Tag Archives: eschatology

Apocalypse and Hope

This week I was listening to Philip Clayton debrief his book, The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith on the Homebrewed Christianity Podcast. Clayton is a progressive, Process theologian who refuses to give up on resurrection.

Real resurrection, it seems. Not the sort of “redefine resurrection such that happy things are happening in your heart” kind of resurrection.

In the podcast he says, in essence, that he can’t let go of resurrection because that would be to let go of justice. There is hope for true justice, true rectification, for the poor and oppressed.

This is what caused resurrection expectations to flower in the first place, and Clayton won’t give up on it.

It just so happened that the day I was listening to this podcast, I was also teaching on Mark 13. The chapter that begins, innocently enough, with Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction ends with the darkening of the sun and stars and the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, sending his messengers out to the four corners of the world to gather the elect.

In between?

Lots of bad stuff.

Wars and earthquakes, yes. But more significantly: persecution. Persecution as of such a kind as has never been seen before.

The story that begins with earthly calamity resolves with some sort of heavenly intervention, a intervention of divine glory through the person of the Son of Man.

Scholars have debated how much this passage intends to refer to A.D. 70 and how much it intends to refer to a future, coming arrival of Jesus. N. T. Wright, for one, has argued that the destruction of Jerusalem is a final act of vindication for Jesus, the prophet, and that this coming on the clouds is his enthronement.

Traditionally, of course, this language has been read as referring to Jesus’ return–perhaps to judge the world, definitely to set all things to rights.

Scholars who do not agree with Wright will sometimes argue that the entire speech of Mark 13 is a subject shift: an answer to the question about the end of the age, without tying that answer to the destruction of the Temple.

The context clues, however, are far too strong for this. Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem that was looming in the years when Mark was written.

And, Jesus’ vindication as a true prophet is tied up with this judgment on the “vineyard keepers” (Mark 12:1ff.).

And, I would not be at all surprised to hear that those who were wrapped up in the horrors of that war anticipated that the culmination of their time of trial would be a revelation that their pains were climactic labor pains, giving birth to the age to come.

In the face of suffering and injustice, we must not only work for justice (for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven), but also hope that this injustice will be reversed through the power of God who gives life to the dead.

Again and again we will find that no one knows the hour: not the angels or people or even the son. But we cannot give up on the hope.

Suffering cannot overcome hope.

Tears must be dried.

We continue to believe in resurrection, in final eschatological reversal, because we believe in the God who has bound Himself to the story in which all things are set to rights.

The God who authors this story, the God who stars in this story, will see to it that the story is brought to its promised culmination.

Even if that culmination, and its timing, surprise us all.

Eschatology, Death, & Animals

What if Christianity’s great, final vision–where sin and death are no more but have been swallowed up forever–what if this great, final vision is not just for us?

What if the specter of death is removed from all creation? What if this is indicative of a harmonious cosmos in which there is no fear of anything because death (whether natural or violent) is no more?

What if the great messianic banquet and the wine Jesus promised in the age to come indicate a feast without death?

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In other words, might the eschatological picture of new creation entail a world of peace for animals?

Don’t tell me if this is right.

You see, I believe not so much in realized eschatology but in faithful realizing of what lies ahead. In other words, our calling is to see the new creation God is creating in Christ and bring it to bear on the present (by way of the cross).

So if the future is one of peace. If, say, the lion will lie down with the lamb and the ox with the bear–and not in the reclining posture of lion eating said lamb or of bear eating said ox!–then you might very well make a strong case for Christians to be vegetarians.

I know that Richard Bauckham wrote an essay on this, waxing theological on the phrase that Jesus was “with the wild animals” in Mark 1′s temptation scene.

So it’s been said before. But I’m looking for a loophole. If you would: please tell me why I’m wrong. We shouldn’t be vegetarians, should we?

Let me know. I’ll read it after I get done firing up the grill for a nice steak or something.

Suffering and Redemption

The stories of the suffering Maccabees (see here and here) provide some interesting conceptual frameworks for making sense of how Jesus’ death might transform the standing of humanity before God.

But there’s another piece that is not so clear in these passages–an important dynamic in early Judaism that suffuses the NT.

Eschatology.

E. P. Sanders described the expectations of early Jewish people as “restoration eschatology.” After the return from exile didn’t quite come together as anticipated; after the Persians and Medes and Greeks and Romans continued to rule the Land for centuries; after the Temple was pitiful and then all gussied up by a half-Jew (at best)–after the unfolding of Israel’s story made it clear that no earthly course of events could turn the tide of history in Israel’s favor, the expectations were translated to a cosmic scale.

