October 19, 2017

Eschatology starts in our past

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Eschatology Week
Part 2: Eschatology starts in our past

Previous Posts
Part 1: The Christian Hope = Resurrection

I believe . . . on the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

• The Apostles’ Creed

• • •

The “last days” are not what Christians are looking forward to. The “last days” are the days in which we are living now.

They began when Jesus appeared on the scene and announced, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” From that point on he proclaimed himself to be the Messiah (King) for whom Israel had waited and he demonstrated by his own words and works that he was inaugurating the rule of God and introducing the age to come. When John the Baptizer questioned if Jesus was indeed the one, he responded: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 11:4-6). These are the signs that had been foretold; the signs that God’s reign was appearing.

These signs came to a climax in the ultimate event in Jesus’ life: the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven to take his throne.

Christian eschatology begins with Jesus, and specifically with the resurrection of Jesus. As N.T. Wright says in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church:

To put it at its most basic: the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or the theologian, not as an odd event within the world as it is but as the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be[emphasis mine] It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new world. (67)

How does the resurrection of Jesus point to the renewal of all creation and the Christian’s hope? Jesus’ resurrection was a matter of both continuity and discontinuity — his very body was raised up and transformed. Jesus’ scars remained recognizable but his disciples did not always recognize him. He ate food with them and bid them touch him, but he also seemed to appear out of nowhere and pass through locked doors.

N.T. Wright points out some metaphors the New Testament puts forward that also point to this kind of continuity and discontinuity in the future new creation. Here are a few of them:

Firstfruits and harvest. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul uses farming imagery to explain the connection. Jesus is the first fruits, the first to rise from the dead and he points to a harvest of resurrection to come. On the personal level, Paul also uses the image of sowing and reaping to describe the continuity and discontinuity between our present bodies and those that will rise anew in the resurrection.

Citizens of heaven, colonizing the world. In Philippians 3, Paul uses this language — terms that would have meant a great deal to the people in Philippi. Their town was a Roman colony, and many were Roman citizens. All Philippians were under Rome’s rule and the city was, in effect, a “little Rome.” Colonies were Rome’s way of spreading her influence around the world and transforming wide expanses of foreign territory into loyal Roman districts. Paul tells the Philippians that they are a colony of heaven and that one day Jesus will come and transform their very bodies as his was in the resurrection. In the process of transforming all creation he will raise them up and make them new.

The birth of new creation. Romans 8 describes how the present creation is experiencing “birth pangs” and is awaiting the day when there will be a “drastic and dramatic birth of new creation from the womb of the old.” The personal and cosmic are once more joined together in this new birth: “not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23).

The marriage of heaven and earth. Revelation 21-22 portrays the ultimate answer to the Lord’s Prayer, when God’s kingdom comes and his will done on earth as in heaven. Heaven comes to earth (note: we don’t “go to heaven”). Wright suggests a correspondence with Genesis 1-2. Heaven and earth were made for each other as male and female were in Genesis. As they were brought together and blessed for a fruitfulness that would fill all creation, so God’s realm and the world he made will come together in eternal blessing and fruitfulness.

As I reflect on God’s future plans for the world, I am reminded of the great teacher and pastor Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. Someone once asked him whether, as he looked to the future, he was optimistic or pessimistic. His reply was simple and characteristic. “I am,” he said, “neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” This chapter, building on the previous one, is a way of saying amen to that. The whole world is waiting, on tiptoe with expectation, for the moment when that resurrection life and power sweeps through it, filling it with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. (108)

Comments

  1. Eckhart Trolle says:

    If it’s all symbolic (and not really going to happen), then what lies beneath the symbolism? Anything more concrete than “Yay Jesus”? Or is the whole thing just a pretty little imaginary pageant, like the Creation story now that we don’t believe in it as anything but poetry?

    • I’m sorry, I don’t understand your comment. Did I say or imply that this was all imaginary?

