Forgotten Saturday

I am knee deep in research for my LATC paper in January on the relationship between the burial of Jesus and eschatology. The day between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, or Holy Saturday, was until recently, in my experience and thought, relatively unimportant. Mark Davis’ words capture my, and perhaps many Christians’, view of this middle day.

. . . even when the burial remains in a church’s reading as part of the Passion Sunday or Good Friday lection, it is overlooked in lieu of the crucifixion itself, or of the hints of the resurrection found in the elaborate detail of guards and the Chief Priest’s anticipations of foul play with Jesus’ body by the disciples. After all, touching though it is, one is tempted to see Joseph’s burial of Jesus as just a necessary moment along the way from the cross to the empty tomb, as opposed to having meaning in itself (Int 60.1 [2006]: 76, emphasis mine).

My own opinion, though, is that there is much redemptive activity, theo-drama (to borrow a phrase from von Balthasar and Vanhoozer), going on. It may be behind the scenes and invisible to our fallible physical eyes, but I’m increasingly convinced that it is not arbitrary that Jesus spent three days (rather than 3 hours or 3 minutes or even no time at all) in the tomb.

There have been a number of options put forth throughout church history, and many are probably most familiar with the idea of the harrowing of hell. In this view Christ descends to the supposed limbo of the just (righteous Jews and pagans who lived before Christ) to release them into heaven, or maybe purgatory. Von Balthasar innovated on this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and said Christ descended, in Catholic cosmology, to the very depths of hell, where his whole person experienced the full wrath of God, separating him from the Father and the Spirit.  I find this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine to be a late medieval development and relying on unbiblical positions regarding covenantal continuity, justification, and cosmology, and von Balthasar’s innovation seems to me to be a Trinitarian impossibility.

Both of these positions, however erroneous they may be (and I find them both to be biblically unjustifiable), do still bring out an important part of Christ’s work, namely his defeat of death and Hades. Christians historically have confessed that this is the purpose of Christ’s time in the tomb on Holy Saturday. Luther captures what I think is the more biblical position on this matter when he says in his Sermon at Torgau (1533) that Christ descended to Hades and ” . . . destroyed the power of hell and stripped the devil of all his might.” Christ in his death – not only in his crucifixion but in his burial – defeated death, Hades (the place of the dead), and the devil. This is part of the meaning of Holy Saturday. We of course cannot separate the cross from the resurrection, and we also ought not to separate Holy Saturday from Good Friday and Easter Sunday. They are each part of the one work of Christ, which stretches from his life, death, burial, and resurrection to his ascension and sending of the Spirit and ultimately to his return. Each piece accomplishes the unified but still distinct parts of redemption. While Christ’s crucifixion vicariously substitutes and his resurrection inaugurates the new creation, his burial is the defeat of death and Hades. While he is sealed in the tomb he is binding the strong man.

 

Book Review: Essential Eschatology

John Phelan wants to convince readers of Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013) that, “Far from being at the periphery of the faith, it is no exaggeration to say that eschatology is the heart of Christianity” (11). Phelan, who serves as Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary, believes that “. . . Christianity . . . is eschatological to its core” (17), primarily due to the fact that Israel’s future hope is consummated in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, a hope in which the church now participates. In ten chapters, Phelan seeks to convince readers that eschatology is centered on the person and work of Jesus and the subsequent kingdom-centered missional task of the church, rather than on timelines and charts of the end times. Chapter topics include the church and the kingdom (chs. 2, 5, and 7), resurrection (ch. 3), the second coming, which includes judgment (ch. 4), Jesus’ return (ch. 6), and the millennium (ch. 8), and Israel and the church (chs. 9 and 10).

Essential Eschatology succeeds time and again at demonstrating how eschatology is central to the Christian faith, namely because it shows how this often controversial doctrine is focused on Jesus’ life and work rather than on differing views of the rapture and millennium. By shifting the reader’s gaze from theories of reading Revelation onto the person and work of Jesus, Phelan breathes new life into a systematic loci that is often ignored, passed over, or summarized with a simplistic “it’ll all pan out in the end.” Too often eschatology is relegated to a last lecture in a theology class or avoided altogether in the church, on the one hand, or it is forced to focus on timelines, charts, and matching current events with texts from Daniel and Revelation on the other hand. Rather than either of these two options, according to Phelan, “Christian eschatology is a critical source of hope, not just in the future but in the present as well” (48). This is because Jesus fulfills the hope of Israel as articulated in the Old Testament, brings the end of time into the middle of time in his life, death, and resurrection, and empowers the church through his Spirit to live between the times as signs of his inaugurated kingdom. Church life is thus life in the last days, an eschatological life that both lives in the power of Christ’s inaugurated end times work and in anticipation of the consummation of it at his second coming. Additionally, Phelan correctly notes that this future hope for the church is not one of unbodily existence in an ethereal sphere, but a thoroughly physical renewal of all creation in which the church dwells with God. Phelan should be thoroughly commended for re-focusing this vitally important doctrine on Jesus and his renewal of all things rather than on charts and tables.

