Tom Wright’s Faulty Eschatology

Tom Wright’s Faulty Eschatology May 24, 2016

I like N. T. (Tom) Wright, whom I know personally. He is one of, if not the, leading New Testament scholars in the world. He also was a bishop in his Anglican church, which makes for a rare combination. Besides all that, Tom is a captivating and humorous public speaker and a very prolific author. For example, his six-volume series, Christian Origins and the Question of God, is half finished with three volumes published, and they average nearly a thousand pages each in rather small print.

Tom Wright is also a Jesus researcher. I like it that he recognizes the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who taught an eschatological scheme that involved his future in bringing the kingdom of God into full reality on earth. That is different from most historical-critical Jesus researchers such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who reject that Jesus bodily arose from the dead, ascended to heaven forty days later, and will return to earth someday in the future in great power to destroy his enemies and make Israel head of the nations as he establishes his worldwide kingdom.

But Tom Wright is really fuzzy on some of these details as well. He repudiates the above concept that early church fathers had of the so-called “second coming of Christ.” Tom’s three main points in his eschatology are that, during Jesus’ time, (1) Israel considered itself in exile, (2) God fulfilled his promise of “coming to Zion” to end Israel’s exile in the person of the Jesus of the ministry (while on earth), and (3) the latter more fully happened in 70 AD with the Romans’ destruction of the temple. I might not have the third point quite as Tom would state it, but I must admit that I sometimes find it difficult to understand his writings on eschatology.

Anyway, Tom Wright is an avowed partial preterist. The website GodQuestions.org explains preterism as follows: “Full preterism takes an extreme view that all prophecy in the Bible has been fulfilled in one way or another. Partial preterists take a more moderate approach, . . . Those who hold to partial preterism believe that the prophecies in Daniel, Matthew 24, and Revelation (with the exception of the last two or three chapters) have already been fulfilled and were fulfilled no later than the first century AD. According to partial preterism, there is no rapture, and passages describing the tribulation and the Antichrist are actually referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman emperor Titus. Partial preterists do believe in the return of Christ to earth and a future resurrection and judgment.”

I think Tom Wright takes a partial preterist view because of the three main points of his eschatology stated above. I agree with James D. G. Dunn faulting Tom on his first two points. Dunn insists that Jews in Israel during Jesus’ time did not view their forced subjection to the Roman Empire as exile, and the Bible does not clearly teach that God would come to Zion in the Jesus of the earthly ministry. This latter is a hobby horse with Tom, which Dunn says “echoes” constantly in his writings.

Tom can be pretty harsh against those who adhere to the traditional view of the second coming of Christ, as I do, that it means in the yet future Jesus will literally appear in the sky on clouds, as he says in his Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24 par.), and descend to earth when the dead in Christ will be simultaneously resurrected. Jesus says therein (in the NIV), “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. . . . Immediately after the distress [=tribulation] of those days ‘the sun will darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from on end of the heavens to the other” (Matt. 24.27, 29-31).

But Tom Wright says in his second volume in Origins, entitled Jesus and the Victory of God (p. 517), “speculation about the future would-be ‘apocalyptic’ figures, such as the supposed ‘heavenly son of man’ who would ‘come’–i.e., ‘return’ downwards to earth, on a literal cloud. This monstrosity, much beloved . . . by fundamentalists, and would-be ‘critical’ scholars, can be left behind, appropriately enough, in the centre of [a] mythological maze, . . . The truly ‘apocalyptic’ ‘son of man’ has nothing to do with such a figure.” Jesus, of course, referred to himself as “the son of man.”

So, Wright denies that Jesus meant he literally would come in the sky. Tom ridicules those who believe the clouds will be literal. He certainly rejects that such chaos in the cosmos will literally happen. Yet Jesus surely tells next of the literal resurrection of God’s people from the dead. How can Tom allege that all Jesus said before that is non-literal, but the resurrection is literal? Makes no sense to me. I don’t think Tom tries sufficiently to prove that these things must be interpreted non-literally.

Jesus spoke his Olivet Discourse to his apostles who were ordinary people, not philosophers who tried to find a secret meaning behind some ambiguous, veiled statements. This language is straightforward and not parabolic. Jesus’ disciples would have understood literally what he said here. This is not like his Johannine sayings in which his hearers often understood him literally while he meant it figuratively. Jesus Olivet Discourse is not that “spiritual gospel,” as the Gospel of John has been rightly described. This Discourse is eschatology at its finest.

Even though Tom Wright believes that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who had an eschatology, in my humble opinion (I hope), Tom Wright has a faith problem about Jesus’ Olivet Discourse almost as much as most of his historical-critical Jesus research colleagues do.

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