Space, Time and History: Jesus and the Challenge of God
Harrogate School of Theology and Mission
and the ‘St Hild’ Lecture
Rt Revd Prof N T Wright
[The audio of this lecture is available at St George’s Church.]
January 12 2019
Thank you very much for your welcome and your hospitality. It’s good to be with you and I am delighted and honoured to be giving this Lecture.
A theologian, given a free hand for a topic, ought in principle to talk about God. And a Christian theologian ought to talk about Jesus and God. That may sound easy but, like many things, it gets more complicated as you get closer. (People often say to me ‘I have an easy question for you’ and then they come up with ‘Why does God allow evil?’ or ‘What did Jesus mean by the Kingdom of God’, and I have to explain that easy questions often have quite difficult answers. Indeed, after I wrote three books with the word ‘Simply’ in the title – Simply Christian, Simply Jesus and then Simply Good News – my publisher asked me if I actually knew the meaning of the word ‘simply’. . .
The challenge of what is called ‘natural theology’ is the challenge of public truth. The idea of observing the natural world and arguing up to God is as old as the ancient philosophers. But what now has been called ‘natural theology’ has been the challenge to say something about God in a way which is open to public investigation, rather than being merely the private truth of those who already believe. My particular proposal is that this public truth needs to have Jesus at the middle of it. I have worked this out in the Gifford Lectures which I gave in Aberdeen last year, and today’s lecture is an attempt both to summarize some of that and actually to take the argument further as I work towards the published version.
My late mother, shortly before she died, asked me what the Giffords were about. When I said ‘natural theology’ that didn’t mean much to her, so I put it like this. Some people used to think that you could look at the world of nature and figure out God from there. Other people have thought that wasn’t such a good idea. But since Jesus himself was part of the world of nature, why shouldn’t we include him too? And if we did, might we perhaps learn something new about knowledge itself? My mother thought for a moment and then said, firmly, ‘I’m glad I don’t have to listen to those lectures’.
Putting Jesus in the mix has been strangely unfashionable. What tends to happen is that Jesus gets left out until the very last minute, when the theologian or philosopher, having constructed an Identikit picture of God, finally asks what it would mean to think of Jesus as the incarnation or embodiment of this God. I decided to try it the other way round – to the consternation of some who think it’s cheating to put Jesus in the picture from the start. But actually it’s cheating not to. Jesus was after all a human being who lived at a particular place and time. The world of history, of space, time and matter, is part of the ‘natural’ world.
But the world of history has seemed, over the last two or three hundred years of western thought, to be much harder to get at, much harder to ‘use’, than the world of the natural sciences. How can we be sure this happened, or that happened? When it comes to Jesus, can we be sure of what he really did and said? Do we really know he even existed? Can we be sure that he rose from the dead? And, if not, what then happens to Christian theology? Doesn’t that mean we have to start somewhere else as we think things out? To start with God – as though that might be easier! – and fit Jesus in at a later stage?
I resist that conclusion – though showing why is, once again, harder than it might seem. But here we run into a serious problem, about the word ‘history’ itself. What do we mean by ‘history’? I want to say a few things – quite ‘simply’ as it were – about that, and then move to considering, from a genuinely historical point of view, two of the most vital things about Jesus’ public life, before we put the picture together and see how to approach the whole question of Jesus and God.
The Meanings of ‘History’
Some of the most important words in the English language are annoyingly ambiguous. The obvious example, to which we will return, is the word ‘love’. C. S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves, distinguishing (as the Greeks did) between quite different kinds of affective states, for all of which we English use the same word. Well, the word ‘history’ has at least three quite different meanings.
First, there is ‘history’ as ‘the past’: events that have happened; what ‘historians’ study.
Second, there is ‘history’ as things written about the past: what ‘historians’ produce.
Third, there is ‘history’ as the task: research, debating, and writing it all up: what ‘historians’ do.
We move easily between these – perhaps too easily. When a racing driver crashes, the commentator shouts, ‘He’s history’. That’s the first: the past. Churchill said ‘History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it’. That’s the second: things written about the past, almost always including some kind of evaluation. With that evaluation comes more complication: Hillary Clinton, watching the so-called Arab Spring unfold, declared that it was important ‘to be on the right side of history’, which seems to assume that world events move inexorably in a particular direction, the view some call ‘historicism’. Meanwhile, on the other side, a recent a political writer declares that ‘history is full of surprises’. That has the ring of truth; after all, we know very little of the past, almost nothing when we compare our knowledge with the sum total of all past events; and precisely none of the future. All this shows how complicated the word quickly becomes. And there is more. Much more.