      And your remarks about the creation account don’t make sense either.

      • Eckhart Trolle says:

        Your first lines describe the “last days” as happening “now” rather than in the future. Since the blind do not see, and the lame do not walk, and other prophetic events have not occurred (except perhaps on some sort of spiritual plane), I suppose your use of eschatological imagery must be symbolic. This re-interpretation reminded me of the conflict over Genesis, in which modernist interpreters seek to retain biblical Creation imagery while avoiding what they see as the irrationality of fundamentalism.

        • Everything rides on Jesus’ resurrection, and his “sitting at the right hand of the Father”; that is, Jesus is alive beyond death and present with us now, and he exercises the power of God in our midst. How is that power manifest? In forgiveness, reconciliation, care for those in need, love of neighbor and enemy, and looking to the future in hope and expectation that he will finish, and is finishing, the work he started in and among us. If this resurrection life of Jesus is real, then the poetry you complain about is alive with the creative openness of God; if it isn’t real, then we Christians are fools, the poetry is empty, and you are right to ridicule us.

          But it is real. Christ is risen!

          • And this, ET, is the ultimate difference between Christianity and other faiths. Not morality, not organization – for these things it has at least something in common with other beliefs. The ultimate difference is the claim that God, as a specific person in a specific place and time, died and physically came back from the dead. And that that makes everything different.

        • ET, you misread. Those signs were happening in Jesus’ ministry to demonstrate his inauguration of the Kingdom.

          • Eckhart Trolle says:

            A majority? plurality? of NT scholars would describe Jesus as an apocalyptic figure who believed that he himself was living in some sort of end-times scenario. (I speculate that he may have assumed John to be the messiah.) The NT authors are aware that life went on, albeit after the destruction of the Temple, and are trying to make Jesus-belief plausible by crediting Jesus with relatively modest miracles (i.e., nothing the average person would necessarily notice). The Revelation transfers the dramatic cosmic signs either to dreamlike visions or to an indefinitely-postponed future. In the same way, depending on how we interpret it, the Kingdom of God / Heaven is either invisible / ethereal, or set in the distant future–not “at hand.”

        • “But, beloved, remember the words that were previously spoken by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, ‘In the last days there will be scoffers who will walk after their own ungodly desires.’ These are the men who cause divisions, sensual, devoid of the Spirit.” Jude 17-19, Modern English Version

          Jude wrote those words going on two thousand years ago. They were true then and we can observe them happening right here today. The last days is an expression that can indicate a consecutive passage of time, as today is the last day of summer, but it can also indicate the congruent existence of two entirely different focusses of consciousness. Thus the old self-centered ways of thinking and doing can exist alongside the new way that Jesus opened the door to, both around us and within us. We get to choose. Continuously.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            All true. But we must be cautious and not use those verses as a wave-of-dismissal towards those who push back, question, or critique Christianity, the church, or ourselves.

            It is not a rare event that a critic has a fair point.

            These verses have been, and are, used in a defensive posture all too often.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            But we must be cautious and not use those verses as a wave-of-dismissal towards those who push back, question, or critique Christianity, the church, or ourselves.

            Reminds me of a Catch-22 in that Forties/Fifties-vintage Seventh Day Adventist eschatology book I remember reading a long, long time ago:
            “Don’t be like the Last Days Scoffers, WHO ARE THEMSELVES A SIGN (OF THE END TIMES -ed)”

          • I’ve heard that passage to justify any misuse of scripture or weird out there thinking about anything.

            Because if you disagree, you are being a scoffer. You actually know it to be true, you just choose to deny it.

            The world most definitely ends this week. You don’t want to be a scoffer, do you?

          • Eckhart Trolle says:

            Ha–I scoff in your general direction!

          • BRING OUT YER DEAD!! BRING OUT YER DEAD!!

  2. This is why I come here: Lesslie Newbigin gets air time, praised by N.T. Wright as a great teacher and pastor. You just don’t get this from other Christian sources.

