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Why Paul doesn't mention the ‘age to come’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2021

Jamie Davies*
Trinity College, Bristol, UK
Corresponding author. Email:


This essay examines the popular claim that the apostle Paul deploys an apocalyptic ‘two-age’ scheme in his eschatology, adapted from Jewish apocalyptic thought but reworked in an ‘inaugurated’ configuration in his theology as ‘now and not yet’. This reading is challenged as representing an oversimplified and anachronistic reading of the Jewish apocalyptic literature, and in respect of its claim to be a Pauline innovation. Furthermore, it is a reading not adequately sensitive to the fact that Paul rarely (if ever) uses the phrase ‘age to come’. The second section of the essay examines this Pauline evidence, and some of the language Paul uses instead of this phrase. Finally, the essay closes with a theological proposal for why Paul might do this, and makes some suggestions regarding Paul's view of time, the relationship between time and eternity, and possible ways this might be articulated once dogmatically located within his christology.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Schweitzer, A., The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (London: A&C Black, 1931), pp. 98–9Google Scholar, illustrated with references to 1 Enoch, Daniel, and 4 Ezra.

2 ‘The NT borrowed the doctrine of the two aeons from Jewish apocalyptic, in which we find the same expressions from the 1st century B.C. onwards.’ Sasse, Hermann, ‘Αἰών, Αἰώνιος’, in Kittel, Gerhard, Bromiley, Geoffrey W. and Friedrich, Gerhard (eds), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1964–), p. 206Google Scholar.

3 A classic example would be James Dunn's linear diagrams in The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), p. 464.

4 Martyn, J. Louis, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 98Google Scholar.

5 M. De Boer, The Defeat of Death: Apocalyptic Eschatology in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1988), p. 7. See further Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 62.

6 Leander Keck, ‘Paul and Apocalyptic Theology’, in Christ's First Theologian: The Shape of Paul's Thought (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015), p. 86.

7 Oscar Cullmann, Salvation in History (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), pp. 172.

8 Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time (London: SCM, 1951), pp. 145–6.

9 N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (London: SPCK, 2013), pp. 476–7, 562.

10 Dunn, Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 465.

11 See Grant Macaskill, ‘Eschatology’, in D. Gurtner and L. Stuckenbruck (eds), T&T Clark Encyclopedia of Second Temple Judaism (London: T&T Clark, 2020), pp. 248–9.

12 See e.g. M. Goff, ‘The Mystery of God's Wisdom, the Parousia of a Messiah, and Visions of Heavenly Paradise’, in Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck (eds), The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017), pp. 175–6. One example illustrates the point. At one place in his account of Pauline apocalyptic theology, Leander Keck says that in the book of Daniel, ‘the theme of two aeons was fundamental whether the phrasing itself appears or not’ (Keck, Christ's First Theologian, p. 80). This is a remarkable conclusion for a text so clearly shaped by the periodisation of history, not the eschatological dualism of ‘two ages’. Daniel's visions of four beasts in chapter 7, the ‘seventy weeks’ of chapter 9 and the statue and its interpretation in chapters 10 and 11 all work with an essentially periodised eschatology, not one of two ages. In the blessing in 2:20, the phrase ‘from age to age’ (Heb. מִן־עָלְמָ֖א וְעַ֣ד־עָלְמָ֑א; LXX ɛἰς τὸν αἰῶνα) is used, but the context clearly suggests the point is times and seasons rather than a dualism. The only other uses of עָלַם / αἰῶν are in blessings and eternity formulae (e.g. Dan 2:4, 28; 3.9; 4:3, 34; 7:14, 18, 27).

13 E.g. mSanh. 10.1–4; Herm. 24.1–7 (combined here with a historical periodisation eschatology); 53.1–8; T. Job 4.6; Ep. Barnabas 15.8 (again a combined scheme); 2 Clem 6.3–5.

14 E.g. Martyn, Galatians, p. 98; Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 1059.

15 Prior to 70 A.D. the attestation is limited and uncertain.’ Sasse, ‘Αἰών, Αἰώνιος’, p. 206.

16 It is possible, then, that at least part of the explanation for the absence of the ‘age to come’ in Paul's letters is that this language is still in its infancy, Paul being something of an early adopter. If the framework had not yet settled into a fixed pattern, there's no reason that Paul should be bound to use the second phrase of the pair. However, this hypothesis becomes more difficult to sustain once the evidence of the Synoptic Gospels is taken into account (Mark 10:30, Luke 18:30: τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ; Matt 12.32: ἐν τούτῳ τῷ αἰῶνι οὔτɛ ἐν τῷ μέλλοντι; see also μέλλοντος αἰῶνος in Heb 6.5). The phrase was clearly in wide enough circulation to be used without too much explanation as early as the composition of Mark. This is still a little later than Paul, but it is a pretty narrow historical window in which to operate.

