The Epic of Redemption (Dec 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Jarrod Longbons

Most Christians agree on the content of Christ’s first coming. Christ was God’s anointed Kingdom-bearer. Christ is God’s Word (meaning) who became flesh, dwelt with God’s covenant people, fulfilled the law, and atoned for human rebellion against the Creator. The Holy Spirit conceived this Christ – the second person of the Trinity – in Mary, who was a virgin and who named him Jesus.[1]

In Jesus, God became human; He brought divinity into creation so that creation could participate in the divine.[2] Jesus grew from a child into a man, relentlessly preaching the good news of God’s rule and reign – the Kingdom of God – for a rebellious and chaotic world. As Jesus preached this message, He also demonstrated it by putting wrongs to rights. He healed the sick, raised the dead, and restored the disenfranchised. And at the climax of this epic tale, Jesus the innocent was found guilty—crucified and buried. He was raised on the third day. With this event, the gravest of wrongs were put right – death and rebellion[3] were overcome – “once for all.”[4]

St. Paul declares that Jesus Christ represents the first fruits of God’s rescue mission (the first fruits of resurrection).[5] So those who follow Christ will also benefit from His overcoming the grave; they will be resurrected during the Parousia. That is to say Christ will consummate, or bring to fulfillment, all creaturely life at His second coming.

Though most Christians agree on the main elements of the story rehearsed above, there is more disagreement as to the when and what of the second coming. Indeed the time set for the second coming is unclear even, to Jesus himself. For He says, “but about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”[6] But it seems that the Christian imagination concerning all of this has not been satisfied by its mystery, for there are a plethora of books, movies, and sermons on such topics as when the end times will take place and more importantly over what they will be like.

As to the first question, I will not make any speculation. I will attempt to be faithful to Jesus’ own words on the matter—I’ll know it when it happens, and that is enough. This essay, however, concerns the second question not only because it is the more interesting of the two, but also because there is Biblical evidence to draw upon. The grand narrative of scripture – as well as the life, work, and teachings of Christ Himself – provides us with an expectation of the contents of the eschaton.

The flow of this narrative is illustrated via the analogy between the Bible and the acts of a play.[7] Act I is all about creation (Genesis 1, 2; Job 38, Psalm 104; John 1:1-18, Colossians 1 etc.). This section gives clues to life’s meaning and God’s intention for the world—he wishes simply to make His abode with creation.[8] Act II is the fall (Genesis 3). It describes the rebellion of human creatures on behalf of all creation, which explains why this still beautiful world is marred so often by disharmony and pain. The third act, encompassing most of scripture, is called redemption (outlined in Genesis 12:1-3 and played out in most parts of scripture). It is during this act that we witness God’s unfolding and persistent plan to put the world aright, restoring it to its original glory before sin.[9] Act IV is the act of eschatology, or more properly, consummation (Revelation 21, 22). Consummation is a clearer word than eschatology, because it describes the purpose of the so-called “end-times:” the fulfillment of all the previous Acts and the fulfillment of Christ’s inaugurated Kingdom, resulting in a restored and renewed creation wherein God makes his abode with humanity. To put it another way, creation’s destiny is not simply destruction but re-creation. This perspective appears a bit out of kilter with certain biblical passages asserting that creation will be destroyed. For example, 2 Peter 3:10 suggests that all things will be burned by fire. But within the larger narrative, the Bible actually indicates that creation will not merely be destroyed but purified, and in the case of this Petrine passage, fire is a purifying image. Hence, creation will be purged of sin and thus renewed, which is more than a simple discarding. This is the meaning, of “new heavens and a new earth,” found in Revelation 21:1; it is much more than a scrapping of the old and the introduction of something completely new. It means that what was old was good and worthy of saving. New, here, connotes re-newal, not a pure insertion of novelty as if there were a simple discontinuity between this world and the next.

But this view, like all end-times views, is heavily contested. Indeed, there are many theories about the end-times. Some have argued that Christ will come back when human society is good or moral enough to be the Kingdom. This view is called postmillennialism, and it was a fashionable position for many Puritan communities. This is the reason why the Puritans were so harsh in their ostracizing of known sinners.[10] Take for instance the literary example of The Scarlet Letter.[11] In it, Hawthorne’s character Hester Prynne births a child out of wedlock. Unable to hide her sin of adultery and unwilling to divulge the identity of the father, Hester pays the price all on her own by wearing a scarlet “A” on her chest as a sign of shame. This public shame is not only a punishment for Prynne but also a warning to all other would-be sinners: sin will not be tolerated nor overlooked in such a community. Sin is dealt with severely by perceived necessity. But this view, and other similar communities of faith, fell out of fashion in the 20th century when two world wars and a great depression presented an insurmountable impediment to moral progress.