  3. We have a tendency to think of symbols and metaphor as if they automatically, and of necessity carry the modifier “merely,” even it it is not actually state. As if a symbol is no more than a token, empty of any actual power or use beyond that of a signal. A metaphor is nothing more than an ephemeral image, an emotionally evocative poster tacked up on the wall of the bedroom of the mind.

    And yet Christian practice — and before that Jewish practice — always treated both symbol and metaphor as carrying some of the weight and substance and power of the thing the represented. To say that a symbol reality is a “token” of a greater reality is no small thing if the reality behind the symbol is infinite. To say that a metaphor is merely evocative is no small thing if the truth underlying the metaphor is of such cosmic import that the whole of it cannot be grasped at once. Of such enormity that even mathematical expressions, hard-edged as they are, become metaphor for the whole reality.

    Anyhow, I find word pictures like this enormously helpful in my own faith, and in my preaching and teaching. And I like having a bunch of them in my toolkit. As with the atonement, our understanding of what God is on about with the New Heaven and New Earth is so huge that one picture does not suffice. We need many pictures to see different facets.

    Harvest. Citizens. Birth. Marriage. The Kingdom of God is Like…

    I think there is a very good reason why Jesus took this approach. It goes beyond merely a clever pedagogical technique, or a desire to speak poetically. It speaks to the enormity and power of the truth he was trying to convey, using a limited medium, communicating with minds capable of limited perception. I suspect we have to speak about it in pictures because it is real. Real and irreducible.

    • Great comment, David.

    • Love what you said about symbols. They point to realities bigger than words can encapsulate (precisely because there are realities bigger than our words can get around). Quite the opposite of ‘merely’. It’s actually the case that if mere words were sufficient we wouldn’t need symbols.

    • Eckhart Trolle says:

      So maybe the Resurrection is symbolically true (I am tempted to write “merely”), but not literally true…? And Jesus did not literally heal the blind and lame, but (scratch “only”) metaphorically…? It seems to me that whatever they might say about symbols, most Christians would secretly regard symbolic deeds as inferior to literal ones. Anybody can symbolically resurrect.

      • I contend that Jesus’ death and resurrection are actual (literal) occurences that exist at the center of a symbolic construct that began to intrude on human consciousness centuries before Jesus’ birth and is still being built upon to this day. I might even say that this symbolic continuum (as it has developed in collective human consciousness) exists as something akin to God’s shadow being cast on the physical universe. But that shadow is being cast (both forward and backward in time) by a real flesh and blood man who walked this earth at a particular point in space and time. The symbolic and the literal intersect in the person of Christ like the point where a beam of light passes through a piece of glass.

      • David Denis says:

        E.T. – I fear you ignored the point that the symbol points to a reality. If course, if there is no reality, then the symbol is an empty shell. As Paul said (my paraphrase), “if there is no resurrection then this whole exercise has been a colossal waste of time and we are neck deep in crap.”

        But…he seemed to think that he had actually met the risen Christ. And he personally knew a whole lot of others who had also met him. So he was pretty convinced of the reality.

        Not convincing to you perhaps, but if there is a REAL resurrection, then the symbol is not “mere” at all. Yes. It all hinges on the fact.

  4. I get that it’s difficult to interpret scripture and that NT authors were creative in utilizing (what is now) the OT to retell the story of creation around Christ – including the “last days”.

    Still, if I don’t try to force it into a box, I have a problem with how the “last days” can in fact be the “last days” if they’ve been going on for two millennia.

    It seems to render the word “last” as meaningless.

    • Think of it on a percentage basis versus an absolute basis.

      The last 1% of 100 is 1.

      That last 1% of a billion is 10,000,000.

      If our perspective can only encompass 100, but God’s perspective could encompass a billion or more…

      “Last” isn’t meaningless. It’s just relative.

