Eschatology is an important part of the Christian faith. It is the foundation upon which our hope is based. Yet, many Western Christians’ eschatology consists of an immortal soul escaping an eternal torture of hell below to a glorious heaven above upon death. Additionally, it contains the idea that Jesus’s second coming is simply to snatch those believers who are still alive to heaven while condemning the rest as sinners to hell. N. T. Wright commented on this widely held belief, noting “This is more or less exactly what millions of people in the Western world have come to believe, to accept as truth, and to teach to their children.”
Such wide belief begs the question: Is this what the Bible teaches? This paper will argue that by examining the thread of temple theology which runs through the whole of Scripture does not support the escapist view of eschatology; rather it espouses a restoration view. The purpose of this discussion be to define what temple theology is. From there it will trace the thread of temple theology by offering a brief survey of the Scriptures. This will be done by looking at three phases of temple theology in scripture: building a temple, establishing sacred space, and a restoration project. Additionally, this discourse will highlight relationship between the thread of temple theology and the biblical view of eschatology in light of the rapture doctrine
What Is Temple Theology?
Before any proper discourse can truly begin on a subject, there must be a definition of terms. It is, therefore, imperative that a concise definition be determined of what temple theology is and is not. At this juncture, it is relevant to note that temple theology differs from exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology. These three methods of studying God and his word are all dependent one another. As Enns observes, “Biblical theology is preliminary to systematic theology; exegesis leads to biblical theology, which in turn leads to systematic theology.” Temple theology knows no such symbiotic relationship. Certainly, temple theology may include all three of these methodologies, however it is not dependent on them.
So, what is temple theology? William MacDonald suggests that temple theology is theology done in the temple “under conditions of continuous adoration and getting still before God.” However, since MacDonald’s aim is to show the superiority of temple theology, his definition unnecessarily excludes exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology.
However, MacDonald is correct in asserting that the ultimate theological question is “what is God like?” This paper will offer the following definition: Temple theology is the attempt to answer of “who is God” by studying the centrality of the structures, objects and rituals used in the worship of God in his presence. This definition, by default, will necessarily will include all exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology. Still as its name implies the focus will be primarily on the structures used rather than the objects and rituals. Still, when the objects and rituals occur within the structure itself it must not be ignored. Having set a working definition, this discussion will now move a brief survey of temple theology within the Scriptures.
Brief Survey of Temple Theology in Scripture
The writer of Psalm 119 says “The sum of thy word is truth; and every one of thy righteous ordinances endures forever” (V. 160, RSV). In other words for the psalmist, truth can only be found in the totality of God’s word. Therefore, it is of the greatest necessity that any argument out of the Scriptures be shown to have a unified theme from beginning to end. While there is not space here to lay out every verse that presents a temple theology; it is only necessary to show a few verses from both the Old and New Testaments to demonstrate unilateral agreement. This is especially true when the Scriptures themselves are framed at the beginning and end by such agreement.
Genesis: Building a Temple
The book of Genesis says that God spent five days creating a structure (1:1-20, NIV). On the sixth day after putting on the finishing touches, God creates an image of himself – mankind (V. 24-27). Now the words “image” and “likeness” found in verse twenty-six carry the connotation of an “analogous idol.” The purpose of an idol is for the praise and worship (religiously or politically) of a superior person or being. So, in the very opening of the Scripture, it is to be found that God builds a structure in which he places an image of himself for the purposes of worship; a clear espousal of temple theology.
Additionally, Genesis speaks of God resting (2:2). While this is not uncommon for ancient creation narratives around Mesopotamia, what make Genesis unique is the fact that “Israelite theology does not require rest from either cosmic or human disturbances but seeks rest in a dwelling place (see especially Ps 132: 7-8, 13-14).” It is clear from the narrative that the author intended the readers of Genesis to assume the resting place was to be the Heaven and Earth reality spoken of in the very first verse of Genesis (1:1). That such an assumption can be made is verified later in the narrative as it speaks of God planting a garden and subsequently walking in that garden (2:8; 3:8). As Walton points out, “The major temple complexes in Mesopotamia featured, besides the temple itself (usually including several chambers) a ziggurat and a garden.” The fact that Genesis does not mention a ziggurat may only indicate the unity of the two realms of Heaven and Earth since the purpose of such a structure was to allow access for the deity between the realms. Still, the entire nature of the creation narrative indeed shows many remarkable features that speak of temple theology – namely the idea that God was building his own temple.
Exodus: Establishing a Sacred Space
Immediately following Genesis, is the Exodus narrative. Moses’s first encounter with God is in the form of a burning bush on Mt. Horeb (Ex 3:2-4). God tells Moses, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (V. 5). Through this command, God was informing Moses of two pieces of information. First, God was announcing his presence. Second God was announcing his “sacred space.” “The residence of the deity in the temple required the recognition of sacred space;” in this case the Earth as established in Genesis.
Later, God strikes the Egyptians through the hand of Moses with the ten plagues. The purpose of these plagues was not simply to cause physical and economic sanctions against Egypt and her pharaoh for refusing to let God’s people go. It was to demonstrate God’s sovereignty of the Earth as his temple. Additionally, it was to drive the chosen people to the sacred space which God announced to Moses (c.f. V. 12).
The entire Exodus story moves forward to the building of the tabernacle (25:8). It is clear that from this point on the tabernacle and its replacement, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, take a feature and central role in the political, religious and daily life of the Israelites. Indeed, as Homan observes:
“The Temple in Jerusalem and its predecessor, are the two most important structures in ancient Israel according to the Bible. They both served as terrestrial homes for Yahweh, the primary deity of ancient Israel. The authors of the Hebrew Bible allotted nearly 470 verses to describe the form and furnishings of the Tabernacle and Temple, far more than any other structures in all of ancient Near Eastern literature.”
