Cosmic Eschatology As A Test Case

Let us consider cosmic eschatology as a test case for the actual treatment of exegetical findings in recent theology. A number of New Testament writers expect a cosmic reversal, preceded by signs and portents, to take place in a not very distant future. This reversal includes the destruction and re-creation of the world, the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead and the great judgement. This is indeed the dominant view, though there are strands which imply a more spiritual notion of post-mortem existence: an individual moves immediately after death to paradise (or to a place of punishment), as in Luke 16:22ff; 23:43). The juxtaposition of these two views is a problem in itself; another problem is the question of the plausibility of the cosmic view (either view, for that matter) today.

If one adopts a literal reading of the texts, one has to choose one of the options and play down the other (unless, of course, one discards both). In Western theological thought the cosmic view has tended to dissolve into images and symbols. By contrast, in Third World theologies it is the spiritualized view which is under attack.

As an example of a non-literal reading of cosmic eschatology we may consider its reduction to 'a vision of a global community' by Paul Hanson, a leading authority on apocalyptic prophecies. Hanson first gives a sympathetic account of the historical setting of cosmic apocalyptic eschatology, starting with the Syrian persecution in Palestine under Antiochus Epiphanes in the mid-second century BCE. When it comes to the application of the apocalyptic message today, he suggests that 'we can take this part of our scriptural legacy as an invitation to engage our own imaginations, using the idioms and images of our own time to describe a world reconciled, living in peace and harmony' (Hanson 1988:134).

The vision of God's universal reign...becomes the means by which the faithful recognize signs of the new creation, wherever groups are dedicated to the cause of justice and peace and wherever individuals are committed to placing compassion at the center of all their thoughts, actions, and relationships.

Apocalyptic texts have offered and still offer encouragement for the oppressed, warnings for the oppressors and awakening for the sleeping. They aid modern readers seeking their course between facile optimism and dire pessimism.

In this reinterpretation, the texts offer no new 'knowledge', for surely one need not know Daniel or Revelation to become committed to the cause of peace and justice. What these biblical books do offer is food for the imagination, support from the tradition for those among the global visionaries who happen to have a Christian background.

Hanson makes the point that the 'interpretation of a specific apocalyptic text must relate positively to the message of Scripture as a whole' (Hanson 1988:57); on which count modern apocalyptic works like those by Hal Lindsey (e.g. Late Great Planet Earth) are seen as failures, especially because of their pervading spirit of hatred. Hanson thus exercises justified ideological criticism of the modern interpretation of the biblical texts. But as his own construction shows, the envisaged totality of Scripture is an elusive thing. It is a dictate of the modern interpreter, based on a selective reading, that 'the message of Scripture as a whole' discourages a spirit of hatred. It does not. Whether it pleases us or not, in Scripture itself, suspicion and even hatred of the 'others' is one conspicuous theme, running from Old Testament narratives and Psalms all the way through to the book of Revelation which indulges in feelings of revenge when celebrating the anticipated fall of 'Babylon' (and, contrary to most textbooks, does not seem to belong to a setting of grave persecution at all). Actually Hanson has not come up with 'the' message of Scripture 'as a whole'; implicitly he has applied ideological criticism to the texts and has thus produced a selective re-reading. There is nothing wrong with this, but one should be aware of what is actually taking place.

A related attempt to do justice to the totality of Scripture when interpreting apocalyptic eschatology is made by some systematic theologians. We shall consider the work of Medard Kehl, a pupil of Karl Rahner.

Kehl opts for a 'cautious demythologization' of scriptural notions. The really important thing in the imminent expectation of the end is not the future, but the present. Faith is aware that God acts in a liberating way, now. The point of imminent expectation is that the present is seen as an absolutely serious moment of conversion and decision before God who comes towards us. Since God's salvation is greater than any human views of it, an expectation which trusts in God can never fail. Imminent expectation cannot fail, because it can be realized in any number of ways—in whatever way Yahweh's will of justice and peace reaches its goal (Kehl 1986:112f).