17 Loren Stuckenbruck, ‘Overlapping Ages at Qumran and “Apocalyptic” in Pauline Theology’, in J. S. Réy (ed.), The Dead Sea Scrolls and Pauline Literature (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 309–26; and Stuckenbruck, ‘Posturing “Apocalyptic” in Pauline Theology: How Much Contrast to Jewish Tradition?’ in The Myth of Rebellious Angels (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), pp. 240–56. See also Macaskill, ‘Eschatology’, p. 249.

18 Macaskill, ‘Eschatology’, pp. 248–9.

19 This section has much in common with an unpublished paper delivered by Ann Jervis at the 2018 meeting of the Society for New Testament Study in Athens titled ‘Did Paul Think in Terms of Two Ages?’ While the analysis of the Pauline evidence presented here is my own, I want to acknowledge, with gratitude, that I have been greatly helped in my thinking by correspondence with Ann, especially in our conversations about the theological questions raised, to which I turn in the third part of this essay (though I suspect at this point we part company in some respects). I eagerly anticipate her forthcoming monograph on Paul's theology of time, but in the interim one might usefully consult her ‘Promise and Purpose in Romans 9.1–13: Toward Understanding Paul's View of Time’, in T. D. Still (ed.), God and Israel: Providence and Purpose in Romans 9–11 (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), pp. 9–34.

20 Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6–8; 3:18; 2 Cor 4:4.

21 1 Cor 1:20; 3:19; 5:10; 7:31.

22 Gal 1:4.

23 1 Tim 6:17; 2 Tim 4:10; Tit 2:12.

24 2 Cor 9:9 comes close with the phrase ɛἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, but this occurs in a quotation of Ps 111:9 and is usually (and I think rightly) translated ‘forever’. This reading is supported by the textual variant ɛἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ αἰῶνος, which brings the quotation in line with the LXX and suggests that this should be read as an eternity formula. Another contender is ɛἰς τὸ μέλλον in 1 Timothy 6:19, but the crucial term αἰών is conspicuous by its absence.

25 Eph 3:9 is also echoed by Col 1:26 and 1 Cor 2:7–10, where again the reference is to past ‘ages’, and the apocalyptic theme of mysteries hidden and revealed.

26 Rom 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 16:27; 2 Cor 11:31; Gal 1:5; Phil 4:20; 1 Tim 1:17; 2 Tim 4:18 and Eph 3:21, where the phrase is the slightly modified ɛἰς πάσας τὰς γɛνɛὰς τοῦ αἰῶνος τῶν αἰώνων.

27 As has been suggested by some. See e.g. Agamben, The Time that Remains, p. 73; Alexandra Brown, in The Cross and Human Transformation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), p. 124, argues that Paul ‘presupposes the two ages’ in this passage. Martinus de Boer suggests that 1 Cor 10:11 ‘may be an allusion’ to eschatological dualism and offers such a reading in a brief parenthesis: Paul, Theologian of God's Apocalypse: Essays on Paul and Apocalyptic (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020), p. 5. Richard Hays names it as one possible reading, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 168–9, citing Johannes Weiss as an advocate. N. T. Wright proposes it before immediately accepting its problems in a footnote in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 552.

28 Lexically, I am not convinced that the word τέλος can be stretched to mean ‘beginning’ in this way. Theologically (and assuming ‘eternal life’ is anything like synonymous with ‘the age to come’), I am also not sure Paul would have said that eternity had a ‘leading edge’.

29 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15.

30 Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20; 6:9, 10; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:21; 1 Thess 2:12. Paul's alternative expressions were helpfully explored in more detail by Jervis, ‘Did Paul Think’.

31 ‘To speak of the present age is obviously to imply that there is another age (or something like another age)’ and reflects Paul's ‘assumption of eschatological dualism’ (Martyn, Galatians, p. 98). Martyn's qualification of the first claim by adding ‘or something like another age’ is an important point that I will take up shortly.

32 De Boer, Paul, Theologian of God's Apocalypse, pp. 5–6. See also p. 207, n. 34, where he suggests that it is ‘probable’ that these phrases are ‘other ways of speaking about the age to come (looked at from different angles)’.

33 Often Koch and Vielhauer are the sources for this. See Klaus Koch, The Rediscovery of Apocalyptic: A Polemical Work on a Neglected Area of Biblical Studies and Its Damaging Effects on Theology and Philosophy (London: SCM, 1972); and Phillip Vielhauer, ‘Introduction’, in Wilhelm Schneemelcher (ed.), New Testament Apocrypha, trans. R. M. Wilson (London, James Clarke: 1965).

34 Cullmann, Christ and Time, p. 145.

35 See Keck, Christ's First Theologian, pp. 93, 106; de Boer, Paul, Theologian of God's Apocalypse, pp. 5–6, 9, 207.

36 David Congdon has challenged the inaugurated eschatology position as an apologetic move. The combination of present and future eschatology into an ‘already but not yet’ scheme is, he claims, one of several ‘simplistic dismissals of the problem posed by early apocalyptic eschatology’ invented in the mid-twentieth century by conservative scholars, offering ‘an easy way out’ which has since become ‘immensely attractive for obvious reasons’ (Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to his Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015), pp. 10–11). Congdon cites Ladd and Wright for popularising this position. Wright has responded by arguing that inaugurated eschatology is not an invented apologetic move, nor is it a second-generation phenomenon, but is there in the earliest Pauline writings, and an innovative part of his thought (‘Hope Deferred? Against the Dogma of Delay’, Early Christianity 9 (2018), pp. 57, 64).

