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

Resurrection, rapture and relevance

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.

The rapture

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.

Comments

Daniel, one easy to read book on the apocalyptic prophet genre is “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium,” by Bart Ehrman. Intended for a lay audience, the book lays out why there is an overwhelming scholarly consensus that Jesus was best described as an apocalyptic prophet. Certainly a good start to answer your question.

Andrew, as usual, I agree with most of what you are saying here. Paul was talking about a literal resurrection rooted on earth. His broad point was that God was going to conquer oppressive governments. But I have a couple of nits.

One is that Paul couldn’t have been thinking about churches because no “church” existed at the time he died. There were a series of local assemblies of believers, but the main Jesus movement still worshipped in the temple in Jerusalem until the mid-60s. I’m sure you know better than me that the word “church” in the original language really meant something closer to “assembly of people ” did not have the ring of organization that we assume in it today.

Also, I think he was completely literal about his teachings. The end was near, and he tells people to act in a way that befits that fact. For example, don’t get married. That’s also why there was so much confusion about why the end didn’t appear that had to be addressed in letters written after his death, such as 2 Thessalonians and 2 Peter.

If Paul was talking in supra-historical terms, there would have been no confusion, no need to assure people that a day with the lord is like a 1000 years. No need to address whether the resurrection had actually occurred and the living were still here. They would have already assumed it.

Paul, by ‘churches’ all I mean are those satellite communities of renewed Israel scattered across the empire which by their nature as reconciled Jewish-Gentile bodies stood for the coming manifestation of the sovereignty of God among the nations. It would be an interesting and perhaps sobering question to ask what our modern churches actually stand for.

I also agree that Paul was literal about the timing and that this explains his comments about marriage, etc., in 1 Corinthians 7. It’s just the apocalyptic details I’m not so sure about.

I tend to accept 2 Thessalonians as genuine. In any case, Tom Wright somewhere makes the observation that Paul’s warning in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 not to be alarmed by ‘a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come’ would be nonsensical if he thought of the day of the Lord as the end of the world.

 

Furthermore, the book review I’m writing, is in particular for a class on Apocalyptic Literature. There’s a scholar out of my university (Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL) by the name of Dr. Robert Waddell; he’s written extensively on Revelation in particular, and is working currently on a type of combination between Wright’s view of Mark 13, along with Edward Adam’s view.

The review will be posted on my blog, www.christmyredeemer.wordpress.com

 

First off, thanks so much Andrew for taking the time to clarify things for me; second of all, please excuse my grammatical errors in my first post. It was late, and for some reason I didn’t take the moment to read over everything.

Now to Paulf: I’m pretty familiar with Bart Ehrman; I do agree with you, Ehrman, Andrew, and the majority of the scholarly consensus insofar that Jesus needs to be understood in an apocalyptic framework. As far as understanding the apocalyptic imagery as literal, that, I’m not entirely sold on. I’ve been thoroughly delving into the writings on this topic since the summer by apocalyptic specialist John J. Collins, N.T Wright, Ben Witherington, James Charlesworth (to an extent), Dale Allison, Ehrman, and now Andrew. Unfortunately, being a relatively new Bible student (only around two years now), it’s been hard to come to a solid conclusion between the two serious views in town.  So that’s why I’ve been looking high and low for an actual critique of say, Allison, on this matter. N.T. Wright has a quite outdated one in his NTPOG, which is fruitful (regarding Schweizer), but not towards say guys like Edward Adams and Allison so much.

Back to Andrew: First off, though it doesn’t pertain to this discussion so much; the view of eternal destruction you have advocated in this book has helped me a lot. I’ve been a pretty straight forward annihilationist for quite a while now, and your explanation on the matter was quite thorough. So, thanks. 

Now to the actual discussion:

I follow what you’re saying, Andrew, but I have a few questions. In particular reference to the dead in Christ rising, we see language of the dead preceding the ones who are currently sufferring.  Do we see in the biblical narrative of where the dead were prior to this? For instance, where were they that needed an eventual snatching up from their current abode, so that once they were raised they can “inherit” the kingdom of God in the final eschaton, as you say.  Whether this is the case or not, I think it might be absolute, in the sense that we need to develop a congruent exegesis according to Paul’s kerygmatic argument of hope here. What I mean by this, is that I think it might be necessary that the rising of both the dead and alive in Christ may have the same implications on both the dead and alive. 

With this said, what event, would you say, in temporal and spatial history did this “snatching up” entail for the ones on earth and the dead? If you find that it’s similiar language referring to two different things, please, if possible, explain further.

Thanks again, Andrew; I truly appreciate the work you’re doing.

Daniel, I’m not entirely sure I grasp your questions, but I’ll have a go.

