God’s relationship with the world

The Lord sustains the whole cosmos and everything in it at every moment. The writer to the Hebrews makes this clear:
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3). All that happens could not take place without him sustaining what causes it. Hence the prophets can say God performs all judgments in his wrath. But that is omitting reference to secondary causes, which is particularly the case in the Old Testament. He has given free will, desires and a sense of need to human beings which can lead to wrong action and negative consequences. Those consequences can be seen as judgment but they are not God directly intervening in judgment.

Not all divine judgment is by means of secondary causes. God has, of course, sometimes intervened directly in judgment. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) is surely an example of this.

God also intervenes positively, often in answer to prayer. He can intervene to protect people from negative events which threaten them. In his great mercy he often intervenes to protect the impenitent sinner from the negative effects of his sin. On the other hand, where someone is an impenitent sinner, he can decide not to intervene and so such people experience either the negative results of their behaviour or the negative events which threaten them. They bring it on themselves but it can be described as divine judgment because the Lord decided not to intervene in protection.

So God often works through “the changes and chances of this mortal life” – sometimes in judgment. Here are some examples:

• The sons of Eli were living sinful lifestyles and their father rebuked them. But they “did not listen to their father’s rebuke for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death” (1Sam 2:25). In other words, God decided not to intervene to protect Eli’s sons in battle and they were both killed.

• Amos says the Lord caused lack of food in Israel and withheld rain from crops. He struck the gardens and vineyards, with blight and mildew. He also sent plagues (Amos 4:6-10). It is unlikely that God did this by direct intervention. Rather, he simply did not intervene to protect them from these problems and provide for them.

• The Lord is said to have put Saul to death (1 Chron 10:14) But it was the Philistines who actually carried it out. Literally, “Saul died because he disobeyed God. God removed his protection from him.”

• Amaziah, King of Judah, wouldn’t listen to a prophet warning him against going to war and so he was defeated in battle. The writer comments “Amaziah, however, would not listen, for God so worked that he might deliver them into the hands of Jehoash, because they sought the gods of Edom” (2 Chron 25:20). Literally, because of Amaziah’s persistent idolatry God didn’t intervene to convince him of the truth of the prophet’s warning. Events took their course.

• Isaiah speaks of the Lord’s “work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem” (Isa 10:12). But he goes on to say that Assyria was an instrument in God’s hand (i.e. God allowed Assyria to conquer) and would be judged for arrogantly thinking it had conquered by its own power (Isaiah 10:24-25). God allows Assyria’s selfish, violent expansionism to punish Israel but then he punishes Assyria for it’s wrong attitudes towards his people, namely the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians. God worked through the military action of these powers.

• Jeremiah quotes the Lord speaking of himself carrying out the actions of Babylon – actions which would normally be carried out when a dominant superpower invades a country. He works through ordinary human events (Jeremiah 27:6-11). Similarly Jeremiah speaks of Nebuchadnezzar carrying Judah into exile (29:1) but then says God carried Judah into exile (29:4, 7, 14). So God uses the selfishness, pride and violence of human beings in his purposes but they are still free in their decisions and responsible for their actions. Jeremiah says God will respond to national repentance by averting destruction (Jeremiah 18:7-10). This must mean that when there is repentance God restricts human evil and selfishness and demonic activity but often allows them in cases of no repentance. Human selfishness and evil and demonic activity is widespread bringing trouble and suffering to others. God does not literally need to bring that trouble and suffering but simply not to restrict and hold it back.

• Paul said that “God gave [the Jewish people] a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear,
to this very day.” Actually it is Satan, the God of this world, who blinds the mind of unbelievers. God simply didn’t intervene with many of them to bring them to faith.

How do we recognise God’s judgement in action today?

We need to be careful in concluding that some event is an example of God’s judgment, not least because God is very merciful, even towards persistent sinners. We can follow the approach taken in Scripture briefly outlined above, namely, recognising that God does judge people by not intervening to protect them from the results of their actions or “the changes and chances of this mortal life.”

If someone persists in wrong or unwise behaviour they may reap the result of that behaviour. This may simply be the natural result or, for example, human punishment of bad behaviour. On an analogy with Scripture, this could sometimes be seen as divine judgment. It could be in the sense that the person is reaping the result of flouting rules which God has written into creation, e.g. health rules. We often half-jokingly say when someone reaps a negative result from wrong behaviour “That’s judgment on you.” Or it may be in the sense that humans (police, law courts) are enforcing the law which is based on God’s order for society. Paul refers to this in Romans 13:1-5
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

The New Testament specifies various failings which will lead to judgement. In many of them it is not clear if it refers to judgment in this life or after death. The following are specified as leading to judgment: selfish anger (Matt 5:22), judgmentalism (Matt 7:1-2), rejecting the Gospel (Matt 10:15; John 12:48), careless words (Matt 12:36), hypocrisy (Matt 23:13; Rom 2:1-5), sexual immorality (heterosexual and homosexual), idolatry, greed, drunkenness, slander, swindling, idolatry, stealing (1 Cor 6:9-10), witchcraft, hatred, discord, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy (Gal 5:19-21, Eph 5:5-6) ungodly church leaders (1 Tim 3:5-7), grumbling (James 5:9), going back on commitment to Christ (1 Tim 5:11-12).

However there are two passages which clearly speak of judgment in this life. Paul teaches that taking Communion unworthily can lead to sickness or even death (1 Cor 11:29-34). Pauls writes: “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.” This “judgment” is divine discipline which is intended to have a beneficial effect on the believer.

Both Paul and Peter teach that judgment sometimes takes the form of the undeserved suffering of believers which can build them up (2 Thess 1:4-7; 1 Peter 4:16-18). Paul writes: “among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well.” Again this is divine discipline which strengthens them as they endure it in faith.

Peter writes: “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Again this “judgment” is divine discipline.

So we may recognise God’s judgment on the church. Many churches don’t really pray (beyond brief prayers at services), don’t preach the Gospel in any effective way and don’t seek to put into practice the New Testament teaching on the church. The result is decline. The church has sometimes not handled the tragic issue of sexual abuse properly. The result is scandal. The House of Bishops seems to be “generally speaking, generally speaking” over the issue of homosexual partnerships/marriage. The result is that society ignores the church. And so it goes on.

