Heaven and the apocalyptic narrative

Paula Gooder talked about heaven at a Theos event last night in London, with passion, verve, an impressive grasp of the details (the gentleman behind me was certainly impressed), and a robust determination not to let theological tradition get in the way of honest biblical interpretation.

Her leading argument was that in the modern era the concept of heaven has been privatised, spiritualised and postponed. All that most people are interested in—if they’re interested at all—is whether they will go to heaven when they die and what it will be like when they get there. Gooder insisted that these are not biblical concerns. The New Testament has very little to say about people going to heaven when they die. In scripture heaven is the place where God dwells. It is a created space above the firmament, no more remote from the earth than it needs to be. It can be visited by people: Paul at least entertained the possibility that he, or somone known to him, had been caught up bodily to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2).

Markan christology debate

I have been closely following recent exchanges among a set of notable scholars regarding Mark’s christology. All good stuff, a model of civilised online debate. On one side we have those who argue that in subtle, ambiguous, indirect, and covert ways Mark presents Jesus as a figure who in some manner shares in the divine identity (Michael Bird, Chris Keith, Michael Kruger, Anthony Le Donne, Brant Pitre). On the other side are those who doubt it (James Crossley, Daniel Kirk, James McGrath, Dustin Smith, Joel Watts, Stephen Young). Some are not direct participants in the conversation but have been cited; and there are no doubt contributions out there, filling the void like dark matter, that I’ve overlooked. If I’ve mis-categorised anyone, let me know—I’m a little unclear where Crossley falls, for example. This is a partial overview of, and response to, the debate. Apologies for the length.

Judge of the living and the dead

In a comment Peter asks about Acts 10:42: “So it seems you would say that Jesus’ role as judge of the living and the dead… already happened at the parousia (70 AD). Is this correct? If so, in what way did he judge the dead?” The main texts have to do with Peter—confusing, I know (Acts 10:42; 1 Pet. 4:5); but we can also bring Paul into the picture (Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 14:9-12; 2 Tim. 4:1). My contention is that this is not the language of a transcendent final judgment. The arguments have historical developments in view, though not just the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70.

Two unconventional ways of thinking about the delay of the parousia

I have been getting a kick out of Albert Schweitzer’s 1930 book The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. What’s so refreshing about the book is that Schweitzer attempts consistently to frame Paul’s thinking eschatologically. The book’s dated in many ways, and a lot of exegetical water has passed under numerous hermeneutical bridges since then, but it still has something to teach us.

He does not do justice to the missional-evangelical and political-religious dynamics which I think fundamentally explain the shape and purpose of Paul’s eschatology; and his insistence on using the term “mysticism” has probably been a stone of stumbling for many readers. But if we keep in mind that by mysticism he means the solidarity of the community of the Elect with Christ, who died and was raised, in the period leading up to the inauguration of the Messianic Kingdom, then this metaphor of the spider’s web makes the point very well:

As the spider’s net is an admirably simple construction so long as it remains stretched between the threads which hold it in position, but becomes a hopeless tangle as soon as it is loosed from them; so the Pauline Mysticism is an admirably simple thing, so long as it is set in the framework of eschatology, but becomes a hopeless tangle as soon as it is cut loose from this. (140)

Schweitzer gets redemption and eschatology half right

One of the most serious exegetical-hermeneutical-theological failings of modern evangelicalism has been to take soteriology out of eschatology, to disconnect the saying about the Son of Man giving his life as a ransom for many from the expectation that the Son of Man will be seen coming in glory on the clouds of heaven to the consternation of Caiaphas and the Council (Mk. 10:45; 14:61-64).

I would say that we should all go back to Schweitzer and start again. This statement requires careful reading, but it hits the nail on the head. Almost.

Foreign to our ideas as is the thought of Jesus’ atoning death as shaped by the eschatological idea of redemption, it is nevertheless both simple and profound. The atoning tribulation, which man was to suffer in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins, the future Messiah takes, by the gracious permission of God, upon Himself. How much more living and fruitful is this historically true version of Jesus’ thought, growing naturally as it does out of the universal attribution of atoning value to suffering, than the host of theological or untheological inventions which have been foisted upon Him! (A. Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, 61-62)

The flood, Sodom, and the end of the world

In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus Dale Allison argues for an apocalyptic Jesus—that is, for a Jesus whose mind was resolutely set on a cataclysmic and transformative event in a not-too-distant future. He thinks that the “shared hypothesis of Weiss and Schweitzer is not just tenable but compelling”. The argument is right, and I am firmly of the view that an evangelical reading of the Synoptic Gospels has to recover the apocalyptic dimension. The question, however, is what sort of impending cataclysmic and transformative event Jesus had in mind.

Like many scholars, Allison thinks that Jesus expected a final cosmic transformation:

he envisaged, as did many in his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life, to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God. Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand.

The Son of Man sayings and the horizons of New Testament eschatology

My last post, arguing against Dale Allison that Jesus’ saying about the Son of Man coming in clouds relates to the vindication of Jesus and his followers after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, elicited a good critique on Facebook. The point made is that there is more to the prophecies than the destruction of Jerusalem and that this “more” never happened. So we need to acknowledge that “the early church was mistaken, both as to the timing and the nature of the return”. Let me address the critique as it is developed. My contention will be that the New Testament language is more coherent and more plausible if we differentiate between two historical-eschatological horizons: the war against Rome and the overthrow of classical paganism.

Can we believe what Mark believed about the coming of the Son of Man?

I’m about a third of the way through Dale Allison’s book The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. So far, it’s been an introspective, ambivalent—if not vacillating—but engaging reflection on the difficulty of doing historical Jesus research in a way that is theologically or religiously useful. Here’s one way of pointing out the challenge:

Remarkably, many pew-sitters are happily oblivious of what has been going on in the thinking world for two and half centuries. They have somehow avoided most or even all of the serious intellectual commentary on the Gospels since the Enlightenment. (3)

I think that we need to be doing a lot more to bring the two sides together in a constructive dialogue—the critical scholars, on the one hand, and the practitioners and pew-sitters, on the other. But that’s not the issue I want to pursue here.

What makes us so sure that the harvest is plentiful?

Here’s another proof-text beloved of evangelists: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37–38; cf. Lk. 10:2). It will no doubt get a good airing in the coming months as the Church of England prepares for a week of prayer for evangelism in May, leading up to Pentecost. It will seem obvious to many that Jesus’ saying is as relevant now as it ever was—he wouldn’t have said it otherwise. The harvest is waiting to be brought in. We just need to pray for more people to go out and share their faith.

But do we have any reason—exegetically speaking—for thinking that Jesus’ words hold true for the situation that we face in western Europe in the 21st century? Should the text be applied in such a simple fashion to our own context?

Putting the apocalyptic back in apologetics

Peter’s exhortation to the “exiles of the dispersion” to be ready at all times “to make a defence (apologian) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15) has been a key text for those wishing to promote either a rational apologetics or personal evangelism.

It suggests a slightly passive strategy—don’t push your views on people, but if they ask you to explain or defend your beliefs, make sure you’ve done your homework. Either pack your mental toolbox with some tried-and-tested logical rebuttals to flummox the atheists and evolutionists and secular humanists who push you up against a wall and call you an idiot. Or be prepared to share your formulaic personal testimony: my life used to be a mess, then I met Jesus, now everything is sweetness and light. Either way, do it all with “gentleness and respect”. In other words, keep smiling inanely….


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