’s day, pneumas (or spiritual) was simply the invisible, tasteless, ethereal part of someone, but it was still real.  They didn’t have a concept of real and unreal things (or normal and paranormal).  Everything to them was real, but some of it was invisible.  This insight into their cosmology solves a lot of mystery about how resurrection terminology was used in that day.


Or, how about staying with Paul’s corporate theme he uses throughout all his epistles and apply it to the “body” that was being raised?  This works perfectly and explains Paul’s use of the present passive (being raised) all through 1 Cor. 15.

Thanks Andrew. I think you've done a good job of tying together the personal and the corporate here, which makes this far more convincing as a realistic take on their viewpoint.

And this answer makes sense to me, because it makes sense that the initial framework through which “eternal life” would have been conceived would have been as an extension of the promise to be rooted and sustained in the land. Thus, you don't receive personal eschatological life apart from receiving the corporate inheritance of the kingdom.

I'm working on reframing this philosophically. What I've got so far is that everything is on a path to the ultimate eschaton. That eschaton marks the destiny of the historic people of God. Historic crisis points then become moments when both the nature and the ongoing existence of the people of God are called into question.

If one's personal eschatological destiny is based on the final eschatological destiny of God's people, then those historic crises become crises for our personal destiny as well.

It then makes sense to talk about personal immortality (a "good person" has secured their future, and at death is brought forward to the ultimate eschaton), an in-history resurrection (when the "books are sealed" on a crisis, and this person's future is known to be secured), and a resurrection at the end of time (when this person is actually raised).

That's the best I can do for now, anyway. Still working on it.