Volume 13 - Issue 3
The End is Near. In what sense?By David Wenham
In the gospels Jesus announces that ‘the kingdom of God has come near’ (e.g. Mk. 1:15); in the book of Revelation the heavenly Jesus promises ‘I am coming soon’ (Rev. 22:20). From beginning to end the NT is marked by a sense of urgent expectation, a sense that the countdown for eternity is under way and that it will not be long before ‘the last trumpet call’ (as Paul puts it, 1 Thes. 4:16), before ‘we have lift-off’ (as today’s space scientists might put it, compare 1 Thes. 4:16!).
This feature of the NT is something that has worried ordinary Christians and scholars alike. It looks uncomfortably as though Jesus and the NT writers were wrong. In Jesus’ teaching there is not just a general sense of urgency, but specific statements about things happening in a generation; for example in Mark 9:1 Jesus says, ‘Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God having come with power’ (compare also Mt. 10:23; Mk. 13:30 and parallel passages). Elsewhere in the NT the most striking evidence is in the teaching of Paul, for example in 1 Corinthians 7 where he appears to advocate celibacy on the grounds that the time before the end is short (7:29), and especially in 1 and 2 Thessalonians where excitement about the end seems very high. In 1 Thessalonians 4 the Thessalonian Christians are described as grieving over lost loved ones, and it seems that their grief was because they had not reckoned with believers dying before the Lord’s return. This expectation of a near end is something that they presumably learned from Paul, even if they misunderstood exactly what he meant (for Paul’s teaching see 1 Thes. 1:10; 4:15; etc.).
What are we, who live in 1988, to make of these first-century expectations? A very widely held view is that we should recognize that Jesus and the first Christians were mistaken. Many scholars take this view, and argue that the church of NT times had to come to terms with the ‘delay of the parousia’ and with the fact that its initial hopes and expectations were not fulfilled. They see this adjustment of perspective as something that is very important for an understanding of the NT, both for the understanding of particular texts such as John 21:20–23 and 2 Peter 3, but also more broadly; for example, they see the shift of perspective reflected in Luke’s writings as a whole, since he (supposedly) thinks in terms of Jesus’ history and the church’s history rather than in terms of a near end, and also in John’s Gospel with its emphasis on eternal life now in the Spirit rather than on eternal life in the future at the Lord’s return.
As for the theological difficulty for Christians of admitting that Jesus and his first followers were mistaken, this is seen as unavoidable. In our understanding of incarnation we must allow for the fact that Jesus’ humanity was such that he erred over the chronology of the end (as did many of his prophetic predecessors). Jesus himself admitted his ignorance of the future (Mk. 13:32). He was a real man of his times, and the divine word was expressed in and through human and culturally conditioned forms. Compare also Jesus’ strange, but culturally explicable, use of the OT.
This view is held by reputable and sincere scholars, but has been questioned and contested by others. First, on the theological issue: although it is important to take Jesus’ humanity seriously, it is not easy to reconcile anything like the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus with the view that he was a mistaken Jewish visionary. His supposedly erroneous views are expressed emphatically, not incidentally—note the ‘truly, I say to you’ in Mark 9:1, Matthew 10:23 and Mark 13:30; and, although he did not claim omniscience (Mk. 13:32), he did claim divine authority for his teaching (Mk. 13:31; Jn. 17:8; etc.). To question the truth of this claim and the reliability of Jesus as teacher is to question something very basic for Christian faith. The simple questions, ‘If he was wrong here, why should we trust him elsewhere?’ and, ‘How can we distinguish the divine truth of his teaching from the human error?’ are difficult to answer.
But the view is also contested exegetically: many scholars deny that the early church was gripped with eschatological excitement and consider that worry about ‘the delay of the parousia’ is more a problem to modern scholars than it was to the early church. The particular texts which seem to speak of a near end can be otherwise explained: for example, Mark 9:1 with its reference to ‘some standing here’ seeing the kingdom of God has been taken by good scholars to refer either to the transfiguration, or to the resurrection, or to the destruction of Jerusalem; Paul’s concern about the coming crisis in 1 Corinthians 7 could refer to some particular local crisis in Corinth. It is also pointed out that, although texts such as these may be taken to suggest a near end, other texts point in a different direction: Jesus speaks in his parables of the master going away on a long journey (Mt. 24, 25); he tells his disciples that they will have to endure patiently, and that there is a missionary task to all the nations to be fulfilled (e.g. Mk. 13:10–13); he gives ethical instructions, for example about marriage and divorce, which presuppose a period of ongoing life in this age before the end. This evidence is often left out of account and/or ascribed to the church rather than to Jesus; but it is not obvious that this is justified, and we must beware of ignoring evidence that happens not to fit our hypothesis very easily.
