We’re continuing on our journey through Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. You can refer back to the introduction to see the table of contents for the upcoming review sections. Today we’re looking at his section on eschatology.
§ 3.1 Gospel and Kingdom
In an interesting turn, Bird places his section on eschatology right after the doctrine of God, rather than at the end of the study. As he explains, he thinks it should be pushed up earlier in the theological curriculum. Because eschatology has its emphasis on the final kingdom of God, and that it both an important motif in biblical theology and in Jesus’ preaching and teaching, Bird thinks we should situate it prior to soteriology.
I think this is a bold move, but it fits with Bird’s overall structure. If he is truly producing a “gospel-centered” systematic theology, then the introduction of the kingdom comes pretty early. Interestingly enough, when I was taking Eschatology at Dallas Seminary, we spent the bulk of the class in Genesis, both looking at what was lost in the fall, and what was promised to Abraham. We didn’t get into what people think of as the stereotypical eschatological discussion (rapture, tribulation, millennium) until fairly late in the course. The context setting proved invaluable. Bird seems to be doing much this same thing with his discussion of where redemption history is headed taking place before the discussion of redemption itself.
§ 3.2 Apocalypse Now and Not Yet!
Having the importance of the kingdom stressed, the second section turns to a brief discussion of different ways the church has understood the “apocalyptic.” Worth keeping in mind is that “apocalypse” technically means “revealing” not “end of the world as we know it.” So the book of Revelation is the “Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” Accordingly, Bird sketches out in this section a concise rundown of biblical eschatology. Key to this is his presentation of the overlap of the ages in eschatological thinking. Regardless of one’s understanding of the end times, all pretty much agree there is certain element of already but not yet when it comes to the inauguration of the kingdom of God. It gets parsed out differently as the views are explained, but Bird is still pretty focused on big picture issues here.
§ 3.3 The Return of Jesus Christ
In addition to the overlap of ages, all orthodox Christians believe in a bodily return of Jesus. Here Bird gets into issues related to how you understand the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 (as well as Mark 13), and how the destruction of Jerusalem is related to what Jesus says in those passages. Bird takes a preterist view that sees AD 70 destruction as a fulfillment of what is spoken of in the Olivet Discourse (265). He avoids however a hyper-preterist view which would see no relevance beyond AD 70 (267). He sees rather the destruction of Jerusalem as the beginning of the final judgment (266).
Within this section, Bird gives a bullet pointed “in a nutshell” rundown of the return of Jesus (269). This provides a good summary of the essential takeaways about Christ’s return:
- His return will be accompanied with angels (1 Thess 3:13; Jude 14; cf. Zech 14:5).
- Reference to a trumpet at his return is symbolic for the royal nature of the event (Isa 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zeph 1:14-16; Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16; Rev 11:15). The trumpets mark the arrival of the day of the Lord and are a rallying sound for the gathering of God’s people.
- Around the time of Jesus’ return “all Israel” will be saved, meaning a large segment of ethnic or empirical Israel (Rom 11:26).
- Jesus’ return will involve a resurrection of believers (1 Cor 15:20-23, 52; Phil 3:21; 1 Thess 4:14-17; Rev 20:4).
- At his return Jesus will judge and subjugate all of his enemies (1 Cor 15:24-28; Rev 19:11-21)
§ 3.4 Millennium and Tribulation
Having covered the essentials, Bird turns to the different millennial views. Bird himself is a historic premillennialist, but he gives very fair treatment to both amillennials and postmillennials. He notes at one point that were it not for Revelation 20, he’d be an amillennial. Parentheically, he even suggests he almost changed his mind while writing this section, and concurs with Craig Keener’s statement that “Theologically I am amillennial, but exegetically I am premillennial” (280).
He interestingly does not give much detail or treatment to dispensational premillennialism, but does at least note its existence. While he may not agree with dispensationalists, he gives very strong arguments in this chapter for a premillennial understanding of the return of Christ as being the earliest view. He suggests towards the end of his presentation of the evidence that a chiliasm (belief in a literal millennium) fell out of fashion once Constantine made Christianity the official religion, making postmillennialism seem more likely (though we should note that term is anachronistic).
Having discussed the different approaches to the millennium and sided with a historic premil position, Bird now has to discuss views of the tribulation (something not particularly necessary in other schemes). He is somewhat predictably post-trib, but explains pre-trib well. Unmentioned is the mid-trib option, mainly because almost no one holds to it.
§ 3.5 The Final Judgment
Beyond the millennial views are views of the final judgment. Once again though, there is a certain level or harmony across Christian views in that every orthodox person holds to a future physical judgment. There is a question of whether believers will be judged, and if so, on what basis. Bird says yes, and follows N. T. Wright in arguing that our works will be judged to show that they are the necessary evidences the saving faith the Spirit has produced in us. Interestingly, this is more less Tom Schreiner’s position as well, as outlined in the Four Views of The Role of Works in The Final Judgment.
Resonating Jim Hamilton, Bird says that “God’s glory is revealed when creation is purified from evil and the exile from Eden comes to an end” (307-308). Judgment then serves to manifest the glory of God, in addition to it being a triumph of grace and means of retribution toward the wicked. It is the final culmination of the victory that Christ won, and when faced with the evil in this present world, we can look forward in hope to the day of eternal reckoning.
§ 3.6 The Intermediate State: What Happens When You Die?
At this point, Bird turns to personal eschatology after having covered dealt with cosmic eschatology (309). He sketches out death as the final enemy, and the explores the options for understanding the intermediate state. He argues against the idea of the immortatlity of the soul, or of soul sleep. I’ll admit I’ve been in favor of a kind of understanding that your consciousness is tied to having a physical body, but Bird has convinced me otherwise. Instead, death introduces a disunity that is not dealt with until the final resurrection (314).
He then parses the afterlife according to the biblical categories. Bird sees Sheol/Hades as a single place having two divisions prior to Christ’s death/resurrection/ascension. Whereas prior both the righteous and the wicked were there, now it is just the place of the wicked with the righteous having been brought to heaven with Christ. He sees “paradise” as referring to the division of Sheol for the righteous, and therefore an intermediate state that is neither heaven nor hell (319). The thief on the cross then went there when he died, was met by Christ, but then brought up to heaven with the other righteous souls upon Christ’s ascension.
§ 3.7 The Final State: Heaven, Hell, and New Creation
Finally, Bird turns to the eternal state. He argues for a fairly traditional understanding of heaven, hell, and the new creation. He does rely on Wright a bit more, specifically Surprised By Hope, and the idea that the final state is heaven on earth, not some disembodied existence with clouds and harps.
With that, Bird is now poised to discuss the Gospel of God’s Son. Christology is a strong suit of Bird’s and this next section is one of the longer ones. I might split it in two, but I guess we’ll see once I’ve read it.