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dali-resurrection

Resurrection: Fact vs. Meaning

I used to be quite consumed by the question of the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. I read books, scoured websites, and listened to lectures from Christian apologists who assured me that the resurrection was an indisputable fact I could believe in with full confidence. This was helpful because I knew I had to believe in the resurrection to qualify for the rights and privileges of being a Christian.

Except, well, let’s just say that getting serious about scholarship and history doesn’t make it any easier to believe in the resurrection. One learns that the sciences don’t have much to say about miracles, except that they just don’t have very much to say about miracles. The selective “science” offered by Christian apologetics may be well-intended, but it does believers no favors by pretending to give them solid evidence for something that ultimately comes down to faith.

Today I’m far less concerned with proving the resurrection than I am with pondering it and feeling it. You can believe in something spectacular and impossible to your dying breath, never doubting or asking questions, but what’s the point if it doesn’t mean anything relevant or good?

So I leave the question of history and fact aside, except to say this: The best historical analysis can do (and has done, I think) is to demonstrate with some certainty that the earliest Christians really believed that Jesus had been miraculously raised from death. That’s as far as science can possibly go. To go any further and attempt to CSI the resurrection is to waste a lot of time and effort that could be redirected to more constructive questions, like “what does resurrection even mean?” The meaning of Easter as the climax of the Christian story has become far more important to me than a misguided attempt to prove it like a math problem.

Here are some brief thoughts and observations about the meaning of the resurrection that might be helpful to anyone trying to wrap their heads around it:

  • Resurrection should represent a vindication of everything Jesus taught.
    This makes good sense though it is rarely articulated. A prophet comes along and tells us what the world is like, what God is like, and how we should treat each other in light of these things. We tell him to shut up and he won’t so we kill him. If God brings that prophet back to life, the things he said will surely take on a new significance. If Jesus lives, so do his ideas! Strange then how many Christians actually devalue and diminish the teachings of Jesus precisely because of their strong focus on the resurrection.
  • Resurrection would confirm what Jesus said about the character of God.
    Furthermore, the resurrection of Jesus ought to confirm and privilege his vision of an endlessly forgiving and merciful God against any competing visions of God, even those found in scripture. 
  • Resurrection constitutes a peaceful revelation rather than a violent takeover.
    In the ancient world, by all accounts, a vindicated prophet with God on his or her side would surely be an unstoppable agent of revenge and retribution. Instead, we have a story about a prophet who comes back quietly to announce “Peace!” to his friends.
  • Resurrection would put a crack in the otherwise impenetrable strongholds of suffering and death.
    I don’t want to take this one too far. There are Christians who “claim” the power of the resurrection to ward off and deny the ongoing realities of human suffering and death. That is an unhelpful delusion. But the story of the resurrection invites us to think and hope beyond the grim inevitabilities of life as we know it, and to imagine a world that has been infiltrated by divine life and healing.
  • Resurrection makes every innocent victim the hero of their own story.
    Oh, this one is good. As suggested above, the resurrection story is about the surprising revelation of the true and peaceful character of God. In terms of anthropology and religion, this means that God looks at human violence, ritual, and scapegoating and sides with the victim rather than the perpetrator. This is the one-two punch of Good Friday and Easter: first our sinful tendency to deal with our problems by blaming and killing innocents is forever exposed by the cross, and then God vindicates the innocent one in full view of the world which hated them. The “founding myth” of all human society, the sacrificing of the innocent to purge evil, is overturned and undone.
  • Resurrection hints at a brighter future.
    For most Christians today, the major ramification of the resurrection is the promise of a glorious afterlife in heaven. As pervasive as this belief is, it is actually not an explicit aspect of the gospel resurrection stories. Jesus doesn’t come back selling tickets to heaven, he’s concerned instead with the proliferation of his teachings on earth. Elsewhere, for the apostle Paul, Easter is seen as a vindication of the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15), but even this is not about “going to heaven” in the way we think. Not all Jews believed in resurrection, but those who did saw a future for humankind here on earth, not in some far away spiritual realm. Christians would do well to embrace Easter as a beacon of hope for humanity rather some escapist fantasy. 

This list could be labeled “finding meaning in the resurrection” or even “why I believe in the resurrection.” Because I do believe it. Not with a closed-fisted certainty or a delusional superiority, but as someone who really hopes with all of my heart and mind that this is what the universe is really like.

I want to believe in this story. Not in the twisted version where a cruel God rewards a small remnant of humanity for believing in certain impossible things, but the story of heaven answering human cruelty with pardon and miraculous new life. The story where the violence of sin and religion is met with divine pardon and peace.

“Proving” the resurrection is a sticky proposition and a waste of time. This is a job for hope and imagination.

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atone-deaf

Atone Deaf Part Seven: Keep it Messy, Tragic, and Beautiful

The final post in a series about atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

The first six posts in this series focused on the origins and evolution of the theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. We explored the foundations of sacrifice and vicarious suffering in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament perspectives on the passion of Jesus, and the development of certain atonement theologies throughout Christian history. You can revisit those posts for my analysis and conclusions. In this final post, I want to leave the research where it is and focus more on the lingering questions and feelings surrounding atonement. Because, ultimately, I’m not sure a technical or transactional understanding of the death of Jesus is the most helpful or valuable one.

The Problem of Over-realized Theology

Strange as it is to have to articulate this, I think it’s crucial to remember that all of our source material for a Christian study of atonement – from scripture on down to Calvin’s Institutes – consists of subjective human interpretation long after the fact. Even the gospels themselves represent an artistic reconstruction of the events of Jesus’ life and passion, told from various perspectives a generation later. Paul’s letters are thought to be the earliest material in the Greek canon, but they are written by a man who was not a companion of Jesus when he walked the earth. Later, the Church Fathers would often blatantly disregard the settings and tropes of scripture in their effort to fit the texts into their own Greek-flavored interpretive schemes. My point is this: for all of the inspired and inspiring insight offered by Bible texts and other Christian writings, they are all assigning meaning on top of meaning to a distant historical event, from a certain vantage point, with the benefit of time and imagination, under many diverse influences. We are the beneficiaries of their work, and their writing is of great value. It is my opinion, however, that when we literalize or absolutize these subjective perspectives we develop an overly legal or forensic view of atonement. That is, we downplay the historical messiness of Jesus’ death and begin to imagine that the theological metaphors are actually concrete, that there was actually some cosmic juridical transaction that took place, as if heavenly bookkeepers were frantically balancing their ledgers as the last drop of Jesus’ blood spilled out. We forget that theology is interpretive and speculative, not descriptive.

