Modernity, From Original Sin to the Day of the Lord

The news lately has put me thinking a lot about the origins and destination of the modern world. By “modern world,” I mean the social, political, cultural, institutional, and industrial structures of the post-Enlightenment West and other regions and peoples who have been influenced by it. It is a very peculiar world, with certain developments and features which are simply unprecedented in any other time and place. It is at present a frightening world, undergoing severe turmoil of many kinds. And like all worlds before it, it will someday be destroyed. All things fade. Only the kingdom of God will remain.

In this post, I will attempt to put together a hypothesis about the theological narrative of modernity. For God is always behind history, working in, with, through, and even against the people, institutions, and forces which drive it on the surface. The modern world, like Christendom, the Roman Empire, Babel, and the ante-diluvian world, started and will end with theological significance. The Bible largely consists of theological narratives about people and nations, and it would be strange to assume that such accounts were only truly relevant until Jesus came.

For the purpose of this post, I will stylize my proposed theological narrative of modernity with certain allusions and symbols (and no doubt some admitted hyperbole). This is in order to draw links to biblical themes and accounts as well as to simplify what might otherwise be a rather technical and complex analysis of history and philosophy. I will also note upfront that my narrative is largely informed by C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Andrew Perriman’s work, and the writings of people like Peter Leithart, Rod Dreher, N. T. Wright, and Alastair Roberts, to name a few of the many sources. So without further ado, I present an account of the modern world.

In the beginning of modernity, God had taken the world order of the Roman Empire and subjected it to the authority of His Son Jesus Christ. This took the form of Christendom, an imperfect but authentic Christian world order. The nations confessed Jesus as Lord and honored God’s will in their law. Christendom was the world for a thousand years, but man was restless and would not so easily submit to God forever.

Internal troubles and tremors began to plague the old order, with guilt on all sides of all conflicts. At the same time, knowledge of the human and nature worlds began to increase, and with this tool Western man began to see his opportunity. By the time the Reformation had done its work, he found excuse and opportunity to rebel. The Church could apparently no longer be trusted, being deeply fragmented from corruption, violence, and strife. So perhaps the Church had been seriously wrong in several ways. No matter! With the Western man’s newest tools of science and philosophy, he could find truth for himself. Maybe he could find it by reinterpreting the Bible, or disposing of the Bible, reinterpreting God, or even disposing of God.

With these new ideas in place, he went to work on reconceptualizing the world in new terms, terms influence by the old world of Christendom but innovative in many ways. Under these new terms, God was either too transcendent or too immanent to give man the rules under which the West had been governed for so long. So he made new rules. These rules put man in charge of himself, enabling him to use his own reason and techniques to reshape the world as he thought it ought to be. To this task he took. Modern man would construct a new world to replace the decaying world of Christendom: a world with a new physical order, a new socio-political order, and a new economic order. This world, he supposed, would be infinitely superior to the old one. Revolutions of science, philosophy, and religion had given him everything he needed to create a new heavens and earth in man’s own preferred image.

The rebuilding project affected three major areas. Man would reconstruct the economic order, the socio-political order, and the natural order. Each of these took polarized forms, two opposite but twin trajectories. The economic rebuilding slowly became the alternative techniques of capitalism and socialism. The socio-political rebuilding led to the parallel projects of liberalism and totalitarianism. The rebuilding of the natural world eventually split into industrial polution with uninhibited scientific manipulation of the elements and radical environmentalism which prizes animals, minerals, and raw “nature” above human flourishing.

While the project had many successes, particularly where it worked by explicitly or implicitly retaining classical assumptions from the old world, and sometimes on its own, it also bore wicked fruit. Wars and rumors of wars, destroying of the earth, neighbor rising against neighbor, rich who sell the poor for a pair of sandals, men who shame themselves with other men, women who think they are men and receive in themselves a due penalty for their anti-transcendant error—all of these began to bleed forth from the new order. These were not so much new phenomena as phenomena with a new historical character and shape. In essence, modern man drove the world a new kind of mad. The new insanity was a profoundly humanistic one. Man artificially constructed a brand new world order in his own depraved and limited image. Yet this image is not only wrong but mortal, produced by radically finite wisdom, ignorant, and subject to corruption. The foundations of modernity were as unstable as man himself, who is but a vapor.

For this reason the wrath of God is coming upon the modern world. As He did to all of the old world orders, He will judge righteously. The societies which have set aside divine givenness for the artifices of men who deem themselves wise and experts will crumble. The Lord will demonlish the artificial world of modern man in all of its parts, and men will seek relief and mercy, but will not find it.

Economics will fail. God will topple the pretensions of the economists, and the rich and the poor will oppose each other. The self-made man will be unmade, and the man with nothing will have even less. Society and politics will fail. People will be divided brother against brother, race against race, class against class, party against party until the house cannot stand. All self-constructed identities and artificial sexualities will fall apart and leave homes broken in every place. The environment will fail. The radicals who wish to use environmentalism to gather power or restructure society will be resisted and fail. Politically-motivated climate change-deniers will be washed away by hurricanes, incinerated by fires, and poisoned by pollutions. Economic, social, and environmental catastrophe will bring the West to its knees.

