If you think of the Left Behind novels or books by John Hagee as sources that provide insight on the New Testament doctrine of end times and the second coming, you should probably stop reading now.
Hat tip to Chris Tilling and his Chrisendom blog for drawing my attention to this new book: When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia, by Christopher M. Hays, in collaboration with Brandon Gallaher, Julia S. Konstantinovsky, Richard J. Ounsworth OP, and Casey A. Strine.
Chris begins his post this way:
“So Christians must choose. Either the NT isn’t even somewhat reliable, or Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. In either case this falsifies Christianity ”. So says John Loftus in his conclusion to his essay “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet”, in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.
Got your attention?
Those of you who follow this blog know that I’ve interacted with Loftus’ criticisms of the faith before. He uses caricatures of biblical thinking as ammunition, and this is no different. But that isn’t really unfair play on his part. He’s attacking the faith at the level of the way most Christians (and I include pastors there) understand it — and, worse, are taught to understand it. Loftus was one of them once. He correctly identifies a problem — Jesus did say he was going to come back, and the setting for at least a handful of such statements was the first century. Loftus’s solution, though, is where the incoherence begins. His faux dilemma effectively disturbs those whose eschatology is simple-minded, and that’s a large portion of the Church.
This book appears to be a useful antidote. It was just released, so I haven’t read it, but the names associated with the contents lead me to believe this will be a book filled with careful thinking that is rooted in the biblical text across the testaments, and in consideration of the Second Temple period of which the New Testament writers were a part.
The main author, Christopher Hays, explains the goal of the volume this way:
“Jesus did prophesy his return in the first century, and that didn’t happen. And that is okay because prophecy is, by its nature, conditional, contingent upon the responses of humans. We argue that is how prophecy works in the OT, that multiple NT authors understood the eschatological consummation in the same way, and that many church fathers thought the same thing. Then we run the argument out in theological terms, showing that this fits with accounts of eschatology in Catholicism, Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. As a consequence, we argue that the timing of the eschaton should be thought of as tied up with Christian mission and ethics.”
Even this snippet reveals some things any real, academic, textually-informed articulation of eschatology will reveal. Prophecy is often conditional and, as the last two episodes of the Naked Bible podcast overviewed, it is certainly tied to the Christian mission. (Can anyone say “enduring tribulation” and “fullness of the Gentiles“?)
My point here is that, contrary to what popular eschatology “experts” say, there’s a lot going on in the biblical text when it comes to concepts like the tribulation, the second coming, and the “Israel of God” whose destiny is tied to all that.