God would have to intervene dramatically. The End of business as usual would have to come by God’s hand.

But these two dynamics weren’t separate. The people who were suffering persecution and needed rescue from the kings of the earth looked to the God of Israel to do what is right; and, they looked for an eschatological visitation to be brought about through the suffering of the faithful.

The suffering righteous are not merely the persecuted. Theirs are the labor pains that usher in the age to come.

The faithful not only look back to the suffering of the Maccabees as ushering in a worldly deliverance, they begin to frame the future in similar terms. When the righteous suffer in the time of the great tribulation, God will bring about the final, eschatological deliverance of God’s people, making all things new and setting the cosmos to rights.

And so, when Jesus hangs on the cross, we read of the cosmic portents: the sun being darkened at midday. The earthquake. The rocks splitting. The dead rising. Jesus’ death is both literally and figuratively an earth-shattering event.

The ages have turned.

The new creation has dawned.

God’s faithful one has suffered, experiencing in himself the labor pangs that give birth to the age to come.

All of which, of course, makes this the best moment in Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ:

Stories End. Or Stop.

I don’t know why I should bother posting blog entries anymore. This weekend I was linked by Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Beast, so it can only go downhill from here. But since Christianity is a faith built on the glory of the humble, I trust that the truly faithful among you will follow me on my slide from such heights of glory down to the pits of lowliness.

But all good stories are like this. They move. They encounter tensions. They resolve. Or they don’t.

I remember the angst of my heart when I first watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The great, climactic scene of the film, right when you know everything is about to be resolved, and the movie stops. It doesn’t end. It just stops.

The story is unsatisfying. We want to know what happened. We imagine what came next. We protest against the writers for stealing the most important part of the story from us.

People seem to have responded to Mark’s Gospel in the same way. The story doesn’t end. It simply stops. The lack of an ending was too much. Resolution was needed–so it was given.

Some might even say the same about the ending of Luke-Acts. Paul preaches the gospel in Rome with all openness, unhindered. Ok, so what then? We make up stories: about testifying before Caesar, about a release and subsequent journeys, about… well… anything that can make for a better ending than simply stopping.

But this very impulse to finish the story testifies to the genius of stopping rather than ending.

When a story ends, we can shut the book and walk away. We have completed our there-and-back-again tale. We know that happily ever after has descended.

But when it simply stops, we can’t let go so easily. We immediately scramble–first, perhaps, to protest, then to know what happens next.

To my mind, this is the genius of Mark. Some have maintained that the point of simply stopping is to send you back to the beginning. I’m not so sure. I think the point of not having an ending is to begin searching for the threads of how the narrative continues: past the fear and silence and into the present where we stand, now, as testaments to the fact that fear and silence were not the final word. The kingdom of God has grown up like a seed–on its own, the farmer knows not how.

And this, too, is the value we find in telling our stories to our friends. When we tell our stories to the people in our various communities, they can only stop. In this life, there is no truly resolve ending. To tell our stories is to invite someone along to help us see what will be next, to invite a participation in writing the future scenes.

From our hero’s meteoric rise to scrolling-by blog fame, to his descent back to the obscurity from which he came. And what will happen next?

Stay tuned.

Jesus Eschatology

When I last made an impassioned plea for eschatology, I said that eschatology is what happens when the people of God, not seeing the promises of God with their own eyes, nonetheless continue to believe that God will make good on what God has promised.

More specifically, I suggested that eschatology needs to be read as one dynamic of the story of Jesus–not as a self-contained entity to be strung together based on various Bible verses.

So what is Jesus-story eschatology? It is about the goal of this world breaking into history with the advent of Jesus, the Messiah.

When Jesus sets out, he proclaims, “The time has been fulfilled! The reign of God has come near!”

As I like to tell my students, Mark gives us a two-sentence sermon, but then two chapters of stories: the stories are the way that Mark shows us what it means that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom drawn near.

The reign of God is breaking into the world through

  • authoritative teaching
  • power over hostile spirits
  • power over physical illness
  • power over social and religious isolation
  • power over the guilt of sin
  • an open invitation into the reconfigured people of God

What is the eschatology that Jesus brings about? It is the regathering of the people as promised, the restoration of the people to full standing in God’s family. It is a defeat of the hostile powers that warred against God’s people to keep those people from experiencing the fulness of the blessing of God.

It is even the provision of an abundant land, where the baskets of grain overflow.