There are also versions of something called premillennialism. This view tends to read the Bible as if it presents different “dispensations,” times or ways that God interacts with, for, or in creation (God acts and decrees different things according to different dispositions). The end is seen as one such dispensation. And as such, premillennialists read St. John’s Revelation in a literal, historical manner. Generally, the position is that Christ will return to Earth for a millennial reign on a kingly throne. The reign discussed in Revelation is literal and historic on this view, as it is understood upon a prima facie (first face, or surface level) reading of the great apocalypse. Now there are variations as to when this will be and which events of Revelation will precede/follow the thousand-year reign of Christ, too many to review here, in fact. Of note, however, is that this view is popular with many conservative, evangelicals and fundamentalists. This is one reason, to be sure, why the support of Israel is a deep-seated interest within American politics, for America has been, up until now,[12] a Protestant nation. One literary version of it is found in the Left Behind series of books and movies written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Yet another view is called amillennialism. It represents those who do not read Revelation quite so literally, or at least historically. For amillennialists, there is no literal, historic millennial reign of Christ; Revelation is understood figuratively because it is infused with apocalyptic symbolism.[13] Revelation’s millennium is not literal; it began at Pentecost and is continuing on to the present day. Therefore the “end times” symbolizes a long period of time where the Gospel is lived and preached. This is not to say that amillennialists doubt that a literal reading of Revelation is possible. Rather, the question for this view is how to understand a literal meaning of a text within the apocalyptic genre.[14] The amillennialist interpretation is more about unveiling the truth of history rather than a historical, prophetic fulfillment such as the vision of post and premillennialists. While both premillennialism and amillennialism were present within ancient Christianity, amillennialism became the dominant view within the Medieval and Reformation eras, especially due to the theology of St. Augustine.[15]

Still there are others who are tired of these disparate views and have given up trying to surmise facts about the end times. They quip, “I am a pan-millennialist. It’ll all pan out in the end.” And after my necessarily scaled-down survey, you might tend to agree. Truthfully, I have been there myself. It seems rather strange that we would impose systems of thought onto the Biblical story, but that is what many of these theories do. And if you will be patient enough to permit me a little inconsistency, I do wish to place a sort of “system” onto scriptural revelation. To my credit, the one I propose only aims to read the Bible as a unified narrative about the God revealed in and through Jesus Christ. That is to say that the whole Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, are actually all about Jesus Christ.[16] This “system” says that the Bible is one large and unified narrative, composed of many smaller and interlocking narratives. It asserts that the Bible represents a unified drama of redemption, and if read as a whole, it will clear up the confusion surrounding some of the more confusing parts, not least of which are the bits concerning the “end times.”[17]

As I have argued, the Bible is one unified, grand, epic drama about God’s redemptive action on behalf of a rebellious creation. If approached this way, it will remind its readers that one must begin with the end in mind. The end goal of creation, and thus redemption,[18] is for all creation to live in harmony with the Creator. Now all of the views presented seem to have something of this goal in mind, but certain problems emerge when one attempts to nail down in such specific terms the equation for how this will take place. For example, the postmillennialists fail to account for the pervasiveness of human sin. Their position does not take the inauguration of the Kingdom (already) prior to its total fulfillment (not yet) seriously enough. Simply, we live in a time when the Kingdom is already, but not yet fully present, and so we await Christ’s final act of restoration. Humans cannot goad Christ’s second coming. It will happen according to Father’s own good time.[19]>

The premillennialists have problems too. For if we await a future thousand year reign of Christ to usher in God’s Kingdom, are we living in it now in any sense? Do premillennialists prioritize the “not yet” over the “already?” While there are many ways to respond to this question, I worry that the literal-historic aspect of this view actually diminishes the current presence of God’s Kingdom now, “already.” Of further concern is the deep reliance that premillennials place upon nationalistic politics for the hope of Christ’s return. Indeed, this view has caused some Christians to trust, I think, too much in the secular politics of the American right wing support of Israel. If I am ruffling any feathers, just consider what it has meant for Christians to support Israel as they have: support of war, nuclear armament, and the demonization of Palestinian peoples. By contrast, consider what Jesus taught about violence: peace in place of contention.[20]> Moreover, the second great command proffered by Christ himself, “love your neighbor as yourself.”[21]> To the pragmatists I inquire: how do you evangelize the one upon whom you wish only destruction?

