A little while back I did a Bible for Normal People podcast interview with Pete Enns and Jared Byas. The question addressed: “Does the New Testament Predict the Future?” It’s now available here. In case anyone listens to it and finds it all rather bewildering, here’s a rough overview of my argument about New Testament eschatology, with a few links to other posts to help fill out the picture.
1. To understand New Testament eschatology we need to put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus and the apostles as they considered the future of first century Israel. From that perspective three horizons were apparent. The boundaries between these horizons may be a little blurred in places, but for the modern interpreter I think it’s a helpful approach.
2. The first horizon was judgment against rebellious Israel, which would take the form of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome. This was the more or less exclusive eschatological horizon of Jesus and the early Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem.
3. The second horizon was the less distinct prospect of the collapse of Greek-Roman paganism and the confession of Jesus as Lord, at the right hand of the one God, by the nations of the former pagan empire. This was the eschatological horizon of the apostolic communities in the pagan world. It completes the kingdom of God narrative in the New Testament, which is not to be confused with the new creation narrative.
4. The third horizon, in keeping with fundamental Jewish convictions about the sovereignty of the creator God, was a final judgment of all the dead and the remaking of heaven and earth. This is an absolute and universal outcome, but I would stress that the church in the West today has its own more immediate “eschatological” horizons to face—perhaps especially a crisis of global materialism and environmental catastrophe.
5. The strength of the approach is that it zips together eschatology and history through time—and continues to do so.
6. The motif of the coming or parousia of the Son of Man derives from the vision in Daniel of the vindication of that part of Israel which remained faithful in the early second century BC, despite intense and vicious pressure to apostatise. Jesus, in the first place, identified himself with this group, but he also quite explicitly included his followers in the storyline: they would suffer for his sake, but when the Son of Man came with his angels, within the lifetime of a number of them, he would reward each according to what he or she had done (Matt. 16:24-28).
7. The apostles subsequently adapted this narrative to the circumstances of the mission to the nations. Whereas Jesus associated the vindication of the Son of Man community with the fall of Jerusalem, Paul linked it to the defeat of an aggressive paganism and the revelation of the exalted and glorified Jesus to the nations. The “beast” of pagan empire would be judged, the old order would be overthrown, persecution would come to an end, the churches would be “saved”, and Jesus would reign from heaven, with the martyrs, throughout the coming ages (cf. Rom. 13:11-14; 2 Thess. 1:5-2:12; Rev. 20:4).
8. New Testament hope in personal resurrection stands in a Jewish tradition that expects those martyred for their loyalty to the covenant during a severe political-religious crisis to be raised from the dead and rewarded for their faithfulness (cf. Dan. 12:1-3; 2 Macc. 7:36). The personal hope is articulated against the background of the figurative hope of the “resurrection” of Israel following judgment (cf. Ezek. 37:1-14; Hos. 6:2).
9. The language of Gehenna, exclusion, and destruction is also distributed across the three horizons. In the Gospels Gehenna is a prophetic symbol for judgment on Jerusalem; unrighteous Israel will be excluded from the reformed people of God. Similarly, the proponents and adherents of paganism will be “destroyed” or excluded from the coming rule of Israel’s God over the nations of the ancient. I suggest that “the second death, the lake of fire” is a final affirmation of the biblical principle that the wages of sin is death.
10. Finally, this approach more or less deals with the perennial complaint that Jesus and the apostles expected the end of the world to come soon but it hasn’t. The first horizon occurred within the lifetime of the wicked and adulterous generation against which judgment was directed. The second horizon of the conversion of the empire to worship of the God of Israel no doubt took longer than people hoped, but it still occurred within the foreseeable future of first century believers.