Saturday, January 17, 2015

Eternal or Eonian? Part Six (The Eonian God; The Kingdom of God; Eonian Life)

The Eonian God

As a review of the conclusions at which we've arrived in this study so far, let's now consider Paul's words in Romans 16:25-27. Below is the passage as it appears in three of the most literal translations of Scripture we have:

Now to Him Who is able to establish you in accord with my evangel, and the heralding of Christ Jesus in accord with the revelation of a secret hushed in times eonian, yet manifested now and through prophetic scriptures, according to the injunction of the eonian God being made known to all nations for faith-obedience―to the only, and wise God, through Christ Jesus, be glory for the eons of the eons. Amen! (Romans 16.26-27 CV)

And to Him who is able to establish you, according to my good news, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the secret, in the times of the ages having been kept silent, and now having been made manifest, also, through prophetic writings, according to a command of the age-during God, having been made known to all the nations for obedience of faith―to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to him be glory to the ages. Amen. (Romans 16.25-27 YLT)

Now unto him who hath power to establish you according to my glad-message―even the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of a sacred secret in age-past times kept silent but now made manifest, and through means of prophetic scriptures according to the command of the age-abiding God for obedience of faith unto all the nations made known unto a God wise alone, through Jesus Christ, [unto whom] be glory unto the ages. Amen. (Romans 16.25-27 REB)

By referring to God as the eonian/age-during/age-abiding God, the emphasis is simply being put on God's relationship to the eons he created. As noted earlier, we are told that there was a time before the eons began (2 Tim 1:9; Tit 1:2), and that God created the eons by his word (Heb 1:2, 11:3). Paul even calls God the "King of the eons" (1 Tim. 1:17). As the "eonian God," God endures through (and, by implication, is actively involved in) the eons he created, and of which he is King. But God's being the "eonian God" in no way limits his existence to these periods of time. As noted earlier, to argue this would be like saying that the words, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" limits God to these three patriarchs only. But of course, this expression is simply emphasizing his covenant relationship with these three men. Likewise, Paul's calling God the "eonian God" simply emphasizes his relationship to the eons he created, and through which he endures. When the eons are complete and the goal of God's redemptive plan (the "purpose of the eons") is reached, God will cease to be both the "King of the eons" and the "eonian God." However, he will continue to be who he has always been (i.e., the uncreated and incorruptible God, whose existence had no beginning and has no end).

In the last verse above, Paul writes, " the only, and wise God, through Christ Jesus, be glory for the eons of the eons." As is the case with the expression "the eonian God," there is no reason to believe that Paul was limiting God's glory to the ages/eons in view when he wrote these words (as if God will cease to receive glory from his creation when the final eon ends). Instead, Paul was simply putting an emphasis on the glory that God will receive during the final, most glorious eons of redemptive history (which will be in contrast to the glory he is receiving from his creation during this present, wicked eon, of which Satan is said to be the "god"; see 2 Cor. 4:4; cf. Eph. 2:2). And this point brings us to the final topic of this study: the kingdom of God and the eons of Christ's reign.

The Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven

In the previous installments of this study, we saw that the word commonly translated "eternal" in many English translations of the NT is aionios. This word means "age-lasting," "age-during" or "eonian" (enduring through, or pertaining to, an eon, or eons). Significantly, a number of contemporary, evangelical Christian scholars acknowledge that the expression translated "eternal life" in most English translations (zoe aionios) should best be understood to refer to life during what Scripture speaks of as the "age to come."[1] While it is true that these scholars would still argue that this future blessing is endless in duration, this is only because they understand the age, or eon, to come to be endless in duration. But this is surely a mistaken belief on their part. Scripture clearly speaks of more than one age or eon to come. Thus, logically, the next eon to come can't be endless in duration. However, while the Christian scholars I referred to are very much mistaken about the duration of the eon to come, we are in agreement on this one important point: whenever the adjective aionios appears in scripture, the reader should understand that a certain eon (or eons) is in view. As used in Scripture, the word does not mean "eternal." Rather, it always pertains to an eon or eons, whether past or future.

But what eon(s) are in view in the expression "eonian life?" The answer to this question is crucial, for misidentifying the eon(s) would most certainly distort the meaning of a significant portion of scripture. Fortunately, Scripture does not leave us in any doubt as to what eons are in view. First, let's take notice of the fact that, for a believing Israelite, entering, inheriting or possessing "eonian life" and entering/inheriting the "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven" were equivalent blessings, for Christ spoke of them interchangeably (Matt 19:16-17, 23-24; 25:34, 46; Mark 9:45-47; 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30; John 3:3, 5, 15). But what is the "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven?" It was on the topic of this coming kingdom that Christ placed an overwhelming amount of emphasis during the time of his earthly mission in the land of Judea. From the very beginning of his ministry, Christ's message was, "The era is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe in the gospel!" (Mark 1:14-15; Matt 3:1-2; 4:17) Jesus' hearers would have understood this proclamation concerning the kingdom of God as referring to the imminent fulfillment of important Messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Of special importance is the prophecy found in Daniel 2:44, where we read,

"And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever [Hebrew: olam; LXX:eis ton aion, or "for the eon"]..."

It is from this verse in Daniel that the expressions "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" are derived. That this kingdom refers to the Messianic kingdom is evident from Daniel 7:13-14. There, Daniel writes,

"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting [olam]dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed."