All of this means that the reign of God has drawn near. In the person of Jesus, the king of God’s kingdom, God is restoring the earth to rights.

But here is where we have to be careful. In fact, we are right up to the point where the history of Christianity has shown us that we are always most often prone to go astray.

Image: Sura Nualpradid / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The danger is that by embracing an inaugurated eschatology we will get the idea that we are now able, at long last, to walk by sight. The disciples thought they understood the abundance of the kingdom that was unfolding before their eyes. They were pretty sure it meant that the throne of the king would be established in Jerusalem, with them on thrones next to it.

But that’s not how the kingdom works.

What they should have learned from the parables, what they should have learned from the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000 is that the kingdom breaks in where there is nothing we can see with our eyes capable of producing the needed abundance.

What they should have been ready for after eight chapters of watching a Galilean peasant walk about doing miracles, bringing healing and life out of despair, is that the ultimate victory of life in the age to come is ushered in by the ultimate nothingness (death) bearing fruit in an incalculable harvest (through Jesus’ resurrection).

Eschatology is the refusal to give up on the promises of God, even when it looks like God has given up on us and on his world.

Inaugurated eschatology is the conviction that the power of the kingdom, the promised fullness of God, will burst forth and provide in rich abundance here and now, even when we cannot see with our eyes the fullness of the harvest.

Inaugurated eschatology is the summons to move out on faith, trusting that the smallest seed will sprout and bring forth a plant in which all the birds of the air can find their food.

Inaugurated eschatology is the summons to begin to feed the hungry with the little we have, trusting that the God’s kingdom economy of abundance is not constrained by the lack by which we would measure it.

Inaugurated eschatology is trusting that if we truly become servants, loving others with the self-giving love of God in Christ, that life untold will spring forth from that place of death.

The danger of inaugurated eschatology is triumphalism, that in our round proclamations that all things are made new we might miss the fact that we cannot measure with our eyes and hands, yet, the abundance of God’s kingdom.

The solution is to remember that it is still eschatology, about the end–and that in Jesus-eschatology the great and climactic end comes by way of the cross.

We still walk by faith, not by sight. And the way we walk is the one to which the Crucified summoned us: take up your cross and follow me.

Don’t Give Up on Eschatology

With great confidence (and financial expenditure), May 21, 2011 is declared to be the day of Jesus’ return. Or the rapture. Or whatever.

But, of course, it wasn’t.

Unholy Clothes Get Left Behind

Neither was 1994 or 1982.

When the obsession with eschatology (ideas about “the end”) produces such crazy results, it’s tempting to leave eschatology aside altogether. Let the obsessed have their little obsession while the rest of us get on with the business of real life, and real faith.

But it would be a mistake to give up on eschatology altogether.

The Bible is, if not properly “eschatological” throughout, always heading toward a goal, a brighter future. The first creation story, Gen 1, does not depict a perfect world to be preserved. It depicts a wild world that needs to be subdued, that needs to be filled, that needs to be brought under human rule in faithful service to God.

The stories of the patriarchs pick up on the language of Gen 1 when the covenant promises include God’s word that God will “make you fruitful and multiply you.”

The creation project is not abandoned. The world still has a future. And God’s people are at the very heart of it.

So where does eschatology come in?

Eschatology proper begins to develop as people find themselves in places where they cannot see the promises of God with their eyes and yet continue to believe that God will be faithful to bring those promises to fulfillment. It is the deliberate choice not to give up on God, even when it looks like God might have given up on us.

And so when Israel is in exile, it looks to the return: God arriving on the scene, present with God’s people once again, and restoring land, seed, abundance, kingship, and even hearts.

And when the return fizzles out? When there’s no king, slavery to foreigners while on the land, a shoddy temple, and continued disobedience?

Eschatological hopes begin a fresh fomentation and the people look for the day when the cleansing, earth-shattering visitation of God will come on the scene to make good on all that God has said God will do.

Eschatology isn’t bad–it just needs to be read as part of the story of which Jesus himself is the end, the goal. When he arrives on the scene and proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has drawn near,” we are confronted with the claim that all of Israel’s hopes for “the end” have begun to arrive on the scene.

Such a reading of the story highlights two mistakes that popular eschatology can make: (1) it can be too other-worldly. Notice how promises of land, abundance–what folks nowadays are referring to as “shalom” are what typify the end. As N. T. Wright says, this is not about God saving us from the world, but God saving the world through us. Or, to put it my way, God has not given up on the story that began in Gen 1.

