Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part VI: “The Last Things”

The Bible is story. It’s the story of all things from the beginning to the end — of the creation of all things, of the fall, of God’s redeeming work, and of that consummation which God has promised: Eschatology.

I. Our Big Stories: there is nothing more shaping of our way of understanding than the story that we tell of ourselves.

A. The Story of Progress: It is the biblical story which has shaped Europe and made it a distinct society from Asia. But the story for these past two hundred years has not been the Bible. It has been the Story of Progress. The doctrine of progress has shaped our thinking for these last two centuries, and it’s very hard to shake our minds of it and realize that

  1. it’s a recent story
  2. it’s not the story told in other parts of the world
  3. it’s not the story that the Bible tells

It is this story which causes us to think automatically that what is earlier is crude, more primitive, less developed, and that what is later that is refined, developed, better. Old is necessarily inferior…

  • It has conditioned us to thinking of our story in the terms of a continuous upward movement. C.S. Lewis called this chronological snobbery.

B. The Story of “the Good Old Days”: And yet of course there is another story that also sticks in the back of our minds: the story of how “things were so much better in the old days.”

  • This is also a very ancient story — the idea of a golden age in the past, and human history descends from that time to the present.
    o This story depends an awful lot on the relative importance placed on old people and young people. In most traditional societies, old people are supposed to be wise, and their point of view is respected.

–> But with the rise of the doctrine of progress, there was a deliberate attempt to take the education of the young out of the hands of parents and the church, and give it to the state. This would inculcate the next generation a different idea of the world. This whole idea in which education is something over which the government should have responsibility is fairly new.

C. the Cyclical Story: Still there is a more ancient story, however. It combines both the idea of progress and the idea of a golden age in the past. This is the way of looking at history as a cycle, which is a natural way of seeing ourselves because of what we see nature — plants, animals, etc.

  • There is a cycle of growth, maturity, death, decay, and rebirth. We have the feeling that we are moving, but in fact we are going nowhere. We are part of the wheel of nature. The most rigorous development of this comes from Indian thought, which has been so fundamental, that none of the great religious movements in that part of the world — Buddhism, Sikhism, etc. — have questioned the idea of reincarnation.
  • And of course the different schools of thought in Hinduism are different proposals for ways of escaping this terrible, endless, meaningless cycle of birth and rebirth — escaping from this appalling prospect of suffering perpetually.
  • This kind of thought is gaining popularity in the Western World nowadays. The Bible no longer controls us, it is said, so we shall return to Asia.

***The narrative of Progress though that is still prominent in our culture has one fatal flaw. However much we may think of history in terms of a glorious future for the human race, there is no denying that we will not be there.

  • This has inevitably resulted in the separation of our vision of the future of society from our vision of our personal future. That is the root of the privatization of religion which we often complain about.
    o Because if the real meaning of history is to be realized far off in the future, then I have to ask the question about the goal of my personal history.

–> And that becomes then a separate thing: the idea of a personal survival after death.

So we have this dividing. There are two eschatologies: a public one, and a private one. And there seems no way of bringing them together, because we all drop out of the story of the world before it is completed.

II. The Biblical Response to these Divided Stories: The unique thing about the eschatology of the Bible and its vision of the end, is that it draws together both the public and the private.

  1. It is both the holy city into which the kings of the earth bring their glory — and it is therefore the consummation of the whole history of civilization (i.e., literally, “the making of a city”)
  2. — and it is the consummation of every personal life. It’s the place where the tears will be wiped from every eye and we shall be with God and see him face to face.
  • How is it that the Bible is able to bring together what our telling of the story keeps apart?
    o It is only because the Bible tells the story of how sin and death — which separates individuals from the human story before it reaches its end — have been conquered, and thus eschatology of both the public and the private.
  • In Revelation, we see that the end does not come as a result of a smooth, upward progress. It comes only after judgment and catastrophe. In other words, the resurrection only comes after the cross.

A. The Personal

o Looking at it as a whole, the Old Testament’s great central theme is that the Lord reigns — the Lord who delivered us out of slavery in Egypt — and in the end all nations will acknowledge him. But for the most part, overwhelmingly, the OT sees the end as something that is in this world (e.g., every valley exalted, every mountain brought low, the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and so on).

