Apocalyptic & Politics

Paul has been underappreciated as an apocalyptic figure, though this, to some extent, is being remedied more recently.

He doesn’t write apocalyptic literature, but he writes from within an apocalyptic frame of reference. God has acted to transform all creation by his resurrection power, and the cosmically significant redemption must be embodied by a completely new and renewed social order – the church of Jesus Christ.


In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright, writing about the metaphorical language associated with dramatic historical upheavals, captures nicely this relationship between apocalyptic and the social embodiment of new political realities.

‘Apocalyptic’ literature, whether in the second-Temple Jewish world or early Christianity, seems to be designed to give its hearers and readers an alternative frame of reference within which to live their lives, an alternative narrative to that which the world’s power-brokers are putting out, an alternative symbolic universe to reshape their imagination and structure their worldview. People whose worldviews are thus realigned may not instantly form political parties or take up arms to march against enemies, but they will live differently. The ruling powers of the world will find them, at least from time to time, inconvenient and uncooperative. There can be no doubt that this was the effect which was created by the early Christians, not least by Paul, and we have good reason to think that their use of ‘apocalyptic’ language, exactly in the tradition of the second-Temple Jews, was a significant part of how this effect was generated. They did not expect the stars to fall from the sky. They did expect the creator God to do extraordinary things for which comets, earthquakes and other portents might be powerful and appropriate metaphors (p. 175).

3 thoughts on “Apocalyptic & Politics

  1. gjohnston2244

    I don’t see the new realities as “political” in any normal sense of the word. I see language depicting YHWH as “king” (“Kingdom of God” language) as metaphor. Similar to the language depicting YHWH as Shepherd. Granted, Second Temple Israel read it as political, but I see nothing in the New Testament that implies anything political in the normal sense of the word.

    This has always baffled and bothered me about NTW. He takes narrative language and draws real-world conclusion from it.

    Or so it seems to me.

    1. timgombis

      I think I know what you mean, Greg, especially if you mean “political” in the corrupted sense of agitating for earthly political power and influence. But the gospel must always — and can only — be embodied politically by the creation of a new people living in renewed social practices as part of a radically different ‘body politic’ — the church. I think Wright means politics in this sense, and this body politic will inevitably have effects in the wider culture (that is, politically), though again, as you indicate, none of this will happen in the “normal” sense of how we use this word.

      I just wouldn’t want to grant that “we” use it “normally.” We’re the exception — our politics, that is. But certainly being the people of God is a completely political reality in every sense of the word. The gospel is, however, that this will look anything but “normal.”

      1. gjohnston2244

        I basically agree. Except that the “corrupted sense” of politics in terms of seeking political power and influence IS the normal way it is used in everyday English vernacular. I would suggest that Wright needs to be more careful in his prose as he moves back and forth between narrative and actual “political reality.”

        Wright is well known for his pithy statement, “To announce that Jesus is Lord is to announce that Caesar is not.” No problem. But in his article “The Gospel and Theology in Galatians,” he writes, “To announce that YHWH is king is to announce that Caesar is not.” This is silly. In what sense is Caesar not king? Paul says to pay taxes to him. He’s king in that sense. Peter says to honor him. He’s king in that sense. So in what sense is he NOT king?

        I would suggest that Isaiah, especially the second half of Isaiah 45, is the key to understanding the notion of bowing the knee and confessing the sovereignty of YHWH as King: “For I am God and there is no other. Turn to me and be saved.all the ends of the earth.” It is a monotheistic announcement calling the nations out of their idolatry.

        I love NTW. He was most instrumental in changing the way I read the Bible. But i think he overplays the political dimension of the gospel and is easily misunderstood. Sometimes I suspect he confuses himself.

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