I want to begin the new year by exhorting “evangelicals”—that is, by my definition, Christians who think that the Bible is to be taken seriously—to get to grips with eschatology. Why not? It’s as good a time as any to pause and reflect on where things are going.
The traditional view is that the events associated with the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds have not yet happened—even though Jesus seemed confident that his parousia would take place within the lifetime of at least some of his followers (Matt. 16:28; 23:36; 24:34; Mk. 8:38; 9:1; 13:30; Lk. 9:27; 21:32). We are still waiting. I think we are waiting in vain. Worse than that, I suggest that by constantly deferring the “end” we are not engaging with the present, and for that reason we are missing the whole point of New Testament eschatology.
If the historical Jesus said that at the end of the age the Son of Man would send his angels and they would “gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:41–42), his Jewish audience would have heard this as a statement about a coming judgment on Israel as it was at that moment—a deeply troubled and divided nation under Roman occupation.
Any reference to the kingdom of the Son of Man would naturally have evoked the complex analysis of Daniel 7-12. Israel was under intense pressure from an intrusive pagan power to abandon the ancestral religion. Many Jews apostatised, but the righteous were determined to remain true to the covenant and were subjected to severe persecution. The assurance given to Daniel in the vision of chapter 7 was that the aggressive pagan empire would be judged and rule over the nations formerly subject to it would be transferred to “one like a son of man”, who was (probably) a symbolic representation of the persecuted righteous. At the same time, many dead Jews would be raised—the righteous to everlasting life and glory, the apostate to shame and condemnation (Dan. 12:2-3).
Jesus took this story of crisis, judgment, vindication and kingdom out of its second century context and retold it, with some adjustment, for the benefit of a new audience. His message was that YHWH was about to act in a fashion similar to that envisaged by Daniel to judge the wicked and lawless in Israel, deliver his people from their enemies, and vindicate the suffering righteous—Jesus himself in the first place, but also his followers, to whom would be given the authority to judge and rule over Israel and perhaps also the nations currently subject to Rome.
This “end of the age” of second temple Judaism would not happen immediately, and there could be no certainty about the exact timing, but the historical Jesus was confident that within a generation the leadership of Israel would “see” the Son of Man coming with the clouds, not only vindicated by God but seated at the right hand of Power (Matt. 26:64; Mk. 14:62; Lk. 22:69).
The reaction of the high priest and the council makes it clear that they did not regard this as idle speculation about impossibly remote end-time events:
Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” (Matt. 26:65–66)
They understood that Jesus was prophesying quite brazenly that, in a foreseeable future, under the prevailing political conditions, in a manner that would be publicly evident, the right to govern the people of God would be violently taken from them and given to him as the glorified Son of Man.
Jesus’ eschatology, in other words, was a direct engagement with history. He was doing what Jewish prophets had always done.
The same can be said, I think, for the eschatology of the early church as it took the good news about Israel’s crucified and risen messiah into the Greek-Roman world, right to the heart of the dangerous beast-like empire.
It was a quite outrageous but historically meaningful mission.
Through reflection on the Jewish scriptures, through visions and prophecies, in the ecstasy of worship, they became convinced that far more was entailed in the recent developments, far more was at stake, than the governance of Israel.
That the Son of Man was now seated at the right hand of Power meant that the centuries-old dominance of the pagan empires was at last coming to an end, as Daniel had foreseen; the old gods were going into exile (cf. Is. 46:1-2), though they might be expected to put up a fight; and the nations formerly subject to Rome would soon bow the knee to, and confess the name of, a new Lord, to the glory of the God of Israel (Phil. 2:9-11).
This is the thrust of what I think is one of the most misunderstood—but one of the most important—passages in the New Testament. Paul addresses a polite and rather conventional critique of pagan idolatry to the men of Athens in the Areopagus, but the climax to his speech is nothing short of revolutionary:
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)
For both Jesus and the prophetic and apostolic churches, therefore, “eschatology” was a direct challenge to the political-religious status quo. The current tenants of the vineyard of Israel would be destroyed and the vineyard would be given to others (Mk. 12:9). The powers that dominated the Greek-Roman world, whether in the heavens, or on earth, or under the earth, would soon be overthrown and a new kingdom established.
The deferred eschatology of modern evangelicalism, however, is a pale, misplaced and unenlightening imitation of the intense apocalyptic visions that shape the thought of the New Testament. We keep putting it off because, really, we have no idea what it’s for, what it’s supposed to achieve, or how it might intersect with the solid, confident narratives of modernity.
I think this amounts to a failure of nerve on the part of the evangelical church. Here are three resolutions for the new year that will help to set things right.
First, we should affirm the seriousness of the prophetic engagement of Jesus (1) and the apostles (2) with the historical situation of first century Israel and its relation to the nations of the Greek-Roman world.
Secondly, we should affirm, as a matter of fundamental theological conviction, the final triumph of the creator God (3), whom the church serves throughout the ages as a priestly community, over the evil and decay that are endemic in our world (cf. Rom. 8:20-21; Rev. 20:11-21:8). The creator God will have the last word. He will make all things new.
Thirdly, we should apply ourselves to the difficult task of constructing a credible prophetic story about the place of the church in the modern world (4). We need our own eschatological vision which is not just an uncritical and anachronistic reproduction of first century expectations.
We are understandably leery of attempting this because of a long history of false and fanciful predictions about the imminence of the second coming of Jesus. But that woeful catalogue of errors is simply testimony to the fact that we have all along been trying to appropriate eschatological perspectives that were never intended to function beyond the historical horizons of the early church.
Any new prophetic narrative for the church needs to be grounded in, responsive to, and explanatory of historical reality as we encounter it now. It may well draw on biblical types and analogues—the exile, for example. But it will gain its credibility and relevance from the fact that it candidly addresses the real experience of the post-Christendom church.