by Robert C. Brow
Models for Advent
The vast majority of Christians agree that in some way and some time their ascended Lord will come again. The Nicene Creed is more precise. "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end." In this chapter we outline very roughly some of the very different models of how interpreters have explained the New Testament texts relating to that coming in the past seventy years.
We begin with an explanatory model developed by Albert Schweitzer. In a book first written in German in 1899 and translated into English as The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (1925), he argued from the Gospels that Jesus was convinced the world was about to end. Quoting Matthew 10:23 Schweitzer concluded that Jesus had expected the catastrophic end of the world to occur before the disciples had completed their preaching tour. The idea was developed in the Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910). The key to the model is that Jesus was mistaken about the end of the world and how his death would bring it about.
In the Schweitzer model Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 refer to a second coming which never did and never will occur. When the expected end did not materialize the early Christians assumed the end was delayed and would occur very soon in their own generation. This model with many variations has flourished among New Testament scholars for the past seventy years.
We will call our second variant the Delayed Generation model. This also has many variations, and it has flourished in the vast output of books and sermons by students of prophecy also for the past seventy years. The key to this type of model is that the statements about Jesus' coming are to be taken literally. But Jesus' prophecy that the coming would be in that generation (Matthew 24:34, Mark 14:30, Luke 21:32) is not to be taken literally. On this view we are still in the "this generation" of Jesus' day.
One form of the Delayed Generation model is the Pre-Millenial interpretaton that was developed in the nineteenth century. It assumed that Christ's return would precede the millenium or thousand years of Christ's reign on earth. And many Pre-millenial prophetic preachers expect an imminent coming any day now for the rapture of true believers from the tribulation of this world.
A third variant is an Existentialist type of model. This first came into prominence with Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans (1919; English translation, 1933). On this view, whatever the early Christians may have had in mind when they recorded the Advent texts, the end is every day very personally with us. There is no second coming in a historical sense, but the Advent theme is a constant reminder of the eternal reign of God impacting on our lives. As Existentialists love to remind us, we cannot live authentically unless we have faced the emptiness of our lives and the certainty of our own death. Many forms of this model have been offered by scholars in the past seventy years.
A fourth model is outlined in the chapter on "Advent" in Clark H. Pinnock and Robert Brow, Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st. Century (InterVarsity, 1994). We will call this the Reigning Interventions model. But since this model has yet to be given a serious hearing and tried out as an alternative to the previous models, we will set out the main components in greater detail than the outline sketches of the other models.
The key to Matthew 24 is the passage about the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, and the stars falling from heaven. These portents are taken verbatim from Isaiah 13, where they are used as symbolic of the fall of the great city of Babylon. That was viewed by the prophet as a Coming of the Lord or Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6,9). This point was suggested by R.T.France in Jesus and the Old Testament: His Application of Old Testament Passages to Himself and His Mission (London: InterVarsity Press, 1971).
What Matthew's Gospel reports Jesus as saying is that Jerusalem would face its end in that generation and the temple would be totally destroyed (Matthew 24:2). But when that occured the Christians would know that Jesus himself was the Lord of that Day of the Lord.
This means that, as in the words of Isaiah 13, we are to view the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, and the stars falling as metaphorical of the end of the great Jerusalem religious establishment. We know this happened in that generation (24:34) when the Romans came and destroyed the city in AD 70. The temple services and sacrificial system ceased, the Jewish Aaronic priesthood vanished without trace, the rabbis were killed and their schools scattered, and the Jewish Sanhedrin or parliament did not meet again for nineteen centuries till the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Jesus' point was that these events would be the sign that he was reigning. He was in fact the Lord of the Old Testament Days of the Lord (Matthew 24:30). There was a gracious delay of forty years to allow the Jewish leaders the opportunity to share in the establishment of Jesus' Church by Paul and the other apostles in their missionary journeys throughout the world (24:31). Meanwhile there would be a tribulation or beginning of birthpangs as in other Days of the Lord (Matthew 24:8, Isaiah 13:8, Jeremiah 4:31, 6:24, 22:2).
This model has huge implications for our view of history. Having realized that Jesus was the incarnate Lord of the Days of the Lord of the Old Testament, and that He was the Lord of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, we assume that He still continues His reign among all nations. And whenever we see a Day of the Lord type situation in our world we know that He is in control.
This model also suggests that, although there will be a final Day of the Lord when the Son of God terminates our world, we should expect Him to intervene again and again before that. In the Old Testament His interventions included wrath Days of the Lord, but there were also interventions of do justice and the vindication of the oppressed. There will be a final Day when "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead" but when the Nicene Creed says "His kingdom will have no end" we do not have to delay His reign till far in the future. He is reigning now, and we can pray for his intervention wherever there is oppressive injustice in our world today.
Having set out these four basic models, it is evident that Advent models will tend to order our lives in very different ways. Models are not value neutral in their effects in the world-wide Church. And Christians and local churches that are gripped by an unhelpful model will be incapable of discerning or sharing in the Advent reign of their Lord.
The task of Model Theology is to make the alternative models as visible and as simple as possible for ordinary Christians to grasp. That has been the aim of this chapter. And to do this we had to avoid getting submerged in massive historical notes, complex scholarly discussions, footnotes, bibliogaphy, and the setting out of all the sub-species of the main alternatives. Those activities may be necessary for other purposes, but they do not help us in our particular task.