We may also recognised God’s judgment on the world when human failing leads to negative consequences. This will include such things as:
• Self-seeking politics and military action leading to:
o War
o Terrorism
o Oppressive regimes
• Irresponsible attitude towards creation leading to:
o Global warming
o Other ecological disasters.
• Turning away from Christianity leading to
o Breakdown of biblically-based morality.
o Increasingly dominant influence of Islam
• Immoral, irresponsible behaviour, including sexual behaviour, which causes:
o Disease
o Epidemics
o Pandemics
• Sexual immorality leading to:
o Undermining of marriage
o Breakdown of the family
o Harm to children

Of course, these negative consequences spread to many innocent people.

It is more difficult to speak of God’s judgment when it involves natural disasters: earthquakes, volcanos, floods, tsunamis, tornados, meteor/asteroid impacts. These are all natural events inherent to nature as we know it. Jesus speaks of earthquakes and disturbances in the heavens as signs pointing to his return but he does not say they are judgments. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which may have been caused by an earthquake, is, of course, seen as judgment, as is the Flood, so it is not illegitimate in principle to see natural disasters as judgment. But it surely requires a clear word from the Lord to recognise a particular natural disaster as judgment.

Judgment and Compassion

How do we reconcile the idea of God’s judgment (especially affecting innocent people) with divine compassion? There are various considerations:

1. God “judges” even faithful believers through suffering and persecution (2 Thess 1:4-7; 1 Peter 4:16-18) so no-one, even an innocent person, is immune from experiencing such “judgment.” All human beings are vulnerable to suffering but God seeks to build up character, faith and perseverance through suffering. His grace is therefore available to all innocent sufferers. We too must be available to innocent sufferers to give help and support.

2. God is merciful even to those who deserve judgment. We must be too. We should not limit our compassion to innocent sufferers. The guilty may be brought to repentance through our kindness. On the other hand, the very judgment they experience may help bring them to repentance.

3. We believe in a God who became incarnate to experience the worst human suffering in order to show his love and to bring us salvation. So even God, in his perfection, is not immune to suffering. Suffering is an inevitable part of human life.

Matt 4:17 “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus was a teacher but he didn’t just come to give a series of lectures or to tell religious stories. Jesus was a healer but he didn’t just come on a healing campaign. Jesus was the baptiser in the Holy Spirit but he didn’t just come to give people exciting experiences. Jesus was a founder of the church but he didn’t come just to encourage people to be religious. No, primarily his message was that the rule of God had drawn near in his presence. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17). His rule is an everlasting rule (Dan 7:27) of righteousness, justice and peace to be established over the whole earth (Isa 32:1; Mic 5:2; Zech 9:10; Rom 15:12). So Jesus’ message was an eschatological message of his coming rule on earth. He was and is calling individuals to submit to that divine rule now and we need to proclaim the same message. What we see of the rule of God now is a foretaste of what we shall see in the future.

Matt 2:4-6 “When [Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: ‘“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’

Matthew, quoting Micah 5:2, is predicting that, as messiah, Jesus will restore the kingdom of David. He will rule over Israel. We don’t see that happening yet. That is the ‘high peak’ of the fulfilment of prophecy. But, as is common in climbing a mountain, a nearer peak obscured a valley between it and the high peak. In other words, Micah saw the two peaks: the first was the coming of messiah and the second his ruling over Israel. We now live in the ‘valley’ between the two. The Lord has redeemed us through the cross and resurrection but soon we shall reach the ‘high peak’ when Jesus returns.

 

We have noted the “Now and the Not Yet” of biblical prophecy. This speaks of lesser and greater fulfilments of prophecy.

We have also noted that early in Holy Week Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple (which was brought about by the Romans 40 years later in AD70). But he also prophesied the End Times and urged his disciples to look out for both early (recurring) and later signs of his Return (see Matthew 24). We then quoted various scholars who agree with this interpretation. 

 

Jesus’ prophecies here are typical of biblical prophecy:

·         Prophecy can have an early and a later fulfillment.

·         Prophecy can “concertina” future events widely separated in time to appear close together.

 

There are other examples of the dual reference of biblical prophecy:

 

1.      Joel 2:28-3:2 is seen as a prediction of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2: “And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”  But the prophecy goes on beyond the Day of Pentecost to the future day of the Lord: “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls ‘In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will put them on trial for what they did to my inheritance, my people Israel, because they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land.”

 

2.      Sometimes people, events or statements in the Old Testament are seen as symbolizing and prefiguring Jesus, and events in the New Testament. Traditionally the Old Testament symbol or prefiguring has been called a “type” and the New Testament equivalent the “antitype”. So Jesus sees Jonah as a “type” of himself and his death and resurrection: “He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt 12:39-42).

 

3.      A similar approach is described in the IVP NT Commentary series, referring to Jesus on the Mount of Olives speaking of both AD70 and the still future End of the Age in Luke 21. It refers to how divine history was read by the Jews, as well as by the prophets in the 1st century AD.

“The belief was that God’s judgment followed certain patterns. How he judged in one era resembled how he would judge in another. Because God’s character was unchanging and because he controlled history, such patterns could be noted. Thus deliverance in any era was compared to the exodus. One event mirrored another. Exilic judgments, whether Assyrian or Babylonian, were described in similar terms. This ‘mirror’ or ‘pattern’ interpretation of history has been called a typological-prophetic reading of the text, with the ‘type’ reflecting a basic pattern in God’s activity. This way of reading history sees events as linked and mirroring one another. Sometimes the events are described in such a way that we modern readers would not readily notice that distinct events are being discussed. Sometimes a text offers clarifying reflection after more events detailing God’s program have been revealed.