Do not the scriptures begin with the end in mind? The story ends and begins both in a garden with a tree(s) of life, where God dwells in and with His created order. The scenes in Genesis and Revelation are quite beautiful, for creation is a serene, pure place of harmonious delight. It is true that the trees of life in Revelation’s garden produce leaves “for the healing of the nations.”[22] Is this not the Christian hope? We were, after all, made for intimacy with God, creation, and one another. But although humans mucked it up, God has always been in the business of restoring our mess, and eventually God will bring creation back to something very much like the start. The end, according to the epic drama, is a sort of robust return to the beginning. What makes the end more robust than the beginning? We have tasted the sourness of rebellion, experienced the sweetness of Christ’s self sacrifice, been filled with the Holy Spirit, and at the appointed time—will live with glorified bodies of resurrection. Additionally, there will be multitudes inhabiting this space with God. Members of the restored abode will exceed all history, and will worship with one voice. That is to say that restored existence will be populated by the faithful of all generations and tongues.<br><br>What really is to blame for modern divisiveness over this story? What has caused us to complicate its meaning? There are at least two culprits in the derailing of paradise, and they concern interpretation. First, moderns have a strange way of interpreting scripture. Specifically, many of the faithful fail to see the entire Bible as one text about Christ; secondly, many do not encounter different genres with different interpretive tools. The next problem is how we interpret culture. By this I mean that many Christians approach the Bible with a set of presuppositions and read them into differing texts. Regarding eschatology, one such presupposition is Platonism. Plato influences our culture rather unconsciously and as such, we often think that our destiny lies elsewhere in some far off “spiritual world.”[23] So this Biblical message can be obscured: heaven will be a restored place we already know, the one called creation. These two interpretive issues pose problems for the contemporary Church; each deserves separate treatments of their own. For now, I only want to introduce the notion of looking at and discerning the symmetry of the bookends of scripture: the end is much like the beginning, isn’t it?

____________

1. Matthew 1:21, “Jesus” or “Joshua” means “God Saves.”
2. 2 Peter 1:43.
3. This is how C.S. Lewis understood the fall and the concept of evil. Evil is no-thing, it is merely a privation, and specifically in his terms “the fall,” sin, or evil are best described as a rebellious civil war against God. See Mere Christianity books 1 and 2, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001, 3-60. 
4. Hebrews 10:10, NIV.
5. I Corinthians 15:20.
6. Mark 13:32, NIV.
7. See, for example, N.T. Wright “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?” Found on the N.T. Wright Page: http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm [accessed: 10/10/12].
8. For an interesting audio-visual account of this, see N.T. Wright’s portion of the video “Science and Genesis”: http://youtu.be/5bKa92eLkQ [accessed: 10/10/12]. See also Margaret Barker’s work on “Temple Theology,” in Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment, London: T&T Clark, 2010; and Ellen F. Davis’ work on Agrarianism and the Old Testament in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
9. Some schemes separate the act of redemption into other parts such as Israel and the Church, but for our purposes, they fit nicely within the one act of redemption.
10. This is, partly, the reason for the Salem Witch Trials in the Puritan Colony—Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1690’s.
11. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Mineola: Dover Publications, 1994.
12. See http://articles.philly.com/2012-10-09/news/34343893_1_pew-forum-religion-and-politics-protestants [accessed 10/10/12]. The growing competitor to Protestantism, it should be noted, is not Roman Catholicism, but forms of no-Religion, or secularism.
13. The apocalyptic genre was used frequently in the ancient world. Rather than citing prophecy to be fulfilled, apocalyptic texts are more interested in revealing deep truths through the use of symbol, image, and metaphor. As such, the apocalyptic is very related to contemporary, allegorical and deeply metaphorical folk songs such as Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and Don McLean’s “American Pie,” etc
14. On the apocalyptic genre see Fr. Robert Barron’s description of it in this video: http://www.wordonfire.org/WOF-TV/Commentaries-New/Fr–Barron-comments-on-Apocalyptic-Literature.aspx [accessed 10/20/12].
15. http://www.religioustolerance.org/millenni.htm
16. This point might come as a shock to believers within the Restoration Movement tradition, for they are famously called a “New Testament Church.” But the method of reading the Old Testament in light of Christ is congruent with the history of Christianity. See John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006.
17. This is a lesson I learned from Prof. Brian Johnson, who was once Professor of the New Testament at Lincoln Christian University, and is currently a Professor and founder of the “Seminary of the Americas” in the Dominican Republic associated with G.O. Ministries. He would often suggest that some of the more difficult readings in isolated areas of the Bible could be understood best within the overall framework of the Bible’s unified message.
18. David Burell and Elena Malits argue that creation is redemption in Original Peace: Restoring God’s Creation, Mahwa: Paulist Press, 1997.
19. Ironically, however, I have listened to many missionary presentations that speak of the many people groups still in existence who have not heard the gospel, and Christians are then urged to reach these groups so that Christ will come back again (Matthew 24:4-14). Similarly, many argue that our preaching is some magical key to Christ’s returning. Certainly, this is a fallacious interpretation of the Matthean text, for again, not even the Son knows the days of His own return. Rather than a directive, Christ seems to be revealing just one historical truth that will have taken place before He comes again.
20. Matthew 5:9; Matthew 5:39; John 18:11.
21. Mark 12:33, NIV.
22. Revelation 22:2, NIV.
23. Plato’s theory of the cave world against his world of forms has crept into our theology, thus causing some to downplay the material world. Additionally, forms of Gnosticism, Manichaeism, etc. have persisted or been re-introduced within certain strands of the Christian tradition. All such views prize the world of spirit or the immaterial over and against the material and embodied world. Christianity however, has a high view of the material, and when this is rediscovered it does have something to say to one’s view of the “end-times.”

categoria commentoNo Comments dataDecember 4th, 2013
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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