“He who does not long for heaven estranges himself from God; for the forward movement of God’s work, the unfolding of all history, impels us toward heaven. He also estranges himself from human fellowship in its perfection; for it is in heaven that humanity will come to the perfection of beauty. Do you seek a perfect man? Seek him in heaven, beyond the purifying catastrophe of the last day.” (Klaas Schilder, Heaven: What Is It?)
Category: Eschatological Prospects
“The world is made to go somewhere, to prosper toward its end. It has a destiny, promised and embodied in Christ. Its present beauty and glory are not to be worshiped but to be valued as foretastes of the coming glory of God. Indeed, the poignancy of nature’s beauty, the fact that its glory is so interlaced with transience (how we long to say to the sunset, ‘Hold it right there!’) can serve to remind us of just this. Creation awaits an end not yet given. Its present beauty is wonderful but not final.” (Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth, p. 196)
I was recently asked by a local newspaper to submit an Easter message for readers. What follows emerged from some pondering of Acts 17:30–31.
Tim Hill’s Hop is topping movie charts as we enter this season: can Easter in all its confectionary glory be saved? I couldn’t say what the world would be like without our friend the bunny, but as a Christian, I’m deeply interested in the question: what would the world be like without the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
To put this question in perspective, it helps to think about how totally disruptive Jesus’ resurrection really was. People die every day and don’t come back. We think it’s normal. We grieve, but there’s no stopping it, we think. And unless someone rises from the dead, dying is normal. It’s as normal as living, no better and no worse. It’s just part of how things are. It happens.
Jesus’ resurrection blows this all to pieces. In raising Jesus from the dead, God pronounced judgment on death. He announced to the world that death isn’t normal; it’s not how it’s supposed to be. It’s something terribly wrong with the world. It needs to be fixed.
But if, by raising Jesus, God judged our existence as we experience it in the world, if He delivered a verdict on our living and dying, He also announced something else: there’s a way things are supposed to be in this world, and there’s a way things aren’t supposed to be. “What is” doesn’t simply equal “what’s right.”
We may resent this judgment, we may think we’re perfectly competent to decide for ourselves how things ought to be – but there stands the resurrection of Jesus, in which God declares His judgment on our living and dying. Lots of people refuse to look this squarely in the face. Many simply deny the resurrection, little realizing that in doing so they are rejecting God’s judgment on our existence; and that, in rejecting God’s judgment, they are also rejecting any ultimate basis (beyond human preferences) for distinguishing “what is” (life and death) from “what ought to be” (life, not death). All that’s left is “what is”; there’s no objective basis for calling one thing “good” and another “evil.” Everything just happens. Whatever is (death, evil, suffering, etc.) is “normal” – and one “normal” thing is as “good” as the next. This would be our world without the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But Christ has risen! and why would we reject God’s verdict on our living and dying in His resurrection? It’s a verdict that promises life! It’s an announcement of grace: it tells us that the tragedy of death can be swallowed up in the everlasting comedy of life restored, and that Jesus is the Way to that life. We can live forever, body and soul, through Jesus; through Him, and no one else, God will finally put all things right. Jesus’ death was God’s judgment on human sin (“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree”); His resurrection was God’s judgment on death, and it stands as the promise that anyone who believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. These are the alternatives: embrace God’s verdict on our living and dying, and trust in the resurrected Jesus; or accept a world in which everything is normal. We should be thankful that, because Jesus is risen, this second alternative has forever been rendered an illusion.
“The most serious error in much of the current ‘prophetic’ teaching of today is the claim that the future of Christendom is to be read not in terms of Revival and Victory, but of growing impotence and apostasy, and that the only hope of the world is that the Lord will by His visible coming and reign complete the task which He has so plainly entrusted to the church. This claim is rendered formidable and persuasive by the all too obvious fact of the past failures and present feebleness of the church. But it is pessimistic and defeatist. I hold it to be unscriptural. The language of the Great Commission is world-embracing; and it has back of it the authority and power of One who said: ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations.’ The duty of the church is to address herself to the achieving of this task in anticipation of her Lord’s coming, and not to expect Him to call her away to glory before her task is accomplished.” (Oswald T. Allis, a founder of Westminster Theological Seminary)
A significant “stumbling block” in interpreting the New Testament is the apparent expectation of Christ and His apostles that He would “come” in judgment in the near future. Jesus, for instance, tells His disciples, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt 16:28). He tells His disciples during the Olivet Discourse, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt 24:34). He says to the Sanhedrin at His trial, “From now on you [all] will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64). Then there is a rather cryptic word about the beloved disciple that generates all kinds of gossip: “If it is My will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (Jn 21:22).
