Eschaton or Escape?

Michael S. Horton
Saturday, January 2nd 1999
Jan/Feb 1999

Imagine the world’s inhabitants living in an underground cave their whole lives, never having seen the out-side, necks and legs chained, only able to look at one wall in front of them. Behind and above them is a catwalk on which figures are moving. Because of a fire at the opening of the cave, the imprisoned people can see projections of these figures on the wall in front of them. “Look, a dog!”, one exclaims. Another shouts, “There is a man!” But, of course, they are but shadows dancing across the wall as the real dog and the real man traverse the catwalk. If only they could escape their chains and step out into the bright sunlight of the real world. The moral to the story: “The world of our sight is like the habitation in prison, the firelight there to the sunlight here, the ascent and the view of the upper world is the rising of the soul into the world of mind.” (1)

As Western thought advanced, Plato’s dualism (i.e., his “two worlds”) created a pattern for a variety of philosophical systems. Even Augustine, who was converted from Gnostic Manichaeanism (a very dualistic form of Platonic thought), never managed to shake off Plato’s influence. Throughout the Middle Ages, the progress of the soul from this supposedly false world of appearances which we experience with our senses to the real world which we know with our rational soul, became the goal of contemplation. Just as the vision of the Beautiful itself (the eternal Idea or Form) rather than beautiful things (the temporary particulars which pass away) dominated Platonism, so for Aquinas the goal of Christian experience was the Beatific Vision. Seeing God with the inner eye was superior to anything that could be seen with the outer eye. This inner/outer, above/below, heaven/earth, eternal/temporal, spirit or soul/body, intellect/senses dichotomy runs throughout Western thought. In fact, it’s the reason why modern theology could get along fine with a “Christ event” which had profound implications for one’s individual encounter with God while denying the historical reality of the resurrection. In Rudolf Bultmann’s memorable words, “But the ‘Christ after the flesh’ is no concern of ours.” (2) Already, during the Enlightenment, Lessing had issuedhis famous announce-ment that he could not get across the “ugly, broad ditch” which separated the “accidental truths of history” from the truths of reason in the matter of Christianity. Resurrections occur in space and time, leaving historical traces. But how could truths in the realm of appearance have the kind of certainty possessed by truths of reason?

Modern theology-including so-called “dialectical theology” (Bultmann, Barth, Brunner)-took Christianity out of the realm of history by making it a purely existential affair in the moment of crisis and decision. In this way, it is certainly close to Plato’s “two worlds,” but far from Paul’s “two ages.”

Julius Schneiwind, a leading theologian of this century, engaged in a discussion with Bultmann on these very points, sometimes coming close to accusing the Marburg theologian of outright gnosticism in his division between historical events and the historic (i.e., individual-existential) encounter. Schneiwind responded: “The eschatology of the early Church is not just a vague belief in the transcendent or in immortality,” but a definite day of judgment toward which history is moving. “The New Testament knows nothing of an ascent of the soul,” either individual or corporate. “Each individual is involved with the rest of mankind in the stream of human history, in the time-process, and in this present age … Such an eschatology begins with resurrection rather than with transcendence, with the day of judgement rather than with immortality.” (3)

Whatever Christian philosophy has made of “transcendence” and “immanence,” “above” and “below,” and the like, it is impossible to attribute the cosmological literalism to Scripture, as Bultmann wishes to do. Schneiwind adds:

Hence the New Testament is right and Bultmann wrong: eschatology is ultimate history. There is a synteleia, a completion of this aeon…The eschatological wrath of God is at work already here and now. The kingdom of God has already dawned in Christ … Here we have a profound critique of our popular ideas about time, as Luther saw when he said that in the sight of God the whole history of man from Adam down to the present moment happened “as it were but yesterday.” (4)

This tendency to divide the world into “good” and “bad” spheres is tempting. For one thing, it keeps us from having to face up to the real dichotomy, the real antithesis, which is “righteousness” versus “unrighteousness.” In other words, we would have to say that the real source of alienation in the world and in our own lives is due to our rebellion and not to some supposed hostility between the alleged eternal/ invisible/spiritual/unchanging realm of perfection and the temporal/visible/material/changing realm of appearances. The Gnostic myth of an innocent spirit “thrown” mercilessly into history (not to mention, into a physical body) may help us think good thoughts about ourselves, but at the end of the day it is still that: a myth, and it doesn’t really explain anything.

