Dealing with delay: a critique of Christian coping
Eschatology is nebulous, because theologians have not sufficiently grappled with the historical validation of eschatological claims. Eschatology remains dehistoricized and largely atemporal. This study will survey attempts in twentieth-century eschatological interpretation for dealing with the problem of “the delay of the parousia,” including the first Quest of the Historical Jesus (Schweitzer), existential theology (Bultmann, Barth), realized eschatology (Dodd), the theology of hope (Pannenberg, Moltmann), the third Quest (N. T. Wright), and evangelical theology. In each of these paradigms, the parousia is either unrealized in history despite the New Testament’s temporal parameters or an existential event realized in the moment despite the New Testament’s historical parameters. An alternative approach meeting both the historical and temporal parameters is proposed: the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in CE 70.
The twentieth century will be remembered in the history of theology
for its rediscovery of the centrality of eschatology in the
message of Jesus and early Christianity. But it reached no consensus
on the shape and meaning of eschatology [Braaten &
Jenson 2002: vii].
The First Quest of the Historical Jesus
The opening up to eschatology came from Johannes Weiss (1863-1914), who saw Jesus not just as a great ethical teacher (as Albrecht Ritschl), but the proclaimer of a new era, the kingdom of God. Jesus believed he stood at a critical juncture in history and expected the in-breaking of the kingdom, not through gradual ethical progress, but as “the breaking out of an overpowering storm of God which destroys and renews,” “bringing in a lasting order of things” (Weiss: 5). Although Jesus did not at first think he would have to die to usher in the kingdom, he eventually came to that realization, believing the generation then living would experience its coming.
Albert Schweitzer went beyond Weiss’s emphasis on Jesus’ proclamation of the imminent kingdom to contend that Jesus’ entire life was dominated by the in-breaking of this apocalyptic transformation. Confident the in-breaking of this kingdom was so close it could be said to be present, Jesus sent out the disciples in Matthew 10 to give the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” one final chance to repent. On the basis of Matthew 10:23, where Jesus tells his disciples, “You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes,” Schweitzer said Jesus expected the end of the age and the parousia to occur before the disciples had concluded their preaching tour. When this failed to occur, Jesus concluded he had been mistaken. This first postponement of the parousia led to the abandonment of eschatology characteristic of the whole history of Christianity. Jesus, now believing he himself must suffer the messianic woes preceding the coming of the kingdom, went to Jerusalem to die so as to bring in the kingdom.
In the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man [Jesus] lays
hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last
revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close.
It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does
turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological
conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and
the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong
enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and
to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is
His victory and His reign [Schweitzer: 370 71].
While Schweitzer and Weiss did much to restore the eschatological emphasis of Jesus, their Jesus is a tragic, mistaken hero whose eschatological yearnings were foolhardy.
Schweitzer’s consequent eschatology entails a consequent liberal
Christology; his formal championing of eschatology actually
becomes a liquidation of eschatology; his ethics remains a moralism
which is even farther removed from true Christianity than was
Ritschl’s ethicism [Holmstrom 1936: 89].
In 1919 Karl Barth published the first edition of his ROMERBRIEF, in which, having renounced as sinful autonomy humanity’s “historical” thinking, he spoke of God’s history breaking through into so-called history in Christ, filling time with eternity in an “eternal Now” of actual history. The second edition assumed a more eschatological character, owing to the influence of Franz Overbeck, as well as Plato, Kant, and Kierkegaard. Barth would famously say, “If Christianity be not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ” (Barth: 314). Eschatology here has little to do with last things in any historical sense and more to do with ultimate things in an existential sense as God intersects the plane of history tangentially in the Moment of Krisis, effecting revelation in the existential I-Thou encounter. Because for Barth revelation cannot be a predicate of history, “the point on the line of intersection is no more extended onto the known plane than is the unknown plane of which it proclaims the existence” (Barth: 29). The revelatory history of God (Geschichte) could intersect, but not extend onto, the ordinary history of humanity (Historic). By sublimating the historical actuality of the parousia into the existential Moment, Barth could summarily dismiss all talk of “the delay of the parousia”:
Will there never be an end of all our ceaseless talk about the delay
of the Parousia? How can the coming of that which doth not enter
in ever be delayed? The End of which the New Testament speaks
is no temporal event, no legendary “destruction” of the world; it
has nothing to do with any historical, or “telluric,” or cosmic
catastrophe. The end of which the New Testament speaks is really
the End; so utterly the End, that in the measuring of nearness
or distance our nineteen hundred years are not merely of little,
but of no importance [Barth: 500].
Because “we do stand at every moment on the frontier of time,” each individual who embraces Christ lays hold of “the Beginning in the End” and experiences the parousia.
