And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 1 John 5:11 NASB
Eternal life – What is eternal life? Most Christians immediately think of life in heaven. Of course, with a little reminder, we realize that eternal life begins with our commitment to fellowship with Yeshua, not when we die. Our confusion comes from the theological distinction between temporal and eternal, a confusion that crept into Christian thinking long ago (see my book). The Greek term here helps us get back on track. It is zoe aionios, life in the coming age. When we realize that John is not distinguishing between temporal and eternal, but rather between life in this age and life in the coming age, then we discover that his Jewish background provides a second level of understanding. In Hebrew, life in the coming age is life in the olam ha-ba.
What is life in the olam ha-ba? Well, that’s not quite clear. For a Jewish perspective, look at this.
It could be life in “heaven,” but it also might be life after the return of the Messiah, or it might be some other kind of existence. Rabbinical thought isn’t definitive, nor are the texts of the Tanakh. When John (Yochanan) speaks about the zoe aionios, is he talking about heaven or the Millennial Kingdom or something else? All that we really know is that this state of being is intimately connected to Yeshua, is experienced in some way in the present as anticipation of something to come, and is available to all who find fellowship in the Son. The Bible doesn’t really say a whole lot about “heaven.” In fact, in the Tanakh (the only “Bible” John had), there is almost no emphasis on heaven. What we anticipate in the olam ha-ba is greater community with Him. All the rest of Scripture focuses attention on this age, here and now.
Does it strike you as a little odd that Jewish thought is so unconcerned about the olam ha-ba while Christian thought seems completely preoccupied with the afterlife? If John is Jewish (and he most certainly is), can we really imagine that his idea of zoe aionios is radically different than the concept of the olam ha-ba that he grew up with? If the olan ha-ba can be understood as the reign of the Messiah, doesn’t that change our Christian picture of “heaven”? And why is it that Christians are so fixated on escape from this world and rest in the next? Could it be that the Platonic dualism which sees this world as essentially corrupt and worthless and the next world as blessed and perfect has altered our view of “eternal life”? Could it be that Christian thinking is much more a reflection of Plato’s concept of heaven and earth than a reflection of Scripture? If the Kingdom of heaven is at hand, then why all the fuss about getting there? If life is in the Son, then what’s the problem with dying? If being in fellowship with Yeshua is keeping His commandments, then why are we pushing an evangelism of death (“Where would you go if you died tonight?”)?
Are you concerned about zoe aionios or olam ha-ba? Why?
Topical Index: eternal life, zoe aionios, olam ha-ba, 1 John 5:11
CORRECTION: If you read the announcement about the next trip to Israel, I forgot to say that it is in April-May, 2012. Sorry.