The modern world invented by rebellious man will pass away. The kingdom of our God will remain forever.


All of this should be taken with a grain of salt. It is oversimplified, stylized, and the eschatological conclusion is obviously guesswork. But it’s what has been whirling around in my head as a late, so take it and do with it what you will.

Modernity, From Original Sin to the Day of the Lord

Millenniums and Mandates

One of the key differences between amillennialism and postmillennialism is how they relate the economy of redemption to the economy of consummation. To put it differently, amillenialism and postmillenialism disagree on the relationship between the Great Commission and the cultural/creation mandate. This seems more or less to be the crux of the issue, at least at the dogmatic level (not necessarily at the exegetical level).

The issue works as follows. In Scripture, there are two basic projects: creation and reconciliation, or consummation and redepmtion. The project of creation is the original setup. You could say “Plan A,” ignoring for now the fact that God always knew and planned for everything else. In creation/consummation, God creates the world and humanity good but incomplete. They are both designed to bring Him glory and receive His grace, but man as God’s image is tasked with bringing this end to its fullness. Man is to take the raw goodness of God’s creation and fashion it into something greater and more beautiful, taking the world from glory to glory. This is what has been called the cultural mandate.

Of course, man’s fulfillment of the cultural mandate was almost immediately upset by sin. The Fall represented the introduction the intrusion of a foreign element, sin, into creation. Sin is diametrically opposed to God, the darkness to His light, and thus its introduction into humanity and the rest of creation prevents the complete fulfillment of the cultural mandate. While man can still advance the creation toward God’s glory to some extent by industry, art, language, and other products, the ubiquitous taint of sin will obscure the image. There will be dark spots, stains, and structural weaknesses at nearly every point. If the cultural mandate is to be fulfilled, sin and death must be removed from the world. This is the project of redemption. The work of Christ is the means by which sin is removed, restoring man to his proper status and role as God’s image.

The division between millennial views emerges here, at the intersection of creation and redemption. If redemption solves the problem of sin which interrupted the project of creation and consummation, then when does the creation project get back on track? The world still needs to go through the process for which it was intended: being brought by humanity from glory to glory in order to display the glory of God in as much fullness as creation can. When and how will this take place?

Amillennialism and postmillenialism answer this question differently. In amillennialism, the project of consummation cannot truly get back underway until the project of redemption is complete. As long as sin and death still exist, mankind will not really be able to fulfill the cultural mandate. Until humans are fully redeemed, the unredeemed elements of human culture will so poison the project as to make its effects null. Only once Christ returns and completes our redemption will we be able to move on and fully glorify creation as intended.

Postmillennialism offers a different answer. In postmillennialism, the projects of creation and redemption operate in parallel. As God redeems, He enables and calls forth the fulfillment of the cultural mandate. This means that the cultural accomplishments of redeemed man are not going to be perfect, since redemption is not yet perfected, but this can be improving in an ongoing way, and in the end purified when Christ returns. So in the time between the first and second advents, we are able to make real progress on both the Great Commission and the cultural mandate simultaneously. The atonement has not only brought redemption to the world, but in bringing redemption has put the work of consummation back in business.

This difference is basically why theonomists and Christian Reconstructionists are nearly all postmillennial. Their project assumes a degree of temporal unity between the two great projects. Work on creation and work on redemption can overlap and interlock. By contrast, this is why so many Reformed Baptists become amillennial but few become postmillennial. Baptist ecclesiology and anthropology tend to assume that the economy of consummation is entirely separate from the economy of redemption, and thus that the cultural mandate is mostly impossible to implement on a scale of any consequence before the Great Commission is finished and Christ returns.

Millenniums and Mandates

A Few Thoughts on the Revelation Letters

For my Revelation class this semester, I’m supposed to journal my way through Revelation, answering four questions for every chapter:

  1. What does the text say?
  2. What did I observe?
  3. How does this chapter fit in the context?
  4. What did I learn?

This is a fun, though not particularly professional, exercise. In any case, by the time I’m done I will have basically assembled an ad-hoc, very informal commentary on the whole book. I will be editing these together into an ebook and uploading it here in case anyone is interested in it.

In the meantime, I thought I’d go ahead and post my journal results from Revelation 2-3, the letters to the seven churches. Enjoy (and feel free to critique):

What does the text say?

At this point Jesus gives John letters to deliver to the seven churches. Each shall be addressed separately.

The Letter to Ephesus

Jesus addresses the angel (lit: messenger) at the church in Ephesus first. He identifies Himself as the holder of the seven stars (angels of the churches) who walks among the lampstands (the churches). He commends them for their works, endurance, and discernment with respect to false teachers. He then mentions one problem: they have abandoned their first love. He commands repentance to their original works, or else He will remove them. He then offers a second commendation specifically about their resistance to the heretical Nicolaitans. He then calls them to hear what the Spirit says to the churches and promises food from the tree of life in paradise to the victor.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus then addresses the angel at the church in Smyrna. He identifies Himself as the first and the last who died and rose again. He recognizes their persecution and suffering at the hands of Jews, but calls them rich and encourages them in their coming suffering. He tells them that they will suffer for ten days but to remain faithful even to death in that time. If they do they will receive the crown of life. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promised protection from the second death.