For Rudolf Bultmann, as for the early Barth, historical criticism could not provide a basis for faith, since faith cannot have any objective basis. History is a closed continuum, whereas faith is the existential questioning of life based on the eschatological opening up of possibilities for decision. Bultmann asserted that the New Testament salvation scenario is entirely mythological. “What is expressed in myth is the faith that the familiar and disposable world in which we live does not have its ground and aim in itself but that its ground and limit lie beyond all that is familiar” (Bultmann 1984: 10). Demythologizing aimed to get behind the objectivizing representations to discover myth’s true significance in speaking of a transcendent power to which all are subject and which calls all to make a decision of openness to the future, as in Heidegger’s philosophy. Mythological representations are thus eschatological possibilities calling for decision in the moment of proclamation. “The eschatological event,” said Bultmann,
is not to be understood as a dramatic cosmic catastrophe but as
happening within history, beginning with the appearance of Jesus
Christ and in continuity with this occurring again and again in
history, but not as the kind of historical development which can
be confirmed by any historian. It becomes an event repeatedly in
preaching and faith. Jesus Christ is the eschatological event not
as an established fact of past time but as repeatedly present, as
addressing you and me here and now in preaching [Bultmann
Thus, while Bultmann opens his NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY with “the eschatological message” of Jesus’ expectation of the “impending irruption” of God’s reign in which God “will destroy the present course of the world” and wipe out all that is opposed to God, the true significance of “Jesus’ call is the call to decision” (Bultmann 1951: 4-9). For Bultmann, as for Barth, the historical and chronological interest in a culminating event called the parousia gives way to an atemporal, ahistorical, and continuous event that occurs in the Moment of existential decision or encounter. This existential view of the delay and parousia persisted in the New Hermeneutic and second Quest of the Historical Jesus. For instance, Ernst Fuchs contended that “the problem of the so-called delay of the parousia is not a genuine theological problem,” since the “‘so-called near expectation’ belongs neither to theology or proclamation, being merely psychological data, as is also the Easter experience” (Fuchs: 83-84).
With his “realized eschatology,” C. H. Dodd (1884-1973) overtly rejected all attempts to dehistoricize and existentialize eschatology. Instead, he argued that in the ministry of Jesus the kingdom of God predicted by the Old Testament prophets had arrived. “The eschaton has moved from the future to the present, from the sphere of expectation into that of realized experience” (Dodd 1969: 50). With Bultmann, Dodd sees this realized eschatology most clearly set forth in the Gospel of John. Also with Bultmann, Dodd contended that passages in the New Testament which seem to speak of a still future coming of Christ and day of judgment were later added by the church as a way of accounting for the fact that the early return of Christ, which had been expected, had not taken place. This reconstructed futurist eschatology of the early church was built as an apologetic from the materials of Jewish apocalyptic, but this reconstruction Dodd viewed as inferior to the primitive message of realized eschatology. Thus, any future expectation of a second coming of Christ is a deviation from the truth of primitive Christianity and, as such, a myth: “The least inadequate myth of the goal of history is that which moulds itself upon the great divine event of the past, known in its concrete actuality, and depicts its final issue in a form which brings time to an end and places man in eternity–the second Coming of the Lord, the Last Judgment” (Dodd 1936: 240). Several have observed in Dodd “a certain Platonizing tendency,” among whom Ridderbos (41) adds, “the temporal aspects of salvation entirely recede into the background in comparison with the ‘eternal issues of life.'”
Theologies of Hope
Among the “hope school,” those influenced by the Jewish Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, Wolfhart Pannenberg is more interested in the historical grounding of Christian faith than Jurgen Moltmann. In REVELATION AS HISTORY, Pannenberg and others upended Barth’s dictum that revelation could not be a predicate of history by saying that revelation is history. Building on Hegel, they maintained that knowledge, as history, is always open-ended and can thus be understood only from the end, when history is complete. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a glimpse of the end in the midst of history, what Pannenberg calls “a proleptic end.”
Through an extraordinary vision the apocalyptic writer sees
ahead to the end of all things. The historical plan of God was
disclosed to him ahead of time. However, wasn’t the apocalyptic
view itself corrected by the further course of history? In contrast,
the witness of the New Testament is that in the fate of Jesus Christ
the end is not only seen ahead of time, but is experienced by
means of a foretaste. For, in him, the resurrection of the dead has
already taken place, though to all other men this is still something
yet to be experienced [Pannenberg 1968:141].
If the resurrection of the dead is coterminous with the end of history, then the resurrection of Jesus Christ signals the end of history in the midst of history. Though “the oldest community counted on the speedy conclusion of the series of end events that had already begun in Jesus’ resurrection,” “for us, in contrast, the conclusion of the end events still will not arrive for an uncertain period of time” (1977: 106). Pannenberg maintains that “neither the two-thousand-year interval from the time of Jesus’ earthly appearance nor its continuing quantitative growth is sufficient in itself to let the connection between the activity and fate of Jesus and the expected end of all things discovered then to become untenable,” for “only in connection with the end of the world that still remains to come can what has happened in Jesus through his resurrection from the dead possess and retain the character of revelation for us also” (1977: 107). The delay of the end events, then, is not, for Pannenberg, a refutation of the Christian hope or of revelation
as long as the unity between what happened in Jesus and the
eschatological future is maintained. However, the Christian
perception of what happened in Jesus will always retain an openness
to the future. The ultimate divine confirmation of Jesus will take
place only in the occurrence of his return [1977:107-08].
