Harvard's Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on the Great Controversy

Sabbath School commentary for discussion on September 25, 2021.

With textual citations from Revelation 1 and 14, this week’s Adult Bible Study Guide touches on the cosmic dualism in the Seventh-day Adventist fundamental belief known as The Great Controversy. Not mentioned is how the early Christians heard and read Revelation. Understanding that helps Christians today avoid interpretative timetables and ripped from the headlines speculations. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, professor of apocalypse and feminist studies at Harvard Divinity School, offers a historically-grounded hermeneutic that combines the past and present, offering contemporary hope for the future. In grad school I read her book *[Revelation: Vision of a Just World](https://amzn.to/3i1pegj),* published in 1991 as part of the Proclamation Commentaries series by Fortress Press. It helped me broaden my view of Revelation and deepen my appreciation for the spiritual and political guidance the text offers. The publisher writes: “Rather than finding an individual Christian vision of a fiery endtime, Schüssler Fiorenza writes of Christian communities living in the shadow of imperial power, fearing denunciation by their neighbors, yet envisioning the eventual effect of Jesus Christ's resurrection and enthronement on the whole social order. In Schüssler Fiorenza's theological-historical analyses, the Book of Revelation is a literary product of early Christian prophecy, and her interpretation leads to distinctive notions of the book's composition, social intent, relation to the Gospel of John, and visionary rhetoric of apocalypse and justice.” In her 2014 talk shown below, "The Apocalypse of John: Its World of Vision and Our Own?" given at College of the Holy Cross, Dr. Schüssler Fiorenza states about the book of Revelation: "Read as resistance poetry, the apocalypse challenges the symbolic discourse of the hegemonic Roman colonial power by rhetorically establishing a symbolic counter discourse that seeks to reveal Rome's imperial power as devilish, thereby weakening for its readers and hearers the persuasive power of the imperial cult."


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11424
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I would like to offer some thoughts about the third quarter weekly Lesson #13 entitled ‘The Ultimate Rest’, specifically regarding Wednesday, Sept 22 which speaks of ‘soul sleep’.

This, of course, is the Adventist belief that when we physically die we rest in the grave in an unconscious state until the resurrection to judgment at the end of this age. In the SS lesson this view is supported by several Bible passages such as Heb 11:13-16; John 5:28-29; 8:51-52; 11:14; Col 3:4. I would add John 1:18; 1Thess 4:13-14; Eccl 9:10.

During His earthly ministry, Jesus raised three people from the dead - the daughter of Jairus the synagogue ruler, the widow of Nain’s son, and His friend Lazarus. Before each miracle He remarked that the person was only asleep. All who heard Him misunderstood and tried to correct Him by saying no, the person was dead. So, apparently while on earth, Jesus, perhaps to aid our understanding, equated physical death and sleep.

Yet this view is a minority one in Christianity as the vast majority of Christians believe that upon death the believer is immediately ushered into the presence of Jesus in some sentient state. I will be using quotes regarding this alternate view throughout my comment as an illustrative device:
“When the believer dies, the body goes into the grave; the soul and spirit go immediately to be with the Lord Jesus awaiting the body’s resurrection, when they’re joined together to be forever with the Lord in eternal bliss.
Sadly, many fear their souls will have to wait indefinitely for heaven. “Soul sleep”—the belief that the soul rests after death in an unconscious state, or ceases to exist, until the final resurrection—finds its roots in the common “sleeping” metaphor for bodily death. Although this metaphor appears in Scripture, a thorough study shows that the metaphor of sleep refers only to the earthly body’s inanimate state after death, not to the soul.”

I think part of the problem lies in how one defines the term ‘soul’. My Adventist experience taught me that the soul must have a living body in which to exist. If the body dies, there can be no separate, living soul. I still believe this to be so, as the soul cannot experience sensations (or even life because it is sustained via the blood) without a body. I think of the soul then, as roughly equivalent to the mind.

Thus, I can’t agree with this understanding:
“We can resolve many of the interpretation conflicts that surround the issue of death by simply keeping the earthly physical body’s inanimate state after death completely separate from the soul’s spiritual life and location apart from the body.”
I was taught that an immortal soul was the belief of the ancient Greeks - not the Jews - and I have not come across any information which contradicts this idea.

