Tom Wright (a.k.a N. T. Wright) is a brilliant theologian and biblical scholar, who has shaken up many people’s assumptions about what the Bible actually teaches. He is especially well known for arguing that the Bible teaches a renewed earth, instead of our “going to heaven.” And he has attempted to redefine our interpretation of “justification” in Paul’s writings, by paying attention to first-century Judaism instead of reading later ideas back into Paul.
What makes Wright so interesting is that he affirms (and models) that it is possible to come up with new ideas and fresh interpretations of Scripture while standing firmly in the non-negotiable tradition of classic, orthodox Christianity.
This is not the place to comment on his view of justification (it’s not my expertise). And I have already indicated (in an earlier post) my basic agreement with his ideas of a renewed earth. Here I want just to clarify one point of his eschatology that is often misunderstood.
The need to clarify this point arose when I was writing my book on eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth), especially as I read those who were misinterpreting Wright.
Like most biblical scholars today (including myself), Wright affirms what is sometimes called a “preterist” position in relation to much biblical prophecy. Preterism is related to the gramatical term “preterite,” which refers to the past tense. So a preterite understanding of prophecy would say that the prophet was speaking about events in his own context (which is now past to us) and not referring explicitly to some distant future (the way prophecy is typically taken in dispensationalism).
For example, Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 was originally addressed to the court of faithless King Ahaz, and “the young woman” who would bear a son was either the prophet’s wife (mentioned in 8:3) or a member of the royal court (I lean towards the latter; note that “the young woman” suggests he is pointing at someone). In the original context, the royal son is probably Hezekiah, who is a sign of hope for besieged Judah.
Later, Matthew applies this prophecy typologically to Jesus (Matthew 1:23), in the context of another faithless Judahite ruler, King Herod, thus drawing a significant parallel between the crisis of the eighth century and his own day, where the birth of Jesus is the new and decisive sign of Immanuel (God-with-us).
Now, Wright is famous for being a preterist when it comes to interpreting the Olivet discourse, the dire predictions of the “end” of the world that Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives (in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21). So he interprets the signs in the heavens, including the sun and moon being darkened, the stars falling from heaven, and the powers of heaven being shaken (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25-26) as a picturesque way of referring to momentous historical events (the Roman-Jewish war and the fall of Jerusalem).
Wright often cites the Jewish historian Josephus, who used similar language to describe these events.
But Wright also has good Old Testament precedent. As chap. 6 (“The Coming of God in Judgment and Salvation”) of my new eschatology book tries to show, OT judgment theophanies use extreme language of cosmic shaking to refer to what are clearly historical/political events of the time.
In the case of the Olivet discourse, most biblical scholars also think that a preterist interpretation works for much of what Jesus says there. But Wright thinks it applies to everything Jesus says there; according to Wright, Jesus isn’t referring at all to what we usually mean by the Parousia or the Second Coming.
What About the Second Coming?
This doesn’t mean Wright thinks the Bible never refers to the climactic return of Jesus to judge the world and usher in the kingdom of God in all its fullness. Otherwise, how could he be famous for teaching a doctrine of cosmic redemption, that God’s plan is to bring about “a new heaven and a new earth”?
Well, one way would be if language about “a new heaven and a new earth” was just a picturesque way to speak about momentous historical events (as it arguably is in Isaiah 65:17-25; but not, I think, in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1).
And there is, indeed, one stream of preterist interpretation in contemporary evangelical theology known as full or consistent preterism that assumes that no biblical prophecies refer to the distant future; all has already been fulfilled. Thus we are already living in the new heaven and new earth (and the resurrection has already happened).
This form of preterism is an outgrowth of post-millennialism, the idea that God is at work through the church to gradually bring the world to full submission to his will—except that there is no climactic second coming here (the post in post-millennialism referred to Christ’s return after the world had reached it millennial state).
Based on his interpretation of the Olivet discourse, Wright has often been read as if he supports consistent preterism. Sometimes this reading comes from adherents of this view who want him as an ally. In other cases, he is critiqued for holding this view.
A recent critique comes from Edward Adams, who frames his important book, The Stars Will Fall from Heaven: “Cosmic Catastrophe” in the New Testament and Its World (Library of New Testament Studies 347; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2007), in terms of a disagreement with Wright on this point (pp. 12-13). Adams takes issue with Wright’s claim that language of cosmic destruction does not refer to “the end of the space-time universe” (The New Testament and the People of God [Christian Origins and the Question of God 1; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992], p. 300), but rather speaks of historical events (such as the fall of Jerusalem).
Setting the Interpretation of Wright to Rights
The problem is that Adams conflates two claims Wright makes, which are actually quite distinct.
On the one hand, when it comes to the Olivet discourse and Jesus’ parables about the returning master/king, Wright indeed thinks that the referents are historical events in the near future (the fall of Jerusalem). We can certainly quibble about that (I actually think that Jesus’ teaching here could have double referents, as I explain in my forthcoming eschatology book, chap. 9: “Cosmic Destruction at Christ’s Return?”).
On the other hand, Wright’s claim that language of cosmic destruction does not intend the ending of the space-time cosmos makes an entirely different point, namely that God intends to redeem and renew the cosmos instead of destroying it and taking us to “heaven.” (I’m fully on board here.)
Wright actually made a concerted attempt to clarify his eschatological position as far back as 1999.
In The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), Wright explained that he was not denying a future cosmic coming of Christ: “Let me say this as clearly as I can (since I have often been misunderstood on this point)” (p. 117).
Although Wright indeed thinks that Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet discourse addresses immediate future judgment, and not the literal end of the world, he acknowledges that Jesus also anticipated a final cosmic redemption (for example, his mention in Matthew 19:28 of the coming “regeneration” or renewal of the world). Thus Wright states: “The belief that the creator God will at the last recreate the whole cosmos and that Jesus will be at the center of that new world is firmly and deeply rooted in the New Testament” (The Challenge of Jesus, p. 117).
This explains why Adams is confused by Wright’s interpretation of passages like Hebrews 12:26-27 and 2 Peter 3:5-13. Adams thinks that Wright is inconsistent to see these texts as referring to genuinely “cosmic change,” given his take on Wright’s “general claim” about New Testament eschatology (pp. 15-16). Adam’s perplexity surfaces especially in reference to Hebrews 12, when he twice mentions the interpretation “we might have expected” Wright to have (pp. 192–93).
The long and short of it is that Wright’s view of the local referents of the Olivet discourse should not be generalized into his overall eschatological position. Whether or not he himself would call it the “Second Coming,” Tom Wright clearly does believe in a future cosmic renewal of all things.
I’d call that the Second Coming.