As a younger man I believed that Jesus came down to Earth out of the sky, like the son of Jor-El, with a picture of me in his wallet, knowing that he had to be in the right place at the right time to die for me so I could go to heaven. If he had missed his chance or chickened out, I would be out of luck. But Jesus is the hero of the story, so he died just like he was supposed to. Happy ending. Is there a modicum of truth in this version of the story? Perhaps. But my privileging and overemphasis of the transactional (and substitutionary) interpretation of Jesus’ death completely blinded me to historical reality, and led me to imagine it as something other than a tragic injustice. I oversimplified and misrepresented Jesus’ mission and self-identity, completely disregarding the Jewish context of both. I was also myopic and self-serving, assuming that the central crisis of the known universe was my personal fate and afterlife destiny.

Well, the ancient narratives do tell us that Jesus faced his fate with courage motivated by compassion, first and foremost for his own family of Israel and for the love of the whole world. But even given his sense of mission and determination, the political machinations of his trial and execution are never seen as incidental or irrelevant. To say that Jesus “had to die” is not to say it was alright, just a technicality that had to be taken care of. It is to say that his prophetic message about a forgiving Father God and a kingdom of peace and radical social justice was such a challenge and offense to the religious and political powers-that-be that his execution became inevitable. To state this theologically, the life-based justice of God clashed with the death-based “justice” of the world. To state it in more anthropological terms, Jesus lived and died by his countercultural commitment to nonviolence and non-retaliation. If Jesus simply needed to die to satisfy a cosmic theological need, he could have thrown himself off a cliff or jumped in front of a chariot. Instead, he looked corrupt human empire in the face and said, “you don’t understand how power works.” Yes, he had to die, and there is no more damning comment on the state of humanity. Atonement is about palpable hope for our future in spite of this, because of Jesus.

How to Believe in Atonement 

So what does it mean to “believe” in this death? Is it simply a fact we must acknowledge in order to be saved? Is it a transaction we need to understand correctly so that its benefits can be applied to us? Or is it more than that, a story into which we can enter, that can redefine the way we understand the world? As we observed, the ancient interpreters understood Jesus’ death as a self-given sacrifice which disarmed and defeated corruption and sin, exposed the evils of empire and hell, set humanity free from bondage, and reconciled creation to its Creator. There is enough there to keep us hoping and imagining for the rest of our lives, but there are countless other insights, questions, and dreams, some old and some quite new, which explore different aspects and ramifications of atonement. I’ll conclude this series with just a few brief samples, which will hopefully whet your appetite and send you out on your own investigation.

  • To be meaningful, Jesus’ death cannot be separated from his resurrection. One of the big problems with theologies that focus primarily on transactional or substitutionary atonement is that they seem to suggest that Jesus’ death was, in itself, a complete, sufficient, and satisfactory event. These interpreters affirm the resurrection, of course, but treat it as a separate theological category. The cross is about atonement and salvation, resurrection is about eschatology and afterlife. A holistic view of atonement understands Easter as more than proof of heaven or a surprise happy ending. It is God’s peaceful and life-affirming response to the horrors of human ritual victimization exposed on the cross. It completes the picture, and it’s the only way that the events of the passion can be called “good.”
  • Incarnation is atonement. This idea actually goes back to Anselm, but it has been picked up by some of today’s best thinkers (see this Facebook post by Michael Hardin). It suggests that incarnation – how Jesus in his humanity embodies and reveals the divine nature – is the true context and content of atonement. Death and resurrection are thus only the climax of the full story of Jesus’ humanity. Jesus is not God in a man costume, securing atonement by shedding his own heavenly blood. He makes atonement because he is the true human being, who faces a human fate, and who interrupts, disarms, and transcends the human cycle of violence. He does this for and with and on behalf of his human family.
  • Does God love mercy or sacrifice? Why would God send prophets into the world to urge us toward “mercy not sacrifice” if His real desire was for a propitiating sacrifice? Time and again, the Bible’s prophetic witness suggests that blood sacrifice is a human endeavor, a concession, and that God truly desires obedience, mercy, and relationship. Dare we suggest that this same God’s ultimate plan of redemption for the world is the violent sacrifice of an innocent human, His own son? An atonement theology in tune with the gospel and the divine character as revealed in Jesus cannot attribute that kind of bloodthirst to God. In fact, taking a cue from the book of Hebrews, it sees Jesus’ death as a self-given sacrifice which exposes and ends the practice of sacrifice forever. At Easter, mercy obliterates sacrifice once and for all. (Check out this blog post by Brian Zahnd.)
  • If God cannot change, then atonement cannot change God. Philosophically speaking, God is absolute and unchanging by nature. The divine will cannot turn or change its mind, even though anthropomorphic depictions of God in scripture often suggest otherwise. This is one reason why the earlier atonement theologies we surveyed were careful not to suggest that God’s wrath was satisfied or His mind changed by the death of Jesus. Instead they focused on external, impersonal factors like God’s “honor.” His consistency of character and His reputation for mercy and compassion had to be preserved. And after all, how coherent is it to suggest that God reached into human history to affect a change in His own heart and disposition? It is we who need to turn away from aggression and embrace compassion, not God.
  • Atonement is a revelation, not a project. This is along the lines of the previous idea. Richard Rohr (after John Duns Scotus) has suggested a vision of atonement as a revelation of God’s love, rather than a project or transaction intended to solve a problem. Jesus did not live and die to “mop-up” humanity’s sin problem, but to reveal God’s true face and posture in the midst of our trouble. Read more here.
  • Mark Heim says, “Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours.” 