As for the general sense of urgency which seems to pervade the New Testament, this is variously explained: for example, one view is that some of the promises of a near end were conditional (e.g. conditional on the preaching of the gospel) and that the conditions were not fulfilled. Another view is that the ‘urgency’ of the NT is to be understood as metaphorical and existential rather than as literal and chronological: in other words, the NT’s eschatological language is designed not to give information about the timing of the end, but to stress the importance of coming to terms with the demanding message of Jesus.
A recent book
An interesting book which enters this whole area of debate and which has many useful things to say is Dale Allison’s The End of the Ages has come. An early interpretation of the passion and resurrection of Jesus(Philadelphia: Fortress; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1985, 194 pp, $19.95). This is a reasonably popular version of the doctoral thesis of one of America’s most significant younger scholars.
Allison sides firmly with those who believe that Jesus and the early church understood his ministry ‘eschatologically’, in other words as bringing the end of the old age and the beginning of the new age of the kingdom. And he rejects the metaphorical/existential interpretations of the eschatological language.
Allison argues his case in particular in connection with Jesus’ death and resurrection. He observes that there was a widespread expectation among the Jews of Jesus’ time that there would be a great tribulation at the end of the present age and that this would usher in the new age of resurrection. He claims that Jesus’ death and resurrection were understood in this context. John’s gospel is quite explicit in speaking of Jesus’ death as the ‘judgment’ of this world (something eschatological, see 12:31); but the thought is implicit also elsewhere in the NT. Allison sees it, for example, in the Markan description of the crucifixion: he notes, among other things, the darkness at midday, linking it with Amos 8:9–10, and the rending of the veil, being a sign of judgment on the temple; he notes too the numerous echoes in the gospel passion narratives of the eschatological prophecies of Zechariah 9–14. He refers to the mysterious story in Matthew 27:51–54 about the saints being raised after Jesus’ death: Jesus’ death brings the general resurrection. He notes the Pauline idea of the sufferings of Christ needing to be completed before the end (e.g. Col. 1:24) and his description of the risen Christ as the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). This and other evidence shows that Jesus’ death and resurrection were seen as end-time events.
Allison argues that this understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection goes back to Jesus himself; but he believes that Jesus (in line with normal Jewish expectation) thought in terms of corporate suffering—for himself and his community—and of general resurrection. In fact only he himself died and rose. In the light of what actually happened, the church had to reexpress Jesus’ expectation, and came to see Jesus’ own resurrection as an anticipation of a still future general resurrection.
Allison ends up then admitting that Jesus and the early church were mistaken. Jesus was mistaken in that he did not anticipate his own resurrection as distinct from the general resurrection of God’s people; he expected the general resurrection and the final breaking in of the kingdom imminently. Jesus’ followers were mistaken in that they continued to anticipate a near end.
How is Allison’s book to be assessed? It has many good ingredients, and its main thesis about the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection is helpful and probably correct. In going to the cross Jesus underwent the sufferings and judgment of the end-time, and in his resurrection he experienced the end-time conquest of death. He is also probably correct to say that Jesus’ understanding of his ministry had a strong corporate dimension: he associates Jesus’ use of the expression ‘Son of man’ with the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7 who represents the people of God. However, he oversimplifies when he concludes from these points that Jesus must have seen his own sufferings and resurrection as part and parcel of the general tribulation and the general resurrection of the last days. This does not necessarily follow from the evidence: there is a considerable amount of evidence suggesting that Jesus saw his own eschatological role as vicarious(i.e. on behalf of others) and as anticipatory; so an alternative, and we suggest, more satisfactory explanation is that Jesus saw his own sufferings and resurrection as an experience of eschatological judgment and vindication which he underwent for the sake of others in anticipation of the general judgment and resurrection. Perhaps even more accurately we should speak of Jesus’ experience anticipating and also inaugurating the end-time events. So what he does and experiences his followers do and experience after him and with him, whether it is manifesting the kingdom in power or sharing his sufferings.
