A Blaze of Glory! (RJS)

Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001The rapture and Armageddon, military conquest and the heaven and earth passing away in a blaze of glory are concepts that can catch the imagination.  A commenter on a recent post (here) noted that the imagery of destruction can have a profound effect.

The Rapture thing didn’t just shape our understanding of Jesus’ second coming, but also reshaped how we viewed his first coming. Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, in this system, came to be seen as a failure — a mistake that would need to be corrected in the second try of the second coming. Next time, the idea became, Jesus would come back in military might, slaughtering the enemies of God and establishing God’s reign by force. The cross becomes a temporary setback rather than a victory.

In the end, this version of the story says, “the Antichrist” will rise, riding a white horse as a conqueror bent on conquest. But then Jesus will come back riding an even bigger white horse and conquer with superior firepower. And thus, if this is what Jesus is ultimately like, this is what we Christians should be like too.

And after this? Well after this the heavens and earth will vanish in a blaze with a loud bang. That the end of the corrupt heaven and earth is utter destruction has consequences as well. The earth is a consumable good rather than a resource, a garden, to be cherished, cultivated, and preserved.

But is this view of the end times taught in scripture?  Is it an accurate interpretation of the sayings and writings of Jesus, Paul, Peter and John?

The way we read and interpret the apocalyptic imagery in scripture will shape us and our view of the Christian life. This is an important concept to get right.

Middleton A New Heaven and EarthThe previous post on J. Richard Middleton’s book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology examined six New Testament passages that support Middleton’s core argument that the redemption and restoration described in Scripture is a holistic redemption of all of creation. Christians are not rescued from earth but saved along with heaven and earth.  There are, however, several passages that may paint a somewhat darker picture; a picture of utter cosmic destruction that precedes the coming of God’s Kingdom.

  • The Olivet discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. … Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
  • Hebrews 12:26-28 At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
  • 2 Peter 3. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire.
  • Revelation 6:12-14, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
  • Revelation 20:11  “Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them” and 21:1 “for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

All of these passages appear to portray the utter destruction of heaven, earth, or both.  But is this an accurate reading?

The first important point is that the these texts be read in context – not just the immediate context of the books in which they are found, but also in the cultural context of second temple Judaism.

Given the significant repertoire of images of cosmic destruction that the New Testament authors had available to them to depict the coming day of the Lord, we need to read the New Testament imagery of cosmic destruction in light of the Old Testament background, while making allowances for the transformation of imagery that might have taken place between the Testaments. This is an important alternative to simply reading our own contemporary biases and perceptions  into Scripture. (p. 181-182)

All of the New Testament passages above draw on the available Old Testament and second Temple imagery of destruction. Many of these images including the shaking of the earth and the darkening of the sun and moon refer to judgment that precedes salvation, but a this worldly salvation is anticipated. The falling of the stars may refer to “the eschatological judgment of corrupt heavenly powers, associated with the coming of God’s kingdom, rather than the annihilation of part of the cosmos.” (p. 187)

The rolling back of the sky in Revelation 6 has a parallel in Isaiah 64 “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”  and in Mark 1:10 following the baptism of Jesus by John: And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  The rolling back of the sky (heaven) is the breaking down of a barrier between heaven and earth when God comes in judgment rather than a foretelling of cosmic destruction.

Very little, if any, of the imagery is self-consistent when read as a photographic account of coming cosmic destruction. Of course, it was never meant as such.   The passing away of the cosmos is a powerful image. “Not even the cosmos can bear the awesome presence of the Holy One, who has come to judge the world.” (p. 203)  But the point is judgment not destruction. As an example Middleton looks at the example of 2 Cor. 5:17 “If anyone is in Christ – new creation! The old things [ta archaia] have passed away ; behold new ones [kaina] have come!” (literal translation p. 205-206)

Are we to believe that Paul think that the passing away of the old life is equivalent to the obliteration of the person, who is then replaced by a doppelgänger? All the Pauline writings, not to mention common sense, suggest that no matter how radical the shift required for conversion to Christ, this describes transformation rather than obliteration of the person.

By analogy, then, the passing away of the present heaven and earth to make way for the new creation is also transformative and not a matter of destruction followed by replacement.  …

The analogy between personal and cosmic renovation certainly suggests that radical purging is necessary. But in neither case is the picture one of replacement after annihilation. Whether it is the “new creation” of persons who are in Christ or “{a new heaven and a new earth” at the end of Revelation (21:1), the point is that salvation consists in the rescue and transformation of the world that God so loves (John 3:16). (p. 206)

Judgment is Coming. The Bible unflinchingly portrays the awesome reality of God’s coming judgment, and along with it a fear that some (many) will find themselves out of the kingdom. Middleton looks at the idea of universal salvation, something we all should hope is true (there is no virtue in wanting the destruction of our fellow humans), but ultimately concludes that this does not seem to be consistent with the message of Scripture.

The call is absolutely universal. But you need to be thirsty; you need to want that water. And both the Bible and human experience suggest that some are not thirsty. Not all yearn for that water. I would like to think universal salvation might be true – and surely God’s mercy is beyond our understanding – but a biblical understanding of holistic salvation suggests that this is wishful thinking.  (p. 208-209)

The imagery used by Jesus and the apostles needs to be read in its context. It signifies a real, deep and powerful judgment and the transformation of heaven and earth; the coming of the Kingdom of God in all its glory. Absolutely a blaze of glory. But to interpret it in terms of literal cosmic destruction is to miss the point in a way that can have deep consequences for our understanding of the Christian life and hope.

Should we read the imagery of destruction as a literary form? 

How should the cultural context inform our reading?

How do we know whether a literal interpretation is accurate or not?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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