That feels like a haphazard and incomplete list of ideas, and I think that’s just about right. One thing I do not want to suggest with this series is that atonement can somehow be systematized or explained in any complete or tidy way. The death of Jesus is (with good cause) the most overanalyzed and over-explained event in the history of the world. It actually does us good, I think, to resist the impulse to pin it down or distill it into a chart or a slogan. We do well to preserve something of the chaos of history, to treat Jesus’ death as a distant and devastating memory. “Atonement” is our attempt to discover our own place in the old story, to feel a fresh wave of the sorrow and shock of Good Friday, and the elation and glory of Easter. This is the story of our lowest moment as a species, and of God’s greatest triumph.

atone-deaf

Atone Deaf Part Three: The Gospels and Why Jesus Died

Latest in a series of posts exploring the Christian understanding of atonement and the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

In our last two posts we surveyed key sacrificial traditions of the Torah and the famous “servant song” of Isaiah 53, to see if they in any way predicted or anticipated the death of Jesus as a substitutionary punishment for sin. I concluded that, while there are elements of payment and vicarious suffering in those Hebrew Bible traditions, none of them constitutes the kind of wrath-satisfying punishment made necessary by Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theology. Instead of an angry God looking to spill the blood of an innocent surrogate, we found a God who ultimately rejects blood sacrifice in favor of mercy and love, and who turns the earthly suffering of his “servant” into hope and new life. If you want to “prove” PSA from the “Old Testament,” you’ll find a few scattered elements, but you’ll have to ignore everything else that’s really going on.

Of course, it’s in the New Testament that the events central to a Christian understanding of atonement are portrayed, and regardless of what the Hebrew Scriptures say, this is where we’d expect to find an explicit message about the meaning of Jesus’ death. If Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifice to appease the wrath of God, the gospels will surely tell us so. Let’s see what they have to say, taking them in (roughly) chronological rather than canonical order.

Mark

The first thing we notice, reading the gospel texts on a mission like this, is that they very seldom spell out theological meaning with explicit commentary. They are rife with such meaning, to be sure, but it must be discovered by interpreting the dialogue and the style and drama of the narrative. Most Christians would prefer to read the gospels as simple, factual reports of eyewitness experiences, but comparing one gospel to another illuminates just how much personal creativity and agenda have figured into the shape of these presentations. This is not necessarily to question their reliability, but to simply acknowledge their diversity in detail, theme, and emphasis.

Mark’s gospel is the shortest and the most “action oriented.” Jesus casts out his first demon before the end of Chapter 1. There is no “narrator’s commentary” on the death of Jesus, and so our only references to the subject come in the form of words on the prophet’s own lips. Twice in Mark Jesus predicts his own death privately to his followers (8:31-33; 9:30-32). In both instances he emphasizes his inevitable rejection by the human authorities in Jerusalem, his eventual execution, and his ultimate vindication in resurrection. Other than the political machinations implied in these predictions, Jesus does not mention any cause or ramification for this death until we get to Chapter 10, when he says this:

“Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45, KNT)

Mark’s Jesus gives us an explicit statement on the meaning of his impending death, and I have heard this verse cited innumerable times as if it were a definitive biblical reference to PSA theology. Two considerations: 1) The immediate context is not a question about sacrifice or the theological necessity of Jesus’ death, it is an argument among Jesus’ followers about who will hold the most power when he becomes king. Jesus rebukes them and explains that his vocation is not to seek and wield power like a typical earthly king, but to lay down his life for the sake of his people. 2) More significant to our discussion, a “ransom” is not at all the same thing as a “substitute.” A ransom is a payment for the liberation of captives, not the transfer of a punishment from a guilty party to a proxy.

The obvious referent here is the Passover sacrifice we discussed in an earlier post, an allusion that is even more pronounced in the “last supper” account in Mark 14. Jesus shares a Passover meal with his followers on the eve of his death, reappropriating the unleavened bread and the cup of blessing as signs of a “new covenant” in his blood for the arrival of God’s kingdom. Later in the place (not a garden) called Gethsemane, Jesus prays fervently to his “Father” that he might be spared the burden of betrayal and execution, but ultimately concedes to the divine will (the first and only explicit reference to God’s will in relation to Jesus’ death). At the moment of his death in the next chapter, Jesus quotes the refrain of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” After Jesus dies, Mark says the temple veil is torn in two, suggesting that Jesus’ death has fundamentally broken the old sacrificial system. The final chapter of the gospel emphasizes the Sabbath setting of Jesus’ resurrection, indicating that his death marked the end of one era, and his rising the dawn of a new one.

Matthew

Matthew’s gospel spends a lot more time describing Jesus’ origin and demonstrating his credentials as a Jew and as the anointed one (messiah). The author presents Jesus’ life as a series of “fulfillments” of Hebrew Bible texts. More than half of the book goes by before the spectre of Jesus’ death is raised. We get two predictions from Jesus himself echoing those in Mark (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23) and an additional one on his fateful trip toward Jerusalem with an added reference to being “handed over to the pagans” and “crucified” (20:17-19). Later in the same passage, Matthew presents the saying about “a ransom for many” (20:28), and in Chapter 26 Jesus emphasizes that his death will coincide with Passover. At the last supper, Jesus’ words are very similar to those in Mark, with an added reference to his blood being “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28), connecting his death to the Torah sacrifices as well.

Matthew’s presentation of the death of Jesus in Chapter 27 adds some curious details not found elsewhere. There is an earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death, and “many bodies of sleeping ones” climb out of their tombs and shuffle off to Jerusalem. This bizarre episode is possibly a rare biblical reference to the “harrowing of Sheol,” an early Christian tradition in which Jesus descends into the underworld, binds the satan, and rescues the martyrs held captive there. This is the backstory to the brief line in the Apostle’s Creed that says “he descended into hell,” and it quite starkly dramatizes the “ransom” model of atonement theology. We’ll discuss this tradition a little more in an upcoming post.

Luke

Scholars suggest that the authors of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s gospel as one of their sources. Many of the sayings and traditions they share are found in simpler forms in Mark, and each contains their own unique material as well (there is also another hypothetical shared source called Q). Luke 9:22 records Jesus predicting his own death as he did in Mark and Matthew, but here it is followed by a warning that anyone who would follow Jesus must “deny yourself, and pick up your cross every day.” (That doesn’t sound very much like substitution!) In Chapter 13 Jesus responds to threats from King Herod by saying, “Only in Jerusalem could a prophet perish!” (13:33). Later, in Chapter 22, Luke emphasizes the Passover setting of the last supper, just as Mark and Matthew had done, but throughout Luke’s narration of the passion there is a special emphasis on both the suffering and innocence of Jesus. In Gethsemane, Jesus is in “agony” until an angel is sent to “strengthen” him (22:43), a detail found only in Luke. As he dies, Luke’s Jesus pronounces forgiveness upon his enemies and murderers (and presumably everyone; 23:34), and the soldier who proclaimed in Mark and Matthew that “this man is truly the son of God,” here proclaims that “this man truly was innocent!” (23:47)

John

John’s gospel is the “most different” of the canonical gospels. It was written as much as a generation later than the synoptics, and it presents a radically different take on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This Jesus does not cast out demons, does not tell parables, doesn’t proclaim the “kingdom of God”, never shares a last supper with his followers, and spends most of his time performing miracles so that people will “believe” in him. On the subject of Jesus’ death, John’s gospel is telling the same story, but in a different language.

