Christ and Eschatology
Eschatology is usually understood in theology to be the interpretation of things that happen at the end of time, and tends to occupy a separate section, somewhat detached from other theological concerns, at the end of systematic theologies. This divorce of ‘the end of time’ from the rest of theological history is a striking feature of theology, for which I wish to propose an alternative not so far offered on this site.
The ‘divorce’ of eschatology from the rest of biblical history is frequently sealed by a perceived need to summarise, at great length, the variant interpretations arising out of a few verses in Revelation 20:1-10, and verses 2-7 in particular, where there is a sixfold reference to ‘the millennium’. As one popular Christian preacher/author on this subject put it: “How often does God have to say something for it to be true?” What he meant was: “How often do I have to repeat my interpretation of the millennium for it to be accepted as true?” Calvinists at this point may wish to roll over and go back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that their interpretation of ‘the millennium’ was correct all along, and avoided all the furore.
A feature of this ‘futuristic’ presentation of eschatology is a shift of focus from the Christ of history to an often bizarre concatenation of events at the end of time. Swathes of history, such as Christ’s supposed thousand year earthly reign in the historic or dispensationalist, premillennial schemes, are proposed from the most meagre of textual evidence. The effect of futuristic schemes which Revelation 20:1-10 is dragooned to support is curious: a removal of focus on Christ, to the extent that one commentator has described it as an ‘eclipse of Christ in eschatology’. The future resurrection of the dead and return of Jesus are submerged in a tidal wave of speculation concerning the preceding events in God’s supposed prophetic calendar.
A rediscovery of the eschatological Christ of history, and the self-perception by Christ of his historical, 1st century eschatological mission, has been restated in a resurgence of interest in the historical Christ – whom 19th century theologians up to Rudolf Bultmann in the 20th century had confidently asserted to be unknowable, and in any case divorced from the Christ of faith, this being the later invention of the church. From Johannes Weiss to Albert Schweitzer. C.H. Dodd to Oscar Cullman and Hermann Ridderbos; from Ernst Käsemann to W.D.Davies; from E.P.Saunders to Geza Vermes and N.T.Wright, and of course Andrew Perriman – the focus on the historical Christ has led to renewed understanding(s) of the eschatological Christ, the impact of whose eschatological agenda was primarily to be seen in history, not in events at the end of time or in some far distant future. Christ’s eschatological mission has especially been seen in terms of the eschatological expectations of the Jews, or ancient Israel, as history within history, rather than in yet to be fulfilled events in the future.
A positive effect of the ‘rediscovery’ of the historical Jesus has been the joining-up of eschatology with history. Eschatology need no longer be understood primarily as events which take place in the far distant future. It enters the environment of rational, historical theological conversation. It only takes a moment’s thought to see that preterist theologians had already been saying this for over a hundred years, especially from the time of J. Stuart Russell onwards, whose book, The Parousia, (1878) set out the main elements of his own comprehensive preterism. Although Andrew Perriman rejects the label of preterism as a description of his own approach, it is nevertheless striking that in taking many of the trends of the quest for the historical Jesus to their logical conclusions, there is a remarkable convergence between his own understanding of eschatology and that to be found in comprehensive preterism.
The main platform of historic preterism concerns the so-called time-frame references in the gospels (eg Matthew 10:23; Matthew 16:28; Matthew 24:34; Matthew 26:64), which seem to suggest imminence of the events described, and conflict especially with the idea of a yet to be fulfilled parousia of Jesus. The solution proposed by the preterists is that Jesus’s parousia occurred in a heavenly realm at the time of the destruction of the temple, an event which signalled the ending of the Jewish age in God’s covenantal history.
The quest for the historical Jesus asserts something similar, where it focuses on a Jesus who came with eschatological expectations, and those expectations being the fulfilment of God’s purposes towards Israel in history. For Schweitzer, the expectation was unrealised; the kingdom of God did not come; Jesus tried to force the issue by flinging himself on the wheel of destiny in his death. This act of sacrifice is the example he gave to all his followers, and is the example which Schweitzer followed, even if with questionable results – perhaps in both cases.
Eschatology as applied to the historic Jesus tends to focus on the destruction of the temple as the chief sign and vindication of Jesus’s mission, and the solution to the problem posed by the time-frame references in the gospels. ‘The coming of the Son of Man’, as an eschatological event, fulfils the ‘coming’ of Daniel 7:13 – the vindication of God’s rule on earth, on behalf of his suffering people. It was a coming, not towards the earth, but towards God – in exaltation and power. The sign which demonstrated this event was the destruction of the temple. The renewed people of God were separated from the apostate people of God. Their future was guaranteed. The history of Christ was one of identification with the true people of God. He had suffered as they suffered; their history had become his history. His triumph was the assurance of their triumph.
This interpretation seems plausible, and attractive in many ways. It provides an apparently convincing way of interpreting biblical material, especially from a historical point of view, and as informed by the conjectured historic expectations of Israel around a reconstruction of their reflections on the second temple period. It places Christ in a definite historic context. It makes sense of the time-frame references – in the gospels, and throughout the NT. But it has some curious consequences. The suffering of Christ on the cross, in particular, no longer has the central redemptive significance which its place in the four gospels would seem to ascribe to it. The death of Christ ceases to be a central event with direct relevance to subsequent generations of Jesus’s followers. Within this reinterpretation, the significance of the cross as the place where the new covenant was sealed in the blood of Christ is also lost. The significance of the resurrection as the beginning of the new creation, within a new creation Jesus and as imparted by him to a new humanity, is also lost, or fails to contain the significance which the NT seems to give it.
The issue seems to me to be brought to a head in the question of whether Jesus was exclusively an actor within the limited history of Israel, and to be seen as such, or whether the history of Israel was actually reaching a climax of some sort in him as a person, and in his person. This sense of history converging on a person also brings into play the totality of biblical history, with the long and winding story extending not simply to Moses and Abraham, as the national story of Israel, but to the key players before Abraham, and back to the very origin of things and the catastrophe of the garden. Arguably, one of the main themes of the OT, if not the main theme, is the reverberation of the original catastrophe throughout its history, acted out repeatedly in the main characters.
In the next post, I will sketch a different way of viewing eschatology, affirming it as the key to understanding the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith, locating it neither in unfulfilled events in the far distant future, nor exclusively in the limited historical concerns of 2nd temple national Israel up to and including the 1st century. I will propose a way of seeing Jesus which is not simply as an adjunct (however important that may be) to Israel’s narrative.
Instead, I wish to propose that Jesus is in himself the key to eschatology, and the point of convergence not simply of the lines of Israel’s history, but of the history of creation up to that point and beyond. I wish to show that he continues to be the focus of history, and God’s plans for creation, not as a pointer to anything outside himself, but within himself, and for those with whom he identified and who identify with him. Along the way, I may also point out an illogical tendency of the postmodern mindset to dismiss the person, and the personal, as a way of perceiving meaning or significance, as reflected in its literary, theological and philosophical interests.