The Structure of Human Hope: in the first century
In my previous post, I outlined what I think reality must be like in order for human hope to persist.
Now I want to examine how that looked in the first century.
The New Testament scriptures begin with a declaration that change was coming. “The kingdom of God is near!” is one of the first lines in the gospels.
The change that was coming was in contrast to the world that then existed. While the first century world was based on divisions between ethnicities and social classes, and centered around institutions like the temple, the government, and the priesthood, the new world that was beginning would be based on equality and human relationships. This contrast could not have been more intense.
One world-view was built on illusion and pretension, another was built on a deep awareness of reality. The way the early Jesus-movement saw it, their cause was bound to win, because reality was behind them. And since their cause was going to win, their opponents either needed to become aware of reality, or they were going to receive a painful wakeup call.
They declared this fact to the powers and authorities in their world. And they described that coming wakeup call in colorful apocalyptic language. This is the biblical judgment day - the day when your bigotry and delusion finally catch up with you. Jesus described that event as having to experience “crying and anger”, and the shame of being outcast - of feeling the deepest darkness.
Where did that put Jesus’ followers?
Based on the writings we have, they lived in hope of vindication. In that confidence, they faced death and persecution, knowing that their efforts would ultimately pay off, that in the end, their cause would triumph.
They did not look beyond the horizon of their vindication. In fact, they described the coming experience of vindication as having the tears wiped from their eyes, as having no more sorrow or pain.
We need to understand those statements in context. There is a definite sense in which these things become true at a spiritual level. But there is more. In the Jewish scriptures, these same terms were used to describe things like the return of prisoners from captivity. You can imagine why - the relief of becoming free from slavery would be a drastic release from suffering.
It’s important to realize that this is not an absolute release. After freedom, ex-slaves still experience suffering and tears. But they have moved to a new life, a new level of existence.
The same is true of the first Jesus-followers. Though they didn’t look beyond the end of the first century, they did recognize that even after their vindication, there would be work to be done.
The end of the book of Revelation is a highly poetic description of what their vindication would look like. The old Jerusalem is tragically burning, but a “new” Jerusalem is descending from heaven to earth. This Jerusalem is identified as the group of Jesus-followers, and in them, the presence of God has been brought more fully.
But this picture, though grand, is no utopia. There are still opponents outside. And there is still work to be done. From the center of this metaphorical city, a river of life flows outward, watering the rest of the world. Trees in the city produce leaves that are healing the nations. The outside world has neither been fully dealt with, nor is it being ignored, nor is it being written off. Instead, the process of healing and growth continues.
It would be a mistake to see progress and growth as all done with. It would also be a mistake to try to re-create the struggle that these people went through. Their struggle has been completed, and we will not engage in the same conflict again. Instead, we have our own obstacles to overcome, and our own change to create.
In the picture of Revelation, the city has been established, and begins its work of healing the world. The gates are open, inviting everyone in. And as they come in, the city grows and becomes more glorious, on and on and on.
The book of Daniel has a similar image. In it, a rock begins rolling, picking up speed until it smashes the forces of violence and oppression in the world. That rock becomes a mountain, and grows until it fills the whole earth.
Our effort is neither done, nor will it be completely done in the future. Instead, after victory comes growth, and then more victory and growth forever. Our efforts achieve real and lasting results, and we build upon those results as we ascend upward and outward into an ever more glorious future.