The standard simplified evangelical understanding of New Testament eschatology is that Jesus will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” the world will be brought to an end, all evil and death will be destroyed, and there will be a new heaven and new earth, “his kingdom will have no end,” etc.; and we continue to affirm that hope, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, in our creeds.
The standard sceptical or critical response to that dogma goes back to Albert Schweitzer. Yes, Jesus and his followers expected some sort of final transcendent intervention in the world from outside, but they expected it to happen soon, and they were wrong. So James Tabor asserts that the “messianic apocalyptic eschatology” of the New Testament, as he labels this outlook, has had a 100% failure rate. The prophecies of Jesus and his followers all came to nothing. I think that the argument that Tabor puts forward in this video demonstrates a lack of historical and literary imagination.
The righteous person by faith will live
Tabor begins with the Qumran community’s interpretation of Habakkuk 2:3-4. The biblical text addresses the problem of the slowness or delay of God’s judgment on the Chaldeans. Why does this powerful, corrupt, bloodthirsty, and barbaric nation get away with it for so long? Why hasn’t God done something to stop the killing? Habakkuk is told that the vision awaits its appointed time. If it seems slow in coming, the prophet must be patient, it will not delay. In the meantime, the righteous person, for whose safety Habakkuk is especially concerned, will live by his or her faith.
At Qumran the question, of course, was how long before the God of Israel would overthrow the Kittim—that is, Rome. Habakkuk is told to write the vision down, but it is not made clear when the prophecy will be fulfilled, and the writer infers that the “Last Days” will be dragged out much longer than the prophet had expected, for “God’s revelations are truly mysterious.” Nevertheless, “those loyal ones, obedient to the Law,” who are righteous, who remain faithful no matter how long the delay—that is, the Qumran community—will live (1QpHab 7:1-17). Then the writer quotes Habakkuk 2:4b: “And the righteous man by his faith will live.”
Tabor correctly takes this as a statement about how the righteous in Israel will live when the last days are prolonged and the end is delayed: they will live by their faith, by their trust in God. In his view, however, Paul has taken this critical affirmation out of context, stripped away the apocalyptic perspective, and reinterpreted it as a statement about how people become righteous—not by works of the Law but by faith. The person who is righteous-by-faith will live, rather than the person who is righteous will live-by-faith.
Oddly, therefore, given the overall thrust of the interview, Tabor is saying that Paul is here uninterested in eschatology—in fact, it sounds like Tabor just wanted to take a swipe at the Reformed crowd. In any case, I think he has misread Paul’s argument.
Paul is not ashamed of the proclamation about the resurrected Son of God because it is the power of God for salvation, first to the Jew, then to the Greek (Rom. 1:1-4, 16). That already picks up the narrative shape of Habakkuk’s prophecy: judgment against unrighteous Israel by means of the Babylonian invasion (Hab. 1:5-11), then judgment against the violent, arrogant, and idolatrous Babylonians (Hab. 2:6-20).
In the gospel that he proclaims both to Jews and Gentiles, Paul says, the “right” or “righteous” response of God to the current crisis has been revealed. As it is written in Habakkuk: “The righteous person from faith will live” (Rom. 1:17, my translation; cf. Hab. 2:4).
Paul has simplified the Old Testament verse. The Hebrew reads: “The righteous man by his faith will live.” The Greek version reads: “The righteous man by my faithfulness shall live”—the point being, presumably, that the righteous person will live because God is faithful, which is just the other side of the coin.
Paul then explains why this assurance is so important: the wrath of God has been revealed from heaven against both Jews and Greeks, and this wrath will find expression in future events (Rom. 1:18; 2:6-10). This is clear evidence, surely, that Paul has not forgotten or overlooked the “eschatological” setting of the signal verse in Habakkuk.
He undoubtedly thought that under these new conditions what made a person “righteous” or put him or her “in the right” with God would not be works of the Law but belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, eventually to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations. This sets his reapplication of the Habakkuk verse apart from that of the Qumran community (cf. Gal. 3:10-11).
