Wrestling with the best ending to the biblical story, Richard Beck and I have both taken it as a given that somehow the biblical narrative anticipates for us what the final ending will be. This is important for me: though I don’t think we simply say what the Bible says, we do receive our trajectory of what we must say based on what the apostles and prophets have said.
Beck has argued that the Christ hymns of Phil 2 and Col 1 beautifully anticipate the endings of the story: all will confess Christ as Lord and participate in the restoration of all things under the reign of God. I feel the pull of this view, and there is part of me that hopes it’s true! But here are two reasons I don’t follow his narrative.
First, I do not think that Beck has accurately represented the purpose of apocalyptic imagery. He suggests that apocalyptic imagery of judgment is, in step with Israel’s prophetic tradition, a description of penultimate reality: what happens before the end. I do not think this is correct.
Apocalyptic imagery, visions of a final Day of Judgment, arise in Israel’s prophetic imagination as it becomes clear that this world order will not bring God’s vindication of God’s people. When penultimate reality fails to produce the rewards and punishments that God promises, then the sphere of their fulfillment is transferred to a more ultimate “heavenly” reality. Apocalyptic judgment undergirds hopes of resurrection, for example, when a new body in a new creation becomes the only means by which someone who has been faithful to the point of death can receive the blessings of a land flowing with milk and honey. Apocalyptic judgment is The End in the sense of wrapping up the narrative of this world, and The New Beginning in the sense of leading into the age to come.
But what about the “alls” and “everys”? In Paul in particular, we see the yearning for an ending to the story that is so extravagantly redemptive that there seems to be no room left for unredemption: “…through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all people” (Rom 5); “One died for all, therefore all died” (2 Cor 5). The point seems to be that everyone and everything is wrapped up in the new cosmic space created by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But most often, this exuberance of accomplishment is tempered by a less sweeping statement about participation. 2 Cor 5 goes on to say: “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!” Being “in Christ” is requisite to participating in this new cosmic reality. On the one hand there is the confession we should gladly sing (Col 1), that Christ has reconciled all things, but on the other there is the plea going forth, “Be reconciled to God.” Or, in the language of Colossians, we must be transferred by God into the kingdom of the beloved son (Col 1:13).
It seems to me that Paul’s vision is one in which those who begin to participate in this life will know full consummation of that participation in new creation in the age to come. The decisions made here carry over through the final revelation of Christ and into the age to come. Those who are reconciled participate in the reconciliation of all things. Those who refuse this reconciliation are not part of the eternal cosmic reality that is new creation. Thus, when Paul says in Romans 2 that “there will be tribulation and distress” on judgment day for all who do evil, this is consonant with his story.