Furthermore, it leaves this world to the devils. If this is just the realm of shadowy appearances, like those images on the cave’s wall which the prisoners mistook for the real thing, why not scurry off into some monastery and contemplate the Eternal? In the wake of the Enlightenment, pietism often took this route, surrendering the public realm of history, culture, politics, and life in general to others while the believer sat in a corner or with a small group of true believers and enjoyed private experiences. This was the religious world in which most liberal theologians were reared and it was the religious world which most critics of Christianity came to regard as feeble. Among the latter, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) figures prominently. Feuerbach said that Christianity is a projection of the self, and “heaven” is a projection of the self’s longing for immortality. (5) Freud would make these ideas central to his psychoanalysis. (6)

But no one agreed with this thesis more than Friedrich Nietzsche. Listing six stages in “the history of an error,” he describes “How the ‘Real World’ Finally Became a Fable.” First, the real world was “attainable for the wise man, the pious man, the virtuous man.” But then it was said that the real world was “unattainable for now, but promised to the wise man, the pious man, the virtuous man (‘to the sinner who repents’).” In its third stage, the fable said that the real world is “unattainable, unprovable, unpromisable, but the mere thought of it [is] a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.” Here is the Kantian stage, in which modern liberal theology developed. Eventually, the “real world” becomes totally irrelevant. Not even an obligation, the ethical residue finally evaporates and nothing is left. “The real world-we have done away with it: what world was left? The apparent one, perhaps? … But no! With the real world we have also done away with the apparent one!” (7) Elsewhere, he wrote, “I hate that overleaping of this world which occurs when one condemns this world wholesale. Art and religion grow out of this. Oh, I understand this flight up and away into the repose of the One.” (8)

Much of modern secularism is due to the fact that the “other world” of Plato’s transcendence was swallowing up “this world” of historical existence. At first, Descartes sought to carve out a little space for the self free from God. This space was the res cogitans, the disembodied mind, conscious of itself through thought. But as the gap grew wider, resentment grew as well: modern man envied the mastery of that God who existed in and for himself. Eventually, then, Nietzsche announced the arrival of the Anti-Christ and the Over-Man. God is dead and now the Superman must take his rightful place of mastery over history. Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche had all called Christianity “Platonism for the masses,” and now at last they had exposed the “true world” as false. Without this “true world” as the measure of “this world’s” truth or falsehood, “this world” died as well. In other words, this world can no longer be seen as a representation or projection of a pure heavenly realm if the latter does not really exist after all. John Lennon’s song Imagine expresses well the eschatology of a post-Nietzschean age.

In the brief space we have here, I would like to put Plato and Paul in the ring together, to see the ways in which the Apostle to the Gentiles turns Greek philosophy on its head by using its own vocabulary in a remarkably subversive way. The goal will be to see how Paul’s eschatology can reshape our thinking in an age of false dualisms and how it can offer a fresh alternative to both Platonism (modernity) and the postmodern announcement that there is no God, no self, and no such thing as history or meaning.

Paul’s Two-Age Model

The first thing that is striking about Paul’s eschatology is that he does not invent new terminology for it. He picks up the existing vocabulary in Greek culture and then uses it in highly subversive ways. He will use spirit/flesh, above/below, heavenly/earthly terminology, but with an entirely different meaning than its typical usage. In Greek thought, as we have seen briefly, such “dualisms” (making two things opposites) are generally ontological. That is, they are concerned with the essence or substance. An adopted father or mother may be a parent in as full a sense as a birth parent, but only the latter is a parent of the child ontologically and not just legally and experientially. The Greeks were very interested in the “being” or essence of everything. So, especially in Plato’s thought, eternity is not just distinguished from time, but is opposed to it. The soul must transcend the body and the realm of the senses to attain union with the eternal One. Things change in the temporal realm of history and appearances, but things are permanent in the eternal realm of the spirit above. This super-spirituality, this mysticism, is precisely what came to identify modern Christianity (as it had much of medieval religion).

