The anchor point for me for eschatology is the resurrection of Jesus. Broadly speaking those Jews who believed in resurrection (probably the majority, the Sadducees having a lot of influence at Sanhedrin level, did not have the same sway with the general population) expected two signs that would mark the end: the resurrection of the dead and the outpouring of God’s Spirit.
If the tomb was truly empty and Peter’s claim that ‘this was that’ was true then there was only one possible conclusion, that time had radically changed. ‘What must we do?’ was a very pertinent question. In response they were told to repent (more than a religious word, Josephus uses it for a change of mind / direction over how to respond to the Roman occupation, there is a political element within the word and the NT context) and be baptised into the name of Jesus and you will receive the eschatological gift of the outpoured Spirit.
The allusions to forming a new people is so strong, even the record of ‘about’ 3000 crossing over to the life side is in contrast to a defining moment in the wilderness when 3000 perished in the Golden calf incident (Exod. 32:38). Then the people of faith lost 3000 to continue on their way; at Pentecost the record says that 3000 are added to the people of faith who continue on their way. (‘About’: Luke uses that phrase when the number is to be noted, covering his back… a prime example is the disciples in Ephesus, ‘about twelve’. Even if one cannot exactly count 3000, one can count if there were 11, 12, or 13!) Baptised into Jesus – we might think this is radical for us Gentile believers some 2000 years on, for Jews who were baptised into the Jordan to enter their inheritance (hence John the Baptist locating himself by the Jordan) being told that now they were to be baptised into the name of Jesus had to include the sense of ‘no other dependency of being in the covenant’. As we read through Acts there was a sell by date when the offer would run out – the sell by date was within ‘this generation’ (for example, ‘save yourselves from this crooked generation’ – Acts 2:40 / Deut. 32:5). ‘This generation’ being reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching and also of the reality that between Egypt to the promised inheritance was a generation.
Did the early church expect a ‘return’ in a generation? It seems they at least expected an ‘end’ within a generation – same as the proclamation of Jesus. Did they anticipate a return as we usually refer to within a generation – for me the jury is out on that.
Jesus, through the resurrection, became the first born of many and the first born of all creation. A new humanity came out of the tomb, one marked not by class, gender nor faith. Potentially a universal humanity, being conformed to the image of Jesus.
So back to my conservative approach to eschatology. I expect a ‘return’ in the sense of a personal return of Jesus, a return that is more than something that is secret but something that brings the whole of creation to a fullness, cleansing it where the presence of God is universally experienced. The resurrection is the guarantee of this. I am not looking for signs along the way that can be ticked off, prophecies yet to be fulfilled, one-world government to arise (already and always has been present – that is what we are saved from!).
When that day comes the dead in Christ will be raised. The hope of going to heaven when I die is hardly, if at all, present in Scripture (and I hesitate to say I believe it as in acknowledging it I am in danger of weakening the centre, the hope of resurrection). Resurrection was always the theological solution to God rewarding the faithful. If people had lived faithfully, but had died and there was no resurrection of the body then those people would not be rewarded – same question in the ‘rapture’ (NOT!!) passage in Thessalonians: ‘what about those who have died?’ The renewal / rebirth would take place (future) and if those who had died were not raised they would miss out. Paul, following in the path of his mentors the Pharisees insisted that the dead in Christ will rise first. We who are live will be transformed. Bodily resurrection, embodied existence was the hope. Nowhere is the answer to ‘what about those who have died?’ being they are in heaven. That might be a ‘correct’ answer but it is not the central biblical answer – not by a long way.
If then there is a personal return why the delay? We could probably ask the same question about the cross. Why not a crucifixion (or equivalent) right back in the beginning? Paul seems to answer that one with it needed to take place at the ‘fullness of times’ for there to be a total cleansing, total deliverance. I, therefore, assume that there is more to be made manifest yet before the return of Jesus. Peter answers (apologetics in view, 2 Peter 3:3-12) with three reasons:
- don’t think of time as we do, a thousand years for us is as a day to the Lord.
- the delay in time means more can come to salvation – that in itself is a challenge, for to many the delay means more that ‘hell will be populated!’ Not Peter’s perspective.
- we, through the way we live, can hasten (bring forward) that date. I appreciate that the Greek can be translated as simply ‘longing for’ but if the ‘delay’ is in part due to not longing for it, it seems justifiable to translate the verb (speudo) as hurrying along, the most common meaning.
I think we can also add a theological reason to the three that Peter suggests. The New Jerusalem (built by God, coming from the throne of God and from heaven) consists of many precious stones. That New Jerusalem is at the same time a Temple (actually a Holy of Holies, no outer courts), a redeemed people, and a renewed creation. It represents the future, what we could truly call the fulfilment of the restoration of all things. The original tabernacle / temple was constructed according to the pattern shown in heaven, BUT the materials, the precious stones, were provided for by the people. Paul in 1 Cor. 3 warns that there is a fire coming that will show the nature of the material used in building. Wood, hay or straw will be consumed; but if the material used was gold, silver or precious stones that material will survive the eschatological fire. I suggest in the light of this that the material for the future is what we provide, God does not provide it, but only God can use the material to create the future. The building is of God, the material provided by us. I surmise that the ‘fullness of material’ has not yet accumulated.