16 reasons to think that the “age to come” is now and in history

My reply to a question from Ian Paul (see his excellent Psephizo blog) got out of hand, so I’ve posted it separately here. Ian thinks that my argument about the “age to come” being now and in history smacks of a discredited postmillennialism and wants to know what support the New Testament offers for the view:

I agree with your first four diagrams. But are you seriously arguing that ‘the age to come’ is now, and in history? This is in effect post millennialism… and there were good reasons why that was abandoned! What support from the NT can you offer for this?

The argument is a broad one and has more to do with overall narrative-historical coherence than with the interpretation of specific texts, which may be a strength, may be a weakness. Anyway, here is a quick, disorderly, incomplete list of half-baked and under-supported reasons for thinking that for Paul and the early church in the pagan world the shift from the “present evil age” to the “age to come” would be historical and political, not ontological and cosmic.

  1. The argument depends partly on delineating an Old Testament / Jewish apocalyptic paradigm that maintains a high degree of “political” realism. The apocalyptic literature probably does entertain the idea of an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, but there is still a prominent intermediary horizon of judgment and rule over the formerly hostile nations.
  2. If Psalms 2; 110; Isaiah 45; Daniel 7, etc., are important for shaping the New Testament’s understanding of the resurrection and Christ’s rule at the right hand of the Father, I think we have to take into account the fact that these texts envisage a rule over the nations in history, a “theocracy”.
  3. Theologians tend to assume that this political dimension gets sublimated in the New Testament into something more abstract or “spiritual”, but I question that. I think it can be argued that the political circumstances of God’s people—that is, kingdom—remain firmly in view; it’s just that the qualifications for kingship (faithful suffering) and the location of the throne (at the right hand of the Father) have changed.
  4. In Acts 17:30-31 Luke has Paul predict a coming judgment on the oikoumenē, when the times of pagan “ignorance” will be brought to an end. It seems to me merely an assumption that this statement transcends its historical purview. Paul is speaking of judgment on the world which Athens supremely represented—and this is precisely the significance of the resurrection.
  5. I think my argument gives due weight to Paul’s sense of urgency (e.g., Rom. 13:11-14; 1 Cor. 7; 1 Thess. 5:1-11; Eph. 6:13). His eschatology has in view suffering and vindication in a foreseeable future. He expected the parousia to come soon, which is not just a matter of timing, it is a matter of context—Jesus “comes” or is revealed in order to end persecution, defeat their enemies (including a “Caesar-like” figure such as the “man of lawlessness”), and be seen by the peoples or civilisation that currently opposed the Lord and his anointed.
  6. For Jesus, judgment on Jerusalem and on unrighteous Israel, and with it the vindication of the Son of Man, would mark the end of the age (Matt. 12:32; 13:39, 49; 24:3). So this would already put us in the age (or “ages”) to come.
  7. Paul thought that the “end of the ages” had come upon the first generation of believers (1 Cor. 10:11) yet could also speak (assuming this is Paul) of the church reigning with Christ “in the coming ages” and “throughout all generations” (Eph. 2:7; 3:21). 
  8. Paul uses the language of “wrath” (e.g., Rom. 2:5; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10), and wrath in the Old Testament is always a matter of historical judgment.
  9. The Gentiles hope in Christ because he is the Davidic king “who arises to rule the nations” (Rom. 15:11). Gentiles do not simply believe and get saved. They believe in a new future when they will be saved from the coming wrath by Jesus (1 Thess. 1:10), who will rule over the nations in a post-pagan world.
  10. The writer to the Hebrews says: “For it was not to angels that God subjected the oikoumenēn to come, of which we are speaking” (Heb. 2:5).
  11. The historical interpretation makes much better sense of “hell”.
  12. The book of Revelation culminates in judgment on Rome, after which the martyrs are raised to share in the reign with Christ throughout the thousand years. Then comes the final end. The age to come, as I see it, is this long period of time between the public vindication of Christ and the suffering churches and the final judgment.
  13. From the perspective of the church in the pagan world (which is not the same as Jesus’ perspective) the parousia entails the victory of Christ over the nations and over Rome in particular and the public vindication of those who had believed in this new future. The parousia, therefore, happens before the millennium. It brings to a close or climax the long Jewish narrative about YHWH and the nations—the Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman empires have been replaced at last by YHWH’s empire.
  14. There is no parousia or “coming of the Son of Man” at the end of John’s thousand years. The Son of man motif has to do not with the renewal of creation but with the vindication of the saints of the Most High following pagan-imperial aggression.
  15. So actually it’s a modified form of premillennialism, or a pre-amillennialism. Whatever. I certainly don’t buy into a postmillennial progressivism. But the point is that this sort of reading takes seriously both the Jewish narrative and the political reality of Christendom. Christendom was, as a matter of historical fact, the concrete political expression of Christ’s rule over the nations, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t connect this with New Testament eschatology. If the destruction of Jerusalem was “eschatologically” significant, why shouldn’t YHWH’s judgment and rule over the nations be eschatologically significant? The problem that we face, of course, is that the Christendom era has come to an end and we are searching for “fresh expressions” of our concrete “political” existence in the world. But that’s our problem, not Paul’s.
  16. In the modern era we no longer have much sympathy for the Christendom paradigm—even those of us who are Anglicans! So we generalise, universalise; we shift the narrative away from the political to the creational and cosmic. But I would argue that the current re-Judaisation of the New Testament (Third Quest, New Perspective) should be pursued more consistently, to the point where the New Testament becomes an integral part of the continuing historical narrative of God’s people.