      Now admittedly, this is playing around a bit with what was likely the intent of the authors who spoke of “last days” in scripture. But they too were dealing with a limited scope of view. Perhaps they spoke more truth than they knew.

      • I think it has become pretty apparent that they did speak more truth than they knew. We call that, “God breathed and profitable for instruction…” I think you make a perfectly valid point there. Our view is woefully lacking in comparison to God’s view and God has told us as much. If we don’t take that simple fact into account there is little chance of getting anything right. We are pea brains (lovable pea brains) with pea brain views. I think of a musical line, ” a billion facets of brilliant love, turning in the light”. We are usually catching three or four of those facets.

        • That’s Bruce Cockburn:
          “A billion facets of brilliant love, a billion facets of freedom turning in the light.”

          • From one of Bruce’s most wonderful albums HUMANS albeit most agonized because it records the breakup of his first marriage and the resulting spiritual and emotional crisis.

            The song is called “Fascist Architecture”

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvZdxmEEaOg

          • Thanks Stephen. “Bloody nose and burning eyes, raised in laughter to the skies. I’ve been in trouble but I’m ok. Been theough the ringer but I’m ok, Walls are falling and I’m ok. Under the mercy and I’m ok…”

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > Now admittedly, this is playing around a bit

        It is beyond “playing around a bit”. It is a droll and tired work-around to help resuscitate a rhetorical device that is VERY awkward to live with. There isn’t any more credibility to this, IMO, than the seven-days-but-to-god-a-day-could-be-a-jillion-years construct.

        • mmmmm….sure. But what if it’s true? Seriously.

          What if God’s frame of reference for time is of a completely different order or kind? I think there is good reason to believe it is. So…what does that say about this whole issue of “last days?”

          I can think of many things that are awkward to live with, yet are true and must be lived with.

          • David Cornwell says:

            Yes.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > But what if it’s true? Seriously.

            What this is “seriously” is an appallingly low standard of intellectual rigor. All manner of things could be true.

            > What if God’s frame of reference for time is of a completely different order or kind?

            Or as Jesus was fully man his reference is exactly ours. Or he has many. The scripture does very close to nothing to illuminate this for us.

            > So…what does that say about this whole issue of “last days?”

            I have no idea.

            > I can think of many things that are awkward to live with, yet are true and must be lived with.

            We agree. But this awkwardness creates no obligation to reverse engineer meaning into the situation.

            It is very clear that many in the early church had an apocalyptic – near term – world view; and the writers of the epistles did little or nothing to dissuade them of those notions. So if even the apostles did not imply a long-time-time interpretation to these “last days”…. there is very little to support this hypothesis.

          • I think you’re right, Adam. I think that some of the things written in our scriptures are just wrong, and it’s a waste of time to try to find a way to make them correct. I think Jesus, Paul, etc., expected and predicted an imminent apocalypse. They were wrong. We as Christians have to find ways to live with their wrongness, not manufacture flimsy, implausible interpretations that mask their wrongness.

          • David Denis says:

            I actually think you are right about this Robert. They were wrong. That’s pretty clear now…2000 years later. The parousia remains a pretty sticky wicket.

            And I get that the “Variable Time Perspective” idea does not appeal. That has been made clear. It isn’t rigorous. It is flimsy. It is implausible. It masks wrongness. It is reverse engineers meaning (and apparently does a hack job of it). I don’t take any of that personally. At a certain point of piling on it got kind of funny.

            But I”m still here thinking, “Geez. So if the Apostles were wrong about the timing of the Resurrection in the Last Day, but it *IS* still true and will happen…what other options are there?” I can surmise Eckhardt Trolle’s answer. What have you got?

            And saying, “I don’t know, but anything is better than VTP” could also be considered to lack rigor.

            Is Preterism as good as it gets?

