I recently took part in a recorded conversation with Matt Hartke for Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? programme on Premier Christian Radio. It will be broadcast and made available on podcast some time in the next few weeks, I believe.
Matt has been on a long journey of faith and theology. You can read his story on his Fifth Act Theology blog. He set out from the bondage of a rigid futurist eschatology a while back, and after a sojourn in sunny Caird-Wright-land, which he documents very well on his blog, he has now ended up in bleak agnostic exile. That’s disappointing because I’m inclined to think that the historical method of Caird and Wright, or something like it, is the best hope that the church has for maintaining the relevance of the Jesus-story after Christendom.
Matt has come to the conclusion that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet—a view with an illustrious pedigree going back through Dale Allison, most recently, to Schweitzer, Weiss, Strauss and Reimarus at the dawn of historical Jesus studies. The argument is simple: Jesus predicted the end-of-the-world within a generation and got it wrong. Matt puts the case very well.
I tried to make the point in the conversation that we struggle to make sense of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching partly because, these days, we get kingdom and new creation confused. Matt politely dismissed my attempt to “tease apart” the two concepts, and the phrase has stuck with me. It suggests that I am trying to put asunder what God has joined together.
My basic argument is that the New Testament is only marginally interested in new creation or cosmic transformation or the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. It is mostly—in fact, almost entirely—about kingdom, which is a “political” reality and has to be interpreted historically. Kingdom has to be worked out locally or regionally, within realistic and foreseeable horizons.
The modern church, however, has little interest in historical context. The conservative reactionary wing is looking for an absolute and universal validation of a crude theological metanarrative of incarnation and redemption. The progressive wing is trying to get New Testament thought to line up with its expanding global eco-consciousness. Either way, we unwittingly substitute our own perspective for the limited historical outlook of Jesus and his followers, and the “kingdom of God” becomes something it was never intended to be.
So here, briefly, are twenty-one reasons for thinking that the coming of the kingdom of God was not the end-of-the-world.
1. There is no new creation in the Old Testament, in my view, only kingdom. The prophetic vision never reaches beyond the judgment and restoration of Israel, judgment against the nations which opposed Israel, and the establishment of YHWH’s rule over the nations from Zion. “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8). The final test of Old Testament eschatology would be whether YHWH is acknowledged as sovereign by the nations and empires of the ancient world.
2. Abraham is not the beginning of the redemption of creation. He is the beginning of a priestly people, called to obedience and service, that will have to make its way in the world under difficult circumstances. Sooner or later it will need a king.
3. The people come to Samuel and ask for a king because they need someone 1) to judge them and 2) to lead them out against their enemies (1 Sam. 8:20). This incident is paradigmatic for the purpose and scope of the biblical kingdom motif. Kingdom has to do with maintaining 1) the internal integrity and 2) the external security of the people of God.
4. The prospect of a global or cosmic transformation appears in the Jewish apocalyptic literature. Typically, whereas in the past the world was destroyed by a flood of water from heaven, in the future it will be destroyed by a flood of fire from heaven. Here’s an example from the end of the first century AD: Rome will destroy the temple, Nero will come from Persia, the region will sink into violence, God will destroy “the whole race of men by means of a mighty conflagration”, fire will come upon the whole earth, God will raise up all people again for judgment, the impious will be buried, the godly will live again on earth “when God gives breath and life and grace to them” (Sib. Or. 4:115-92). What is envisaged in this case—other fine apocalyptic outcomes are available—is a renewal of the surface of the earth and a resurrection of the incinerated dead, not a wholly new heaven and new earth.
5. Such “final” visions are rare in the New Testament. In Revelation 20 we find a similar move from the political to the cosmic, but the thousand years intervenes, and there is no destruction by fire. In 2 Peter 3:5-13 we have a vivid account of the destruction of the world by fire on the day of the Lord, but the political aspect is missing. The core eschatological narrative of the New Testament, however, draws principally on the Old Testament, centres on the coming of the Son of Man, and stops well short of the comprehensive apocalyptic dénouement. Jesus knows nothing of a destruction of the world by fire or resurrection of all the dead.