*** There are hints of something beyond death, not strongly developed, but present. What seems to have made the decisive difference was the experience of the Maccabean Wars and the Jewish struggle to overcome the tyranny of the pagan rule of the Greek emperors.

  • Hundreds and thousands of loyal Jews were slain because they refused to break the Sabbath by fighting on the Sabbath day. And it became impossible to believe that all these who faithfully died would be excluded from the consummation for which they fought and died. And therefore it is in this inter-testamental period that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead came to occupy a key place in Jewish thinking.
    o But it was not all of the Jews who accepted this. The Sadducees did not, for example, because they had built a very good relationship with the ruling powers, and the doctrine of the resurrection gave inspiration for revolt and willingness to die for a cause. It was a revolutionary and subversive doctrine. It implied that things as they were are not the last word. (On this issue, Jesus sided decisively with the Pharisees and taught the resurrection of the body.)

B. The Political

  • But if we come to the time of Jesus himself, we know that for centuries the Holy Land has been desecrated by the armies of the pagans, the temple destroyed, the law flouted, the rule of God denied, and God’s people subjugated in a humiliating slavery. The question was always, “how long before God intervenes to fulfill his promises?”
    o And we know of course from the Gospels that Jesus knew himself to be in his own person the presence of the rule of God and the kingdom of God. The central message that he brought was that the rule of God is at hand: the critical moment has come — the moment of judgment and redemption.

***It was clear at the beginning that Jesus sought to summon Israel as a whole to recognize the presence of this hour of judgment, recognize the signs of the times, and to fulfill the vocation to which God had called Israel — to be the suffering servant who manifested the glory of the Kingdom of God.

  • And when Israel rejected his call, Jesus in a multitude of parables and teachings warned that the absolute of destruction of Israel was pending.  And with that would come the crisis for the world.

But it is clear of course that Jesus knew that in the end it was he himself, and he alone, who could fulfill the calling of Israel. Therefore he began to teach his disciples that he must suffer, die and rise again. And that is what he did.

–> It did not turn out exactly in the way that devout Jews had thought. The resurrection of Jesus was not the end of history, even though the disciples thought it ought to be. Jesus tells them they have to wait. The final judgment is “in the Father’s hands.” There is an interim time for preparation, repentance, and sharing the gospel with the whole world. For how long? Only the Father knows. They had to learn that Jesus’ death was not the defeat of God’s kingdom, but in fact its victory.

III. What is the Nature of this Victorious Story?

A. The Kingdom is both immediate and not yet. It is already here, but there are other parables stressing patience and unknowing. There is the image of the watchman in Jesus’ stories for this reason. It’s a combination of alertness and waiting.

  • Many modern New Testament scholars have looked only at the teachings of Jesus suggesting that the coming of God’s Kingdom would be immediate, and therefore have concluded that, since 2000 years have passed, Jesus was simply mistaken. But this is only the result of reading half of the evidence. It is extraordinary that almost unanimously, contemporary scholars talk as if it is impossible to understand why it is that, if the early church already knew Jesus was mistaken, they in fact went on distributing the records of his sayings.

B. So what is the understanding of “The End” that the Gospel gives us? It’s most beautifully summed up at the beginning of First Peter 1:3-9. Here is what has been accomplished:

  • not simply the desire for something to happen in the future, which may or may not happen, but which we want to happen; not hope in that weak sense in which we so often use it.
  • But hope in the absolute confident sense — eagerly waiting for something which is assured — even though we do not know the day and the time of its coming. Hope is a anchor of the soul, unshakeable in its firm solidity.

–> The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the pledge that death and sin are conquered, and therefore we know that the end is the victory of God in Jesus Christ.

IV. A New Narrative Model: Again, the model with which we must understand the future is not our contemporary model has indicated for the last two centuries or so — the picture of a future which we hope will be a continuing progress. And not peering into the unknown of the future while trusting in a technological accomplishments.

