Jesus’ eschatology and me

A reader wrote in recently and asked some really good questions about my eschatology, which I have described on this blog as preteristic. Preterism is the belief that all (or most) of the eschatological expectations of the writers of Scripture were directed at the events culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple.

My position has evolved significantly since I’ve been writing on the subject, the earliest relevant posts dating back a few years. In the intervening time, key aspects of my theology have changed. Particularly, I have become more convinced of the Scripture’s organic nature and origin and have thus rejected inerrancy as an unfair expectation. As a result I have also grown increasingly distrustful of tidy theological schemata composed of verses here and there from this chapter and that book that find some way to incorporate every verse that appears to contradict the main contention, no matter how contrived the resolution may be. But because I continue to regard it as a relatively coherent system as systems go, preterism has so far escaped close scrutiny in light of my revised bibliology (at least on the blog), but in recent months I’ve been increasingly aware that it is indeed due a revisiting.

You’ll find that most every preterist is firmly committed to inerrancy and as a rule will actually appeal to inerrancy as proof that the time statements necessitate first century fulfillment of NT prophecy (“Were Peter and Paul wrong about when Jesus would return? Certainly not!”). Replying to the email really gave me a chance to reassess what I believe about preterism since letting go of expectations of inerrancy.

In this post, and particularly with my limited knowledge, I can’t adequately describe or engage biblical and historical criticism’s treatment of the eschatology found in the Gospels, which I believe stand as the foundation for New Testament eschatology. I can accept many conclusions of biblical criticism (even the Jesus Seminar), but I don’t at all buy the widespread rejection of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings, e.g. in Mark 13, Matthew 24, as inauthentic. As far as I know, there is little doubt that the apostles and early Christians were convinced of an imminent eschaton, and this makes the most sense if we accept the testimony of all four Gospels that Jesus himself expected this. I am quite comfortable (admittedly as a non-expert) saying that at least some of these passages satisfy the hard reading criterion for authenticity: why record your prophet prophesying something that didn’t happen? Even supposing that Luke’s identification of Jesus’ subject as the time when Jerusalem would be “surrounded by armies” (21.20) was an attempt to salvage a failed prophecy, you still have to motivate why he’d leave the account in at all unless there was an unignorable tradition that the core of them, necessarily including the time statements, were authentically Jesus’ teachings and perhaps even characteristic of his ministry.

Then once you’ve got such imminent eschatology coming from the mouth of Jesus, you’ve got to put him in his own Hebraic context. When we do this, I’m convinced we must recognize that his apocalyptic language referred to something besides the end of the world as we know it (i.e. the physical cosmos). I think no small part of the problem results from critics not taking the ancient tradition of Hebrew prophetic diction into account and hence, much like the “Left Behind” crowd (and indeed, most Christians throughout history since at least the late first century), falling into the trap of over-literalizing the apocalyptic. The prophets of Israel in OT times prophesied “day of the Lord” after “day of the Lord”, each coming and going without the stars dissolving or physical returns of God on the clouds despite use of exactly this imagery; this is a particularly cogent argument if the critics are right that the accurate prophecies were actually composed post hoc, since the writers would hardly have expected anyone to believe those things to have happened in the past. Indeed, Israel seems never to have really had a concept of an end of the world or consummation of history: God simply settled the account and history moved on. It was precisely this sort of reckoning, a localized judgment, that Christ taught in his eschatology. The parable of the tenants (Matthew 21.33-46), for instance, sees the return of the landlord as a punishment of those whom he had left stewards of His property, clearly referring to the religious leaders in charge of the care of God’s people Israel.

Now, localized though it was envisaged, the promised event was nonetheless of much wider scope and significance than the one city upon which judgment was wrought in AD 70. This is because it marked a clear transition to a new, more refined expression of the relationship of God and humanity modeled upon Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross. Jesus’ statement that God would mete out judgment in the person of the Christ was a claim of access to God’s authority implicit in both the original metaphor in Daniel and in Christ’s self-identification as the Son of Man.