Paul in writing to the Romans says, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand” (Rom 13:11–12). To Corinth he writes, “The present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). Writing to Thessalonica, he seems to think the “Day of the Lord” will shortly come like a thief at night, but assures the church they will not be surprised, for they are children of light and know the times and seasons (1 Thes 5:1–11). Later, he assures them that Christ is coming to be glorified in His saints, and prays that Christ may be glorified in them (2 Thes 1:10, 12), even as he puts their minds at rest that the Day has not yet come (2 Thes 2:2). This sense of imminence was so strong in the early church that some even taught, heretically, that the resurrection was already past (2 Tim 2:17).
The writer of Hebrews, likewise, believes a “shaking” of heaven and earth is about to occur that will remove all shakable things (Heb 12:26–27). Peter is very strong: “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Pt 4:7), and judgment is about to begin that bodes very ill for those who do not obey the gospel of God (1 Pt 4:17; given the similarity of language, this likely refers to the same event as 2 Thes 1:7–8). In his second letter, since time is passing, he must reassure his readers that he and the other apostles “did not follow cleverly devised myths” when they made known “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pt 1:16); and he must answer what seemed at that time a plausible objection by certain scoffers – “Where is the promise of His coming?” This objection almost certainly derived plausibility precisely from apostolic teaching concerning the imminent “coming” of Christ. So what are we to make of all this?
In the face of the evidence, two solutions have been proposed. The liberal “solution” is simply to say Jesus and His apostles got it wrong: they misjudged the timing of His coming in judgment. A popular conservative “solution” is to try to find a way to reinterpret the imminence in the various statements cited above, so they can be read to allow for the thousands of years that have actually elapsed since Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father.
There is, it seems to me, another and far more straightforward solution: that Jesus taught His disciples to expect His “coming” in power and glory within their own generation, distinct from His final coming to judge the living and the dead and to deliver the kingdom up to the Father at the end of history. What possible exegetical grounds might exist for such a solution?
When Jesus predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (Lk 21:6), His hearers were moved to ask when this would occur. Jesus answered simply that there would be “wars and tumults” and deceptions about “the time” of His coming, but “the end” would not be at once (Lk 21:8–9). In what followed He explained this in some detail: His disciples would go through a difficult period in which they would be persecuted and imprisoned and brought before kings (one immediately thinks of the stories in Acts); and by their endurance they would gain their lives (Lk 21:10–19). But then a time would come when they would “see Jerusalem surrounded by armies” – the time of its “desolation” (Lk 21:20). This would be a season of “great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people [the unbelieving Jewish nation]” (Lk 21:21–24). What follows is remarkable apocalyptic imagery:
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Three things should give us pause before we refer this section to something other than the ruin of Jerusalem. First, there is little or no indication that Jesus has suddenly started talking about some period of history other than the one He has just been describing. Second, He says that when these events take place “the kingdom of God is near” (Lk 21:31) – thus situating these events near the beginning of the kingdom of God, of which He Himself claims (elsewhere) to be the inaugurator. Third, though it is much debated, He does say quite plainly in verse 32, “This generation will not pass away until all has taken place.”
Did Jesus’ messianic judgment upon Jerusalem, in fulfillment of His own prophecies, qualify as a “coming” in power and glory and a “shaking” of the powers of heaven? Much more exegetical data would have to be sifted through, but Jesus’ Olivet Discourse as recorded in Luke suggests a strongly positive answer; and this, in turn, would make perfect sense of the apostolic intimations that Christ was coming soon to take vengeance publicly on His unbelieving adversaries.