The evidence that Jesus saw his ministry as vicarious is considerable. Take Mark 10:45, for example. It is probably true that ‘Son of man’ is an expression with corporate overtones; but Jesus often uses the expression to describe his ministry to others and not simply to express his identity with others. Mark 10:45 illustrates the point: ‘The Son of man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many’. Here we have the expression ‘Son of man’ probably combined with the idea of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 (another OT idea with corporate overtones); and the thought here is that Jesus’ death is not simply part of the shared tribulations of the people of God, but is something undergone by Jesus personally on behalf of the people of God. Jesus’ death is eschatological judgment, but it is judgment taken by Jesus for the people—an idea with a strong OT background not only in the Isaianic servant passages, but also in Zechariah.
The idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection anticipating the final judgment and resurrection fits in with the present and future tenses of Jesus’ kingdom teaching elsewhere in the gospel tradition. Allison writes about the tension in the gospels between the presence and future of the kingdom as follows: ‘The seeming contradiction between the presence of the kingdom of God and its futurity is dissolved when one realizes that Jewish thinking could envision the final events—the judgment of evil and the arrival of the kingdom of God—as extending over time, and as a process or series of events that could involve the present. When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has come and is coming, this means that the last act has begun but has not yet reached its climax; the last things have come and will come. Already, in the person and activity of Jesus, the kingdom of God is present. Even though the consummation remains outstanding, in him eschatological promises are being fulfilled. The kingdom of God is conceived as “a total event … composed of several significant parts which together make up that whole”—and several of the episodes that constitute that total event have already transpired’ (Allison, pp. 105, 106, including a quotation from Robert Berkey). Allison here recognizes that Jesus understood the kingdom to have come in his ministry in a partial way, but he does not see that it makes very good sense to put Jesus’ teaching on his death and resurrection into this context and to see them as key events in the process of the kingdom’s coming, but as distinct chronologically from the consummation of everything.
A general weakness with Allison’s book, as with many other treatments of Jesus’ eschatology, is that it underestimates the complexity of Jesus’ future expectation, offering too simple an explanation of it. The ingredients that we need to reckon with include: (a) his predictions of his own death and resurrection; (b) his teaching about his ‘going away’ (in the synoptic parables and in John’s gospel); (c) his teaching about his coming on the clouds of heaven and about the day of final judgment (e.g. Mk. 13:24–27); (d) his warnings about judgment to come on Jerusalem and the Jewish nation, this being something that is to come in a generation and is apparently distinct from final judgment (e.g. Mt. 23:36–39; Mk. 13:14–20); (e) his sayings about Christian living and the mission of the church, including mission to Gentiles; (f) his acknowledgment of his ignorance about the time of the end (Mk. 13:32; Acts 1:7); (g) his promise of the coming and work of the Holy Spirit (e.g. in Jn. 14–16).
It is common for scholars faced with such a variety of evidence to oversimplify it, either by denying that some of the strands go back to Jesus, and/or by putting different ingredients together, which are certainly connected but which should probably be distinguished from each other. So Allison too simply lumps Jesus’ predictions of his death and resurrection with the final judgment. Others oversimplify in other ways: for example, Marcus Borg, whose book was discussed in the last edition of Themelios, plays down ideas of general resurrection and the like, arguing that the sayings about the final coming of the Son of man are simply pictorial descriptions of the historical judgment of Jerusalem. Such views oversimplify the richness of Jesus’ eschatological teaching. Can we suggest a better analysis?
Towards a solution
We suggest that such an analysis would probably be on the following lines:
- We should agree with Allison and many other NT scholars that Jesus and his followers did believe that the last days had come with Jesus. Jesus’ own announcement of the kingdom was not the proclamation of God’s eternal rule or presence, but was an announcement that God’s promises in the OT for his people’s salvation were now being fulfilled in and through his ministry (e.g. Mt. 13:16–17; ch. 11). God’s planned intervention had come; this was very exciting good news.