The Letter to Pergamum

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Pergamum. He identifies Himself as the bearer of a two-edged sword. He recognizes their location as under Satan’s rule, but commends their faithfulness in persecution. He rebukes their toleration of Balaam’s teachings with their idolatry and sexual immorality and the teachings of the Nicolaitans. He commands them to repent at the threat of war with His word. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promises hidden manna and a white stone with a new, private name.

The Letter to Thyatira

Finally for the chapter, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Thyatira. He identifies Himself as the Son of God with fiery eyes and brass feet. He commends their works of love and faithfulness, but He rebukes them for tolerating a heretical prophetess Jezebel, who leads people into immorality and idolatry. She was given time to repent, but He declares that the time is up for her judgment. Her and her children will be diseased and repaid. Those who resist her are told to hold on to their faith. The victor is promises authority over the nations with Jesus, and they are called to listen to the Spirit.

The Letter to Sardis

In chapter three, Jesus begins by addressing the angel at the church in Sardis. Jesus identifies Himself again as holding the seven stars but also this time the seven spirits of God. He does not commend anything but moves straight to a criticism of their false vitality. Their deeds are incomplete, and the church will soon die. Jesus commands them to repent and return to the word they have received. If they do not, Jesus will suddenly come and judge them. A few members, however, are noted as still faithful. Victors like them will be clothed in white and kept forever in the Lamb’s book of life. They are then called to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Philadelphia. Jesus identifies Himself as Holy and True with the keys of David. He commends their good deeds and endurance in weakness despite Jewish persecution. He promises that their love by Him will be vindicated, and that they will be protected from the coming trials as reward for their endurance thus far. He encourages them to hold fast, and the victor will be a pillar in God’s house with God’s name. He then calls them to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Laodicea

Finally, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Laodicea. He identifies Himself as a faithful witness and beginning of creation. He immediately criticizes their lukewarm deeds and threatens to spit them out in disgust. He mocks their self-sufficiency and encourages them to find their riches, clothing, and health from Him. Yet He affirms that He rebukes them out of love and encourages them to repent. If any repents, He will come in and eat with them. The victor will receive a throne with Christ, and they must listen to the Spirit.

What did I observe?

There is a lot going on here, but some repeated themes are prominent. Jesus stands as the all-seeing Judge, the one who rewards faithfulness and punishes heresy and wickedness. Truly He is seen to exercise the “all authority” He has been given by the Father, and the statement in John that the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son is at least partially fulfilled. Jesus has taken the place of the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament, proclaiming His judgments on God’s people through a prophet. The Spirit is also important here, for Jesus identifies Him as the one who speaks to the churches rather than John, the appointed congregational reader, or anyone else, though He also identifies Himself as the speaker. The unity between the word of the Spirit and of the Son here indicates both the way that, through Christ’s Incarnation and exaltation, the Spirit of God has become more particularly for us the Spirit of Christ, and of course also the inherently Trinitarian direction of New Testament theology.

As to the particular letters:

The Letter to Ephesus

One interpretative issue here is the meaning of abandoning their first love, along with the corresponding works to which they are called to return. I find plausible the suggestion that the “love” here is primarily horizontal in nature. The Ephesians have forgotten to care for each other and the poor. This use of “love” in the New Testament is not uncommon. Taking their original love this way makes sense of the works they did at first: they were originally charitable and communal, but (perhaps in the face of persecution and in their efforts to combat heresy) they have come to neglect this essential practice.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus’ identifying Himself as the first and last, dead and raised, seems relevant to the harsh persecution the Smyrnan church is set to experience. Some of them will die, but they will be raised like and with Christ, and thus they will be spared the second death. This, in fact, seems to sum up the whole content of the letter.

The Letter to Pergamum

Pergamum is the first church mentioned to permit heresies, and they have permitted more than one. This is odd given their harsh persecution, which seems to have had a purifying effect on some of the other churches. In light of this, Jesus essentially upgrades the threat they face by adding His own sword if they do not repent. A church with Christ on its side will stand no matter what assails it, but a church with the world and Christ as enemies will surely die.

The Letter to Thyatira

Jesus intensifies His terrifying image here, apparently because of the seriousness of Jezebel’s heresy. Though the church has kept faith and love, they have (perhaps in the process) permitted a vile movement to go on too long and too far. Jesus will take this movement down, period, and it will not be pretty. Those who remain faithful appear to be promised a part in the same fiery, obliterating power by which Christ will judge the rest of their church.

The Letter to Sardis

What it means that Sardis’ deeds are incomplete seems unclear. Perhaps this simply means they had mostly stopped working, no longer doing the works of love and evangelism which many of the other churches were doing. This could well be because, with the lack of any mention of persecution, they had grown complacent and comfortable with primarily a self-incurved focus. The church looked like it thrived, but they did nothing and were serving themselves rather than God. This trap, of course, is one into which many churches today also fall.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Philadelphia is one of the two churches with no rebuke. Instead, Jesus simply promises their protection and vindication in light of their present endurance under harsh Jewish persecution. It is interesting to note the way that Philadelphia contrasts with the immediately preceding Sardis. No persecution is mentioned for Sardis, and they receive no commendation, whereas much persecution is mentioned for Philadelphia, and they receive no condemnation. This highlights the theme in Revelation of suffering for the Gospel as purifying and glorifying. Indeed, Jesus promises to exalt them above all their enemies when the coming day arrives.