In 1929, The Princeton Theological Review published an essay by Geerhardus Vos entitled, “The Structure of the Pauline Eschatology” (available here). One can hardly overstate the importance and influence of this essay, the central insight of which was that while Jewish and Old Testament eschatology were organized on a “scheme of successiveness” (one age of history being followed by another, the messianic age), by a “gradual transition” a new eschatological structure emerged in the apostolic writings (notably those of Paul). On one hand, the venerable scheme of two ages continued, only now the age of Messiah “unfolded itself into two successive epochs.” That is, the Old Testament expectations regarding the age of Messiah had (in light of what actually happened when Jesus came) to be understood as unfolding in two stages: one present, another still to come. In Vos’ own words:
“The scheme of successiveness had not been entirely abrogated but simply been reapplied to the latter half of the original scheme: the age to come [described in the Old Testament] was perceived to bear in its womb another age to come, so that with reference to the mother and the as yet unborn child, as it were, the category of what is and what is to be not only could, but had to be retained.”
But this apostolic revision of the ancient scheme of successiveness did not end the matter. Also a truly new element – and a deeply complicating one – emerged in Paul’s eschatological structure. For him, eschatology was not simply a matter of two ages, one following upon another. It was as well a matter of two worlds, or two states, which may (unlike successive ages) exist side by side, so that it is possible for a person to belong to both at once (though, as Vos says, “preeminently to one rather than to the other”). In Christ, it is not simply that believers have entered into the future age; perhaps even more importantly, they have entered the higher world. The focus for Paul is as much “spatial” as “temporal”: we are now in the world of heaven above, and it is around this fact that Paul’s eschatology is organized. Vos once again:
“What was logically impossible [the contemporaneous existence of two successive ages] became practically unavoidable through the shifting of the center of gravity from the lower to the higher sphere, as brought about by the removal of the Messiah to the higher world and his abiding there in permanence.”
It is in this way, says Vos, that the realities of the future age can be already present – because the new world is “above” (heavenly), it can intrude in all sorts of ways into the present age, while as a historical-chronological matter it remains future, following Messiah’s second coming. (Readers should look at page 440 in the PTR article reference above, to see how Vos diagrams this.)
Believers, then, are “in principle” in heaven; their citizenship is presently in the world above, for Christ is in heaven and they are “in Christ.” Precisely because this is the case, they yearn eagerly for the “second stage” of the age of Messiah, when He returns to consummate the new heavens and the new earth. They are fixed upon that which is historically future, because they are located presently in the world above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God.
That Vos has provided us with valuable, even brilliant, insights into the structure of the Pauline eschatology is beyond question. Every serious student of scripture should wrestle with and digest his essay. There remain however, some troubling questions, and it is clear from the way Vos ends his essay that he himself felt some of these. Two in particular stand out: (1) Is there a danger here of devaluing the “lower” world as God’s good creation, as His designed habitat for mankind, and as the theater of His redemptive work? (2) Is there a danger here of devaluing the “present stage” of Messiah’s reign, in that most of the content of the Old Testament messianic “visions” must be deferred to the “second stage,” after He returns (e.g., kings and nations paying homage to Him)?
If Vos were still alive to ask, he might well respond, “If I have correctly interpreted the apostolic writings, you will have to take up these questions with the apostles themselves”! The real issue is what the apostles said, however much it might perplex us. I would like to explore in another post whether other data in the apostolic writings might qualify Vos’ proposed structure, but it is only fair to point out, first, that he himself saw no dualism in his interpretation of Paul:
“Notwithstanding a certain formal resemblance in the two-sidedness of the Christian life [in heaven, upon earth], it stands at a far remove from Greek philosophical dualism. Its very genesis forbids identification with this even to the slightest degree. It mother-soil lies in eschatological revelation, not in metaphysical speculation.”