- However, Allison is right to say that Jesus envisaged the coming of the kingdom as a process extending over time. We are reminded of Jesus’ seed parables which picture the kingdom as something small and growing. Jesus may well have told these kingdom parables to those of his followers who were hoping for an immediate consummation. Another NT picture is that of a military campaign—a campaign against Satan which Jesus began and which will one day be completely won (cf. Mk. 3:22–27; 1 Cor. 15:24–26). During the time of growth and campaign Jesus seeks to win people over to his side; he invites them to join his campaign and to identify with God’s chosen people. The people of God are not now defined by race, but by faith in the Messiah of God, Jesus himself, the representative Son of man.
- The coming of the kingdom is not simply a continuous process but, as Allison correctly argues, it is a process comprising a series of events. The process is inaugurated in Jesus’ ministry and Jesus points in his ministry to signs of God’s intervention and restoration of his people (cf. Mt. 11:2–5). But the decisive event in the process, both for Jesus and for the authors of the NT, is, remarkably, the crucifixion: this is the supreme battle with Satan (see the struggle of Gethsemane and Jn. 12:31); it is the new Exodus event bringing liberation to the people of God and the new covenant (see the passover context of the Last Supper); it is the sacrificial judgment-bearing death of the Servant of God (e.g. Mk. 10:45). The coming of the kingdom involves the fulfilment of OT prophecies, and the cross is just such a fulfilment.
Although the cross marks the turning point in the kingdom campaign, there are more events to follow: the resurrection is the defeat of death and an anticipation and guarantee of the eschatological resurrection. The giving of the Holy Spirit is a further eschatological sign, part of the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 and fulfilment of Joel 3:1ff. Negatively, Jerusalem and the Jewish nation are judged for their rejection of the Messiah, but positively the Gentiles are brought in (again in fulfilment of prophecy). The end of the process after the evangelization of all nations will be the return of the Lord: then final judgment will take place, Christ’s victory will be won, and God’s glorious purposes for his world will be fulfilled.
It may be helpful to picture this understanding of NT eschatology as in the diagram at the foot of the page.
- It is Jesus who establishes God’s rule and conquers Satan—in his ministry (e.g. his exorcisms, cf. Mt. 12:28), through his death and resurrection, and (looking to the future) in his coming again. But the kingdom is not Jesus doing various things on his own; it is Jesus doing things for others and then with others. Jesus announces the good news of the kingdom to others; he invites people to share in the life of the kingdom and to join the kingdom campaign (‘follow me’)—with all its joys and sorrows. Jesus is the promised Messiah of the people of God, the representative Son of man, whose mission is to gather around him the eschatological people of God, to bring them into fellowship with God as his children, and to fulfil God’s purposes (so often proclaimed in the OT) of bringing not just Jews but all nations into his people.
So Jesus’ followers were not just spectators of the eschatological process. They experienced both the fulfilment of God’s promises to send a Saviour and Messiah and the fulfilment of God’s promises to restore his people. They were both recipients of God’s longed-for salvation (e.g. ‘this is my body which is given for you’. Compare 1 Peter 2:21–25 for the idea of Christ suffering ‘for you’), and also participants in the eschatological life and mission of Jesus, including his sufferings (e.g. ‘let him take up his cross and follow me’. Compare 1 Peter 4:12–19 for the idea of Christ’s followers sharing in his sufferings and eschatological tribulation.) Despite their misconceptions, the disciples were not wrong to be excited over their own privileged position in the new people of God and in the eschatological process (cf. Mt. 13:16–17; 19:28).
- If this more or less was Jesus’ understanding of the coming of the kingdom (and that of his followers), we can appreciate very well the sense of urgency and excitement among the disciples as they approached Jerusalem (e.g. Lk. 19:11; 24:21): they knew that something decisively important to do with the coming of the kingdom was going to take place there, but they did not (of course) understand it as Jesus himself did. We can also appreciate the eschatological excitement of the early church: they were aware that God had intervened in Jesus to establish his rule: they could see that rule in process of coming in the series of dramatic events connected with Jesus, culminating in his resurrection and in Pentecost, and they were naturally and rightly looking forward eagerly to the completion of the process. Looking back, as we do, over nearly 2,000 years, we inevitably have a different perspective: the campaign has gone on a very long time. But they had no means of knowing that (any more than we know now how much longer it will be until the end): they were aware that the eschatological drama was well advanced, and urgent and excited expectancy was (and remains) right and proper. In terms of the divine timetable of the end, the end is near and has been near since the coming of Jesus.
