There's a lot that is quirky about the Churches of Christ. Our eschatology is an example. And yet, just when I think we're weird and marginal I discover that, well, through either providence or historical accident we find ourselves right on the cutting edge.
As I've written about before, eschatology within the Churches of Christ has tended toward preterism, generally partial preterism.
To catch everyone up, preterism is the view that all biblical prophecies have already been fulfilled, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. In full preterim this includes all prophecies about Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. Partial preterism is the less extreme and more common view, arguing that most of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, the book of Revelation and in Jesus's Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) were fulfilled in 70 AD (and/or with the destruction of Rome) but that Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead are still to come.
Again, many within the Churches of Christ subscribe to partial preterism. We believe that all that stuff in Revelation about the Beast, 666, the "rapture," a millennial reign and the Antichrist was referring to events that occurred in 70 AD. (Though many think that Revelation is about the destruction of Rome rather than Jerusalem. Still, we concur that most biblical prophecy is over and done with.) According to partial preterism the only event in the future that remains is the Second Coming of Jesus which ushers in Final Judgment. And that final event--the Second Coming--is wholly unpredictable and instantaneous. Jesus will come like a "thief in the night" (unpredictable) and in the "twinkling of an eye" (instantaneous).
Pore over the book of Revelation as much as you like, you will never be able to read the tea leaves.
All of which means that, in the eyes of the Churches of Christ, attempts at working out "end times prophecy," especially in relation to geo-political events (like focusing on, say, the state of Israel), is a total waste of time.
Growing up with preterism made me feel weird. Every time I engaged a Christian outside of the Churches of Christ--Baptists in particular--they had all this apocalyptic "end of days" and "rapture" theology worked out. So when I shared my belief that all that stuff they were talking about had already happened in 70 AD I was met with astonishment and incredulity.
And yet, over the years I've been noticing how preterism is becoming more mainstream. And much of this due to the work of N.T. Wright.
I don't know if Wright would describe his views as preterist. Wright is definitely not a full preterist. But much of Wright's writing articulates a partial preterist viewpoint, especially when it comes to Jesus.
Specifically, Wright argues over and over in his books, a view shared by many biblical scholars, that Jesus was calling Israel to repent as she was on a self-destructive collision course with Rome. Jesus saw the coming violent conflagration and predicted it. And about forty years after Jesus's death his predication came to pass.
All that to say, most of what Jesus was talking about in the gospels in regards to judgment--that place where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth"--isn't about an otherworldly hell in our future. Judgment, according to Jesus, was going to be a concrete historical event.
Hell was coming to earth.
And it did in 70 AD.
Here is how Wright makes these arguments in his recent book Simply Good News:
[R]eaders of the New Testament have made the mistake of forgetting (often because of the [physical/spiritual] split-level universe they live in) that language about such things as sun, moon, and stars falling from heaven was about what we would call political events...Jesus spoke of certain things that were to happen "within a generation." Many modern scholars have supposed that he was talking about "the end of the world," and that he was wrong. But, in those famous passages in the Gospels, Jesus is talking not about the end of the world but about the fall of Jerusalem...And of course Jerusalem did indeed fall to the Romans about forty years after the end of Jesus's public career...As you can see, all this is very consistent and supportive of the partial preterist position. And Wright's work is full of passages just like these. Jesus wasn't talking about an otherworldly Hell and Final Judgment. Jesus was predicting a concrete historical event, an event that happened in 70 AD.
Jesus continually warned his fellow countrymen that if they didn't follow where he was leading, the result would be disaster. He used quite lurid language for these warnings. Even so, the message didn't really get through. He wasn't saying what they wanted him to say. But a lot of those warnings, taken out of context and interpreted through the lens of much later medieval beliefs, made it sound as though Jesus was warning people not that their city and nation would be destroyed but that they were going to hell. "Unless you repent," he says twice in the early paragraphs of Luke 13, "you will all be destroyed in the same way." Read that in the fifteenth century, and it's obvious what it means: unless you give up your sins, you will be thrown into hell for all eternity. Read it in the first century and a very different meaning should be equally obvious: unless you turn from your crazy path of nationalist rebellion against Rome, Rome will come and do to you what it has done to everyone who stands in its path. Jesus's contemporaries took no notice. The warnings came true.
And yet, there is a new emphasis here with Wright, one that was missing in the Churches of Christ of my youth.
Specifically, I was mainly taught preterist readings in the Churches of Christ so that I could dismiss the "end times" theology of other faith traditions--all that talk about the rapture and the Antichrist--as hogwash. And, to be clear, I didn't mind that. To this day I think "Left Behind" theology is hogwash. And dangerous when it justifies Christians taking sides in geo-political conflicts.
But what Wright is doing here with a preterist reading is a bit more. Wright is rethinking, in light of the gospels, what "heaven" and "hell" might mean. That conversation, the one Wright is having, never came up in the Churches of Christ I was associated with. While preterist we still talked about hell as being an otherworldly torture chamber. But if that's not what Jesus was talking about, if Jesus was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem as we were so fond of arguing, then it appears that the Churches of Christ haven't been preterist enough.
And that's what I find so interesting. Not only is preterism increasing in scholarly respectability, but scholars like Wright are prompting preterist faith traditions like Churches of Christ to dig more deeply into the doctrine.
Within the Churches of Christ we taught preterism to combat "Left Behind" theology. But we've failed to grasp how preterism might allow us to rethink heaven and hell as Wright is doing.
In the Churches of Christ we've used preterism polemically, as a weapon to rebut bad eschatology. But we've failed to invest in preterism as a positive theological resource.
In the Churches of Christ preterism is a theological resource familiar to our people. A resource, if we invested in it, that could profoundly alter how we think about heaven and hell.