Certain core emphases or tenets have emerged over the years as I have dug myself deeper and deeper into the pit of the narrative-historical perspective:
- The key to understanding the Bible is history, not theology.
- What holds the whole thing together is the historical existence of a people that tells a story about itself and its relation to the creator God over long periods of time; and in a sense we are still telling that story.
- The “message” of the New Testament is as Jewish as the message of the Old Testament.
- The New Testament experience of history is expressed mostly in the idioms of Old Testament prophecy and first-century Jewish apocalyptic.
- New Testament eschatology has in view three horizons: the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome; the overthrow of pagan Rome and the annexation of the empire by the God of Israel and his anointed king; and the final renewal of heaven and earth.
- Jesus died for the sins of his people; Gentile believers were beneficiaries only in a secondary and indirect sense; but soteriology or salvation is not what the New Testament is primarily about.
- The gospel was that God had raised his Son from the dead and made him the future judge and ruler both of Israel and the nations.
- At the heart of New Testament christology is the political affirmation that the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel has been made Lord and authorised to act on behalf of YHWH with regard to the management of his kingdom.
- The mission of Jesus’ followers was to proclaim this message to Israel and to the nations until God judged Israel and until the nations of the Greek-Roman world confessed Jesus as Lord.
- The task of the modern church is to serve the interests of the living creator God, as an obedient priestly people, under “eschatological” conditions that were not anticipated in scripture.
- The kingdom of God and new creation are two very different ideas and should not be confused.
In connection with this last doctrine, I heard this week from Callum, who has listened to my conversation with Matthew Hartke on the Unbelievable podcast, reckons that my views on apocalyptic prophecy are “strong,” and wants to know “whether we actually have any passages in the NT about a future, unending life to hope for outside of one passage in Revelation.”
My answer to this is that the Bible is not much interested in the general question of what happens to humans when they die, whether they go to heaven or to hell.
The Bible is deeply and everywhere interested in the question of what happens to the people of God, the family of Abraham, in history. Will they get to the land promised to the patriarchs? Will they escape Assyrian invasion? Will they return from exile? Will Jerusalem and the temple be rebuilt and the land restored? Will they succeed in preserving their ancestral religion under onslaught from Hellenism? Will anyone be saved from the coming war against Rome? Will the prophetic communities of believers in the risen Lord Jesus eventually triumph over the gods and godlike kings of the Roman Empire?
So the “what happens after an individual’s death?” question needs to be restated as a “what happens after political or military destruction?” question. It is the life and death of nations and empires, communities and civilisations, that is at issue.
That clearly requires a change of historical perspective, but there’s more at stake here than just interpretation. We need to abandon our obsession with the fate of the individual not just because it impedes our view of the corporate dynamics that control New Testament thought, but also because the modern church urgently needs to recover a prophetic-historical perspective on its own circumstances.
The church—at least in the West, and perhaps globally—faces an existential crisis of biblical proportions, on a par with the exile and the war against Rome. It is of critical importance that the Bible gives us reasons to be hopeful at this time.
Now back to the New Testament.
Once we recognise that New Testament theology is fundamentally political rather than personal, we have a solid basis for talking about life after death—in two respects, negatively and positively.
On the one hand, there is no notion of a personal post-mortem hell or of the eternal conscious torment of sinners. The wages of sin is death, and the wages of Israel’s sin was the massive loss of life that would result from the ill-advised rebellion against Rome. That was Jesus’ Gehenna.
On the other hand, positively, the assurance is given that those who might lose their lives out of loyalty to God and in the course of their mission, during the eschatological crisis, would be raised to new life and would reign with the risen Christ, who was the firstfruits of this “first resurrection,” throughout the coming ages.
This idea had its origins in the literature of the Maccabean crisis in the second century BC (cf. Dan. 12:2-3). It accounts—among other things—for Jesus’ own resurrection and for his promise to the disciples that they would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Lk. 22:30), for Paul’s teaching about being with the Lord and the resurrection of the dead in Christ, and for the words of Jesus to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 that the one who conquers will “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God,” etc. (cf. Jesus’ words to the penitent thief).
This is overwhelmingly the field of view of the New Testament, keeping in mind the fact that the first horizon perspective of Jesus only partially overlapped with the second horizon perspective of the apostolic churches in the Greek-Roman world. The final resurrection and judgment of all the dead, as part of the final vindication of the creator, is not much more than an afterthought. There were more pressing matters to be concerned about. It is stated expressly in Revelation 20:11-21:8 and implied in Romans 8:19:22 and 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. But I would venture to say everything else that is said about resurrection and life after death has the first two historical horizons in view.
So what sort of hope do we find in the New Testament? First, it offered the followers of Jesus the hope that they would have a glorious future, as a “resurrected” people, among the nations of the pagan world following the disaster of AD 70. Secondly, it offered the hope that those who would lose their lives as martyrs in this traumatic period would not miss out on the vindication and life that would come with the revelation of Christ to the nations. Thirdly, it offers the current hope to humanity that in the end the creator will make all things new because it is theologically intolerable that death should have the last word.
Then finally, I think we can safely infer that, as secularism threatens to make the church obsolete, we have the hope that the God of Abraham will do the kingdom thing and intervene to judge and renew his people, making them again fit-for-purpose under the hostile conditions of modernity. This is off the map of New Testament eschatology, but it’s the faith by which we will be justified.