          • Jesus is alive beyond death at God’s right hand, and present to us in the midst of the Church and the world. His redemptive power is manifested in all those places, and on all those occasions, when forgiveness, reconciliation, love of neighbor and enemy, caring for those in need, giving hope to the hopeless, are embodied, enacted and realized. The Church is the redeemed community of reconciliation and caring that gathers in his name to cooperate in extending this work by sourcing itself in his life-giving presence through word and sacrament, and by going out into the world to discover and serve him there. The Church has often failed in this vocation; but it remains the Church’s vocation nevertheless, and there is enough in it to keep the hands and spirit busy for a lifetime.

            As for the rest, I am agnostic; whereof I do not know, thereof I try not to speak. If I speak of Jesus’ resurrection life among us, his ongoing presence among us, it’s because I have experienced this, I have known this, however imperfectly. It is only the ongoing presence and power of Jesus in its midst that maintains the Church’s identity: it’s a non-negotiable. Much else is secondary, or tertiary; I include questions about the manner and nature of the parousia among the much else.

            I apologize if I was piling on. Not my intention. I’m sorry.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > At a certain point of piling on it got kind of funny.

            No, it is necessary. Because from one Theological speculation is born yet more speculative Theology is born. Until we have libraries filled with rubbish [defended as Logic]. Speculation A + Speculation B = Speculation C, and so on… We too soon forget that we began that journey on an imaginary road.

            If we want to be taken seriously, we must be serious in our thinking. In general US Christianity looks like a troop of fools – and it was us who got us here. It is necessary to take back the ship.

            Speculation is fine, but it needs to always be clearly labeled as such, and is best when confined to the campus or the club.

          • David Denis says:

            RE: the piling on, really, no worries. I’m a big boy. I like a good wrassle.

            And it’s not that I completely disagree with you. I did defend the idea, but that doesn’t mean that I was proposing it as fact. It is, by necessity, a matter of speculation, isn’t it? I thought that was a given, and so your strong reaction just made me go “whoa.” Hit a nerve, I guess.

            So Robert actually attempted to address my question: if not this, what then? If I can summarize, I think he is saying “don’t worry about the future when. Focus on the present presence of Christ and whatever the future is (God knows) will take care of itself. Not an explanation, but I don’t *need* explanation. And I think there is a LOT to recommend in this approach. It eschews the theoretical future for the sake of the practical now.

            But Adam, you call for seriousness. You call for rigor. I don’t disagree, as far as that goes. Nevertheless, I haven’t seen any attempt to address the actual question. Making counter-assertions is not an argument unless you work at the argument clinic. So I don’t know how to address your concern.

            I think that you are saying that since we can only speculate in this area (what is God thinking?), then we must keep our traps shut. Sort of the same thing Robert F. is saying but without the appeal to the presence of the Spirit now.

            I will just say this, speculation or not. After I read Lewis’s Space Triliogy, I remember thinking that the fictional cosmology he lays out was so compelling to me that I decided to adopt this as my way of understanding the way God works in the Kosmos. I am fully aware that this is speculative, non-biblical, etc. But the theory seemed to me to fit the evidence. I would never try to argue with someone that this is “how it is.” but I find it helpful because it gives me something to fill in some big blank spots. It has the added benefit of being very beautiful to me. Even though I am fully aware that it is made up, but I find it comforting for all it’s speculative flaws.

            So speculation has it’s uses. I’ll try to keep it in it’s place. 😉

        • Adam, standing with you on this one. Those tired explanations like a thousand days is as a day to God are fine for Peter writing within a generation, the generation that Jesus spoke of when asked the time frame. Two thousand years later and eyes are starting to roll. I expect the 37 years those folks waited in between the ascension and the fall of Jerusalem seemed like a very long time, but it wasn’t two thousand years. Give me a break.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > Two thousand years later and eyes are starting to roll.

            +1

            Those eyes roll because those eyes are connected to brains; and these speculations disrespect those brains. If the message is important, and it is, these things only server to make people stop listening to what else comes from the message.

      • “Last isn’t meaningless. It’s just relative.”

