Apocalyptic-Inflationism and new creation

Keen to avoid being condemned for the “heresy” of Apocalyptic-Inflationism and to “maintain narrative orthodoxy”, James asks what he should do with passages such as Revelation 21:3-5:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:3–5)

What I mean by Apocalyptic-Inflationism is the tendency to interpret New Testament eschatology according to an overarching narrative of cosmic renewal.

If we push all the apocalyptic stuff—second coming, rapture, tribulation, man of lawlessness, millennium, final judgment—to the end of history-as-we-know-it, we have to posit some sort of bewildering dispensationalist scenario. So what usually happens, at least in the broadly evangelical circles that I move in, is that we suppress most of it, perhaps maintaining a notional commitment to a doctrine of the second coming of Jesus.

What we highlight these days instead, often in contrast to old-fashioned going-to-heaven-or-hell-when-we-die beliefs, is a wholesome, down-to-earth new creation eschatology. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the beginning of new creation; and in the end all things will be put right. It works well in a modern, globalising, environmentally concerned context.

But it doesn’t do justice to the New Testament. On the one hand, complex dramatic developments in a foreseeable future are too prominent and too urgent in the New Testament narrative to be dismissed, whether by postponement or by neglect. On the other, much of the apocalyptic discourse appears to have in view not cosmic transformation but a radical overhaul of the political circumstances of the people of God. In other words, it has to do not with a final new creation but with kingdom—and then not in fantasy dispensationalist terms but as a matter of realistic historical expectation.

So I argue that most, perhaps all, of Jesus’ teaching presupposes the future horizon of judgment on Israel, which took the form, as it turned out, of war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

The outlook of the apostles and churches in the Greek-Roman world, however, was naturally wider, and I suggest that in this case a second eschatological horizon comes into view: the vindication of the persecuted churches, the overthrow of the old pagan system, and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, which of course is what happened.

Both horizons are present in Revelation: judgment first on Jerusalem, then judgment on Babylon the great, which is Rome. See my book The Coming of the Son of Man. But I also think that John takes care at the end to describe a transformation that genuinely transcends or ends history.

  • The thousand year period, during which Christ reigns with the martyrs at the right hand of God, interposes a symbolic and historically indeterminate chronological distance between the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom following judgment on Rome and the final judgment.
  • All the dead are raised for judgment and not just those who were implicated in the political crisis. In biblical-apocalyptic terms the final resurrection of all the dead is a novelty. The basic expectation is much closer to Daniel 12:2-3: at a time of political crisis some of Israel’s dead are raised, either for vindication or for condemnation. I suggest that in the first place Jesus’ resurrection anticipates this limited resurrection.
  • It seems to me that in this vision John goes beyond the sort of language that we find in the prophets to describe a new ontology, in which death, evil and suffering have been finally destroyed. But I am inclined now to limit this vision to 21:1-8.

I would also argue, finally, that this distinction between the overthrow of Israel’s political enemies, etc., in a foreseeable future and a final renewal of creation after a along period of time can also be found in Jewish apocalyptic writings of the period. There is nothing very peculiar going on here.

So in answer to James’ question, I argue that most of the apocalyptic-eschatological material in the New Testament has reference to meaningful historical developments in the outlook of Jesus and the early church, but not all of it. I think that at least in Romans 8:20-22 and in Revelation 20:11-21:8 we have the belief expressed that the whole of creation will be finally and absolutely renewed, a renewal characterised most significantly by the annihilation of Death and Hades in the lake of fire.

This does not mean that we should not construct our own eschatologies now, between the second and third horizons, in new creation terms. But it may still be worth doing what the early church did, which is to develop a more pressing temporal and contemporary apocalyptic vision for the church today. Coincidentally, Peter Leithart has just posted a piece  looking at Richard Landes’ discussion of two major apocalyptic threats of the early twenty-first century—anthropogenic global warming and global jihad warming. Something to think about…

