John, it has been said, has a different view of the Christian hope than the other writers of the New Testament. Whereas the other writers project the believer’s hope into the future, John sees the hope realized in the present. C. H. Dodd, beginning in 1936 and later expanding his view in a book titled The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (1953), claims that John’s eschatology is “realized eschatology.” The focus of the believer’s hope should be on the present and not on the future. Ultimate fulfillment is to come to faith in Jesus and not, as in the eschatological scenario of the rest of the New Testament, the return of Jesus. Again, according to the realized vision of Dodd and Bultmann, the emphasis is on the fact that Jesus has come and not that he is coming again.
It is undeniable that John has a lot to say about fulfillment in the present and about the ultimacy of a person’s decision in the present. For instance, judgment happens in John at the moment when a person comes face to face with God’s revelation in Jesus, and it takes place in the present (John 9:3541; 12:4748). But the notion that the shape of John’s hope is best understood as “realized eschatology” is not sustainable.
Consider for a moment the promise in Jesus’ farewell speech to his disciples.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:13)
In this text, Jesus retains all the elements that are sublimated in the paradigm of realized eschatology. Temporally, Jesus speaks of a future point in time, assuring his disciples, already grieved by the prospect of Jesus’ departure, that he “will come again and will take you to myself.” Spatially, Jesus speaks of (1) going away to another place; (2) of returning to where they are; and (3) of taking the waiting believer to where he is.
This verse is not an exception, a lone island in the sea of John’s pervasive “realized eschatology,” as it were. In fact, the spatial parameters of Jesus’ mission are nowhere more starkly and materially emphasized than in John.
I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me’ (John 7:33).
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God (John 13:1).
Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward’ (John 13:36).
And you know the way to the place where I am going (John 14:4).
But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ (John 16:5).
. . . about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer (John 16:10).
So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you (John 16:22).
I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father (John 16:28).
These examples do not exhaust the supply in John, but they will suffice for the present purpose. It is not the “inner” world of faith (“realized eschatology”) but the “outer” world of hope that are the subject of this text. There is ambiguity in some verses, the ambiguity of “going away” to die and “going away” to the Father, but it is the “going away” to the Father, returning to the Father in an objective, physical sense that predominates. The end of this story has not yet come; it will not come until Jesus returns. In this sense, the end point of the story in the Gospel of John is like the end point in the Synoptics or in the Book of Revelation, “to be with him where he is, and to see his glory” (John 17:24).
According to some scholars, it became necessary to sublimate the temporal and spatial parameters of the Christian because the delay of Jesus’ return was taking its toll. In John, however, there is no such sublimation. John’s remedy in the interim period is not to say that the believer’s hope has already been fulfilled but rather to urge the believers to continue to follow Jesus, awaiting the future fulfillment. Indeed, the Gospel of John ends on this note.
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ (John 21:2022)
In this text, the believer’s hope has not been fulfilled; it will not be fulfilled “until I come,” as in Jesus’ answer to Peter. In the meantime, looking neither to the right nor to the left nor to whether or not other people seem to get a better deal, Peter is to follow Jesus.
John’s epistles resonate with the same message as his Gospel. “Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). As in the Gospel, we find a strong and unambiguous affirmation of the believer’s status in the present. Something is indeed realized; “we are God’s children now.” But the believer’s hope has emphatically not been realized in the present, not yet, not now; “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” It awaits future fulfillment. Only “when he is revealed,” considered as an experience that will not come to full fruition in the present, will we “be like him;” only then will we “see him as he is.”
John is an agent of hope second to none. He stands out as an agent of the hope that is realized, but he is equally a sober voice insisting that we are not there yet; we have not yet arrived. “And this is what he has promised us, eternal life” (1 John 2:25), realized now, to be sure, and yet not yet.
Sigve Tonstad is assistant professor of religion and biblical studies in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/865