N.T. Wright and Paul’s eschatology (with coloured beads)

Read time: 5 minutes

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God N.T. Wright locates Paul’s eschatology firmly in a Jewish hope, rooted in scripture, “not just for an individual future after death, but for a restoration and renewal of the whole nation, and perhaps even for the entire created order” (1043). It gives me the opportunity to illustrate some basic distinctions using coloured beads, which can be slid along a thin rod.

The Jewish model according to Wright

The Jewish expectation, as Wright presents it, was that God would “act to rescue his people, to overthrow their pagan oppressors, to enable them to keep his Torah at last, to fill the whole earth with his glory and to set up his kingdom of justice, peace and prosperity” (1053). YHWH would return to Zion; a messianic agent might or might not be instrumental in the process; the covenant would be renewed; the nations would “flock in pilgrimage towards Zion”; the dead would be raised; and the creator would be vindicated (1053-61). This day of the Lord thus constituted a renewal of the whole creation, sharply dividing the present evil age from the glorious age to come.

Paul’s inaugurated eschatology

The Pharisee Paul assumes all this, but he has come to believe that “what lay in the future” has been inaugurated in the present in the death and resurrection of the Messiah and the gift of the eschatological Spirit (1046).

The hope of Israel has been split in two: “Jesus had been raised first, demonstrating him to be Israel’s Messiah; all his people would be raised later, at the moment Paul calls ‘the end’” (1048). This gives rise to the classic now-and-not-yet formulation of New Testament eschatology. So the “life of the age [to come]” is the “ultimate future state, that is, resurrection within the renewed creation” (1069). Wright insists that what is envisaged is not the literal destruction of this creation and the introduction of something completely new but the thoroughgoing renovation of this world.

The traditional congested end-time model

When we look at New Testament eschatology, however, we find that quite a large and bewildering assortment of things are supposed to happen in the eschatological future: attack on Jerusalem, destruction of the temple, son of man coming on the clouds, sending out of angels, gathering of the disciples, punishment of feckless disciples, resurrection of those who have fallen asleep, “rapture” of believers in the clouds, sudden destruction, a day of fire, rebellion, revelation of a man of lawlessness, revelation of Jesus in flaming fire, judgment of the nations, destruction of the ungodly, confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, vindication of the churches, imprisonment of Satan, burning up of heaven and earth, reign of the martyrs, the thousand years, restoration of kingdom to the Father, final judgment, new heaven and new earth—not necessarily in that order. That gives rise to a very congested eschatological dénouement.

Wright’s partial historical eschatology

Wright will allow that in the Gospels this language mostly has reference to the catastrophe of AD 70, which brought the world of second temple Judaism to an end (see, e.g., Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 510-19). He also considers the possibility that Paul, “who was most likely more aware than we are of how prophetic traditions worked”, believed not just in the inauguration of a final transformation but also in “penultimate fulfilments” (1081).

He suggests that this is the case in the Thessalonian correspondence. Paul is looking ahead to the “ultimate ‘last day’ when Jesus will return and the dead will be raised”, but he also has in mind a “very specific moment when something strange and dark will happen”, which has to do with the statement about wrath having come upon the Jews at last (1 Thess. 2:16) and the expectation that Jerusalem will be destroyed. I merit a footnote at this point: “Perriman… makes perhaps more of this theme than is exegetically warranted, but since most exegetes ignore it altogether there is perhaps a balance to be redressed.” Perhaps!

A redistributed historical eschatology

My argument is that Wright gets his priorities wrong. In his account of Paul’s eschatology the emphasis remains firmly on the “end”, when not only God’s people but the whole creation will be restored. Possible eschatological events in the historical meantime are only cursorily considered. But I think that from the New Testament perspective “penultimate fulfilments” are what it’s all about—not the destruction of Jerusalem only but a whole nexus of expectations regarding the reception of the message about Jesus’ resurrection by the nations. Basically, the political kingdom narrative and the cosmic creation narrative need to be kept apart.

For Paul and for the early churches generally the collapse of the pagan worldview, the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, and the public vindication of the saints was far too significant, in Jewish-narrative-historical terms, to be left out of their eschatology.

So the traditional cluttered end-time material needs to be redistributed, not according to some fanciful, futuristic dispensationalist timeline, but historically, in keeping with the realistic and meaningful hopes of the early churches. The ultimate fulfilment is by no means trivial—the creator must be vindicated as creator and not only as “king”—but in the New Testament it is something of an afterthought. I would argue, too, that such a historical distribution of events or narrative is apparent in the Old Testament and Jewish literature: not everything happens on one spectacularly busy “day of the Lord”.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 06/29/2016 - 20:30 | Permalink

This has made me realise that I put Wright’s book down some time ago, and didn’t pick it up again. Not that I didn’t intend to do so: it just got the better of me. Which is a shame, as I think he sees it as his magnum opus.

I think part of the key to what you have to say lies in the statement that “the political kingdom narrative and the cosmic creation narrative need to be kept apart”. To which my reply would be that “what God has joined together, let no man tear asunder”.

Anyway, the abacus illustration appeals to me. I thought a key to the colour-coding of the beads might be helpful, and prompt some further discussion.

Great post and wonderful figures!!

I’ve always understood you to be a kind of hyper-Wrightian on these issues, i.e., that you consistently push eschatology into particular (what you call Jewish-narrative) historical terms. I.e., where NTW reads Paul going beyond the Synoptics, you want to homogenise. Is that fair enough?

@Chris Tilling:

Hi Chris,

Roughly, yes.

The Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic literature envisage i) the judgment and restoration of Israel; ii) judgment and rule over the nations; and iii) the final remaking of heaven and earth, defeat of death, etc. This pattern is of course inconsistently represented in the texts (the final renewal of heaven and earth is not found in the Old Testament, for example), but I think it is solid enough to provide some sort of template for the New Testament.

Jesus and the early church in Jerusalem had in view, perhaps exclusively, the first horizon—the judgment and restoration of Israel.

Paul and the churches in the pagan world presupposed the first horizon but also naturally foresaw a second horizon—the day when the Greek-Roman world would abandon its pagan worldview and idolatrous practices, end persecution of the saints, and confess Jesus as supreme Lord over all other powers, worldly and other-worldly.

What comes under judgment here, notice, is not empire but idolatry. An empire that abandons its gods and confesses the Son of Man as Lord to the glory of Israel’s God is consistent with the vision of, say, Psalms 2, 110, Isaiah 45, Daniel 2 and 7.

This “penultimate” historical-political vision is set against the backdrop of a final judgment and renewal of creation but should not be confused with it. To my mind Wright tends to conflate the second and third horizons, which means that we lose sight of the continuing historical existence of the people of God and lack the categories necessary to address our own existential crisis. All we can do is wait for the “end”. For Wright, “history” as a meaningful historical category ended at AD 70.

I agree with your first four diagrams. But are you seriously arguing that ‘the age to come’ is now, and in history? This is in effect post millennialism…and there were good reasons why that was abandoned!

What support from the NT can you offer for this?