Online Interview on Creation and Violence in the Old Testament (and a Few Other Topics)

I’ve just completed (this afternoon) the online interview I mentioned in a previous post on the topic of creation and violence in the Old Testament. Bill Brown (of Columbia Theological Seminary) and I were interviewed by Matt Lynch of the Westminster Theological Centre in the UK.

Bill Brown is so eloquent (in both print and in person) that he sometimes makes me feel a bit tongue tied. But it was a lot of fun and we discussed topics such as Genesis 1 and the goodness of creation, violence as a perversion of the imago Dei, the Flood as a response to human violence, God’s role in prophetic judgment, etc.

In fact, we ranged quite a bit beyond the advertized topic of creation and violence in the Old Testament.

Brown was asked about the role of “wonder” as a key to the wisdom literature in connection his new book, Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Creation, and Crisis in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature (Eerdmans, 2014). And I got to respond to questions about eschatology, in connection with my new book A New Heaven and A New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014).

The interview is available on online for those who missed it but still want to watch it.

Recent Book Reviews of A New Heaven and a New Earth

In the past couple of weeks I’ve become aware of some recent reviews of A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

Matthew Forrest Lowe On-line Review

The first review is by Matthew Forrest Lowe, which is posted both on NetGalley and on his own website, Lonely Vocations.

The review begins by saying:

I’m always impressed by Richard Middleton’s work, and this book is no exception. It’s a difficult trick to write about eschatology without losing sight of the larger narrative of biblical theology, but Middleton pulls it off! He begins by showing how the book’s concern fits within his story, noting his concern “to make the Bible’s vision for the redemption of creation available to a wide audience” (16) — many of whom might struggle with some of the same questions that he’s wrestled with throughout his theological life.

While Matt largely agrees with the emphasis of the book (and he includes an excellent summary if its argument), he raises two important questions. The first concerns my understanding of sin throughout the book (which he would like more clarity on); the second concerns my interpretation of the intermediate state in 2 Corinthians 5:1-9 (he cites Walter Grundmann’s alternative interpretation in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

These are legitimate questions and I look forward to addressing them (and much more) when Matt presents his extended version of this review in Ottawa in a few weeks.

Book Review Panel at the CETA Meeting on May 31, 2015

Matt is on the executive committee of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA) and he will be presenting his review as part of a book review panel on A New Heaven and a New Earth, at the annual meeting of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association on May 31, 2015.

While the formal CETA meeting will be held during the day (8:30 AM — 4:30 PM) at the University of Ottawa as part of the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the panel discussion will take place at Sunnyside Wesleyan Church at 7:00 PM.

In fact, Matt is organizing the review panel. Besides Matt, there will be reviews by Brian Walsh (with whom I’ve written two books) and Janet Warren (whose review will appear in the Canadian Theological Review, the journal sponsored by CETA). I will respond to the three reviews and we will have a time of open discussion with the audience.

If you are around, I hope you can join us.

Midwest Book Review

The second review of A New Heaven and a New Earth is a short note in the Midwest Book Review. My publisher, Baker Academic, posted the following excerpt from the review on their website:

Enhanced with the inclusion of an informative introduction, figures and tables, an appendix (Whatever Happened to the New Earth?); a thirty page Subject Index; and a fifteen page Scripture Index, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology is a model of Biblical scholarship making it very instructive reading and highly recommended for personal, seminary, community and academic library Christian Studies collections.

You can read the entire review here in the Midwest Book Review, listed under “Christian Studies.” 

James Howell in the Christian Century

The third recent review is a longer piece by James C. Howell in the Christian Century. This is the excerpt Baker Academic posted on their website:

A thoughtful, thorough, and well-written book on biblical eschatology. . . . Middleton’s message concerns, secondarily, Christians’ fixation on the rapture and, primarily, virtually all of Christian preaching and teaching that eviscerates the richness of the Bible’s eschatology, offering nothing more than the chance to go to heaven after we die and this world has ended. . . . Middleton eloquently lifts up what is entirely plain if you pay attention: ‘the Bible consistently anticipates the redemption of the entire created order.’ Guiding us on a dazzling tour through the broad range of relevant texts, he makes clear the Bible’s emphasis on the material order–on culture, bodies, and buildings–and shows that the Creator’s purpose isn’t for creation to be swept away, but for it to be entirely redeemed.