phillip mutchell | Sat, 05/28/2016 - 10:25 | Permalink

Andrew, if you suggest the thousand year reign is somehow on-going, then surely the text remains unfulfilled, and then Deut. 18:22 must be applied. Far better to understand it as symbolic period of time, known to heaven but understood by man retrospectively, and this is shown to be that time when, ‘once more I shake not the earth only but heaven also’, to wit, the time of Israel’s judgement when her ability to persecute Jesus’ disciples was restrained by a bloody great Roman army outside Jerusalem, and during this time any claim to God’s favour would be clearly demonstrated as false, so beautifully depicted in Isa. 65. This works particularly well if one allows nations be equivalent to those ‘cities of Israel’ which his apostles wouldn’t have finished traversing before his return, which is to say those Israelites to whom it was said ‘you are not my people, it will be said you are’.

I grant we read it now as meaning non-Israelites generally, but the NT clearly shows that Jesus’ mission was to the Jews in fulfilment of Moses’ prophecy in Deut. 31-2. Isn’t it with the completion of this work that the New Heavens and Earth which is the New Covenant is established and this is that on-going spiritual reality as in Rev. 22:14 by which all peoples who hear the gospel are free to respond. Isn’t it important to recognize that the ‘mixed multitude’ now accepted are an obvious narrative contrast with that mixed multitude which Nehemiah had faithful Israel separate from in accordance with the demands of Mosaic law?

Why this insistence on the judgement of the nations more than is common to the OT, which is to say the military power used in judgement is then likewise judged and broken? Isn’t this practice of straining the text to mean some kind of universal action the actual problem in reading Jewish apocalyptic? I agree the early church saw the existence of the body as the proof of the realisation of the kingdom, but isn’t that still the case wherever the body sees itself as having the authority of its king and Lord, David Koresh types notwithstanding

Phillip, thanks for the response.

John doesn’t provide much information about the thousand years. It takes place between a first resurrection of the martyrs and a second resurrection of all the dead. During this period Christ reigns with the martyrs. The satanic power that opposed the church during the period that culminated in the fall of Babylon the great is confined to the abyss but will be released at the end to deceive the nations once more, etc.

It seems to me that Babylon the great must be identified with Rome, and the martyrs are those who will lose their lives as a result of Roman persecution. The millennium, therefore, happens between the vindication of the martyrs when Rome is judged (the first resurrection) and the final resurrection and judgment. John doesn’t say what form he expected the resurrection of the martyrs to take—we don’t have anything like Matthew’s story of the dead coming out of their tombs at the time of the crucifixion. The point of the vision is that the martyrs will not finally be defeated by death.

I don’t see anything here that falls foul of Deuteronomy 18:22.

Nor do I see anything that links this period with judgment on Israel, though obviously this depends somewhat on how we read Revelation overall. I don’t see the connection to shaking earth and heaven. I don’t see how the restraint of Jewish persecution would fit John’s narrative. And the identification of the nations with the cities of Israel seems entirely gratuitous to me.

I simply don’t understand why Preterists need to cut down the New Testament vision to fit the Procrustean bed of AD 70. Yes, Jesus’ mission was to Israel, and I agree that the judgment and restoration of God’s people could be described in the language of new heaven and new earth. But the early church preached a message to the nations, not to Israel only, and one aspect of that message was that YHWH would judge the nations as he would judge his own people (eg. Acts 17:31). The basic argument, it seems to me, fully in keeping, say, with the argument of Deuteron-Isaiah, is that God saves his people and that act of salvation has implications for the nations—ultimately that YHWH will judge and rule over the nations.

Why this insistence on the judgement of the nations more than is common to the OT, which is to say the military power used in judgement is then likewise judged and broken?

In Isaiah, in Jewish apocalyptic, and I would argue in the New Testament (Acts 17; Rom. 1-2), judgment on the nations is not simply that the aggressive military power is broken but that the whole idolatrous system that sustained it is brought to an end. The nations will abandon their idols and reorient their political-religious lives towards the God of Israel.

In effect, the rule of pagan Babylon or Rome over the nations of the ancient world is to be replaced by the rule of YHWH and his anointed king, served by his faithful priestly people, over the nations of the ancient world.