This is why at the point of death, both Jesus and Stephen said that they were commending their spirit into the hands of God. I think if they were expecting to instantly meet with God The Father in some sentient way, they would have uttered something more clearly to that effect. It sounds to me like they were giving something precious to God for safekeeping until some future time. Also, they never mentioned their souls, only their spirits going back to God.

Additionally, the opinion is advanced that immediate bliss after death is waiting because Jesus told the thief on the cross that ‘today’ they both would be in Paradise:
“One key scriptural event that supports this, but is sometimes misunderstood, is Jesus’s exchange with the thief on the cross. Jesus tells the thief dying next to Him that their spirits would be together, alive, and conscious on that day. Yet some argue the punctuation is misplaced in Luke 23: 42-43. Instead of, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise,” they argue Jesus really said, “Truly I say to you today, you shall be with Me in Paradise.” But Scripture includes no other instance of Jesus saying, “I say to you today.” This adds to the likelihood that, as every English translation indicates, Jesus was emphasizing that today was the time He and the thief would be together in paradise.”
But what seems to be forgotten is that Jesus said He would rise again on the third day, and, two days later, on Sunday morning, said, “…I have not yet ascended to My Father.” Thus, Jesus Himself was not in Paradise on that ‘today’, so how could he meet the thief there and then?

The transfiguration is another of biblical event which some think: makes “clear there is no soul sleep for believers but rather a conscious, immediate presence with God after death.” But Elijah was taken up alive so never experienced awakening from death. And apparently, getting a body for Moses became a point of serious contention with the devil (see Jude 9). Does that imply that bringing Moses up from the grave (Sheol) was something so unusual that Satan cried foul?

Here is another passage used to support immediate life after death:
“…John 11:23-27: Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”
Notice Jesus corrected Martha’s belief that her brother would only “live” in the resurrection. In contrast, Jesus revealed that believers will live even if they die, and in fact, they will never die in the way that our bodies do.”
In contrast, I see this as Jesus saying that believers will physically die (but to Him that is only sleep, not really death), and by stating they will never have to endure death He meant the second death (Rev 2:11), which unbelievers will face (Rev 20:14-15).

I think much of the confusion stems from some statements by the apostle Paul, which, predictably, the SS lesson failed to mention. I understand each group wants to promote its view and (sadly) feels the need to protect its flock and so never discusses alternative viewpoints.
But how are we ever to have any sort of unity in the Christian faith (which Christ prayed for) if we don’t examine all of Scripture, be open to other ideas, appreciate other opinions, and in a spirit of humility and respect attempt to arrive at a consensus?..

…Perhaps Paul was influenced by some of the Greek ideas of his day (or, he felt it necessary to compromise doctrine to win souls (e.g. see 1Cor 9:20-21)) because some of his statements to many imply conscious, immediate presence with Christ after death:
“Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” (2Cor 5:6-8), and
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” (Phil 1:21-24)
Paul also described a man who had undergone some amazing, presumably out-of-body spiritual encounters with the Lord in heaven several years before (2Cor 12:1-7). Many think he was talking about himself, so could his first statement above be simply referring to his preference for more of these ecstatic experiences over the normal, human life to which he knew he would return?
If we interpret his second statement above as his desire to physically die and so immediately be in the Lord’s presence, then aren’t we inferring that Paul felt it better to commit suicide than go on living? I realize that first century believers thought Jesus would return at any moment, but do we want to attribute a longing for self-murder to a highly educated Pharisee who had great respect for the law? Rather, again, could he be implying that he wished to have more frequent out-of-body experiences in the spiritual realm?
But, to be honest, it seems to me that these possible alternative interpretations are simply too strained an effort to support the idea of soul sleep. I believe there may be another, more plausible explanation which I will now advance.