That being said, there are a few cautions for readers. First, Phelan appears to buy in to the typical bifurcation between Old Testament teaching and New Testament thought, namely in his assumption that the OT does not say anything definitive about hoping for the resurrection until very late (51-59) or about the afterlife. This “developmental” view of doctrine is apparent in a number of places (e.g. his discussion of the law, p. 93). In my opinion this does not do justice to the complex and often narratival way that the same doctrines we find taught in the epistolary literature of the NT are also taught conceptually in the OT. For instance, John Levinson has demonstrated that death and resurrection, specifically of the “beloved son”, is a recurring motif in the OT. While this may not be the same type of expression as, for instance, Dan. 12:2, it should not be discarded as a possible background for NT teaching on resurrection.

A second critique from my perspective is Phelan’s postmillennialism, specifically of the Wright-ian variety. Phelan is obviously indebted to N. T. Wright, and especially to Surprised by Hope, for his articulations of eschatology, so it should be no surprise to see Phelan talk about “practicing resurrection” (e.g. 33) and giving a very strong view of the church’s ability to change culture in ways that will be carried over into the new heavens and new earth. Not only do I find his postmillennial arguments unconvincing, I also think he incorrectly ties amillennialism to Constantianism. Even for those who identify with transformationalism rather than a two kingdoms approach or separatist approach, Phelan seems to me to go a bridge too far on the church’s ability to transform culture and on the biblical warrants for postmillennialism.

For these two reasons, as well as some other lingering questions, I would recommend this book, but only for situations that provided an opportunity for me to critique and correct. A college or seminary classroom, or perhaps an advanced level Sunday school class, would be ideal. Phelan is an engaging and clear writer, and corrects many of the misconceptions about this doctrine. He should be commended for showing how Jesus is central to eschatology and for demonstrating that the church’s power and hope lies in Christ’s end times inaugurating work that will be consummated at his return. I highly recommend it for this reason. Still, for the two cautions noted above, I recommend it for settings in which the teacher or professor has the opportunity to engage it critically with his or her audience.

**Thanks to Adrianna Wright and IVP Academic for providing a review copy.

The Importance of Eschatology

Last night a friend asked me two questions via Twitter: why is eschatology important, and what are the dangers of holding an incorrect eschatology? I responded with a few 140 character bytes, but wanted to flesh those out a bit more here. I don’t know the motivations for my friend’s questions, but I’d imagine that, for many Christians, the first is borne out of a few popular assumptions about the doctrine, namely that it a) only deals with the very end of history, b) is tertiary and therefore relatively unimportant, and c) is basically summed up in the Left Behind series. None of these assumptions, though, at least in my opinion, strikes at the heart of this vitally important doctrine. So then, what about my friend’s questions?

First, why is eschatology important?