The first reference to Jesus’ death in John actually comes in the form of a prophecy from Caiaphas, the High Priest, who says “let one man die for the people, rather than the whole nation being wiped out” (11:50). This becomes the religious establishment’s justification for assassinating the prophet. Jesus doesn’t explicitly predict his death in John as he did in the earlier gospels, but he does cryptically prepare his followers for life in his absence. When the passion week arrives, John describes the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus in a profoundly symbolic pageant. John moves the day and time of Jesus’ death to coincide with the slaughter of the Passover lambs, and as he dies Jesus exclaims “It is finished!” (19:30). This is an artistic collision of two major Hebrew Bible themes: Jesus is killed as a ransom sacrifice like a Passover lamb, and his death marks the end of a work of “new creation.” This is emphasized further as Jesus resurrects on the first day of a new week and encounters Mary, who mistakes him for the “gardener” (20:15).

Analysis: Why Did Jesus Die?

The first thing to note about this brief tour of the gospels is that, despite the diversity of perspectives and agendas in the various tellings of this story, one thing is extremely clear in each of these texts: the primary cause of Jesus’ death was the treachery of corrupt religion in collusion with empire. He was killed by the machinations of human “justice,” and anything else is theological speculation after the fact. This is not to say that such speculation has no value, but some formulations of atonement put such emphasis on the theological necessity of Jesus’ death or on “God’s will” that the clear, historical circumstances of the passion – outlined explicitly in every gospel – become bothersome or irrelevant. This is the same mistake we make when we focus so obtusely on abstract legal ramifications of human sin that we forget about the toll it takes on real people here and now. Jesus died as an innocent victim of human oppression. That is not the cover story for some cosmic transaction, it is the bitter truth of what occurred. And it implicates us, not God.

On that note, returning to the question of atonement, we observed another surprising continuity across all four gospels: an understanding of Jesus’ death as a “ransom” sacrifice for the liberation of his people. Neither penal substitution nor the wrath of God seems to be a factor for any of these authors/communities, though arguments have been made. It has been suggested, for example, that the “cup” Jesus must drink is the wrath of God against human sin, but this is not what the text says at all. Jesus identifies his fate as the inevitable result of human betrayal and politics, and tells his power-hungry disciples that they will drink from the same cup if they choose to follow him. Like the “take up your cross” language in John, this sounds more like solidarity and shared suffering than substitution or punishment. It should also be noted that each of the gospels connects the death of Jesus indivisibly to the resurrection, so that it would not be sufficient to consider one apart from the other. This is another major error of many atonement theologies.

According to the gospel texts and the early communities of Christians that produced and read them, Jesus died to liberate his people from bondage to sin and death, to set them free to embrace and inhabit God’s kingdom of peace and reconciliation. These texts are not theological textbooks or doctrinal statements, they are artful responses to the Jesus event, told and retold by his followers and their descendants. These are not legal or technical explanations of why Jesus “had to die,” they are literary celebrations of an event so simultaneously shocking and beautiful that it changed everything, forever. Jesus died for us, and with us, and yet it was we who killed him. God didn’t “pour his wrath” on an innocent victim, we did. And yet the innocent one willingly suffered this fate for the sake of those who perpetrated it, and he did not curse them or retaliate, he only forgave. That is where we find God in atonement: not behind a curtain pulling the strings, but on the cross loving and forgiving His killers.

More On the Post-Resurrection Stories

Mveng Resurrection Chapel of Hekima College Nairobi

Engelbert Mveng: Resurrection, Hekima College, Nairobi, Kenya, 1962.

I touched on this in my Easter post, but I want to say a little more about the details and ramifications of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. Here are three deeply significant aspects of these strange tales that might have been obscured by traditional readings of the Bible.

1. Jesus returns in peace, unexpectedly.

Clearly no one in the gospel stories expected Jesus to be resurrected. Even when Jesus made cryptic predictions about his death and vindication, his followers told him to stop talking crazy and asked when he was going to become king and kill all the bad guys. As I’ve explored at-length elsewhere, the designation “messiah” had little to do with dying and coming back to life and everything to do with winning wars. After Jesus was executed, no one was looking at their watch wondering what was taking him so long. They were defeated and dejected. Their candidate was gone. The end.

And so when Jesus is resurrected, according to the synoptic gospels, it’s a surprise that completely blindsides his friends and followers. The shock and terror of the disciples is dramatized in the gospel texts, and we sympathize. Running into someone you watched die would be unsettling, to say the least. But once again, a deeper consideration of the historical and political background amplifies the drama. No one had ever imagined that a messianic candidate would die and be resurrected, but if that WERE to ever happen, surely the vindicated one would start the holy war to end all holy wars. With God clearly on his side, nothing could stop him. The disciples aren’t just scared because they think they’ve seen the ghost of a beloved friend, they’re staring at the risen body of the prophet they betrayed and abandoned. They must be thinking that judgment day is upon them.

But it wasn’t. Jesus announces “peace!” and tells them not to fear. The disciples (and innumerable Christian interpreters since) still want to know when the war will start, and Jesus lovingly smiles and shakes his head.

2. Jesus returns as a stranger.

The resurrection narratives in the gospels are diverse and sparse in detail, and they leave us asking many questions. In light of their ambiguity, however, continuities become more significant. For example, in every appearance story not a single person recognizes the risen Jesus on sight. From the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel to Paul’s vision in Acts, the resurrected Jesus is always encountered first as a stranger. This detail is easily overlooked, but its implications are staggering.

Quite in line with his expectation-defying career as a most unlikely messiah, Jesus is not portrayed as returning from the grave in public spectacle and revenge. His appearances are quiet and private, and his own friends don’t recognize him until they talk and eat with him. This Jesus is not the Jesus of triumphalism or culture war. This Jesus does not take over the world from an earthly seat of power, nor does he publicly shame those who don’t know him. He comes quietly alongside his followers and reveals himself in intimacy and friendship. An encounter with this Jesus is unexpected, a run-in with a stranger, a stranger who challenges and forever changes the way we look at things.

