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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- The historical interpretation makes much better sense of “hell”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.