(2) Popular eschatology can be too future-oriented. Jesus came and said, “Now is the time.” The end has already begun. That is going to have massive ramifications for how we think about our eschatology.

More on that next time.

The Return of Jesus for Israel in Rom 11?

“The deliverer will come from Zion, he will remove ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom 11:25).

Among many Christians, this is a popular verse about the return of Jesus. Among American evangelicals and Dispensationals, it has often been a source of hope for Israel’s final salvation. The verse in Paul is a citation from Isaiah, and Paul says, “Thus all Israel shall be saved, as it is written, the deliverer will come from Zion…”

All Israel, then, will be saved when Jesus comes back.

But does this “Jesus is coming, look Jewish” reading hold up?

Let’s look at a couple of factors. First, how does Paul use the word “Zion”?

The only other use of this word in the Pauline corpus is also part of an OT citation, his invocation of Isa 28:16 in Rom 9:33: “Israel… did not attain to the law. Why? Because no through faithfulness but as through works–they stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold! I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and everyone who believes in him shall not be put to shame” (Rom 9:32-33).

Here, the referent of Zion is quite earthly. The one who has been placed as stumbling stone is the crucified and risen Christ. His faithfulness is to be the object of the people’s faith. The point of laying the stone “in Zion” is precisely so that it can be in the presence of the people–to be believed or stumbled upon.

Is it possible to read this verse as referring to an earthly Jerusalem? Indeed it is–and to do so brings us within the orbit of not only the previous mention of Zion in Rom 9, but the overall argument of Rom 11.

If we hold the idea from ch. 9 in our heads, we come to ch. 11 with the notion that the presence of Jesus in Zion is a cause of Israel’s stumbling–paradoxically, he is present both as the one who can save and as the one who is stumbled over.

In fact, this is exactly the problem Paul is dealing with throughout ch. 11: Israel has stumbled over the stumbling stone–they have rejected Jesus as God’s promised salvation.

What is the result of Israel’s rejection of the gospel? As Paul delineates it in ch. 11, it is this: salvation goes out to the gentiles:

  • By their transgression salvation has come to gentiles, 11:11
  • their transgression is riches for the world, 11:12
  • their rejection is reconciliation of the world, 11:15
  • they were broken off in order that gentiles might be ingrafted, 11:17
  • they are enemies for the gentiles’ sake, 11:28
  • they were faithless so that gentiles might be shown mercy, 11:31

The entire chapter, in other words, points toward one particular result of Israel “stumbling over the stumbling stone”: salvation goes out from Israel to the Gentiles.

Or, as 11:26 puts it, citing Isa 59: “The deliverer will go out from Zion.”

Indeed, the statement for which Paul offers Isa 59 as proof is this: “A partial hardening has happened until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in, and thus all Israel shall be saved. As it is written, ‘The deliverer will go forth out of Zion…’”

The “going out of Zion” is not the eschatological future, it is the eschatological present. It is not about the return of Jesus some years hence, but the proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

This part of the citation, the deliverer going forth out of Zion, speaks to Paul’s and others’ work in bringing in the full number of the gentiles (11:25)

But what about “removing ungodliness from Jacob”? What about “all Israel shall be saved”?

That is the next act in the story as Paul was anticipating it to unfold. We’ll look at that tomorrow.

Eschatology is Everything

Eschatology. “The study of the end.” Or, “What we believe about The End.”

In Christian circles, eschatology is drawn to the fore when people are predicting that the world will end on a particular date. Or when we are trying to convince someone to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before it’s too late.

But all of this puts the accent on the wrong syllable (as Mrs. Heavener used to say in Spanish class, giving due stress to the second syllable of the word “syllable” for good measure: syl-LA-ble).

And this month’s Christianity Today has an outstanding, short essay by David Neff putting things back in order.

Neff makes six points about Christian eschatology:

  1. Biblical eschatology is about justice
  2. Biblical justice is about eschatology
  3. Biblical eschatology is about the world’s divine destiny
  4. Justice announces the kingdom’s arrival
  5. Sacrificing for justice is an act of faith that God will make good our sacrifices
  6. Jesus’ parables of judgment are often about justice

When you survey this list, one thing that sticks out is that eschatology is very much this-worldly. It is one of the ironies of traditional evangelical (Dispensational) eschatology that its focus on “the end” has made it other-worldly, so concerned about the coming of Jesus that it has taken all attention away from the world in which we live.