3. Jesus returns to affirm life, not “afterlife”.

The synoptic post-resurrection tales are remarkably brief, given their centrality and theological weight. As a result, we have tended to fill them out with our own assumptions and infer our own meanings. For many, the whole point of Jesus’ resurrection is to prove that heaven is real, and that Jesus can take us there with him if we negotiate a ticket. A peek at the texts, however, reveals a different agenda.

In Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers to go and make “disciples” (students) of his teachings who will keep his “commandments”. In Mark, the risen Jesus instructs the twelve to spread his message and “baptize” new followers.* In Luke, the most extensive of the narratives, Jesus reads scripture and eats with his followers, charging them with the task of being “witnesses” to his life and legacy. There is not a word about life after death or of his followers “going to heaven” when they die, but there is a clear mandate to proliferate his teachings. This includes his commandments to love God and neighbor, and his message of repentance and empathy.

Other texts will speculate about the nature of Jesus’ “appearing” at the “end of the age,” and of the fate of humanity and creation, but the gospels’ resurrection stories are clearly more concerned with the present. Here, Jesus’ legacy is first and foremost for this life, the one we’re living, for the well-being of his followers and of the whole world that God loves. This is the Risen Jesus we meet in the pages of the Bible and, hopefully, the one we seek in our lives.

 

*In Mark’s gospel proper, the risen Jesus says nothing at all. There are two “extra” endings, from 16:9 onward, widely considered to be later additions. It’s fairly easy to see why, even on the surface.

Taking Easter Apart and Putting It Back Together Again

I’m easing my way back into blogging with some quick thoughts about Good Friday and Easter.

Growing up Evangelical, I learned to think about Holy Week within a certain framework (for one thing, we never called it “Holy Week,” we called it “the week before Easter”). Here’s what I used to believe about Easter. Not that I could necessarily have articulated all or any of this, but these were the assumptions and implications of our beliefs:

  • Jesus died as part of God’s Master Plan to assuage His wrath via human sacrifice, a plan that came together with precision in fulfillment of very specific ancient prophecies. None of the players in the story was acting outside of God’s Plan.
  • God needed Jesus to die so He could legally forgive our sins, so we can also say that we helped to kill him by committing the sins that necessitated the sacrifice. If we had not sinned, Jesus would not have had to die.
  • The shedding of Jesus’ blood propitiates (satisfies) God completely, but not universally and not automatically. For the sacrifice to be effective, one must convert to Christianity and believe in the sacrifice. Anyone who does not do this cannot enter Heaven when they die, since they have not taken advantage of the legal mechanism provided by the sacrifice.
  • Jesus’ resurrection was miraculous and triumphant without diminishing the effectiveness of his sacrificial death. God raised Jesus once the sacrifice was complete as a proof of his divinity and of afterlife. God brought Jesus back to heaven to prepare an eternal home for true believers.

Here are just some of the problems that swarmed my mind and heart as I grew up and learned to think through these beliefs:

  • Why does the God who (according to the Old Testament) ABHORS human sacrifice and who ultimately (according to the prophets and Jesus himself) REJECTS all sacrifice hatch a Master Plan that involves manipulating humans to carry out the horrific execution of a truly innocent person? Do we really believe that shedding the right blood was the key to pleasing God all along? What does this say about the character of God and the nature of the universe He created?
  • How can anyone (even God) conceivably satisfy their own anger, legally or otherwise? How does orchestrating a sacrifice for Himself “deal with sin” and make God happy enough to absolve a few humans of their guilt?
  • What is the level of accountability for the human pawns in God’s Master Plan? The priests and crowds demanded Jesus’ death, Pilate ordered it, and the Roman soldiers carried it out, but weren’t they carrying out the holy will of God? In this way, weren’t their actions strangely sacred? Is it wrong for God to hold them responsible for fulfilling the ancient prophecies He arranged “from the foundations of the world”?
  • If the death of Jesus has the power to heal and save, how is that power limited to only those who “believe in it” in a certain way? Doesn’t this put the onus of salvation onto humans and their decision to think or not think certain thoughts? And how does the salvation of a small remnant of humanity fit in with the Bible’s vision of renewal and rescue for all of creation?
  • If Jesus’ death was legally satisfying to God, does the resurrection in any way dilute or complicate its effectiveness? If the death of an innocent is required to “pay for sin,” how could God be pleased and placated by a death that is not “final”?

Here are some fresh thoughts about Good Friday and Easter. These are not the “correct” beliefs, they are my current best attempts at interpreting and appreciating this story I’ve inherited:

  • God did not kill Jesus. We did. And we did it not by committing isolated and disparate personal sins but by ACTUALLY KILLING HIM. The violence of human religion and empire conspired to murder Jesus. And if a prophet appeared among us today preaching empathy and a forgiving God, we’d murder him or her too. That is the scandal of Good Friday.
  • Resurrection is not the triumphant epilogue that gives the story a happy ending, assures us of heaven, and helps us win the culture war by following the correct religion. Resurrection is both a vindication of Jesus’ legacy and God’s non-violent rejection of our attempt to scapegoat and sacrifice His Son. It’s God’s “no thank you!” to our disgusting rituals and violence which were exposed on the cross.
  • Jesus does not come back to seek revenge or “settle the score” (as his followers clearly expected), he comes with “peace” on his lips, announcing a new world. His followers still didn’t get it, so he promised that his spirit would always be with them to guide them, if only they’d listen. If only we’ll listen.
  • Salvation is not achieved by rolling around in the magic blood of an innocent scapegoat. It is found in the light of Easter morning, in the hope of New Creation, and a willingness to follow in the Way of selflessness and vulnerable love. Jesus saved us from our sins by exposing their true nature, absorbing our hate and offering us the opportunity to repent of our violence and self-destruction.
  • We seek the presence of the Risen Jesus, not as our Holy Emperor leading us to conquest, but as the One who announces shalom and the end of violence and sacrificial thinking. Each Easter, like every new day, is another chance to open our eyes to this astonishing reality.

Repent of Bad Religion! Part 5: End Times Insanity

True “repentance” isn’t merely confession or contrition, it’s a constant and radical reconsideration of all things, a willingness to reject old and bad ideas and to embrace new and better ones. In this (final?) installment of an ongoing series, I apply the spirit of repentance to the Christian notion of eschatology, what many refer to as the “end times.” This is a long post, based in part on work I did in seminary. I hope this will surprise and intrigue both long-time believers and spectators alike.

