What “horizon” do we have to live for?

Read time: 4 minutes

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.

[tweetable]The narrative-historical method is a call for the prophetic re-narration of the crisis of the church.[/tweetable]

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.

Philip Ledgerwood | Fri, 06/09/2017 - 16:29 | Permalink

Hey Andrew,

I always love the succinct summary posts every so often. Maybe to help me forget about the political chaos on our side of the Pond.

The interesting part to me is that bit about the historical interim. Jerusalem was destroyed, the Roman Empire was converted, but history continues to march on. That horizon of the final resurrection has always been everyone’s horizon, but there was always the element of the age-defining crisis and resolution, and while we aren’t adding to the canon of Scripture, the history of the people of God continues.

Which really leads us to the idea that we are continuing to foresee upcoming crises, trust in God to bring us out the other side, and experience that. And this “end of the age” phenomenon is something that recurs. Our ability to prophetically define those “horizons,” speak to the people of God about them, and pass through them is something that is getting as much air time as I’d like. Or maybe it is, and I’m just not listening. Maybe I’m not identifying the prophets when I hear them.

I think there’s probably a much more pressing eschatological crisis facing us:

The rising social polarization and conflict brought about by global communications infrastructure. This is, ultimately, the social side of what people are talking about with the “technological singularity”.

Within the first half of this century, we will face more individual destructive power than has ever existed in human history. And this destructive power will be wielded by people driven by ideologies that are being accelerated with the pace of technological change.

This means we are now in an arms race between fear and compassion. If fear wins, it has the potential to destroy us all.

In this scenario, I think it is only the peacemakers who inherit the Earth. And without the peacemakers, there won’t be much left.

On the plus side, if we rise to this challenge, we will inherit a world with more abundance than humanity has ever seen.

I wrote about this a year ago, in the wake of some of the upheavals we were seeing: