In the study of history there are no objective facts, only interpreted data. There is no objective Jesus, no artefact (‘the historical Jesus’) at the bottom of the literary tell to be uncovered by clearing away all the layers of tradition. All we have is the remembered Jesus, Jesus seen through the eyes of those who followed him, Jesus enshrined in the memories they shared and the stories they told and retold among themselves.
I don’t like to be so captious, but with all due respect to an excellent scholar, I really can’t believe Ben Witherington means this. I’m in and out of his book Revelation and the End Times at the moment, trying to write a serious review of it for the Evangelical Quarterly. In his chapter on the parousia he is keen to show that there are “no errant predictions in the New Testament saying that Christ would return during the lifetime of those Christians who lived in the first century A.D.“ (27-28). He’s very selective in the texts that he considers, but what really surprises me is his argument that the adverbial phrase en tachei in Revelation 1:1 means not “soon” but “quickly”. The ESV, for example, reads: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” Witherington thinks it should be translated “what must happen in a hurry, or with dispatch, or quickly”.
I suspect that many of the readers who find their way to this blog have a rather strong aversion to evangelical statements of faith—such as that of the Evangelical Alliance in the UK—probably because they are perceived in this easy-going postmodern age to be crudely propositional and coercive. I am less worried about the epistemological shortcomings of the genre than about the fit with scripture. Statements of faith have the form of a synopsis of the biblical narrative, but when you look closely, it becomes apparent that they are a highly refined and selective synopsis. They are theological rather than historical documents.
I have Ben Witherington’s short book Revelation and the End Times to hand, so I will take the opportunity provided by his discussion of the millennium to outline what seems to me a more coherent, historically grounded understanding of this mystifying thousand year period.
The modern gospel is the product of an excessive theological preoccupation with the salvation of the individual. It has led generally to the eclipse of scripture as historical narrative—see part 1 and part 2 of this review. But Dan Phillips’ book also illustrates another problem that arises when the defence of dogmatic tradition is elevated above biblical interpretation: Paul’s argumentation gets bent out of shape.
I suggested in part 1 of this review that conventional evangelical or Reformed constructions of the gospel, such as Dan Phillips’ The World-Tilting Gospel, take no account of the Old Testament story of the people of God from Abraham to Antiochus Epiphanes. It is not enough to treat the Old Testament as a compendium of allegories, typologies and prophecies pointing to the fulfilment of God’s plan of salvation in Jesus. The good news that is proclaimed in slightly divergent ways by Jesus, the early disciples and Paul presupposes, and should not be disconnected from, an ongoing historical narrative. Perhaps more surprisingly the same point needs to be made with respect to the “kingdom of God”.
Dan Phillips’ book The World-Tilting Gospel is not a book I would normally read, let alone review. But I like the Pyromaniacs, the book can for now be downloaded free for the Kindle, and it offers another opportunity to try to explain why I think the traditional modern evangelical or Reformed gospel, no matter how cogently presented, gives us a very limited and incomplete understanding of what is going on in scripture.
A couple of comments relating to the reference to “Tartarus” in 2 Peter 2:4…
Responding to some of the recent posts on hell Steven Opp emailed me with a few questions. The first has to do with the motivational value of a doctrine of annihilation. If the Gehenna passages in the New Testament actually refer to temporal judgment on Israel as part of a narrative of historical crisis, and if at the personal level the final judgment on human sinfulness is death and not eternal conscious punishment, what reason do people have for believing or behaving?
I argued recently that the New Testament conceives of any life after death in terms of the resurrection of the body and does not entertain the notion that some immaterial part of a person—the “soul”—survives the destruction of the body to be either rewarded in heaven or punished in hell. See “Why you won’t go to heaven when you die“ and “Resurrection from the dead”. In many ways this feels like a very un-Christian argument—and in a sense it is, because many layers of theological development need to be stripped away before we are able to discern the shape of the original Jewish conceptuality. So not surprisingly a number of biblical passages have been cited as evidence for a conscious intermediate state between death and resurrection. One of the passages is the curious story of Saul’s visit to the “medium of Endor” and his encounter with the dead Samuel (1 Sam. 28:3-24).