The Letter to Laodicea

Laodicea is the second church to receive no real commendation, but Jesus’ tone seems more compassionate than His tone to Sardis. He specifically points out the loving nature of rebuke and portrays Himself as patiently knocking for entrance into their congregation. Laodicea being the last church, this serves as a compelling reminder of the abundant mercy of Christ even in His judgment. He does not want to punish them but wants to bless them and wants them to come to Him. The question of what exactly they were doing wrong, however, seems much less clear than many of the traditional interpretations of lukewarm-ness would indicate.

How do these chapters fit in context?

As the second and third chapters of Revelation, this passage immediately follows the introductory material and constitutes the bridge which is the collection of letters for the seven churches. The background, then, is the announcement that God is unveiling His plan in Christ to the churches through John. Something divine is afoot, and these letters are meant to give some of the initial warnings and preparations that the churches will need in order to play their part faithfully.

The revelation of Christ is powerful glory in the first chapter is also essential here. This glorified, risen, exalted Christ is the Judge of the churches. Again, this is important because of the way it links Jesus in the New Testament to Yahweh in the Old. Just as Yahweh spoke judgments on His people and their cities through the prophets of old, Jesus speaks judgment on His people in each city through His prophet John.

Finally, these chapters are important in setting the stage for the rest of the book. The eschatological sub-pictures given in Christ’s address to each of the churches will be integrated and transcended through the rest of the book in order to show the whole story. What Christ announces to each of these churches has a role to play in understanding the events coming upon the world. The themes will be extended and expanded, and the wider scope of what Jesus is warning the churches about will be revealed.

What did I learn?

Examining these chapters highlighted a couple of things for me which I had never really noticed. The most impressive to me is the way (as I mentioned twice already) that Jesus takes the place of Yahweh over the people of God. The parallels to Old Testament prophetic texts, especially those announcing judgment on Israel, are pretty strong. Just as God announced to Israel their judgment (and His mercy), often in connection to a coming judgment on the rest of the nations, through His servants the prophets time and again, so Jesus now announces to the churches their judgment (and His mercy) in connection with the rest of the book which addresses a judgment on the rest of the nations through His servant John. The message is clear: the role played by the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament has been given to the name of Jesus in the New. This unique conflation of the roles of Jesus and Yahweh certainly helps to indicate Christ’s deity, even if it is not alone sufficient to prove the matter. The human messianic dimension must also be regarded. Now a man judges the people of God, namely the man Jesus. God has exalted humanity in Christ as His covenant partner.

Going through these two chapters has also helped clarify the relationship between the letters and the rest of Revelation. It seems to me that the letters provide the particulars of God’s coming judgment on the world, which begins with the house of God. The churches will be judged first, all of them represented in these particular seven, and this judgment will then move into the nations. The judgment over the whole world system will carry on the themes found here in the judgment of the churches. Yet it seems that even these specific churches will be present during the coming judgment, and in fact it looms over their immediate future directly following their own judgment. This seems to protest against a primarily futurist reading of the judgment described in the rest of Revelation. On the other hand, that this judgment is moving to the world from the people of God indicates to me that it is not traditional preterism which is being described, for the focus does not seem to be on Israel. This suggests that the eschatological horizon here is a judgment on the pagan world in particular. Nonetheless, I could see support for traditional preterism here in the letter to Philadelphia, which seems to lend support to the idea that the Jews are in fact the subject of the coming judgment. Perhaps we should consider that, if Revelation is in fact post-AD 70, the church had begun to consider the Jews who persecuted them as bound up with the pagan world. This could have been traced back to their cooperation with Rome to execute Jesus.

A Few Thoughts on the Revelation Letters

We Are Not Ourselves

I am sinless. 

I am sinful. 

I am holy.

I am profane. 

I am righteous. 

I am guilty. 

What is all this babbling about? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Christian identity. People talk about how our identity is in Christ, but they rarely talk explain what that means practically. A lot could be said about it, really. But I’ve been thinking about one aspect in particular. 

In one way, we have two selves as Christians. There is the old man and the new. Often these are treated as simply two sides to your mind or heart, one good and one evil, but it’s really so much deeper than that.

The truth is that Jesus has actually and entirely remade us. We were one kind of person, one kind of human being, before, but He has broken that down into tiny pieces and rebuilt it from the ground up. He did this in His death and resurrection. When He died on the Cross, the humanity of our old, fallen, natural selves was crucified—brutally executed under the wrath of God—with Him. And then we were raised with Him to a new humanity, perfectly purified from sin and filled with the life and glory of God.