In other words, the resurrection of Jesus cannot be validated until Christ returns, though “what happened in Jesus” is proleptic and thus revelatory of what is to come. Both events appear to “hang in the air,” interdependent on the end of history for validation.
Moltmann believes the overcoming of the delay of the parousia by the first generation of Christians led to the transfer of Israel’s this-worldly hope to another world. If God is to be understood as the power of a new future, he must be understood as the one who is coming, not becoming. The German word Zukunft covers two different language and thought traditions, futurum and adventus. Futurum, the future participle of the Latin sum (“I am,” but deriving immediately from the perfect tense fui–“I was”), corresponds to the Greek phyw and its substantive physis, which has to do with the materialistic becoming of things in process. Adventus, on the other hand, is the Latin correlate of the Greek parousia, having to do with the arrival and entrance of persons or events. Futurum is extrapolated from processes of the past and present, whereas Zukunft is the advent of an Other, the new, which cannot be extrapolated from past or present, but breaks in with new possibilities from beyond. This distinction is confused in Moltmann’s own theology, however, for he can say:
Historical activity for the Zukunft arises from an alliance of what
man knows with what man hopes, what he can do with what he
wants to do. Therefore, it makes good sense that our word Zu
kunft encompasses extrapolation and anticipation, Futurum and
Adventus [Moltmann 1967b: 212].
The combination here of what humanity knows and hopes is a glaring demonstration of anthropocentricity in Moltmann’s theology. Gerhard Sauter sees little consequence in Moltmann’s distinction, saying, “Futurum and adventus merge indistinguishably into one another” (Sauter:131).
“From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present” (Moltmann 1967a: 16). The latencies of future pregnant in “God’s promises” and in the history of Israel pertain not to Historie, the objectified and dead past of facts, but only to Geschichte, the subjective presence and representation of the past open to possibilities for future. “The very use of the term ‘fact’ … implies a concept of being … which refuses to be combined with promise, hope and future, and therefore also with ‘history'” (Moltmann 1967:110). The Geschichte of promise, in which all the elements of Christian faith are sociologically reinterpreted (including God “with future as his mode of being,” humanity, the christological titles of Jesus, the resurrection and the parousia), is an open process which can never be completed, lest it lose openness to the future. In Moltmann’s theology, where fulfilment can never come, eschatology merely serves as a heuristic to motivate revolutionary change in the present (Otto 1991).
The Third Quest of the Historical Jesus
N. T. Wright sees himself as taking up Schweitzer’s effort to promote Jesus’ Jewish eschatology, joining forces with scepticism to confront naive traditionalism, then defeating scepticism with appropriate historical reconstruction. Wright believes a full reappraisal of the nature and place of eschatology within early Christianity is called for. He views the expectation of an imminent end of the world and subsequent disappointment as a misconception, for Jewish eschatology did not look for the end of the world, but rather the dawning of a new age. Wright advocates viewing
eschatology as the climax of Israel’s history, involving events for
which end-of-the-world language is the only set of metaphors
adequate to express the significance of what will happen, but
resulting in a new and quite different phase within space-time
history [Wright 1996: 208].
Jewish eschatology in the Second Temple period focused on the hope that the enduring significance of the Babylonian exile in foreign domination would be undone and the temple worship purified. This was most clearly evident in the Qumran community, which generally regarded itself as the true Israel and the true temple, offering spiritual sacrifices, not animal sacrifices. This community looked for the destruction of the temple and the rebuilding of a new temple, with the reign of the Sons of Light for a thousand generations. It was into this milieu of religious ferment, focused in particular on the temple and Jerusalem, that John the Baptist and Jesus came. Jesus believed himself to be the agent through whom God would restore Israel and become king; because the kingdom of God and the temple (albeit corrupted) were intertwined, it was necessary for Jesus to set himself against the temple system. Jesus staked his prophetic reputation on his claim that the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed, and with the fulfilment of this prophecy in 70 CE God showed that the three aspects of the temple’s significance, as the presence of Yahweh, the place of sacrifice, and the political center of the nation, had culminated in and been replaced by Jesus.
It was not only Jesus who would be vindicated when the Temple
fell. The Temple represented the heart of the system from which
flowed one source at least of the persecution suffered by the early
church. Its destruction would be their salvation. Mark 13 said as
much. It seems to me highly likely that one of the main early
Christian meanings of the word “salvation” had to do with
historical liberation from the great city that had been persecuting
those who transferred its claim, to be the place of YHWH’s
dwelling, on to their crucified Messiah-figure and thence on to
themselves. Granted the presence in all three synoptic gospels of
the powerful discourse of Mark 13 and parallels, most people within
the earliest Christian groups seem to have believed that their
movement was somehow bound up with Jerusalem’s coming
destruction (Wright 1992: 459-60).
