With all the current excitement/dismay in the US surrounding the release of yet another Left Behind film, starring Nicholas Cage, I thought I would offer a quick overview of arguments that I have presented in The Coming of the Son of Man and elsewhere regarding the offending passages. I was chatting with my friend Mike in Seattle about this yesterday (he’s in Seattle, not me, just to be clear). How does this sort of doctrine work in relation to a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament? What has it got to do with the gospel? My concern here is less to discredit the modern dispensationalist notion—it looks like the film is doing a perfectly good job of that itself, with a 2% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—than to relocate the New Testament language in a field of realistic historical expectation.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matt 24:29–31)
The “tribulation” to which Jesus refers is the period of the Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in AD 70. This is Jesus’ eschatological horizon. The event will be “seen” as a fulfilment of two Old Testament hopes: the vindication of Jesus as the Son of Man who suffers but receives kingdom (cf. Dan. 7:13-27); and the restoration and consolidation of a faithful part of the people of God—the “elect”—following the catastrophe of divine judgment (cf. Deut. 30:4).
For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the parousia of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. (Matt 24:38–41)
The analogy with the flood suggests that those who are “left behind” are the lucky ones. The current “evil generation” of Israel (Matt. 12:39-42, 45; 16:4; 23:36; cf. Acts 2:40) will experience the sudden, disastrous sweeping away of normal life as the Roman armies descend on Judea. Many will be “taken” by famine, disease, and the sword. This is the parousia of the Son of Man in the sense that it is the historical moment when Jesus “comes”, as Israel’s Lord and King—as YHWH “came” in the historical events of the Old Testament—to judge his people and establish his own rule over them.
…this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the parousia of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:15–17)
Paul’s perspective is a little different because he tells a story not for Israel alone but for the pagan nations of the Greek-Roman world. More clearly here parousia speaks of the coming of a ruler to a city or a people to establish his political or military presence. But Paul’s language also invokes a vivid Old Testament narrative about the deliverance of God’s people from persecution, the defeat of their enemies, the vindication of the righteous, and the re-establishment of God’s people under a glorious king.
My view is that Paul uses prophetic-apocalyptic language to describe the foreseen victory of Christ over the ancient pagan world, when the persecuted churches will be found to be in the right—that is, justified for having taken such a dangerous leap of faith. In this passage he assures the Thessalonians that the dead won’t miss out on this vindication. They will be raised and, figuratively speaking, will be “caught up… in the air” to meet the approaching ruler, together with the living (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50-52), now delivered from persecution, and share with Christ in his kingdom throughout the coming ages. I’m happy to believe in that rapture.
It might be objected, of course, that there is no evidence of such an “event” having taken place at the time of the conversion of the Roman empire. Surely the apocalyptic narrative needs to be pushed into a more remote future—our future—if it is to have any continuing prophetic credibility. But it seems to me inescapable that the New Testament, whether from Jesus’ perspective or from that of the later church in the pagan world, is determined to speak about foreseeable political realities—the persecution of the churches, whether by Judaism or paganism, on the one hand; the question of who rules the nations, YHWH or the gods, Jesus or Caesar, on the other. The story is told in these terms, with this sort of timeframe or historical horizon in view.
I would argue, therefore, that we show greater respect for the texts if we hold to the realistic frame of reference and allow that Jesus and his followers have fabricated loose prophetic narratives out of the material of the Jewish scriptures in order to articulate certain fundamental convictions about the future—that YHWH would triumph, that persecution would be brought to an end, that the churches would be vindicated, that the dead would not be excluded from this victory, and that Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations.
I’m going for something in-between. There is a lot more history than Left Behind/modern dispensationalism acknowledges in both Jesus and Paul, and what they each have to say. There is much more that Jesus and Paul have in common in introducing the beginning of an entirely new age, the inauguration of the new creation in God’s people ahead of time when all creation will be the new creation, than a historicist reading (your own) allows.
In this view, the resurrection of Jesus more than the Jewish War is the defining event of his 1st century historical appearance, as the dawning of the reality of the new creation available now to all who believed in him. The apostles were to take this forward in the expression of Jesus’s continuing ministry on earth but directed from a new location.