But Paul is the enemy of such “Platonism for the masses.” Sure, he uses spirit-flesh terminology. But instead of it being an ontological opposition between “that which is spiritual” and “that which is physical,” it is the Holy Spirit set in opposition to humanity in its fallen condition. Against the Greek ontological dualism, the New Testament sets its own eschatological dualism. In other words, the antithesis is not between different aspects of God’s creation, but between the totality of God’s creation as it is under the dominion of sin and the totality of God’s creation as it is under the dominion of righteousness. So, Paul’s list of dualisms includes the following: Adam vs. Christ, Old Aeon (“this present evil age”) vs. New Aeon (“the age to come”), death vs. resurrection, law/bondage vs. gospel/liberty, futility/decay vs. hope/ renewal, lawlessness (“fruit of the flesh”) vs. righteousness (“fruit of the Spirit”), judgment/ wrath vs. justification/ adoption, vision/ demand for signs vs. voice (preaching)/faith in promise, covenant of works (Adam, Moses) vs. covenant of grace (Abraham, Jesus). But these are not unrelated, fragmented alternatives to the ontological dualisms. They are all united by a common eschatological theme and are all divided under the heading of “in Adam” versus “in Christ.” Because of his death and resurrection, Jesus (“the firstfruits”) has ushered in “the age to come,” and as this promised consummation invades the present reality of death and despair, it continues the resurrection-work by beginning from the inside (i.e., the regeneration of the “inner man”) out (i.e., the final resurrection of the body).

First, we need to be reminded that this “Pauline eschatology” does not originate with Paul. It is foreshadowed in the Pentateuch and historical books, anticipated by the prophets, and announced by Jesus. Those who forsake all for the kingdom “receive a hundredfold now in this age … .and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). Jesus speaks of judgment “at the end of the age” (Matt. 13:40) and refers to those who will not be forgiven “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32). He distinguishes between “those who belong to this age” and those who have “a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead….” (Luke 20:34-5). In fact, the latter are “children of the resurrection” who can never again die (v. 37). He refers to “the children of this age” and “the children of light” (Luke 16:8), and teaches that “the harvest is the end of the age” (Matt. 13:39-40). The disciples themselves asked Jesus to reveal “the sign of your coming and of the end of the age,” which Jesus explained in terms of the arrival of false messiahs (Matt. 24:3-5). The writer to the Hebrews reminds readers that through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, they have “been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:4-5).

But this two-age model actually becomes the structure of Paul’s thought. The two ages are repeatedly invoked, even when they are not always set in intrinsic opposition (1 Cor. 1:20-2:8; Eph. 1:21; 2:2-7; 2 Tim. 4:10; Tit. 2:12-13). Satan is “the god of this world,” not in any Gnostic sense (i.e., author or ruler of physical creation), but inasmuch as he is the serpent in God’s garden who corrupts Adam and his progeny. “World” here is not kosmos, the usual term for “world,” but “aion,” usually translated “age.” Do you see how he turns these old Greek dualisms on their head? By using their older categories and then replacing them with eschatological rather than ontological content, he radically subverts pagan dualism. Election is something which “God decreed before the ages” (1 Cor. 2:8), but is executed “in this present age,” and will be consummated “in the age to come” (Eph. 1:21).

It becomes clear that this two-age model is concerned not with two worlds or realms, but with two ages, one inferior to the other not for any ontological reasons but for ethical-eschatological ones. One age is characterized by rebellion against God’s reign, the other by God’s universal shalom. That which happens in the present is not simply for that reason (i.e., being “present”) evil, for God’s providence or common grace is actively upholding all things and restraining evil. And the powers of this age do not have the last say: God, by his Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and was then poured out on the rest of Jesus’ body, is raising those spiritually dead to life and is seating them with Christ in heavenly places. It is clear that Paul is describing believers here and now, prior to their death. Their being seated with Christ in heavenly places, then, is not ontological (i.e., rescuing them from the created world-Plato’s realm of appearances), but eschatological (i.e., rescuing them from the powers of darkness and arraying them in Christ’s righteousness).