I concur with Wright’s general thrust, though I think he fails to carry it through to the end. For instance, Wright says Mark 13 has nothing to do with the parousia, but makes perfect sense in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem. While true, one parallel to Mark 13, Matthew 24, makes repeated reference to the parousia (Mt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39). That there is only one parousia, is evidenced by the fact that the word is always preceded by the article when used with reference to Christ (BAGD, 630). If Mark 13 and parallels, including Matthew 24, portray the destruction of Jerusalem, and Matthew 24:34 speaks of the parousia and all else being fulfilled within Jesus’ generation, it seems cavalier of Wright to say, “The old scholarly warhorse of the ‘delay of the parousia’ has had its day at last, and can be put out to grass once and for all.” How is this so? “The motif of delay (‘how long, O Lord, how long?’) was already well established in Judaism, and is hardly a Christian innovation, as is often imagined” (Wright 1992: 462). This is true, which is precisely the reason generally given for the rise of apocalyptic, as a form of theodicy (Frost: 7; Reddish: 20). Wright observes that the church expected certain things to happen, and happen they did in the destruction of Jerusalem, but there is clearly an expectation in the New Testament of the parousia occurring imminently. Wright can say, “There is no sign of dismay, in any of the literature that has come down to us from the period after AD 70,” but this is not surprising, given the ability of Christians down through the ages to rationalize what they believed regarding the non-occurrence of the parousia. Festinger et al. termed this “cognitive dissonance,” maintaining that “the dissonance would be largely eliminated if they [adherents of a particular belief system] discarded the belief that had been disconfirmed, ceased the behavior which had been initiated in preparation for the fulfillment of the prediction, and returned to a more usual existence” But “frequently the behavioral commitment to the belief system is so strong that almost any other course of action is preferable. It may even be less painful to tolerate the dissonance than to discard the belief and admit one had been wrong” (Festinger et al.: 49).
Wright’s assertion that “there is no suggestion that the Lord’s return must happen within a generation” (1992: 463) is utterly bewildering in view of Mark 13:30: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Wright refers Mark 13 only to the destruction of Jerusalem, with which I agree, but the parallel in Matthew 24, which refers repeatedly to the parousia, must also refer to that event. If, as Wright maintains, Paul created the second coming idea, one which Jesus never predicted, and Paul did expect the parousia within his own lifetime and the lifetime of the first-century church, should he still be believed? How can the second coming still be considered “a vital doctrine” yet to come in “some future event” resulting “in the personal presence of Jesus within God’s new creation” (Wright 2001 : 8), if the timing of this event has been disproven historically? If, on the other hand, Jesus’ parousia expectation was fulfilled in the destruction of the temple, why suppose Paul innovated a different parousia expectation pervading the entire New Testament?
Classical theology has the most at stake regarding the problem of eschatology and the delay of the parousia. This is because orthodoxy refuses the possibility that Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God, was mistaken as to his coming again. This also applies to the prophets and apostles who, as the inspired writers of Scripture, spoke the very words of God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). The fundamentalist movement emerging from the 1920s strongly emphasized the imminent second coming of Christ as well as the inerrancy of Scripture, holding both as “fundamental doctrines” despite their apparent tension. An intellectual crisis stemming from evolutionary theory, the rise of biblical criticism, and the new social sciences combined with the socio-economic issues surrounding the rise of the city after the Civil War and rapid industrialization, cast doubt upon traditional theological views. The reaction spawned a recrudescence of adventism, most notably in the respective movements led by William Miller in the 1840s and John N. Darby in the 1880s accenting the imminency of Christ’s second coming. Puritan and Princeton postmillennialism gave way to premillennialism, particularly that associated with dispensationalism, which predominates among fundamentalists to this day, as is seen in the extraordinary sales of the LaHaye LEFT BEHIND series.
How have fundamentalism and evangelicalism maintained belief in the inerrancy of Scripture while at the same time affirming the imminent coming of Christ? Fundamentalism, here distinguished by its adherence to dispensationalism, has generally maintained an ahistoricality regarding the grammar and milieu of New Testament adventism to such an extent that ancient Old Testament battles with ancient weapons, such as horses, clubs, swords, and spears, are turned into impending battles with modern weaponry, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-equipped MiG fighters. This “total disregard for the historical meaning” (Hanson: 55) of the biblical texts is accomplished while insisting on the centrality of literal interpretation! The contemporaneity of the biblical text here rivals the existentialism of Bultmann and the early Barth in the revivalistic call for decision in the moment of crisis.