“Lewis Sperry Chafer refers to 2Cor 5:1-5 when he explains the concept of an intermediate body between death and resurrection:
At the present time believers are in an “earthly tent” (v. 1), but they long for their “heavenly dwelling” (v. 2). References to believers after death but before resurrection all seem to suggest that they have a body…When Moses and Elijah met with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration, they were represented as having bodies. In Revelation 6:9-11 [and 7:13–17] the martyred dead . . . are represented as wearing robes and being before the throne of God. Though full revelation was not given in Scripture concerning the exact characteristics of these bodies, apparently they will not be suited for eternity for they will be replaced by resurrection bodies. This conscious, intermediate state is not an intermediate cleansing place between heaven and earth, like purgatory, a concept that is never found in the Bible and contradicts the gospel. Rather, it’s a temporary body, intermediate between the time of our death and the resurrection, which will take place when Jesus returns.”

I think Chafer is on to something. When Christ died, Matt 27:51-53 tells us “…At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from the top to the bottom. And the ground shook, and the rocks split apart. The graves also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had died were raised, and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the Holy City and appeared to many.”

Thus, it appears that some deceased believers were raised in bodily form with Jesus. I assume they were raised immortal. Would it make any sense to raise them with mortal bodies subject again to death at the same time Jesus initiated our promised new, eternal life? But their glory must have been hidden, as, at times, that of Jesus was (such as on the road to Emmaus, see Luke 24:15-16). If you understand the significance of an offering of firstfruits, it makes perfect sense that they were the firstfruits of our new creation life. Were they mentioned in Eph 4:8 as proceeding on to heaven with Him and are they the elders in heaven mentioned in Revelation or the saints under the altar in Rev 6:9-11 who received white robes? Would one give robes to bodiless spirits? And why were those specific people chosen?

I believe that most of the people - both believers and unbelievers - who have lived and died through history are resting in the grave (experiencing ‘soul sleep’, if you will) awaiting judgment at the end of this age but there have been exceptions, such as the one mentioned above, to this rule. So, perhaps we do have a Biblical explanation to reconcile our two views of what happens immediately after death.

Paul said, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged; But, when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord, so that we would not be condemned with the world.” (1Cor 11:31-32). In other words, there exists a group, a minority of believers in which Paul included himself, who have done the hard work of deeply searching within themselves and then have most fully submitted to the chastening and correcting by the Holy Spirit, and so have travelled furthest along the process of sanctification during their physical lifetimes. In essence, they have already been judged by the Lord and so will not be judged with the world when He returns. They have already moved ahead on the path to glory.

As I have said in previous comments, the Bible speaks of certain positions in the administration of the kingdom to be filled by saints under Christ during the upcoming, great sabbath millennium. Such positions include priests (Rev 20:6), judges (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:29-30; 1Cor 6:1-3), and city officials (Luke 19:16-19). I think those most willing to be shaped by the principles of Christ now will qualify to be selected to fill these future roles. Thus, this small subset of believers who the Bible calls ‘overcomers’ will be fit to rule and reign with Christ in the next age (Rev 2:26-27; Luke 12:43-44).

I believe Paul hoped to be honoured by being chosen for one of these positions. Paul knew salvation could not be earned - it was strictly a matter of faith in what Christ had done. But he still said he was striving and disciplining himself, running a race in which only one would receive a prize (what he called ‘the upward call of God’ in Phil 3:12-14) and hoped he would not be disqualified (1Cor 9:24-27). He said that the journey must include “the fellowship of His [Christ’s] sufferings and being confirmed to his death” in order to attain a grand goal he had yet to reach - ‘the out-resurrection’ (Greek: exanastasin) from the dead (Phil 3:8-13). Apparently Paul was referring to a special resurrection here because this is the only place in his writings that he uses this word.

In conclusion, I think it’s possible that Paul, along with a small group of other extraordinary Christians may have already been chosen by Jesus and thus have been resurrected into this state Lewis Chafer spoke of. They could be in training for this glorious future of service under Christ even as we speak. Paul, and a select few other believers, may very well ‘be present with the Lord’ now, in some intermediate body and be undergoing the necessary instruction for their future roles even as the vast majority of humanity sleeps in the grave awaiting their judgment upon the return of Christ.

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