One of the newer developments in my own thinking is that, unlike most preterists, I recognize the very real possibility of a tension between the teachings of Christ and the understanding of the writers of the epistles and Revelation regarding what the Day of the Lord would look like. The original expectation presented by Christ, clear enough in the Gospels, seems to have been given wider application by later writers of the NT (especially pseudo-Peter and the author of Revelation), from whom I think I detect more literalized beliefs about what Christ’s return and judgment would look like on the stage of history. It appears to me (most preterists would deny this) that there may have been some misunderstanding and overextension of the judgment to visibly encompass more of the world than it actually would, fueling furious missionary movements that covered the Empire in decades’ time. There was also the widespread supposition that it would be at that time that Sheol, the place of the dead in which all of humanity slept awaiting judgment, was emptied (the Resurrection of the Dead), followed by the judgment of all those alive at the time. From this the early Christians had the notion that the whole living world had to have a chance to repent before Christ returned to judge it (e.g. Acts 17.30-31); but if this evangelization before the judgment was as important as they obviously thought it was, I hate it for the Chinese, the Australian aborigines, and those in America at the time whom the message never quite reached!

I think whatever misunderstanding of eschatology the Christians entertained is attributable to a recognition of the epochal importance of the passing away of an old world into a new, spoken of in OT terms of a new heavens and new earth but interpreted outside that context in a Greco-Roman world. Indeed, I suspect that some of the later NT writers’ apocalypticism and the early church’s futurism came from a misapprehension of some of the old Jewish apocalyptic language of Jesus that was directed toward the Jewish leaders who would have (or at least should have) recognized its OT color, whereas others not reared in Judaism might have not known how literal to take it.

One thing I was asked was why the fall of Jerusalem would have been significant enough to justify such breathless anticipation. It’s actually pretty simple: for all practical purposes, it was the end of Judaism. After the dismantling of the center of the Jewish cultus, the temple, and the diasphora that caused Jews to lose trace of their genealogies, Judaism as prescribed in Torah disappeared and was replaced with an essentially different system. Christianity was originally seen by Paul and most other believers as the fulfillment of Judaism, not as a competitor to Judaism, but since this opinion was not shared by the religious leaders of Judaism who resented Christian claims and used their political power to persecute Christians, Christians themselves increasingly grew anxious to be vindicated by God in a tangible sense. For this reason I believe that the scope and applicability of this particular Day of the Lord was indeed universal: it was the definitive episode in which the ethno-centric Jewish cultus by which YHWH was introduced to the world was displaced (or at least profoundly revised) by inclusive Christianity.

So if there’s no consummation of history in the future, what about our judgment? While I entertain serious doubts about the so-called General Resurrection, I believe this at least: Christ will hold every individual accountable. All the speculation – even by the authors of Scripture – about how and when notwithstanding, the clear unequivocal testimony is that God is judge, and seeing no statements in any NT eschatology that predict another Day of the Lord judgment (much less an impending end of the world), I conclude that God will judge us all individually, in His own time rather than in some end-of-time, get-in-line courtroom.

This was quite a mouthful, and I didn’t go into a whole lot really, but this was useful to me as a starting place.

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Further reading from a preterist perspective:

The best book I can recommend that you buy is the recently revised version of Behind the Veil of Moses by Brian Martin. It is an expansive explanation of preterism, taking into account most applicable Scriptures. He really explains the hermeneutics required for understanding eschatology and Scripture in general (audience relevance etc.) quite well.

My own opinions on the dating and references of Revelation are admittedly underdeveloped, but suffice it to say that I’d much prefer to take my eschatology from what we can recover of Jesus’ views than from that problematic book! However, if you’d like a preterist “walkthrough” of Revelation, I’d recommend The Parousia by James Stuart Russell. Russell and this book are chiefly responsible for modern interest in preterism. I should note that it was written in 1878 and so some of the style is a little stilted, but I still find it eminently readable and fascinating. It can be read online or downloaded for free.

Even the most conservative varieties of preterism trouble many evangelical believers on the grounds that the ancient church already viewed the apocalypse as incomplete and awaiting a yet future consummation. Many acknowledge a first century referent for most of Jesus’ prophecies but still await a universal final judgment and the Resurrection of the Dead in our future; however, they have precious little textual support for breaking up a clearly single, imminent eschatological expectation into segments spanning millennia, depending solely on church tradition and the problem that even the later first century church expected a final judgment consummation of history. My blog has frequently addressed concerns with dissenting from the expectations of church tradition, most recently here, and I offer what I find to be a completely sufficient explanation above for why Jesus’ statements were misconstrued within the first century.

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