Evangelicalism, here distinguished by greater sensitivity to grammatical and historical exegesis, has utilized several hermeneutical devices to salvage simultaneously the veracity of Scripture (though not necessarily its inerrancy) and the future parousia of Christ. Some have endeavored to divide the Olivet Discourse into that which is fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and that which is to take place at the end of the world (Turner: 3-27). This falters on several grounds. First, it is generally acknowledged that Mark 13 has to do with the destruction of Jerusalem; if, then, Matthew 24 is parallel, its mention of the parousia should be understood in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem, as well. In Matthew 24:3, the disciples’ question, “What will be the sign of your parousia and end of the age?” grammatically (Strong’s rule) has to do with the same event, the destruction of the temple, clarifying when what Jesus had said regarding the stones of the temple all being thrown down would happen (24:2).
The two events of both the end of the age and the end of the temple
are totally interlocked by the author of Matthew…. The
attempt to drive a wedge between Matthew 24:2 (understood as
eschatological time until the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE) and 24:3
viewed as a reference to the future sign of the parousia and the
end of the age [is] … not warranted by the text [McNicoll: 75].
The effort to divide the discourse into the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and some far-off destruction of the world has failed to produce a common place of division within the discourse. Indeed, a comparison of Matthew 24 and Luke 17 demonstrates that events which are oft placed in the future, such as Matthew 24:37-41, are in Luke 17 placed before events said by interpreters of Matthew 24 to be part of the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 17:26-27, 35-36, placed before events in Matthew 24 associated with Jerusalem, i.e., Matthew 24:17-18 parallel to Luke 17:31, Matthew 24:28 parallel to Luke 17:37). In other words, if Matthew 24:34 is used as a division between immediate and distant occurrences, events itemized in Matthew 24 as 1-2-3–associated with the destruction of Jerusalem; and 4-5–associated with the end of the world–are reordered in Luke 17 as 2-4-1-5-3, leading us to conclude that Luke did not see any division, and heightening the likelihood that Matthew did not either. Finally, a common suggestion that the parousia spoken of in Matthew 24:3, 27 is a spiritual and invisible coming of Christ in the destruction of Jerusalem typical of a physical and visible coming of Christ at the end of the world violates the concept of a type, since a type is an historical occurrence that foreshadows a present or future occurrence, particularly related to Christ (Wright 1992: 381). A future event to the writers of the Gospels, such as the destruction of Jerusalem, cannot be a type of another future event, the end of the world. Despite the “uncritical dogmatism in New Testament studies” “that the Synoptic Gospels should be dated after the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70 because they contain prophecies ex eventu of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70,” Bo Reicke has shown that the lack of correspondence in the Synoptic predictions to what is known to have occurred in the destruction of Jerusalem indicates “a prewar date is more plausible” (Reicke: 121).
Finally, many evangelical and conservative interpreters invoke a hermeneutical device called “prophetic perspective,” whereby, it is said, the prophets merged immediate events with those far away, as the distances between great mountain peaks appear indistinguishable. I have attempted elsewhere to demonstrate this to be an invalid hermeneutical device that ignores the prophets’ strong interest and concern for the timing of what they said, since there were at stake both their prophetic character and immediate events requiring a word from the Lord. Whereas Stephen Smalley, for instance, finds in G. B. Caird’s suggestion of this “stereoscopic vision” “an important principle to have in mind when looking at the eschatology of Paul,” seeing in it “help to unify the Pauline outlook in general” and “to account for the continuing effects of the tension between the imminent and delayed parousia” (Smalley: 53), we would take it to be largely a case of special pleading. Similarly, Geddert’s “agnosticized” use of prophetic perspective, in which “the two events [the destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia] might, but need not, be considered as one,” i.e., “the disciples’ linking of the two events in [Mark] 13.4 can be neither affirmed nor denied” (Geddert: 234), makes Jesus sound more like a modern lawyer seeking to preserve a client’s reputation than a prophet speaking words of warning to the exigencies of his day. “‘Prophetic perspective’ does not derive from biblical exegesis but from apologetic commitments that seek to validate the future fulfillment of specific predictions that were either not fulfilled within the prophet’s lifetime or not fulfilled to the interpreter’s expectation” (Otto 2001 : 220-21).
Much the same can be said of the “already/not yet” schema so prominent particularly in Dutch Reformed thought, perhaps due to the influence of Geerhardus Vos (Beale: 20). In Hoekema’s view, for instance, this tension is “what specifically characterizes New Testament eschatology,” making it “impossible to understand New Testament eschatology apart from this tension” (Hoekema: 68). It cannot be denied that there is an “already/not yet” tension in the New Testament, but this exists precisely because the culminating events associated with the parousia and the coming of the kingdom were viewed by the New Testament writers as imminent in time. Although “imminence” is a word inherently related to “nearness in time,” the relationship of “imminence” to “time” must be emphasized because there are some for whom imminence and time appear disconnected. For instance, while Cranfield can say, “insistence on the nearness of the end, on the shortness of the time which remains, is characteristic of the NT as a whole,” he can equally (and oppositely!) assert, “It was not a matter of Jesus’, or of the early Church’s, confidently expecting that the end would necessarily occur within a very short time, but of the clear recognition of the ministry-death-resurrection-ascension of Jesus as the decisive event of history” (Cranfield 1982: 510). If always means “all the time” and imminent means “about to happen in a short time,” it is a meaningless contradiction in terms for Cranfield to say the parousia can “always be imminent” (Cranfield 1977: 683).