Hi Andrew,
I sincerely hope I’m not guilty of forcing the text to fit my own pre conceived paradigm, but it does clearly state that it’s the time of the Lord’s judgement prior to telling us that Babylon was fallen, it does offer assurance to those who remain faithful and it is clearly stated that the prophecy was concerning things which should happen shortly. It just seems more consistent to my mind to view Jerusalem in bondage as the same Babylon which was the captor of a previously apostate Israel.
Is there not a danger that your interpretation is to offer some legitimacy to the Roman conquest of the church?

Jesus clearly states ‘that all things written in the law and the prophets must be fulfilled’ surely part of this includes calling back those Israelites from the nations to which they’d been driven. I wouldn’t insist on it but the word polis is surely capable of the interpretation I draw. Isaiah 27:12 ff. seems to offer the thought that with the final judgement of Israel corporate salvation gives way to that personal salvation that is the gospel today, but that’s just a thought.

The early church preached to the Roman world, which world contained those excised Israelites and their kin the ‘mixed multitude’ which were to be saved because of God’s election — surely Paul’s point in Romans 9-11 such an election cannot really be seen as applying to those peoples called into gospel fellowship post AD70 for them its the continually open gates and whosoever will. Which I take to be Paul’s meaning that when these and the believing Jew are all saved then we have that fullness of the New Covenant which is Abraham’s blessing to the whole world.

Andrewphillip mutchell | Sun, 05/29/2016 - 19:36 | Permalink

In reply to by phillip mutchell

It just seems more consistent to my mind to view Jerusalem in bondage as the same Babylon which was the captor of a previously apostate Israel.

I’m still not following you. Sorry. A coming judgment is pronounced on Babylon the great:

They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas! Alas! You great city, you mighty city, Babylon! For in a single hour your judgment has come.” (Rev. 18:10)

The analogy seems self-evident: Rome is to first century Israel roughly as Babylon was to 6th century Israel. So in chapters 18-19 we have the prophecy of the fall of Rome as unjust empire and as the pagan, satanically inspired oppressor of God’s saints. Then the martyrs are “raised” to reign with Christ, and we have a long period of time before a second resurrection and what appears to be a final, decisive judgment with the destruction of all evil.

Is there not a danger that your interpretation is to offer some legitimacy to the Roman conquest of the church?

As a matter of New Testament interpretation I argue that what is foreseen, in a realistic historical future, is the concrete vindication of the suffering churches and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the empire. YHWH takes control of the erstwhile pagan empire.

What followed was an inevitably flawed expression of the empire of YHWH, just as ancient Israel had been a flawed expression of the kingdom of YHWH. Of course, the world has moved on since then, and we are having to develop new ways of embody in our historical corporate existence the reality of God’s sovereignty both over his own people and over creation.

What makes you so sure that Isaiah 24-27 speaks of a final judgment of Israel? Isn’t it still just talking about the exile and the devastation of Jerusalem? And I don’t see where the modern individualism comes into it. Scattered Jews are regathered to become part of the restored nation, but it is the restoration of Israel and Zion in particular that lies at the heart of it.

I’m also not sure where the argument in your closing paragraph gets us. But whatever we may wish to say about the renewal of God’s people, that need not preclude the argument that Revelation 18-20 has in view, in effect, judgment on Rome and the subsequent history of the world culminating in a final judgment, which is where this conversation began.

HI Andrew,

why then the statement ‘all the blood shed on the earth’ at 18:24 if it’s not to evoke Jesus’ comment that Jerusalem would be judged for all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, and how can the long period of time square with Babylon’s fall being at the same time as the marriage supper, which I take to be the public end of the first covenant at AD70

Again, how was Rome destroyed never to hear joy again, whereas Jerusalem was devastated and remained so for a significant period of time. We both are treating the 1000 years as symbolic, and thus will do so in whatever fashion seems to us most reasonable, you desire the orthodoxy of last judgement and I suppose a physical resurrection, I have no need of this as scripture is clear first the physical, then the spiritual, so for me, the 1000 being equivalent to 40 years, the generation of exodus into God’s new creation just makes more sense.  Then the Church that emerged from this was something else, a necessary form to articulate that marriage of Jewish particularism with Greek universals, and who would not see providence at work, but I don’t see prophecy as being fulfilled, you appear to insist that we can ignore Revelation’s own limiting of the prophecy at several places to shortly, which I allow to govern the 1000 years whereas you reverse it and chop it down 2/3.

