Sunday Meditations: The Ages

A few parallel conversations have had me thinking about the word “age” in the New Testament and its corollary “eternal.”

The Greek word usually translated “age” is aion from whence we get our English word “eon.”  It is a word that means a period of time that is characterized by some distinguishing characteristic or prevailing set of conditions.  We use the word this way many times when referring to historical periods like the “Bronze Age” or the “Industrial Age” or “the Middle Ages.”  The word doesn’t specify a period of time, but rather segments of time defined by a particular characteristic.  We can talk about the “age of the atomic bomb” or an “ice age.”

In Jewish thought, “age” has that meaning.  It doesn’t mean a set period of time, it means a period of time defined by a particular characteristic or circumstance.  The reign of a certain king, for example, or the Babylonian Exile.  Those are ages.  Probably the use of the word to describe the shortest amount of time is Jonah 2:6 in the Septuagint.  That phrase “the bars closed on me forever” is actually “the bars closed on me for ages (aionioi)” and is something of a hyperbolic way to describe three days and nights.  But the use of the word doesn’t mean a certain period of time; it means a period of time defined by being in this fish.  In Jonah chapter 2, he doesn’t know how long he’s going to be in there, and he refers to the period of time in the fish as “ages” even though it actually turns out to be a relatively short period of time (I say as someone who has not spent any length of time in a fish).

This is a good segue, then, into the concept of “eternal.”  Generally, the word translated as “eternal” is some variant of the word aionion, which means “of the ages.”  The idea here is something that will last beyond a specific age and into the future succession of ages to come, indefinitely.

This is one area where I wish translators had been a bit more literal, because there is a subtle difference between “a single, infinitely extensible period of time” and “a potentially endless succession of ages.”

The idea of an age grounds us immediately into history.  In order to call an age an age, you have to have some content to define it.  What makes this time period an age in contrast to other ages?  What defines the age?  How would you know when this age was up and a new age had come?  By nature of the case, we have to think about an age or the passing of ages as definitive historical events and circumstances.  This way of looking at time and eschatology is much closer, I would argue, to the mindset of the biblical authors than a more Greek philosophical static conception of a single period of time that has no bounds.  In both cases, we may end up with a period of time with no discernible end, but in the case of ages, that endless period of time is made up of an endless succession of historically definitive periods of time – ages – as opposed to just being an endless time with no particular historical progression in it.

This has particular implications for how we understand the New Testament and the various talk about ages.

For instance, Jesus tells his followers that he will be with them until the end of the age.  His disciples ask what the signs of the end of the age will be, and Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple.  Perhaps my favorite reference is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he says the Old Testament happened to the saints of the past, but it was written down “for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

It is a popular understanding that “end of the age” means “end of all time,” but this does not seem to be the intent.  The end of an age is a drawing to a close the things that define that age, and this will give way to another age that is defined by something else.  In English, we sometimes use the expression “the end of an era.”  It doesn’t mean the end of all time – it means a definitive period has come to a close and things will be drastically different, afterward.

This has some deep ramifications for our understanding of the New Testament.

For instance, if you think “end of the age” means “end of the world” or “end of time,” then passages like Matthew 24 are in the distant future.  The destruction of the Temple will refer to some distant future destruction of the Temple that will happen near the end of the world.  The persecution, wars, famine, etc. and the instructions to avoid catastrophe by fleeing to the mountains all refer to something that happens at the end of the world.  And then we run into trouble with statements like, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” so we have to push the referent for that statement out until the end of the world, too, so “this generation listening to me right now” becomes “that generation that is alive in the future whenever these things happen.”  And Jesus’ warnings to his immediate audience to be watchful for these things is only applicable in the sense that nobody knows when these things are going to happen.

It is, in fact, this understanding of “age” that drives a lot of the criticism that Jesus was just plain wrong about the future.  The Temple was destroyed and the world did not end.  That generation he was talking to did pass away, and the world kept on turning.

However, if an “age” is to be understood as a period of time defined by a certain state of affairs, these passages work naturally.  The “end of the age” isn’t the end of time, it’s the end of the present system of things.  It’s the end of this era.  It’s not the end of the world – it’s the end of the world as we know it (apologies to Michael Stipe).  The things that define this period in history will collapse and give way to a new period defined by other things.  If we consider that the disciples are asking when this big historical transition they’ve been expecting will happen and what the signs will be, then Jesus’ answer makes sense, not only in its own context, but also in terms of what actually happened, historically.

This also affects our understanding of things like “eternal life.”  Here, we have a succession of ages.  The idea is not that time stops and we all sit around on clouds or whatever.  The idea is that the life Jesus offers is life that carries into the next age – whatever that age happens to look like – and countless ages to come.  It contains promise both for the here and now and in a renewed heavens and earth and general resurrection.  It is a promise that God will keep you through history’s highs and lows, tribulations and blessings, and ultimately raise you from the dead.