But in theology there are two meanings of ‘history’ which are particularly important. There is, first, the historical study of Jesus. Many people, including C. S. Lewis, have become very suspicious of such study, since most ‘historical Jesus’ portraits have seemed to be trying to cut him down to size, to say that he wasn’t the Son of God until the later church decided to call him that, and so on. And that of course matters, because we all know that if Jesus wasn’t anything like the four gospels describe him, then Christianity is indeed based on a mistake. That, of course, was the conclusion which many in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and America wanted to reach, since they preferred either Deism (God as a distant Absentee Landlord) or rank Epicureanism (with any gods that might exist out of the picture altogether). Both of those theologies sit well with a ‘merely human’ Jesus, and that’s what they produced, by means of a reductive historiography that first regarded the strange elements in the gospels as ‘miracles’ in the sense of ‘arbitrary divine interventions’ and then declared that we knew miracles didn’t occur. You thus get a ‘historical Jesus’ – in the first sense of ‘history’, the what-actually-happened sense – trimmed down to suit modern preconceptions.
Many, seeing this, have suggested that we can never get back to what actually happened at all, and that the best we can do is ‘the historical Jesus’ in the second sense of ‘history’: the ‘what-historians-write’ sense. All we have is my reconstruction or your reconstruction, but never the real thing. That idea has become popular not least with those who would rather we did not start our theological quest with Jesus but rather fit him in when we’ve got a framework from somewhere else. Now it is true that we always have to be aware, as with any historical writing, who is writing and from what point of view. But this doesn’t mean we can never get real information about the past. When we see a report of a match between, let’s say, Leeds United and Sheffield United, we expect there to be plenty of local bias depending on which paper we’re reading. But we don’t expect them to get the score wrong.
The low point of ‘historical Jesus’ research was the so-called ‘Jesus Seminar’ organised by some American scholars in the 1990s. Unfortunately, their many strident publications, denying that Jesus said this or that, or did this or that, have been used as an excuse by some theologians for abandoning ‘history’ in sense 3 – the task of history – altogether. This is where the verbal slippage really kicks in. Don’t give us ‘history’ in terms of research and reconstruction, they say – that is bound to cut Jesus down to size. Instead, we must believe that Jesus is the Lord of ‘history’ – but ‘history’ now neither as ‘what historians do’ nor ‘what historians produce’, nor even as ‘what historians study’; but in a massive, all-embracing extended sense of ‘everything that ever happened or ever will’. Such theologians will claim that God is sovereign over ‘history’ in this sense, or that Jesus is somehow ‘the Lord of history’ in this sense, but claims like this tell us precisely nothing about what actually happened, about who Jesus actually was and what he meant by what he did and said. It is a bit like asking your bank manager what you’ve got in your account and receiving the reply ‘money’. Saying ‘history’ in this huge, generalized sense may be true at one level, but it isn’t helpful. If we want – as theologians and preachers rightly want – to talk about God incarnate, we ought not to do so until we have looked very carefully – and that means historically – at the incarnate God. Otherwise we merely put the cart before the horse. Nobody has seen God, declared John; the only begotten son of God has revealed him.
So we have some sceptics on the one hand saying they’ve looked at the history and found that Jesus was just a Jewish teacher whose followers, after his death, decided to start a new religion in his name. And on the other hand we have some theologians, in reaction not just against the sceptics but against any attempt to investigate Jesus, declaring grandly that since he is the Lord of history that’s all we need to know. But, speaking as a historian, I have to say that in neither case are they really doing ‘history’ at all. The real historical task – and with it the real theological prospect – is obscured, or even ignored, by both approaches. And this has left many ordinary Christians, including many hard-working clergy, bothered and unsure whether they can really trust the gospels, whether they can really be sure about who Jesus was. I want to suggest that there are good historical ways forward, though they may well take us to some quite unexpected places.