        I mean, I get that. Using that criteria and depending on the math that you want to use, it might then be considered the “beginning” days. Or middle days. Right? Anything can work.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          Yep. This is an answer that is not an answer at all. It is fine classified as speculation, but it is nothing more than that.

    • I look at this portion of the Book of Hebrews and the words ‘IN THESE LAST DAYS’ jumps out at me:

      “1God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.
      3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” (from Hebrews 1)

    • “It seems to render the word “last” as meaningless.”

      A related problem would be the NT speaking of the “soon” return of Jesus. I believe both problems are dissolved in light of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD as a marker, in the sense that the Equinox is a marker between summer and fall in the north. I believe that the NT writers were in fact living in the last days of the age of Temple Judaism. By the same token we could be living in the last days of the age of the institutional Christian Church. Wouldn’t mean the end of Christianity just as the loss of the Temple did not end Judaism.

      These consecutive ages would be different than the Jewish concept of the expected arrival of the Kingdom of God, which also had its last days but the change was to be permanent. Their understanding seems to have most often have been of a complete shift from one to the other, rather than the ongoing co-existence of the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God as shown by the last two thousand years in Christian understanding.

      All these ideas seem to merge and get fuzzy whereas we like clearly defined concepts with boundaries. There may in fact be a third act waiting in the wings as a specific event and not just a process, maybe a biggie, I dunno. I do know that I have an ongoing sense of living in the last days myself, but I’m quite aware that folks have thought this off and on all the way thru. In the sense that our days are numbered, we all are living in our last days. It’s like we can’t step back far enough to see the whole picture, but I don’t find it meaningless. Helps to toss out either/or and bring in both/and.

      • There is such a large gap between the time of Jesus’ ministry and when the gospels and epistles were eventually recorded. And seismic changes, with new leaders arising, and splinter groups occurring.

        It’s hard to put trust in the words on the page after they had decades to contemplate and reconsider and plan ahead.

        • Not so long really. Paul’s letter to the Galatian Church 15-20 years after the resurrection. The rest completed as early as 50 years after, or as much as 100. Source material perhaps committed to paper before all that, but not available to us today. Lots of eyewitnesses still alive during much of the period.

          Not what we call immediate, in a day when news travels instantly to all points of the globe, and when publishing companies can churn out biographical profiles for the bookstores almost before the event that inspires the book is completed. But perhaps for that time…pretty darn quick.

          There’s that whole “different frame of reference for time” thing again. Perhaps it is just a “big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.”

          • Not saying I agree with the following, but just thinking:

            A group of Jewish believers living “in exile” under Roman rule in their “own” homeland needed a story after their charismatic leader left them; he became the long awaited Messiah, but a different one, one peaceful who cared about others and wanted them to enjoy life, although the later members of the group recast him as that long awaited politically charged violent Messiah, and some enterprising Gentile educated Jews came along and found some good ideas and reappropriated them to fit new peoples groups.

            Thus, over time…things might have gotten altered.

            Maybe. Doubtful? Probably. But maybe to some degree.

        • Stuart,

          it wasn’t that long – only a generation. Crucifixion was AD 33; St Paul’s writings date from the 50s, and the Gospels from the70s-90s – so a comparable time to your grandmother telling you her own childhood memories. It really wasn’t the equivalent of the game of “telephone”. When so-called “splinter groups” did arise, in the 2nd century and after, they tended to drift farther from the core Christian roots and were eventually deemed “heretical” – the word means “choose.” The other groups chose things they liked from Christianity, rather than receiving the whole of what had been handed down. Yes, some things needed to coalesce, but there weren’t many “Christianities” – there was only one.

          Where there is a strong oral tradition, accurate transmission is actually highly valued, more than written evidence. Writings can be forged, but theoretically you can trace the oral record back to its origins, to the very person who uttered it. With something as serious as religious belief, one should expect few variations, not many; for example, among 1st century Jews the biggest theological difference was between those who did not expect a bodily resurrection, the Saduccess (the minority, “conservative” group – Sola Mosaica, if you will) and those who did – everybody else. There were differing opinions among the majority about when and for whom resurrection would happen, but only 3 or 4 – not dozens.

