Daniel Levy has posed a couple of questions regarding the thesis of The Coming of the Son of Man. Part of my argument in the book is that much of the language of resurrection refers not to a final and general resurrection of the dead but specifically to the resurrection of the martyrs who suffer as a result of their witness to Greek-Roman paganism. This is, properly speaking, an extension of Jesus’ resurrection. He is the firstborn from the dead, who suffered for the sake of the future of the people of God and was vindicated—according to the symbolism of Daniel’s Son of man. The churches were called quite specifically to be conformed to this archetype, to the extent that they would share both in his sufferings and in his glorification or vindication. Daniel’s questions have to do with whether this reconstruction can really be accounted for historically:
1. When speaking of the “dead in Christ rising” hasn’t this historically by the Jewish people and traditionally the early Christians as a reference to the physical resurrection from the dead? Don’t we see this explicitly in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere when it being in comparison with the resurrection of Christ and Christ being the first fruits from the dead?
2. If it’s not referring to a physical resurrection, at what point in temporal and spatial do we see this “snatching up”? What is it and when was it? Did Paul see the fulfillment of it? And if he didn’t, what are the implications of this for biblical inspiration?
The questions are important ones—and tricky ones; and it may be worth highlighting here a problem that was perhaps not addressed clearly enough in The Coming of the Son of Man.
What Paul’s eschatology is basically about
There are a number of things that I think we can say with some confidence about Paul’s eschatology.
1. At its heart it is not mere speculation about future events but the expression of a deep apostolic concern for the integrity and survival of the churches as witnessing communities in the face of intense opposition. In this respect, his motivation is the same as Jesus’, only his outlook is broader.
2. Paul believed that some sort of proximate ‘end’ would come within a period of time meaningful to the churches, much as Jesus expected the ‘coming of the Son of man’—whatever exactly he meant by it—to happen within a generation. This is a natural extension of the first point. He holds out the hope that they will be delivered from their afflictions within a historically relevant and realistic time frame.
3. The dominant Old Testament antecedents on which Paul draws construe the crisis in terms of a conflict between an oppressive and overweening pagan power (Babylon, Antiochus Epiphanes) and the people of God, which at heart is an outworking of divine judgment or of the wrath of God. Paul describes the future more or less in these terms: he is thinking broadly of the persecution that the churches will face, from the Jews, on the one hand, and from paganism, on the other; but he also clearly has in mind a decisive clash between a pre-eminent pagan figure, who claims equality with God, and Jesus Christ, who because of his extreme faithfulness has been appointed Son of God in power, given the name of Lord, etc.
These three observations, in my view, naturally orient Paul’s core eschatological vision towards the eventual defeat of Greek-Roman paganism and the vindication of the persecuted churches.
Did Paul really mean what he said?
Now the question is: What do we do with the apocalyptic details?
We could suppose that Paul expected a literal descent of Jesus from the heavens, a literal and visible resurrection of the dead in Christ, the martyrs, from their tombs, a literal ‘lifting up’ of the living, and so on. We would then have to conclude that Paul believed rather too much, that he overstated the apocalypticism of the event. The same, of course, could be said about Jesus’ predictions of cosmic disturbances immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem.
Alternatively, we might argue that he was more or less self-consciously drawing on a tradition of apocalyptic representation that was never meant to be taken so literally, in so supernaturalist a fashion. It is certainly apparent that the Old Testament prophets consistently employed poetic or apocalyptic language to speak of entirely mundane historical events and transformations, such as the destruction of Jerusalem by invading armies or the overthrow of an imperial power.
In other words, it comes down to genre and the tricky question of the nature of Paul apocalyptic convictions, which is really a matter of psychology and beyond the scope of exegesis. But the possibility remains that Paul may have thought that the churches would be vindicated within a foreseeable future (I use this phrase a lot) in a much more dramatic manner than was actually the case.
The resurrection of the dead in Christ
Now we come to the particular problem of the resurrection of the dead at the moment of Jesus’ ‘coming’, as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17.
