The Two Age Model as an Interpretive Grid
It is important to consider the basic eschatological framework provided for us by the New Testament writers, who speak of eschatological matters with one voice when they depict God’s sovereign control of history as the out-working of two qualitatively distinct and successive eschatological ages, known variously as “this age” and the “age to come.”
Throughout the New Testament, “this age” is used in reference to the present course of human history, while the “age to come” is used of the eschatological age of redemption promised throughout the Old Testament, which is now realized with the coming of Jesus Christ, and manifest for all to see in the triumph associated with his bodily resurrection and exaltation.
I believe that the period of time between the first advent of Jesus Christ until his Second Advent–the time between the establishment of Christ’s kingdom as described in the gospels and the consummation of all things–is the same period of redemptive history described in Revelation 20 as “a thousand years.” This means that the so-called “millennium” is a present reality and not a future hope. This means that events depicted in Revelation 20, refer not the future but to the present. This also means that the thousand years is that same period of time in which citizens of “this age” await “the age to come”–though given the fact of the present reality of the kingdom of God (Matthew 12:28, Luke 10:1-20; 17:20-21; Romans 14:17) and the work of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14), “the age to come” is already a present reality for the believer in Jesus Christ.
This tension between the “already” and the “not yet” characterizes much of the New Testament eschatological hope as Christians await the final consummation of Christ’s present kingdom on the great and glorious day of the Lord Jesus. As Geerhardus Vos points out, “Christianity in its very origin bears an eschatological character. It means the appearance of the Messiah and the inauguration of His work.” Therefore, the starting point in developing this Christ-centered eschatology is “the historico-dramatic conception of the two successive ages,” which are variously designated “this age” and “the age to come” (Geerhardus Vos, “Eschatology of the New Testament,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed., Richard Gaffin, P & R, 1980, 25-28). According to Vos, since the very fabric of redemption itself is eschatological, the key to understanding this is to correlate eschatological language predicated of these two ages to the historical events surrounding the person and work of Jesus Christ. This will become clear when we examine terms such as “this age,” “the age to come,” and the biblical texts in which they occur.
Both Jesus and Paul repeatedly speak of “this age” and “the age to come” as two successive and qualitatively distinct eschatological periods. In three places in the synoptic gospels our Lord explicitly contrasts “this age” with “an age to come.” In Matthew 12:32, Jesus is speaking of the impossibility of forgiveness for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, either “in this age or the age to come.” In Luke 18:29-30, Jesus is speaking about the kingdom of God, in response to the unbelief expressed by the rich young ruler. Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” Finally, in Luke 20:34-35, Jesus declares, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
From these texts it is clear that our Lord understands these two ages as successive and qualitatively distinct. “This age,” say Jesus, is characterized by marriage and things temporal. “The age to come,” on the other hand, is characterized by resurrection life and immortality, hence the impossibility of natural, earthly life continuing in any form after the general resurrection which occurs at our Lord’s return (John 6:39-40, 44, 54). This notion of a the general resurrection occurring at Christ’s Second Advent presents a very serious problem for those forms of premillennialism in which it is argued that people in natural bodies continue to populate the earth during Christ’s millennial rule after the resurrection of the righteous. If the “age to come” is the age of resurrection in which there is no marriage or sexual relationships, just how is it that people somehow escape this universal event so as to repopulate the earth, after Christ returns? This is an impossibility.
Paul sets out the same eschatological understanding of history in Ephesians 1:21, speaking of the present exaltation of Jesus Christ, who is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Like Jesus, Paul sees these two ages as consecutive and distinct, though Paul adds to our understanding the important point that Christ’s rule is already a present reality which began with his resurrection and exaltation. As Lincoln points out, “the terminology and structure involved in this contrast play a large part in the apostle’s thought” (Andrew T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet, Cambridge University Press, 1981, 170 ff. Geerhardus Vos also sees this as a fundamental structure in Paul’s thought, in The Pauline Eschatology, (Baker Book House, 1982, 1-41).