As to whether his interpretation leaves Paul without a very robust set of expectations regarding the present transforming effects of the gospel in nations, cultures, and institutions – i.e., whether he has Paul’s hope so rigorously fixed upon the future parousia that we are left to wonder about other, more this-worldly concerns articulated by the apostle – Vos offers this cryptic conclusion:
“What is usually charged against the age of Constantine and the rise of Protestantism would actually have its root in a Pauline Hellenizing speculation, which under the guise of directing to heaven would have in its actual effect meant a worldly recurrence from the future upon the present. There is nothing of this in the Apostle’s intent: the Christian has only his members upon earth, which are to be mortified; himself, and as a whole, he belongs to the high mountain-land above, Col. iii. 5.”
I generally despise this kind of psychologizing, but one muses whether Vos’ disparagement here of certain this-worldly projects in historical Christendom might have arisen from reaction to the rise of liberalism in North American Presbyterianism. It is worth noting that the “Presbyterian Conflict” reached a fever pitch at Princeton in the very year Vos published this essay.
Many of us, I think, if we were honest, would have to admit we aren’t quite sure how to interpret a lot of what is described in the Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation. I want in this post to offer a few interpretive helps, admitting up front that this is a sketch that calls for further study and reflection, and also that what I am offering is not original with me.
Here is an excerpt from the Olivet Discourse that has puzzled a lot of us (Jesus is speaking):
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:29–35)
Now here’s the phrase that tends to make us think Jesus is talking about His second coming, His return to earth at the end of history: “and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30b). When we think of the “coming” of Christ, we naturally think of the second coming. Recently, however, I read something which proposed that this language of “coming on the clouds of heaven” refers not to Christ’s coming down or coming back but rather to His going up, to His ascension. Is it possible that what Jesus is describing here is some visible manifestation (“they will see”) of His having ascended to the right hand of God the Father?
Two things we should look at, one in the immediate context, the other in the canonical context. In the immediate context, Jesus is speaking about “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (Matt 24:15). If you are a Dispensationalist, you immediately think of the arrival of the Antichrist, which is to occur in connection with the “great tribulation,” which will occur before (or after, or all around, depending on what sort of Dispensationalist you are) the “rapture” of the church. In short, the “abomination of desolation” is a future event located near the end of the church age and the beginning of the so-called “millennial kingdom.”
The problem with this Dispensationalist view (and hopefully I have been fair in representing it) is that it fails to take account of the parallel passage in Luke 21:20, which says this: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near.” What in one gospel Jesus refers to as the “abomination of desolation,” He refers to in another gospel as the siege of Jerusalem by armies. Reading the Matthew text in connection with Luke, then, we need to understand that the “tribulation” referred to in Matthew 24:29 is the tribulation of the Jews during the destruction of their holy city.
It is after this tribulation that the “sign of the Son of Man” will become visible: “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30), and then the Son of Man will send out His angels to gather His elect “from the four winds” (verse 31). What appears to be occurring is this: the ascension of Messiah will somehow be made publicly visible to the Jews, and then the gospel age will begin wherein Messiah gathers His people from under the whole heaven.
But we need something from the canonical (larger biblical) context to make this clear, and Jesus has already told us where to look by referencing “the prophet Daniel” in verse 15. Let’s go there.
Jesus’ referring to Himself as “the Son of Man” takes us back to Daniel 7, where “one like a son of man” comes before the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:13). When he is presented, “to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:14). We know this is referring to the ascension of Messiah to the throne of God, when He is seated on the holy hill of Zion, there to reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. But what is especially interesting, for our purposes, is that Messiah comes “with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13). In other words, His “coming” is not down to us but up to God, and what is being described is not return to earth but ascension to the right hand of the Father.
This helps us understand why Jesus could say, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt 24:34). He would, indeed, ascend to the Father and visit public judgment on unbelieving Jerusalem before the end of that generation. It also helps us make sense of some other passages, for example, where Jesus says to the Sanhedrin at His trial, “From now on you all [the second person pronoun here is plural] will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64). The Jewish nation, and particularly their leaders, would indeed see the visible evidence that Jesus was the ascended, reigning Christ; this would occur at the destruction of their beloved city, a destruction Jesus had Himself prophesied. We also gain some insight into Revelation 1:7; and this, in turn, opens up the possibility that references in that book to Jesus’ “coming” may be primarily oriented toward the desolation of Jerusalem and the end of the old (first Adam) age of the world.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to be done with these lines of interpretation. Their implications are rather immense for our understanding of both Old and New Covenant prophecy.
