A Biblical Theology of Resurrection in an Early Christian Burial

My wife, Aubree, and I recently had a chance to get away for a few days to visit Rome—the Eternal City. It was a great visit and Rome truly is one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest. We spent a few days doing the normal tourist things like finding pizza and gelato.

One of our destinations—not too long after some gelato—was the Catacombs of Priscilla, “Regina Catacumbarum: The Queen of the Catacombs.” This catacomb, was used during the 2nd–5th centuries AD and houses some 40,000 Christian graves with a great number of Christian martyrs. The tour was an interesting experience and I marvelled that the tombs were used by rich and poor Roman Christians because they desired to be buried together so that they might all resurrect together.

A particular meaningful part of the tour was a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman.” It is thought that these frescoes date somewhere to the second-half of the third century, but I think what is really interesting is that it has a biblical theology of resurrection of sorts represented through painted frescoes.

The centre of the room has a young woman praying with her arms extended, and directly on her left and right are other life scenes—possibly scenes from her life or the life of her family. And above her, in the centre of the ceiling is a painting of the Good Shepherd in Paradise surrounded by lambs, peacocks, and doves.

On the wall to the left is a painting of Abraham and Isaac. And on the wall to the right is a painting to the right is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the fiery flames. And in the archway of the room is the Prophet Jonah being vomited from the fish.

Each of these scenes depict resurrection, but it is interesting there is no picture of the empty tomb. It is clear that they put hope in that event, but these early Christians drew upon the Old Testament Scriptures as a way of depicting their hope of the resurrection of the dead. It appears—and I’m no Robert Langdon—that early Roman Christians understood that these Old Testament images reveal the character of God and his providential patterning of the future. What God has done in the past, they trust he will do again in the future.

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?

 

Newtown

Bleak. Gray. Death.

Winter. Discontent. Depravity.

Who will save us from this culture of death?

Gun laws? Gun bans? Mental hospitals?

More guns? Lots of guns? Armed teachers?

“Get rid of the video games and the hunters!”

No!

“Arm us to the teeth and let’s all be soldiers.”

“Give us guns, give us war,

give us a license to kill.”

No!

“Take the guns, take the electric chair.

but still, give us a morning after pill,

give us abortion on demand,

give us the right to kill.”

Bleak. Gray. Death.

Winter. Discontent. Depravity.

Legislate and moralize, disinfect and sanitize.

Liberate us from tyranny, give us guns and and we’ll be free.

None of these will change our morbid hearts.

Thanks be to Christ our Lord

Who can free us from this body, this culture, of death

through his life giving Spirit.

Winter turns to summer.

Bleakness turns to blazing light.

Death turns to life.

Give us new hearts, O God.

Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Jesus and the Last Days

Last night I attempted to explain to my New Testament class that the Old Testament anticipates certain things to happen in the “last days” that are fulfilled in Jesus in the Gospels and Acts – e.g. the coming Davidic King, the new Temple, the resurrection, etc. After I demonstrated (hopefully successfully) that the “last days” anticipated by the Old Testament are inaugurated by Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit, and culminated by his return, I made this summary statement: “In Christ, the end of time has entered into the middle of time.” In other words, we are now living in the end times because of Christ’s life and work.

I came across this quote today from G. K. Beale’s new NT theology that summarizes what I was attempting to say:

. . . Christ’s resurrected body was the first newly created body to to pass to the other side of the new creation. The coming new creation penetrated back into the old world through the resurrected, new-creational body of Jesus. Although his postressurection existence was on this old earth for a time, he ascended to the unseen heavenly dimension of the beginning new creation, which will finally descend visibly at the end of time, when the old cosmos disintegrates (Rev. 21:1-22:5).