37 Martyn, Galatians, p. 98.

38 I will in particular read the Pauline evidence with the account of God and time offered in Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, specifically I/2 §14 and II/1 §31.3.

39 Rom 2:7, 5:21, 6:22–3; Gal 6:8; 1 Tim 1:16, 6:12; Tit 1:2, 3:7.

40 Kierkegaard, as received by Barth in the second preface to his Romans commentary. Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Hoskyns, Edwin C. (Oxford: OUP, 1968), p. 10Google Scholar.

41 The addition of the word ‘life’ at the end of verse 8 is noted as a textual gloss, but this might also indicate an elucidation of the intended qualitative distinction.

42 Note also that we find here the combination of historical periodisation and ‘dualism’.

43 Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 30.

44 Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: William B, Eerdmans, 1995), p. 73; cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics [hereafter CD], 13 vols, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–1974), IV/1, p. 643; in CD I/2, p. 50, Barth warns his readers about the problems with his earlier account.

45 This is found in much of Martyn's work, but see e.g. Martyn, J. Louis, ‘The Gospel Invades Philosophy’, in Harink, D. K. (ed.), Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Žižek, and Others (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), pp. 1333Google Scholar.

46 Agamben, The Time That Remains, p. 64.

47 Jenson, Robert W., ‘On Dogmatic/Systematic Appropriation of Paul-According-to-Martyn’, in Davis, J. B. and Harink, D. K. (eds), Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), p. 160Google Scholar.

48 See S. G. Eastman, ‘Apocalypse and Incarnation’, in Davis and Harink, Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology, p. 165.

49 ‘As a matter of fact there can be nothing but abstraction here unless we are really ready, in an honest investigation of truth, to start where the New Testament itself starts.’ Barth, CD II/1, pp. 57–8. Though Barth is sometimes fond of geometric metaphors (as noted above), he also criticises the description of eternity as a ‘mathematical point’, which may help us think about the problem of time but it cannot express the kind of time proper to God since it fails to capture God's possession of life (CD II/1 p. 611; see also pp. 639–40, where he highlights the limitations of ‘the point or the line, the surface or the space’ and indeed of all geometric and abstract talk of eternity that does not speak of this living God and leads, however involuntarily, to secularisation).

50 Barth, Theology of John Calvin, p. 73.

51 Barth, CD I/2, p. 50; see also CD II/1, pp. 616–17.

52 Barth considered this truth, that God has temporality, to be of supreme importance. Without it, the Christian message dissolves into ‘the comfortless content of some human monologue’ and ‘inarticulate mumbling’ (CD II/1, p. 620).

53 As Paul does e.g. in Gal 4:4 and elsewhere.

54 The two possible senses of ‘salvation history’ are explored by Jenson, ‘Dogmatic’, p. 161.

55 Of course, there is a sense in which both metaphors are useful, provided they are properly framed. In respect of the anti-God powers of this age, the coming of Christ is an invasion. My point here, however, is that this does not mean that we should speak of Christ's advent in such invasive terms when speaking about time as a whole: there the better christological metaphor is one of embrace. The idea of eternity embracing time on all sides is taken from Barth, CD II/1, p. 623, who writes that time's extension is ‘in eternity like a child is in the arms of its mother’.

56 ‘God's time for us’ (Gottes Zeit für uns) as Barth puts it.

57 On this see Barth, CD I/2, p. 57.

58 For Paul, however, this creaturely mode of existence has also been transformed for the believer through union with Christ (2 Cor 5:17). In fellowship with Christ, the human kind of time is united to this divine mode of existence. This, I think, is why Paul frequently uses ‘aionial life’, ‘new creation’ and his other alternatives to the phrase ‘age to come’ in contexts where union with Christ is being described (e.g. ‘new creation’ 2 Cor 5:17; Rom. 6:4 / ‘aionial life’ Rom 5:21; 6:22–3; 1 Tim 1:16).

59 Barth, CD II/1, p. 612.

60 Barth, CD II/1, p. 610.

61 Throughout this paper I have used the somewhat cumbersome phrase ‘the kind of time proper to God’ and have avoided the (apparently simpler) word ‘eternity’. It is not a word Paul uses, and this is, after all, a paper about words Paul doesn't use. But if we were to use it in a manner coherent with Pauline theology, it would have to be redefined christologically. To speak of ‘eternity’ in the light of the revelation of Jesus cannot indicate timelessness or an eternal moment, but would necessarily include historical, ‘linear’ time. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God has assumed this creaturely mode of temporal existence into the divine life (Barth, CD II/1, §31, p. 617). The eternity that now makes sense to Paul is the eternity of the God revealed in Jesus, in whom God's kind of time and ours have met. I have been greatly helped in thinking this matter by Ann Jervis, who pushed back against the language of ‘eternity’ in our early correspondence.

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