Jesus’ eschatological discourse links together two such events, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the events of the end signaling his return to earth. Because the events are patterned after one another and mirror one another, some of Jesus’ language applies to both.”[i]

 

However, some scholars are critical of the idea of the dual reference of biblical prophecy. Some of this has been focused on Isa 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”  This was an immediate historical reference. King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel had attacked Jerusalem and the Lord spoke to King Ahaz of Judah through Isaiah, urging him to seek a sign that he (the Lord) would protect him. But Ahaz refused ‘to put the Lord to the test.’ Isaiah said this refusal was trying the patience of God and the Lord would give him a sign. Such a sign would be fulfilled within a year or two. The word “virgin” could be translated “young woman” and the name Immanuel could be another name for Isaiah’s son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, whose birth is recorded in Isaiah 8:3, see 8:8.

 

Matthew understands Isa 7:14 as predicting the virgin birth of Jesus: “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matt 1:22-23).

Some scholars say this is not a second fulfilment but it is Matthew using Isa 7:14 as a parallel, an association of ideas. This would have been quite an acceptable thing to do in Matthew’s day. The same could be said of 1 Cor 14:21 “In the Law it is written: ‘With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’”  Paul is, of course, referring to speaking in tongues and he is quoting Isa 28:11-12. But Isaiah is saying God will “speak” to rebellious Israel through the Assyrians, i.e. through an invasion by Assyria. It does not seem likely that Isaiah had in mind what the New Testament calls ‘speaking in tongues.’

Andrew Perriman writes about Jesus reference in Matthew 24 back to the prophet Daniel (for example Matthew 24:30 and Daniel 7:13) and says this is not a case of two fulfilments but “that Jesus would have understood perfectly well the original historical frame of reference [in Daniel’s day] but intentionally re-uses the symbolism to interpret an analogous state of affairs [in the 1st century AD] …. Jesus, therefore, does what prophets often do: they retell biblical stories and arguments in a new context in order to give faithful but troubled Israel understanding and hope …. He saw the historical relevance of the analogy and creatively retold Israel’s story, centred on himself, in light of it. That cannot be understood to mean that Daniel 7-12 intrinsically has two fulfilments. Nor does it mean that we can take any prophecy willy-nilly and claim that whatever relevance it may have had under the particular historical conditions of the first three centuries, it still has relevance for the church today. That cannot be ruled out, but it must be done with prophetic and scriptural discrimination.[ii]

Perriman believes that Matthew 24 refers only to the AD30-70 period which, as I have already said, I believe to be a mistaken view. However he does allow for biblical prophecies to have “relevance to the church today” so long as the relevance is worked out “with prophetic and scriptural discrimination.”

 

Professor John Walton[iii] makes some interesting comments. He is quite clear that, strictly from the point of view of language, there is no strong argument for understanding the Hebrew word in Isa 7:14 as “virgin.” He goes on to point out that in ancient Israel prophecy, as a word from God, was regarded as not just predicting a future event but as having an important effect on the future. This effect would not necessarily be foreseen by the prophet. It would develop as time progressed. So Isaiah wouldn’t necessarily have foreseen the virgin birth and the child who really was “God with us” but he would have been quite happy with Matthew’s use of his prophecy. Isaiah would have expected that the fulfilment of his prophecy might have developed

Peter speaks of this – Old Testament prophets expecting a major future fulfilment but not knowing what it would be. He was referring primarily to prophecies like Isaiah 53. Peter writes: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:10-12).

However, it must be borne in mind that the New Testament writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit to interpret the Old Testament prophecies as they did. We must be very careful if we do the same because we don’t have that special inspiration.

A good number of scholars do accept the dual fulfilment of prophecy. Professor R V G Tasker, speaking of the Virgin Birth, says Matthew “is led to see in it a fulfilment of the words spoken by God through His prophet and recorded in Isaiah vii. 14. …. this prophecy was in fact more far-reaching than the prophet himself was aware.” It was not limited to the historical fulfilment in the 8th century BC.[iv] Professor Herman Ridderbos says Isaiah was not speaking of a miraculous birth but that nevertheless the prophecy obtained its essential fulfilment in Christ.

 

Commenting on Ridderbos, Professor G C Berkouwer wrote: “Thus the event in Mathew 1 (this birth) is not simply a “coming true” of an earlier prediction but a fulfillment which, on the one hand, is related to the faith in Ahaz’ day and with the name “Immanuel.”[v]

Speaking of the Book of Revelation, Professor Robert Mounce writes: “The predictions of John, while expressed in terms reflecting his own culture, will find their final and complete fulfillment in the last days of history. Although John saw the Roman Empire as the great beast that threatened the extinction of the church, there will be in the last days an eschatological beast who will sustain the same relationship with the church of the great tribulation. It is this eschatological beast, portrayed in type by Rome, that the Apocalypse describes. Otto Piper notes that many modern interpreters overlook the distinction between the historical fulfillment of prophecy and its eschatological fulfillment. The pattern of imperceptible transition from type to antitype was already established by the Olivet Discourse, in which the fall of Jerusalem becomes in its complete fulfillment the end of the age.”[vi]

 

It seems quite acceptable to believe in the dual fulfilment of biblical prophecy whilst accepting that the Old Testament prophets did not necessarily have the second (main) fulfilment in mind, even though they may have been “trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing.” However the New Testament writers, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recognised the second fulfilment. The same thing applies to New Testament prophecies. The writers made predictions which sometimes referred to 1st century events and did not necessarily have a second major fulfilment in mind. Similarly Jesus made predictions which his hearers may have applied only to 1st century events. But it is clear that some of these predictions do have a second major fulfilment which is still future. We have to be careful, though, in seeking a correct understanding of these predictions.



[ii] Andrew Perriman, How many times is a prophecy fulfilled? http://www.postost.net/2010/10/how-many-times-prophecy-fulfilled

[iii] John H Walton, Isa 7:14: What’s in a name? Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, (September 1987) 289-306,  http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/30/30-3/30-3-pp289-306_JETS.pdf

[iv] R V G Tasker, The Gospel according to Matthew, Tyndale, London, 1961, p. 34.

[v] G C Berkouwer, The Work of Christ, Studies in Dogmatics Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1965, p. 115

[vi] Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, New International Commentary on the NT, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1977, p. 44f

 

I have recently defended my understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the signs of the End Times in Matthew 24, including by quoting various scholars. Here is an outline of Jesus’ teaching (plus a little from Paul and Revelation):

 

We might call the preliminary signs “Reminders of the End” because they are repeated and Jesus said when we see them “The End is not yet.” However they can and should remind us that the End is coming. Obviously when they occur, our first concern should be to pray and show compassion for those adversely affected by the occurrences.