But it is not the controversy over the means of justification that is at issue in Romans 1, and it may well be that his point is precisely the one made by Habakkuk: righteous people will live through the long period of turmoil leading up to God’s judgment against both Jew and Greek by virtue of their trust in the righteousness of the God who raised his Son from the dead.
Grammatically, the phrase “by faith” may qualify either “the righteous person” or “will live”. Both work for Paul. Faith in Jesus determines who is righteous, but equally they have been made righteous for an eschatological purpose, and it is only their day-to-day trust in the God who is doing this that will see them through the protracted time of waiting.
Still, the answer is Habakkuk…
So that was all a bit of a digression, frankly. The central claim put forward in the video is that Jesus and his followers expected the final transformation of the created order to happen soon, probably in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, certainly within the lifetime of some of those who saw him executed. The time was at hand, the axe was laid to the root of the trees, the night was far spent, and so on….
But if, as Tabor thinks, Habakkuk 2:4 was a critical verse for Paul, then we should give due weight to the historical orientation of its argument. Ironically, I suggest, Habakkuk gives us the solution to the problem raised by Tabor and others.
For a start, Habakkuk does not expect a new creation. He envisages, first, a devastating attack on Israel as punishment for its many acts of violence and its perversion of justice, and secondly, some manner of retribution against the Babylonians, because they are “mercilessly killing nations for ever” (Hab. 1:17). The cup of wrath in the Lord’s hand “will come round to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory” (Hab. 2:16). Habakkuk does not think that such wickedness will be resolved by a literal new creation; none of the prophets do.
In view of that, we should at least consider the possibility that Paul, a first century Jew whose presuppositions would not have been so different from those of the Qumran community, was thinking in similar terms.
What he had to factor into the Jewish-apocalyptic argument was his conviction, going back to the encounter on the road to Damascus, that the crucified man Jesus had been raised from the dead. This was God’s entirely novel solution to the present historical crisis of injustice in Israel and violence among the nations: a person bears witness, is opposed, suffers and is killed by powerful, unrighteous enemies, is raised from the dead and vindicated, glorified, and at some point in the future is confessed as Lord by nations which no longer serve the many gods and many lords of the Greek-Roman world (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Phil. 2:10-11).
So in addition to the basic apocalyptic storyline about the “wrath” of God, derived from Habakkuk, grounded in history, which raised the poignant question of what would happen to the righteous, he had to reckon with 1) the role of Jesus as a heavenly Lord at the right hand of God; 2) the eventual public vindication of Jesus and acclamation of him as heavenly Lord at the time when the wrath of God came first upon the Jews, then upon the Greeks; and 3) the comparable vindication and glorification of those who had borne witness to this new state of affairs.
This, I think, explains almost all of New Testament eschatology, but without displacing the underlying realistic and properly historical Old Testament paradigm.
Jesus was indeed acclaimed as Lord by the nations to which Paul had set out to proclaim the good news of his coming political-religious rule over the peoples of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. The ground-level vision of a judgment against Israel followed by a judgment against the overweening enemy of God’s people was fulfilled. Stage one occurred within a generation, as Jesus had predicted. Stage two took much longer than Paul imagined, no doubt, but that does not invalidate the fundamental prophetic conviction that sooner or later this most powerful pagan civilisation would give way to a monotheistic, Christ-honouring civilisation.
When this happened, the existing churches were, of course, publicly vindicated for their loyalty to the God and Father of their Lord Jesus Christ, etc. But over the centuries many had suffered, many had lost their lives, for the sake of Jesus’ name and reputation in the world.
In fact, it had occurred to people very early on that the dead in Christ would miss out on the public vindication when their Lord “came” in his parousia as a triumphant king to be embraced by the peoples of the empire. So Paul tells a story, in precisely this idiom, about the dead in Christ being raised, as Jesus was raised, to join with the living believers as they welcome him and celebrate the eventual eschatological victory (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
We can argue about how exactly he imagined such a vision might be fulfilled in reality—literally, visibly, spiritually, or symbolically—but that is not the main point. The main point is the historical transformation: the peoples of the ancient pagan world would sooner or later acknowledge the fact of Christ’s rule at the right hand of the one God, and at that moment the persecution of his witnesses would be brought to an end.