I want to apologize for the length of this post; I’ve been working on it for a while. I also wish to state that what follows is provisional, ruminative, and heuristic (not necessarily in that order).
As a pastor, I spend a lot of time wondering what to do about apathy. There are predictable forms of apathy – the person who, obeying a leftover instinct from childhood, shows up in the pew and snoozes through sermons; the pop tart whose chief end is to glorify iTunes and enjoy YouTube forever. But what’s a little weird for me is encountering apathy among deeply committed saints. The apathy shows up, not in the way they think about personal piety (which is of utmost concern to them), but in the way they think about the world around them. They think of themselves as belonging to a maligned minority on the fringes of society, and they don’t expect anything else – ever. They are eager to work out personal holiness, and want to see more people saved from hell; but any idea that the deserts of the world might blossom like the crocus, or its salt marshes be made fresh, or nations stream to Zion, or the lion lie down with the lamb, is for them wholly outside the bounds of present reality. They don’t bother about such things, because they simply don’t expect them to occur. Large tracts of daily living in the world are for them basically theaters of endurance, while they wait to be ushered into glory where the real fun begins.
It was brought home to me recently that a big part of the reason for this “apathetic” view of the world is that we think this is what the New Testament teaches. Notice that the lovely metaphors above are all drawn from the Old Testament; the New Testament by contrast teaches us to think of ourselves as strangers, pilgrims, and sufferers in the midst of ever-hostile world powers. If the grand prophecies of the Old Testament are to be fulfilled, it will certainly not be until the great conflagration in which this old world is destroyed, and an entirely new and different one ushered in, wherein dwells righteousness.
A prima facie difficulty with this reading of the New Testament is that the apostles manifestly believed God’s people in their time (and beyond) were experiencing the fulfillment of the things prophesied in Israel’s scriptures. The worldwide reign of the messianic king anticipated in those scriptures had now arrived in Jesus Christ; and while it is possible that the apostles regarded the interim between Christ’s ascension and His coming again as a kind of extended “parenthesis” in the fulfillment of Old Covenant prophecy, the case would have to be thoroughly argued. This is not to deny that they regarded the consummation of Christ’s kingdom as awaiting the end of all things; it is simply to affirm that, for them, the whole of Old Covenant prophecy informed their understanding of what had come upon them in the present reign of Christ.
With this in mind, let us scan the New Testament corpus and see if we discover there a pervasive “persecution complex,” a meek and mild minority content with its lot on the fringes, a loss of the world-vision so prominent in Old Covenant prophecy, a bunch of strangers just passin’ through.
To put it mildly, we do not. Ignore for a moment (if possible) the cosmic sweep of Jesus’ great commission to His disciples (Mt 28:18–20). Suppose He did not tell us to disciple all the nations, teaching them to observe His commandments. Suppose further that this commission has nothing whatever to do with the worldwide mandate delivered to Adam. Very well, then, what follows?
The book of Acts, we should note for starters, has a very curious construction. It begins with our Lord telling the apostles they would be witnesses of Him in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8); and lo! the book begins in Jerusalem and ends . . . in Rome. No, seriously, here is Paul, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” to all who would listen – in the very seat of Caesar’s power (Acts 28:30–31). Kind of subversive, don’t you think? It sounds as if the church had a vision to infiltrate major urban centers of civilization and proclaim the real King of the world. “Ah,” you say, “but Paul is in chains. This is a suffering, persecuted Paul! All he is doing is living his individual life and talking to people about Jesus, nothing more.” Fair enough, that is what he is doing. I’ll even grant you he lost his head for it in the end. But funny thing: centuries later, mighty Rome lies in ruins, and out of its ashes arises not another pagan world power but something we call “Christendom.” Turns out Jesus was the real King of the world after all, and one suspects Paul grasped the implications of this even in his time.
