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).
I keep making the point that the New Testament is a situated theological engagement with the historical narrative of the people of God. As such it is a work both of memory and of imagination: it addresses the present in the light of what has happened and what will happen.
It seems a good idea, therefore, to set out a rough outline of the relevant period—basically, in my view, the period from the decree of Cyrus permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem to Constantine’s Edict of Milan, by which Christianity was legalized. Modern evangelicalism has a very poor sense of history. We have somehow persuaded ourselves that the New Testament can be read perfectly well in more or less complete isolation from the historical substrate which it presupposes at every point. That is because we are only really interested in theology. I want to challenge that bias. What follows is very incomplete and is not very exciting in itself—I’ve made little attempt to work the Jesus story into it. But it should not be read merely as optional background material. It shares the same narrative foreground space as the New Testament itself.
Ben Witherington has taken the trouble to post a couple of comments (here and here) in response to my critique of his argument about Gehenna in his book Revelation and the End Times. He makes four points in defence of his more or less traditional understanding of geenna in the Gospels as a reference to a place of everlasting punishment after death. I am delighted that he has taken the trouble to address the “substantive points” that I raised—basically a restatement of my view that, like Jeremiah before him, Jesus invoked the Valley of Hinnom as a metonymy for judgment on Jerusalem. But I remain unconvinced.
The “good news” in the New Testament is really the telling of the whole story, from Jesus’ initial proclamation to Israel through to judgment on the pagan world. But it has been broken down into its component parts. This observation correlates rather well with Scot McKnight’s argument that ‘ “creed” and “gospel” are intimately connected, so intimately one can say the creed is the gospel’ ( The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited , 63), though the narrative details would come out rather differently. The creedal narrative that emerges from the New Testament is a string of good news items.