Dale Allison on Jesus and the end of the world (or not)

Read time: 11 minutes

Shortly before his arrest in Jerusalem, as Mark tells the story, Jesus made a prediction: after a period of severe tribulation the sun and moon would be darkened, the stars would fall from heaven, the powers of heaven would be shaken, people would see “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”, and the Son of Man would send out his angels to “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mk. 13:24-27).

The “tribulation” is a reference to the sequence of events described in Mark 13:3-23, which can reasonably be understood as a prediction of war against Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Jesus is telling his disciples what they should expect and how they should behave as the crisis unfolds, culminating in a warning about false Christs and false prophets.

But at verse 24 the language shifts gear; we enter a vividly apocalyptic mode of discourse, and the question arises whether we have moved beyond the stuff of ordinary history. It sounds as though Jesus is now talking about disruption on a cosmic scale.

In his chapter on “Jesus & the Victory of Apocalyptic” in Jesus & the Restoration of Israel (ed. C.C. Newman, 1999) Dale Allison takes issue with N.T. Wright’s view that in this passage Jesus is speaking about the climax of Israel’s history and that “the end-of-the-world language is the only set of metaphors adequate to express the significance of what will happen, but resulting in a new and quite different phase within space-time history” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 208).

Allison’s critique of Wright’s thesis is basically that, despite the subtlety of his classification of eschatological language, he does not make room for Allison’s own view, which is that “eschatological language concerns the climax of Israel’s history and the remaking—not the end—of the natural world” (134).

Jesus is not talking merely about a climactic moment in Israel’s history. The cosmic language of Mark 13:24-27 is not metaphorical. But also he is not talking about the “end of the space-time universe”. Rather, Allison argues, Jesus expected the climax of Israel’s history to be accompanied by a radical overhaul of creation. This means, though it is not stated in so many words, that Jesus got the future only half right.

I’m on Wright’s side here, more or less. Regardless of whether first century Jews, Weiss, Schweitzer or Sanders thought that the space-time universe would end or not, Jesus had in view only the transformation of Israel and its place in the world. I will attempt to show why I think Allison’s critique misses the mark.

Allison argues that there are “no clear textual prods” in Mark 13:24-25 to push us in the direction of a figurative interpretation of the language of cosmic disintegration (131). Other events prophesied in Mark 13 are presumably to be taken literally: wars, earthquakes, famines. So we should read the whole thing literally.

The reference to wars, earthquakes and famines is literal, but these are the sort of events that would attend divine judgment on nations—not least on Israel—in the Old Testament. The language of heavenly disorder is also very familiar from the prophets, where it is clearly used with reference to historical events (cf. Is. 13:10; 34:4; Joel 2:31; 3:15). The Lord is enraged against the nations, the host of heaven will rot away, the skies will roll up like a scroll, the stars will fall, the sword will descend upon Edom on a day of vengeance, and “the hawk and the porcupine shall possess it, the owl and the raven shall dwell in it” (Is. 34:1-11). Which is more likely to be metaphorical—the stars falling from the skies or the birds taking possession of a country devastated by war? There are no overt indications that Jesus is speaking figuratively, but we have to assume that the disciples would have been reminded of Old Testament passages that described national catastrophes in the same terms.

Jewish apocalyptic language is not always to be read metaphorically. Allison argues, for example, that 2 Baruch 29:5 should be interpreted more or less literally; it “foretells, in hyperbolic language, a time of unprecedented, supernatural fertility” (132): “The earth also shall yield its fruit ten thousandfold and on each vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor of wine” (2 Bar. 29:5).

This may be the case, but Jesus has nothing to say about the transformation of the land or the earth. He speaks only of events in the heavens, and the statement “the powers of the heavens will be shaken” rather suggests that the darkening of the sun and moon and moon and the falling of the stars are a sign of the reordering of the forces in heaven that determined the course of human history. Perhaps specifically they underline the significance of the fact that the Son of Man will be seen “coming in clouds with great power and glory”, the scope and significance of which is determined by the narrative of Daniel 7-12. The story is political: rule over the nations is taken from the Greeks and given to the righteous in Israel. Nothing changes in the natural order.

There are “many striking parallels between Mark 13 and Jewish apocalyptic literature” (134-35). If Jewish apocalyptic literature has to do with the last judgment, should we not assume the same for Mark 13?

Without going into details, Jewish apocalyptic literature differentiates between historical judgment against Israel and the nations and the final judgment of all humanity. Even if we allow that Jesus was influenced by Jewish apocalyptic thought and not by the scriptures alone, there is no reason to think that he was limited to a “final”, cosmic eschatology.

Paul’s teaching about the coming of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 “lends itself neither to being understood as metaphor nor to being a prophecy about 70 C.E.” (135). Paul did not interpret the tradition behind Mark 13:24-27 as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem; rather, he “construed it as have millenarian Christians down through the centuries: Paul expected Jesus to come on the clouds”.

There was a considerable distance between Jesus and Paul, both literally and metaphorically. Why assume that Paul used the tradition in the same way that Jesus did, with the same frame of reference? Jesus used the Son of Man motif to assure his disciples that he would be vindicated in the course of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and that they would be delivered, gathered from among the nations, and rewarded. Paul’s perspective was rather different. His eschatological horizon was not judgment on Jerusalem but judgment on the pagan oikoumenē (cf. Acts 17:31) and the confession of Jesus as Lord among the nations (Phil. 2:9-11). The parousia of the Son still meant the vindication of Jesus and his followers, but the stage was the much bigger one of the Greek-Roman world.