There is no secret to how good history is done. There are of course ongoing debates among historians themselves, but there are some generally accepted principles. History is real knowledge, not merely ‘opinion’ or ‘guesswork’. It follows the accepted methods of the natural sciences: collection of data, formation of hypotheses, testing and verification of hypotheses. Most hard science studies the repeatable; history, like astronomy or geology, studies the unrepeatable. But the method is the same. History involves, in particular, the investigation of human motivation, which means thinking into the minds of people who think differently to ourselves. And history, unlike mere chronicle which just collects unrelated data, always aims at a connected narrative in which cause and effect (including the ‘law of unintended consequences’) are appropriately displayed.
All this is part of what I and others have loosely called ‘critical realism’, which is a fancy way of saying that we know ‘fake news’ occurs but that doesn’t mean that nothing happens. And ‘critical realism’ needs to employ what has been called the ‘epistemology of love’. When historians think into the minds of other people, it takes an act of sympathetic imagination; but that exists, like love itself, in the fragile space between lustful projection on the one hand – imagining the other to be the way I want them to be – and a detached indifference in which we don’t try to get inside the other mind at all. It is remarkable just how much scholarship about Jesus that has called itself ‘historical-critical’ has not, in fact, employed these principles, but has remained content with frankly anachronistic frameworks of thought and inappropriate pseudo-scientific methods.
One of the most important points of method is that when you are studying a different culture – and the Jewish world of the first century was very different to anything we know today, including the modern Jewish world – we must take care to describe it in the ways its own people would recognise. Many have supposed that Jesus was teaching, and his followers were practising, what we call a ‘religion’, failing to realise that our modern category, which assumes a radical split between ‘religion’ and the rest of life, is precisely a modern invention, unknown to an ancient Jew. Many have then assumed that the Jewish ‘religion’ formed, at best, a kind of dark backcloth to the bright light of the gospel, so that all that was needed was to depict something called ‘Jewish legalism’ and then Jesus, or indeed Paul, would shine out all the better. There is a better way, and to get at it we need history.
Space, Time and the Forgotten Hope
As historians, we know quite a bit about the larger world within which the story of Jesus takes place. The Romans took control of Judaea and Galilee in 63 BC, ruling by various means, but then finally lost patience and, after a devastating war, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70. Jesus’ public career took place right in the middle of that period. Resistance to Rome was then smouldering, rather than in open flame, but rebellion was never far from the surface. Jesus was himself executed as a rebel king, in the early 30s, after a short public career.
We know all this beyond any doubt. We also know, uncontroversially, certain vital things about his public career. Its theme was the announcement of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, an announcement which Jesus made in deed and word. The theme of God’s kingdom, clear in the Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel and elsewhere, was current in the first century in various revolutionary movements, wanting God alone to be king rather than the wicked rulers they presently had. Jesus explicitly hooked his own announcement into the ancient prophecies (‘the time is fulfilled’ – in other words, the time promised by the prophets) and he radically reinterpreted its meaning through dramatic actions (particularly healings and parties) and sharp-edged little stories (the ‘parables’).
This vivid picture of Jesus is not open to doubt. The evidence converges and makes excellent sense precisely in the complex world of the first third of the first century. By the 40s and 50s, and still more by the 60s and then still more again by the 70s, the issues had moved on. But this historical basis for understanding Jesus has not been explored, let alone exploited, either by the sceptics, who have concentrated their fire elsewhere, or by the systematic theologians, who have usually only wanted to find in the gospels advance hints of much later dogmatic puzzles. If we are to understand Jesus himself – and if, with the New Testament, we are going to think in terms of looking hard at Jesus in order to get the most accurate glimpse of God himself – then we have to do the historical work of understanding what Jesus meant by his kingdom-announcement.
Three features of Jesus’ public career stand out as being badly understood in later tradition, and discussed with particularly misleading emphases all round. They are the Temple, the Sabbath and the Future. Space, time and history. Until we get our minds around the ways in which Jesus’ contemporaries thought about Temple and Sabbath and Future we will not begin to see how we can move, on historical grounds, from Jesus towards a fresh vision of God.
Before the 1980s the question of Jesus’ attitude to the Temple, and particularly his action in the Temple, had not been a major part of historical Jesus research. But more recently several who have studied the first-century Jewish world in its own right have highlighted Jesus’ Temple-action as the climax of a programme of ‘Jewish restoration eschatology’. This was not about ‘the end of the world’. It was about the fulfilment of God’s promise to turn the present world inside out, to rescue Israel from pagan domination, and perhaps even to establish worldwide justice and peace. And what Jesus said and did in relation to the Temple fits within that programme.
