To take my mind off the gloomy prospect of prolonged political chaos that we’ve woken up to here in the UK, I thought I’d write a quick response to the following question that was put to me—just to get things in perspective:
If I understand what you’ve written on your blog correctly, the eschatalogical horizon toward which the NT looks was fulfilled at Constantine. What does that do for our eschatalogical hope today? What “horizon” do we have to live for?
My argument here and in my books (see below) is that in the New Testament there are three narratively distinct eschatological horizons.
1. The disastrous war against Rome
From the perspective of Jesus and the early church in Jerusalem the eschatological horizon was the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which would mark the vindication of Jesus and his followers and the concrete transfer of authority over God’s people from the leadership in Jerusalem to Jesus as Lord and Christ.
This is in view, for example, when Jesus warns of coming war and tribulation, prophesies that the Jewish council will see “the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven”, and promises his disciples that the Son of Man will send out his angels to gather them from the ends of the earth to bring to an end their mission of proclaiming to the nations that YHWH had installed his Son as king over his people. It is in view when Peter tells the “men of Jerusalem” to save themselves “from this crooked generation”.
2. The confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations
From the perspective of the mission to the Greek-Roman world or the Roman empire, the horizon was the defeat of paganism, the confession of Jesus as Lord by nations that had formerly confessed Caesar as Lord, and the vindication of the suffering churches for having faithfully borne witness to this coming triumph of God over this idolatrous, antagonistic culture.
This horizon is in view, for example, when Paul speaks of wrath against the Greek, or the defeat of the man of lawlessness, or of the day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. It is in view in the climactic vision in Revelation of the fall of Babylon the great.
3. A new heaven and a new earth
From the perspective of creation as a whole, there will be a final eschatological horizon consisting of judgment of all the dead (and not just of the martyrs who died because of their witness to the coming rule of Jesus over the nations), the annihilation of all enemies, including death, and the final renewal of heaven and earth.
This vision arises on the margins of the New Testament. It is clear enough in Revelation 20-21; it is hinted at in Romans 8:20-22 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. But it is not nearly as prominent or pressing as the historical horizons.
The first two horizons belong to the narrative of history, which is why I think we have to take seriously not only the events of AD 70 but also the conversion of the Roman Empire as a real historical fulfilment of the biblical expectation that YHWH would rule the nations. Yes, it’s an unfashionable argument, but if we read historically, I think it is an unavoidable conclusion: scripture tells the story of how God has, does and will manage the life and witness of his people within realistic historical horizons.
What do we have to live for?
The horizon that we live and work and hope towards today is the final judgment against sin and evil and injustice, the final removal of suffering and pain, the final putting right of creation, the final vindication of the creator. We should think of ourselves as a new creation people bearing prophetic witness to that end, embodying in our corporate existence the fulness and glory of that vision.
But the general orientation of New Testament eschatology towards history suggests to me that we should think about the story of the modern church in similar terms.
We might argue, for example, that the collapse of Christendom, when the sovereignty of God over Western society was usurped by secular reason, was an “eschatological” event no less momentous than the Babylonian exile, the attempt made by Antiochus Epiphanes to suppress Judaism, the war against Rome, or the defeat of classical paganism.
Or we might argue—in the Spirit—that the world is facing an impending environmental catastrophe that will constitute the “wrath” of God against a culture that worships the thing made rather than the creator. I sincerely hope not, but that would be one way of re-imagining or re-narrating Paul’s eschatologically oriented analysis of Greek-Roman culture in our own context.
In any case, it is certainly something to live for.
So, according to the terms of a narrative-historical reading of the Bible, there are further eschatological horizons in the course of the symbolic thousand year period between the second and third horizons, between the fall of Babylon the great and the final putting right of heaven and earth.
The narrative-historical method is a call for the prophetic re-narration of the crisis of the post-Christendom church.