Do we see in the biblical narrative of where the dead were prior to this? For instance, where were they that needed an eventual snatching up from their current abode…

The dead, surely, are simply dead and buried. They will be raised when the Lord ‘descends’ with all the symbolic accompaniments of divine victory at the moment of deliverance and vindication. But it is the living, not the dead, who are ‘caught up’ (harpagēsometha) in clouds at this time of wrath. As I mentioned above, a distinction emerges in Daniel 12:1-2 LXX between those who are ‘lifted up’ and many of those sleeping in the dust of the earth who are raised on the day of Israel’s extreme affliction (see The Coming of the Son of Man, 164-166).

I suggest that this distinction—perhaps by way of apocalyptic tradition—has helped to shape the narrative by which Paul reassures the Thessalonians that on the day of wrath that is coming upon them both the dead and the living will share in the vindication that is so widely depicted by reference to the vision of the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven to receive a kingdom from the Ancient of Days.

With this said, what event, would you say, in temporal and spatial history did this “snatching up” entail for the ones on earth and the dead? If you find that it’s similiar language referring to two different things, please, if possible, explain further.

I think I’ve just answered this, but I’ll make the point again. In the first place, we have to keep in mind that Paul’s language is poetic and allusive, it is not naturalistic. He is drawing on Old Testament resources primarily in order to give some prophetic shape to a future that is otherwise unknown. He did not have the benefit of our hindsight, and we must try to share his ignorance.

Secondly though, we are bound to ask questions about the fulfilment of prophecy, and for the reasons given earlier, I think it is appropriate to look to the events of the period of the churches’ clash with Greek-Roman paganism for circumstances congruent with the story that Paul tells. We may also take into account other New Testament texts such as Revelation and the writings of the early church. This leaves us still with a difficult interpretive task, but it seems to me that the legalization of Christianity, the ending of official persecution, and the imperial confession of Jesus as Lord amount to a fitting fulfilment of an apocalyptic narrative that promises an eventual end to suffering, a vindication of the community, and the inheritance of the nations.

Andrew, thank you for going to great lengths in helping me understand this; I truly appreciate this.

If I understand adequately what you’re saying in reference to the 1 Thesslanonians passage, is that what it’s actually saying is that this “catching up” has nothing to do with the dead, but only the living?

If I’m grasping what you’re saying (please correct me if I’m not) - it’s hard for me to see the hermeneutal connection or argument you’re trying to produce, when Paul, clearly, in this passage speaks of the dead preceding the living in this particular catching up.

In reference to what you’ve said further, this makes a great deal of sense to me.

Thanks again for your patience, Andrew!

Daniel.

Sorry, you’re right. That was careless of me. The dead are raised, and the living are ‘caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air’. But narratively speaking the difference is not great. The symbolism points to a crisis involving judgment on Israel and the defeat of Israel’s enemy. Just as in Daniel 12:1-2 both the living and the dead in Israel (there is no general resurrection of all the dead involved at this point) are said to share in the vindication and life that ensue. In Paul’s narrative this participation is conveyed symbolically by the motif of a ‘snatching up’ or ‘lifting up’ or ‘elevation’ of both the living and the dead to be part of the story of the vindication of the Son of man.

Now, of course, it is possible to maintain that Paul understood this narrative literally rather than symbolically. But the contextual constraints would still apply: a general sense of imminence and urgency and the close association of the language with Old Testament narratives of wrath, judgment, restoration, defeat of pagan enemies, and so on. My argument is simply that we do better justice to the prophetic character of Paul’s argument here—perhaps even if we suppose that he expected a more literal outworking—if we look for its fulfilment in the tumultuous and transformative events of the period leading up to the conversion of the empire.

Very interesting, Andrew. 

What do you think about the narrative in Ephesians 1:15-2:7. We see Paul speaking of being raised with Christ and being “Seated with Christ in heavenly places” (which is in the present tense). 

I think this could be possibly argued that Paul was speaking of this raising (as if it already happened) in further detail later on in his ministerial career; what do you think? 

I’m not sure what to make of this. I conjectured in The Coming of the Son of Man that the apocalyptic dampening and more ‘realized’ eschatology that we find in Ephesians and Colossians may have more to do with the absence of an immediate concern about persecution. But the basic eschatological schema seems to remain intact (in Ephesians Paul foresees a day of wrath or day of evil), and I am inclined to think that the fulfilment of the narrative in the experience of the community still functions as a sign of a concrete, external transformation to come—which I think is what you are suggesting. 

Andrew,

I, for the most part have finished the book. May I say, well done. I have enjoyed this book very much and have found it to be very fruitful in developing a robust eschatology.

Thanks so much again for discussing these matters with me.

Daniel.

Thanks. I appreciate the trouble you have taken to grapple with its thesis.