  1. Eschatology is important because the whole Bible is eschatological. The Old Testament moves forward with eschatological messianic hope (Sailhamer’s phrase) and culminates in Jesus’ first coming. The “last days” promised by the Old Testament, in which Yahweh comes to Israel and sends his Messianic Davidic king, Israel and the nations experience the tribulation, resurrection and the giving of the Spirit occur, etc., are inaugurated in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. But the NT structure demonstrates the bipartite nature of the last days; they are inaugurated at Christ’s first coming, but not consummated until his second. So the NT also looks forward and is imbued with a similar eschatological messianic hope, this time looking forward to his return.
  2. Eschatology is important because it provides the context and motivation for missions. As far as the former is concerned, the “last days” are the days in which we now live, and thus missions is set in the context of continuing to fulfill God’s promises to Israel through the church’s mission to the nations. The in-gathering of the Gentiles was part of the “last days” OT promises, and it is primarily this promise that continues to be fulfilled in the church’s evangelistic efforts around the globe. Concerning motivation, both Christ’s giving of the Spirit in the last days and the immanence of his return give Christians the proper impetus for sharing the gospel. They are empowered, and thus motivated, to do so by Christ’s Spirit, and they are compelled by their knowledge of his sudden return, a return that could happen at any moment. Knowing that unbelievers will spend eternity in the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8) ought to motivate all Christians to share the gospel liberally.
  3. Eschatology is important because it provides the shape of the Christian life. Salvation, and specifically sanctification, are embedded in the already/not yet shape of Christ’s work, namely that he has already paid the penalty for sin, defeated God’s enemies, and restored creation in his resurrected body but has not yet consummated these things in his final judgment at the second coming. In his application of his work to us by his Spirit, we thus benefit from his work in each of these areas, but still suffer from indwelling sin, sin that will not be ultimately removed and destroyed until his return.
  4. Finally (at least for this post), eschatology is important because it gives shape to human history. The end of time has dropped into the middle of time in Christ’s work. Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit bring to the world new creation (in his life, and especially in his miracles, and in his resurrected body), the defeat of God’s enemies and his reign over all the world (in his death, resurrection, and ascension), and the ability of his people to obey (through his own obedience on our behalf and its application to us in his giving of the Spirit).

Second, what are the dangers of an incorrect eschatology? I’m going to briefly note one danger I see in each of the typical eschatological positions. Much more could be said here, but this post is already long.

  1. Concerning postmillenial perspectives, there is the danger of having an over-realized eschatology, and especially one which attempts to bring about the effects of Christ’s work in this world through our own efforts, whether they be ecumenical, political, or social.
  2. Concerning premillennial perspectives, and especially pre-tribulational perspectives, there is the danger of abandoning the world to its own devices, believing that Christ’s kingdom will have no tangible effects on this life until his millennial reign. Further, from a pre-tribulational perspective, abandonment is sometimes derived from an emphasis on the tribulation period, in which God destroys most of what exists now, and on an understanding of “new heavens and new earth” that sees no continuity with this present creation.
  3. Finally, concerning amillennial perspectives, there is the danger of complacency with respect to Christ’s return. While the immanence of Christ’s return is especially palpable in a pre-trib pre-mil perspective, amillennials, at least in my reading, tend to so emphasize Christ’s first coming as the beginning of the last days that they under-emphasize his return, and especially its immanence.

So, what do you think? What am I missing? Would you articulate any of the points above differently, or strike one or more altogether?

 

A Good Word About Eschatology

From Craig Blaising, “The Day of the Lord Will Come: An Exposition of 2 Peter 3:1-18,” Bibliotheca Sacra 169 (2012), 387-401 –

     …in spite of [the] apostolic emphasis on the relevance of Old Testament prophecy, many today avoid the topic of eschatology. Many pastors do not preach on it, and many teachers do not teach it. And why is that? Because, they say, it is controversial.

But what part of theology is not controversial? . . . Any area of theology can become controversial. That does not excuse us from an obligation to study and understand God’s Word nor from the responsibility of declaring to the church the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).

Pastoral neglect of eschatology has a negative impact on sanctification because such neglect hinders the church’s maturation in hope. Hope and holiness go together (388-89).

Intersections Between Biblical and Systematic Theology

My field is technically biblical theology, but I’ve found that the most helpful scholars are well-rounded and able to connect the disciplines. Additionally, in my PhD studies I came to the rather outlandish idea (*sarcasm*) that biblical studies, biblical theology, systematic theology (including historical and philosophical sub-disciplines), practical theology, and homiletics ought to form an interconnected whole. This of course is not an idea original to me, but SEBTS helped me to understand it and practice it. Recently I’ve been thinking specifically about the intersection between biblical and systematic theology. I wonder if specific biblical theological themes, such as the Temple, can help us not only connect BT and ST but also categories within ST?

For instance, as the Temple is the place where God meets man, so it is also may be a place where Christology meets eschatology.

Within the doctrine of Christology, one of the most important Old Testament identity markers for the person of Christ is that of Temple. Jesus’ identification of himself with the Temple of God helps theologians to develop a robust Christological identity that includes Christ’s rule over all things, his priestly office of reconciliation, his function as the restored image of God, and his communication of the real presence of God with humankind.

Not only does this help theologians identify and characterize the person of Christ, though, but it also aids them in connecting Christology with eschatology. The doctrine of eschatology is rooted in God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament, and they can be summed up in the expectation that Yahweh will return to rule over his enemies, reconcile Israel to himself, restore Israel to be the image bearers of God, and dwell with them through his real presence.