6. Perhaps the best Old Testament antecedent for Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom is found in Isaiah 52:7: ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns”’ (Is. 52:7). The good news is that YHWH will return to Zion, Jerusalem will be restored, and “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Is. 52:10). This is a kingdom story. God will make Jerusalem’s “wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD” (Is. 51:3), but this “new creation” is only a figure of speech.
7. The healings and exorcisms that accompanied the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God were a sign not of the renewal of creation but of the healing, cleansing and forgiveness of Israel. Jesus’ response to the disciples of John, when they ask whether he is the one who is to come (Matt. 11:1-5), echoes several passages in Isaiah that describe the restoration of Israel (eg. Is. 26:19; 29:18; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1; cf. Lk. 4:16-19). They belong to the dominant kingdom narrative, not to the peripheral new creation narrative.
8. In the “regeneration” (palingenesia), when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, the persecuted and vindicated disciples will sit with him, “judging the twelve tribes of Israel”—not supervising a new creation (Matt. 19:28;p Lk. 22:28-30). Josephus uses palingenesia for the restoration of Israel after the exile (Jos. Ant. 11.66).
9. In the Old Testament the language of heavenly disorder and of the shaking of the heavens has clear reference to national-political upheaval and transition. It does not result in a new creation. Jesus uses this language in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Matt. 24:29; Mk. 13:24-25; Lk. 21:25-26). He is as restrained in his application of the motif as the prophets are. We should assume that he is speaking only of the heavenly or supernatural or theological significance of the historical event.
10. I disagree with Matt that the judgment of the nations described in Matthew 25:31-46 is a final judgment. The Son of man comes in his glory to “sit on his glorious throne”. Jesus will later declare to the Jewish council that they “will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power”, which binds together Daniel 7 and Psalm 110 (Matt. 26:64). The sheep and goats assize, therefore, is part of the rule “in the midst of your enemies” and “judgment among the nations” described in Psalm 110. It determines, in part, how the nations will participate in the coming rule of Israel’s messiah: those who treated his disciples well will be included; those who mistreated his disciples will be excluded. It hardly needs to be said that, historically speaking, the rule of Israel’s messiah over the nations began in earnest with the conversion of the Roman empire.
11. There is an awareness in the New Testament that they were at or were rapidly approaching the “end of the age”, when there would be a judgment of Israel (cf. Matt. 13:39, 49) and Christ would be revealed, and the beginning of an “age to come”, when life for the people of God would be radically different than in the old evil age. Nothing is said in these numerous passages, however, about a cosmic transformation or the final defeat of evil and death; the “age to come” is still an “age” of human history. Jesus will still be seated at the right hand of God in the “age to come” (Eph. 1:21) precisely because the last enemy will not yet have been destroyed (see # 18).
12. According to Paul, in fact, God has raised up the apostolic community with Christ and seated them with him “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). Whatever reservations we may have about authorship, this reflects the basic New Testament conviction about suffering and vindication. The experience of the churches during this period of eschatological crisis will attest to the faithfulness of God throughout the rest of human history.
13. When the disciples ask the risen Jesus if at this time he will “restore (apokathistaneis) the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6), he does not correct their narrow nationalistic assumptions. He does not say, “Look, you’ve got it wrong, this is bigger than Israel, this is about new creation.” The question is about timing, it is not whether he will restore the kingdom to Israel or bring the world to an end; and the answer is about timing: “It is not for you to know times or seasons…” (Acts 1:7). There is an interesting parallel in Daniel. After seven years of madness Nebuchadnezzar says that “at that time my kingdom was restored to me” (en ekeinōi tōi kairōi apokatestathē hē basileia mou emoi: Dan. 4:30, 33 LXX).
14. After Pentecost the disciples continued Jesus’ kingdom mission, as instructed, by calling Jews to repent and save themselves “from this crooked generation” (cf. Acts 2:37-40). The scope of the coming wrath is limited; there is no mention of cosmic transformation.
