Part 1: Were We Wrong About Jesus Being Wrong About Eschatology?
Early in my journey to a fulfilled eschatology perspective, I had the question, “How could the mainstream church have been so wrong for so long about eschatology?” I asked the question this way, because I held to the presupposition that God wouldn’t let the faith I grew up in be in error about something as significant as the timing and nature of the coming of Jesus for “most” of history.
I had the perspective that the majority of Christian thinkers – we often called them ‘Church Fathers’ – who interpreted Scripture and decided right belief and practice for the Church, were right about… nearly everything. And whatever the Early Fathers and Roman Catholic Church were wrong about, surely the Reformers fixed, I was taught. And if they had missed something big, certainly someone would have pointed out their error by now. And if someone had pointed out their error, surely mainstream Christians, faithfully following God, would have embraced this correction. So surely I would have heard of it by now.
To accept that mainstream Christian believers could miss or lose a Biblical view of eschatology for so long would turn my view of history – and how God shows up in history – on its head.
Why did I think what I did? It was mostly due to the presuppositions I held about God and time. If humanity is nearing the end of history – and most of my life I thought it was – then God should have given us all the answers by now, right? It only made sense. What would be the point of God allowing us to miss the truth and believe error for most of history?
The Unexpected Jesus
What I mean is, I’ve wrestled with something that Jesus and the New Testament authors taught which, if true, challenges a “sacred cow” of traditional church teaching. Which is no small thing to me, who had elevated the teachings of the early church fathers, on whose shoulders I once thought we stood on so many issues. But that was before I really thought it through.
It goes like this; if the imminent expectation of Jesus to “come again” or “presence” with his first century followers in the New Testament is actually right – if Jesus actually did come and fulfill his mission to redeem and dwell with us again, then he did so in a way that many people have misunderstood for a long time. It seems preposterous until you read through the New Testament with this question in mind, trying to notice its teaching on this topic as a whole. Then you SEE it. Unavoidable. Standing out, refusing to be combed down. An imminent coming of Jesus is taught authoritatively over 100 times in the New Testament, by every writer, both explicitly and implicitly, in every letter. In numerous ways, they taught and predicated much of their teaching on this idea that Jesus was coming soon to them. And that the end of the age (the Old Covenant age, that is) was drawing near. The sign that it was over would be the falling of the temple and sacrificial system, which happened in 70ad.
This teaching of an imminent coming of the presence of Jesus and His Kingdom in people, and the concurrent end of an old wearing out age, comprises one third of the New Testament. Yet the early church fathers dismissed it as wrong or delayed because they didn’t see what they expected to have happen in the world. So, now, thousands of years later, based on these early teachings, we sit. Waiting. Ever waiting. We make excuses for Jesus instead of challenging the ideas of the early writers as possibly flawed.
So did Jesus come? Was he right? If he didn’t come in the way we expected him to come, then what did he mean by all the things he said? What kind of death was he destroying? What kind of Kingdom was he bringing? Which age was passing away? When Jesus said “Some of you standing here will not tasted death until you see the Kingdom coming with power, glory, angels…” and “This generation will no pass away before all things are fulfilled” – did he really mean it? When we look around at what unexpected way Jesus may have come, what suits the bill in terms of nature, timing and typological significance to me now, are the events surrounding the destruction of the temple in 70Ad.
Its a compelling theory that takes time and study to sufficiently unpack. But even so, this means Jesus came when he said he would come, and when all of the New Testament writers also wrote that he would come, but in an unexpected way to the people who lived through these events. And a way that has been rejected by the mainstream voices in church tradition. And this bothered me until it occurred to me that this was nothing new. Prophecies often took time and mulling over to decipher. An their fulfillments were often only seen in retrospect. That the early church may not have been resolute in seeing that Jesus came actually fits the pattern of Jesus’ first coming to a people who did not “see” him as fulfilling Hebrew prophecies as well.
Yet if Jesus did come, then it was in a more spiritual and age-ending way and in less of a physical-bodily and world-ending way. And then it means that all Biblical prophecy has been fulfilled, or at least inaugurated, with a current coming in of a fuller manifestation of Kingdom elements like God-consciousness, kindness to neighbor, justice and peace. It means that God’s chosen method is to work through us to bring about His Kingdom on earth – not something he’s doing to us.
And it means that we’re living in the everlasting New Covenant Kingdom age now. And if this is the case, then we’re just at the very beginning of this new era of spiritual communion and community. And if we’re still just starting out, as it were, then it makes sense that we’re only at the starting point of our learning. We’re still biting on the basics of what it means to know God. Maybe those ancients we revere are simply the starting point of our understanding all there is to know about God in Scripture – in which case the Church “Fathers” are more accurately likened to Church “Babes.” We are not to stand on their shoulders and take their theological contributions as unquestionable, but as the baby bites that they were.
Looking back at Christianity’s history from a distance, it’s easy to paint in broad strokes and to choose to see institutional expressions of faith as the source of good and truth in the world – as the leader of justice movements rather than the oppressor, the ones on ‘God’s side’ of an issue. Sometimes this is true, but very often in history – too often than most of us are comfortable admitting – it hasn’t been the case. The church has been late to the ‘truth and justice party’ on a number of issues, ranging from human rights to scientific matters.
In fact, many beliefs that the people of faith resolutely hold as truth were first considered heresy. And the only reason communities changed their position was because a small group of people acted on their convictions about life, Scripture and God, making incredible sacrifices for the sake of the greater light that was dawning on them. And this small group of people, fueled by their passion for truth, made a difference, and became a large group of people. For better or worse, this is how we came to believe what we believe today.
But before greater light was widely recognized, there was opposition. And there were a few brave souls who were willing to say “The Emperor has no clothes on!”
In the coming weeks we’re going to explore five landmark examples of ideas that people of faith once thought were heretical, but which are now accepted as truth. I call these topics the 5 “S’s” of church error because they all start with S. These topics include slavery, sexuality within marriage, science (geo-centrism vs helio-centrism) and scripture (lay-people being able to read it). These are currently recognized religious errors that each took a long time, and great sacrifice on the part of truth-tellers, to fix. But, thankfully, nearly all followers of God today admit that these past beliefs are untrue and that intuitional religion’s treatment of the people who opposed them was unjust. We’re not looking at these sincere-but-tragic beliefs to one-up our spiritual forbearers, but to be all more humble about what we may or may not know today.