But this is not merely an individual reality. In other words, the eschatological category transcends the preoccupation with an individual experience of conversion. Salvation has appeared in Christ: that is why “all things are made new.” This usually gets translated into purely individual, mystical categories, as if Paul had in mind nothing more than making me new inwardly. But, as theologian Herman Ridderbos notes, the Spirit-flesh contrast is not to be seen “first and foremost as an individual experience, not even in the first place as an individual reversal, but as a new way of existence which became present time with the coming of Christ. Thus, Paul can say in Romans 8:9, ‘But ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit.’ This being in the Spirit is not a mystical, but an eschatological, redemptive-historical category.” (9) He is doing this now, not just at the end of the age. In the resurrection of Christ, the age to come has dawned in “these last days.” It is not “this world” of matter, transience, contingency, etc., that is set against “the other world” of pure eternal spirit and apathetic bliss, but “this world-age” of sin, injustice, and judgment in opposition to “the age to come” in which righteousness dwells forever.

We see this pattern clearly, for instance, in Romans 8. In verses 1-25 alone, we find much of that list I offered above (viz., the dualisms of Pauline eschatology). “In Christ” there is “no condemnation,” since the era of the Spirit of Christ (“life in Christ”) “has set you free from the law of sin and death.” The Law, because of the weakness of our sinful hearts, could not save, but God has done this by sending his Son (vv. 5-8). Because of this, “the sufferings of this present age”-which are hardly dismissed by some false optimism-“are not worthy of being compared with the glory about to be revealed to us” (v. 18). And what is that glory? Escape from this world to the realm of eternal spirit? Nothing could be further from Paul’s mind, since he identifies that “glory about to be revealed to us” as the resurrection of our bodies. But that is not all! Included in our physical restoration will be the resurrection of the entire creation. While Platonism and its sundry offspring (gnosticism, modern existentialism, etc.) have sought to locate the sense of human alienation from the natural world in the ontological inferiority of the body to the soul (and therefore sought to escape from history), Paul locates the alienation in human rebellion. In fact, it is not even nature’s fault, he insists in very clear terms (vv. 19-20). Instead of nature enslaving the human self, it’s the other way around!

But God’s resurrection-consummation will be so thorough that the physical world will share in the resurrection of the Church on the last day. Because of this we hope, despite our present sufferings (vv. 24-25). It is not a resignation to the present condition of the world or our own sinfulness, or our suffering; nor is it a false triumphalism about the future. Rather, it is a certain hope based on the fact of Christ’s resurrection. His resurrection did not merely vindicate his saving work for this fallen world; it began that saving work. This is why Paul uses the organic metaphor of a harvest, with Jesus as the “firstfruits.” His resurrection is not separate from that of the whole people of God, but is the beginning of that cosmic renewal. Concerning 2 Corinthians 4:16, where Paul speaks of the outer man decaying while the inner man is being renewed daily (cf. Rom. 7:22; Eph. 3:16), Westminster Seminary theologian Richard Gaffin writes, “In effect, then, Paul is saying: the resurrection of the inner man is past; the resurrection of the outer man is still future (cf. v. 14). This should not be understood, however, in the sense of an anthropological dualism. Rather, the dual aspect of the whole man is in view.” (10) The dualism, once more, is eschatological rather than ontological, since the whole person lives “in Christ,” “in the Spirit,” dominated by the age to come, and yet is still present in “this evil age” which once was the believer’s habitat.

It is in a similar context that Paul says, “Old things are passed away; behold, they are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). It is because the Messiah has come, not because an individual has had an experience, that everything is new: the future (i.e., “the age to come”) has dawned in Christ. This is what is meant by his “appearing,” his “revelation.” He is the turning-point in human and cosmic history. Jesus Christ is “the new thing,” the new reality which has burst on the scene. As Ridderbos says, the manifestation of Jesus “in these last days” is “not, in the first place, made known as a noetic [intellectual] piece of information, but has appeared as an historical event.” (11)

So What Are We Waiting For?

So far, we have seen that Paul’s use of traditional terms in Greek dualism (Spirit/flesh, heavenly/earthly, invisible/visible, above/below) is very nontraditional: he eschatologizes and “Christologizes” them until they are no longer ontological oppositions. Contrary to what many of us were raised to believe, the Spirit/flesh antithesis, for instance, is not the war between one’s spirit/soul (connected to the eternal realm, the “true world” of Plato) and the physical body (bound to the realm of fading shadows, the “apparent world”). Paul is not calling us to transcend our earthly existence and become obsessed with contemplating heaven in general, the spiritual in general, the eternal in general, or transcendence in general. He is not even calling us to contemplate God in general. Rather, he is urging us to raise our attention above the temporary (not “the temporal” as opposed to “the eternal”) state of things in this age (viz., in rebellion and decay) to the permanent condition of things in the age to come (viz., restoration in Christ). It is God’s mercy, which he has minted in the form of promises-those gold coins bearing the visage of Jesus Christ-which contrasts setting our minds on “things above” as opposed to setting our sights low, gazing at our own miserable performance and our own “felt needs.”