These expectations are all realized in Jesus’ identification of himself as the Temple, and thus the Christological identity of Jesus as Temple functions also to define the eschatological reality of the inaugurated last days.

WHO IS ISRAEL?: A PERSPECTIVE FROM AMOS 7-9

Defining who “Israel” is can prove to be a difficult task because of the ambiguity of the term. In the book of the Twelve, “Israel” can refer to the restored covenantal people (Amos 9:7-10), the Northern Kingdom (Amos 5:1-3), Southern Kingdom (Mal 2:11), or an idealised future community of faith (Zech. 12:1-14:21).[1] The ambiguity does not just occur in different books of the Hebrew Bible, but even occurs within books.

In Amos 7-9 there are multiple ways to refer to Israel: Jacob, my people Israel, Isaac, House of Jeroboam, House of Israel, Booth of David. The remainder of this essay will describe how Amos 7-9 presents Israel and how this may impact the identity of God’s people.

Beginning in the first two visions (Amos 7:1-3, 4-6) the term “Jacob” is used in conjunction with “small” echoing Gen. 27:15, 42 connoting the historic people of Israel.[2] Thus, Amos’ first two visions are concerned with the longevity of the historic, covenant people of Israel.

Amos’ third vision (Amos 7:7-9) moves beyond historical Israel (7:8) and progresses to the present day divided nation with Yahweh’s claim that he will rise against the house of Jeroboam–the Northern Kingdom (Amos 7:9).

In verses 10-17, the narrative of Amaziah and Amos shows the issue of the Northern Kingdom and the question of Israel. In this narrative, Amaziah distinguishes between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms and makes the claim that the north is the rightful heir of the land and designates Amos, a “seer of Judah”only.[3] Amos’ reply is that his prophetic authority rests beyond the north and south and rests with all of Israel: “my people Israel (7:15).”[4]

After the vision that both the north and the south fill face judgment (8:1-3), Amos 9:11-15 asserts the restoration for all of Israel–the Booth of David. 9:7-8 deconstructs the idea of assuredness resting in election as Amaziah did. Anyone claiming to embody all of “Israel” as God’s people based on election and covenant will be subject to judgment[5] and will die by the sword (9:10). “Israel” as the restored people of God as presented in chapter 9 will be those who renew their vocation as God’s people.[6]

Amos presents “Israel” in its past, present, and future.   Thus, in Amos, “Israel” is presented in transition to identify with their past, their present split nation, and hope in a restored community of faith.[7] The description of “Israel” as found in Amos 7-9 may prove to describe that although “Israel” may represent a people’s historic roots through to a split kingdom, “Israel” as the eschatological people of God, will only be those who renew their calling as the people of God.

 


[1]          Heath A. Thomas, “Hearing the Minor Prophets: The Book of the Twelve and God’s Address,” in Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, ed. Craig G. and Beldman Bartholomew, David J.H., (Grand Rapids / Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012).: 365.

[2]          J. Gordon McConville, “How Can Jacob Stand? He is So Small!” (Amos 7:2): The Prophetic Word and the Re-Imagining of Israel,” in Israel’s Prophets and Israel’s Past: Essays on the Relationship of Prophetic Texts and Israelite History in Honor of John H. Hayes, ed. Brad E. and Kelle and Megan Bishop Moore, Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies 446 (New York / London: T&T Clark, 2006).: 139-143.

[3]          McConville, “How Can Jacob Stand? He is So Small!” (Amos 7:2): The Prophetic Word and the Re-Imagining of Israel,”: 145-146.

[4]          McConville, “How Can Jacob Stand? He is So Small!” (Amos 7:2): The Prophetic Word and the Re-Imagining of Israel,”: 147.

[5]          McConville, “How Can Jacob Stand? He is So Small!” (Amos 7:2): The Prophetic Word and the Re-Imagining of Israel,”: 151.

[6]          McConville, “How Can Jacob Stand? He is So Small!” (Amos 7:2): The Prophetic Word and the Re-Imagining of Israel,”: 151.

[7]          Thomas, “Hearing the Minor Prophets: The Book of the Twelve and God’s Address,”: 365-366. Thomas applies this to the presentation of “Israel” in the Twelve. It also addresses “Israel” within Amos 7-9.

