In my post on Marcus Borg’s view of Jesus and eschatology, I asserted that if Jesus did expect an imminent supernatural in-breaking of some sort, then he was wrong, a conclusion that would disconcert many Christians.
This might have been too categorical of a statement. In his book The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, historian Dale Allison offers one way of addressing the issue.
Allison’s book is an attempt to draw out some of the theological implications of his study of the historical Jesus. Unlike Borg, et al., Allison thinks that Jesus was a “milleniarian prophet” who expected some kind of eschatological event in the near future. (See pp. 92-95 of The Historical Christ for a summary of the evidence that leads Allison to affirm this conclusion.) Allison pointedly summarizes the issue:
It is not just that, as Matt. 24:36 = Mark 13:32 says, the Son had no knowledge of precisely when the end would come. It is rather that the Son expected and encouraged others to expect that all would wrap up soon, and yet run-of-the-mill history remains with us: Satan still goes to and fro upon the earth. (p. 96)
So it would seem that, if Allison is right, Jesus was wrong about the coming of the Kingdom. What does this mean for us?
Allison suggests that our
widespread dismay arises in part…from a failure to comprehend fully that eschatological language does not give us a preview of coming events but is rather, as the study of comparative religion teaches us, religious hope in mythological dress. Narratives about the unborn future are fictions, in the same way that narratives about the creation of the world are fictions. (p. 97)
Just as we don’t have to suppose that the creation narratives of Genesis happened “once upon a time” for them to have existential and theological meaning, we don’t have to see the eschatological language of the Bible as referring to historical events that will happen in the future (whether near or distant).
Rather, the language and symbols of eschatology point to God’s trans-historical consummation of all things beyond the reach of suffering, death, and decay and can act as a critique of the unjust and inequitable status quo as it falls short of God’s will.
Allison is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean that Jesus or his followers saw eschatological language in this way. It may well be they meant it “literally.” However, he also notes that there is a process of “de-mythologization” (even if not necessarily fully explicit) within the New Testament itself. For example, the eschatology of John’s gospel has often been described as a “realized” eschatology that downplays the apocalypticism of the synoptics.
The point here is that, even if Jesus was wrong about not only the date of the eschaton but also the nature of the language he used to refer to it, we needn’t see that language as lacking a referent. It refers to the intersection–equally possible at every historical moment, but more palpably felt in some–of the transcendent and the mundane and the promise that God will redeem the evils and sufferings of this world.