The supposed ‘concrete’ reality of Jesus’s victory over paganism looks very different from this perspective. Roman paganism simply changed its clothing, in the sense of taking up residence in the church, which began to express its essentially inhuman destructive violence from the supression of the Montanists onwards. The essence of the Daniel story was humanity degraded to bestiality conflicting with and being overcome by true humanity. Daniel’s beasts are reflected in the latterday Roman beast of Revelation 13:1-10, which became the beast in lamb’s clothing of 11-18, and we have lived between the two realities under what has been called Christendom since.
(I’d suggest a new ‘beast’ is currently arising in the form of Islam in its true colours, no different from the character of Daniel’s beast or the Roman beast, and is in violent conflict with what is left of the true humanity of the church in the Middle East. The true humanity will however prevail as it stays loyal to Jesus, and lives according to his teaching and example — for which the church in Iran provides living proof).
The “new creation” now is the life of the church brought forward from your supposedly distant (from a 1st century perspective) horizon, first in Jesus’s new creation resurrection appearances, then in the church, as represented especially in the apostles — 2 Corinthians 5:17. That the coming of the new creation is associated with (but not identical to) the kingdom of God is clear, first from the modelling of what the kingdom meant in the ministry of Jesus, subsequently in the life and ministry of the church. Second, it is clear from what Jesus says about the kingdom, eg Matthew 25:34, the kingdom “prepared for you from the creation of the world”, in other words “kingdom” was not a way of describing something that was purely historically contingent.
Both Jesus and Paul have their eyes on the developing historical context of their times — hence the need to locate them both in historical time and geographical space. Yet both are conscious in an overriding way of introducing more far reaching realities within the context of the 1st century. At the heart of this is a very different reality taking residence on the earth through the church, the new creation, introduced by and expressed through what is called the kingdom of God. Sometimes this was to bring reconciliation of the old creation with the new, and sometimes conflict with the new, but never identification of the one with the other. Jews and Romans now fell into the ”old creation” category, but with the opportunity of transferring to the “new creation” by faith in Jesus, the Jewish resurrected messiah. This was to be and is the new ‘concrete reality’ on earth.
There is a rogue ‘modern evangelicalism’ which, since the Enlightenment, has framed the gospel as the way out of this world into an other-worldly or future spiritual reality before or after death. This has adopted the terms of discussion of the Enlightenment and applied them to itself. The spiritual world is distant from the material world, and operates in a separate compartment. The secular world is the reality, and can operate unhindered by religious or spiritual considerations. The landlord is now an absentee, if not probably absent altogether. This is how ‘modern evangelicalism’ has accommodated itself to secular humanism. In this world, discussion of God and ‘miracles’ is sneered at, until the miracles start appearing by the back door, along with all the alternative spiritualities that have rushed in to fill up the vacuum.
Matthew 24 and the Mark/Luke parallels have this in common with Old Testament prophecy: prophecy about local and immediate events is often combined with visions of more distant events. This is true of the Daniel passages in the Old Testament. But even in the NT parallels or fulfilments of Daniel (whichever way you interpret them), there is much that is not fulfilled in the NT, nor even immediately beyond the 1st century. There are significant parts of Matthew 24 which do not describe a 1st century fulfilment, apocalyptic hyperbole and rhetoric notwithstanding.
There is a moderate in-betweenism which makes good sense of New Testament eschatology. somewhere between Left Behind and the The Coming of the Son of Man (that would make an interesting motion picture). It has the advantage of not throwing out the power of the evangelical gospel with the bathwater of fundamentalist dispensationalist futurism, whilst accommodating the serious need for an adequate representation of a whole-scriptural narrative.
In this view, the resurrection of Jesus more than the Jewish War is the defining event of his 1st century historical appearance, as the dawning of the reality of the new creation available now to all who believed in him.
I have always maintained that the resurrection begins new creation, and I have never said that the Jewish War is the defining event of Jesus’ historical appearance. My argument is that the Jewish War is the historical horizon that makes the resurrection of critical importance within the particular purview of Jesus and the church in Judea. The issue is not whether the resurrection is central; it is how the resurrection is interpreted in the Gospels and the early chapters of Acts, and it is nowhere explicitly interpreted, to use your words, ”as the dawning of the reality of the new creation”. Rather it is invariably and frequently interpreted in political terms in respect of the coming judgement on Israel and the reign of Christ as Lord, as Davidic king (eg. Acts 2:22-36). You are trying to read it from a modern perspective that is much more interested in universal creation-centred issues than from the historical perspective of the New Testament.