So where does that leave us now? In Christ, we are already perfected. I’m not talking sentimentally. I’m not talking about our legal status before God. I’m saying that the human life of Jesus in heaven right now is our life. He is literally our perfection, our sanctification, our regeneration, our glorification. Our redeemed selves are hidden with Christ in God 

But this hiding is, for now, essential to grasp. We can’t see our new selves but in glimpses, shadows, and holy moments by faith. Our new selves are in Christ alone, hidden in heaven, and the only way to see them in the present on earth is by union with Christ.

Because, the thing is, right now we are not ourselves. In a certain way we are, but in a more important way we’re not. The selves we experience right now—the ones deeply scarred by sin, guilt, confusion, insufficiency, fear, doubt, weakness, and death—are expired. We were crucified. Our flesh was mortally wounded on Calvary in the flesh of Jesus. Our existence as sinners is passing away, fading like a time traveler who has murdered his young grandfather.

So right now we are walking paradoxes. We are still our natural and decaying selves, but by grace the Holy Spirit has united us to Jesus, in whom our true selves are hidden. Although our new selves will have to remain essentially hidden with Christ until He comes, because of our present union with Him by the Spirit we can begin to live, inasmuch as we depend on Jesus in faith, as new creatures even today. As we draw nearer to Jesus, we become in this mixed present more like who we really are in the Savior. Yet because Jesus still remains hidden in heaven, we cannot yet fully escape who we have been, our old and dead selves. 

This, then, thrusts us back onto the practices that take us to Jesus. Our only way to be who we really are is to know Him, which means we are bound to pray, to read the Scriptures which testify of Christ, to take our place within His Body, the Church, to serve the least of these with whom He so deeply identifies, and to feast upon His new creation nourishment weekly in the Supper, to recall the promise and identity of our baptisms, and to suffer for the Gospel. These things deepen our union with Christ. Self-denial and cross-bearing connect us to His death, which killed our old selves. Likewise, the active life of believing, knowing, and loving Jesus connects us to His resurrection by the Spirit. And by this resurrection we experience in advance our new creation selves as pure gift in the person of Jesus.

So for now, we march on in tension. Our old, corrupted selves remain alive in this age but dead in Christ. Our redeemed and holy selves remain hidden in this age (they belong to the age to come) but present in Christ. Yet out of these two realities, this age and the age to come in Jesus, one is superior. Jesus is victorious, and all reality opposed to His is already defeated. This means that we, in our darkness and pain and struggling, are not ourselves. Our true selves are hidden in Christ to be revealed on the last day. That is hope and comfort, for the selves we see now obviously have no place in glory or eternal life. But if this isn’t who we are, if in Jesus we are something far better, then we know that there is real hope for us all.

To adapt something T. F. Torrance once said:

This Caleb Smith you see is full of corruption, but the real Caleb Smith is hid with Christ in God and will be revealed  only when Jesus Christ comes again.

Amen.

We Are Not Ourselves

Illusions of the Times

“The end is near! Jesus will be back any day now!”

As Christians, not only do we hear this a lot, but very many of us say it a lot as well. If you look on Facebook or Twitter, or if you go to Bible studies or listen to people’s prayer requests, you find a common sentiment that finally, in the 21st century, we are living in the last days and Jesus will return probably in our lifetimes.

This sentiment is nothing new, of course. It has been around since Jesus ascended. But that’s exactly why we should be skeptical of it today. If 2000 years ago everyone thought Jesus would BRB, but He didn’t, I don’t know why we would think that our day has a significantly different chance than they did.

But many people think they have proof. After all, didn’t Jesus say that the end would come with signs of war, famine, earthquakes, and violence? Today is more violent, war-torn, and full of natural disasters than ever before, right? So Jesus has to be coming back especially soon.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, Jesus never said any of those things were signs that the end was about to come. Instead, He specifically said they are not signs of the end. Here is the relevant passage in Matthew:

Then Jesus replied to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these events are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name. Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.

Matthew 24:4-14

Pay close attention. Jesus specifically lists all of these problems with the notice, “the end is not yet.” These wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, and lawlessness are all part of the beginning of the birth pains, not the end. These evils began even before the end of the first century. They began in full force ages ago. Jesus warned the disciples not to freak out or be confused by these signs. He told them, “All of this stuff will look frightening, but they don’t mean the end is here!” So the way people use these events today is in fact the opposite of how Jesus spoke of them.

The other problem with this line of thought is that it misreads the present. Even if these things were signs of the end, then we shouldn’t expect Jesus to come back now, because we have less of this stuff today than at almost any other time in history. These days out of the hundreds of countries in the world, only a couple of them, mostly in the Middle East, are at war. This is different from most of history. There is less war today than ever before. The same goes for famine. With modern technology, there is more food in the world than ever before, and even when prices have gone up a bit there has been no shortage of food in Western countries since the Great Depression (and even then, there have been many worse periods in history). Developing countries are actually developing and suffer less famine than they ever did in previous centuries (except Yemen, which is being systematically starved by the Saudi war and our abominable US support). Natural disasters don’t appear to have changed much.