So what did the Temple mean to a first-century Jew? This is vital. The Temple was directly related to creation itself, and to the promise of new creation.
The opening chapters of Genesis portray the creation of heaven and earth as the construction of a Temple. Creation is built, like a temple, in seven stages, and the final element is the image, reflecting the divine presence into the world and channelling worship from creation back to the creator. A Temple – any temple in the ancient world – was designed as a place where heaven and earth would come together, would overlap and interlock. Our modern culture has embraced a version of ancient Epicureanism, in which, though the gods may exist, they are a long way away, and have nothing to do with us. Hardly anyone in the ancient world thought like that. Genesis was written to say, among many other things, that God’s good creation is a combined heaven/earth reality, and that the human vocation is to stand at the dramatic and dangerous point of intersection between the two; and that God himself has created this bipartite world for his own use, wanting to come and dwell with his human creatures, to take his rest among them in his own true home.
This plays out in the overall shape of Genesis and Exodus. When the children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, Moses said to Pharaoh that they should be set free ‘so that we can worship our God in the desert’. The climax of Exodus is not the crossing of the Red Sea, nor the giving of the Law on Sinai. These were just preparatory. The climax comes – after the Israelites have nearly blown it all with the golden calf! – with the Tabernacle. It represents creation itself, from the stars to the plants. And the glorious divine presence, what later Rabbis would call the Shekinah, the Tabernacling, comes to dwell there in holy majesty. There is a narrative arc all the way from Genesis 1 to Exodus 40, picked up exactly by the Prologue to John’s Gospel: the Word became flesh, and tabernacled in our midst.
There is a vital twist here which many ignore. The wilderness Tabernacle, then later the Jerusalem Temple, were signposts pointing forwards to an even greater reality. They were signs and foretastes of what the creator God, the God of Israel, longed to do with the whole of creation. The glorious filling of the wilderness Tent pointed to the ultimate filling of all creation. The residual Platonism of much modern Christianity means that we easily think of God’s presence in a church or Christian assembly as giving us a safe place away from the world, a sign to a disembodied reality called ‘heaven’, rather than as a sign of what God intends ultimately for the whole world.
Take, as an example, Psalm 72, which celebrates the coming true king who will do justice for the poor, the outcast and helpless, the widow and the orphan. This is one of the king’s three jobs; the other two are to repel Israel’s enemies and to build or restore the Temple. All these are aimed at one purpose: the coming of the divine glory to dwell with his people. The king repels the pagan enemies to cleanse the land for God to live there; he builds the Temple so that the divine glory may dwell there; he does justice for the poor so that the divine glory may dwell in all the earth. That is how the Psalm ends: Blessed by YHWH for ever, and may his glory fill the whole earth, Amen and Amen. The whole world is claimed as God’s holy land, and the Temple-shaped promise is the promise that the heaven-and-earth reality there will be translated into the heaven-and-earth reality of the whole renewed creation. And, as in Genesis 1, the heaven-and-earth reality is focused on the human being through whom it all happens. The King is the true image-bearer, the true human being. Some Jews were already reading Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 as meaning exactly that. Jesus seems to have picked up on these traditions and made them his own. Once you see this, you will never read the Gospels the same way again.
So what happens when we put Jesus and his public career into this world, a world of promised glory for Temple and creation?
Jesus appears as a prophet announcing God’s kingdom. He accepts that designation as a start, but it soon appears that he believes himself to be more than a prophet. He is the true king, even though he is redefining kingship around himself in a creative new synthesis of Israel’s scriptures. He isn’t doing what would-be Messiahs might have been doing – particularly, planning armed revolution – but he is doing the things that Isaiah prophesied, healing the sick and so forth. And when he openly and publicly forgives sins he is claiming to do and be what the Temple was and did. Jesus is slicing through the protocol and offering right there, on the street, what you would normally get by going to the temple. His regular and notorious feasting with ‘sinners’ and ‘outcasts’ looks like a dramatic demonstration pointing towards the Psalm 72 agenda, reinforced by parables like the Prodigal Son.