15. Correspondingly, Paul says in Athens that the God of Israel has “fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31). He means the pagan world with its temples, shrines and idols. This is not a final judgment. What he predicts is the political-religious realignment of the ancient world.
16. The most important Old Testament texts by which the New Testament explains the resurrection, ascension and vindication of Jesus as “Son of God” are kingdom texts, not new creation texts. Jesus is the Son begotten on the day of his resurrection, who will inherit and rule over the nations (Ps. 2: 7-9). He is the king who is made to sit at the right hand of God to rule in the midst of his enemies (Ps. 110:1-2). This, in effect, is Paul’s gospel: Jesus has been declared Son of God in power and will therefore, eventually, rule the nations (Rom. 1:1-4; 15:12).
17. There is no cosmic renewal in Daniel 7. The fourth beast is destroyed, but the other three are permitted to continue “for a season and a time” (Dan. 7:11-12). What changes is that rule over the nations is taken from the great empires of ancient world and given to the persecuted saints of the Most High. Some righteous Jews are raised at this time to enjoy “everlasting life”, some unrighteous Jews are raised “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2-3), but there is no new creation.
18. Jesus is given authority to rule at the right hand of the Father as long as there are enemies. This is the point of the widespread use of Psalm 110 in the New Testament: ‘The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool”’ (Ps. 110:1). God establishes his kingdom, ruled by his Son, and maintains it throughout the ages of human history because his people will face opposition and the threat of death. When the last enemy has been destroyed, however—that is, when there is a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 20:14; 21:4)—the Son hands back the kingdom to God the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
19. Creation looks forward to the historical vindication of the persecuted sons of God because this kingdom event will be a token of its own eventual liberation from its “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:18-21).
20. There is no account of a final judgment or renewal of creation in Paul’s two most apocalyptic letters. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 speaks of the inclusion of the dead in Christ when the Lord comes to deliver and vindicate his saints at the parousia. The coming of the Lord Jesus is conceived in more dramatic terms in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-2:15, but the outcome is still only the deliverance of the churches from persecution, their vindication and participation in the glory of Jesus, and the vanquishing of their enemies, including the Caesar-like man-of-lawlessness. For Paul the parousia would coincide with judgment on hostile imperial paganism rather than with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, but there is no reason to maintain further that he expected this to result in the end-of-the-world or the renewal of creation. He says nothing to that effect.
21. In Revelation the kingdom of God and of his Christ is decisively established following judgment on Rome: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19:15); and the martyrs join Christ in his reign at the right hand of God. But although Satan is imprisoned, which is admittedly something of a game-changer for the church, it is a full “thousand years” before we get a new heaven and a new earth, with the explicit and final destruction of evil and death (Rev. 20:14; 21:4).
So there you are. I think that Jesus and his followers prophesied a kingdom event—or events—that were expected to transpire in the course of history. No one got this wrong, though the church had to wait a lot longer for the victory of Jesus over Rome than they would have liked. That is all part of our story as the people of God, but our own eschatological outlook is quite different.
The overarching issue I have with your argument is that it does not take sufficient account of how much was changed through the coming of Jesus. For Paul, it meant a complete rereading of the OT, as witnessed by his, to us, eccentric applications and interpretations of OT quotations.
With regard to the kingdom, Jesus modelled and demonstrated something very different from OT precedents. It’s this that has spread worldwide and permeated cultures, rather than the supposed political version along OT lines. It’s astonishing that from our vantage point in history, Matt Hartke or anyone else should think Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. But it all depends what you are looking at.
Commenting on the 21 points, Isaiah 65:17 is a good starting point for an OT vision of a new creation. The following description of a renewed Jerusalem can hardly be said to be political and historical.
2. According to Hebrews 11, Abraham and all the other OT characters up to that point were looking for “a better country, a heavenly one”; Abraham was looking for “a city . . . whose architect and builder is God”. Later, Hebrews tells us, “But you have (not will) come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem”. A reality which existed in the midst of the hardships which are the background of the letter, not something that would come politically.