          Dana

          • Dana your account of the development of so-called heretical views of Christianity is of course the traditional one but it is not really born out by the historical and textual evidence. For example, if you examine Paul’s authentic letters you’ll notice that most of his opponents in the churches were not unbelievers but other Christians who had different views of who Christ was and what his mission meant. And that within 20 years of Jesus’ death.

            Also, scholars who study oral cultures point out that they tend to NOT be obsessed with accurate transmission but focus instead on freely adapting their traditions to the present situation. It’s only when a tradition reaches a literary level that one version becomes privileged over another.

            And even on the literary level there are clearly divergent points of view in the New Testament. Matthew has Jesus insist on the necessity of obeying the Law against Paul’s views about faith only. Interestingly some scholars speculate that the opponents the writers of the letters of John and Revelation rail against might have been Pauline churches!

            The relevance this has for the current subject of eschatology is that you see a definite tension in the writings of the NT over the heavily apocalyptic, immanentist eschatology that reflects the oldest part of the tradition. In all our sources John the Baptist is portrayed as an apocalypticist. Jesus is depicted as preaching that the Kingdom would come in the lifetime of his disciples. See Matthew 10:23 and Matthew 16:28. (This was so problematical for the early Christians that it’s hard to imagine they would have kept this tradition if it wasn’t authentic.) Paul clearly expects to be alive when Jesus returns to establish the Kingdom (‘…those of us who are alive and remain…”). The earliest Christian writing we have , the letter to the church at Thessolonica, was written to reassure believers who were agitated because of the delay of the Parousia.

            All this should distress no one but fundamentalists who insist on a narrow literalist approach. Contradiction and argument is a sign of life and vigor. A tradition that privileges one view over all has become moribund and is like the dead tree that might stand for years (or centuries?) before the wind comes along and blows it over.

          • Yes, Stephen.

          • Those who prevail write the histories, and remake the past in their own image.

          • I like what you say, Stephen. Thanks!

          • Can we place the writings of the Ascension in correlation to all of Paul’s talk about still expecting to be there when Jesus returns?

            Suppose this is a very heretical thing to ask, but was the Ascension, specifcally “into heaven”, written much later, and possibly could have been fabricated to continually provide hope to believers that Jesus, the man who walked amongst us and did so much and may have indeed been God himself…will one day come back. As liberator. With His Kingdom. With justice. Etc.

            Now there’s a scary thought I don’t know if I want to poke in my brain. But I don’t know if I can be honest with myself if I don’t.

            Once you’ve lost innocence…how do you find faith in experience? It won’t be the same faith, it won’t look like the faith of others…but it’s still faith.

          • I don’t think I’ll ask such questions here. I care too much for this site and community to utter them and cause doubt.

          • StuartB,
            Don’t think the Ascension stories could have been written “much” later, given the relatively tight time constraints within which the New Testaments texts were composed and redacted. Nevertheless, many contemporary mainline and Roman Catholic Christian scholars believe that the resurrection and ascension were a single event, not two events separated by an interval. They believe that the appearances of Jesus to the apostles and others were originally perceived to be those of an already ascended Jesus, and that the separation in time of the resurrection and ascension, with the public appearances of the risen Jesus occurring between the two, was redacted into the New Testament, and the Church’s memory, at a later date. They have their reasons for believing these things, but I’m unable to give them. You’d have to do some research footwork to learn more, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that difficult to find. I know one of the former Archbishops of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay, was among the scholars who held to this view, but you’d be hard pressed to call him anything but orthodox in his faith, so I don’t think holding these views, or asking the questions you ask, should undermine the real core of anyone’s belief.

