The Relevance of an Apocalyptic Jesus

By Helen K. Bond
Senior Lecturer in New Testament Language, Literature and Theology
University of Edinburgh
February 2010

Ever since Albert Schweitzer’s devastating critique of the "Liberal" Lives, it has been assumed that one of the surest ways to guard against domesticating Jesus is to stress his apocalyptic outlook. Jesus, it is emphasised, believed in an imminent and cataclysmic appearance of God, a judgment of humanity, and the dawn of a new age. I should perhaps make it clear from the start that I am wholly persuaded by the apocalyptic Jesus; there is clearly some element of the "here and now" in Jesus' message, but he clearly expected some dramatic divine intervention in the not too distant future. My question isn’t whether Jesus held an apocalyptic outlook, but whether the apocalyptic Jesus is really as alien to modern people as once he was.

It seems to me that society, at least in Britain in the early twenty-first century, is becoming increasingly apocalyptic. I am not talking about millennial Christian groups (which do not have much of a presence in the UK), but ordinary rational men and women with little time for "organised religion" and all its trappings. The clearest manifestation of this is global warming and its attendant cluster of doomsday prophecies. Every morning, or so it seems, there is a new row about when the polar ice-cap will melt, which islands will sink into the sea, and whether geo-engineering can do anything to help. Against this background, texts like Mark 13 start to sound much less obscure. Over Christmas and New Year, six-million people in Britain tuned in to the popular TV series Dr Who, in a lengthy two-part special called "The End of the World" (luckily David Tennant averted disaster). And my tiny children, too young yet even to know that we inhabit the Earth, tell me with shining eyes what they can do to save the planet.

Against this background, a non-apocalyptic Jesus sounds oddly complacent, stuck in an 80s time warp, when the only thing to rail about was conspicuous consumption and social inequalities. Of course, these things are important, and I don’t doubt that Jesus had something to say on the matter, but in a modern context these reconstructions seem to lack an important dimension. There is no point in teaching others to fiddle a better tune if Rome is about to burn all around you.

Clearly, decisions on (the degree of) Jesus' apocalypticism need to be taken on the basis of detailed analysis of the texts and their transmission. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that an apocalyptic Jesus guaranteed a certain level of historicity, that its alien quality assured against a projection of the researcher’s own presuppositions. The apocalyptic Jesus is no longer "other" and remote, but ethically aware, in touch with the planet, and right on trend. Preaching imminent cataclysmic disaster is no longer a sign of weirdness, but a sane response to scientific research. Rather than a misguided fanatic irretrievably stuck in the first century, Jesus starts to sound rather modern. If any Jesus can save the world in the early twenty-first century, it is surely the apocalyptic Jesus.

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