Did Jesus Succeed?
As a historian of first-century Christianity, I tend to approach the Bible from a historical-critical perspective. I tend to read the New Testament as if I were living in the first century; as if I were one of the people it was originally written for, sharing the same struggles and trials as first-century Christians.
This approach does put a different light on the Bible. If we are to fathom Christianity's dilemma in the first century, we must appreciate their absolute and utter conviction that the anticipated Messiah had arrived. What separated Christianity from other Judaic sects was simply this: Christians claimed the messianic age had begun. Or at least as the apostle Paul put it, the new age lived in its birth pangs. They simply had no other way to interpret the Messiah's arrival. For Christians, the end-times had arrived.
This understanding manifests itself in texts such as Revelation and Paul's writings, where we find an urgency in the message. Get ready now, for Jesus is coming back now! The time is at hand! But there is another perspective found in some first-century scripture. Bible scholars call it realized eschatology.
Big words, I know, but the concept is simple. “Eschatology” refers to the study of the end times, and “realized” means just what is sounds like: the end times have arrived. Or, to be more precise the new age has begun. (Many Christians think of the “end times” as a cataclysmic end of the world, with the stars falling from heaven as in Revelation, but this is not at all what the Jews expected.) Devout Jews of the first century looked forward to a new age, inaugurated by a political and military messiah, who would rescue them from Roman oppression and set up God's righteous rule on the earth. The Jews would be reestablished as God's chosen people, Jerusalem would be the ruling center of the world, and all things would be well. This age, in the Christian vernacular, was known as the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven. (Do not think of this kingdom as residing up in heaven; it does not. It is brought from heaven by God down to earth.)
There is a branch of Christianity today which does, indeed, believe that such prophecies have already been fulfilled. Such Christians label themselves preterists, and point to first-century events that fulfill the promises of the Old Testament and of scriptures like Revelation. Full Preterism even claims that the resurrection has happened (whether in spirit or in body) and Revelation's New Jerusalem has descended to earth. But I want to make a distinction, here. There is a subtle difference between this belief and realized eschatology.
That difference is this: Preterists generally believe that scriptures such as Revelation were written as prophecy, but that they were immediately fulfilled. In contrasts, a Bible reader who recognizes "realized eschatology" in the scriptures sees the words as fulfilled before they were written. The Kingdom is not coming; it is already here. As Luke's Gospel proclaims, "Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21).
Which brings us to today's question. Did Jesus succeed? Revelation promises Jesus will succeed, whether in the distant or near future. Paul seems to take the stance that Jesus is halfway done; that the resurrection has begun, but that Jesus will return for the rest of his own shortly. But then there is John's Gospel, which evokes considerable disagreement between scholars. Does John teach that the prophecies are fulfilled or not? Did Jesus succeed, by ushering in the age of God's rule, or did he not? Does John's Gospel teach realized eschatology, future eschatology, or something in the middle?
The key verses in the controversy are found in John 5:26-29, partially quoted here:
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, even so he gave to the Son also to have life in himself; and he gave him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. --verses 26-27
Jesus says that the "coming hour" "now is." The age has begun. That which isn’t quite complete as Jesus is speaking will be completed when Jesus dies on the cross … for that is the “hour” that Jesus speaks of elsewhere in the Gospel. Indeed, over and over in John's Gospel, Jesus presents signs showing that the new age has begun, and new life (meaning, the resurrection) has been offered. But then the passage continues:
Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. --verses 28-29
So severely does the second half of this key passage contradict the first half that many scholars consider it an add-on, not a part of the original writing. These two verses undermine not only the first half of the passage, but much of the rest of the Gospel as well. Here, the “coming hour” has clearly not yet arrived, nor does it refer to the cross.
So that is the conundrum shared by Johannine scholars. Has the hour come or has it not? Are there two "coming hours," one of which was realized on the cross, and another of which was not? Or, was the second half of this passage added later by a literal-minded scribe who anticipated a future bodily resurrection, whereas the original author of the Gospel was writing of only a spiritual resurrection ... “new life” similar to that of the prodigal son, of whom it was said “my son was dead, but now is alive?”
Did Jesus succeed as Messiah? Clearly, how one interprets the eschatology of John's Gospel has extreme implications for Christian beliefs, so there is much vested in the discussion.
The argument continues among Bible scholars.
Reader's wanting to know more can find Lee on his website at the pleasingly named www.dubiousdisciple.com, where you'll find links to his books and places to connect on facebook, linkedin, etc... together with some really great posts.