       I.            THE PRELIMINARY (REPEATED) SIGNS (OR REMINDERS OF THE END)

                Wars, uprisings (Matt 24:6-18)

                Famines (Matt 24:6-18)

                Earthquakes (Matt 24:6-18)

                Pestilences (Luke 21:11)

    II.            THE INTERMEDIATE SIGNS

Persecution (Mt 24:9ff)

Turning away from the faith (Mt 24:10)

False prophets and messiahs (Mt 24:11, 24)

Worldwide evangelism (Mt 24:14)

 

 III.            THE IMMINENT SIGNS

Cosmic disturbances (Mt 24:29)

The Jewish people regaining control of Jerusalem (Lk 21:24).

The rebellion and deceptive ‘signs and wonders’ of the man of lawlessness (Antichrist) who proclaims himself to be God (2 Thess 2:1-12)

The sudden financial collapse of the world system (‘Babylon’) (Rev 18)

 

As you may know, I have written an important article on all this, entitled “Can we ignore what the New Testament says about signs of Jesus’ return?” which is available at http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/CanWeIgnoreSingsOfJesusReturn.pdf. It is a quite long article, so I plan to summarise it on Facebook for the benefit of those who might find that helpful. This will be my policy, to put articles on the blog and summaries on Facebook.

However, from time to time I will comment on current events relating them to the signs of the End, because that is what Jesus encouraged us to do. The first one is now written and I will add a description of it very soon.

 

The purpose of this paper is to show that there is a good deal of scholarly opinion that in Matthew 24 (and Mark 13, Luke 21) Jesus is referring to the signs pointing towards his Second Coming, as well as to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.

There are three main views about these chapters:

 

1.      Jesus was only speaking about the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70.

 

2.      Jesus was only speaking about the signs of the return of Christ.

 

3.      Jesus was speaking about both.

 

In my paper on “Can we ignore what the New Testament says about signs of Jesus’ return?” (see

http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/CanWeIgnoreSingsOfJesusReturn.pdf ) I added an appendix critiquing the views of N T Wright.  He claims that these chapters which have long been understood as referring to a still future return of Jesus in glory actually refer to the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem

and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

 

In my paper “Which aspects of the teaching of Jesus on the Mt of Olives refer to the Second Coming?” (see http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/blog/?p=349#_edn1) I refer to the views of Dick France. He and others interpret “the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” as a reference to Daniel 7:13-14 in which Jesus is not referring to his return to earth but as “coming to God to receive vindication and authority.”[1] They interpret “all the peoples of the earth” mourning when they see the Son of man returning as “all the tribes of the land” (i.e. Israel) mourning at the events of AD70. They see the angels gathering the elect as the worldwide growth of the church after AD70 and the kingdom being preached to all nations as meaning only those nations known and reached between AD30 and AD70.

 

I give my reasons for rejecting interpretations 1. and 2. above and for believing that Jesus is speaking both about AD70 and about his future return in my two papers. Then I came across a paper I wrote some 20 years ago which recorded a fair amount of scholarly opinion on the matter and which I have updated. I include this material below as an appendix to the above papers. These scholars may differ on their interpretation of various aspects of the Olivet discourse but they do relate the passage to the events leading to the Return of Christ as well as to those of AD70.

Professors W D Davies and D C Allison in the International Critical Commentary on Matthew write that they are “unpersuaded” by Dick France that Matthew 24 is only about the events around AD70.[2]

They write: “

“Our own view holds that w. 4ff. are a depiction of the entire post-Easter period, interpreted in terms of the messianic woes.21 This means that the discourse, which freely mixes experience with topoi [literary conventions], concerns the past, the present, and the future. What has happened will continue to happen and only get worse: ‘the mystery of lawlessness is already at work’ (2 Thess 2.7). Whether the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 is directly referred to in vv 15ff. or is instead indirectly included in the tribulations of vv. 15ff. we are uncertain. But if the former, AD 70 does not exhaust the significance of vv. 5ff, which plainly envisage eschatological events to come. So the answer to the disciples’ two-part question in v. 3 is this: the temple will be destroyed during the tribulation of the latter days, which runs from the first advent to the second; and after that tribulation the end—whose date cannot be known—will come.”[3]

 

Professor Leon Morris says:

“There is a problem for the student in that sometimes what Jesus says refers to the coming judgment on Jerusalem, a judgment that was consummated in the destruction of the city in A.D. 70, and sometimes what he is saying refers to the judgment at the end of the age.We may well argue that there is a theological unity between the two judgments, and that some of what Jesus says could apply equally well to both.”[4]

 

He adds:

Some commentators take the whole discourse to refer to a single judgment. They hold that Jesus confidently expected his return within a comparatively few years and that there would be a judgment on Jerusalem as part of the judgment of the whole world. But the language used is against this. Far from promoting speculations that he would soon return in glory, Jesus seems to be discouraging this kind of thing (cf. vv. 6,8,14, and 23-28). And we should not overlook the important fact that he said quite plainly that he did not know the date of his coming back (v. 36). If he did not know it, how could he say confidently that it would occur within a few years?”[5]

Professor F D Bruner writes:

“The emphasis in Matthew’s version of the sermon is certainly on the end of the world, but the destruction of Jerusalem is everywhere that end’s classic precursor. Thus Jesus’ sermon about current events, especially the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, becomes a window through which to see Jesus’ view of end events, especially the coming of the Son of Man … The destruction of Jerusalem was the prototype of the end of the world … we most profitable read Matthew’s sermon when we read it in this irridescent way, seeing both Jerusalem’s end and Jesus’ coming in most texts, not always being sure which of the two events is meant …”[6]

Professor Robert Mounce says:

