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…