So Jesus’ public career offers, throughout, an implicit challenge to the Temple, which has massive implications granted the Temple theology I just mentioned. When, therefore, he comes to Jerusalem for the final Passover, his challenge becomes explicit. This is not a clean-up operation. He is not demanding reform. He is denouncing the present Temple and its leadership, and also the way in which the revolutionary movements have seen the Temple as a sign that their projected violence will bring in God’s kingdom. ‘You have made it a den of brigands,’ he says — brigands, lestai, revolutionaries. When he stops the flow of sacrificial animals, he is performing a symbolic demonstration of the Temple’s upcoming destruction, and everything in the gospel passages that follow that action explains it from one angle or another. And at the same time he is offering something radically different, something symbolized by his own quasi-Passover meal with his friends. Then, when Jesus dies, the Temple veil is torn in two – again symbolising its imminent destruction. Something has happened – something is happening – as a result of which the Temple is both redundant in the face of the promised reality and under judgment, as it was in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, because of the wickedness of its officials and of the Judaeans in general. When we put all this in the context of what, I stress, was the normal way of understanding the Temple, the implication is massive. Jesus believed that he was the true king, and that in his words and deeds the glorious and devastating presence of Israel’s God was manifest at last. He was the place where and the means by which heaven and earth would come together at last. He was the true Image. He was the true King. And he believed that with his forthcoming death and its aftermath the kingdom would indeed be established in a whole new way, on earth as in heaven.
But how would this work? How could the Age to Come break into the present age rather than merely abolish and replace it, as so many have supposed? For that we turn to from space to time; from the Temple to the Sabbath.
What I have just said about the Temple applies even more to the Sabbath. The Sabbath was to Time what the Temple was to Place. The Temple was where heaven and earth met, held together in a dangerous symbiosis, with the image-bearing humans standing at the fault line in worship and obedience. The Sabbath was where the Age to Come broke in to the Present Age, so that God’s future and God’s present were held together, again with the human beings standing at the threshold in a single moment of rest and celebration, with the Past coming forwards as well: the creation, the original Exodus, and all the other moments of divine triumph in Israel’s history.
Just as modern Christianity hasn’t known what to do about the Temple and Jesus’ sayings and actions in relation to it, so we haven’t known what to do with the Sabbath. The Sabbath stories in the gospels have been treated as examples of ‘Jewish legalism’ versus ‘Christian freedom’. But that misses the point. Jesus’ opening announcement about the kingdom of God was that ‘the time was fulfilled’. His opening sermon in Nazareth, in Luke 4, declares the Jubilee, the seventh seven, the great Year of Release. The point is, as Jesus knew very well, that to the Jew the Sabbath was the moment when, every week, the Age to Come would appear in advance in the midst of the Present Age. Thus, even in the ongoing world of sin and death, one might live for a day in the promised New Age of blessing, healing and forgiveness. The Sabbaths thus functioned, like the Temple, as sign and foretaste. The Temple was a signpost to God’s ultimate intention to fill the whole world with his presence; the Sabbaths were advance glimpses of the Age to Come, the future somehow nesting dangerously in the present. The Sabbath candles were the sign that one day God’s new day would dawn. And Jesus was declaring that the day had come at last. You don’t need candles once the sun has risen.
The Sabbath controversies, therefore, were not about Jewish legalism over against Christian grace. They were about the ‘already’ of the kingdom; the presence of God’s new day. ‘If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’. Jesus’ parables fit exactly here. They were designed to affirm the Jewish expectation of God’s coming kingdom on earth as in heaven, to announce that this expectation was now being fulfilled, and to redefine the meaning of the kingdom, away from the revolutionary aspirations and towards Jesus’ own understanding of the scriptures and of his own vocation.
So where did Jesus suppose it was all going to end? What do we then do with what we’ve normally called ‘eschatology’?
The failure of western Christianity to understand the first-century Jewish idea of time has resulted in a complete caricature. For a hundred years and more students have been taught that Jesus and his first followers expected the actual end of the world at any moment. How did this mistake arise?