“It is helpful to remember that apocalyptic literature is a genre that does not share our Western concern for orderly continuity. If we allow Matthew the freedom to enlarge on a specific discourse delivered by Jesus by adding material from other settings, we are not at all surprised to find the chapter as fluid as it appears. It is not uncommon for prophetic material to move between type and antitype without calling attention to exactly what is happening. Predictions of the future were of necessity couched in language taken from the prophet’s own setting.”[7]

 

He adds: “Biblical prophecy is capable of multiple fulfillment.”[8]

Professor Douglas Hare writes of Matthew 24:

“….it speaks of a series of future events climaxing in the arrival of Jesus in glory…..”[9]

 

He adds that the prediction of the destruction of the temple

provides the basis for the apocalyptic discourse, which addresses two fundamental concerns of early Christians: When will Jesus come in glory, and what are we to do in the meantime? The structure, accordingly, is relatively simple: (a) events prior to the great tribulation (24:3-14); (b) the abomination and the great tribulation (24:15-28); (c) Jesus’ coming in glory (24:29-31); (d) the time when all this will happen (24:32-44); (e) three parables about faithful waiting (24:45—25:30); and (f) the judgment of the pagans (25: 31-46).”[10]

 

He also writes:

It is sometimes argued that for Matthew the events of verses 15-21 have already occurred: ‘the abomination of deso­lation’ refers either to the siege of Jerusalem or to the final capture of the temple by the armies of Titus and the offering of pagan sacrifice on the holy site; the flight that follows is either the migration of the Jerusalem church to Pella east of the Jor­dan prior to the siege or the escape of refugees following the fall of the city; the great tribulation of verse 21 describes the desperate situation in Palestine in the months following the Roman victory. All of this is most improbable. The flight of which verses 16-20 speak is not any historical event, and most certainly not the escape of refugees from the burning capital in the summer (not winter) of 70 C.E. It is not clear why Matthew’s version adds ‘nor on a Sabbath’ in verse 20, since it seems to acknowledge that the flight will take place whether it is winter or on a Sabbath or not, but it certainly indicates that the event has, for Matthew, not yet taken place; there would be no point in praying about a past event. No, it is best to treat these various events as representing familiar apocalyptic motifs.”[11]

 

He adds that in view of the teaching about the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3-4 who “sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God”

It seems likely, therefore, that Matthew understands the abomination of desolation as referring to some supernatural Antichrist.”[12]

Professor R V G Tasker quotes B C Butler with approval:

Matthew xxiv. 5-14 gives a straightforward anticipation of the whole of future history (in reference to the question about the consummation of the age), warning the disciples that secular catastrophes must not be taken as signs of the imminent end of history; forecasting, briefly, the world’s persecution of the Church; and working to a poignant climax which foretells defections from the Church, false prophets and spiritual decay and treason within the Christian body itself,… and reaching its culmination in the prophecy of the universal proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom—‘and then will come the end.’”[13]

 

Professor C E B Cranfield, writing on the parallel passage, Mark 13, says that it is an eschatological prediction of the End leading to the return of Christ. He writes that although we must take careful note of Jesus’ teaching and we cannot know the time of his return we must nevertheless take note of the signs of the End:

“To disregard the signs of the End as a mere relic of Jewish apocalypticism is to be in danger of reducing eschatology to something purely academic and of losing sight of its relevance to the present. For the signs are reminders in the midst of history of the coming Lord.”[14]

He continues:

“It may well be asked whether the disparagement of this chapter by much recent scholarship has not resulted in a serious impoverishment and weakening of the Church’s life. Its insistence on the signs is perhaps a help to faith and obedience that we cannot afford to dispense with; for the recognition that the events of history are signs of the End and pointers to the coming Lord rescues eschatology from the realm of merely academic discussion and makes it relevant for faith and obedience. As our faith recognizes the signs as they occur, we are again and again put in remembrance of our Hope, and our gaze, that is so easily distracted from the Lord who is coming to us, is again and again directed back to him. The events of the present become for us reasons for lifting up our heads (Lk. xxi. 28) and so many summonses to renewed penitence, obedience and joy.”[15]

 

He goes on to point out that 2 Thess 2:3-10 supports the identification of the “abomination that causes desolation” with the Antichrist. He says that neither an exclusively historical nor an exclusively eschatological interpretation is satisfactory but rather a mingling of the two.[16]

 

Scholars also comment on the difficult verse: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30).

The interpretation of “generation” (“genea”) in Matthew 24:34

 

Professor Robert Gundry makes a very helpful comment on Jesus’ condemnation of the Jewish leadership in Matthew 23:29-36:

“Retribution for all the righteous blood of the OT martyrs will take the form of the tribulational events yet to be described as fulfilling the forecast concerning ‘this generation.’ By context ‘this generation’ means the scribes and Pharisees (‘lawyers’ in Luke). Matthew’s next verse narrows the reference further to the scribes and Pharisees in Jerusalem. But his involving them in the by­gone murder of an OT prophet (v 35) shows that he does not take ‘this generation’ in a sense chronologically limited to Jesus’ contemporaries, but in a qualitative sense concerning the ‘unbelieving and perverted’ in the whole of Israel’s history (see 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17 and synoptic parallels for the same qualitative emphasis in pre-Matthean tra­dition; cf. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). Hence, we read, ‘in order that on you may come … you murdered [for a centuries-old incident]… will come on this generation.’ In other words, if the ‘you’ who constitute ‘this generation’ includes those who murdered Zechariah in OT times, ‘this generation’ can hardly bear the chronological limitation usually imposed on it cf. Ex 20:5 34:7; Num 14:18; Deut 5:9.”[17]

 

The inference is, of course, that if “this generation” in 23:36 is clearly not chronologically limited to the literal present generation, the same is true of “this generation” in 24:34.

