For my write-up today on Lee Harmon’s John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, I’ll use as my starting-point something that I wrote in a post a while back, when I was blogging through volume 4 of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. I was talking about the issue of realized eschatology, and what I said referred to an example of what that means. I said:
“I enjoyed Meier’s discussion of the Gospel of John. The way Meier tells it, the Gospel of John differed from the synoptics on the issue of the coming of the Son of Man…The synoptics thought that the Son of Man would come in the future as a judge, after the resurrection of Jesus Christ…In the Gospel of John, however, the belief is that the coming of the Son of Man occurred at Jesus’ first coming, which is why John has a realized eschatology in which Jesus is acting as judge while he is on earth, and people are judged already according to how they view Jesus…Meier may be on to something, but I don’t treat his description as absolute…[T]he Gospel of John contains a concept of futurist eschatology, not just present judgment (John 5:28-29; 6:40).”
Realized eschatology has been a prominent theme in my reading thus far of Lee’s book, and I’m sure that it will be prominent in the rest of the book, as well. Lee, like many scholars, maintains that the Gospel of John has a realized eschatology. Eternal life is something that people can enjoy now, for “It is to be lifted up above this base existence into the joy and peace that belong to God” (page 77), an idea that overlaps with things that the first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria affirmed. Today, Ezekiel’s promises that people would be washed in the Spirit and that Israel would be resurrected are being fulfilled, as people are “created anew” and are “embracing the meaning of life intended by God” (page 70). The promise that God will dwell in people’s midst has been fulfilled in the incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ. People were judged already while Jesus was on earth, based on their view of Jesus. And the new Temple and new Jerusalem are present now, as the Spirit dwells within a church that consists of Jews and Gentiles, who fellowship with God and with each other.
But what about the passage that I cited in my post—-John 5:28-29, which affirms that there will come a resurrection, as those who did good deeds are resurrected unto life, whereas those who did evil deeds are resurrected unto judgment? Lee states on page 113:
“Does Jesus teach realized eschatology, future eschatology, or some combination of the two? Verses 28 and 29 appear to undermine the rest of the Gospel’s teachings, particularly its this-worldly life just promised in [John 5:26-27], so much so that some scholars conclude verses 28-29 must be a later addition…But is it possible that no contradiction exists at all…? Put another way, how quickly does Jesus’ proclamation of the future (‘an hour is coming’) become John’s past (‘and now is’)? At the hour of Jesus’ death? At his Resurrection?” Lee appears to be arguing that John could have envisioned John 5:28-29 being realized at Jesus’ death or resurrection. Jesus’ death is important in John’s Gospel, according to Lee. On pages 56-57, Lee says that, when Jesus tells his mother in John 2:4 that his hour is not yet come, he means Jesus’ “appointed death”, which is when Jesus is glorified and victorious over the world and is a prerequisite for the rebuilding of the Temple.
According to Lee, even Paul, Matthew, and other Christians who had a futurist eschatology maintained that, in a sense, eschatological promises were being realized in their own time. Paul, according to Lee, believed that Jesus’ resurrection indicated that “the general resurrection has begun, and the new age is upon us” (page 78). Lee says regarding I Corinthians 15, particularly the verse that says, “if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised”: “Try to rid your mind of the misconception that Paul argues for a future resurrection. He does not say ‘if you do not believe the dead will someday rise‘ but rather ‘if you do not believe the dead are raised.'” But did Paul lack a futurist eschatology? I do not entirely know how Lee addresses this question, but one can point to such things as Paul’s references to the Second Coming of Christ (I Thessalonians 4) and the renewal of the cosmos (Romans 8) to argue that Paul indeed had a futurist eschatology. But he may have believed that the end was near because, already in his time, an eschatological fulfillment of promises was occurring, and in some cases had occurred.
Regarding Matthew, Matthew in Lee’s book for some time agreed with John the Revelator’s view that Christ would soon return and overthrow evil, and yet, as John reminds Matthew, even Matthew presented graves being opened and people rising from the dead soon after Jesus’ death and resurrection (Matthew 27:51-53), and Matthew in Lee’s book regarded that as a fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy about the opening of graves (Ezekiel 37). Perhaps Matthew had both a realized and also a futurist eschatology: he believed that eschatological promises were being fulfilled, and yet he anticipated a fuller fulfillment.
My impression is that Lee and many biblical scholars believe that John took realized eschatology further, to the point that it eclipsed or even supplanted any futurist eschatology. On pages 94-95, the character Ruth says something that’s quite intriguing: “When John dies, everything will change. He is the final apostle, the last living person to have walked with Jesus. And Jesus hinted that John would live to see him return. Once John dies, we can get on with being Christians, no longer peering up at the clouds, waiting for the Messiah to light up the skies. Our appointed deacons can finally exercise their authority without John’s overbearing presence. Those who have lost heart can finally let go.” In a sense, the picture I get is that a realized eschatology—-one that focuses on the here-and-now rather than eagerly expecting for a cataclysmic end to come from right around the corner—-is necessary for people to heal from their disappointed hopes, and for the church to be the church.
The question that I have is this: What hope does a realized eschatology actually provide? If this is all there is, then that’s pretty sad! Moreover, if Jesus through the incarnation fulfilled the promise that God would dwell among us, where does that leave us now, when God is no longer incarnate among us? Perhaps that’s why Jesus’ promise in John’s Gospel about sending the Spirit is so important.
I one time took a Greek New Testament class on the Gospel of John, and the professor said that John believed in an afterlife, only he envisioned Christians going to heaven right after their physical death. I have questions about that. First of all, would that count as a resurrection, since the soul leaving the body has been argued to be different from a resurrection (at least according to N.T. Wright)? Second, what exactly did Jesus bring that was new? Wasn’t there already a belief that souls would go to heaven—-by Philo and others within Second Temple Judaism? Perhaps Jesus moved the afterlife for the righteous into heaven, whereas before that all souls went to Hades, according to a certain strand of thought.