This is a version of the classic method of relieving cognitive dissonance by reinterpreting the issue to the point of complete vagueness. An expectation which cannot be falsified by any contrary evidence whatsoever runs the risk of being empty of content. On this account there never was any failed expectation of the millennium in any Christian or quasi-Christian group.

Kehl solves the problem of unfulfilled eschatological expectation by eliminating the temporal element altogether. He excludes the possibility that God might intervene in the course of history in a visible manner. No historical-cosmic 'eschatological events' are to be expected. Kehl points out that we have long since given up the three-storeyed world-view of apocalyptic messages and that it would be inconsistent to cling to a view of history rooted in that very apocalypse. The kind of fulfilment we can hope for takes place in the death of each individual. This is what the apocalyptic talk of the resurrection of the dead 'really' means. The return of the Son of Man has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus, and it is happening all the time in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Kehl thus preserves the 'language game' of eschatological fulfilment, while thoroughly reinterpreting the content of cosmic eschatology. He realizes that his view may seem too spiritualizing, anticipating objections by noting that there is no alternative theory in view which would be able to combine the diverse viewpoints of Christian hope even as well as his model does (Kehl 1986:279). It is an awkward combination, though, as one of the two points to be combined is completely devoured by the other.

Kehl's trust that there is something we can hope for is ultimately based on the conviction that God has already acted in a decisive way in Jesus. God has shown his faithfulness and love in the resurrection of Jesus. But how well-grounded is such trust if the apocalyptic view of history is dismissed along with other time-bound notions of the apocalyptic world-view?

How is it at all possible to speak of God's unique, once-and-for-all acting 'in Jesus', except precisely in the framework of an apocalyptic view of history? The first Christians interpreted the significance of Jesus in unique terms just because their apocalyptic world-view led them to expect that unique events would take place. Ideological criticism will note that the attempts to solve pressing problems and to make sense of overwhelming experiences (the Easter visions and other charismatic phenomena) led to vast generalizations on the intellectual level. The limited experiences of a group (the perception of living in the eschatological era, the significance given to specific events, such as the appearances of Jesus after his death) were perceived to be matters absolutely central for the history of the world at large, a history that transcended any mundane limits.

Though Kehl rejects millenarianism, he still wants to cling to a certain kind of Christian utopianism connected with it. He finds the millenarian notion of an earthly 'interim reign' before the final fulfilment justified to a degree: already in this history some anticipatory signs of God's reign—a reign of justice and peace for the poor and oppressed—ought to be visible. It is liberation theologians in particular who provide the framework for such partial 'real-symbolic' realization of 'God's reign'. At this point Kehl comes close to Hanson.

Decisive for Kehl's construction is the wish to reconcile the very divergent Christian—New Testament and other—viewpoints of eschatological hope; it was this wish that led him to opt for a spiritualized, internalized view of cosmic eschatology. Not every interpreter, however, is prepared to let the apocalyptic cargo go. Christopher Rowland for one takes sides for an 'apocalyptic' view even in the present, following Latin American theologies of liberation. For Rowland, 'continuity with the biblical revelation demands' that one reckons even today with realistic eschatology 'as the central pillar of Christian doctrine'. The book of Revelation 'is much nearer to the centre of early Christian belief than is often allowed' (Rowland 1987:117). In the Lord's Prayer, the petition 'your kingdom come' envisages a concrete kingdom on earth. The spiritualization of this earthly hope, its removal to a transcendent heavenly realm, is the great error of early Christianity. However, Rowland later gives a far too unitary account of 'early Christian eschatologies'. It is simply not the case that these eschatologies 'fairly consistently down to the time of Irenaeus in the second century looked for the consummation of all things in this world, when Christ would reign' (Rowland and Corner 1991:92, cf. 118, 123)—though many did. He also completely neglects the morally problematic sides of the book of Revelation; nor does he make clear how the problems connected with the antiquated world-view are to be avoided in modern versions of the apocalypse. Ideological criticism is applied to part of the material only.