The impact of this two-age eschatological framework upon the question of millennialism becomes very apparent when we examine how these terms are used throughout the New Testament. Whenever the term “this age” is used it is always in reference to things temporal, things destined to perish. Consider the following things predicated by the biblical writers of “this age.” The end of the age will be preceded by signs (Matthew 24:3), and Christ himself will be with us until this age ends (Matthew 28:20). There are material rewards in this age (Luke 18:30), and the people of this age marry and are given in marriage (Luke 20:34). According to Mark, the present age is an age of homes, fields and families (Mark 10:30). Paul, on the other hand, puts this in ethical terms. We are not to be conformed to the pattern of this age (Romans 12:2), for this present age is evil (Galatians 1:4). The wisdom of this age is the godless speculation of the philosophers (1 Corinthians 1:20), and is characterized by rulers who do not know the truth (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). In fact, says Paul, Satan himself is the “god” of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4) for the ways of this age are evil (Ephesians 2:2). Paul exhorts those who are rich in this age not to put their hopes in their riches for the age to come (1 Timothy 6:17), for we are to live godly lives now as we await the age to come (Titus 2:12).
In every case, the qualities assigned by the biblical writers to “this age” are always temporal in nature and represent the fallen world and its sinful inhabitants awaiting the judgment to come at our Lord’s return. This becomes clear when we see “this age” as the biblical writers intend—an age which stands in stark contrast to the eschatological “age to come.”
What do the Scriptures say about the “age to come”? The gospel writers record our Lord as saying that there will be no forgiveness in the age to come for speaking blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:32), and that it is a period of judgment when the weeds are thrown into the fire (Matthew 13:40). It is also an age of eternal life (Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30) and when, as we have seen, there is no longer marriage or giving in marriage. It is an age, says Paul, where life is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19).
This means that the “age to come” is an age of eternal life and immortality. It is characterized by the realization of all of the blessings of the resurrection and consummation. It is not an age in which people await the consummation! When we consider those additional texts where Paul speaks of the consummation of the kingdom of God, the evidence against premillennialism becomes even stronger. According to Paul, evil-doers will not inherit this kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), while flesh and blood cannot (1 Corinthians 15:50). Those who live evil lives will not enter this kingdom (Galatians 5:21), nor will the immoral (Ephesians 5:5). Thus, it is clear that “the age to come” refers to that period of time after the resurrection, the judgment and the restoration of all things. Those who participate in the “age to come” are no longer characterized by the temporal, but the eternal—a point particularly problematic for all forms of premillennialism which insist upon an earthly existence of some sort in a millennial age of half-way consummation after Christ’s return, as well as for those influenced by preterism, who see “this age” as the Jewish era and “the age to come” as that which follows God’s judgment upon Israel in A.D. 70.
The inability of dispensationalists in particular and premillennarians in general to deal with this argument becomes clear when we look at how dispensationalists deal with the rather extensive biblical data about the two ages. As J. Dwight Pentecost argues,
As it is used in the New Testament, according to the normal usage of the words, this present age refers to that period of time in which the speaker or writer then lived. As used in reference to Israel in the Gospels this present age referred to the period of time in which Israel was anticipating the coming of the Messiah to fulfill all her covenant promises. The coming age was the age to be inaugurated by the Messiah at His advent. In reference to the church the term this present age refers to the inter-advent period, that period from the rejection of the Messiah by Israel at His second coming. The phrase coming age could be used in its earthly aspect, to which the church will be related (as in Eph. 1:21), or in its eternal aspect (as in Eph. 2:7) (J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, Zondervan, 1980, 131-32).
But, we must ask, “are we ever justified in saying the coming age was to be inaugurated, but was not, because Israel rejected her Messiah”? “Does the age to come has an earthly aspect as well as a eternal one? Pentecost’s understanding of this matter simply does not fit with the data we have already seen, and it seems to me as though the two ages have not been properly considered as a major interpretive grid. More recently, Elliot Johnson has tried to weaken the thrust of this argument by pointing out that since so many interpreters of the New Testament cannot precisely agree upon what is entailed by the terms “the already” and the “not yet,” it must be because the terms fail to clarify what is already fulfilled and what remains yet to be fulfilled (Elliot E. Johnson, “Prophetic Fulfillment: The Already and the Not Yet,” in Willis and Master, eds., Issues in Dispensationalism, 188).
The solution to this over-stated dilemma is to connect the terms the “already and not yet” to the more concrete terms, “this age” and the “age to come.” The already refers to the eternal blessings of the age to come which are realized in the present, while the not yet refers to the blessings of the age to come, yet to be realized in the consummation. Neither dispensationalists, nor millennarians in general, can account for the significance of the biblical writers view of history as a non-millennarian and successive unfolding of two qualitatively distinct eschatological ages.
Adapted from my book, A Case for Amillennialism (Baker, 2003). Click here: Riddleblog - A Case for Amillennialism - Understanding the End