Scot McKnight has been running a good series of posts working through Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In the fourth post he considers what Bell has to say about the question put to Jesus by the rich young man (Matt. 19:16; Mk. 10:17) or ruler (Lk. 18:18). Scot thinks that Bell’s eschatology has collapsed here. His view is that the rich man was asking not only about the present world—about how to enter the kingdom life now—but also about a future world. I’m not sure that he is being entirely fair to Bell on this point. It looks to me as though Bell thinks of this kingdom life now as having an ultimate fulfilment in the future—he just puts the emphasis on the present dimension. But I don’t have Bell’s book, and in any case, this is a post simply about the meaning of the phrase zōēn aiōnion. What is this “life of the age” or “life everlasting” or “eternal life”? What is the “future world”—not a phrase that is actually found in the Gospel accounts—that the young man hopes to inherit?
Aaron Darrisaw has asked about Stephen Westerholm’s critique of the New Perspective on Paul. I don’t have access to Westerholm’s book at the moment (I’m sitting in Damascus airport), so I can’t comment directly on his analysis. However, I could have a bit of a stab in the dark at the whole issue. There is a problem with the basic NPP argument about works of the Law as marks of covenant membership, at least with respect to Romans. Dunn, Wright, and others will have addressed the criticisms, but to my mind there is still a structural flaw in the model which makes it vulnerable to attack from the Reformed side.
Evangelical theology—that is, theology as it endeavours to ground the identity and purpose of the church today in the teaching of the New Testament about Jesus—has arrived at a fork in the road. There is the broad road of the Reformed paradigm and its derivatives, which leads to obsolescence, and many there are who walk long it. And there is the narrow, difficult, and still poorly marked path of the New Perspective, which leads to life, and until now only a small number of scholars and an intrepid advance party of enlightened believers have ventured along it. So any attempt to signpost and map at least the early stages of this new way is greatly to be welcomed.
I have been involved in an interesting conversation (much of which is in German) at peregrinatio regarding the meaning of Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 that the believers would be delivered “from the wrath to come”. My view is that this verse has reference to a second eschatological horizon in the New Testament—a complex of events consisting of “the deliverance of the persecuted saints from their enemies…, their public vindication, the overthrow of the pagan imperial aggressor (“Babylon the great”), and the acknowledgment that Israel’s God has made Jesus King of kings and Lord of lords”. This argument was challenged, as is only fair, on the grounds that it does not make sense to say that the Thessalonian Christians were saved from the defeat of Rome by their belief in Jesus. So the question is: What sort of event could legitimately be regarded as the fulfilment of the expectation of the Thessalonian believers that Jesus would deliver them from the coming wrath?
I suggested recently in a discussion about the supposed “hell” passages in the New Testament that Revelation 14:9-11 is arguably the “only passage in the whole of scripture that speaks of an endless torment of ordinary people”. The language and context of the passage, however, make it abundantly clear that what John is describing here is not a place of punishment for the godless after death but—in symbolic terms—the consequences of an impending, this worldly judgment on pagan Rome. This is apparent both from the immediate context (the three angels of 14:6-11) and from its relation to the account of judgment on “Babylon the great” in Revelation 18.
I find this strange. Kenton Sparks (God’s Word in Human Words) is happy to accept the possibility that not all the miracle stories in the Bible actually happened. He also thinks it quite likely that some of the miraculous events related are only partly historical. Since there is no historical evidence for an event as dramatic as the biblical exodus, perhaps we should conclude that it happened, but not quite on the spectacular scale that the Bible suggests. Perhaps “Jesus performed only some of the miracles attributed to him in the Bible, while others are fictional traditions spawned by his genuine miracles” (321).
So far, so reasonable. But then Sparks asks us to step over the hermeneutical line between history and theology. For the historicity of some miraculous events, he thinks, is “nonnegotiable for a fully coherent Christian, being defined as such by creedal orthodoxy and also by Scripture itself” (he has in mind 1 Corinthians 15 and the Nicene Creed).
Some years ago I proposed a thought experiment as a way of grasping something of the strangeness of scripture:
It makes for an interesting thought experiment to consider what would have happened if the early Jewish Christians had been driven from Jerusalem into the desert. What if, under threat of destruction from an invading Roman army, they had concealed their writings in caves and then, like the sectarians of Qumran, had disappeared off the screen of history? And suppose that nineteen hundred years later those writings were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd boy and fell into the hands of a culture that had never known the Christian church. What would that culture make of them? We can hardly subtract the influence of Christianity from modern Western culture, even from modern secular rationalism. But this is only a thought-experiment: how would people react to these writings and their claims about a Jewish teacher called Jesus without all the intellectual baggage of Christian tradition, without the preconception that this a definitive story about God, perhaps without much of an idea about God at all?
Remarkably, it appears that something very close to this may actually have happened….
There’s an important section in Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words in which he discusses how we might discern positive “trajectories” that may enable us to reach moral or theological conclusions beyond—or perhaps even in contradiction to—explicit affirmations in the biblical text. Slavery provides an example. The Old Testament allowed for the harsh treatment of slaves (eg. Exod. 21:20-21). The New Testament tolerated the practice, but by introducing the potential for a quite radical egalitarianism (cf. Gal. 3:28) based on love established a trajectory that eventually—with some prodding from “the Enlightenment and its emphasis on human dignity and individual freedom” and despite well-meaning opposition from evangelicals such as George Whitefield and Charles Hodge—landed at the morally and theologically correct abolition of slavery in the West (289-93).
I have come across a number of people recently who, in their different ways, appear to agree that the future of evangelicalism lies ideally in a convergence of the New Perspective and emerging-missional forms of church. The question has been, though, whether such a convergence has any chance of happening given the powerful currents pulling the big ship of modern evangelicalism in quite different directions. What this diagram attempts to highlight are what seem to me to be the two main tensions or questions in the process of establishing a viable, biblically credible alternative to the old Christendom model. The diagram doesn’t solve anything but perhaps it will bring a little clarity.
This verse was alluded to briefly by Peter Wilkinson in a comment relating to the place of suffering in Paul’s thought. My view is that the suffering of the early church, culminating potentially in a death like Jesus’, plays a much more important and limiting part in his theology than we usually allow for. Much of Paul’s eschatology is constructed around the conviction that the church is called to participate in the story of Jesus’ suffering and vindication for the sake of the future of the people of God as it confronted first hostile Judaism and secondly hostile paganism. This is what the “Son of Man” motif is all about, for example—the inclusion of a righteous, persecuted community in the vindication of the Son of Man.