Mike Morrell has articulated a good question about the thesis of The Coming of the Son of Man and Re: Mission. It comes down to this: Given the metaphorical potential of biblical language, what keeps us from deflating all apparently final language to historical proportions? Or more crudely: Why not ‘go the full preterist route’? By what criteria do we decide that in some contexts the language of cosmic transformation is figurative and in other contexts literal? This is how he sums it up:
I see the first and second horizons clearly in Scripture, but I guess what you see as a third horizon I see as firmly ensconced in your second. I don’t know if the NT writers could be metaphorical and symbolic when speaking of Rome’s downfall but then woodenly literal when talking about the cessation of natural forces and planets.
I must say, I understand the force of Mike’s comments and I have toyed with the idea that Revelation 21-22, for example, offers simply another metaphorical representation of the mundane transformation of the people of God, much as we have in Isaiah 65. However, on both theological and literary grounds I am still inclined to think that something beyond the mundane, something that supercedes history, is imagined on the outer edge of the New Testament vision. Jesus does not speak in such terms - his eyes are firmly on the first horizon of the war against Rome; and I think that much of the cosmic language used elsewhere (2 Peter 3:10-13, for example) is meant to describe historical events in a foreseeable future. But a number of thoughts or texts suggest to me that the early church, presumably as a result of its reflection on Jesus’ resurrection, came to envisage an ultimate victory of the creator over evil and death.
The implications of Jesus’ resurrection
I think we have to affirm that Jesus’ resurrection was ontologically real, not merely a spiritual resurrection. Paul certainly makes metaphorical use of it, consistent with Old Testament language, to speak of the transformation of those who are baptized into Christ and receive the Spirit by which Jesus was raised from the dead. But in 1 Corinthians 15 he appears to argue both for the (transformed) bodily reality of Jesus’ resurrection and for a future resurrection of those in Christ - a hope that he expresses for himself much more personally in Philippians 3:10.
My argument in The Coming of the Son of Man is that Paul is thinking here not of a final resurrection but of a resurrection of the martyrs at the second horizon of the church’s victory over Rome; but the point is, in any case, that we have the expectation of a real resurrection not only of Jesus but of those ‘in him’. I agree with Wright and others who argue that resurrection is a ‘new creation’ event and therefore an anomaly prior to a renewal of creation of the same ontological character as Jesus’ resurrection. So in the apocalyptic narrative Jesus and the martyrs reign in heaven from the moment of their vindication until the time when they can find a fitting home in a new ontology - a new heavens and new earth.
A thousand years to go
There is presumably a reason why, in the closing chapters of Revelation, a rather uneventful thousand year period is inserted between the resurrection of the martyrs directly after judgment on Rome (the ‘first resurrection’) and a final resurrection and judgment, significantly of all the dead, not merely of those in Christ, following the abrupt disappearance of the old heavens and earth. It seems to me that this must be intended to dissociate the final judgment scene from the historical defeat of blasphemous Roman paganism. Why would he choose to do that? Why would he add to the historically relevant apocalyptic narrative such an indeterminate future beyond the fall of Rome? It seems to me that the best explanation is that he needed to establish the sort of symbolic distance between the second horizon and a final judgment that would allow a radically different type of hope to emerge in the final visions.
John then describes the new creation in a way that makes it difficult to suppose that he conceives it as simply a ‘natural’ continuation of the old order of things - of our geology. When Isaiah speaks of the restoration of Israel as a renewal of heaven and earth, there are some utopian elements in the description, but he does not dare to imagine that death and sin are finally defeated: ‘the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed’ (Is. 65:17-20). John re-uses Isaiah’s vision, but he emphatically consigns both evil and death to the lake of fire, which is the second death - an image, it seems to me, of absolute destruction.
I would argue, therefore, that John works very hard in these final chapters, within the parameters and possibilities determined by the apocalyptic genre, to suggest that out of the narrative of covenant renewal, culminating in the resurrection of Jesus, there has emerged a fundamentally different type of hope.
The last enemy is death
Paul also speaks of a final victory over death, not on the grounds that the believer is now raised with Christ in a spiritual sense, but because he expects the suffering church to be raised in the future, at the parousia, at the second horizon of the church’s vindication against its enemies. He is not describing the same ‘moment’ as John describes in Revelation, which is why he speaks of inheriting the kingdom rather than of the renewal of creation. The argument is put to the church not because they have failed to realize the spiritual dimensions of their new resurrection life. Indeed, Paul reproaches them for imagining that they have already become kings, they already reign, when the reality is that the church, like the apostles, faces suffering and death (1 Cor. 4:8-13). Without the hope in a literal resurrection following a literal death - and not merely a spiritual resurrection following a spiritual death - their vaunted faith is worthless (1 Cor. 15:12-19). But if this literal resurrection does not in turn presuppose a literal new creation, we are left with what is ultimately the very un-Jewish prospect of resurrected bodies trapped forever in the non-bodily sphere of God’s existence.
The eager longing of creation
Romans 8:20-23 also seems to me to express a more ‘literal’ hope for the transformation of creation, a release from the tyranny of death and perhaps the second law of thermodynamics. It would be hard to maintain that Paul introduces this expectation merely as a figure for the transformation of the community. In fact, I would argue that here the historical transformation of the community provides the ground for personified creation’s hope in its own eventual transformation.
Do we really want a new creation anyway?
One question Mike poses I find particularly interesting: “Can we, in the 21st century, dare hope (or even want to hope) for a literal ‘do-over’ of our geology?” I would say in this regard that although the New Testament finds it necessary to affirm, in apocalyptic language and as a matter of fundamental theological conviction, the ultimate victory of the creator over the enemies of his creation, it does not encourage us to think of this as a simple extension of our own history or geology. The only narrative of this final transformation that we have is Revelation 20:7-21:4, and not only the symbolic thousand years but also the curiously undramatic flight of the old cosmos from the presence of God (20:11) suggest that John is much more concerned with the theological significance of this vision than with the narrative-historical relation between the old and the new. The early church waited anxiously and impatiently for its historical vindication and the end of suffering. There is no comparable suggestion that we now as the people of God should be similarly preoccupied with the actual end of history, though Romans 8:20-23 keeps in view a fundamental yearning of all things to be free from pain and death.
It seems to me that this at least gives us room to affirm that the creator will have the last say over his creation, that the final existential enemy will be defeated, and indeed that as God’s covenant people we will in the end be vindicated for having put our trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, without at the same time compromising our sense of being called to exist in and for the sake of the existing historical and geological reality. In fact, I would argue now, in the post-second-horizon circumstances of the church, that it is supremely John’s vision of all creation made new that establishes the dimensions of our prophetic calling. Yes, an over-emphasis on an ideal future may erode the integrity of our being in the world, but it belongs to the nature of authentic prophecy to resist that temptation and remain firmly connected with the reality of what it means to be human.