Even violence hasn’t really changed. We think these mass shootings and terrorist acts are bad and new, but in fact they are tame compared to history. The Holocaust is in the past now. But even before that, constant tribal warfare, torture, brutal methods of execution, vigilante justice, and barbarian pillaging were all widespread for most the past. The idea of a landmass and population as large as the United States, for example, not being filled with wars and political murders and lynchings and human sacrifice is a novelty. Abortion, infanticide, and the rampant sexual immorality which have only in the past several decades infiltrated Western countries were already the norm in the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day. Overall, not much seems any worse than it ever has.

Thus, what many people see as signs of the times just really aren’t. They’re illusions. This doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t coming back soon. I think He may come back at any time, though to be honest I expect the Gospel to reach a lot more of the unreached world first, per the last verse in the text I quoted. But the point is we have no idea when He will come, there is no specific reason to think we are especially close right now, and we can only hope, pray, and evangelize if we do want it to be soon (which we should).

The truth is, as long as the Church is around, we will be waiting with the feeling that Jesus’ coming is right around the corner, and that’s honestly because He is. While the years may extend, Jesus is never far away. Heaven and earth are but separated by a thin curtain, a curtain Jesus has already opened, and in His Church Jesus constantly blurs the lines between this age and the age to come. So we will always feel the pressure of Christ’s coming on our time, and we will always long for His final day of salvation. But whenever that day will come, well, we can just have no idea.

Illusions of the Times

My Stance on the Rapture

I just realized that I haven’t actually written about the Rapture on this blog at all since I began it. Yet the Rapture is a fun and popular debate, and it’s one of the few issues on which Christians can disagree without very many people getting angry or declaring you a heretic (though some still do).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? Before I answer, I’ll quickly survey the popular options. Here they are:

  • Pre-tribulation Rapture: The most common and popular view, mostly popular because of the writers like Tim LeHaye and the Left Behind movies (not counting the Nick Cage one). In this view, immediately before the 7-year tribulation period, Jesus will make something of a partial coming in which He will instantly gather all of His people from around the globe to Himself and take them back to heaven. After this the world will experience severe judgments from God for 7 years until Jesus returns and sets up His millennial kingdom.
  • Post-tribulation Rapture: Probably the second most common view, in post-tribulationalism the Church will have to live through the 7 years of judgment, though protected by God along the way, and after that Jesus will return, take His saints up to heaven, and institute His millennial reign.
  • Mid-tribulation Rapture: In this view (also called pre-wrath), the Rapture takes place halfway through the tribulation, prior to God’s pouring out of His wrath on the world. Mid-trib makes a distinction between the persecutions and sufferings of the first half of the tribulation and the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath of the second half.

To jump right to it, none of these appeal to me. I don’t think any of them have sufficient Biblical grounding, and I think they all miss the important point of what the Rapture is. That said, I think pre-trib is the least likely of these, and in fact, I would go so far as to say that it has no Biblical evidence whatsoever and is every bit as much a sketchy extra-Biblical tradition as any Catholic innovation (no offense to my papist friends, of course).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? First off, I doubt that Revelation even teaches a distinct 7-year tribulation period. I agree with those who argue that the years, times, and seasons in Revelation are symbolic, and that the sequences of 7 (bowls, wrath, trumpets) are actually different visions which go back and refer to the same thing, much as Pharaoh had two dreams in one night with the same meaning.

This, of course, makes any of the popular views on the Rapture’s timing moot. The terms pre, post, and mid-trib don’t make sense without a specific 7 year tribulation. What does this do to the Rapture itself? In the eschatological timeline I find most convincing, the millennium is a reality for those who have died in Christ now, and it will end when Christ returns. When He returns, He will, as Scripture says, call His people together to meet Him in the air. Exactly what this will look like I do not know (is “in the air” a literal description, even?), but what comes next is the most serious departure from the other Rapture views.

I do not believe that we will be Raptured to heaven. That is where Christ is coming from, and in fact He is bringing heaven with Him to earth. Rather, our Rapture will be the time in which we are transformed by the sight of Him to be like Him, and then we will escort Him to earth. At this time all the dead are raised, the world is judged, and the entire creation will be recreated around Jesus Christ. Then heaven and earth will be one, with Christ ruling at the center.

So, specifically, I take the Rapture to be when we meet Christ in the air to be glorified and raised to resurrection life before escorting Him to His take rule over the kingdom, which now extends over the whole earth. 

Where do I get such an idea? The term parousia, used in the New Testament to refer to Christ’s return, means “appearing” or “presence.” In particular, it was used in the Roman Empire (under which, of course, Israel was ruled and against which Christ was proclaimed as Lord) to refer to the “appearing” of the emperor to a city or colony. When news of his coming came, the citizens of Rome would exit the city to gather around him and give him a royal escort into their city. It is not only possible but quite likely that Paul saw very much the same kind of thing going on when Christ returns for us.

N. T. Wright is the most well-known proponent of this view, so if you want to learn more about it I would recommend that you check out this brief essay he wrote on the topic, and perhaps also check out his excellent book, Surprised by Hope, which covers this and other issues related to heaven, the resurrection, and the new creation.

