Victorious Eschatology, a book review
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Matthew 24:1-3, RSV.
Victorious Eschatology is a profound book which challenges the popular belief in Dispensational Theology, most typified in the Left Behind series of books: a great apostasy will take place in the Church, in Israel the Temple will be rebuilt, Israel will be granted a temporary peace by the Anti-Christ for 3.5 years, a Great Tribulation will follow for another 3.5 years, before which the believers will be “raptured” out of this world, and then Jesus will return at the end of this 7 year period to establish a millennial kingdom. This popular theology of the end times is informed primarily by the Dispensational interpretation of the book of Daniel and Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke).
Victorious Eschatology makes the case that Dispensationalism has misinterpreted these passages and gives a very credible alternate explanation of Daniel’s prophesy and of Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24. The authors argue that Dispensationalists have misunderstood the chronology of Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question in Matthew 24:3. They argue that Jesus’ prediction of the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is separate from his prediction of the final judgment, which begins in verse 35. Everything leading up to verse 35, including the references to the Great Tribulation, have to do with the judgment on Jerusalem which took place in “this generation,” or approximately 40 years after his crucifixion.
I believe the most profound and simple example of their reasoning is in response to the disciples’ question about “when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming…?” When the disciples asked this question, first of all, they did not believe Jesus was going to be crucified, nor did they believe he was going to be raised from the dead (Mark 9:31-32). They could not have been asking about his Second Coming, because they didn’t know anything about it. They believed, like all good Jews of that time, that the Messiah would be a king like David, who would come and rule in Jerusalem, and kick the Romans out of Israel. Instead, they were asking, “when are you going to come into your kingdom and rule in Jerusalem.”
Jesus’ response is that they should look for signs, especially that
when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; Matthew 24:15, 16, RSV.
The authors point out the parallel passage in Luke reveals that the desolating sacrilege is not an anti-Christ sitting on the Holy Seat in the Temple, but the armies of Rome:
when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it; Luke 21:20, 21, RSV.
Obviously, this sign happened in 70 A.D. followed by the complete destruction of Jerusalem, with a great tribulation wherein the starvation was so rampant that the citizens resorted to cannibalism and over 1 million Jews either starved to death or were killed by the Roman army.
The final point the authors make is that none of the signs Jesus prophesied in Matthew 24: 1-34 need to take place in order for his Second Coming. From verse 35 on into the next chapter, Jesus emphasizes that his coming will be “in an hour you do not expect.” In the next section, they point out how perfectly Daniel’s prophesy of the 70 weeks of years is fulfilled in Jesus’ first coming and crucifixion. The prediction is so perfect that it seems to come in the exact year the Lord predicted through Daniel.
These first two sections make a very convincing argument and should be studied as a mandatory corrective to a Dispensational fear of the future. But my praise for the book ends at that point. There are three issues where I think the book becomes very questionable at best and illogical at worst.
The first issue is their theological view that everything is going to get better until Jesus comes to take over the world: that the expansion of his kingdom by the conversion of the nations is inevitable and that the history of Christian expansion is one long story of the advance of Jesus’ millennial reign. My problem with this theological retrospective is that they cherry-pick their history to show how things are improving. For some reason, the last century, where more were martyred than in all the history of Christendom combined, and where over 100 million were murdered by genocidal, atheist nations (including 6 million Jews in the Holocaust), is overlooked, while the advance of women’s rights and the end of slavery prove that Christ is conquering the nations. This facile interpretation of history reminds me of the “Social Gospel” movement of the early 20th Century that found its end in WWI, where the continuing depravity of humankind was on full display in the mass destruction of the Great War. My point is that human nature has not changed and the advance of Christianity is by no means measurable in the transformation of world governments and society as a whole.
My second issue is their unconvincing interpretation of Revelation. While David Chilton, makes an excellent argument for Revelation being a Covenant lawsuit against Israel for its rejection of the Messiah in his book Days of Vengeance, many of the arguments the authors use in this section of the book are just weak. They make a few good points, and they point out that the 7 churches do not represent the 7 ages of the Church, but most of their arguments lack scholarly citations or scriptural backing.
Finally, they make a very weak argument about the Man of Lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians. The cumulative effects of the latter sections of the book leave me with a feeling of disappointment; that they tried to twist and fit everything into their predetermined understanding of a brighter tomorrow.
While I cannot go into the full detail here, I believe the authors’ eschatology fails because it does not deal adequately with the simultaneous growth of both good and evil (wheat and the tares) until the time of the end. Yes, Jesus will conquer, but the overcoming of evil will be a cataclysmic event and not one of gradual progress.