Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth…

Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: A better way of viewing the future?

It comes as no surprise that when McLaren comes to address the question of how a new kind of Christianity might view the future, he starts by describing a nightmarish populist account of the end-times deeply influenced by the Greco-Roman narrative. The dangers of a dispensationalist eschatology are egregious and manifold: it promotes idiotic and alarmist speculation; it discourages concern for the environment; it has prejudiced American attitudes towards the problem of Palestine; it undercuts peacemaking, diplomacy, and interreligious dialogue; and it once left an eight year old Brian McLaren sitting in mounting panic on the porch of his locked and empty home wondering whether the rapture had happened and he had been left behind (192-193).

The determinism of this sort of eschatology is reinforced by a linear Greek-Roman narrative that proceeds resolutely towards the goal of a restored platonic ideal. But disengaged from this framework the future may be reimagined ‘in light of the dynamic and spacious biblical narrative’:

In that context, we see the future not as a time line on a flat plane, but as a time-space in three dimensions. In that expanding space, millions of good stories can unfold and be told. Suddenly we find ourselves not in a one-dimensional determined universe with a fixed future, but in a deep, expanding universe with a future full of widening possibilities. At every moment, creation continues to unfold, liberation continues to unshackle us, and the peaceable kingdom continues to expand with new hope and promise. (193-194)

This spaciousness does not necessarily mean a confusion of contradictory narratives. Rather, there is a ‘moral arc to the universe that slowly but surely tends towards justice’ (194). Conventional eschatologies move towards a single fixed point, but the dynamic of creation is expansive: it ‘branches out into an ever widening sphere of goodness, justice, and peace’ (195). This presents us with an optimistic alternative to both scientific and religious determinisms that predict, in their different ways, ultimate destruction and at best the salvation of a ‘chosen few’. Rather, McLaren argues, the cosmos is tending towards healing, joy, resurrection, liberation, reconciliation and salvation – because ‘the living God will never forsake or forget his beloved creation’.

This approach differs from traditional eschatologies also in that it regards the cosmos not as an object of divine action but as a subject ‘endowed by its Creator with millions of real minds and wills, a community with which God relates intersubjectively’ (196). The future is, therefore, to be seen in relational and collaborative terms. This is an ‘improvisational’ (Küng) or ‘participatory’ (Borg, et al.) eschatology: ‘God holds out to us at every moment a brighter future; the issue is whether we are willing to receive it and work with God to help create it. We are participating in the creation of what the future will be.’

To my mind this argument poses two big questions. First, is this optimistic, creational, participatory eschatology at all realistic? Secondly, can it be reconciled with New Testament doctrines such as the second coming of Christ? I’ll come back to the first question in a moment. As for the second, McLaren maintains that:

our best Bible scholars are largely united in realizing that the New Testament writers were not anticipating the “end of the world” and the destruction of the space-time universe. They were aniticipating the “end of the world as we know it” and the beginning of a new spiritual-historical age or era. (197)

So the argument is that Jesus spoke not about the end of the world but about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70; and that parousia in Paul refers not to an ultimate second coming but to ‘the presence or appearance on earth of a new generation of humanity, Christ again present, embodied in a community of people who truly possess and express his Spirit, continuing his work’ (198). Put these two thoughts together and we may conclude that AD 70 marked the historical emergence of the new age of the Spirit, when those who followed Jesus began to participate in the progressive ‘renewal of all things’.

Whereas conventional eschatologies have inspired resignation, fear, apathy and arrogant aggression, this new perspective inspires a courageous, confident, humble, hopeful participation in the work of the Creator. It produces, moreover, an ‘ethic or anticipation: we seek to have our present way of life shaped by our vision of God’s desired future’ (200).

I have some reservations about how McLaren deals with the biblical material. The New Testament story of the future is more complex than his reconstruction suggests: it foresees not only the emergence of a renewed people of God following the catastrophe of AD 70 but also a protracted conflict with classical paganism and the eventual victory of Christ over Rome and the gods of the old world. Also, while McLaren recommends my book The Coming of the Son of Man as a ‘highly nuanced and closely researched exploration of this term and its implications today’ (for which I am grateful), he overlooks what I would argue is a key component of the ‘Son of man’ narrative, which is that it refers to a suffering community of the faithful, subject to extreme pagan aggression (284-285). I don’t think we can say that the sense of ‘Son of man’ is aptly captured by the phrase ‘new generation of humanity’. I don’t think that we can, generally speaking, claim today to be that ‘Son of man’ community today.

But I do think that this sort of narrative and historical restatement of New Testament eschatology does justice to the texts in context, and more importantly that it has the effect of relocating the people of God in a very different eschatological environment. The New Testament has very little to say directly about this: its outlook is largely confined to the two horizons of the destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of paganism. But scripture as a whole determines an overarching trajectory that should be understood in terms of deliverance from marginalization but of the renewal of all things. McLaren’s ‘participatory eschatology’ is, to my mind, a powerful expression of what it means for the people of God to be shaped constructively in the present by a prophetic anticipation of the renewal of things.

As for the second question, I often worry that McLaren is prone to be too optimistic. How realistic is it to proclaim that ‘Creation branches out into an ever widening sphere of goodness, justice and peace’ (195)? I don’t see that expectation of cosmic improvement in scripture: the world is always just a mixed bag of good and bad, justice and injustice, compassion and violence. It seems to me that the calling of the people of God is what it has always been: not to change the world fundamentally but to be set apart in the midst of things to bear concrete, effective and limitedly transforming witness to the possibility of new creation.

Lastly, Mclaren suggests that in this new eschatological context final judgment must be understood not as condemnation or retribution but as ‘putting wrong things right’. ‘It means reconciling and restoring, not merely punishing; healing, not merely diagnosing; transforming, not merely exposing; revaluing (or redeeming), not merely evaluating’ (204). It will be a moment in which grace and truth coincide. And it will be a judgment according to the life and way of Jesus. The Christlike parts of our lives will be ‘saved, remembered, rewarded, and raised for a new beginning’; the unChristlike parts will be destroyed and forgotten forever. The argument reflects a common misunderstanding of Jesus’ judgment of the sheep and the goats. It also leaves a lot of other big questions unanswered. But McLaren’s purpose is not really to satisfy the nitpicking demands of the exegetes: it is to sketch a forward-looking narrative that genuinely gives people the ‘hope and confidence to walk the path of Jesus’ (205).