This one is a somewhat strange review. It is mostly positive, but the reviewer raises all sorts of questions about things in the book, some of which are actually answered in the book (did he read it carefully?) and some of which are on minor points that I didn’t stress, but that he somehow thought were important. And once or twice he just plain misinterpreted what I was saying (like on the nature of final judgment or on taking eschatological imagery literally).

But, that’s par for the course as far as book reviews go (there have been much greater misreadings of things I wrote in reviews of my earlier books). And, as they say, any publicity is good publicity! (And the Christian Century is a widely read periodical.)

Rodney Clapp in the Christian Century

Interestingly, Rodney Clapp, the editor who originally contracted me for the eschatology book (but now works for a different publisher), wrote an earlier piece for the Christian Century on trends in holisitic eschatology (entitled “Life after Life after Death”), in which he mentioned the book I was working on a couple of years before it was published.

At one point in the article, he addresses recent books on the subject:

Premier among them is N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Rob Bell’s bestseller Love Wins follows Wright in putting the post-mortem emphasis on resurrected bodies in the context of a new heaven and a new earth. More recently Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett, in Salvation Means Creation Healed, make an extended argument that salvation focuses not just on souls and not just on people, but presents the hope of a transformed and new earth. Meanwhile, biblical scholar Richard Middleton is at work on a book that will closely examine the major biblical texts and argue for the eschatological hope of a new heaven and a new earth.

You can read the entire article here.

Rodney Clapp on the Running Heads Website

A few months ago Rodney followed this up with a more extended online review of A New Heaven and a New Earth; he posted it on the editorial website for Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications, called “Running Heads” (Rodney is chief editor for Cascade Books).

These are the opening and closing sections of the review:

Some years ago, when I was an editor with Brazos/Baker Academic, I acquired a project that has just now come to fruition. That book is J. Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic). Richard’s work is a sweeping—and exegetically detailed—survey of the argument that the earth is not to be left behind at the end of history as we know it. Instead, God will transform the “old” heavens (which are a creation of God themselves) and earth, because all creation is a part of God’s salvific work through Israel and Jesus Christ.

. . . . . . .

Of course, it remains to be seen if the holistic eschatological perspective will spread through the entire church and become dominant. I hope it will. If it does, Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth will surely be seen as a key text in that shift.

At the end of the reivew, Howard Snyder (one of the authors Rodney mentioned in his earlier article) posted a comment in response, saying that he was using my book in one of his courses at Asbury Seminary.

You can read the entire review (and the response comment) here.

A Farewell to the Rapture in Matthew 24? Problem Texts for Holistic Eschatology, Part 3

In a previous post I addressed 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as one of the “problem texts” that seems to contradict the idea of the renewal of creation in New Testament eschatology. Although this text is usually typically taken to teach the “rapture” of believers to heaven when Christ returns, I tried to show that it teaches no such thing.

In this post I will address the other standard proof text for the rapture in popular eschatology, namely Matthew 24:37-41 (along with its parallel in Luke 17:35-37). I hope to show that this text too has been seriously misinterpreted.

Although Brian Walsh and I addressed this misreading in The Transforming Vision (pp. 103-104), we presented only a brief analysis; there is much more that needs to be said. Indeed, it turns out that many dispensationalists agree that Matthew 24 // Luke 17 doesn’t teach the rapture. And some even doubt that it is taught anywhere in the Bible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Understanding of Matthew 24:37-41 in Popular Eschatology

In Matthew 24 (as part of the so-called Olivet discourse) Jesus explains what will happen when the Son of Man returns. According to Matthew 24:40-41: “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

Luke 17:34-35 is similar: “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.”

The common assumption of much Christian eschatology is that the one “taken” in Matthew 24 // Luke 17 is the believer, going to heaven to be with the Lord. And this is identified with the “rapture” of 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

The Importance of Reading Texts Carefully

The problem is that we do not typically read the Bible very carefully. So let us pay close attention to the comparison Jesus makes in Matthew 24.

Jesus begins by describing what life was like in the time of Noah, when people did not expect the flood. His point in verse 39 is that the people of Noah’s time “knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Note who is taken away, according to Jesus. The phrase “swept them all away” clearly describes judgment on the wicked; it was Noah and his family who were “left behind” (if we might put it so); they remained on the earth after the flood.

Thus, when Jesus introduces the eschatological equivalent to the days of Noah (in vv. 40-41), it is evident from the analogy he draws between the two events that the ones taken are the unrighteous; they are taken to judgment.

The two Greek verbs Jesus uses in Matthew 24:39-41 (airō for the time of Noah and paralambanō for the coming of the Son of Man), are translated as “swept away” and “taken” in the NRSV. They are rendered as “taken away” and “taken” in the KJV, and also in the NIV. The similarity of these verbs in the KJV and NIV should have made Jesus’ point even more obvious for those reading these translations.

The fact that so many have misread who is taken and who is left, despite such clear verbal clues (not to mention Jesus’ analogy between the flood and the eschaton), is a powerful example of how our assumptions about what a text says can predetermine what we see in the text.

Luke 17 Clarifies Where They Are “Taken”

If we doubt this interpretation of Matthew 24, we need only turn to Luke’s version of this text, for he follows the narrative of one taken and one left (in 17:34-35) with a question from the disciples in verse 37. The ask, “Where, Lord?” That is, where are they taken?

Jesus replies, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” This is clearly a reference to judgment; the image is certainly not of “heaven.”

The image Jesus alludes to is the valley of Ben-Hinnom (gai ben-hinnom or Gehenna), southwest of Jerusalem, which legend says was the city dump in the Second Temple period, used for incinerating garbage, dead animals, and executed criminals. In the Old Testament the valley of Ben-Hinnom is associated with idolatry and child sacrifice (by burning) to Baal or Molech.

We should not be surprised that those taken from the earth are being judged. After all, the same Jesus who taught about the last days in Matthew 24 proclaimed in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5).

Most Dispensationalists No Longer Think Matthew 24 Teaches the Rapture

Although Matthew 24:37-41 is often used to support the rapture in popular eschatology, it is significant that these words of Jesus are not typically appealed to by dispensationalist theologians and Bible scholars (even though the rapture is a distinctively dispensationalist doctrine).

Even Hal Lindsay’s bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, which resolutely emphasizes the rapture, never appeals to this text about being “taken” in Matthew 24 or Luke 17.

These verses are also notably absent from the discussion in both the first and second editions of Three Views of the Rapture (1984; reprint. 1996; and 2010) published by Zondervan in their Counterpoints series; indeed, when the introduction to the second edition (2010) lists texts that either explicitly or implicitly teach the rapture, Matthew 24:36-42 is not on the list.

Although early dispensationalists such as John Nelson Darby and William E. Blackstone cited this text in arguing for the rapture, as early as 1925 dispensationalists had begun to back off using it as part of their argument. And by the mid-twentieth century the majority of dispensationalists had come to the conclusion that Matthew 24:36ff. did not address the rapture at all, conceding instead that it referred to events after the tribulation.

Thus dispensationalist John F. Walvoord critiques those who use this text to support the rapture, emphatically noting: “Those taken away were taken away in judgment” (Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation: A Historical and Biblical Study of Posttribulationalism [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976], 89).

Why Do Evangelicals Think Matthew 24 is a Rapture Text?

For the popularity of the contemporary rapture interpretation of Matthew 24 // Luke 17 we need to turn to Larry Norman’s famous 1969 song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which was released on what is usually regarded as the first Christian rock album (On this Rock, Capitol Records, 1969). After evoking the Great Tribulation in verse 1, the second verse of the song is a poetic restatement of Luke 17:34 and Matthew 24:40:

A man and wife asleep in bed,/ She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone;/ I wish we’d all been ready.

Two men walking up a hill,/ One disappears and one’s left standing still;/ I wish we’d all been ready.

The song clearly understands the person who is “gone” (or who “disappears”) as having been taken to heaven. Perhaps it is significant that according to Norman, the song “talked about something I had never heard preached from a pulpit as I grew up” (Larry Norman comment from 1969).

Because of Larry Norman, many of us have since heard this preached from the pulpit—and beyond the pulpit. Indeed, the chorus (“There’s no time to change your mind,/ The Son has come and you’ve been left behind”) arguably generated the title of the Left Behind series of books and movies.

Rapture Agnosticism and the New Creation among Some Dispensationalists

Beyond even John Walvoord’s assertion that Matthew 24 // Luke 17 does not teach the rapture, it is significant that some dispensationalists no longer affirm the rapture as a doctrine at all. One such is R. Todd Mangum, who has impeccable dispensationalist credentials (a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary and recipient of the John F. Walvoord Award for outstanding work in eschatology).

Yet Magnum admits that “little good has come of dispensationalists’ emphasis on a pre-tribulational rapture up to now; there is promise for even less good to come of such emphasis in the future.” He even suggests that dispensationalists adopt a posture of “rapture agnosticism,” both because of the doctrine’s negative ethical effects (it detracts from legitimate Christian concern for the earth) and because it is not clearly taught in Scripture (Mangum, “High Hopes for 21st-Century Dispensationalism: A Response to ‘Hope and Dispensationalism: An Historical Overview and Assessment’ by Gary L. Nebeker” [paper presented to the Dispensational Study Group of the Evangelical Theological Society, Nashville, Tennessee, November 2000]).

Magnum proposes instead an “inaugurated kingdom ethic”(the kingdom of God has already begun on earth, to be consummated at Christ’s return), which is more in line with the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament

New Testament scholar Darrell Bock also emphasizes the this-worldly nature of the kingdom. In an extended study, Bock examines the biblical basis for the inaugurated kingdom of God in the midst of history, while also affirming the kingdom’s culmination not in heaven, but in “the cosmos as a whole” (Bock, “The Kingdom of God in New Testament Theology,” in Looking into the Future: Evangelical Studies in Eschatology, ed. David W. Baker [Evangelical Theological Society Studies; Baker Academic, 2001], 48).

Both Magnum and Bock fit the category of what dispensationalist theologian Craig Blaising calls “progressive dispensationalism,” a term that does not refer to “progressive” in opposition to “conservative,” but rather to an understanding of how the dispensations unfold. According to Blaising, there are three stages in the development of dispensationalism—which he names classical, revised, and progressive (Blaising, “The Extent and Varieties of Dispensationalism,” in Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism [Wheaton, Ill: Bridgepoint, 1993], 9-56).

As a representative of progressive dispensationalism, Blaising himself has articulated a clear distinction between what he calls a “spiritual vision model” of eschatological escape to heaven and the biblical “new creation model,” which “expects the earth and the cosmic order to be renewed and made everlasting through the same creating power that grants immortal and resurrection life to the saints” (Blaising, “Premellennialism,” in Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell L. Bock [Counterpoints: Exploring Theology; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999], 163).

A Farewell to the Rapture?

What’s the world coming to when dispensationalists are agnostic about the rapture? Or when they affirm the renewal of the cosmos as the goal of eschatology?

This is an important and historic shift. But more important for our purposes is that neither Matthew 24 nor 1 Thessalonians 4 teaches the future escape of believers from the earth to heaven.

And if the two most cited proof-texts for the rapture don’t support this idea, we have no good reason to think that it is any part of biblical eschatology.

Special thanks to Steven L. James (whose PhD in theology is from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) for introducing me to the literature on progressive dispensationalism.