Beyond Fulfilled Eschatology
A few years ago I began to realize that the New Testament authors anticipated the second coming within their own lifetimes. This led me to a lot of study and research, and ultimately to the reluctant conclusion that New Testament eschatology ended in the first century.
I say reluctant because I already had my own framework through which I viewed eschatology, and I wasn't looking for a replacement. But the sheer mountain of evidence was irresistible. The second coming had been predicted for sometime circa AD 70, and if I was to hold any confidence in the scriptures, I must conclude that it had really happened just as they had anticipated.
Naturally, this required a lot of productive research, and I gradually discovered the scriptural genre of apocalyptic language, the importance of audience relevance, and the need to interpret within the historical context of the writings themselves.
The scriptures came alive with a depth of meaning and nuance I couldn't have imagined before. And I could suddenly see that far from being a rejection of the earth and physical existence, the bible was concerned with the reclamation of them both. The scriptures weren't looking for the dissolution of the physical universe, but for a change in the relation of God and man, human and human.
Fulfilled eschatology had given me back the world.
But there was a problem. If the second coming had happened in AD 70, then the resurrection had occurred at the same time. And that meant that the resurrection didn’t involve bodies coming out of graves, but was something that had happened in the spiritual realm.
I didn’t see a problem with this biblically — but it worried me philosophically.
Traditional theology had gone down this road before. There were two viewpoints — one which held that resurrection was about the soul entering heaven, and one which held that resurrection was about restoring God’s creation.
The Jews had always believed that God would restore creation and enact justice on the earth. The idea of resurrection was just an extension of that - just as they had trusted God to bring them back from captivity, they trusted that God would restore the lives of the righteous dead.
This was usually envisioned as bodies rising from the dust, graves opening, and so forth. The dead would be restored to the same realm that they had been removed from. And so the future of the dead, the future of human society, and the future of the world were all intertwined.
That belief served to help people focus on doing right and creating justice within their own communities. God was working on setting the earth to rights, and they would too.
In contrast, there was the idea of the soul entering heaven. Those who adopted this viewpoint tended to believe that earthly life was profane and base, while the afterlife was holy and glorious. Since those who died were entering another realm, never to return, the future of individuals and the future of human society were separate things entirely.
This belief often ended up encouraging people to develop a lax attitude towards injustices and world problems. With God, the dead, and our future all tied up in another realm, why be concerned about the way things are here when you leave?
Christianity had entertained both of these perspectives. But in positing that the resurrection had occurred entirely in the first century, fulfilled eschatology was pushing us firmly into the latter camp.
So with one hand, fulfilled eschatology was giving me back a concern for the world and the development of human society, and with the other hand, it was taking it away. We criticized traditional theology for its escapist notions of destroying the world and being whipped away into the sky, but by insisting on this entirely other-worldly afterlife, we were creating our own sort of escapism.
Of course, not everybody's theology worked out quite that way, but a lot of it did. As that thinking progressed, people seemed to split into two camps: those who were more concerned with the spiritual realm, and those who were more concerned with the physical one. If there are two separate realms of existence, it seems that one cannot serve both masters.
Those who were more concerned with the physical realm began to downplay, and in some cases deny, the concept of resurrection or immortality. Those who were more concerned with the spiritual realm began to downplay, and in some cases deny, the importance of biblical history, and history in general.
Both of them began to sound increasingly hollow to me. Something seemed wrong— on the one hand, the bible's overwhelming focus on restoration and justice on earth; on the other hand, the bible's seeming insistence that the resurrection belonged to the first century. There was a deep irony to this: A first century apocalypse was an apocalypse concerned with the ongoing physical world, but a first century resurrection was not.
I was at an intellectual impasse, confused and conflicted. So I stepped back and began to think about what the biblical story was telling us on other levels.
I gradually began to notice that the scriptures weren't just the account of one apocalypse, but of dozens - from the ark to the Exodus story and beyond. The apocalyptic, in fact, wasn't just a way of talking about events to come - it was an outlook on history itself, an outlook that grew from the belief in a God of justice and truth.
The biblical God is both ultimate reality, and a being involved in the created world. This means that his attributes are the primary factors in history, the primary factors in any human interaction or society. Truth, justice, and freedom are aspects of God, and so they are always rising, always pushing themselves into our existence. God is, and so history must bend towards the good, and justice must increase without end.
These realities could be resisted, but they could not be resisted forever. Powerful empires could rise up and enslave people, kings could stand against truth and justice, but all these things must eventually come to end, swallowed up by the nature of existence itself.
This is the heart of the Israelite’s cry for freedom from the Egyptians, the heart of the prophet’s cry for relief from oppression. They believed that justice must come, that it could not be stopped.
The moment when this happens, when lies are overwhelmed by truth, is the judgment and the apocalypse. Those who have resisted reality, will be undone. Those who have embraced reality, will be vindicated. The structures of oppression and falsehood and injustice will be burned to the ground — sometimes literally.
Those who see the truth and stand on the side of God and of history will suffer as they wait for their moment of vindication. In giving up the current realities for the coming reality, they make themselves strangers to the world they inhabit, citizens of the world that is coming. They suffer, to be vindicated in the coming future.
In contrast, those who reject the truth and stand against the movement of God and of history are able to flourish temporarily. But the more they resist the oncoming reality, the more severe their eventual encounter with the truth. They prosper temporarily, to be devastated in the coming future.
The important thing here is that this is not just one event in the biblical narrative - it is the arc of history. The rise of freedom and justice is unending, and as they rise, bastions of injustice and oppression collapse in their wake. Every collapse is a new apocalyptic moment, a moment of judgment in which those who have committed themselves to the truth inherit the new world that is rising. This is the situation in Exodus, it is the situation in the prophets, it is the situation in the New Testament.
Fulfilled eschatology was right. The New Testament is concerned with an apocalypse that happened in their generation, forever changing the course of history and the world. But this wasn’t the end of eschatology, just as the Exodus wasn’t the end of Israelite history. This was the start of a bigger eschatology, an eschatology that is drawing in the entire universe.
Traditional eschatology and fulfilled eschatology both got it wrong in assuming that there was going to one big cataclysmic event, and that would be the end. The reality is that every end is the beginning of something bigger, something grander, something more brilliant and cataclysmic and glorious.
And we’ve only seen the beginning of that eternal process.