Scot McKnight has been running a good series of posts working through Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In the fourth post he considers what Bell has to say about the question put to Jesus by the rich young man (Matt. 19:16; Mk. 10:17) or ruler (Lk. 18:18). Scot thinks that Bell’s eschatology has collapsed here. His view is that the rich man was asking not only about the present world—about how to enter the kingdom life now—but also about a future world. I’m not sure that he is being entirely fair to Bell on this point. It looks to me as though Bell thinks of this kingdom life now as having an ultimate fulfilment in the future—he just puts the emphasis on the present dimension. But I don’t have Bell’s book, and in any case, this is a post simply about the referent of the phrase zōēn aiōnion. What is this “life of the age” or “life everlasting” or “eternal life”? What is the “future world”—not a phrase that is actually found in the Gospel accounts—that the young man hopes to inherit?
Scot makes the important general point, in agreement with Bell and N.T. Wright, that New Testament eschatology “eventually lands not on just ascending into heaven (into the skies) but on a meeting of heaven and earth in the New Heavens and the New Earth”. He then argues that it is this final state of new creation that both the young man and Jesus would have had in mind. So he concludes:
When the rich man asked Jesus about eternal life and Jesus used “life” in his response, they were both talking and thinking about what it takes to participate in The Age to Come, that future endless glorious rule of God when heaven and earth meet in the New Heavens and New Earth.
I think that is mistaken. The urgent choice between life and death that Jesus consistently puts before Israel is oriented towards a coming national catastrophe. This can be illustrated very simply from the logion about a broad and easy path leading to destruction and a narrow and difficult path leading to life (see my commentary on Matt. 7:13-14). Most translations have the man ask about “eternal life” and we have been conditioned to think that the phrase must signify a blessed post-mortem existence in heaven. But this odd theological aberration does not justify tearing this little story from its Jewish narrative and conceptual context. So we have to begin by asking what a good first-century Jew is likely to have meant by this question.
There are numerous Jewish texts that indicate that the thought of inheriting life forever is not to be taken in an other-worldly sense. As far as I can see, nothing in Judaism or in Jesus’ preaching justifies the inference that either the question or the answer aimed beyond the impending crisis of Jerusalem’s destruction, interpreted as a final judgment of YHWH on a rebellious people.
1. When Moses finally instructs the people of Israel to obey the commandments, he adds, “Because this is not an empty word for you, since it is your very life (hē zōē humōn), and through this word you shall live long in the land into which you are crossing over the Jordan there to inherit (klēronomēsai)” (Deut. 32:47 LXX). The inheritance of life has reference to the earthly existence of the people of God.
2. There are frequent statements in the Psalms to the effect that the people have an inheritance in the land “forever”, using some variation of the phrase eis aiōna (eg. Ps. 27:9; 36:18; 36:29 LXX). Nowhere is it suggested that this “eternal inheritance” refers to anything other than the continuing, unbroken life of the people of God on the earth as we know it.
3. Isaiah says that the people will “inherit the land forever (di’ aiōnos)” (Is. 60:21).
4. According to Ben Sirach 37:26 the “wise person among his people will inherit faithfulness, and his name will live forever (eis ton aiōna). Again, the idea of inheriting forever has to do with an enduring possession in this world.
5. In 1 Macc. 2:57 it is said that “David… inherited the throne of his kingdom forever (eis aiōna). This is not a reference to a new heavens and new earth; it simply means that the Davidic kingdom will endure throughout time.
6. Psalms of Solomon 14 is especially significant. On the one hand, those who “walk in the Law which he commanded us that we might live” will “live by it forever (eis ton aiōna); they are rooted forever; they “shall not be pulled up all the days of heaven”; the “inheritance of God is Israel”; they shall “inherit life with joy” (14:1-5, 10). This is not, note, an assurance of individual immortality. It is the righteous community of Israel that will live forever. On the other hand, the inheritance of those who transgress the Law is “Hades and darkness and destruction, and they shall not be found in the day when the righteous obtain pity” (6-9).
This last passage, which dates to the 1st century BC, seems to me to provide exactly the right conceptual background for the story of the rich young ruler. It is a conversation about the commandments (Lk. 18:20-21), which already implicitly raises the question of what needs to be done to inherit a life that will last forever (cf. points 1 and 2 above). Presumably in the light of Jesus’ warnings about a coming crisis—the coming act of divine sovereignty that will transform the status of his oppressed people—the man wants to know what he must do in order gain an inheritance in the life of Israel’s future existence. He wants to be part of a community that will not be rooted up, that will “obtain pity” when YHWH judges Israel. He is not asking for immortality; he is asking to be part of a people that will know God’s everlasting faithfulness and mercy.
Jesus’ radical answer to this question is that, under eschatological conditions, keeping the Law is not enough. The man must leave behind his successful past life and join the community of disciples as they venture down the perilous road that will lead to an inheritance of the life of the age to come (cf. Matt. 19:29). It is in this respect that Jesus departs from the traditional understanding. He is not arguing for a way of existing beyond this world; he is arguing for a different way of attaining a radically different way of existing in this world.
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.