In the nineteenth century, many European scholars had been convinced that progressive advances of western culture constituted the steady arrival of the kingdom of God. But the mask had begun to slip. Kierkegaard had denounced the Hegelian idea of progressive development. Nietzsche was saying that the whole thing was a fraud. Karl Marx had transformed Hegel’s secularized ‘progress’ into revolution, a secularized version of Jewish apocalyptic. And two young scholars, Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, caught the mood of the times. They declared that first-century Jews, and Jesus in particular, believed in the imminent end of the world, and that that’s what they meant by the kingdom of God. This has become received scholarly orthodoxy in many circles to this day.
But Weiss and Schweitzer got it wrong. They had not studied Jewish apocalyptic in its historical and political context. Schweitzer was a brilliant philosopher and musician, an expert on J. S. Bach but also a massive fan of Richard Wagner, particularly of the Ring Cycle. Schweitzer attended performances of the Ring in Bayreuth four times during the very years when he was writing about Jesus and the kingdom of God. The Ring, as you may know, offers precisely a Nietzschean vision of the end of the world: ‘the truth that everything ends’. Schweitzer transposed this into a first-century fantasy. Many saw his work as a word for the times, a warning to the nineteenth-century optimism which was indeed about to crash and burn in the trenches. The warning was echoed by Karl Barth in his post-war Romans commentary, and by many since. To this day, confusion continues.
But the answer to confusion is careful historical exegesis. In particular, we need to ask the question: what did ‘apocalyptic’ language mean in the first century? When first-century Jews echoed books such as Daniel, or 1 Enoch, what were they talking about?
The post-enlightenment philosophical climate, dominated by Epicureanism, was bound to give the wrong answer. If you start by supposing that ‘heaven’ is utterly different to ‘earth’, then if ‘heaven’ comes to reign, earth will have to be abolished to make room. But that is neither biblical nor Jewish. Likewise, the idea of leaving ‘earth’ and ‘going to heaven’ is actually a Platonic notion, not an early Christian one. Jesus himself spoke of, and taught people to pray for, God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, an idea which Epicureanism finds impossible and Platonism finds undesirable.
Instead of both of those options, the first-century retrieval of Daniel and 1 Enoch was what we would call ‘political’ – but the ‘political’ here was thoroughly mixed with the ‘theological’. God is creator of all and lord of all. When Isaiah described the sun and the moon being darkened and the stars falling from heaven, he was talking about the fall of Babylon: what other language would be appropriate for an event which would, in that world, be like a combination of Hiroshima, Auschwitz and 9/11? When Jeremiah warned that the created order would unmake itself and go back to the state of tohu wa-bohu, ‘without form and void’, he worried for years that he might turn out to be a false prophet, not because the world was still going on but because the Temple had not fallen. The Temple was the ultimate heaven-and-earth place. If the Temple fell, heaven and earth themselves would have come apart at the seams.
We know from the historian Josephus, and from the book we call 4 Ezra, how Daniel was being read in the first century. Daniel 2 has the statue with the head of gold and the feet of clay, smashed by a stone which becomes a mountain. Daniel 7 has the four monsters and the exaltation of ‘one like a son of man’. 4 Ezra has an obviously Roman Eagle being attacked by an obviously messianic Lion. It’s all the same thing. The language of ‘apocalyptic’, of dreams and visions in which God’s coming kingdom overthrows and replaces the kingdoms of the world, was precisely not about ‘the end of the world’ in the modern sense. That theory has enabled many to label the first Christians as simple pre-scientific folk with all sorts of funny ideas we now know weren’t true – which neatly absolves us from having to follow their theology or ethics either. That line is merely self-serving, part of the gangrene of liberal reductionism.
So when we put all this together, what do we find about Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom? We find that he was indeed talking about an end and a beginning – but it was the end, not of the space-time universe, but of the long years in which Israel’s Temple had been the focal point of ‘heaven and earth’, in which the Sabbaths were forward-looking signposts. The sun was rising, and the candles were no longer needed. Jesus was declaring that the Age to Come had arrived once and for all in the present, not now as a weekly advance celebration, but as a new and permanent reality. It was, however, to run concurrently with the ongoing Present Age, until a yet future date, so that Jesus’ followers would find themselves living simultaneously in two different theological time zones. Paul frequently refers to that kind of theological jet-lag, insisting that it’s time to wake up even though others around are still asleep.