Matthew’s insertion of the thief-in-the-night saying (Matt. 24:43-44) suggests that he did not think that Mark 13 had been fulfilled in AD 70. Like Paul (cf. 1 Thess. 5:2), he “saw the coming of the Son of Man as the still outstanding return of Jesus for which one must be prepared” (135).

Mark does not have the thief-in-the-night saying but he has the short story of the man who goes on a journey, leaving his servants in charge and commanding the doorkeeper to stay awake. “Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake” (Mk. 13:35–37). I suggest, therefore, that Matthew’s use of the thief-in-the-night saying accords with Jesus’ historical outlook rather than with Paul’s.

If Jesus was talking about the literal land and the literal temple, as Wright insists, then should we not also “conceive of the coming of the Son of Man as a literal coming on literal clouds” (136)?

The land and the temple were aspects of Israel’s historical existence. The language of coming on or with the clouds of heaven comes from Daniel’s highly symbolic vision of the vindication of the persecuted saints of the Most High at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. We have in Daniel 7-12 exactly the mix of literal and metaphorical, historical and symbolic language that Wright finds in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse. Historical events on the ground are reinterpreted through symbolic events in the heavens.

“Put otherwise, if, as Wright says, Jewish apocalyptic longed for the temple to one rebuilt, the land to be cleansed and the Torah to be obeyed perfectly, then how can the Christ-event be the fulfilment of Jewish apocalyptic hopes? It accomplished none of those things” (136).

Jesus does not proclaim the comprehensive fulfilment of Jewish apocalyptic hopes. His eschatology arises from a narrow strand of prophetic thought, having to do especially with Daniel 7: Israel has been compromised by pagan domination, but “one like a son of man” will remain faithful and obedient and will eventually inherit the kingdom. The point to stress is that this is nevertheless Israel’s story; it is not a cosmic story. Management of the vineyard of Israel is transferred to a people that would produce its fruits.

Allison suspects that Wright’s non-literal interpretation of Jesus’ apocalyptic language has an apologetic motive: “A Jesus who expected a radical transformation of nature and the last judgment, especially if he spoke as though those things might come in the near future, is not very congenial either to orthodox or modern thought” (137).

The imputation of dubious motives is not an exegetical argument. So what if Wright’s interpretation gets Jesus off the hook of being a failed prophet? Why not just be thankful for that? But that said, it seems to me that the narrative-historical reading is not especially congenial to the modern Christian mind. We would rather have a simpler, less antiquated, more accessible Jesus.

Allison notes that apocalyptic language is not confined to the Jewish-Christian tradition. The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote: “And when the time shall come for the world to be blotted out in order that it may begin its life anew, these things will destroy themselves by their own power, and stars will clash with stars, and all the fiery matter of the world that now shines in orderly array will blaze up in a common conflagration” (Ad Marciam 26.6). Anthropologists and historians “tend to take these predictions at face value” (138), so why should we understand Jesus differently? Allison thinks it odd to suppose that “whereas ancient Jews and Christians looked into the future and saw metaphorical darkness, metaphorical earthquakes and metaphorical falling stars, so many others who have looked into the future have seen literal darkness, literal earthquakes and literal falling stars” (138-39).

The biblical and Jewish narratives are more complicated than this suggests. Allison makes the mistake, I think, of lumping everything together in a single apocalyptic paradigm. Jesus may, perhaps, have believed that the natural order would eventually be destroyed and remade, but that’s not the part of the story that he’s dealing with. His focus is on the crisis facing Israel and the role that he and his followers would play in it.

The point is not relevant for understanding Jesus, Allison admits, but at least some Jews and Christians clearly did expect a “cataclysmic end of the world in their day and age” (139). Allison cites the Sibylline Oracles and 2 Peter 3:10-13 as evidence for the belief that the physical universe would literally be destroyed by fire.

I repeated what I said earlier: Jesus does not describe a “cataclysmic end of the world”. He does not say that a river of fire will descend from heaven to consume earth, sea, rivers, sky, and Hades (cf. Sib. Or. 2:196-200). His language is restrained, circumscribed and dependent on specific strands of Old Testament prophecy. In Mark 13:24-27 he describes only the heavenly significance of the fact that the persecuted Son of Man is to be given all glory and authority.

Finally, how can we claim that Jewish apocalyptic expectations were fulfilled in the events of AD 70 when clearly the kingdom of God still has not come in its fulness? “So if we still wrestle with the problem of evil… then most of what Jesus envisaged in his eschatological prophecies cannot be identified with past events” (140-41).

The kingdom of God is not new creation; it is not the “radically new world” that Allison speaks of (129). I’ve made this point repeatedly. Wright doesn’t help. The kingdom of God was God ruling over his reformed people, in the place of the corrupt régimes—human and spiritual, national and imperial—that had been in charge for far too long. The coming of the kingdom of God meant the decisive overthrow of these powers and the installation of a new king, whose kingdom would have no end. But the kingdom of God is precisely the wrong place to expect the absence of evil. Israel needed a king only because sin and evil persisted, only as long as there were enemies. Paul is quite clear. Once the last enemy, death, is destroyed, Jesus will hand back the authority to rule to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28). In other words, Jesus’ kingdom would have no end… until the end of human history. Then we get new creation.

As I read through this post, I go back and forth—sometimes agreeing with Allison and sometimes agreeing with you.

I am inclined to think Jesus expected to literally return on the clouds and begin ruling God’s physical, political kingdom while some of his disciples were still living. And after a period of ruling, all of the world would be judged and the unrighteous destroyed. (I think this was the view of the apostles as well.)

The “heavenly kingdom,” the “spiritual kingdom,” and the “already/not yet kingdom” seem like poor apologetic explanations.

I think your view of the kingdom as Christendom is a step in the right direction but it seems the timing is off as well as the nation that was to be exalted.