In terms of Ian’s critique, I’m not postmillennial, myself, but I’d say the decline in popularity it suffered has more to do with historical events than exegetical ones. It’s not like a flurry of Bible study and inter-nicene debates settled the issue. It was World War II.

In other words, I don’t think it’s fair to say that because your view perhaps shares some themes or conclusions with postmillennialism that it should be viewed with the same skepticism that people view it, today. That skepticism did not come from the church understanding her Scriptures better.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 07/01/2016 - 11:48 | Permalink

“I think my argument gives due weight to Paul’s sense of urgency (e.g., Rom. 13:11-14; 1 Cor. 7; 1 Thess. 5:1-11; Eph. 6:13). His eschatology has in view suffering and vindication in a foreseeable future”

There are two weaknesses to this argument, as far as I can see. The first is that Paul does not define exactly what he means in any of these verses (including 1 Cor 1, where I assume you mean the whole chapter, not just verse 1), and the verses do not even need to refer to the same thing. For example, “day of evil” in Ephesians 6:13 is assumed by you to mean the same “day” as “day of the Lord” — which actually would not be a “day of evil” for believers, whether in history or future.

The second is, to my mind, a greater weakness in your entire judgment-on-Rome thesis. Can you say precisely when or how you think political judgment on Rome occurred? Because actually, under Constantine, according to your perspective, Rome (as Roman Empire) was saved (ie adopted the Christian faith and thrived), not judged. If anything, Rome was judged after it become the theocracy which you describe.

Far more likely, to my mind, is that Paul had in view local judgments, mixed with an expectation of the coming fall of Jerusalem and the temple, through which he viewed (or the texts envisage) a more distant final judgment — which is exactly how OT prophecy of judgment and wrath works.

Despite much deliberation and trying to see it from different perspectives, I still think this “now and not yet” interpretation also makes best sense of Matthew 24 and judgment on Babylon in Revelation. “Now and not yet” also works if Revelation is read with a historicist perspective. Consider the jitters with which the financial markets and political establishment are reacting to the current shaking of the EU. The Babylon passages could not be more appropriate, and indeed are appropriate, if this is how Revelation is taken to be read.

1. The day of the Lord would obviously be good for believers and bad for their persecutors:

Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.  (2 Thess. 1:4–10)

But it is an “evil day” because it will mean persecution for the saints, when they need to put on the armour of God if they are to remain true to their faith and vocation. There is no reason I can see not to identify this (in general terms, there may be local variation) with the “day of fire” in 1 Corinthians 3:13 or the “impending distress” of 7:26; Paul also writes here that “the appointed time has grown very short” (7:29).

2. What the New Testament predicts is judgment on the whole pagan oikoumenē or civilisation or worldview, of which Rome as an idolatrous imperial régime is (certainly for Revelation) the supreme and most aggressive expression. If the régime repudiates idolatry and associated practices and converts to Christ and the nations ruled by Rome confess Jesus and not Caesar as Lord, I don’t see why that shouldn’t count as judgment on the old order in the sort of historical terms with which we are familiar from the Old Testament.

The important thing, from the biblical point of view, is that the tribes, peoples and nations which were once ruled by pagan Rome will be ruled by YHWH through his vice-regent or king Jesus. That expectation is widespread. Arguably, the judgment-on-Rome aspect of New Testament thought becomes much more sharply focused towards the end of the first century.

I agree, though, that “now-and-not-yet” can be made to work under a narrative-hsitorical hermeneutic. In fact, I would put a lot of weight on the fact that the convictions and experience of the early churches were a powerful anticipation of the future to come.