But with Jesus there are two further wrinkles, which Paul already takes as read and develops. For Jesus the main victory, the ultimate victory over the powers of darkness which will result in the kingdom of God being established in a whole new way, is yet to happen. The victory over evil spirits in the present time, during Jesus’ public career, is a sign of an early victory but there is a darker battle yet to be fought. That is at the heart of Jesus’ understanding of his own approaching death. I have written about this in detail in my book The Day the Revolution Began, where I argue that for Jesus, Paul and the gospel writers the cross is to be seen as the victory over the dark powers that have enslaved the world, and that this victory is achieved through what we may call ‘representative substitution’. The different modern theories of ‘atonement’ regularly miss the point, and are wrongly played off against one another. But as far as the gospels and Paul were concerned, the victory had indeed been won. Caesar was still ruling the world; the Temple was still standing; but both were tottering. A new reality had been launched upon the world: a perpetual Sabbath, a new kind of Temple. They believed all this, of course, because they believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, demonstrating his victory over evil by his victory over evil’s consequence, namely death. All that is of course a vast topic for another time; as is the question of what this kingdom then looks like in the time between the resurrection and Jesus’ final return.
The other wrinkle – and more than a wrinkle! – is that at the heart of the Jewish vision of the future was the hope, closely bound up with the Temple, that YHWH himself would return in person to rescue his people and set up his kingdom. Isaiah says that explicitly; so do Ezekiel, Zechariah and Malachi. All four gospels and Paul draw on such texts and insist that with Jesus it has come true. Historical critics and theologians alike have ignored this. But I believe it is at the very heart of New Testament Christology: that when we view Jesus’ public career, climaxing in his death, resurrection and ascension, we should think, ‘This is what it looked like when Israel’s God returned in glory, when he came suddenly to his Temple.’ Can history ‘prove’ the truth of such a claim? No, but history can radically clarify what the claim involves, so that the fuller ‘knowledge’ we seek comes together in all its coherence.
But for today I want to bring this lecture back where it began by asking what we learn from all this about the question of Jesus and God. If this is indeed a properly historical account of Jesus, a Jesus fully at home in the real first-century world, where does it leave us with the question of ‘natural theology’?
Jesus and ‘Natural Theology’
I have suggested that historical study of the first century poses a direct challenge to the modern Epicurean framework. In particular, it challenges what has been essentially a Faustian pact, in which the real heart of knowledge, namely love itself, has been pushed aside, so that a ruthlessly driven ‘progress’ could proceed unchecked. Well, we’ve seen where that got us. That project has produced, as well as wars, Fortress Europe and America First, an attempted Epicurean paradise removed from the rest of the world, a secular temple, a secular Age to Come. A parody of the gospel – which is why, in the modern world, Christianity is seen as a ‘religion’ which by definition is split off from real life. That is the political analogue of the failure of ‘natural theology’. Even if we don’t want to engage the question for philosophical reasons, the urgent political crises of our day ought to tell us this is not just about spirituality or ‘religion’. It is about which God or gods are ruling the world, which God or gods we are going to serve.
There are three interlocking ways to approach this question. They focus on the central gospel themes: the cross, the resurrection and the mission of God.
First, the paradox of the cross meets the paradox of human longing. There are seven vital strands of human life: justice, freedom, beauty, spirituality, truth, power and love. In each case, we know they are crucially important but we find them elusive, harder to attain and hold on to than we want. We feel them to be clues to the meaning of life, but they appear to let us down: justice is denied or distorted, freedom twisted into licence or new forms of slavery, the sunset disappears, spirituality becomes self-serving fantasy, truth becomes fake news, power corrupts, and love changes either into lust or into grief. This is why many see ‘natural theology’ as pointless: all the things that might seem signals of transcendence, of ultimate meaning, turn to dust and ashes as we reach out to grasp them. My point, however, is that the gospel story of Jesus going to his death meets this dark human narrative at its low point. The story of Jesus does not enable us to stretch ourselves up to God; it declares that God has come down to us, to meet us in our dust and ashes. That, I believe, is part of the secret of its power, the reason why the cross, in pictures or statues or art or music – perhaps especially in music – has the power to leap over human scepticism and incomprehension and to open up recesses of the human imagination and understanding. It is precisely at the point where Jesus appears to have failed (in what his followers thought was a bid to establish an ordinary Kingdom) that we have a strong sense of ultimate connection. The cross, as we say, ‘finds us where we are’.