Clearly, Rowland's position is diametrically opposite to that of Kehl; it reflects the opposition of liberation theology to the spiritualizing mainstream view (once established by Augustine). The point of the present discussion is that both views can appeal to the New Testament, i.e., to some segments in it. In the New Testament we find both an apocalyptic, realistic, earthly view, and a spiritualized view which locates the 'kingdom' beyond this earth. The distinction roughly corresponds to that between the 'Jewish' view of the resurrection of the body and the 'Greek' view of the immortality of the soul (though the latter had in New Testament times penetrated many Jewish circles as well).

The distinction is elaborated by Nikolaus Walter in an article on 'Hellenistic eschatology in the New Testament'. At its close he takes sides for pluriformity (Walter 1985:355-6). We should not reject either alternative to the advantage of the other. But neither should we try to construct an overall compromise which seeks to accommodate the contradictory views within a single larger framework, to 'combine in one "system" what is structurally incompatible'. On the contrary, precisely the plurality of the eschatological language should 'stimulate us to ever new contemporizations'.

In this very central case the New Testament contains at least two divergent lines of thought which can only be deemed incompatible, if they are perceived as 'teachings'. On another level, with respect to social contexts, the contradictory views can be seen as alternative answers to a common dilemma: in human life, injustice and meaninglessness reign. To this dilemma different solutions, each dependent on the group's tradition and thought world, are sought. The problem is, by and large, common; the solutions vary. (Of course there are differences even in sensing the problem: freedom fighters in Roman Palestine conceived the plight of the world in terms different from those of many Diaspora Jews.)

The New Testament thus presents us with a problem which has not lost its urgency during the past two millennia. It also presents us with a number of people struggling with the problem and looking for solutions in different directions. A natural thing to do would be to recognize ourselves as one more link in a long chain of people struggling with basically similar problems. Different groups have always tried to deal with the dilemma with the help of their respective traditions, interpreted in the light of their respective experiences. This applies to us as well. We too have to deal with the seeming absurdity of life with the help of our tradition in the light of our experience which includes world wars, nuclear bombs and holocausts.

Thus, the New Testament in itself tends to nurture variety, even pluralism. There is no point in simply appealing to 'the New Testament', much less to 'the Bible'. The 'Scripture' one appeals to is never Scripture 'as such', but is always construed in some special way (for examples see Kelsey 1975:14119). The least one can do is to spell out on which part of Scripture one wishes to found one's claims—and which parts, by implication at least, are dropped.

That is the least one can do, but one should do more. Having discussed eschatological expectation and also the appropriation of the traditions of and about Israel, Leslie Houlden notes that these two 'vital elements in the first Christians' symbolic universe' are 'wholly problematic', 'a tangle of confused notions and unsatisfactory answers' (Houlden 1986:90).

The expectation of the End as expressed in the Synoptic apocalypse (Mark 13 and parallels) or in Revelation was the way in which those Christians 'sought identity and intelligibility for themselves'. But 'in truth, all they really knew and had, at the factual level, was "Jesus"—whose impact was the basis of their distinctive experience and institutional existence', and 'all they knew and had that was distinctive at the theological level was belief about him in the light of their already existing belief in God'. The ideas about the End were 'wholly conditioned by time and circumstance', 'not "hard" doctrine, but simply attempts to solve pressing problems in the only terms then available' (Houlden 1986:90). Those terms, the existing beliefs, had been decisively shaped by the ancient Israelite conviction that Yahweh was the victorious helper of the nation in its battles and the inviolability of Zion. The former attitude was based on old stories about Exodus, in reality a very minor event, if it ever took place at all; the latter went back to Canaanite beliefs. As history had defied these convictions, they had been projected onto the screen of the eschatological future. What a tenuous basis this would be for salvation-historical constructions in a world which has experienced Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It is questionable if a 'harder' core exists on any other point either.

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