Tom Wright, the return of Jesus, and the failure of history

Read time: 6 minutes

There is so much in Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters that is good and right. The perfect storm metaphor that runs through the book is overworked, but it gets across very effectively the idea that Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection must be understood at the point where the great forces of Jewish hope, Roman imperial power, and the sovereign intention of Israel’s God converged. But the metaphor does not take us effectively beyond that point: the storm subsides, the politically constructed narrative quickly collapses, and we are left with a flattened landscape of theological abstractions. As I see it.

In chapter 14, which deals with the ascension, enthronement and return of Jesus, Wright makes a half-hearted attempt to preserve the political edge to his commentary. The ascension is interpreted in terms of Daniel 7 “in all its political significance”: “This is the moment at which Israel’s representative is installed as the true world ruler, with all the warring pagan nations made subject to him” (196). It is also the direct counterpart to the notion that after his death the soul of the emperor ascended to heaven to take its place among the gods. Readers in the Roman world would have understood what was going on: “Jesus is radically upstaging Caesar” (197). But this “political” reading is not sustained as Wright proceeds to discuss the return of Jesus.

The assertion that “the Roman world has a new emperor” prompts the sceptic to ask,”If you think Jesus is already installed as king of the world, why is the world still such a mess?” (197) It is necessary to affirm, therefore, that Jesus will return “in power and glory, triumphing over all the forces of death, decay, and destruction, including the structures that have used those horrible forces to enslave and devastate human lives” (198). At this moment the people of God will be “exalted” like the “son of man” figure in Daniel 7:13, “so that after their own suffering and death they will be with the Lord forever” (cf. 1 Thess. 4:14-17). Just as loyal citizens went out of the city to escort Caesar home after a visit to the colonies, believers will go out to meet Jesus at his parousia and return with him in triumph to his capital—that is, not to heaven but to the new world over which he will rule. We may, for various reasons, feel uncomfortable with the notion of Jesus returning in triumph, but the whole point of it is “to insist, over against not only the wider pagan world, but against all self-delusion or pretension within the church, that Jesus remains sovereign and will return at last to put everything right” (201).

I’ve said before that I think Wright abandons his disciplined and detailed historical methodology once he gets past the ascension, which leads to a blurring of the relation between the immediate and the ultimate, between the temporal and the final, between the victory over pagan empire and the renewal of creation. In this section “coming” and “judgment” are not what God does in the midst of “warring nations” but what he will do “for the whole cosmos, in the end”; Jesus is no longer conceived as the one who will judge Israel’s enemies and rule over nations but as the “prototype of the new creation” (202).

Despite the earlier argument that the destruction of the temple would be a sign of Jesus’ vindication (177), this historical event has effectively dropped out of the story of what happens “between resurrection and ascension, on the one hand, and the second coming, on the other” (203). This seems to me seriously to diminish the significance of a critical and climactic moment in the story of Israel towards which so many narrative paths in the Gospels lead. From Jesus’ point of view the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is the event that makes sense of his whole mission. If we allow that this story spills over into the first part of Acts, I think we can argue further that the ascension is seen, in the first place, as determinative for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel at a time of catastrophic judgment: Jesus ascended in clouds and he will return as “one like a son of man” in clouds to bring about the restoration of the family of Abraham so that all the families of the earth might be blessed (Acts 1:6-11; 3:19-26).

In the rest of the New Testament the motif of Jesus coming again as deliverer and judge is associated not with the final renewal of creation but with the defeat of paganism and with everything that that historical event means for the renewed people of God. Wright highlights the imperial connotations of the parousia idea in 1 Thessalonians, but this passage is part of a larger narrative according to which the persecuted Thessalonians wait to be delivered from the “wrath to come”, when “sudden destruction” will come upon their world, on a society that imagines it has found “peace and security” under Caesar (1 Thess. 1:10; 2:14-16; 5:1-11). The immediate pagan context is even more sharply defined in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-2:12. For more on this see “NT Wright and the confusion of kingdom and new creation”.

In the New Testament story the ascension of Jesus has significance in the light of two decisive future events: the judgment and restoration of the people of God, and the triumph of this people over paganism. On the basis of these two events Jesus will reign with the early suffering church throughout the coming ages (cf. Rev. 20:6). At the end of this period, which corresponds to John’s thousand year interval between judgment on Rome and the final judgment of all the dead, it will no longer be necessary for Jesus to reign as king over his people in the midst of the nations because the last enemy will have been destroyed. The kingdom will then be delivered to God the Father, and “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

This is not to say that the resurrected Jesus was not understood as “prototype of the new creation”. My point is rather that, as far as the New Testament story goes, the new creation event of the resurrection happened for the sake of the political outcomes—the renewal of the people of God and the victory of that people over its pagan enemies. We now live with the consequences of those political outcomes, and our eschatological horizon is much simpler. We look forward to the final remaking of the heavens and the earth, the final reconciliation of all things to God, when he will be all in all, which will coincide not with the coming of the kingdom but with its termination.