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.