 

Professor Robert Mounce writes:

“If genetai (happened) is taken as an ingressive aorist, the sentence would indicate that before the generation alive at the time had died, all things described in connection with the end will have started to take place.[18]

 

Leon Morris quotes Professor D A Carson as saying:

“All that v.34 demands is that the distress of vv.4-28, including Jerusalem’s fall, happen within the lifetime of the generation then living. This does not mean that the distress must end within that time but only that `all these things’ must happen within it.”[19]

 

Dr David Hill quotes Professor C H Dodd:

“It is probable that we have here an example of that `shortening of historical perspective’ which is so frequently in the prophets. ‘When the profound realities underlying a situation are depicted in the dramatic form of historical prediction, the certainty and inevitability of the spiritual processes involved are expressed in terms of the immediate imminence of the event’”[20]

 

Donald English comments on Mark 13:

“The best solution to hold together all the diverse considerations in [Mark 13] seems to be that which joins to the destruction of Jerusalem and the ultimate Parousia as two parts of God’s one activity, the former prefiguring the latter.  The `signs of the end’ begin when Jesus’ ministry is complete and Jerusalem’s destruction was terrible evidence of the end times. Jesus’ generation would see that, and proleptically would be recipients of the promise of the rest.”[21]

Robert Mounce writes about Matthew 24:34: “One thing we do know is that by the time Matthew wrote, the mission of the Twelve was history and the parousia had not taken place.”[22] It is not likely therefore that Matthew was referring to the AD30-70 generation.

Tony Higton

 

 


[1] R T France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, IVP, Leicester 1985, p. 344.

[2]W D Davis & D C Allison, Matthew 19-28, International Critical Commentary,  T & T Clark,  2004 p. 328

[3] Ibid, p. 331.

[4] The Pillar NT Commentary, The Gospel according to Matthew, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1992, p. 593

[5] Ibid., p. 594

[6] F D Bruner Matthew: A Commentary – Volume 2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, p. 473.

[7] Robert Mounce, Matthew, New International Biblical Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, Incorporated, 1991, p. 222.

[8] Ibid, p. 228.

[9] Douglas R Hare, Matthew, Interpretation, a commentary for teaching and preaching, Westminster John Knox Press, Lousiville, 2009, p.  273.

[10] Ibid., p. 274.

[11] Ibid., p. 277.

[12] Ibid., p. 277.

[13] B C Butler, The Originality of St Matthew, 1951, p. 80 quoted in R V G Tasker, The Gospel according to St Matthew, Tyndale Press, London 1961, p. 224.

[14] C E B Cranfield,, The Gospel according to Saint Mark, Cambridge University Press, 1959, p. 389.

[15] Ibid., p. 391.

[16] Ibid., p. 402.

[17] Robert Gundry, Matthew: a commentary on his handbook for a mixed church under persecution, Eerdmans  Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 472

[18] Robert Mounce, New International Biblical Commentary: Matthew, Paternoster Press 1995, p. 228.

[19] D A Carson, Matthew: Chapters 13-28 v. 2 (Expositor’s Bible Commentary), Zondervan 1995, III, p. 97 quoted in Leon Morris, The Pillar NT Commentary, The Gospel according to Matthew, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1992, p. 612.

[20] C H Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, p. 71 quoted in Dr David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, New Century Bible, Oliphants, London, 1972).

[21] Donald English, The Message of Mark, IVP, Leicester, 1992, p.209

[22] Robert Mounce, Matthew, New International Biblical Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, Incorporated, 1991, p. 95.

A traditional understanding of Genesis holds that God created the world perfect, without suffering and death. This is based on statements like Genesis 1:31 “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Then man fell to temptation, sinned and the resulting curse brought suffering and death to humans and to creation for the first time.

 

How does this relate to the idea that nature “red in tooth and claw” evolved over many thousands of years, culminating in homo sapiens? The two seem to be completely contradictory. Would God who is love have intentionally created a world where suffering is widespread and nature is “red in tooth and claw”? The traditional view was that Genesis shows that God did not intend such a situation, but, having created humans with free will, this allowed the possibility of the situation going wrong, as it did, with the resulting suffering and carnage in nature. What is more, God intends to renew creation so that the suffering and death which he never intended are removed:

 

Isa 11:6-9 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

 

Isa 65:25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.

 

However, when interpreting Scripture we must relate, amongst other things, to the established facts of science. Truth is truth, wherever it originates. It does seem beyond reasonable doubt that nature “red in tooth and claw” evolved over many thousands of years, culminating in homo sapiens. If that is so, how do we interpret the relevant passages of Scripture?

 

In much of this paper I relate to a literal, creationist understanding of Scripture on its own ground and seek to show that such an understanding is incorrect, including for those who base their views on a literal interpretation. I am not a creationist[1] and I believe the early Genesis accounts are extensively symbolical. However I do believe in God as creator  and I do not have any problem with God specially intervening with respect to the spiritual nature of mankind, or even about him dealing with an original “human” couple. Also the idea of the Fall is crucial to biblical theology.

Was creation perfect before the Fall?

 

Genesis states that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (1:31). However does that mean it was perfect, without any suffering, death and evil? There are problems with this idea in the biblical text.

 

Firstly, Satan existed before the Fall so there must have been some disorder and evil before man fell.

 

Secondly, man was told: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Von Rad comments: “The expressions for the exercise of this dominion are remarkably strong: rada [NIV ‘rule’] ‘tread,’ ‘trample’ (e.g., the wine press); similarly kabas [NIV ‘subdue’], ‘stamp.’”[2]

 

D C Spanner writes: “The Hebrew word for ‘subdue’ is kabas, and in all its other occurrences in Scripture (about twelve in all) it is used as a term indicating strong action in the face of opposition, enmity or evil. Thus, the land of Canaan was ‘subdued’ before Israel, though the Canaanites had chariots of iron; weapons of war are ‘subdued’; so are iniquities. The word is never used in a mild sense. It indicates, I believe, that Adam was sent into a world where not all was sweetness and light, for in such a world what would there be to subdue? The animals, it suggests, included some that were wild and ferocious; and Adam was charged to exercise a genuinely civilizing role and promote harmony among them.”[3]

 

Kidner writes: “It seems, indeed, from Romans 8:19-23 and from what is known of the pre-human world, that there was a state of travail in nature from the first, which man was empowered to ‘subdue’ (1:28) (perhaps little by little as he spread abroad to ‘fill the earth’), until he relapsed instead into disorder himself. Even now his power over nature (Ps. 8:6-8; Jas. 3.7) reflects this primal ability; the ordering influence of the Man, Christ Jesus, shows what was its full potential, one day to be realized everywhere and for ever (Rom. 8:19).[4]

 

He adds: “Man was called to ‘subdue’ creation. The nature-miracles of Jesus give some idea of the control which man under God might have exercised (cf. Heb. 2:8, 9).”  The writer to the Hebrews asks with the Psalmist:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honour and put everything under their feet.’ In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them” (Heb 2:8-9).