For others, such as Ben Witherington, “the key” to unraveling Paul’s eschatology is to jettison “the paradigm of imminence-delay” and talk instead of “already and not yet, as Paul himself does.” This, however, appears to be largely a semantic maneuver intended to avoid (however unsuccessfully) uncomfortable terms, for as Witherington next says, “Fervency comes from the confidence in the certainty of and, to a lesser degree, from the possible imminence of Christ’s return” (Witherington: 182). Witherington’s assertion that fervency and confidence derive from the delay of the parousia is a coping mechanism caused by the dissonance Festinger et al. analyzed; Witherington’s use of it lends some validity to Festinger’s thesis (31) of “increased fervor following the disconfirmation of a belief. Instead of reexamining the disconfirmed belief and its basis, Witherington and many others in the religious realm attempt to convince others of the validity of their rationalization and its value (for certainty of faith and fervency of witness, e.g.), though comparable disconfirmation in any other realm of life would fail to exert the same effect. When, for example, we see a sign on a lot saying a favorite department store will be built there and “is coming soon,” we expect to see it within a period of time justifiably called “soon,” say within a year or two (barring construction, financing, or zoning delays which would then be publicly acknowledged as causing delay and mitigating the imminent expectation). If, on the other hand, the sign remains saying the store “is coming soon,” but no activity takes place there over the years, is our confidence and excitement (i.e., fervor) about its opening heightened? Of course not! We lose interest and expect nothing to happen. Certainty and fervor do not justifiably derive from delay; rather, assertions of such are mechanisms for coping with a religious belief that has been shown to be mistaken.
The attempt to extend this “already/not” idea beyond the time constraints of the New Testament to centuries and millennia cannot be considered in keeping either with authorial intention or with the demands of grammatical-historical exegesis. It is not meaningful. Cullmann maintains that God chooses “periods of time for the realization of his plan of salvation, and does so in such a way that the joining of them in the light of his plan forms a meaningful time line” (Cullmann: 44). Yet, having asserted that “the basic presuppositions of all New Testament theology” are “the New Testament conception of time and history” (26), Cullmann then appears to dismiss history altogether, suggesting that “the entire complex of questions concerning the expectation of the imminent end and the delay of the Parousia” possesses importance only “from a psychological point of view, but not in its theological bearing” (89-90). The correlation in language here between Cullmann, whose work is readily accepted by evangelicals, and Fuchs, whose existentialism is largely dismissed, should not be overlooked. Cullmann goes on, saying,
Narratives concerning the origin and the end of the entire
process are only prophecy, inasmuch as objectively they are only
the object of revelation and subjectively only the object of faith.
A confirmation through human historical determination of the facts
is not possible here .
History, the realm of factuality in which we all live, here appears to give way to something more akin to the theological view of history known as Geschichte, in which there is no possibility of factuality or historical validation, it being a psychologized, existential realm in which the individual arrives at the fulness of meaning. Cullmann’s perspective devolves into a view of salvation history not far from what most conservatives deplored in Barth and Bultmann.
Furthermore, Cullmann’s famous analogy from World War II, in which the decisive battle Christ fought on the cross is compared to D-Day, with the enemy’s defeat guaranteed in the VE-Day second coming of Christ, between which there remain many battles for the church, cannot bear the weight that has been placed upon it by apologists for a still future advent. If anything, his analogy requires an imminent coming of Christ in time and does nothing to justify its ongoing delay. As Berkouwer observes,
The longer one reflects on Cullmann’s analogy, the less convincing
it becomes. On D-Day the strength of the Allied military
position was apparent to all. It was from this position of strength
that the people took course. But the certainty of ultimate victory,
which is the focal point of the analogy, was still very much in
question [Berkouwer: 75].
It was because Victory in Europe Day (VE-Day) occurred on May 8, 1945, less than a year after D-Day (June 6, 1944), that D-Day could be said to have been so decisive. If VE-Day had not occurred, which is what those looking for a future advent admit is true of Christ’s second advent, or had not occurred for hundreds or thousands of years, would anyone have considered D-Day in any way decisive? The decisiveness of a battle owes in large part to the swirl conclusion of the war, not its prolongation and apparent interminability. Cullmann’s analogy appears under closer scrutiny to be yet another coping mechanism offered by sufferers of cognitive dissonance to justify a belief that has failed historical confirmation. Klaus Koch has rightly said,
Where New Testament scholars expound the dialectical formula
“now already–not yet,” they do so in such varying ways, and the
interpretations correspond so closely to the respective private
theologies of the commentators themselves, that from this angle
the formula itself becomes a dubious one [Koch: 70-71].
