NT Wright has insisted over the years that the apocalyptic language of the gospels (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) doesn’t refer to the end of the space-time universe but to the end of a socio-political order. Edward Adams dissents in his 2007 The Stars Will Fall From Heaven.
Wright claim that Jesus uses conventional prophetic language that would have been well understood by His hearers, citing Isaiah 13 and 34 in support. Wright then argues that later apocalyptic writers use the same language the same way. Adams disputes this point: “It is a common view that later apocalyptic writers who took over the cosmic disaster imagery o f the biblical prophets used it in a more clearcut final sense than perhaps their biblical forerunners had done. Christopher Rowland, who is rather less inclined than others to draw a sharp distinction between ‘prophecy’ and ‘apocalyptic,’ at least in terms of eschatology, thinks that, while Old Testament predictions o f cosmic disorders were exhausted in historical events of the time, ‘in later Jewish eschatology there is sometimes an additional reference to a last assize when God metes out justice to all mankind.’ France, who fully agrees with Wright’s interpretation o f cosmic language in Old Testament prophecy, concedes that in later apocalyptic, ‘while such language is relatively uncommon, it has apparently a more “end of the world” reference appropriate to the focus of these works’” (11).
This shifts the question without refuting Wright. Suppose that Wright is wrong that Jesus’ language reflects standard “apocalyptic” style. One could still argue that Jesus uses the language of the prophets – rather than, say, extra-canonical “apocalypses.”
But Adams contends that Wright’s interpretation of these Isaiah passages is also questionable. He cites GB Caird, who sees a double reference, “an immediate historical one and a final-eschatological one” (12). Wright eliminates the final-eschatological dimension, Adams says, and as a result robs the passages of their power: How can prophets convey the seriousness of the threat if their prophecies cannot literally be fulfilled?
Here it’s crucial to be clear about what’s being argued. When Wright claims that the passages refer to historical events rather than the rending of the physical cosmos, he’s not denying physical consequences, which produce physical terror. A Roman regiment can be a horrifying spectacle; if you’re a Jew in first-century Jerusalem, the destruction of your home and temple, the slaughter of your family and friends, is literally the end of your world, and that end is physical. Further, Wright could well admit that the same language could be used to describe the end of the space-time universe, while at the same time pointing to indications in the texts of the gospel that limit the prophecies to the near future (as in “before this generation passes away”). How the language could be used in some hypothetical texts doesn’t tell us how it is used in the texts we have.
On the other hand, it’s not entirely clear what Adams means when he says that certain passages speak of “total destruction of the created cosmos . . . an expected ‘real’ calamity on a universal scale” (17). Does that mean that the created cosmos comes to nothing, or that it ceases to be an ordered cosmos? He seems to mean the former. On 2 Peter 3, he argues that the stoicheia that will be burned up are the physical building blocks of the universe, dissolved, as the Stoics believed, in “the primal elemental fire.” 2 Peter “envisages the burning up and dissolution of the physical elements of which all earthly things are made” (224). But it’s not always clear which he is talking about, and it’s not clear that the interpreters he appeals to for support actually support the more radical, nihilating view.
And that view, even if it exegetically justifiable, raises some theological puzzles. What is the point of bringing the whole creation to nothing? Where does God ever destroy utterly, without saving a remnant (a point made powerfully in 2 Peter itself)? Suppose God is capable, potentia dei absoluta, of demolishing all His good work and starting over: Athanasius would want to ask, Is such fitting to God?