I am very interested in the “eschatology” of Jesus and his followers—how they predicted future events—not only because it is the key to understanding the New Testament but also because it teaches us how to think theologically about the crises of our own age. So I was keen to listen to a Nomad podcast, “Everybody Now – Climate Emergency and Sacred Duty,” in which “Scientists, activists, farmers, poets, and theologians talk bravely and frankly about how our biosphere is changing, about grief and hope in an age of social collapse and mass extinction, and about taking action against all the odds.” If that doesn’t fire the apocalyptic imagination, there’s something wrong with us.
In fact, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is one of the few voices on the podcast to draw on the New Testament for inspiration. John Swales mentions parallels between the present situation and the Book of Revelation: “there are beastly forces at work today.” He makes passing reference to a new, uncomfortable prophetic vocation to speak truth to power and he hopes for the restoration of all things when all tears are wiped away.
It turns out that this was not the focus of the podcast. Fine. Or not, depending on how you look at it.
For a moment I thought that Williams was going to get it right, but I think that we end up with a muddled attempt to move the apocalyptic Jesus from the first century, which is where he belongs, into the twenty-first century, where he doesn’t. I’ve transcribed the relevant section (60:00-61:12). So first….
Jesus… in the Gospels is saying two different things simultaneously, he is saying there is a great crisis coming, and for him it was mostly the terrible crisis and tragedy that overtook the Jewish people in the first century.
I am immediately suspicious when it is claimed that Jesus or Paul is saying two different things simultaneously. It typically means that the commentator feels obliged to acknowledge the original historical context but really wants the Bible to say something directly relevant to the modern reader. We like to imagine that much Old Testament prophecy referenced events both within the historical horizon of the prophets and beyond it—so that we also have something to look forward to. We want to have our prophetic cake and eat it.
That isn’t quite what Williams is doing, but now my guard is up.
For Jesus the crisis wasn’t “mostly” the calamity of the futile war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem. That’s all it was. He was a Jewish prophet in the mould of Jeremiah speaking with intense concern about foreseeable but avoidable historical events. He makes use of extravagant prophetic-apocalyptic language at times, just as the Old Testament prophets did, to communicate both the seriousness of the situation and its profound theological significance. But at no point does he prophesy outcomes beyond his immediate historical horizon.
There’s a great crisis coming. It’s a time of testing, it’s a time when everything will be turned inside out. Don’t kid yourself. Don’t lie to yourself. Things are serious, and the world is running down in some sense.
Here, already, the rhetoric is modulating into something more in keeping with our own outlook. The descent into chaos in the 60s would certainly have been a time of testing for the disciples, but their commission was not just to take things seriously; it was to prophesy the coming wrath of God against his people, to call them to repentance, and to proclaim that national salvation could be found only in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:21; 4:12).
Their world was not running down; it was about to be violently shattered. Things were not being turned inside out, they were being turned upside down. The first would be last, and the last first. The mighty would be brought down from their thrones, the wretched, the outcasts, the poor, the meek would inherit the land.
He also says at the same time, “Stand Firm. Be confident that you are loved and you are worthwhile. When you have that confidence that you are reconciled, you are loved, you have the confidence to share that reconciliation and love with others. Start now. Don’t leave it till tomorrow. Accept the offer of love and reconciliation. Make that offer yourself today. And whether or not the crisis comes, whatever happens the day after tomorrow, you will be alive now.”
I suppose that is quite an effective little evangelistic message: whatever is going on in the world around you, you can be reconciled to God, know that you are loved, and experience new life. Very good.
But it is a far cry from Jesus’ teaching. Stand firm—yes, because the disciples would face severe opposition. They would be harassed, persecuted, outlawed, punished, hated by all because of their faith in Israel’s crucified messiah; and presumably not all of them would endure to the end of the age of second temple Judaism and be saved (Mk. 13:9-13).
During this tumultuous period it was no doubt important that they remembered that their Father in heaven would provide for their material needs (cf. Matt. 6:25-34). But the Synoptic Gospels have nothing to say about the love of God for Jesus’ followers—it is always their love for God, their neighbours, and their enemies, that is stressed. What is repeatedly impressed upon them is the need to continue Jesus’ mission to Israel, after his death, on his terms.
The emergency was not the incidental background to this task—whether or not it comes, whatever happens the day after tomorrow…. It was firmly the object of the preaching, the reason for the mission. Precisely because Israel faced the most serious national crisis in its history (cf. Matt. 24:21), Jesus sent out his disciples in his name in a last ditch attempt to hold the wicked accountable and avert the catastrophe.
The end of the world is now, but don’t panic.
Williams wants to reassure people that they can have an enduring “peace and security” in the midst of the impending chaos of the climate crisis. I get that. But if we’re going to bring Jesus into this, we cannot simply plan on boarding up the windows, stocking up with tins of spiritual sustenance, and waiting for the storm to pass.
The disciples and the early communities of believers were promised peace and security in the course of their mission, as they bore witness to the dynamic engagement of the God of history in the events that were unfolding.
Much of the world has belatedly got round to repenting and doing something to avert catastrophe, and there are plenty of scientists and activists now speaking truth to power. What the church needs to do is what Jesus and the prophets before him did—make this God’s crisis.
If Jesus was offering/promising peace and courage to the disciples in the midst of their circumstances of bearing witness to Israel as the nation clashed with Rome (and I suppose itself), is it appropriate to transpose that promise to ourselves in our current circumstances?
This isn’t a challenge, it’s a genuine question as I wrestle with the historicity of it all. I’m just wondering if it’s generally appropriate for us, in the 21st century, to hope that Jesus is saying things to us he perhaps wasn’t—in the same manner that we shouldn’t be looking at the Hebrew prophets to speak to our context.
Right. That’s the issue.
I think that we can learn from the biblical accounts how God might be acting, etc., in the present; and scripture encourages us to make intelligent and relevant use of language and imagery that originally referred to ancient situations remote from our own.
Stories and prophetic visions are continually being recycled in the Bible in order to account for what is new and uncertain. So Jesus takes from Daniel 7 both the thought that the God of Israel will vindicate the suffering righteous in their own time and the striking imagery of a human-like figure coming with the clouds of heaven to be vindicated and receive a kingdom. He projects a second century BC vision on to a first century AD future.
But the crucial point is that we apply the language to what the God of history is doing now, in order to make sense of what we believe he is saying to us as his priestly-prophetic people. We don’t pretend that we are living in the past. And if necessary we adapt the biblical language to fit our context—or we find new language to explain what is happening.