Introduction: Defining Eschatology

Eschatology is one of the most divisive and volatile topics within Christian theology, and the subject of much debate, confusion, and distress. “Eschatology” is often flatly defined as “the study of the end times” or even “the end of the world.” Indeed, the Greek word means “the study of the late things,” but perhaps a more appropriate encapsulation of the eschatological material in the bible would be “a hope for God’s future.” A broad, positive definition like that is a good first step to navigating the chaotic and often lopsided map of contemporary Christian beliefs about the future. Before we take further steps toward a solution, however, we have more to say about the problem.

The Problem: Making It Up As We Go Along

I have sat in church services, bible studies, and even seminary classes where the following statements (and many more like them) were confidently made by Christian pastors and teachers:

“When we get raptured our new angel bodies will be huge, at least thirty-feet-tall, since heaven is so big and there will be so few of us there!”

“Every night I pray that if Obama is the antichrist, someone will assassinate him. And for good measure, my wife prays that he’ll get saved.”

“The bible reveals the exact date when all of the stadiums in America will be converted into concentration camps to hold all of us Christians!”

“I can’t wait until Jesus comes back and gives me a sword so I can fight some demons!”

These are extreme and ludicrous examples, of course, but in each case no one objected, and in fact many people were feverishly taking notes! (For my part I was flummoxed but said nothing. Until recently I had little to say about eschatology that was constructive.) These statements may be nutty, but they are all just imaginative variations on mainstream “dispensationalist” teachings cherished by many fundamentalist and evangelical churches. The world will soon meet a violent end, Jesus will return to fetch his few and faithful followers to take them away to heaven, and all of this, they say, is clearly laid out in the bible.

But is it? In reality, most contemporary Christian eschatology is anything but “biblical.” It plays fast and loose with bits and pieces of bible text, but its form and logic generally spring from other sources: nineteenth century dispensationalist theology (Darby by way of Scofield), popular culture, and whimsy of the speaker. A bit of biblical data is taken out of context and synthesized with personal ideology and pure imagination to produce some assertion about “the end.” The claim is “based on” words from the bible so it is presented and often accepted as “biblical,” but typically it reveals much more about the speaker’s personality and politics than it does about the bible or the future.

It’s easy to see through bad eschatology (e.g. Left Behind, Harold Camping). What is not so easy is to know how to move forward with eschatological thinking that is constructive and authentically biblical. The solution, I propose, is an open-minded approach which takes into account the history and literature of the whole bible (not just Revelation or the New Testament). In my experience, this kind of holistic approach makes it very difficult to proffer specific predictive claims about what MUST or WILL happen in the near or distant future. In fact, the more I have studied the diverse witnesses of the ancient writings on these topics (biblical and apocryphal), the more agnostic I have become regarding any specific eschatological expectation. What I hope will emerge from a study like this is not a timeline or a list of answers, but an overwhelmingly bright and hopeful spirit, an orientation, a new and better way of thinking about tomorrow.

Thesis: A Holistic Biblical View To God’s Future

The full category of things “eschatological” is far too broad to cover in a single blog post. I will focus instead on three central eschatological doctrines: the Resurrection of the Dead, Judgment, and Heaven. My thesis is this: The doctrines of resurrection, judgment, and heaven are best understood in the full light of their foundations in the Hebrew Bible as well as their reconfiguration by the Jesus movement. In each case we will attempt to avoid the typical speculation, boil the doctrine down to a fundamental question, and examine the biblical responses from Ancient Israel, First Century Judaism, and Early Christianity. This may result in uncomfortable confrontations with some of the more popular beliefs and assumptions of the church in our day, but it also affords us the opportunity for illumination and discovery.

I. RESURRECTION: A FUTURE FOR HUMANITY

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake…”  (Daniel 12:2)

“Thus says the LORD God to these bones: ‘I will breathe into you, and you will live.’” (Ezekiel 37:5)

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in tombs will hear his voice and come out…” (John 5:28-29)

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)

Christians tend to think about resurrection primarily in terms of something that happened once to Jesus, and perhaps as a vague description of the believer’s future experience “in heaven.” In the full context of the bible, however, resurrection concerns the question of the future of humanity. The question might be put like this: What will happen to the living and dead bodies of humans in the future? That is not a particularly poetic question, but it is important that we frame this discussion properly. As we will presently see, the bible’s response involves the notion of physical bodily resurrection to some new kind of earthly life, not simply a metaphor for some spiritual journey or celestial escape.

A. Resurrection in the Hebrew Bible and First Century Judaism

The resurrection tradition appears to have its origins in Israel’s horrific experiences in exile. While ancient Hebrew wisdom taught that justice would be done in this life (Proverbs 3:33, for example), the brutality and trauma of exile were such that the traditional view was called into question. When the survivors began to despair, prophets offered a new vision. If justice wasn’t being done on this side of the grave, it would have to happen on the other. Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel offer three imaginative and contextually unique illustrations of this new way of thinking and hoping. Daniel 12 sees the victims of exilic violence physically raised back to life and rewarded, and their abusers punished. Isaiah 24-26 envisions a sort of death and resurrection of the entire world, with special attention to the happy fate of Israel and its citizens. And Ezekiel 37 finds the prophet in a valley filled with the bones of his fallen brothers and sisters, which spring back to fully incarnated life before his eyes. In each case the circumstances and details are different, but the purpose and effect of resurrection is the same: vindication for those unjustly cut down by enemies who seemed to “get away with it” in the present.

These (and other) historically-located visions of vindication evolved over time into a spectrum of Jewish beliefs about the resurrection of the dead on the “day of YHWH,” the day when Israel’s God would show up to put the world right (more on that in section II). It’s impossible to say “here is what all Jews believed” about any number of theological questions, but in the pre-Christian, Second-Temple world of the First Century as depicted by the gospel authors, we find evidence that resurrection had become an assumption among many Jews. First, in John 11:24, Martha takes (some small) comfort in her belief that her recently deceased brother Lazarus will “rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” and Jesus does not correct her but takes the opportunity to associate himself with “the resurrection.” Matthew 22:23 concerns an exception which proves the rule; the Sadducees “who say there is no resurrection” interrogate Jesus about his belief in it. This, of course, implies a common and pervasive belief among some Jews of this time in the bodily resurrection of humans at “the end.”