 

Thirdly, the Hebrew of Genesis 3:16 literally means: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing.” Hence pain was a reality before the Fall but increased after it. So this was not a perfect world without pain. The committed creationist might object that Eve was the first woman and had not had children. But the creationist would have to explain why the words “greatly increase” were used. A reasonable explanation would be that Eve was aware of pain in childbirth, even if not in her own experience.

Was there animal death before the Fall?

 

The Bible does not say that there was no death (or suffering) amongst animals before the Fall.

 

In Genesis 1:24-25 God says:

“Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.”

 

The Hebrew word for “wild animals” is chayyah. There seems good reason to understand this as at least including carnivores:

  • Chayyah means carnivore in the great majority of its uses in the Old Testament.[5]
  • It is contrasted with “livestock” or cattle which are, of course, herbivores in Gen 1:24-25.
  • There is a great deal of evidence that carnivores long pre-date human beings.
  • There is a great deal of evidence that some animals are specially designed for carnivorous feeding, e.g. those with stings, fangs, sharp beaks, talons etc. Some people have pointed out that if these creatures had been redesigned as carnivores after the Fall, some of them would have needed major re-creation which contradicts the creationist tenet that God finished all creation is six days.
  • There is no biblical, let alone scientific, evidence that some herbivores became carnivores only after the Fall.
  • In Genesis 2:19-20 Adam is called upon to name the animals and, presumably, the names he chose remained in usage. In which case, he chose the name for a lion from a Hebrew root meaning “in the sense of violence,” that for an eagle means “to lacerate”, that for an owl means “do violence” or “treat violently.”

 

How does “nature red in tooth and claw” relate to God declaring his creation “very good”? HCG Moule writes: “God pronounced His creation  ‘good;’ but this ‘goodness’ may mean only goodness in respect to  its then work and purpose; and this may have included death and suffering, as in fact it seems to have done.”[6]

 

Is the death of animals essentially an evil, incompatible with the goodness of God? There seems to be good reason to say it is not. God himself is said to bring about the death of animals:

  • He called for animal sacrifices.
  • He clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins.
  • He claims to provide carnivores with food: the lion (Job 38:39, Psa. 104:21), the raven (Job 38:41, Luke 12:24), etc.

 

There are some inconsistencies in saying that a loving God couldn’t possibly have intended creation to be “red in tooth and claw.”  Creationists sometimes say this about the millennia of death in creation described by evolutionists. However, these same creationists justify God allowing thousands of years of carnage amongst innocent animals since the Fall.

 

On the other hand we can all be sentimental about nature “red in tooth and claw.”  Yet most of us are not sentimental about having a good joint of meat! We regard it as a normal provision for our diet. Could that not be the case for the animal kingdom also?

 

Some people have said that the statement: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:17) would be meaningless unless Adam and Eve had some experience of death (i.e. before the Fall). This would seem a natural implication of the account.

 

At this point I want to bring in some scientific considerations. If there was no animal death before the Fall:

  • It would mean that there were no predatory animals, which is clearly contrary to the evidence.
  • The planet would have been increasingly and chronically overcrowded because of population growth. This would be a threat to the ecosystem and could, in itself, lead to other species becoming extinct.
  • What has been described as the “invariably complex, beautiful relationships between millions of plants and animals” – a vast network of interdependence and symbiotic relationships – would have been very limited because no animal would feed on another.
  • It would mean there was no accidental death amongst animals. But surely extensive accidental death cannot be ruled out from the pre-Fall world. Many small creatures would be accidentally killed by the movement and eating habits of larger creatures. Herbivores will swallow countless mites, aphids and microbes. Large animals will step on smaller ones. Animals will sometimes fall or suffocate.
  • It would mean that the fossil record detailing millions of years of death amongst animals has been misunderstood and would have to postdate the arrival of homo sapiens.

 

There is another challenge, however. What about the two Isaiah passages above which foretell a new earth in which, it appears, there is no carnivorous activity? Is this creation as God always intended it and originally created it? Or are they symbolical passages speaking of a blissful human existence and harmony with nature?

 

On the other hand, if the Fall did in fact adversely affect the whole of creation, even though there was animal death before it, is it possible the Isaiah passages are symbolical of this adverse effect being removed from the animal kingdom?

 

Professor FF Bruce writes:

When Isaiah looked forward to the peaceful coexistence of wolf and lamb in the messianic age, he voiced his hope in the language of poetry, but his poetry enshrines no pathetic fallacy but something much more biblical and sub­stantial : ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Is. xi. 9, rsv). The Christian will neither hold that at present ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, nor will he write the world off as belonging to the devil. The world is God’s world, and God will yet be glorified by all His works. And when God is glorified, His creatures are blessed.

If words mean anything, these words of Paul denote not the annihilation of the present material universe on the day of revelation, to be replaced by a universe completely new, but the transformation of the present universe so that it will fulfil the purpose for which God created it. Here again we have an echo of an Old Testament hope—the creation of new heavens and a new earth ‘wherein dwelleth righteousness’ (2 Pet. iii. 13, quoting Is. Ixv. 17, Ixvi. 22; cf. Rev. xxi. i). But the transformation of the universe depends upon the completion of man’s transformation by the working of God’s grace.”[7]

Was man immortal before the Fall?