 

Bibliography

McConville, J. Gordon. “How Can Jacob Stand? He is So Small!” (Amos 7:2): The Prophetic Word and the Re-Imagining of Israel.” In Israel’s Prophets and Israel’s Past: Essays on the Relationship of Prophetic Texts and Israelite History in Honor of John H. Hayes, edited by Brad E. and Moore Kelle, Megan Bishop, 132-151. New York / London: T&T Clark, 2006.

Thomas, Heath A. “Hearing the Minor Prophets: The Book of the Twelve and God’s Address.” In Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, edited by Craig G. and Beldman Bartholomew, David J.H., 356-379. Grand Rapids / Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012.

Is God Going to Go All Death Star on the Earth When Jesus Returns?

Via Google Images

A common view I often encounter is that God is going to completely obliterate the entire physical universe at Christ’s return and basically just start over. It always reminds me of Darth Vader destroying Alderaan in Episode IV.

Alderaan Destroyed

The text most often used in these encounters is 2 Peter 3:1-13, which says this:

3 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you,[a] not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies[b] will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.[c]

11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12  waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

The common assumption is that the language in this text about “burning” and “dissolving” and “passing away” means that the physical world will be completely annihilated. There are a number of reasons, though, why I doubt this is the meaning of the passage.

  1.  The meaning of the word “pass away” – In the New Testament, the verb used for the phrase “pass away” in 2 Peter 3 takes on a number of different meanings.
    1. Concerning Heaven and Earth
      1. Matt. 5:18 – “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”
      2. Matt. 24: 34, 35; Mark 13:30, 31; Luke 21:32, 33 – “this generation will not pass away before these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”
      3. Luke 16:17 – “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void”
    2. Generic sense of walking, going, or coming – Matt. 8:28; 14:15; Mark 6:48; 14:35;  Luke 12:37; 17:7; 18:37; Acts 16:8
    3. Generic sense of time passing – Acts 27:9; 1 Peter 4:3
    4. Neglect or disobedience of a command – Luke 11:42; 15:29
    5. Jesus prior to arrest, “let this cup pass from me”  – 26:39, 42
    6. Mortality of human beings  – James 1:10
    7. Referring to our salvation – 2 Cor. 5:17
  2. Notice that Matt. 24:34, 35 and parallels and 2 Cor. 5:17 seem to indicate that at least part of the “passing away” has already taken place. In other words, this “passing away” in at least those verses is not obliteration but simply the removal of the old and replacement of it with the new.
  3. Use of “melt” and “burn up” metaphor elsewhere in the NT – In at least two places in the NT, fire is used not as an agent of annihilation but as an agent of refining, sifting, and perfecting (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 1 Peter 1:3-9; cf. also James 1, esp. 2-4, for similar language about testing but without explicit use of the fire metaphor).
    Additionally, I cannot think of a place in the NT where fire is explicitly used for annihilation or obliteration.
  4. In the context of 2 Peter 3, perhaps the most important point is that Peter compares this coming judgment by fire with the historical judgment by water in Noah’s flood. The earth was not obliterated during that judgment, but was purged of sin. Peter’s parallel with Noah’s flood points to the fact that they are similar in effect although not in means. The difference noted by Peter is between the different means of water and fire, not between the ultimate effects of either judgment.
  5. Corroborating Evidence
    1. A view of God’s creation as “good” – God creates the world as good, and connects his image-bearers to it by giving them the task of caring for it in the Garden. He does curse it because of Adam’s sin, but it is also clear that the Abrahamic covenant is a reversal of not only the spiritual effects of Adam’s sin but the physical effects of it on the land as well (Gen. 12:1-3; cf. James Hamilton, “The Skull Crushing Seed of Woman and the Promises to Abraham”; Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15). In other words, God cares about his creation – all of it. The obliteration of it would be contrary to his creational and redemptive purposes.
    2. Revelation 21 – The word “new” in Rev. 21:1 is kainos, and denotes restoration, renewal, and freshness, not total “otherness” or distinctness from what came previously. Additionally, the imagery of Revelation 21 and 22 is full of images from the physical creation – a city, streets, gates, walls, rivers, trees, leaves, fruit, etc.

The metaphor of fire, combined with the historical parallel of the purging Noahic flood, a sacramental worldview, and an understanding of John’s use of “new” and creation imagery in Revelation 21-22 points to this coming judgment of fire as a purging judgment, not an annihilating one. It’s purpose is to purge the physical world of the effects of the curse so that God can dwell with his people on it, not to obliterate it completely and start over.

So, God isn’t going to go all Death Star on the Universe. At least not in my opinion.