Why ironic? Because Jesus’ proclamation of the end served notice that the days were numbered for the powers that were disordering his world: hunger was disappearing with the advent of a kingdom of abundance. Sickness was being undone with the advent of the kingdom of healing. Exclusion was disappearing with the advent of the kingdom of transforming embrace.

The end means that God is bringing justice.

For the end to have drawn near means that the justice for which we wait in the days ahead is reaching backward and invading the days in which we live.

It is in the face of this, the advent of the justice of God, that Jesus proclaims, “Repent, for the reign of God has drawn near!”

Time Arcing Forward

The time of the resurrection arcs forward and embraces all subsequent time.

The resurrection is the point in time at which God’s reconciling love for the world, in Christ, is revealed, put on full display. It is the time when the hidden of God’s revelation in the cross is unveiled for the apostles–so that they can proclaim the reconciling work of the Messiah, God incarnate, to the world.

Jesus has been raised.

Perfect tense.

Past action with results continuing into the present.

And so the people of God anticipate a coming reconciliation of all things with God–and are, even now, reconciled with God.

And so the people of God anticipate a coming judgment of the cosmos–and are, even now, justified before God.

This is how Karl Barth draws out his conclusions to Church Dogmatics ยง14.3: the time of revelation after the resurrection is the time of recollection. But it is not merely recalling an event in the past history of the world, it is recalling the event to which we look back because it introduces a reality that endures into the present.

The resurrection is the advent, for us, of God’s time. The incarnate God is man raised from the dead and eternal with God in the heavens. Humanity has entered the eternal.

And so, looking back, we proclaim and must believe that the death and resurrection together form the right answer to the question asked in the OT: when and how will God save? when and how will the deliverer come?

To look back on the resurrection is to have our eyes drawn to the future.

… this very backward look cannot be cast in such knowledge of faith without the look forwards, without grasping the promise: “Behold, I come quickly!” without the prayer: “Amen, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). (119)

Apologetic Ruminations About Judgment Day

Today is May 21, 2011.

Or, it will be when this post goes live. If you’re reading this, one of three things is true: (a) judgment day has started at 6 pm on the other side of the world, you’re scared spitless, and are looking for guidance; (b) judgment day has happened and you’ve been left behind, out of step with what I consider to be good biblical theology about the End (God didn’t listen to me?!); or (c) what I anticipate, which is that this judgment day thing did not arrive at the date broadcast by some.

I confess, I haven’t been very Christian in my assessments of the prophesied gloom and doom. In addition to snarkily wondering about issues such as timezones, I created a hash tag on twitter: #ItllSurviveSaturday where I was encouraging folks to reflect on things that are so great that they would survive any judgment and comprise part of the world to come.

With all of this outstanding fun to be had, what need could there possibly be for apologic ruminations?

First, of course, there was the humbling experience of someone on my FB wall commenting that he was praying about how to love the people who are going to be so bitterly disappointed when it doesn’t materialize. Many people are giving everything in faith that this is the day. Many will be spiritually, financially, socially, and otherwise crushed if Jesus does not return.

More than that, however, I have been humbled by the fact that the crazy hermeneutics entailed in calculating this random date in 2011 for the end of the world might have a strong claim to being much more in step with biblical precedent for fulfilling scripture than my willful refusal to heed the numerology.

Remember when Jeremiah predicted a 70 year stint in exile followed by glorious restoration? Not so, says Daniel, a few hundred years later, make that 70 weeks of years!

We might think of Matthew’s fulfillment citations, his creative employment of OT texts as finding “fulfillment” in Jesus even when they are not prophecies of the future or of a coming Messiah.

We might think of the need we have to apply new readings to Revelation because this return did not, in fact, come quickly as John anticipated. We might think of the mockery endured by the 2d generation of Christians who had to answer for the fact that Jesus did not come back so quickly–and they began to reinterpret their own hopes: “The Lord is not slow as some consider slowness… remember: with the Lord a year is as a thousand days and a thousand days as a year!” (2 Peter 3).

I am convinced that after the fact we will all look back on the climactic moment of God’s restoration of the cosmos in Christ and revise much of how we read what came before. This was the effect of the first coming, and it will be the effect of the second.

And so I must concede that my grounds for judging this reading hermeneutically inadequate (it relies on passages and numbers and ideas that could never mean what Camping claims)–will themselves be undone when the event actually transpires.

I apologize for my academic snobbery that will, in fact, be put to shame when we no longer see dimly.

But even this realization reinforces my conviction that no one will be able to guess ahead of time, either. And so I approach this day with expectation that the prediction of the return will amount to nothing more than much ado about not so much at all.