 

The traditional view is, of course, that death was a new experience for humans after the Fall. Genesis 2:16-17 says: “The Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Gerhard von Rad points out that “the text does not say, ‘You will become mortal,’ but rather, ‘You shall die’!”[8]  Derek Kidner[9] writes: “These words do not necessarily imply that man was not naturally mortal. God ‘alone has immortality’ (1 Tim. 6:16, RSV), and the presence of the tree of life in the garden indicates that if man is to share the boon it must be an added gift. As R. Martin-Achard has put it: ‘Before the Fall, between Adam and death, which is part of his natural lot as an element in his human heritage, there stands the Living God; His presence is sufficient to ward death off . .’[10]

 

Another question is, if man was immortal before the Fall why was there any need of procreation? Even if each couple only had two children and there was no death, within 50 generations there would be over a trillion people on earth! If each couple had only two children and each generation was 20 years, and there was no death,  in 55 generations (1100 years) the population would be 36 trillion. Imagine the effects of this in terms of overcrowding, disease and starvation.

Was all physical death a penalty of the Fall?

 

Paul writes: “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:21-22). He also wrote: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). The traditional understanding of these passages focuses on “death” meaning physical death but various aspects of the biblical evidence have to be taken into account:

  • As we have seen there is good reason to think that there was death before the Fall and human beings were not immortal.
  • It is important to note that Adam did not die physically when he disobeyed God. Genesis 5:5 states: “Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died.”

 

In view of this, what is meant by “death” in Genesis 2:17; 3:2-3; Romans 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22? It seems likely that “death” is used in both a physical and spiritual way. It does not mean that immortal human beings suddenly became mortal but it could mean that physical death became a negative experience.

 

Kidner writes that the ‘trans­lation’ of Enoch “perhaps illustrates what God had prepared for man.” Hebrews 11:5 says: “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.” Kidner seems to be saying that man may not have been naturally mortal but that, had he remained in a close relationship with God, he would have experienced ‘translation’ like Enoch, not death.

 

John Calvin wrote: ““Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright; but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change.”[11]

 

If this is a correct way of thinking then, for humanity, the Fall meant death was no longer a positive transition from life to life but a threatening and fearful experience with a sense of loss, alienation, sorrow and regret.

 

What was the effect of the Fall on the animal kingdom? The passages about the Fall do not refer to animals. Genesis 3 only speaks of the cursing of the ground (human work becoming a burden) and of the cursing of the serpent (Satan). Romans 5:12 and 1 Cor 15:21-22 clearly refer to human beings, not animals. The Fall is a penalty of sin. But animals do not have a spiritual nature able to communicate with God. They are not guilty of sin or subject to judgment.

 

However that is not to say that the animal kingdom doesn’t suffer from ‘collateral’ effects of the Fall. This seems to be summed up in the following words of St Paul:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:18-23).

 

The whole of fallen creation, including humanity, experiences frustration and bondage and yearns for the ultimate cosmic redemption.

 

As Griffith Thomas puts it “there seems no reason to doubt that the fact of sin has in some way affected the entire constitution of things created. How this has come about, and what precisely is involved, it is of course impossible to say with definiteness and completeness; but the more we realize the oneness of the universe the more we shall come to the conclusion that everything is somehow involved in human sin. Very much that we see around us goes to show that nature is not now in a normal condition, or in that state in which it was originally created by God. Physical suffering among ani­mals, catastrophes and cataclysms in nature have some moral meaning, we may be sure, and it is by no means certain that they would have been in the world if sin had not entered …. Nature is in many ways purposeless (ver. 20) and unable to realize its true ideal.   There is an arrested develop­ment through sin, a consciousness of bondage, and a pressure of pain.”[12]

Conclusion

There seems no reason to see any contradiction between the process of evolution and the biblical teaching on the Fall of man when the text is properly interpreted.

 

Tony Higton

 

 



[1] Creationism is a term used to cover a spectrum of beliefs, from those who take Genesis 1-3 literally and believe in six 24 hour days of creation and an earth not much more than 10,000 years old, to those who would regard the “six days” as six eras of time, and a greater age for the earth, but deny evolution except within the species.

[2] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, Old Testament Library, SCM Press, London 1963, p. 58.

[3] D C Spanner, Primal Creation, See http://www.creationandevolution.co.uk/.

[4] Derek Kidner, Genesis, An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Tyndale Press, London 1967, p. 73

[5] In the uses where its eating behaviour is clear it is a carnivore in 20 passages (Gen. 37:20; 33, Lev. 11:27; 20:6, 26:22; Isa. 43:20; Ezek. 5:17; 14:15, 21; 29:5; 32:4; 33:27; 34:5, 8, 25, 28; 39:4, 17; Hos. 2:12, 13:8) and a herbivore in 4 passages (Ex. 23:11; Lev. 11:2; Num. 35:3; Isa. 40:16).

[6] HCG Moule, Romans, Cambridge Bible, Cambridge University Press, 1899, p. 151.

[7] FF Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Tyndale Press London 1963, p169f.

[8] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, Old Testament Library, SCM Press, London 1963, p. 79

[9] Derek Kidner, op. cit, p. 65

[10] From Death to Life (Oliver and Boyd, 1960), p. 19. Quoted in Kidner.

[11] John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1, Christian Clasics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, p. 119. See http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom01.pdf.

[12] WH Griffith Thomas, St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1956, p. 220-222.

Would you like to be a better Christian? Then try reading the Bible regularly.

Going to church, taking Communion and praying are all very important but listen to St Paul: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man [or woman] of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16).

If that isn’t enough, listen to the Church of England. According to church law, the most important authority under God for what the Church of England believes is the Bible and nothing is to be believed which is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture. However the Church takes very seriously the teaching of church leaders in the early centuries, if it is consistent with the Bible. And obviously we have to use our minds to understand Scripture properly.

The actual wording is: “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.”

The Prayer Book makes it clear that the Bible contains “all things necessary to salvation.”  So if you want to be a Christian and to mature in your Christian faith you will find the way in the Bible.

I thank God that the churches I attended as a child were rooted and grounded in Scripture and that I went to two theological colleges which, amongst many other things, extensively taught the content of Scripture. Despite what the Church of England says about the Bible, I have even sometimes over the years come across clergy who don’t know their Bibles. They might have been taught about the Bible and about the problems that sometimes arise in interpreting it. But they do not seem to know enough about the content of Scripture and consequently some congregations are not well-taught.

I recommend that, if you don’t already, you start to read a short passage of Scripture each day. It is a great help to get hold of some Bible reading notes to help you. They suggest a passage for each day and give a comment and explanation on it.