056  Olam Ha-ba, the World to Come

For the last 200 or 300 years in Christianity in the English-speaking world, a number of Christians have come to think of the goal of our life in Christ as "heaven." Many of us are expecting to graduate to a disembodied, timeless, spiritual bliss in the presence of God. The biblical phrase with which we associate this is "eternal life." We expect that God will lift us out of this evil world and make us at home with Him up there, wherever "up there" is, forever.

It might happen that way. Only, the more I read of the Bible and particularly of the Old Testament, the more I see that that doesn't describe what the prophets foretold. They foretold something more like a restored earth where the righteous rule righteously, everybody prospers and grows old, the wicked are nowhere to be found, and God walks freely among His people.

Those "disembodied bliss" concepts are Greek concepts. You'll find that notion of disembodied, eternal bliss in Plato, the Greek philosopher from the 3rd century BCE. The idea of our being lifted out of this evil world, you will find among the Gnostics of the 2nd century CE. You'll find passages in the New Testament that sound like they teach those Greek concepts--if you divorce them from their Old Testament roots. But might those interpretations be mistaken? If we bring the Old Testament into the picture, might our interpretation of those verses change?

Jesus and the Apostles were Jews who taught the Old Testament. The Old Testament's concepts what comes after, though similar in some ways to what we've all thought, are not exactly the same. In the Jewish understanding, heaven was YHWH's home, but earth was for humankind. Humans had fouled up the earth, filling it with violence, injustice, misery, idolatry, and a curse. What the prophets predicted, and what the Jews expected, was that God was going to restore the earth, fixing what humanity had broken. Then He would remove the wicked from the earth so that they would not cause any more distortion. The resulting earth would be better for humanity, a place where "every man will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make him afraid" (Micah 4:4). There would be no premature death, no mourning or crying, no calamity, no frustration or theft, no vicious beasts, no idoloters, and no fools (Isaiah 35:8-10, Isaiah 65:17-25).

Jews spoke of "this world" using the phrase, "olam ha-zeh," literally "the world here" or "this world." They spoke of the world to come as "olam ha-ba," meaning "the world there," or "the next world." It's important to recognize that they thought of it as a world. 

This is why the resurrection of the body was important both to the Jews and to the early Church. Though Jews don't speak of it often, a bodily resurrection is the last of Maimonides' 13 Principles of Judaism.* They expect that the righteous will be resurrected bodily in order to enjoy the restored earth. And the same concept occurs in the Apostles' Creed, where "the resurrection of the body" appears right in front of "the life everlasting."

The Jews all knew that God was going to judge all humankind to declare who was worthy to live in "olam ha-ba," the world to come. That's why the question appears in so many places in the gospels: "What must I do to inherit the world to come?" (See Matthew 19:16, Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:17, Luke 10:25, Luke 18:18, and all those places in John's gospel where Jesus mentions "eternal life.") 

The concept shows up in the phrase "eternal life," but we need to keep in mind that while the gospels we have are written in Greek, the thoughts that the gospel's authors were communicating were Hebrew thoughts. In fact, some very good scholarship supports the idea that at least part of the gospels were originally written in Hebrew. Among other reasons to think so, some phrases in the gospels that sound odd in Greek sound completely natural if they're translated word-for-word into Hebrew. But even in places where the Greek seems perfectly natural, the concepts need to be understood as Hebrew concepts.

"Eternal life" is one of those concepts. The Greek is "zoe' aionion." It means, literally, "life of the endless age". But the concept beneath it is the Hebrew concept, "olam ha-bah," the world that happens after this one.

How is this relevant? 

Well, the Greekish "heaven" concept, consistent with the Gnosticism that helped to produce it, arises from hopelessness, from believing that there's no real solution to the brokenness of our earth except for God to destroy it and start over. But what if God planted His kingdom on earth in order to fix it? What if Jesus was telling the truth when He announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and declared "freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of God's favor," the Jubilee? (See Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2.) What if we're supposed to be engaged in remaking the earth "as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10), so people have a hope of experiencing God in their current circumstances? 

These questions were asked by purveyors of what came to be called "the social gospel" back in the 19th century. There was some truth behind that movement, but it tended to pose its truth as an either/or, making the entire gospel about social action here and now. This produced a split in Christianity, between those who declared the good news to be about heaven and those who declared it to be about social activism.

There's a middle position between those two that's been emerging for a while now, declaring the Kingdom of God as both a present reality and a future arrival. Some parts are "not yet." Some are "already." And which is which can actually be affected by what we choose to pursue in prayer and activism.

Hope is a powerful thing. If we hope for a future heaven to solve our problems, we wait patiently for it through much hardship. That's not a bad thing. However, if our hope includes increasing favor from God to improve our current circumstances and the circumstances of those we love, we can become motivated to do what's necessary for that to happen. It can lead us to ask, seek, knock, pursue, and work toward those things. That's a better thing. And if we hope for both at the same time, that's even better.

God has given us powerful tools that can produce good things in a powerful way. We use them too sparingly. I'm hoping to increase what we expect from God in response to our prayers and actions, so that we can participate in His reworking of the earth into the image of heaven.

Next time I'll talk around some of the ways God intends for us to use His authority to produce a new earth. After that, I'll probably address some of the questions that are already rising in your minds regarding why, if we're supposed to be working at building olam ha-ba, Paul or John said things about mansions that Jesus is preparing for us, spiritual bodies, streets of gold in a heavenly Jerusalem, and so forth. There's a lot here.

So adjust your hopes a little, and I'll be back in a couple of weeks to talk about what we can do with olam ha-zeh.


Phil Weingart



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