David Bentley Hart on the age to come: when, where, and who would get in?

Read time: 7 minutes

Hart’s second meditation, on eschatology, in That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation, ends with a discussion of the distinction between the present age and the age to come. There is some vacillation here, it seems to me, as he shifts between theological and exegetical registers. Or perhaps it comes down to a lack of terminological clarity. A lot gets lost in translation. Or perhaps I just haven’t read the section carefully enough.

On the one hand, Hart says, Jesus’ language of final judgment is poetic and elusive, suggesting both a justice within historical time and a justice to be realised “only beyond historical time’s ultimate conclusion.” But it is not made clear why the distinction is required.

On the other hand, he wonders whether Jesus’ teaching “can be said to concern the difference between time and eternity at all, at least as a governing motif, rather than the difference between this age (in Hebrew, ‘olam ha-zeh) and the Age to come (‘olam ha-ba).” But if the age to come is not eternity, why is it not just more history, only better?

The word aiōn (“age” or “aeon”), Hart says, is generally used in classical and Hellenistic Greek to denote a “substantial period of time,” from a year, to a person’s lifetime, to a “discrete epoch,” perhaps in the distant past or future. In the Timaeus, however, Plato uses aiōn for “a kind of time proper to the highest heavenly realm”—time as a changeless totality, in contrast to chronos, which is dynamic and changeable time, “a constant passage from possibility to actuality.”

So the idea that the “age to come” means a transcendent or heavenly “eternity” probably owes more to Plato than to Jewish apocalyptic. The movement in scripture is from one age to the next, in keeping with its fundamental historical, and in a certain sense “humanistic,” realism, not from “chronology” to eternity. So it seems to me.

What’s not clear to me is how Jesus is supposed to fit into the analysis.

Hart stresses that for educated Greek-speaking Jews in the first century, such as Philo and Josephus, an “age” was strictly a limited period of historical time. But he finds a rather diverse usage in the New Testament: “Occasionally it could refer to a kind of time, occasionally to a kind of place, occasionally to a particular kind of being or substance, and occasionally to a state of existence.” New Testament expressions such as eis ton aiōna (“for the age”) and eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn (“for the ages of the ages”), which are often translated simply “forever,” have reference only to the present epoch or to coming epochs, not to a qualitatively different “eternity.”

The Greek word aiōn translates the Hebrew ʿolam. So the “age to come” in the New Testament, Hart says, corresponds to the ʿolam ha-ba, the “age to come,” which is “the Age of God’s Kingdom, or… that cosmic reality now hidden in God that will be made manifest at history’s end.” I struggle to understand, however, what the “special significance” was that the phrase “surely possessed in Christ’s time.” The issue, Hart says, is “not one of how long, but rather of when, or of what frame of reality—what realm, that is, within or beyond history.” And that’s more or less where he leaves it.

So what are we to say about Jesus? Was he really that vague? I don’t think so.

Jesus and the age to come

Jesus and his followers believed that the end of the current age was fast approaching. There would soon be a great judgment, when the bad fish would be thrown away, when the weeds would be burned with fire. Then a new age would begin, the age to come.

The judgment, however, would be directed against the current “evil and adulterous generation” of national Israel. It would happen, therefore, within a generation, within the lifetime of at least some of his followers. It would be an act of divine kingship and would re-establish the direct rule of YHWH over his people.

The task of the disciples following his death was to proclaim with complete confidence, no matter what opposition they faced, the inevitability of this judgment and new beginning, first to Israel, then to the nations. This was their “great commission.”

The centrepiece of judgment would be the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the invading armies of Rome, which would bring to an end the age of second temple Judaism. But there are a couple of secondary, related ideas. First, unrepentant Jews would be excluded from the renewed people of God in the age to come—thrown into the outer darkness, where there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Secondly, there would be a judgment of the nations by Jesus according to how they treated his followers as they pursued their mission in this period. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Jesus does not appear to have predicted a comprehensive judgment against Rome, but the apostles came to the realisation over the next few years that what God was doing to reform his people would have massive implications for the Greek-Roman world. The age to come, therefore, would entail not only the renewal of God’s ancient priestly people but also the repositioning of that people at the centre of the oikoumenē, displacing the old pagan priesthoods.

That’s how biblical chrono-logy works. It’s a very “political” vision—an extension of current realities, an adaptation of traditional Jewish expectations, perhaps the only real difference being that the reign of Jesus as Lord would be exercised not on earth but from heaven:

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Ps. 110:1)

The inclusion of righteous Gentiles in the age to come

But what would be the fate of individual Gentiles? This is going beyond Hart’s study, but it’s an instructive question to ask.

Those who believed in Jesus would obviously be part of this new priesthood for the empire. Those who lost their lives because of their testimony would be exalted to reign with Christ throughout the coming ages of human history. Various categories of wicked Gentiles would be excluded from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). But what about righteous unbelieving Gentiles? Good, decent people who didn’t confess Jesus as Lord.

In the New Testament the eschatological affirmation of righteous Gentiles is found, I think, at two points.

First, in the trial described in Matthew 25:31-46, those Gentiles who attended to the needs of Jesus’ disciples are invited to inherit the kingdom, much to their surprise. They are not believers in Jesus; they are just good people.

Secondly, Paul says that, at the “judgment” that will bring the present age to an end and inaugurate the age to come, Jews and Gentiles who do good works will gain the “life of the age” (zōēn aiōnion)—the ʿolam ha-ba . The Jew first, then the Greek—God shows no partiality. Ordinary Gentiles who behave as though they have the Law written on their hearts will receive “glory and honour and peace” in the age to come (Rom. 2:6-11). Indeed, it is likely that at this judgment righteous Gentiles will put unrighteous Israel to shame.

The rabbis thought long and hard about who would have a share in the ʿolam ha-ba , the world to come.

In the world to come Israel would inherit the earth, but there would be a judgment when it would be determined who exactly would have a share in this new age. In what is apparently an interpolated section in Tractate Sanhedrin differences of opinion are recorded concerning who would be in and who would be out.

Among those likely to be excluded are people who say there is no resurrection or that the Law is not from heaven, “Epicureans,” people who read non-canonical books, who pronounce the name of God “with its proper letters,” or who “break the yoke and violate the covenant.” According to Rabbi Akiba, anyone who sings the Song of Songs at a banquet in a vulgar fashion or who uses magic to heal “has no share in the world to come.” There is some debate over whether the children of the wicked in the land of Israel will have a share in the age to come.

As for the heathen, R. Eliezer cites Psalm 9:17 as evidence that they will all return to Sheol—that is, to death. But R. Jehoshua points out that it is “the nations that forget God” which will return to Sheol. So “there must be righteous men among the heathen who have a share in the world to come” (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13.2).

Presumably Paul’s righteous Gentiles were God-rememberers who, by and large, did not engage in the worship of idols and had therefore not been given up to impurity, dishonourable passions, and a debased mind (cf. Rom. 1:18-32).