3. The kingdom that Israel wanted may have been paradigmatic for them, but it wasn’t for God. God tells Samuel that in requesting a king, Israel was rejecting God — 1 Samuel 8:7. So the kingdom paradigm, around which Israel’s story develops, was a paradigm of rejecting God. In fact, God’s subsequent deliverances of Israel, which the king was meant to ensure, were more often than not achieved by the opposite of this paradigm of conquest through violence. No wonder Jesus introduced a very different kingdom.
4. The final part of your point seems to me to be an argument for something like cosmic renewal. How else might the surface of the earth be changed? The resurrection of Jesus is a convincing argument for something much more than surface change, however. If this is not the subject of the OT, how much more surprising and dramatic is the eruption of Jesus into the story.
Along these lines, and diverging from the point by point approach, it’s striking how much you have not mentioned in the NT, which is to do with new creation. Hebrews I’ve referred to. Then there are passages such as Romans 8:18-23, which describes creation eagerly anticipating a renewal which culminates in the “redemption of our bodies”, that is, new creation bodies for a new creation. 1 Cor 15 is about the resurrection of Jesus spreading to all (v.22), and so to a new reality in which death is no more and God is all in all. Not on clouds strumming harps, I think. 2 Cor 5:17 — “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (where “creature” is derived from “creation”). Gal. 6:15 — “What counts is a new creation”. Ephesians 2:15 — “His purpose was to create one new man”. In Colossians 1, Jesus is”the firstborn over all creation”, as he will bring creation to its renewed destiny, as “the beginning and the firstborn from the dead” . . . “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”. That’s cosmic renewal. It’s for reasons like this that 1 Thess. 4:13-18 can be understood as Paul understanding literally a future cosmic renewal introduced by a literal resurrection of the dead. 2 Peter 3:10 is difficult to understand except as cosmic renewal. Revelation contains multiple glimpses of a post-political earth, culminating in the nee heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17?) and new Jerusalem, which in some senses is already here, as Hebrews asserted, but which is yet to fully come, as the realities of v.4 clearly describe.
So I agree. No one got this wrong. The church is having to wait longer for this history to run its course than it might have expected. Hence perhaps it is a destiny still receiving less attention than how to live in the interim. But without it as a hope which is stronger than mere wish fulfilment (Romans 8:24-25), the interim would be no more than endurance.
If we read Paul through a theological grid, we will conclude that he has misread or reinterpreted the Old Testament. If we read Paul, the first century Pharisee, through the Jewish scriptures, we will conclude that our theological grid is at fault.
Ditto for Jesus, the first century Jewish apocalyptic prophet. How things look from our historical vantage point is irrelevant for understanding what he meant by the kingdom of God. Jesus’ preaching presupposed the history of Israel, not the future of the church.
I’ll come back to the other matters.
I agree with your comment about Paul, but actually, you are using a modern grammatical historical grid to understand Paul and the OT scriptures (slightly modified as critical historical narrative), which is not the grid Paul was using when he cited the OT.
Ditto Jesus. However, how things look from our historical perspective is relevant for understanding what Jesus meant by kingdom of God, in the same way that Paul re-interpreted OT history in the light of Jesus. We all interpret backwards, including Paul and Jesus, but in our present circumstances, we are in addition, and validly, trying to reconstruct how things would have appeared to people at the time.
You are also taking into account subsequent historical developments in interpreting what was meant by kingdom of God. It seems to me that there is a very justifiable case for arguing that through the radical way in which Jesus modelled and taught the kingdom of God, which was primarily manifested in himself, a highly revised version of the kingdom of God continued throughout history to the present day.
I’m questioning your insistence that you take a genuinely historical view. I don’t think any of us are in a position to do more than make best approximations. We all interpret backwards to one degree or another. The concrete evidence of a kingdom based on Jesus’s practice and principles has continued throughout history, and worldwide. It is very different from the kingdom of empire and imposition through violence, with which it has sometimes been confused.