  • What we look forward to in the future as Christians rather is advent — someone coming to meet us. The horizon of our anticipation is

not some historical utopia achieved when we progress enough,
nor is it merely my own person survival!

o Instead, to repeat, it is the coming of Jesus as the bearer of God’s final victory and judgment. That’s what we look forward to, and that’s the horizon.

  • This word horizon — what is it that we envisage when we look to the future? It is not our actions are to be understood as creating or building the Kingdom of God. It’s not that our actions directly fulfill God’s purposes for history. We know that our actions are ambivalent, confused, and that even our good intentions often lead to results quite different from what we intended.

No, it means that our actions are to be understood as active prayers for the Kingdom. We pray, “Your Kingdom come,” and we act out this prayer. We offer our actions and ourselves to God to do what God will in God’s providential will.

  • None of the geometrical models are satisfactory: neither cyclical nor linear. As already stated, if it’s a linear pattern, then we have no part in the final victory of God’s purpose. It can only be described in personal terms.

This is because there is no direct path from here to the kingdom of God. It goes down into the depths of desolation as Jesus did. And out of those depths does God raise up the new creation. The resurrection points to this.

From the humiliation and depths of the grave, the resurrection is the pledge, that out of the ruins, so much that we achieve in history God will raise that which is according to his Word. New heavens and new earth, for the former things have passed away. There’s no straight line.

  • And because there is only one perfect sacrifice, it follows that those actions which will be accepted, honored, raised up by God will be those which we undertake in/with/for the sake of/as members of the body of Christ — “acted prayers” through Jesus Christ our Lord. That is the model by which we are to understand the relation of our actions now to those of God at the end of all things.

–> Even in situations which seem hopeless, we act in such a way that accords with what God has ultimately promised. We take actions of love, not because we think they’re going to be immediately effective, but because they correspond to that about which we have been assured. These therefore are the only truly realistic actions. They are acted prayers for God’s kingdom, corresponding to ultimate reality.

VI. More specifically still though, what do we see when we look forward?

1. First, not just an indefinite future, but the coming of Jesus in glory to judge the living and the dead. We cannot eliminate this word judgment from our thinking.

  • If there is no final judgment, then Newbigin argues that the words right and wrong have no meaning. If in the end, right and wrong add up to the same thing, then they are meaningless words.
  • But judgment just means that light has come into the world, and it’s judgment because we have preferred darkness.

The essential point about light is allows things to be seen as they are! This is what the end will be like. In the end, there will be no confusion between truth and lie, right and wrong, etc.

  • In all of Jesus’ parables about judgment, the emphasis is on surprise. Those who thought they were ok found themselves on the outside, and those who were on the outside found themselves inside. The first are last and the last are first.

–> Therefore, we are warned not to judgment before the time. Judgment belongs to God.

2. Second, as our creed says, “I believe in the communion of the saints, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The New Testament doesn’t say much about what must always be a tantalizing mystery to us: What happens to the believers who die in the faith before the end has come? Where are they? All the emphasis is on the final victory, the resurrection of the dead, and the kingdom come.

  • Communion of the Saints — There are hints here and there, such as in Hebrews 11-12: a great cloud of witnesses surround us, with us, looking to Jesus and waiting for the day of his glory. We should remember this and regularly thank God for those who have gone before us. Protestants are often too silent about this in reaction to Roman Catholicism.
  • The resurrection of the body — that’s the end to which the scriptures teach us to look, and not the pagan idea of the immortality of the soul! The resurrection of the body is part of the whole vision of the new heavens and new earth — a new creation in which all that God purposed for the world and human family is redeemed and consummated in God’s kingdom.
  • The life everlasting — that communion in the life of the Trinity in which Jesus fully participates and prays for on the night before his passion (“that they may be one as I and the Father are one”)

–> We are permitted to enter in the joy of the Triune God and to live forever in the joy of that love. That is something that passes our understanding, and yet it continually beckons us as the true goal of our being.

3. But third and finally, over and over again the New Testament, in the meantime between this time and the second coming, there is given to us the foretaste of that joy — namely, the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the first fruit and pledge of the kingdom. In the external world of history, we have the fact of the resurrection, and in ourselves the life of the Holy Spirit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s