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Surprised by Hope V

Reading: N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, Chapters 7-9.

“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” N.T. Wright’s task, throughout Surprised by Hope but most specifically in the chapters for this week (7,8 and 9), is to call the Christian world to renewed understanding of this central teaching of the faith and its world-shaking signficance. The task is necessary because, despite frequent recitation as part of the creed, its biblical meaning has been lost in large sectors of Christianity by way of neglect and reduction to vague symbolism, and destroyed in other sectors by misguided interpretations, amplified by zealous proclamation.

The challenge, similar in important ways to that undertaken by heralds of the Adventist message in nineteenth-century America such as Charles Fitch (right), is not an easy one. Both parts of the message – “the coming” and “the judging,” says Wright, face formidable antagonism. The concept of Jesus coming again from the sky “like a spaceman” looks to many like the literalistic, supernaturalist interventionism that everyone but rank fundamentalists have rejected. And anything having to do with “judgment,” “punishment,” or the “wrath of God” is most definitely out of fashion….

In my view, the most important thing about these chapters is how Wright’s presention of the Biblical message about Christ’s second coming dovetails with historic Adventist insights and opens possibilties for extending those insights in ways that are even more deeply biblical and speak in a more telling way to today’s world. This may surprise some who, in reading the same chapters, encountered ideas that appear at odds with traditional Adventist teaching. Discussion of these apparent differences is important, but only in the context of firm recognition of the following points.

First, with regard to “the coming,” Wright, in Chapter 8, takes the reader through a richly-detailed yet accessible study of key New Testament passages associated with the second coming of Jesus. He helps us sort out the various dimensions and usages of the key term parousia (“coming” or “presence”) along with passages in which “appearing” is the operative word. When the whole picture is put together, the clear and defining features are:

  1. a “great renewal of the world,” foreshadowed by Easter, is coming and may indeed come at any time;
  2. the dead will be raised;
  3. the living Christians will be transformed;
  4. Jesus himself will be personally and visibly present (in contrast to the current physical absence of his ascension into heaven) “and will be the agent and model of the transformation that will happen both the whole world and also to believers” (136).

Wright’s emphasis on the personal presence of Jesus – indeed his royal presence (parousia) as the one whom believers all along affirmed as the true Lord of the world, despite Caesar’s claims, now returned to put his sovereign rule over the earth into full effect, reminds me of the landmark sermon in 1843 by Fitch, the Millerite Adventist preacher, entitled “Come Out of Her, Me People.” In this sermon, which Adventists came to idenity with the sounding of the “second angel’s message” (Rev. 14:8), Fitch’s refrain was the imminent arrival of Jesus Christ to reign in person over the world, in contrast to spiritualized conceptions of the millennium and second coming that left the currently dominant ecclesiastical and political powers in actual charge of the world.

And now away forever with your miserable transcendental philosophy, that would make the throne of David a spiritual throne, and the coming of Christ to sit upon it as a spiritual coming, and his reign a spiritual reign. Thanks be to God, His kingdom cannot be blown up into such spiritual bubbles as these, for a thousand, or even 365 thousand years, and then blown for ever away into some etherial something, which some sneering infidel has defined, to be sitting on a cloud and singing Psalms to all eternity. No, no. Jesus Christ has been raised up in David’s flesh immortalized, and he shall come in that flesh glorified, “and there shall be given Him dominion and glory, and a kingdom that all people, nations, and languages shall serve Him….” (20).

Second, with regard to “the judging,” Wright, in Chapter 9, observes, as some of the post-1844 Adventists did in seeking renewed understanding after the “Great Disappointment,” that the “son of man” in Daniel 7 moves upward to the “Ancient of Days,” not downward to the earth to receive dominion and authority.

…There [Dan. 7] the Gentile nations are depicted as huge, powerful monsters while Israel, or the righteous within Israel, is depicted as an apparently defenseless human being, “one like a son of man.” The scene is a great court setting whose climax comes when the judge, the Ancient of Days, takes his seat and rules in favor of the son of man against the monsters, in favor of Israel against the pagan empires. The son of man is then given authority and dominion over all the nations, in a deliberate echo of Adadm being given authority over the animals in Genesis 1 and 2.