The epistles, surely, will yield something less grandiose. They will urge us to live our small lives faithfully, to assist in gathering of God’s elect few from the nations, and suffer the domination of the wicked until He returns.
It cannot be denied that there are elements of truth here. The apostles wrote to real Christians in their letters, and these Christians lived in the dark shadow of very real Jewish and pagan powers. There is no simpleminded triumphalism in the epistles; but there is a note of mighty anticipation of things this side of glory, and it simply will not be suppressed.
Take Romans, for example. Paul opens and closes this epistle by announcing that his mission is nothing less than to bring about “the obedience of faith among all the nations” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). While he never deflects hope away from the final day in which all creation shall be delivered from its bondage to corruption (Rom 8:21), he is bold to expect that before that day “the fullness of the Gentiles” will come in and “all Israel” be saved (Rom 11:25–26); and he looks for God shortly to crush Satan under the feet of the Roman church (Rom 16:20). And given his appeal to Old Covenant prophecies such as Isaiah 11 (Rom 15:12), in which we find lions lying down with lambs, and the earth full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, we should be careful not to diminish too much the scope of his expectations.
Similarly in 1 Corinthians we find Paul’s magnificent articulation of kingdom theology, wherein Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father on the final day, having put down every rule and every authority and power (1 Cor 15:24), having reigned “until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (1 Cor 15:25). In 2 Corinthians, likewise, we find Paul saying essentially that through the ministry of the New Covenant, the new creation anticipated in Israel’s scriptures has arrived – a new creation on par with the original one (2 Cor 3–4). It would be irresponsible not to note his insistence that this new creation life comes through death (2 Cor 4:7–18); but when he says “life works in you” (2 Cor 4:12), we surely cannot escape the conclusion that Paul expected real life, the life of the resurrected Christ, to flourish in, among, and through God’s people in the earth – and that the shape of this life will be what Israel’s New Covenant prophecies led us to expect.
Lest I be tedious (okay, I have already been tedious), what shall I say of the vision of redemptive history that pervades Galatians; of the uniting of all things in heaven and earth in Christ, which is so foundational in Ephesians and Colossians; of the significant reference to the imperial guard in Philippians; of the assurance in Hebrews that we have received the “better country” for which our fathers looked, and the intimation that if they subdued kingdoms by faith so should we? . . .
“Now wait a minute!” I can hear the outcry, “This is just plain sloppy! In the first place, you’re ignoring gobs of evidence against your argument – all the talk in these letters about suffering, all the exhortations to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord, all those statements about evil men waxing worse and worse. In the second place, whatever good hopes the apostles may have had for worldwide expansion of the gospel, they certainly weren’t expecting lions to lie down with lambs, or whole kingdoms to be converted to Christ, or deserts to bloom for real. You’re saying X while ignoring non-X, and saying X is Y when it isn’t.”
I demur. I’m sorry, but I do. First, a clarification about my whole argument: I am arguing that the apostles as much as the prophets expected the reign of Messiah to have transforming effects, not only in individual lives, but also in the nations, cultures, civilizations, institutions, and structures of the earth. Put another way, they expected visible effects of the gospel in whole people groups and societies. I really haven’t said much about how the apostles (or the prophets) expected this to occur; and I am emphatically not arguing that they expected it to come easily. In fact, unless I am missing something, I think Paul described it in terms of “wrestling.” Hard, bruising business. But the blood of the martyrs was – voila! – the downfall of Rome. So suffer patiently, keep your eye fixed firmly on the Day of the Lord, and keep doing subversive stuff like lifting up the poor to sit with you in the great seats of the assembly. This kind of thing could transform nations. It has.
Second, I’ll freely admit I don’t know exactly what Isaiah meant by lions lying down with lambs. But if the prophets set a timeframe called X-Y, and indicated certain things would occur in that timeframe; and then the apostles come along and tell us X-Y has arrived (in the period between Jesus’ ascension and return), I’m asking why we believe the apostles regarded everything meant by “lions lying down with lambs” as awaiting the return of Jesus? Yes, they expected the church to suffer; suffering tends to happen in war. But must we also say they never expected any swords to be beaten into plowshares, ever, anywhere?