First, some quick remarks about resurrection… Matthew describes the dead coming from their tombs at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matt. 27:52-53). Are we supposed to take this literally? Or is it meant to stand in some way symbolically for the ‘resurrection’ of Israel? Jesus’ own resurrection, for all its tangible signs, was an ambiguous and exceptional event both ontologically and epistemologically—do not touch me for I am not yet ascended to my Father. Paul goes to great lengths to explain that the resurrection body is not at all like our corruptible bodies (1 Cor. 15:35-49). The final resurrection of all the dead—and not merely of the ‘dead in Christ’—takes place, according to John’s vision, after this creation has disappeared from before the presence of God (Rev. 20:11-13).
So it is important to affirm that the ‘resurrection’ that Paul describes at the moment when the church is finally delivered from persecution and comes to share in Christ’s vindication and glory is as ‘real’ as Jesus’ resurrection—in the broader New Testament picture it is the basis for the participation of the martyrs in the reign of Christ throughout the coming ages. But I’m not sure that requires us to posit a literal, physical resurrection of those who had died in Christ in a manner as observable as the supposed ‘resurrection’ of the saints in Jerusalem that Matthew describes.
The point is that the resurrection body presupposes a new creation, which is why its physical presence in our world is ambiguous and why it must be kept with God in heaven until the final renewal of things. It remains an abnormality, an anticipation of something to come. It may, therefore, simply miss the point of the argument to demand historical evidence for an actual resurrection of the martyrs.
Regarding 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, my argument in the book is, first, that the passage presupposes the overarching eschatological narrative. Note, in particular, that these dead are raised in order that they may inherit the kingdom of God (15:50). The inheritance of the kingdom in the New Testament is an impending future event that entails the establishment of God’s reign with respect to his people and to the nations. The language has to be understood in historical, not in supra-historical, terms. It corresponds, I would suggest, to the giving of kingdom, etc., to the saints of the Most High once the pagan opponent has been defeated (Dan. 7:27).
Secondly, I think Paul sets out a narrative sequence in 15:23-28, culminating in an absolute defeat of the last enemy death, that allows quite comfortably for a separation of the interim resurrection of the martyrs from a final resurrection of all the dead.
Paul believes that history is moving towards a crisis that will entail considerable suffering for the churches throughout the pagan world that have been called to witness to the ‘good news’ of God’s intervention for the sake of his people. The upshot of the crisis will be the public vindication of these communities and the confession by the empire (in effect) that Jesus is Lord above all spiritual and earthly powers. That is an attractive construal of Paul’s ‘eschatology’ because it is both fully congruent with Old Testament templates and fully commensurate with what actually happened.
The Old Testament templates, however, do not provide a clear answer to the question that has been urgently raised by the Thessalonian believers: How will those who have died share in the vindication of the people of God represented by the motif of the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven?
Jesus developed the Son of man motif in order to speak of the redemption of the disciples and their inclusion in his vindication by introducing into Daniel’s symbolic narrative the idea of angels being sent out to gather the ‘elect’ (cf. Matt. 24:31; Mk. 13:27). Paul does something similar: he develops the apocalyptic narrative in such a way that not only the living but also the dead are included in the event symbolized by the image of the Lord descending from heaven to deliver his servants from persecution. I suggest in the book, in fact, that there are some details in Daniel’s account of Israel’s crisis from which either Paul or Jewish-Christian tradition before might have developed a motif of ‘lifting up’ alongside the limited resurrection of the dead.
Or did Paul just get it wrong?
Now, as I mentioned before, there is a question as to what sort of reality Paul imagined this language referred to. The symbolism of the account in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and the general context of 1 and 2 Thessalonians strongly support my argument earlier that we must think of Paul’s eschatology as having a direct, pressing, contingent relevance for the communities that he felt so responsible for.
Schweitzer and Allision take the view that Paul had in mind a foreshortened eschatological horizon but meant the language to be understood literally. History proved him to be wrong. I think it makes much more sense, both historically and exegetically, to argue that Paul had in mind a foreshortened eschatological horizon but that he was using and developing poetic or apocalyptic motifs drawn quite plausibly from the Old Testament in order to express the theological significance of major historical events.