I don’t see how the phrase “prepared for you from the creation of the world” removes historical contingency. We have, for example, the same phrase in Luke 11:49-51:
Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world (ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου), may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.
The rhetoric does not overrule the historical nature of the prophetic witness or of the judgment that will be required of this generation of Jews. The apostles were chosen “before the foundation of the world” (πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου: Eph .1:4), but that doesn’t mean that their ministry somehow operated on a supra-historical level.
“…from the foundation of the world (ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου)”
Andrew… is there any real impediment then from understanding “the world” in terms of “Israel”, period?
The issue, is not whether there’s an impediment but whether there’s a positive reason for taking kosmos as a reference to Israel. I can find no precedent in the LXX.
What would it mean for the devil to offer Jesus all the kingdoms of Israel?
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world (πάσας τὰς βασιλείας τοῦ κόσμου) and their glory. (Matt 4:8)
For all the nations of the world (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τοῦ κόσμου) seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. (Luke 12:30)
Although, there are positive reasons for seeing kosmos as describing the overall system of things and/or the present evil age as opposed to planet Earth and, interestingly for Revelation, this seems to be a distinctly Johannine sense of the word. The kosmos has a distinctively ethical slant to it (John 15:18-25 is one example).
So, it’s possible that John saying “foundation of the world” means “the beginning of all this present evil” and probably has more to do with God’s intent to judge the beast from the beginning of his activity as opposed to trying to place it prior to creation.
I’m not asserting that as dogma, but just that there are plenty of instances of kosmos in John that would allow for that to be a possible understanding.
Phil, I understood davo to mean kosmos = “Israel”, therefore “from the foundation of the world” means “from the foundation of Israel”. I took it to be part of a Preterist argument against finding reference in the New Testament to anything outside the narrative of Israel or beyond the judgment of AD 70. But I could be wrong. Aside from that, I would hesitate to interpret such a distinctive idiom in the Synoptics in the light of quite different usage in John.
That’s also how I read his comment. I was just throwing something else into the mix, not disagreeing with your response. I was actually thinking more of what Peter W. had written and agreeing that “foundation of the earth” can be understood in historical ways and does not have to mean from/before the moment of creation.
Right. On the point, though, I’m comfortable with the reference to creation. The issue is whether something that is determined from the beginning of the world cannot be a matter of purely historical occurrence. I’m not exactly sure what this Pseudepigraphal text is, and it may be late, but it says that Moses’ role in history was determined πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου:
Let us speak the things from Scripture. The prophet Moses is about to depart from life, as it is written in the book of the assumption of Moses: “Summoning Joshua, son of Nun, and talking with him, he said, ‘God appointed me before the foundation of the world to be the mediator of his covenant.’” (Moses 1:1)
True. although that would be a non-Johannine text.
I’m not necessarily arguing for the “foundation of the earth” in Revelation to mean “the beginnings of this present evil time,” but given that John most definitely uses kosmos that way in his Gospel would at least give that viewpoint some legs.
Either way, I totally agree the phrase doesn’t mean something extra-historical, anymore than the lamb slain from the foundation of the world means Jesus was executed outside of history.
Thanks Andrew and Phil, good thoughts…
I do indeed take a prêteristic view on “kosmos” BUT NOT to the exclusion of all else. I do however view “kosmos” in certain contexts as leaning more to Israel as being of a first-order primal understanding or focus… particularly as Phil notes in the “…distinctly Johannine sense of the word. The kosmos has a distinctively ethical slant to it (John 15:18-25 is one example).” This world that was opposed to Jesus was the old covenant world and that was the world (nation) hindering the broader creation from knowing its Creator.
Thus I’m inclined to read “world” in the likes of Jn1:29 and Jn 3:16 as primarily Israel-centric with the broader creation only then in a secondary sense. What Christendom has universally globalised I see as more targeted. I think the expanse of Paul’s horizon with regards to kosmos was more deliberately further inclusive. What Jesus was doing for Israel the firstfruit saints or ‘Body of Christ’ further did on behalf of the broader world… these were the “greater works” Jesus spoke of; not in terms of magnitude but in breadth of scope.
Very intriguing post. Do you have any thoughts on Matthew or Luke’s writing on one will be taken and the other left? Thanks!