What happens when this is transposed to the New Testament? Answer: we find Jesus himself taking on the role of the son of man, suffering then vindicated. Then, as in Daniel, he receives from the Supreme Judge the task of bringing this judgment to bear on the world. This accords with many biblical and postbiblical passages in which Israel’s Messiah, the one who represents Israel in person, is given the task of judgment….Again and again the Messiah is stated to be God’s agent to bring the whole world, not just Israel, back into the state of justice and truth for which God longs as much as we do….(138-39).

Despite our aversion to divine “judgment” and “punishment,” we are in fact “a very moralistic, very judgmental, generation,” says Wright. “We have judged apartheid and found it wanting. We judge child abusers and find them guilty. We judge genocide and find it outrageous” (121).

From this standpoint, the message about Jesus as coming judge is indeed good news:

In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment (137).

To we who claim to be believers, Wright puts the challenge, What would happen if we took these beliefs seriously in relating to the principalities and powers of the present age? “People who believe that Jesus is already Lord and that he will appear again as judge of the world are called and equipped (to put it mildly) to think and act quite differently in the world from those who don’t” (144).

In this regard, Wright critiques the “rapture theology” which is “the daily bread of man in the American religious right” and “not unconnected to the agenda of some of America’s leading politicians” (120). Despite its preoccupation with very literal end-time expectations, this theology, says Wright, actually avoids the confrontation with political authorities that grew out the New Testament proclamation of Jesus as Lord

because it suggests that Christians will be miraculously be removed from this wicked world. Perhaps this is is why such theology is often Gnostic in its tendency toward private dualistic spirituality and toward a political laissez-faire quietism. And perhaps that is partly why such theology, with its dreams of Armageddon, has quietly supported the political status quo in a way that Paul would never have done (133-134).

Is it just my imagination, or does seem to describe Seventh-day Adventists even more accurately than the right-wing evangelicals? Are our differences with the dispensationalists mere quibbles over just how to arrange the texts and time periods on the end-time chart that make no critical difference on how we relate to matters of militarism, poverty, and environmental destruction?

By the way, it is in dealing with the major “rapture” passage of the New Testament, 1 Thess. 4:13-18, that Wright proposes concepts that will be highly controversial, to say the least, among Adventists. While he makes most emphatically clear his belief that the second coming of Jesus will be a physical, visible event, and that the dead will be raised and the living transformed to embodied and eternal life, he does not believe the New Testament language of vertical ascent and descent amidst clouds should be taken with wooden literalism. Here, his “relational” view of space as opposed to a “receptacle” view is critical. He sees, in fact believes the Bible teaches that heaven is a different dimension of the cosmos rather than a “different location within the same continuum of space or matter” (110-111). I cannot go further into this in this already overly-long post, though it is an important matter to grapple with in evaluating Wright’s contribution.

But not the most important matter. On the question of what belief in the soon return of Jesus as judge and ruler of the world means for life in the present order, I want to return to Charles Fitch, not as an authority or model in every detail, but as a stimulus to thought on this all-important question.

Fitch was a radical abolitionist who, in 1837, co-authored a tract criticizing William Lloyd Garrison for, among other things, undermining support for observance of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. Two years later, though, Fitch repented of this attack on the abolitionist leader, moved to do so by the thought of “Jesus Christ in the clouds of heaven, coming to judge the world, and to establish His reign of holiness and righteousness and blessedness over the pure in heart” (George Knight, Millennial Fever [Pacific Press, 1993], 107-109). Then, in 1843, as fellow radicals advocated the secession of the free states from the slaveholding union, Fitch called for the secession of true followers of Christ from the churches of American Protestant Christendom, which had become “Anti-Christ” through unwillingness to “submit to Christ’s personal reign,” and had shown that they did “not love his appearing, and especially not at present.”

The term “Babylon” could thus be accurately applied to Protestant Christendom.

Is she not engaged, for her own aggrandizement, in every species of merchandise ascribed to Babylon, even to slaves and the souls of men? The spirit of oppression reigns, in greater or less portions of the leading sects, unrebuked; and a man may sell or buy his fellow-man, and then sit at the communion table, or even minister at the altar of God, and by the mass of Protestant Christendom go unreproved. Lust for power is seen among all the sects, and lust for gold is practically regarded by the multitude of Christ’s professed disciples as a virtue… (16).

Did Fitch take this business about the soon-coming, personal reign of Jesus, and the prophetic stand against the oppressive powers of the present age that it requires a little too seriously? Do we take it seriously at all?

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