My Stance on the Rapture

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel

One theological question which has been a fairly ambiguous realm for much of Church history is that of the actual relationship between Christ’s Church and the people or nation of Israel which came before it. The Biblical data on this is complex and apparently varied, and the historical issue of the Church as becoming predominantly Gentile doesn’t help. This has led to many different views which we might categorize under four basic approaches:

  • Two peoples of God: In dispensationalism, the Church and Israel are two entirely distinct peoples of God. God chose for Himself a nation and race, Israel, in temporal and physical ways, and He also created a chosen people for salvation, the Church. If there is a connection between the two, it is either exclusively or primarily a spiritual analogy or a historical accident.
  • Replacement theology: Various forms of what we might call “replacement theology” have also been generated, in which basically God rejects Israel after their rejection of Jesus, and He chooses the Church as a new people. A lot changes between the kind of people He chose the first time (ethnic, nationalistic) and the second time (spiritual, decentralized). In this case the Church essentially takes the place and role of Israel in a new way, and “steps into their shoes,” but is still a fundamentally distinct body.
  • One people of God but two Israels: In a third approach, Israel is viewed as having always been internally divided between “true Israel” and “false Israel,” those who were faithful to Yahweh and most truly His people, and those who were unfaithful. In views like this, the Church is to be seen primarily as a continuation of “true Israel,” but now expanded to include the Gentiles. The true Israel and the Church are essentially the same body but existing under different covenants (Old vs. New).
  • One people, period: Finally, there is the approach of direct continuity, in which the Church literally is the same people of God as Israel, only now expanded freely to the Gentiles and without all of the trappings of a nation-state or a ceremonial law. Membership is by faith or (depending who you ask) even also by birth. There exists even in this one body some true and some false Christians, but only one covenant people of God.

None of these approaches in their most basic and pure forms quite strike me as fully Biblical. If seems to me that if we are going to appreciate the full scope of what Scripture says about the Church’s place after Israel, we will need to combine some insights from more than one of these approaches, and they will need to be integrated around some kind of key concept. What key concept do we need? What is Biblical?

My own hypothesis is that the key is resurrection and regeneration. The relationship between Israel and the Church should be conceived in terms of the new birth, of the natural man and the man alive in the Spirit, even at a corporate level. It seems most Biblical to me to say that the Church is Israel born again.

The give a full Biblical defense of this position is beyond the scope of this post, which will be long enough. All I seek to do here is to give a narrative description of the hypothesis in the history of Israel, the covenant, Jesus, and the Church. Before I get into that, though, the first principle I should point out in my hypothesis is that regeneration, the new birth, did not ever take place until Christ’s resurrection.1 With this in mind, we follow the story of Israel.

Israel was began as a people created by God from His election of and covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham descendants which would make up a great nation, which nation would bless the whole world. This was a unilateral promise. God would see to it that this would indeed be fulfilled, not just for the benefit of Abraham and his family but for the redemption of the world.2 

In the process of fulfilling this promise God called the Israelites out of Egypt and established another covenant with them, one which established Israel as a theocratic nation with a divinely provided system of law and worship. Part of the point of this endeavor was to make Israel into a light to the nations, an example of human life rightly ordered by communion with God and with each other. But Israel proved incapable of this task. Even with a God-given Torah they could not become what they needed to be, a true example of redeemed human existence. The deep and radical effects of sin made righteousness under the Torah impossible. And without a righteous Israel, God’s promise to Abraham also seemed in danger. Particularly, the terms of the Torah meant that God would have to undo Israel’s blessings in light of their disobedience, and the public corruption of Israel meant that the nations could not be blessed through them.

It is in the midst of this precarious situation that the prophets, enlightened by the Spirit, began to perceive the only possible solution. Humanity, in particular Israel, was too corrupt to go on in its natural form. The roots of sin were so deep that if purposes of creation and election were ever going to be realized, humanity would essentially have to be created anew. If Israel was going to live up to its calling, it would need a new heart and new spirit, indeed a radical new outpouring of the Holy Spirit who had been working in their midst since their birth as a nation out of Egypt. They needed nothing short of a new covenant and a new creation.

Alas, before this need could be fulfilled there was also the need to deal with the consequences of Israel’s sin. By the terms of the Torah, Israel was condemned. Abraham’s descendants were at risk of being cut off from the promise because of their status under the Law. Thus God appeared to be under two conflicting covenant obligations. The terms of the Mosaic covenant required Him to desolate the same people whom the Abrahamic covenant required Him to bless, and through whom He planned to bless the world. So how was God to be faithful to both covenants, restore Israel, and bring about a new creation capable of redeeming the world?

The answer to this dilemma left hanging at the end of the Old Testament is found in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, marking the emergence of a new creation out of the midst of the old one. He sanctified His life by sinless communion with God. By His baptism He identified Himself with sinful Israel as their Messiah and in that role took upon Himself the job of their repentance. He brought about signs and instruments of the new creation: healing, forgiveness, and other miracles of the Holy Spirit.