- Did Jesus and his followers make mistaken predictions about a near end? Certainly Jesus expected decisive eschatological events to happen within the lifetime of his contemporaries. But if, as we have argued (points 2 and 3 above), Jesus’ expectation was that the kingdom would come as a process comprising a series of events, it is quite possible that what he definitely expected soon was not the end itself, but only some of its stages. Allison dismisses this interpretation much too quickly, and takes the texts in question (Mk. 9:1; Mt. 10:23; Mk. 13:30) as of the end. But it is unlikely that the evangelists all took this view, and there is no need to attribute the view to Jesus.
In his valuable and readable new book on The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP, 1987) Craig Blomberg comments as follows on the texts in question: ‘None of the verses cited above should be taken to mean that Jesus mistakenly believed that he would return to earth in the first century. In fact, each has several alternative interpretations that are more likely. Perhaps the best are that in Mark 9:1 Jesus was referring to his subsequent transfiguration as an important foreshadowing of his final coming “in power”, that in Mark 13:30 the “all things” do not include his return but only the signs leading up to his return, and that in Matthew 10:23 he is predicting the continually incomplete mission of preaching to all the Jews’ (pp. 33, 34). An alternative interpretation of Matthew 10:23 is to understand it as speaking of the judgment of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem (compare the similar wording in Mt. 23:33–36). But Blomberg is right to query the view that Jesus made incorrect predictions.
Jesus in fact made it clear that he did not know the time of the end: thus in Mark 13:32 he says: ‘But of that day and hour knows noone, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (cf. Acts 1:7). Allison takes this saying as an assertion on Jesus’ part that he did not know the precise moment within the generation when the end would come (rather than as a more comprehensive statement of ignorance about the time of the end); but this interpretation is probably an example of his tendency to oversimplify: in Mark 13 (and the parallel chapters) two aspects of the future are discussed: the judgment of the Jews (vv. 14–20) and the final judgment (vv. 21–27), and, whereas Mark 13:30 speaks of the judgment of the Jews as coming in a generation, 13:32 speaks of something different (notice the ‘but’): it speaks of ‘that day’—in other words of the day of final judgment and consummation. These texts in Mark 13 are not isolated: elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching, and also in Paul’s, there is warning of imminent judgment on the Jews, but also an emphasis on the unpredictability of the end, which will come like a thief (e.g. Mt. 23:33–36; 24:42–46; 1 Thes. 2:16; 5:1ff.).
Where does all this leave us today? Allison does not appear to consider that we can continue to believe in the nearness of the end in the way Jesus and his contemporaries did. However, if the analysis proposed above is correct, there is nothing in the teaching of Jesus or his followers about the last days having broken in with Jesus and the end being near that we cannot embrace (even though our chronological perspective is longer: but this does not make any practical difference). Indeed, it is arguable that one of the things which the church today needs most is a good dose of the excitement, urgency and hope that the first Christians had because they understood the eschatological significance of Jesus and looked forward to his coming soon. The NT itself makes it clear that we must beware of distracting and ill-founded speculation about the end and in particular about the time of the end. Such speculation has often brought the whole notion of eschatology into disrepute. However we must not abandon eschatology because of the excesses of some interpreters (any more than we must abandon our faith in the power and reality of the Holy Spirit because of some charismatic excesses). The NT offers sober hope, not encouragement for eschatological guess-work. Such hope is good news, and news that people need to hear, in a dangerous and drifting world. It is also a powerful incentive to sacrificial Christian living in a selfish and materialistic world. Jesus is making all things new, and calls us to share in his liberating mission to the world. His promise is, ‘I am coming soon’; may we respond by our lives and our words, ‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev. 22:20).
It is a time of change for Themelios editors and committee. David Wright of New College, Edinburgh, is stepping down as editor in church history, having served in that capacity since the founding of Themelios in its present form (in 1975) and having contributed an immense amount to the journal. Paul Woodbridge is also leaving the editorial team, having been appointed to the staff of Oak Hill College in London; as British TSF Secretary he has carried much of the administrative burden of Themelios for a good many years. Our sincere thanks go to both of them, as indeed to all who help in the editing and production of Themelios.