In the light of this, that contrast appears between what theologians call the “already” and the “not-yet.” As we have seen, this tension pulsates throughout Paul’s thought, as we see especially in Romans 8. In Romans 6 and 7, Paul had already made the point that we have been baptized into the new world of which Jesus is the sun. This has brought real renewal, so that we cannot live in sin. We are “in the Spirit” and are no longer “in the flesh,” in the light rather than darkness, in Christ rather than Adam. Our definitive sanctification (i.e., our being declared holy and set apart by God once and for all) is the basis for our progressive sanctification. But then the reality of indwelling sin hits us in the middle of our celebration over the reality of the new birth. Chapter seven is dedicated to unveiling this sad fact in familiar detail. When we get to chapter eight, the Apostle has broadened the scope to include the entire creation and the cosmic dimensions of regeneration-resurrection. Living in “these last days” should determine our stance: “Put on Christ,” Paul says. “And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:11-14).

Everything that we see right now tells us that decay is normal, sin is “only human,” evil is “the way things are,” and death is natural. But none of this is true. Decay, evil, and death are all ultimately due to the bondage into which the first man and his descendants have plunged the human race because of willful disobedience. Just as “the new creation” is not to be understood first and foremost in an individualistic sense, but as the eschatological turning point for the whole created order which began with the resurrection, so our own rebirth of the inner man (i.e., regeneration) is linked to the rebirth of not only our own outer man (i.e., bodily resurrection), but to the new world. Thus, things that have been separated in our thinking can no longer be divorced, much less set in opposition: the cross and resurrection, atonement and regeneration, justification and sanctification, soul and body, heaven and earth, individual and corporate, even human and nonhuman. Not even can a “Time versus Eternity” dualism remain as Platonic residue within Christianity. As biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos observes, while God transcends time, “Paul nowhere affirms that to the life of man after the close of this aeon, no more duration, no more divisibility in time-units shall exist.” That would constitute the deification of the inhabitants of the future aeon. (12)

For Paul, there is no escape from the historical drama-into the past, present, future, eternity, or any other “beyond,” including heaven. The vertical and horizontal planes meet in promise and then ontologically in the very person of Jesus Christ. He incarnates “the age to come” and brings it with him, beginning with his resurrection as “the firstfruits” until he has finally completed the work of salvation when he comes again. We are not waiting for “the great escape,” but for “the great return”-the coming again of the God-Man who will finish what he started. Just as this future glorification of believers has implications for our individual growth in Christian maturity (Paul’s indicatives driving the imperatives), so this future cosmic restoration, when not only believers but “the whole earth will be full of his glory,” should drive our concern for and involvement in the world during “this present evil age.” Just as our own small gains in holiness in this life do not relieve us of the responsibility of constantly striving for that which is up ahead, our contributions to the justice, goodness, and beauty of creation may not, for their meagerness, be considered unimportant to the Alpha-Creator and Omega-Consummator who has brought us out of darkness into his marvelous light.

1 [ Back ] Plato, Republic, from The Great Dialogues of Plato (New York: Mentor, 1956), Book VIII, 315.
2 [ Back ] Rudolf Bultmann, What Is Theology?, trans. by Roy A. Harrisville, ed. by Eberhard Jungel and Klaus W. Muller (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 148.
3 [ Back ] Julius Schneiwind, Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. by Hans Werner Bartsch, trans. by Reginald H. Fuller (London: SPCK, 1953).
4 [ Back ] Ibid.
5 [ Back ] See especially The Essence of Christianity.
6 [ Back ] See especially The End of an Illusion.
7 [ Back ] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. by Duncan Large (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 20.
8 [ Back ] Daniel Breazeale, ed. and trans., Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870's (Atlantic, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979), 112.
9 [ Back ] Herman Ridderbos, When the Time Had Fully Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 52.
10 [ Back ] Richard Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), 61.
11 [ Back ] Ibid., 50.
12 [ Back ] Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1930; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994), 290.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Saturday, January 2nd 1999

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