The Politics of Eschatological Imminence—1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Paul articulates the reality of eschatological imminence. Against this background, he advances an ethic that maintains a delicate balance between occupation with and preoccupation with our present world order.

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

The sense of eschatological imminence that we encounter in New Testament passages such as 1 Corinthians 7 has represented a nagging problem for many theologians. Indeed, the failed arrival of the expected parousia has been presented as an unsettling factor for the early Church, yielding sharp cognitive dissonance and provoking radical compensatory theological readjustment (analogous to that discussed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in his book When Prophecy Fails). This non-arrival of the promised eschaton was the wound from which such things as an elevated ecclesiology developed as the cicatrix, sacramental presence substituting for apocalyptic arrival. Against the background of such interpretations of early Christian eschatology, passages such as ours can appear principally as embarrassing texts to be rationalized than as relevant words to be applied.

I believe that we would be mistaken were we to adopt such an approach, however. It is helpful here to recognize the difference between what Anthony Thiselton terms ‘a theology of eschatological imminence’ and ‘a chronology of eschatological imminence.’[1] While the latter operates in terms of a conviction that the absolute end of the cosmos is only months or years away, the former necessitates no such belief. Rather, the theology of eschatological imminence that we encounter in the New Testament arises chiefly from the combination of the ‘apocalyptic judgment of the cross’ and the inauguration of the new creation in the resurrection.[2] Life after these events is characterized by a radical relativization of the current world order and an intensified sense of its penultimacy. Henceforth, all human history occurs beneath the shadow of God’s eschatological kingdom, which is also already at work in our midst. Our understanding of the true character of the nearness of the eschaton may be compromised by our modern reduction of all time to clock time.

A second helpful distinction is between ‘participant logic’ and ‘observer logic’.[3] These two forms of logic relate to two different perspectives from which we may speak of the ‘end of the world.’ In the case of observer logic, the end of the world would refer to the final termination of the material and intersubjective cosmos. In the case of participant logic, however, the end of the world can refer to the catastrophic collapse of the established state of a particular society or person’s historical existence. The destruction of Jerusalem and her temple in AD70 would have represented just such an event for many early Jewish Christians. Christians are among those facing a similar situation in Iraq and Syria in our own day.

In declaring in verse 29 that the appointed time has been shortened, Paul may refer to the way in which the cross and resurrection has brought the eschaton near to us in history. We now exist in a providential window of opportunity, graciously held open by God for us, which should heighten our sense of present urgency. Our sense of the theological imminence of the eschaton and of the penultimacy of the existing social and political order before it may also be elevated by specific historical threats or instabilities. Some commentators have suggested that the Corinthians that Paul addressed within this letter were facing just such a situation, provoked either by famine or severe persecution. In such a period of social ferment the proximity of the eschaton is acutely felt, its visage looming over the crumbling social order. In the context, however, Paul’s concern seems to be less with preparing the Corinthians for the end of all things than with sparing them from the greater pressures and worries that would afflict those whose embeddedness in the collapsing order was exacerbated by marriage or many possessions.

It is within this context that Paul advances an ethic for life in the shadow of the eschaton. As the ‘external structures of this world are slipping away,’ we must learn to occupy the world as those not preoccupied with it.[4] We engage with the world, but do not tie ourselves to it. While the slipping away of the external structures of our present world may not seem as immediate to us as it might have done to Paul’s original addressees, their transience and penultimacy remains a fact of considerable importance.

Within the early Church we can often see a high sense of eschatological imminence and the shaping of ethical practice by this. The specific behaviour of the Christians in the city of Jerusalem is especially noteworthy on this front. Jesus had prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the distress that would be faced by those invested in its order at that time, and the need to be prepared to flee. We do not have reason to believe that the practice of the Jerusalem believers in selling their land and houses, investing the money in the life and welfare of the Christian community, and having all things in common (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37) was the general behaviour of early churches. Rather, this was a form of prophetic praxis and practical preparation for the impending collapse of the external structures and institutions of second temple Judaism.

To some degree or other, all of us are invested in the current order of our world, in its political structures, and its economic and social institutions. Unfortunately, not only do we occupy these existing structures, we are all too often preoccupied with them, dulled to any sense of their impermanence in the face of God’s inaugurated and coming kingdom. While the collapse of these structures may not be as imminent as the destruction of Jerusalem was for the first Christians, it is no less certain. The present form of our national and international politics is passing away. Like the nations and empires before them, our prevailing political powers and certainties will one day pass away, perhaps altogether beyond memory.

Paul never advocates a complete detachment and disengagement from the world—we still are those who ‘deal with the world’, who buy and sell, who mourn and rejoice. However, our participation in these activities is now tempered by Paul’s radical ‘as though’. No longer are these activities permitted to be the occluding preoccupations, defining features, or determinative realities of our existence. Rather we now undertake these activities as those belonging to the imminent eschatological kingdom of Christ, those whose existence is determined by its reality. We have been unplugged from the immediacy of our social reality and now engage with it as those who are no longer bound to it and identified by it.

Politics that does not conduct itself in the shadow of the inaugurated eschaton can never truly be Christian. Our hope cannot ultimately rest in current institutions or structures, as they will fail. A realization and conviction of the theological imminence of the eschaton will protect us from becoming engrossed in politics or too deeply invested in the present world order—‘the external structures of this world are slipping away.’

On the other hand, Paul’s ethic is shaped by a contrast between the things of this world and the things that belong to the Lord, a distinction that comes into clearer focus in the verse after this week’s lection. In being drawn out from our submersion in the present world order, we are plunged into the order of the eschatological kingdom. This is the truly determinative and ultimate reality. Our conviction of this that should become a distinguishing commitment of Christian political dealings in the present age, which can iconically present the penultimacy of current politics even within their own horizons.


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 578.
[2] Ibid. 583
[3] Ibid. 581, 583
[4] Ibid. 585

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Eschatological Imminence—1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (Alastair Roberts)

  1. ‘ …Paul’s ethic is shaped by a contrast between the things of this world and the things that belong to the Lord. In being drawn out from our own submersion in the present world order, we are plunged into the order of the eschatological kingdom. This is the truly determinative and ultimate reality. Our conviction of this should become a distinguishing commitment of Christian political dealings in the present age, which can iconically present the penultimacy of current politics, even within their own horizons.’
    AMEN

  2. “We do not have reason to believe that the practice of the Jerusalem believers in selling their land and houses, investing the money in the life and welfare of the Christian community, and having all things in common (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37) was the general behaviour of early churches”

    I’m sure you are right that it was not normative behaviour of the churches, but that does mean that it shouldn’t have been. These early churches were criticised for lukewarmness, losing first love etc famously in the book of Revelation were they not?

    In a similar vein, I cant read Jesus instruction to the rich young man who asks “what must I do to gain eternal life” (Mt19) as specific to him in the light of the impending destruction of the temple. I sense he may have got the same response to give up all his posessions regardless of the political backdrop.

    I would of course prefer to think that we are “off the hook” as regards the instruction to hold goods in common but I just can’t get there. That nasty thorn of provocation is very much still in my side

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