In the middle of this work Jesus also performed a major symbolic act. He appointed 12 disciples to participate in and carry on His work. They were to be apostles, authorized representatives of Himself and His ministry. Yet for Israel, the number 12 was of great significance. This was not just any number, but the number of Jacob’s sons, the number of the tribes of Israel. The Messiah who took upon Himself the identity of the people of Israel expanded that identity into 12 others. He was reforming, reconstituting, recreating Israel around Himself. With His baptism into Israel’s identity and His appointing of 12 new heads, a fresh life for Israel was in labor.

Yet if there was to be a recreation of Israel, there also needed to be a new covenant. The old had failed, and Israel was under existential threat because of it. So on one fateful Passover, Jesus broke bread and served wine as signs of a new covenant with Israel based on Himself, His life and, crucially, death. This covenant was, of course, for Israel and had been prophesied by Israel’s prophets years in advance. This covenant would establish forgiveness of sins and give Israel the Holy Spirit to finally destroy their sin problem even at the root. But how would it work? And how would God deal with the destruction coming from the old covenant?

For this, Christ was crucified. This was God’s solution to the covenant problem. The same judgment He had prophesied for Israel due to their unfaithfulness, His wrath poured out through Rome3, Jesus Himself experienced as their representative. One man gave His life in place of the nation, and in His dying flesh God condemned sin as was fit to His covenantal obligations. As Paul would later explain it, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”4 Jesus expiated Israel’s sin in His death and so freed God to proceed with His promise to bless Israel and the nations.

With Israel’s sin dealt with, and with a new covenant established by a sacrifice before God, it was finally time for God to bring about the new creation, the regeneration of human life. Three days after Jesus’ death, He raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Him and making Him the “firstborn from the dead.”5 People are often hesitant (or call it heretical) to speak of Jesus as “born again,” but this means no more or less than to say that He was resurrected to incorruptible, imperishable, new creation life. In this Jesus still retains His identity as Israel’s substitute and representative Messiah. In Him Israel itself is born again into the new creation. His resurrection life becomes the ground for a new life for Israel. This new resurrection life empowered by the Spirit is the solution to the biggest problem of the old covenant: Israel’s ongoing sinfulness. Israel formerly consisted only of natural men, unregenerate and without the Holy Spirit. The Torah, God-given as it was, could not penetrate to the depths of human existence to purge sin. But Christ’s sanctified and resurrected life imparted by union with Him through the Spirit is enough. It will finally overcome human sinfulness and turn Israel’s sinners into saints, turning apostasy into faith working through love.

Yet Christ’s victory for Israel was not automatic for those who were already members, and the new covenant of the new creation brought with it new terms of membership, a new stage in election. In this new covenant a relationship to Abraham alone would not be sufficient. The new covenant fulfilled the promise to Abraham exclusively through Christ, the elect Messiah. As God had once restricted the promise from Abraham’s descendants to Isaac’s descendants, excluding Ishmael’s, and then restricted it further from Isaac’s descendants to Jacob’s, so now God further restricted the covenant to those who are in Israel’s Messiah.

This next stage, then, at which people of the old, fleshly Israel are incorporated into Christ and thus Israel in a reborn form, occurs at Pentecost. At this point all is fulfilled as the Father and the Son send the Spirit to Christ’s apostles. These apostles, filled with the Spirit, are the first fulfillment to Israel of the promise. In this the new age and the new creation came to life in the midst of the present by the Spirit. Israel, actual Israelites descended from Abraham, received the forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and the Spirit in them. The were incorporated into the resurrected Messiah and so became part of a reborn Israel.

The renewing of election around Christ with a new covenant in place of the old, Torah-based covenant also brings with it an expansion in election. Now it is no longer necessary to be physically descended from Abraham to be a son of the promise. Through the Spirit and faith, even the Gentiles can share in the promise, and thus God’s promise to bless even the Gentiles through Abraham is fulfilled as well. The new terms of the new covenant, reducible essentially to loyalty to Jesus, simultaneously cut off many natural-born Israelites and enable the inclusion of many Gentiles. Thus Israel in its new form, reborn in Christ, becomes also the Church, the assembly of believers.

So what happens to the old, fleshly Israel, Jews who do not recognize their Messiah? They remain in essential exile, having been judged at AD 70 for the last time. Their future lies in the new covenant, the promise of the Spirit. There is no future for them apart from their Messiah. This does not mean that God has abandoned them, for He has fulfilled His promise by instituting a new covenant in which they can have forgiveness and moral renewal. He has taken the next step to rescue them, but those who will not repent and recognize their Messiah cannot benefit from this saving action. The word of God in election and promise has not failed, as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, and in the end we see hints that, perhaps out of continued faithfulness to Abraham and His physical descendants, God will see to it that all Israel will one day find salvation in its Messiah and His new covenant. One day perhaps there will be no more old, fleshly Israel, but all will enter the life of Israel reborn in Christ.

Of course, I am sure that many questions about details and implications of this view may remain. I cannot answer them here, as this post is long enough. But if you have any, drop a comment and I’ll look into making a good reply. I believe the narrative I have articulated here is faithful to Scripture and what is portrays about Israel and the Church. Perhaps one of these days I will get around to developing this further and adding more specific Scriptural support instead of relying so much on allusions and themes I just kind of hope people will recognize.

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel