I have three items for my write-up today on Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World, by Ben Witherington III.
1. I Thessalonians 4:16-17 states the following (in the King James Version): “(16) For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
(17) Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
Witherington does not think that this verse is about a pretribulational rapture, in which Christians will be raptured up to heaven soon before the Great Tribulation. Actually, for Witherington, Paul believes that he and other Christians are already experiencing “the messianic woes that precede the end of history” (page 158; Witherington cites such passages as Romans 1:18; 8:18; I Thessalonians 3:4; I Corinthians 7:26; and Colossians 1:24), which means that Paul (like certain other Jewish writers) may have thought that he was in the midst of the great tribulation! Rather, Witherington argues that Paul in I Thessalonians 4:16-17 is saying that the saints will meet Christ in the air at the parousia, then they will escort Christ down to earth. According to Witherington, this reflects what happened when kings visited a city in the Greco-Roman period. There were times when a herald would announce with a trumpet and a shout that the king was coming, and a greeting committee would go out and escort the king to the city.
I think that Witherington’s interpretation of I Thessalonians 4:16-17 is sound. But his view that Paul could have believed that he and other Christians were suffering the Great Tribulation is hard to reconcile, in my view, with his argument that Paul did not hold that the end of the world was necessarily imminent. Do not the birth pangs of the end indicate that the end is near? Was the Tribulation seriously supposed to last over two millennia?
(UPDATE: But can the language of imminence be used to describe an event that will not occur immediately? Witherington on page 162 talks about writings that use the language of imminence, yet they contain “periodization or calculations”.)
I thought that something Witherington says on page 177 was interesting: “Paul is referring to dead and living Christians being gathered together to meet the Lord, while Jesus may have been referring to elect Jews in the Dispersion.” Jesus, for Witherington, had more of a focus on God gathering the dispersed Christian Jews (if I’m interpreting “elect Jews in the Dispersion” correctly). This makes a degree of sense. In Matthew 24:31, Jesus talks about angels gathering the elect from one end of heaven to another (to draw from the KJV). In Deuteronomy 30:4, God tells Israel that he will gather even those Israelites who have been driven to the utmost parts of heaven. Some interpret Matthew 24:31 as supporting a rapture, but it appears to concern gathering people who are on earth, not in heaven. Perhaps Jesus regards those people as Israelites, the topic of Deuteronomy 30:4.
2. II Thessalonians 2:3-4, 7-9 states (again, in the KJV):
“(3) Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; (4) Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God…(7) For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. (8) And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: (9) Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders…”
As the Kingdom of God is already-and-not-yet, Witherington notes that the mystery of lawlessness is already-and-not-yet. For Witherington, Paul (and Witherington does think that Paul wrote II Thessalonians) believes that the mystery of lawlessness is already present and may be “associated with the suffering of the messianic woes [that] is already happening” (page 163). But there is yet to come an apostasy, which Witherington says “can mean political rebellion or religious apostasy and here may convey some of both ideas” (page 162), and also a man of sin who will enter the Temple proclaiming to be god. Witherington says that we do not entirely know what Paul had in mind when he talked about the man of sin, but Witherington does refer to things that may have been in Paul’s mind: stories about a pagan god entering a temple, Antiochus Epiphanes desecrating the Temple, and Gaius Caligula having “his statue set up in the Jerusalem temple in order to assert his claims of divinity in A.D. 40” (page 161). Paul does not identify these things with the man of sin, for these things were part of the past or present, whereas Paul was clear that the man of sin would come in the future. But Paul may have thought that these events demonstrated the likelihood of someone like the man of sin arising and desecrating the Temple.
3. I Corinthians 15 is about the resurrection from the dead. Witherington does not think that Paul is addressing Christians who do not believe in the resurrection at all, for Witherington notes that Paul calls them brothers (which means that they accepted a crucial element of Christian doctrine such as the resurrection) and reminds them that they already believe in the resurrection. But Witherington maintains that Paul is seeking to “correct an overly spiritual and an overrealized view of resurrection” (page 190). When Paul refers to a spiritual resurrection body and contrasts that with a soulish body, Witherington contends, Paul is not saying that the resurrection body will be composed of spirit. Rather, for Witherington, Paul is contrasting our current bodies, which are alive on account of our souls, with the resurrection body, which will be sustained and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit.
I have two problems with Witherington’s argument. First, if Paul were trying to correct a spiritual view of resurrection, Paul did not help himself by referring to spiritual bodies and to Jesus as a life-giving Spirit, or by saying that flesh and blood will not enter the Kingdom. I realize the Witherington has certain interpretations of these passages, but I think that Paul would have emphasized the physical nature of the resurrection had he been contending against an over-spiritual view. Second, I wonder how Witherington interprets I Corinthians 15:45, which says that Christ became a life-giving spirit. That appears to me to say that Christ is a spirit, not that his resurrection body is empowered by the Holy Spirit. And remember that Paul draws a parallel between Christ’s resurrection and that of believers. Witherington may address this question, but I am only commenting based on my latest reading.