B. 1 Corinthians 15: Jesus and Resurrection

The New Testament has much to say about resurrection, and while modern Christian interpreters have not emphasized a connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the ancient resurrection expectation, it is actually the climax of the apostle Paul’s message in his first letter to the Corinthians. And while we have typically used the Hebrew Bible to “prove” assertions about Jesus, Paul actually moves in the opposite direction. Consider this, from 1 Corinthians 15:

20 But in fact the Messiah has been raised from the dead, as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since it was through a human that death arrived, it’s through a human that resurrection from the dead has arrived. (1 Corinthians 15:20-21)

The big deal about the resurrection of Jesus, says Paul, is that it fulfills all the old hopes and proves that they were true. Nobody imagined that a single human would be raised from death in the middle of history, but for Paul this is the heart of his “good news.” Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, just the first of many, and his followers have assurance that death is not the final word. In the context of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses this to encourage a church full of screw-ups to get their act together. Because of the renewed hope of resurrection – Jesus’ resurrection as a preview of their own – they can get busy doing things that matter. For the apostle, resurrection is the opposite of escaping this world or “going to heaven,” it’s the hope that human existence and the work of the Kingdom on earth will go on. He closes the resurrection passage like this:

58 So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you are doing will not prove worthless.

(For more on the broader context and eschatology of 1 Corinthians, see this podcast.)

C. Summary – Resurrection Not Rapture

The hope of resurrection grew out of the injustice and terror of exile, and evolved into a general belief that even death couldn’t keep Israel from God’s blessing and purposes. After Jesus, influential Christians like the apostle Paul preached that this hope had been spectacularly affirmed and inaugurated. At its essence, resurrection is not about escaping from this world but about discovering new and continued life within it. The “rapture” anticipated by dispensationalist Christians is a foreign concept to the bible (based almost entirely on an interpretation of a single verse in 1 Thessalonians which we’ll look at in an upcoming podcast). Resurrection is the prevailing expectation of New Testament authors and figures, with many colorful and diverse interpretations, from Jesus in Matthew 25 to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and John of Patmos in Revelation 20. Each of these moves thematically toward the next eschatological category we will examine: judgment.

II. JUDGMENT: A FUTURE FOR THE WORLD

“Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.” (Psalm 96:12-13)

“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge…?” (Rev 6:10)

We struggle with the bible’s talk about resurrection because it sounds too good to be true. For most of us, the same cannot be said about judgment. We (in the West, at least) live in a very different world from that of the bible’s authors, with very different notions of justice and security. As a result, the bible’s vision of God judging the world seems to us either terrifying or ludicrous. But if we take the time to appreciate how these ancient people conceptualized judgment, we might realize that it is actually meant to be most excellent news. While our version of “divine judgment” typically involves a distant deity invading our space and doling out arbitrary punishment, the biblical picture (often cloaked in parable) is that of this world’s rightful owner and caretaker coming home to tidy up and put everything right.

They lived in a brutal world and, OK, so do we. But they had no police force or door locks or credit cards or firewalls, no banks or insurance or Better Business Bureau. Violence, corruption and every kind of abuse could run rampant unless a strong and noble authority figure showed up to settle disputes, side with the oppressed, and make sure the widows and orphans were looked after. Kings and emperors operated under a pretense of this sort of justice, but sadly almost always (according to the authors and prophets of the bible) betrayed the expectation. The prophetic/eschatological notion of God as the true and noble judge of the world grows out of this very problem. It’s a hope for long-awaited rescue, not a threat of retribution. If it sounds scary or silly to us, it’s because we’re seeing it outside of the broader context of the bible’s story. In particular, the hope of judgment is rooted in two major biblical themes: creation and covenant.

A. Creation and Covenant in the Hebrew Bible

One could easily write an overlong essay just on this two-pronged topic alone, but for now an overview will suffice. When we talk about creation in the Hebrew Bible, we’re talking about more than the assertion that elohim made the world, as opposed to some other god, gods, or natural processes. Israel’s creation story is about the inherent order and goodness of the natural world, and God’s role as the founder and sustainer of that good order. This was never just a fact or a cultural truth-bomb to be lobbed in the faces of unbelievers, it was the basis for hope and positivity in the face of disasters both natural and human. It was also the basis for the expectation that God could and would rescue his beloved creation from those disasters. It is the foundation of God’s judgment – his rescuing, restorative judgment – of the world he loves.

Meanwhile, covenant is the bible’s ancient way of describing how God interacts with the humans that populate his creation. A “covenant” is a treaty or a contract, an, arrangement between ruler and subjects. At crucial points in Israel’s history (and prehistory), YHWH is depicted entering into a series of covenants with the Hebrew patriarchs. Noah, Abram, Jacob, David and Solomon each have covenant-renewing encounters with God. Each time the circumstances and terms are unique and contemporary, but the central promise from God is the same: to make his name, presence and blessing known to the whole world through his special relationship with Israel. By the time of the exile, prophets like Jeremiah (see Chapter 31) are rethinking the notion of covenant altogether, anticipating a radical new type of arrangement between God and all people (not just Israel). While creation describes the ancient, unchanging love relationship between God and the natural world, covenant concerns the ongoing and ever-evolving love relationship with human beings. To see how both come together to inform the hope of judgment, consider a passage like Psalm 96:

11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 Let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before YHWH, for he comes,
for he comes to judge earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the people in his faithfulness.

B. Jesus and New Creation, New Covenant

Christians have historically been fixated on “judgment day” and the eternal fates of individual sinners, with little consideration for the fate of the world or – worse yet – an assumption that the world as we know it has already been scheduled for demolition. We have lost the threads of creation and covenant, and in so doing imagined a scenario of final judgment which is detached from the bible’s own vision of global hope and justice. Does the New Testament abandon the Hebrew Bible’s vision of God the good judge, rescuing and redeeming all creation? Certainly not. Romans Chapter 8 and the concluding chapters of John’s gospel are two prominent texts that connect the resurrection of Jesus with the advent of a new creation, as the natural world itself prepares to be reborn and refreshed. (See here for more on Romans and new creation, and here for more on new creation in John.) The stunning announcement of these texts is that, along with Jesus, the entire world that God loves is now bracing itself for long-awaited rescue.

Elsewhere, Jesus famously picks up Jeremiah’s new covenant language (see the Last Supper narrative in Luke 22), indicating that his own prophetic announcement (and imminent death and resurrection) is the herald of God’s “new deal,” a new type of arrangement between humans and the divine, an arrangement not written on stone tablets or in law books, but “written on the hearts” of human beings. Creation is renewed, and so are humans, no longer obligated to laws, rituals and religion, but free to know God and join with all creation in anticipation of judgment and rescue.