          • Stephen et al,

            I’ve read those other theories, and they seemed plausible, though they were quite disjointed, and none was a holistic, integrated view. When I read N. T. Wright, I changed my mind. His understanding simply made sense to me, and there were very, very few “holes.” He convinced me because of his immersion into the texts of the years around Christ. I won’t argue about this issue. I can’t read the texts in the original languages, like Wright, but I trust him on the basis of his massive scholarship, his ability to speak in a measured and friendly way to, and on the same academic level as, scholars who have other views, and because of the general tenor of his life. Wright’s view is that a “little-o orthodox” Christianity was in place very early, and he has the academic and theological chops to back that up.

            Stuart, doubt ain’t the unforgivable sin. Your heart is good in not wanting to hurt people – and to have doubt means one has at least some kind of faith. We each have to take responsibility for dealing with our own doubts and questions, just as you are doing.

            Dana

    • Mike H,

      One of the many things with which Wright helped me in his first “Big Book” – “The New Testament and the People of God” – was the discussion of what the Jews of the 1st century considered as they asked themselves certain questions, one of which was, “What time is it?” That is, where are we in the flow of human/Jewish national history as we expect God to do the Big Thing he is going to do? There is a great deal of inference that that Big Thing will happen as the “last thing” of the Old Age and the inaugural of the New Age, the Age to Come – as the fulfillment of all that came before, and was prophesied about before. So the “last days” are not simply the end of a sequence, but a sort of borderline, in-between time: between the old and the new ages, and also, secondarily, at the “end” when things are changing for the final time. The last days are also the days of fulfillment – as in Heb 1.2, which refers to the *recent past* – “recent” being relative. The semantic range of the Greek word for “day” includes “an era.”

      Dana

      • David Cornwell says:

        True. And very difficult for those of us who live in our fast moving, information creating/sharing culture to pick up on. This is why books like those written by Wright and others are so important. They help us to stretch our thinking and to look in on what to us is another world.

  5. RobertF sez: ” I think Jesus, Paul, etc., expected and predicted an imminent apocalypse. They were wrong.”

    Sorry Robert, but you are wrong, they were right on. I take it that you are using “apocalypse” in its popular sense of cataclysm rather than its true meaning of revelation. The fall of Jerusalem may not seem like a big deal to you, but to those Jews living at the time it was the end of their world. Read your Josephus. That war was a horrible event, far worse in intensity for those trapped in it than the Holocaust of our recent memory. For those who did not starve to death or die in the raging civil war within the city, they could try to escape and be crucified or survive somehow and be sold into slavery. Just an unspeakable horror, and Jesus laid it all out ahead of time.

    • We disagree. I’m not even sure that Jesus made those prophecies in quite the way they are remembered in the New Testament: I tend to believe that parts of them were written after the fact of the destruction of Jerusalem, and in this I have the company of many, perhaps the majority, of non-fundamentalist New Testament scholars, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. And I’m pretty sure that the incarnate God would know the difference between the destruction of a single city, however horrific, and the judgment by fire of the entire world.

    • Most of all I reject the idea that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in any way involved a revelation to or judgement of the Jews by God. This is one of the deepest roots of historical Christian antisemitism: the idea that when the Jews suffer at the hand of gentiles, it is because they have incurred God’s wrath, and the gentiles are in some way doing his will. The idea is morally appalling, and has been invoked down through the centuries to justify one atrocity after another committed against Jews by gentile pagans and Christians.

      • Let’s not forget that the Jews practically coined the concept of mass-scale destruction being the result of God’s judgement. Well before Christianity even existed, the destruction and exile by the Babylonians was well established in the collective consiousness of the Jewish people as a historical exercise of God’s just wrath against a disobedient people. And the writings of the OT prophets are overflowing with God judging peoples and nations by means of calaminities and catastrophes. You can find the concept morally appalling, but there’s no denying that it was an almost universally-accepted part of both ancient Jewish and Christian belief.