I think you’re right that the kingdom was not synonymous with a literal end of the world, BUT I think there was an expectation that Jesus would return in the first century at which point the dead in Christ would be resurrected. Then Jesus and his followers would rule Israel, the unrighteous in the world would be destroyed, the dead would be resurrected, and ALL people would be judged by Christ. (At this point, according to Paul, Jesus would step aside and Yahweh would rule.)
I really wanted to accept your historical-narrative view, but my conscience just won’t let me; aspects of it just seem too strained.
Thanks, Peter. It’s a good question. I’ll see if I can get back to it next week.
My basic argument is that the New Testament is only marginally interested in new creation or cosmic transformation or the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. …
Either way, we unwittingly substitute our own perspective for the limited historical outlook of Jesus and his followers, and the “kingdom of God” becomes something it was never intended to be.
Andrew… I cannot fathom how you can acknowledge “the limited historical outlook of Jesus and his followers” and “the scope of the coming wrath is limited; there is no mention of cosmic transformation” and not in this see the kingdom of God AS the fullness OF the new creation where God is ever-present (Rev 21:1-3).
There isn’t any notion at all that the new creation is a “cosmic transformation or the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” scenario. The old covenant order was near to oblivion with the ascendancy of the new covenant (Heb 8:13)… the focus is covenantal not temporal. The transformation was coming in the transition… from one covenant to the other — one wreaked death while the other wrought life (2Cor 3:7-11).
If you understand creation = Israel (Rom 8:19-23) then the “redemption of creation” equates to “Israel’s covenant renewal/regeneration/restoration” — this is Paul’s… new creation and John’s… new heaven and earth. They are one and the same with the New Jerusalem therein being ‘the body’ of Christ thereof.
There’s no reason I can see why we should collapse all New Testament eschatology into a single paradigm—whether the traditional one of Jesus’ second coming at the end of the world or the Preterist one of new Israel as new creation. I think that Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem, Paul, and John had different perspectives on the future, all within the frame of biblical-apocalyptic thought. There is ample evidence in the Jewish-apocalyptic material that Jews at the time conceived of the same three horizons that I argue for: AD 70, the conversion of the nations, and the final renewal of creation. There is nothing surprising about John’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth a thousand years after judgment on pagan Rome.
I’ve given my reasons elsewhere for thinking that the end of the world is the end of the world.
Why should we think that creation = Israel in Romans 8:19-23?
Why should we think that creation = Israel in Romans 8:19-23?
As I understand it… anyone in Christ was a new creation, aka ‘the new creation’ constituting the new “Israel of God” (Gal 6:15). Given Jesus was the true Vine, i.e., true Israel (Jn 15:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 2:21; Psa 80:8-9) He constituted this newness of life, or new creation life… being the fullness of Israel’s covenant renewal—resurrection (Ezek 37:1-14).
So as I understand it… with Paul’s ‘new creation’ motif in view referencing Israel, or more correctly covenantally restored Israel, then the Romans 8 passage could be understood thus…
Rom 8:18-23 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time (exponential tribulations AD30-70) are not worthy to be compared with the glory (glorified 8:30) which shall be revealed in us (firstfruit saints). For the earnest expectation of the creature (historic Israel) waiteth for the manifestation (election 11:5) of the sons of God (firstfruit saints). For the creature (historic Israel) was made subject to vanity (the Law), not willingly, but by reason of Him who hath subjected the same in hope (covenant renewal), because the creature (historic Israel) itself also shall be delivered (redeemed) from the bondage of corruption (the law) into the glorious liberty (reign) of the children of God (firstfruit saints). For we know that the whole creation (‘all Israel’ or humanity) groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they (historic Israel), but ourselves (firstfruit saints) also, which have the firstfruits (down payment) of the (eschatological) Spirit, even we ourselves (firstfruit saints) groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption (deliverance) of our body (‘singular’ i.e., the release from the ‘OC body’ of ‘the Death’ as per 7:24.
Also… IF the ‘new creation’ of Rev 21-22 speaks of a cosmic remake (as opposed to then covenantal realities coming to fruition) beyond a final physical end of time, then “Houston we have a problem” — for in this apparent remade world there remains just beyond the City those… “outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie.” Rev 22:15