C. Summary – Restoration Not Retribution

Bleak “judgment day” scenarios are usually extrapolated from parables (like Matthew 25) and visions (like Revelation 20) that are taken out of their immediate contexts and the broader context of creation and covenant. God’s judgment of human beings, according to the bible’s own voices, is not an arbitrary and vindictive crashing of our earthly party. It represents one aspect of a much wider and more wonderful vision of rescue and redemption for every rock, tree, bird, squirrel and human being that God created and loves. But if, as we’ve considered and demonstrated, biblical eschatology is chiefly concerned with new and improved life here in this world, what are we to make of the bible’s talk about heaven?

III. HEAVEN: A FUTURE FOR GOD

“I have lifted my hand to YHWH, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:22)

“YHWH is in His holy temple; YHWH’s throne is in heaven;” (Psalm 11:4)

“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:22)

It may seem odd to frame a discussion about heaven around the question of God’s future, but this propels us quickly to the heart of the matter. For too long we have thought about “heaven” strictly in terms of location. Our notion of heaven is typically that of a compound in outer space where God lives, and where we hope to go ourselves someday if our salvation is true. This is not how heaven is conceptualized in the bible.

A. The Hebrew Bible: Heaven Is Where God Is

One of the major surprises when we start paying close attention to Hebrew Bible’s presentation of heaven is that the dead people are not seen going there when they die. A few lucky individuals are “taken up” into heaven (e.g. Enoch and Elijah), but these are rare instances of passing from the one dimension directly into the other. The dead instead are collected in sheol, the abode of the dead, to join with their ancestors and await resurrection on the “last day.”

The ubiquitous phrase “heaven and earth” has two possible connotations in the Hebrew Bible: It can refer to the sky and the land, the physical contents of the created world, or it can refer to the two realms of creation: “earth,” the physical reality in which you and I are hanging about right now, and “heaven,” the realm of elohim and his reality. Elohim’s heaven is the place from which he rules over all of creation, the “administrative offices.” And while we have often imagined heaven in terms of an extreme (and unbiblical) dualism wherein heaven is the good place far far away from this bad place, the biblical language about heaven describes a reality much closer and more immanent. Heaven is a place which pushes up against earth, and which promises one day to overtake it.

Occasionally the thin curtain between the realms of earth and heaven is pulled back, and we get a glimpse “backstage.” A dramatic example of this is Jacob’s experience at Bethel and his dream of a “ladder to heaven” in Genesis 28. Elsewhere, in the Torah and the Prophets, the Temple emerges as the point at which the two dimensions meet, where God dwells in His created world and rules over it. Ezekiel goes so far as to envision the power and presence of God – which constitute “heaven” itself – flooding the abandoned Temple and flowing outward to fill the whole world with new life (Ezekiel 43). This is an explicitly eschatological dream that heaven will ultimately overwhelm the earth.

B. The New Testament: Heaven Is Already Invading Earth

The language of our English New Testaments may feed our confusion on the topic of heaven. We read Jesus’ announcement of the “Kingdom of God” (In Mark and Luke) or (more confusingly) the “Kingdom of Heaven” (in Matthew) and we envision a giant castle floating in the clouds. God lives in a kingdom, and someday I hope to go there. Once we adjust our understanding and hear “kingdom” as “rule” or “reign,” we immediately discover the connection between Jesus’ announcement and the eschatological hopes of his Jewish compatriots. The expectation was that God would arrive to rescue Israel and redeem the world, and Jesus announced that this was happening during and because of his prophetic campaign.

The picture of heaven colliding with earth is even more stark in the New Testament than we might recognize. In 1 Corinthians 15 (again) Paul speaks of “our heavenly bodies,” which we might take for a reference to “the bodies will have when we are in heaven,” but which in context seems to mean “the bodies we will inherit at resurrection which will come from heaven,” from God’s realm into the newly recreated world. Furthermore, in Romans 8 the apostle describes creation as “longing to be set free from its bondage to corruption.” This is a world waiting to be redeemed, not abandoned or destroyed! But perhaps the most vivid depiction of heaven’s “marriage” to earth is found at the very end of the bible, in Revelation 21 and 22, where the holy city of “New Jerusalem” comes down from heaven and is established on the earth. We are struck with the fundamental similarity between this and Ezekiel’s eschatological temple vision, with the important distinction that in Revelation there is “no temple,” for God’s presence in the world IS its temple.

C. Summary – Oh, Heaven Is a Place On Earth

The overwhelming sense of these and many other bible passages is that somehow, at the end (or rather, the new beginning), God and all of his restorative power is going to be unleashed from heaven onto the earth. With this will come resurrection, judgment, victory, redemption, and new creation. Every eschatological hope we have considered and many more are swallowed up inside this one. When heaven comes to earth, this hope maintains, the whole world is judged and set right, and its inhabitants discover a vibrant future instead of a bleak end.

CONCLUSION: Back to the Future

This is merely a framework for beginning to talk and think constructively about Christian eschatology. Many distinct biblical voices imaginatively explore these hopes and possibilities for their own times and circumstances. Israel’s prophets answered the horror of exile with the hope of divine rescue. Jesus announced judgment and vindication that would come “before this generation passes away.” Paul expected a messianic “appearance” (Greek parousia, what we call the “second coming”) that would bring resurrection  and new creation within his own lifetime. John of Patmos configured his eschatological Revelation around the fall of the Roman Empire. Thinking “biblically” about the future isn’t as simple as opening the book and reading the predictions, imagining them to be for and about us and our circumstances. There is no explicit “blueprint” in the bible for what will unfold in our future. What we discover is a wild and pervasive sense of hope and longing, a diverse collection of visions, poems, dreams and prophecies which manage to come to the same crazy conclusion: that this world has a bright, God-centered future. That what we do now matters, because the world and each of our lives will echo into eternity – not in a vague, disembodied, spiritual sense, but in some kind of redeemed, ongoing, embodied, terrestrial existence. Our best way forward is to find new and creative ways to express this same hope in our own moment, to embrace the expectation of resurrection (new life), judgment (rescued world), and heaven-on-earth in a way that speaks to the crises and fears of our modern world. This would be far more “biblical” and Christian than any doomsday prediction.