Clarifying Eschatology and Diffusing Delay
Eschatology “refers to a time in the future when the course of history will be changed to such an extent that one can speak of an entirely new state of reality” (Peterson: 575). “Such assertions are eschatological which point to a future in which the relations of history, i.e., the world, are so transformed that one can speak of a new condition of things, of something ‘entirely different'” (Lindblom: 32; cf. also Schreiner: 206; Dingermann: 229).
While the emergence of apocalyptic produces a shift in accent from prophetic eschatology, “the difference is more one of degree than of kind (Hill: 64). Because the roots of apocalyptic are in the exilic and post-exilic prophets themselves, “the biblical prophets anticipated a future much like” that of the apocalyptists (ibid.). That future is focused on God’s relationship in history with his people embodied in a remnant which finds its security and peace, not in the temple and Jerusalem but in faithful obedience to God himself as he was revealed “in these last days…. by his Son” (Heb. 1:2) and constitutes in himself a new temple and center of identity.
As the “center” of Old Testament eschatology is Jerusalem (Gowan: 3), so Jerusalem persists in the New Testament as the key eschatological concern (Walker). In particular, “the question of Jesus and the Temple” belongs “at the centre of the agenda” (Wright 1996: 405). As Wright and others have rightly noted, the destruction of Jerusalem and the restoration of Israel from spiritual exile through his cross become the primary focus of Jesus’ life and ministry. Moreover, just as Jesus staked his prophetic reputation on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as God’s judgment on unbelief, the cessation of the old covenant system and his vindication as the mediator of a new and better covenant (Heb. 8:6-13), Pauline eschatology (and that of the rest of the New Testament) should be viewed as having the same focus, derived from Jesus. What Rigaux said of Paul applies equally to the other apostles and writers of Scripture: “It is not possible for the apostle that the teaching of Jesus should not be the primary source of his preaching” (105). If Jesus’ focus and prophetic reputation had to do with the events of 66-70 CE, the same should be true for the apostles and writers of Scripture. If they are prophets whose eschatological assertions are to be believed, there must be historical validation within the constraints of authorial intention and grammatical-historical bounds. “Prophecy demands to be tested by events” (Wright 1996: 324). This was true in the Old Testament and remains true in the New.
The belief that God “has acted climactically, and not merely paradigmatically, in Jesus of Nazareth” “will drive the Christian to history, as a hypothesis drives the scientist to the modifications and adaptations necessary if the hypothesis is to stand the test of reality” (Wright 1992: 136). Theology has often “used eschatology to move into speculations about a virtual reality, something that science will not readily accept. In this way, theologians have tried to immune their claim from the judgment of the sciences” (Polkinghorne & Welker: 2). Ridderbos’s assertion: “The meaning of history … is not to start from the ‘problem of the delay of the parousia,’ but rather from this all-embracing motif of fulfillment” (496) evinces a petitio principii and fideism that is not allowed in any other science. There can be no assumption of fulfillment. There must be verification of fulfillment within the constraints of authorial intention and grammatical-historical bounds; without such verification, the hypothesis is empty.
Let us briefly consider some objections. What of the visibility of Christ at his parousia? Since I have already dealt with this elsewhere (Otto 1994), I confine myself here to a syllogism: if it is impossible for any mortal to see God in his glory and live (Exod 33:20), and if Christ comes in the glory of the Father (Mark 8:38), having resumed his pre-incarnate glory (John 17:5), then it is impossible for anyone to behold Christ at his second coming and live apart from the veil of clouds on which he is said to descend, whether personally or instrumentally. The clouds thus serve to veil the divine glory, which no human can see, as in other theophanies. Luke 21:27 says, “They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” when Jerusalem is trampled on by the Gentiles in the Roman siege. Eusebius, associating Luke 21:27 with the Roman razing of Jerusalem, adds from Josephus the extraordinary signs preceding the war, including a star in the form of a sword and a comet over the city for a year, as well as a light that shone so brightly around the altar and temple one night that it seemed to be day, and a vision of chariots and armed troops seen in mid-air, wheeling through the clouds and encircling the cities (HIST. ECCL. III, 7-8). These and other signs, some less than credible, suffice for the visible aspect of Christ’s coming.
What of its purported universality? Matthew 24:30 says, “All the nations of the earth will mourn” when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with power and great glory. It is not possible, even with contemporary nano-second technological media, for everyone everywhere to see any one event at any one time. Clearly, this is hyperbole accenting the significance of an event limited to the area surrounding Jerusalem. “All the nations of the earth” may be translated “All the tribes of the land,” an interpretation more in keeping with Revelation 1:7, which qualifies “every eye will see him” by “those who pierced him,” i.e., the Jews (and Romans) who had Jesus put to death. Again, Jesus’ statement to the high priest Caiaphas at his trial, “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62), can be satisfied only by his having “seen” Christ’s coming in the judgment of God upon the temple. The parousia, viewed as coterminous with the destruction of the temple, is thus not a universal event, but a local event with universal significance.