The Messianic kingdom is called "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven" because (as foretold in Daniel's prophecy) it was to be a kingdom set up by "the God of heaven." It is also appropriately referred to as the kingdom of Christ, or the kingdom of God's Son (Eph 5:5; Col 1:13). The apostle Peter referred to the Messianic kingdom as "the eonian kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet 1:11). Christ himself referred to it as his kingdom (John 18:36), and as a kingdom which had been assigned to him by his Father (Luke 22:29). Although Jesus will be the "king of kings" in this kingdom, others will sit on thrones and reign during this time as well.

In Daniel 7:18 we are told that "the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom to the eon, even to the eon of the eons." We are also told that "the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an eonian kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them" (v. 27). Echoing this prophecy, Jesus himself told his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” And in Revelation 5:9-10, we are told that the saints in view will be a “kingdom” that will “reign on the earth” (cf. Rev 22:5).

Eonian Life: Life During the Eons of Christ's Reign

Although the expression zoe aionios ("eonian life") is common in the New Testament, it appears only once in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the LXX).[2] In Dan 12:1-2 (ESV), we read:

"At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt."

In the Hebrew text, the expression translated above as "everlasting life" is chayei olam. In the LXX, the expression is translated zoe aionios, or "eonian life." Since I believe a correct understanding of this passage from Daniel can shed much light on what "eonian life" refers to, let's ask (and then try to answer) the following question: To what time period, and to what event, is Daniel 12:1-2 referring?

We are told that this resurrection (as the language surely indicates is in view) will take place during "a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time" (or, "a time of distress unlike any other from the nation's beginning up to that time" - NET). And considering the context of Daniel, it seems clear that this "time of trouble" will involve Daniel's "own people" (i.e., the people of the nation of Israel). Employing similar language, Christ spoke of a "time of trouble" as taking place just before his return to earth in power and glory, when he comes to set up his kingdom: "For then shall there be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be" (Matt 24:21; cf. Luke 21:20-23).

We are also told that everyone among Daniel's "people" (i.e., Jews, or Israelites) whose names were found written in "the book" would "be delivered" (or "escape" -NET). From Jesus we learn that those in view here are the Jewish believers who will be alive at the time when the events prophesied in Daniel 12 begin to unfold. What exactly this "deliverance" or "escape" entails is made clear in Matt 24:15-20, where Christ declared,

"So when you seethe abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Danielstanding in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath."

And just a few verses later, we read:

"Now immediately after the affliction of those days [i.e., the "time of trouble" referred to in Daniel 12:1] the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not be giving her beams, and the stars shall be falling from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Mankind in heaven, and then all the tribes of the land shall grieve, and they shall see the Son of Mankind coming on the clouds of heaven with power and much glory" (Matt. 24:29-30).

From this we can conclude that the time at which the faithful among Daniel's people (believing Israelites) will be raised to enjoy eonian life is around the time of Christ's return to earth to establish his kingdom, for it is with this event that the present eon ends and the eon to come begins (Matt. 24:3). Thus, the eons to which "eonian life" pertains are the eons during which Christ is going to reign over the earth (Mark 10:29-31; Luke 18:29-30; Matthew 19:28-30; Luke 22:29-30; Eph. 1:20-21; cf. Rev. 5:9-10). It is these eons which are going to succeed what Paul called the "present wicked eon" (Gal 1:4), and which both Christ and Paul had in view when they spoke of the "eon to come" (which is the first eon of Christ's reign) and the "eons to come" (Matthew 12:32; Mark 10:29-31; Luke 18:29-30; Eph. 1:21; Heb 6:5). Thus the eons to which the expression "eonian life" refers are simply the eons during which Christ reigns.[3]

Moreover (and as has been noted already), we know from Revelation 20:4 that the first eon of Christ's future reign will last for about a thousand years. And while the duration of the second eon is not revealed in Scripture, the time period is nonetheless referred to as an "eon," just like the duration of the thousand-year kingdom. By virtue of its being one of two eons (and not an "eternity"), it is a period of time that has a beginning and an end. In fact, because it is the last of the two eons during which Christ reigns, we know it will ultimately end. How can we know this? Because, according to Paul, Christ's reign is one day going to end.

[1] See, for example, C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the First Gospel, pp. 144-50; George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 290-292; J.I. Packer, "The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Crux XXVI.3, September 1990, 23; "Evangelical Annihilationism in Review," Reformation & Revival, Volume 6, Number 2 - Spring 1997; John Painter, 1, 2 and 3 John (Sacra Pagina), p. 195; Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, pp.73-74; John G. Stackhouse, Jr. "Jesus Christ," The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, p. 151; N.T. Wright, Romans, p. 530.

[2] The expression also appears in 2 Macc. 7:9; 4 Macc. 1 5:3; and Ps. Sol. 3:12, but these examples are found in apocryphal books which, although of historical value and importance, I don't consider to be inspired Scripture. 

[3] One verse in which the first eon of Christ's reign is mentioned is Matt 19:28, which refers to this time as "the new world" (ESV) or "the regeneration" (NKJV). The Holman Christian Standard Biblerenders this expression "in the Messianic Age." And the NET Bible reads, "In the age when all things are renewed," and says in a footnote, "The Greek term translated the age when all things are renewed(παλιγγενεσία, palingenesia) is understood as a reference to the Messianic age, the time when all things are renewed and restored." 

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