Theological treasures & Apocalyptic thieves
The delay of Christ’s seemingly-imminent return imperils the whole of the Christian theological project. Indeed, the divine savior myth and all its concomitant parts depend upon the accuracy of Christ, his apostles, and their scriptures. Matters of eschatology are particularly vulnerable in this regard: If Jesus, Paul, and John prophesied the coming of the apocalypse in the near future—as they seem to have done—but no such apocalypse arrived, their words regarding God, ethics, and future hope lack credibility (cf. Deuteronomy 18:22). In this case, apocalyptic thieves threaten to steal away the church’s theological treasures.
The church is not without its “fully-armed strong men” to guard the house, however. Preterist eschatological models offer increasingly popular solutions to such nuisances. These models propose that Christ’s statements regarding the imminence of apocalyptic events (e.g. Matthew 10:23, Mark 8:38-9:1, 13:30) refer, as it were, to imminent historical events. This is to say that Jesus and other early Christians expected the eschatological unfolding to occur within their immediate future. Jesus predicted the end within a generation, yes, but Jesus was right.
Christian attempts to identify the fulfillment of such sayings within the confines of ongoing history tend to accumulate upon one proximate historical upheaval: the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple some 40 years after the death of Christ. This emergent consensus is due in no small part to the Olivet Discourse, a prophetic oracle that associates apocalyptic disturbances with the desolation of the Temple during a time of war in Judea. These earth-shattering and heaven-dissolving tragedies are cut short by the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds to rescue and reconstitute his people (Mark 13:20-27).
This particular interpretation of early Christian eschatological paraphernalia such as the end of the age and the coming of the Son of Man is driven not only by the desire to vindicate scripture but also by somewhat sophisticated theo-political considerations. No one living in the first century, for instance, could have missed that the disaster of AD 70 brought Israel’s political ambitions to a crashing halt. Moreover, the mediation of God’s presence and (political) blessing through the cult situated in Jerusalem was now no longer possible. The age (and aspirations) of national Israel, upheld as they were by the Temple sacrifices outlined in the Mosaic Law, had come to an abrupt and public end. A monumental, even apocalyptic, shift had occurred.
Preterism under judgement
But was this the monumental and apocalyptic shift that had been expected by the first Christians? In the case of Mark and Matthew, the answer seems to be Yes, or at least a qualified Yes. For these writers the sacking of Jerusalem represented the outpouring of divine wrath upon an unrighteous Israel for its rejection of God’s prophets and son (Mark 12:1-12, 14:62). This was, of course, not the entirety of Jewish eschatological hopes however. While enemies within Israel were slated for destruction at the eschaton (cf. Ezekiel 34),1 the far greater enemy to be dealt with was always outside of Israel. Mark and Matthew, along with the rest of the New Testament writers, believed the pagan nations were also about to be judged and subjected to God’s just and peaceable earthly kingdom (cf. Isaiah 11). Just as the resurrection of Christ had assured these believers that the end of the age was near, so too did the destruction of Jerusalem reassure them (or their children) that the fullness of the messianic age was right around the corner, “closer now then when we first believed.” God’s fury had fallen upon the Jew for covenantal disobedience, next it would find the Greek idolater, and only then would Christ reign over the kingdoms of the world (cf. Romans 2:9-10). The Son of Man had still more to accomplish—and soon. As Matthew tellingly puts it: “Immediately after those days of suffering… the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn” (Matthew 24:29-30).
Writing perhaps a decade or two later, Luke teases apart the parousia from the war with Rome. Now, following the siege of Zion, Israel must suffer an exilic captivity under pagan domination “until the times of the nations are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). Only then would the Son of Man appear with salvation in his hand (Luke 21:25-28). This means that for Luke, as also for John of the Apocalypse (cf. Revelation 11:1-14), Jerusalem’s humiliation was but one major turning in the unfolding eschatological drama of these last days; Babylon’s punishment, along with the establishment of the messianic kingdom atop the bodies of slaughtered kings was yet to come (Revelation 18-19). Nonetheless, the day had been set and the Temple’s downfall was one more proof of that (Acts 2:17-21, 17:31).
Likewise, writing perhaps as late as the beginning of the second century, the author of the second Petrine epistle skips over the destruction of Jerusalem entirely as he assures his worried friends that the day of the Lord is still near to this second or third generation of Christians—within their sights (2 Peter 3). By this point the destruction of Jerusalem had failed to usher in the end by any discernible measure. The dust had settled—Christians had moved on. And so, as in our earliest source—the letters of Paul—so in the latest: the coming of the Lord from Heaven would have to have personal and political ramifications not only for Jews in Judea, but also for Greeks in Asia Minor, Egypt, Macedonia, and Italy. On its own, the demolition of Jerusalem would not do.
A closer look at the book of Hebrews provides similar results. Whether written before or after AD 70, the author puts value not upon the destruction of the Temple—Christ’s blood-soaked exaltation into the heavenly temple had already put away the Mosaic covenant—nor upon a judgement of unbelieving Israel, but rather upon an Exodus-like “shaking” of “all the nations” such that God’s people are invested with eschatological glory—the kingdom of God (Hebrews 12:18-29, Haggai 2:4-9). Here, as elsewhere, Jerusalem’s destruction would prove unable to bear the burden of early Christian eschatological anticipation.
The beginning of the end?
In the end, therefore, Israel’s ill-fated war with Rome would capture the apocalyptic imaginations of those Christians (and Jews) who lived in its immediate aftermath. The beginning of the end had finally come—God was at last acting in history as he did in the days of old. The true end, however, was always a little farther along.
1—”Undergird [the son of David] with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers… to drive out in wisdom and in righteousness the sinners from the inheritance [of Israel]” (Psalms of Solomon 17:22-23). The community at Qumran believed God would obliterate those wicked priests who currently oversaw the Temple.