Apocalypse Never? Eschatology as Immanence (in One Liberationist Account)

Le quatrième Ange sonne de la trompette (Apocalypse VIII) (ca 950-955 CE).
(PD-US, via Wikimedia Commons)
Did Jesus and his earliest followers expect an imminent apocalyptic conflagration that would end history and usher in the Kingdom of God? Dorothee Soelle and Luise Schottroff question that claim, which was a commonplace of much 20th century scholarship until the work of the Jesus Seminar began in earnest in the mid-1980s.

Among the dozens of books on Jesus on our shelves, this slim volume was one of the shortest ones and had one of the most winsome covers. It's a good read and features artwork, poetry and reflections interspersed throughout the main narrative. The authors, esteemed German feminist thinkers who have written widely on political theology and hermeneutics, are aiming here for a general audience, but there is a helpful bibliography at the end suggesting further reading.

Jesus of Nazareth, By Dorothee Soelle and Luise Schottroff, Trans. John Bowden (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002).
There are many provocative and insightful readings of the Jesus tradition to be found here. But I focus here on a topic where I see things a bit differently: biblical eschatology. Like many recent interpretations of the life of Jesus along radical socio-political lines, the authors re-imaging the doctrine of the end as a proposal for understanding the ends of human flourishing and social justice in this life, rather than in some ephemeral beyond. Their retrieval of eschatology emphasizes the radical nearness of a God who yearns for peace, justice, and equality among all peoples. The kingdom of God, as they see it, vacates the pretensions and violence that typify human political rule and eschews the hegemony of any one culture above others. God's nearness brings human transformation and wholeness, not oppressive hierarchies. So far so good.

What jumps out for me is the way Soelle and Schottroff situate this kingdom vision vis-a-vis a critique of modern historical critical scholarship. I find a tension here that we would be loath to zip past too quickly. In fairness, as clear and concise book intended for lay readers, Jesus of Nazareth does not engage or cite Jesus scholarship directly (though a glossary entry on "Apocalyptic" points to works by Gerd Theissen, Annett Merz, and Christopher Rowland.)

Although the eschatology of the New Testament is clothed in "mythological images which derive from Jewish apocalyptic," the authors insist, the import of this imagery is profoundly this-worldly, expressing in encrypted forms the sociopolitical aspirations for freedom and equality among the all God's people. Still, many contemporary readers recoil from the stark depictions in NT apocalyptic of divine wrath and retribution against evil and the fiery torments that await the reprobate. Does such material betray the politics of resentment erupting from a persecuted religious minority (the early Christians)? Where is the gospel amid the earthquakes, the falling stars, the wine press of divine wrath? But Perhaps these apocalyptic nightmares can be tamed and recontextualized for our times. Perhaps, the authors suggest, such hyperbolic imagery signals a deeper, conciliatory divine wisdom. Perhaps oppressors can find in these texts a wake-up call to repent of the structures of domination that enslave them as well?

The authors write:

The helpless are to raise their heads. And the perpetrators of injustice are to know that they alone cannot determine what is right. They are to open their eyes and recognize the violence in which they are taking part. The nearness of God's future is a power that creates justice now, in the hour when men and women hear the word of the nearness of God (p. 109).

Significantly, too, that future begins now, not at the climax of some cosmological conflagration. But to get to this re-visioned eschatology, we will have to step over or around a stone of stumbling: the old historical-critical claim that Jesus and his earliest followers were radically apocalyptic themselves, in the old-school, fire-and-brimstone sense. Soelle and Schotroff write:

In Western biblical scholarship since the end of the nineteenth century the idea has become established that Jesus expected the kingdom of God imminently. This meant that the end of world history was expected even in the generation of those alive at the time of Jesus Not long after Jesus' death his followers would have understood that this immanent expectation was a mistake on Jesus' part. Now they settled down to live permanently in the world, for what came was not the kingdom of God but the church (ibid.).

Such a view came to predominate reluctant liberal biblical scholars of an early period and impacted popular perceptions as well. (For a little more about this see my posts on Johannes Weiss.) Even today esteemed biblical interpreters follow the basic lines set out by Schweitzer and Weiss (for example, Princeton's Dale Allison). This interpretation is typically called consistent eschatology, and it holds to the claim that Jesus and most of his early followers held to a categorical distinction between the present evil age and the eschatological age to come. Now, I've read enough Crossan, Borg, and Wright to realize this older view has been beleaguered in recent years, from different sides.

So what is wrong with this older view, according to Soelle and Schotroff? For starters, it is bedeviled by a "linear view of time," according to which "God's future is near and this nearness can be measured in days, months and years, even if the specific length of time is unknown (p. 110). This claim strikes me as a little odd, given that it used to be a commonplace, I seem to recall, that ancient Hebrew religion essentially invented the notion of linear time -- a history of God's judging and saving acts that moved from a beginning to an end, in some sort of chronological progression.

But none of this, we are told, is plausible anymore.

Nowadays this theory has collapsed, because it has become clear that the notion of time which it presupposes, in the form of an infinite line into the future, was not that of Jesus. Jesus and the Jewish people of his time do not think in linear terms but in relationships, above all relationships to God. In their language there is not even a word corresponding to the word 'future'(ibid.)

As the authors note, the typical Greek term for "the next day" (ta melonta) doesn't translate as "future" but "things to come." I'm not sure I get the difference. I will have to defer to the biblical scholars as to how the Greek might compare to Aramaic equivalents. More importantly, such a relativizing of time in the ancient sources presumably empowers believers today to cast off an unhealthy fixation on an utterly transcendent and otherworldly eschatological future -- an escapist vision that would (presumably) serve to foster a millenarian quietism rather than active engagement with struggles for peace and justice today. (The force of this claim is not self evident to me.)

The authors continue:

The 'end' is longed for, but by it this apocalyptic does not mean the end of history. It is the end of suffering on earth. So apocalyptic, including Jesus' apocalyptic, is also rooted in the present. Now is the hour of hope for God's kingdom. God is near. The nearness of God cannot be measured in intervals of time, but must be measured in the strength of the hope which is spreading among people (ibid.).




WebVixn said…
I love this! Just found your blog through your twitter DM reply (when I followed you). Thank you for sharing. I REALLY need to read and read this, but I have limited bandwidth at the moment. Looking forward to reading and learning more. Excellent perspective, IMHO. You can learn more about me at my linked in profile if you're interested to know one of your fans. :) Keep up the good work!

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