How exactly was it a flawed ‘Empire of YHWH’ the God to whom public worship was officially consecrated was a Trinity which itself evolved from the notion that the First cause was too sublime to muddy his hands and so a mediatory god was essential said our Alexandrian friends until our feisty Athanasius insisted Jesus must be very god if we were to be divinized ourselves, hardly something a Jewish worshipper would ever recognize as YHWH…perhaps why they stubbornly resisted the Borg. -:)  
    

Andrewphillip mutchell | Mon, 05/30/2016 - 10:14 | Permalink

In reply to by phillip mutchell

Some of these questions I’ve covered elsewhere, so if you don’t mind I’ll just cut-and-paste.

The blood of prophets and saints

Here’s what I wrote in a previous piece with respect to Revelation 18:20: “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!”:

The motif of rejoicing over the fall of a city which had caused the death of God’s people is found in Jeremiah with reference to Babylon:

Then the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them, shall sing for joy over Babylon, for the destroyers shall come against them out of the north, declares the LORD. Babylon must fall for the slain of Israel, just as for Babylon have fallen the slain of all the earth. (Jer. 51:48–49)

This passage also accounts for the reference to the blood of “all who have been slain on earth” at the end of the chapter. Yes, the statement about the death of the prophets and saints is like Jesus’ saying about Jerusalem (Lk. 13:34), but “saints” most naturally applies to the churches in Rome (cf. Rom. 1:7), and the allusion to Jeremiah 51:48-49 makes it clear that imperial Babylon/Rome will also be held accountable for the violence done to other nations.

And in another piece:

According to Sibylline Oracles book 5 (early second century) a “great star will come from heaven to the wondrous sea and will burn the deep sea and Babylon itself and the land of Italy, because of which many holy faithful Hebrews and a true people perished” (Sib. Or. 5:158-61). This is clearly a reference to Rome (cf. 5:149) and almost exactly the argument that we find in Revelation. A mighty angel throws a great millstone into the sea, saying “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more” (Rev. 18:21); and “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev. 18:24).

The question of timing

The marriage supper of the Lamb is associated not with covenant renewal but with the vindication of the saints (Rev. 19:8). This fits a judgment on Rome.

I think we should be careful not to force an interpretation on a prophetic text on the basis of hindsight, but there is also Old Testament precedent for the non-literal or incomplete fulfilment of this sort of prophecy, as discussed here.

The thousand years

Your equating the thousand years with the forty years in the wilderness seems completely arbitrary to me. It has no intertextual basis and ignores everything that John does say about it.

The flawed empire of YHWH

The “empire of YHWH” is a thoroughly Jewish notion, and in my view it is reasonable to interpret developments in the New Testament idea of kingdom along those lines. The Jewish New Testament expected the God of Israel to rule over the nations.

By “flawed” I had in mind the broader praxis of Christendom, but perhaps there is a doctrinal aspect to it as well.

But I agree with you that the Greek-Roman church lost touch with its Jewish origins.

Andrew,
I accept you’re comfortable with your interpretation, you’ve followed the rabbit to Jeremiah, I think the author is definitely alluding to Israel’s history of being beaten by a nation which then God judges but his main thrust is still concerned with Jerusalem and Israel’s judgement, it is of her synagogues which he claims are now of Satan, it is the saints slain whose complaints will be answered in ‘a little while’ how can this not imply that some of the saints would at least be alive to witness the event? I grant the hyperbolic better applies to Rome, but the point of the book is Christ’s unveiling as triumphant Lord and this fails if we delay the display of this, past that generation of which some should see the Son returning in glory. I take it as given that Jesus’ living disciples understood themselves to be the second exodus called to be faithful to the promise of God, a generation called into being by his word, just has Israel had been by believing Moses’ word, the test of whether they inherit is simple faithfulness and this would have to be demonstrated in that generation by Jesus own words as we have them recorded for us.