Ever since taking Dr. Falk’s classes in the winter term of last year, a previously-held idea has been under renovation. When I first started hearing about Jesus and how Christianity works, I understood it to be this sort of “ticket to heaven” idea. You believe in Jesus, get baptized, and give about ten percent of your money each week and you’re good to go. What I didn’t understand back then was the context from which the Gospels – and even Jesus – emerged.
Understanding ancient Jewish thought is absolutely crucial to understanding the New Testament. Why? Well, for the most part, the authors of the New Testament were Jewish and most of the characters as well. The setting of the Gospels almost never leaves Judea and frequently visits Jerusalem. So yeah, it’s kind of important to know how an ancient Jew might understand what Jesus said and did.
In his book, How God Became King, N.T. Wright fleshes this out much more directly. He focuses on the expression “eternal life” as it reads in English and clarifies the understanding a little. As it has been used in most of Western Christianity, “eternal life” seems to mean heaven with a sense of disembodiment from the earth – as if heaven was a distant place far from earth. “That is Plato, not the Bible,” Wright states (Pg. 44). He then goes on to give a more Jewish understanding of “eternal life.”
The Greek phrase zoe aionios (I’m going off of Wright’s understanding entirely; I know very few Greek words or phrases) usually has the translation of “eternal life” or “everlasting life.” So when we read John 3:16, as Wright says, we understand that Jesus died for us so that we may be rescued from this world and join God in heaven. Here’s the problem:
“In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two ‘aions’ (we sometimes use the word ‘eon’ in that sense): the ‘present age,’ ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the ‘age to come,’ ha-olam ha-ba.”
In other words, we shouldn’t understand “eternal life” or “everlasting life” in the sense of living in some disembodied realm away from earth, but rather in a sense of time still within the physical earth. As Wright points out, ancient Jews believed the “age to come” was when God would bring about peace, justice, and healing in the world. There was no sense of them ever leaving the world:
“The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.”
With this view, it begins to look like we aren’t leaving anytime soon. And if you ask me, that’s how it should be. Believing that we will one day be brought away from this world and placed in a disembodied realm for time eternal leads to the belief that this world and this life and the things we do with our bodies doesn’t really matter. It suggests that once we get our ticket to heaven, we can pretty much do whatever we want – including actively avoiding loving our neighbor or taking care of the earth. But if the truth of the matter is that God’s intention for His future kingdom involves this earth we inhabit today, then it seems we’d be foolish to pack our bags to board our flight “home”; because the plane would never show up.
Wright’s final point gets the message across:
“When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life.”
Wright isn’t saying that going to heaven isn’t part of the process; he’s saying that it isn’t the end of the process – far from it. He’s saying that God’s big idea is to renew and restore His creation – the world we live in and the earth we inhabit. Eternity will be spent in that world of “on earth as it is in heaven.” When God came to earth to dwell among men, He didn’t do it for just a quick visit. He came to lay the foundation for and inaugurate His kingdom’s arrival. He came to start not just a fight, but a war. When Jesus first proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matt. 4:17), he was declaring God’s invasion. He was declaring war for what is rightfully His: Creation.
Rethinking eternal life with God is tough. We want to believe that peace is only possible if we leave this world and never return, but, as Wright discusses, we’d be doing something that not even God intends. Our tickets to heaven (if we mean “heaven” as in an eternal realm away from earth) are then useless. It’s really uncomfortable to think so because we used to believe they were everything. But our hope should not be placed in systematic beliefs; our hope should be placed in Jesus – especially if it means we have to roll up our sleeves and get involved with God’s invasion. It’s really the only way to guarantee our presence in the fully restored heaven and earth.