How does the destruction of the temple have universal significance? Some have said Wright’s emphasis on the destruction of Jerusalem “reduces Jesus’ victory to a relatively small-scale destructive act, which coheres very little with any idea of the revelation of God’s glory” (Snodgrass: 63). Another objects that
cosmic problems … demand cosmic solutions, wherein the very
structure of the world and its history, as it has hitherto been
known, must be clone away with, and a new cosmic structural (not
merely historical-political) order set in its place [Eddy: 47-48].
The objection that Jesus’ coming in the destruction of Jerusalem seems “small scale” and insufficiently “cosmic,” must also stand, it would seem, against Jesus’ death on a cross. Paul, however, can speak in cosmic terms of Jesus’ death as reconciling to God “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col 1:20) and of his “having disarmed the powers and authorities” in “triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Furthermore, prophetic descriptions of the siege or destruction of Jerusalem in the Old Testament as “the end” (Amos 8:2; Jer 5:31 ; 50:17; Ezek 7:2, 3, 6, e.g.) indicate an “end” within history, such as occurred when God judged the generation that crucified Jesus in the destruction of its temple. If “the Temple is the epitome of the world, a concentrated form of its essence, a miniature cosmos” (Levenson: 138) and if “the destruction of Zion [in 586 BCE] was not merely a national tragedy for Judah but an event of cosmic significance” (Hoppe: 38-39), then God’s judgment on the temple in vindication of the new covenant may indeed be viewed as having cosmic significance.
If the return from Babylonian exile was the beginning of a new age and the “day of the Lord” opened a new era on earth because it pointed to the triumph of Yahweh, how much more the return from exile in sin and the day of the Lord’s vengeance upon the world of sin. “The judgment [of 586 BCE] does not mean the end [of time], but rather a turn of universal proportions to a transformed existence as a new heaven and new earth (Isa 65:17; 66:22)” (Gross: 225). It speaks of “the intervention of Yahweh in great acts of judgment (= “day of Yahweh”) in which only a part of the people, a remnant, will remain. Following from the total falsity of the present way, life in this final dominion of Yahweh, as something entirely new and very different from previous existence, is introduced according to Yahweh’s will by a special representative of Yahweh (“messiah”) (Schunk: 467). The wealth of nations will pour into Israel (Isa 60:5-17), the Gentiles will come to Zion to join in worshiping God (Isa 60:3; 66:18-20), all of which is accomplished in Christ and his new temple, the church.
“What is so important about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE that qualifies it as the vindication of the Son of Man as opposed to the destruction in 586 BCE or 135 CE?” (Eddy: 63). It is, simply stated, the hypothesis that best satisfies the data.
If it would assume status as a science, theology must accept a rigorous demand for publicly warranted truth claims. Otherwise, existentialized eschatology reduces to a cipher of inner self-consciousness, while the rationalizations of the cognitively dissonant reduce to further instances of petitio principii and fideism, incapable of falsification or validation. The fundamental problem with eschatology is that it has dehistoricized and atemporalized the New Testament data. Eschatological claims require historical validation to be considered true.
Brandon lamented a half-century ago the “curious neglect scholars have shown towards the subject of the significance of the destruction of Jerusalem for the infant Christian Church” (x). Work done in the nineteenth century by J. S. Russell (reprinted in 1983), Milton Terry (reprinted in 1988), and, more recently, J. A. T. Robinson (1976), now continues in Wright and others to clarify the fundamental significance of the destruction of the temple for the vindication of New Testament eschatological claims, particularly those of Jesus, and the validation of the church as the remnant and kingdom of God. Biblical theology must engage in a renewed effort to demonstrate the significance of the destruction of Jerusalem to New Testament eschatology in order to make its eschatological claims valid and meaningful. The parallels between the Old and New Testaments in the historical scope and temporal delimitation of terms like “end” and concepts like “day of the Lord” as they pertain to Jerusalem and the temple beckon closer scholarly attention for their impact on Jewish and Christian eschatological claims. If biblical eschatology is to be taken seriously, biblical theology must move beyond dehistoricized and atemporalized statements having nebulous meaning to falsifiable assertions of publicly warranted truth claims having real impact upon real people living in the real time and real history to which they were spoken. The Roman destruction of the Jewish temple in the Jewish war of 66-70 CE alone satisfies the temporal requirements for the imminency of the parousia and the historical requirements for the transformation of relations wrought by God ushering in a new reality of the church as the kingdom of God.
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Randall Otto, Ph.D. (Westminster Theological Seminary) is affiliate faculty in religion and philosophy at Southwestern College, Professional Studies Division, 2040 S. Rock Road, Wichita, KS 67207 (email@example.com). This article, together with other work he has published in this area, will comprise portions of a forthcoming book entitled WAITING FOR HIS COMING: PROPHECY AND PAROUSIA IN PAUL’S THESSALONIAN CORRESPONDENCE.
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