The form of this world is passing away, etc.
The other passages to which Tabor alludes add little to his claim that Jesus and the apostles expected a fundamental remaking of the cosmos to happen within a lifetime.
There will be a final destruction of death, but the exultant declaration that death is powerless in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 refers not to that final destruction but to the resurrection of the martyrs at the parousia, when the dead in Christ will be raised to be rewarded on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, when his authority is finally recognised by the nations. For those who died on account of their witness to Christ, death has been “swallowed up in victory.” This anticipates the termination of Christ’s reign when the last enemy, death, is finally defeated (1 Cor. 15:25; cf. Rev. 20:14), but the resurrection of those who belong to Christ marks not the end but the beginning of his rule over the nations (cf. Rev. 20:4-6).
Paul says that the “outward form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). That form is characterised by the “wisdom of this age,” which failed to understand God’s methods, and by the “rulers of this age,” who crucified Jesus but are doomed to pass away (1 Cor. 2:6-8). The current age under which they live and bear witness, marked by its hostility to the living God, his Son, and his people, will pass away; a “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” will come (1 Cor. 1:8); and a new age will dawn, the world will take on a new “form,” a new wisdom will take effect, and the churches will come into their inheritance. This social transition will be tumultuous and hazardous for the churches, hence the “interim ethics” of chapter 7, but nothing is said here to suggest that he is preparing the saints in Corinth for the end of the world.
Finally, Tabor lays some emphasis on Romans 8:19-22 as the “clincher” to his argument: creation itself will be delivered from its bondage to decay, “biological death” will be abolished, when the sons of God are revealed in glory.
I think this passage has been badly misunderstood. I have written about it before, and I hope to have a scholarly article on it published at some point soonish. So I’ll keep it brief.
First, I think that the ktisis subjected to futility is the “creature,” the idol, worshipped by the Greeks in the futility of their thoughts (Rom. 1:21-25; 8:19-21), and that it is this created object that awaits the revelation of sons God at the moment of Christ’s parousia and God’s judgment against the pagan order.
Secondly, the whole of creation is “groaning together in the pains of childbirth” not to bring forth its own rebirth, which hardly makes sense, but to bring forth the new age that will begin when the “sons of God,” those who have suffered as Jesus suffered, his brothers and sisters, who are being regarded as sheep to be slaughtered (Rom. 8:17, 29, 36) are raised and glorified and united with their Lord at his royal parousia (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17), to reign with him throughout the coming ages.
That’s all perhaps rather debatable, I know. I argued in my book on Romans that Paul imagines creation eagerly looking forward to the redemption of the bodies of the witnessing community, the resurrection of the martyrs, because this limited victory over death would be a foretaste of the ultimate liberation of creation from decay. I think now that there is sharper polemical edge to Paul’s argument in this passage, but I would press the general point that it’s not obvious that any final renewal of creation is meant to coincide with the revelation of the sons of God. Paul is not alone among Jewish apocalyptic thinkers in differentiating temporally between the triumph of YHWH over pagan opposition and a more stylised final remaking of the created order.
I don’t know if the failed apocalypticism argument is getting tired or if I’m just getting tired of it. I’m sure that Paul believed that the creator God would have the final say on his creation, but that was more by way of a presupposition than an urgent apocalyptic vision. What fundamentally framed his thought and drove his mission was the conviction that at some point in a realistic historical future the peoples of the Greek-Roman world, from Jerusalem to Spain, would as peoples abandon their idols and confess Jesus as Lord to the glory of the God of Israel. Sure, it took longer than expected, and we don’t know what form the resurrection of the martyrs took (Rev. 20:4). But Paul got it right.