Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Apocalyptic Thoughts I

The Book of Daniel, which I discussed a few weeks ago, is an example of apocalyptic literature. "Apocalypse" comes from a Greek word meaning "a lifting of the veil" or "an uncovering". Apocalyptic literature in general describes the revealing of important matters that have previously been hidden. This type of literature and the beliefs so described were common through the centuries prior to and following the time of Jesus' life and the beginning of the Christian church, and in these cases the important matters related to God and his (coming) kingdom. There were both Jewish apocalypticists (like the author of Daniel) as well as Christian apocalypticists (like the author of Revelations).

Among the various factions that existed in Palestine during the life of Jesus, the Essenes had a clear apocalyptic bent. The Essenes, who left us the Dead Sea Scrolls, lived in communities separated from others in order to prepare themselves for the coming kingdom of God. I have also heard that the Pharisees may have held some apocalyptic views; at least, they appeared to believe in a coming resurrection, a belief not shared by the Sadducees.

This outlook can also be seen quite clearly in the New Testament. John the Baptist preached an apocalyptic message. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2) To the Pharisees and Sadducees, he said "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Matthew 3:7, Luke 3:7) "The axe is already laid at the root of the tree..." (Matthew 3:10, Luke 3:9) It was in the context of this message by John the Baptist that Jesus entered the public eye, and Jesus soon made very similar statements. "The kingdom of God is at hand." (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17) In Mark, Jesus frequently describes the coming Son of Man (an allusion to Daniel 7:13) who will bring God's kingdom to the earth, though strangely, there is little indication in those contexts that he is referring to himself.

When will this kingdom come? The quotes above indicate a sort of urgency, but there is yet more specific guidance on the matter. All three synoptic gospels quote Jesus as saying "This generation will not pass away until all these things take place." (Mark 13:30, Matthew 24:34, Luke 21:31)

Did it happen? First, we must answer a different question. What did Jesus mean when he said "the kingdom of God is at hand"? Was he referring simply to his own death and resurrection? Was that the arrival of God's kingdom? Was it the beginning of the Christian church at Pentacost? Or is there another way we should look at the issue?

If we take him to understand that his death and resurrection or the beginning of the Christian church were the beginning of the kingdom, we quickly run into difficulties. First, in the parallel passages from Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21 where Jesus said that the current generation would not pass away, the larger context is Jesus' response to a question from some of his disciples. He had just told them that the temple would be destroyed, and they ask when that will happen. He proceeds to describe the various things that must happen first: wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution by the Jews ("in the synagogues"), witnessing to kings, preaching to all nations, the abomination of desolation, tribulation, the sun and moon darkened, stars falling and then, finally, the Son of Man coming in the clouds. And it is after saying all of that that Jesus says, "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." These events are clearly not related to the events surrounding Jesus death and resurrection or the beginnings of Christianity.

To reinforce this point, consider Mark 8:38-9:1 and Luke 9:26-27, where Jesus describes the Son of Man coming with the holy angels, and "there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power." Again, the Son of Man comes during the lifetimes of (some of) the disciples.

Further evidence comes from Paul's letters and to a lesser degree, Acts. Early in Acts, for instance, the first Christians are described as selling their possessions, and this behavior makes the most sense for people who do not expect things to continue in their normal course for much longer. But Paul's letters provide much stronger evidence that the early Christians were still expecting the kingdom to arrive quickly. In I Thessalonians 4:15 Paul says "that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep." The clear implication to the recipients of this letter was that some of them would still be alive when Jesus returned. In I Corinthians 15:51 he writes "We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed," and again, his readers would certainly expect this to apply to them, that the events described would happen while some of them were still alive.

Did Jesus and Paul really mean the people living then when they said "this generation" and "we who are alive and remain" and "we will not all sleep"? Or did they really mean this to apply to whoever happened to be alive when the events did finally take place? The wording and intention is clear enough. The only reason to ask the question is that the events described clearly did not occur within the lifetimes of the first century Christians. Apart from this inconvenient truth, the teaching of both Paul and Jesus himself clearly anticipate the arrival of the Son of Man and the kingdom of God, as well as their dramatic precursors within the lifetimes of the earliest believers. Alternative explanations (including those found within later writings of the New Testament) are best understood as post hoc rationalizations intended to rescue Christian beliefs from the evident failure of the clear predictions of Jesus and the early Christian spokesmen.


Anonymous said...

I know that you have moved on from focusing on Daniel in this post, but in case you were interested...John J. Collins' commentary on Daniel (Hermeneia series) is considered one of the best modern Daniel commentaries. And the introduction to this book is currently available here: http://resources.theology.ox.ac.uk/

Alan Lund said...

Thanks for the reference. I skimmed through it just now, and reread my original post, and I don't appear to have gotten anything badly wrong. Considering that the introduction was ninety pages long (with extensive footnotes to be sure), the full commentary must be massive.

Alan Lund said...

By the way, here is a link that will get you to the document mentioned: http://resources.theology.ox.ac.uk/library/data/pdf/THD0040.pdf