It’s important to understand that the apostles wrote to believers where they were actually living. Rome, the mighty fourth kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, had not yet fallen in their days. The edifice of Old Covenant Judaism was still standing. But the apostles laid the foundation of the new gospel order in confidence that others would build thereupon; and while they didn’t see the future in specific detail (anymore than we do), their expectations for the future were framed by God’s promises to Israel and her Messiah. Certainly their ultimate hope was full restoration of all things at the return of Christ; but it was precisely this hope that enabled them and their readers (and enables us) to be energetic participants in the restorations of the gospel now.
One last exploratory thought: Is God’s attitude toward the world, according to the apostles, “Let’s junk it and start over”? I’m saying their Old Testament exegesis (not least their doctrine of creation) wouldn’t have permitted this. For them, rather, God’s attitude toward the world is, “Behold, I make all things new.” They expected it to be a long, hard road; but they expected it to occur surely and visibly under the present reign of Christ, and to be consummated at His return. God does not destroy sinners in saving them; neither will He destroy the world in saving it.
Ever since I was a young child, I have had an unwilling fascination with torture and execution. I wish I had money for every hour I have lain awake in the night, trying to comprehend the brutality of human beings toward one of their own, and the humiliation, helplessness, agony, and forsakenness of the victim. What is it like to be utterly alone before the power of those who enjoy your screams of pain? (Those too dull of imagination to appreciate the question should view one particular scene in the 2007 film Rendition.) What is it like when the trap door falls, the piano wire snaps taut, and there is only curiosity and delight among those watching you die? And many other and darker questions might be asked.
I think I keep returning to these morbid problems for several reasons. First, I simply can’t fathom how humans become so insensate as to enjoy the spectacle of suffering. Is such cauterization of sympathy possible? I’m not talking about rejoicing in justice – there is something in every one of us that wants to see retribution on those we perceive as wicked, and for good reason. I’m talking about enjoying someone else’s pain so as to make it an end in itself: opening the door to cruelty toward one’s enemies, and worse still, toward defenseless innocents. How do we keep prattling on about the moral progress of man? We have not taken a single step forward since Cain.
Second, I am a Christian, and I have a lot of forefathers who died under torture. I want to enter into their sacrifice so as to honor it; and I want to prepare myself for the possibility that I may be called on one day to imitate their example. Could I do it, I ask myself? Could I die with dignity in the midst of public humiliation and mockery? Could I keep my head up and honor my Lord in the face of my fear, against the terror of pain and of utter aloneness?
An image comes to me of Aslan padding slowly toward the Stone Table. The metaphor, moving as it is, cannot match the reality: the Son of God bound, bloodied, the friendless plaything of the Praetorium guard, hanging by nails, hated by men and devils and even (may we dare utter such things?) of God Himself. There is no tenderness for Him, no comfort, no vinegar to dull His agonies. But – and this is where Christianity subverts the wholesale evil I have been describing – “herein is love.” This is God entering our estate, knowing our suffering and absorbing it, bearing in Himself our pain and death so that for us one day “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore.” This is what gave courage to the martyrs of old (and gives it still to the martyrs of the present), and it is what I pray would give me courage were I to face the cruelties of man on account of my faith.
But there is more. The death and resurrection of Christ is the beginning of the new creation, the terminus whereof is a final day in which the Creator who made us to image His Triune love will come to judge the living and the dead. And in that day, by the standard of His own perfection of goodness, He will right all wrongs that have been committed under the sun. He will expunge the atrocities of men, their crimes and cruelties, their violence and victimization, so that it will be visible to all (and acknowledged by all) that righteousness has triumphed in full, that evil has not had the final word in anything perpetuated on the earth. Not one tear of Ivan Karamazov’s little girl will go unavenged, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her. There is One above the jeering crowd who knows all, in whose heart there is no pleasure in our pain, and who will bring every deed into judgment. Here is the courage of the martyr, and here is the hope of every victim in this blighted world.