In particular, second, it therefore has the capacity to awaken a genuine love. To repeat, ‘love’ here is not fantasy or sentiment. It is the delighted recognition of a truth beyond ourselves, reaching out in response to a reality not from ourselves but somehow for ourselves. ‘The son of God loved me and gave himself for me’: yes, but that can only be said in the light of the resurrection. That is why Ludwig Wittgenstein said, startlingly, ‘it is love that believes the resurrection’. The actual events of the gospel, focusing on Jesus’ death and resurrection, evoke that love, as a new dimension to the ordinary ‘epistemology of love’, which is required in any case for all good history. This new dimension opens up because in the resurrection it becomes clear that the creator of the world has declared his love for his creation, including for ourselves, not just in theory but in practice. The news that Jesus has been raised and is now alive in a whole new way – bodily but with a transformed, immortal physicality – tells us that our deepest longings, framed and frustrated in equal measure by our present created but corruptible existence, are redemptively affirmed. They are not, they cannot be, affirmed as they stand, because of their now inherent corruption; but the act of redemption is also the real reaffirmation, and with it the revelation of the creator’s love. The love which believes the resurrection is therefore an answering love which is the ultimate form of knowledge: as Paul says, based not on our knowledge of God but on God’s knowledge of us. This kind of knowledge – the knowledge that refuses the Faustian pact of modernity and allows love to set the terms – includes, but also transcends, the good historical arguments in which Jesus’ resurrection is the only answer to the question of how Christianity began in the first place. History is important but by itself the best historical arguments may never convince the sceptic. It also includes, and also transcends, the emotional appeal which is all many can hear in the word ‘love’ but which would by itself result in private experience rather than public truth. Again, saying ‘You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart’, though it may be true, lacks the power to convince others. It may, they will say, be ‘true for you’ but not ‘true for me’. No: the message of Jesus’ resurrection is the message that new creation is launched because the powers of darkness have been defeated on the cross. And the message of new creation is the message of a deeper love, a deeper sense of welcome home, than humans otherwise imagine. And with all this, as we see in the response of Mary, Thomas and Peter in John’s account of the resurrection, the ultimate mystery opens before us: ‘My Lord, says Thomas, and my God.’
All this only really appears when the hard historical work has been done, so that we see what the four gospels are really telling us, above and beyond the truncated modern understandings. Of course, none of this proves anything in the shrunken sense of a mathematical ‘proof’; but the shrill demand for such things is itself a trick of the Faustian reductionism to which our culture has been subjected for many years. And once we recognise that the claim of Jesus himself, and his first followers, had nothing to do with the end of the space-time world and everything to do with the great Sabbath, the transformative arrival of the Age to Come within the Present Age, and with it the dangerous joining of heaven and earth in Jesus himself and by his Spirit, then the believing love which answers the Creator’s love in raising Jesus can be seen for what it is. Not the adoption of a cold dogma, but the embrace of, and commitment to, the project of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. And that leads to my third and final point.
Following from this interpretation of the cross, and this understanding of the resurrection and with it of Christology, we have the Spirit-driven mission of the church. Just as the Temple was an effective advance sign of God’s ultimate intention to flood the whole creation with his own glorious presence; just as the Sabbaths were effective advance signposts to the Age to Come; so the Spirit-led mission of the church is the effective advance sign of that Coming Age in which creation will be transformed and the divine justice, beauty and love will fill all things, so that God may be All in All. This means that the church’s mission, including the announcement that God raised Jesus from the dead and that through his death the power of evil has been defeated so that forgiveness of sins is now freely offered to all – this mission must be framed in terms of new creation. If justice, freedom, beauty, spirituality, truth, power and love are reaffirmed as the genuine God-given longings which seemed to have failed in the cross, their reaffirmation in the resurrection means that by the Spirit the church must work at all of them simultaneously, not resting content with the Platonic promise of a disembodied heaven or the Gnostic delusion of self-discovery. The mission of God thus belongs, quite properly, as part of ‘natural theology’, since it addresses the puzzled awareness of all humans living within the world of ‘nature’ itself. I do not believe that one can start with what you find in a test-tube and argue up to God. But if the test tube reminds you to look to the larger world, including the world of history, including the fact of Jesus, then, if you look with answering love, you will glimpse in his face, as Paul says, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.