It seems obvious, then, that, for at least the Old Testament, temple theology under girds the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures. This, in despite of the notable absence of discussion of Ezekiel’s vision of God’s departure from the temple (Ezk 10) or Daniel’s prophecy of the abomination of desolation (Daniel 9). Temple theology was a mainstay of Israelite religion. It was at the tabernacle and later the temple where the unity of Heaven and Earth remained intact. It was at these structures where the Israelites experienced the presence of God. Still, this theological theme did not end with the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 701 BCE. It continued and shaped New Testament theology as well.
New Testament: The Restoration Project
The New Testament does not in and of itself speak directly to a temple theology. It, in fact, assumes it as an underlying current of thought by constantly referring or alluding back to the temple theology of the Old Testament. This assumption is seen in the Gospels (especially John’s) through the Pauline letters and finally in the book Revelations. Temple theology was not destroyed with either the destruction of Solomon’s Temple or the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 CE. It continued to shape the Biblical writers’ thoughts, intentions, and meanings within their various texts.
In the first chapter of his Gospel, John invites his readers to think back to the creation narrative of Genesis and the Exodus narrative. He writes, “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was close beside God, and the Word was God. In the beginning, he was close beside God. All things came into existence through him; not one thing that exists came into existence without him.” (Vs. 1-3). In simulating the beginning of Genesis, John alludes back to the creation narrative which has already been argued is in reality a temple building narrative.
Later in the chapter he writes, “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us.” (V. 14, KNT). The Greek word translated by the English word “lived” is σκηνόω. This Greek word means to pitch a tent or tabernacle. John clearly wants his readers to think back to Exodus 25. In commenting on this verse, Towns correctly notes, “The tabernacle was the dwelling place of God and the meeting place of God and Israel, making it the most perfect type of Christ, the Word incarnate, in the Old Testament.”
Paul also picks up on this thought of the temple as the dwelling place of God. Commenting on Colossians 1:19-20, Wright says, “It is the one God, in all his fullness that dwells in him [Christ].” In a more direct statement of temple theology, Paul asks the Corinthians, “Or don’t you know that your body is a temple of the holy spirit within you, the spirit God gave you, so that you don’t belong to yourselves?” (1 Cor 6:19). It simply cannot be denied that Paul did not have temple theology in mind when he penned these passages.
Finally, we come to Revelations. Written in the late 90’s BCE, over two decades after the destruction of Herod’s Temple, John continues to think in terms of temple theology. Writing in the context of a prophetic vision of the end of the age, John declares, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (21:22). It seems the structure that becomes the dwelling place of God is Jesus. This agrees with Paul’s statement to the Colossians. John and Paul, clearly, are on the same thought plane in terms of their theology. It is totally consistent with one another. Additionally, John in the very next chapter, describes the restoration of Eden (23:1-5). The Scriptures end exactly where they began: a temple and its garden.
Temple Theology and Eschatology
So far, I have argued that temple theology underpins the theology of the scriptures in their entirety. It is important at this juncture, to demonstrate what effects such underpinning may have upon doctrinal ideologies. In some cases, these effects may call into question traditional orthodox views held by many Christians and denominations within the Church. One such doctrine is the “escape to heaven” view of Eschatology known as the rapture.
Towns defines the rapture as the moment at the second coming of Christ when Christians “will be caught up in the air and, instantaneously, they will receive glorified bodies and go to heaven to be with the Lord.” He argues for this doctrine mainly on the strength of two key passages of scripture found in the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4. Temple theology sheds serious reasonable doubt upon the validity of such a doctrine in several ways.
The first way that reasonable doubt is cast there is limited scriptural evidence of the rapture compared to temple theology. Towns admits there are only two key passages, both of which are in the New Testament., which serve as a foundation for the doctrine. These are 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4. From the outset, the passage to the Corinthians may be rejected as the context does not support a rapture; but rather deals with idea of a bodily resurrection. However, the passage in 1 Thessolonians does seem to explicitly offer validity when it says:
“The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. The Messiah’s dead will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up with them among the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And in this way we shall always be with the Lord” (4:16-17).
Yet, this verse may be rejected on the grounds that to use a single passage out of scripture may be justifiably labeled as proof-texting. As Kaiser and Silva point out, “This method, insofar as it ignores context, is completely inadequate…What is forfeited in this method is any divine authority for what is taught.” Towns and others who teach the rapture completely remove the passage out of the Biblical context. Instead of viewing the whole of scripture, they telescope in to the individual letter and chapter. The passage becomes foundational rather than theology upon which the passage is built. However, Towns incriminates himself by being presuppositionalist and presuming God exists. He has just laid a theological foundation upon which all scripture is built.
By comparison, temple theology (as has already been argued) is theology upon which by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, all scripture has been built. It is unilateral from Genesis to Revelation in its underpinning. The Thessalonian passage must be seen in light of such theology. If the restoration of the temple which was built in Genesis 1 is the end game (cf. Rom 8), then the passage must speak of initial ascent into the physical clouds and return because of its assertion of being in the presence (in the temple) of God.
Additionally, the rapture doctrine places the power of sin on level footing with the power of God. In Genesis, God declares the creation to be good (1:31). Paul and Isaiah speak of a time when the creation will be restored to its original “goodness” (Is 11:6; Rom 8:20-21). If believers are to escape to heaven, then God has conceded that what sin has caused, he cannot restore. If then God cannot restore the effects of sin our whole salvation and hope is misplaced as Christians.
Finally, the doctrine of the rapture denies the whole purpose of creation. If God is seeking a place to dwell as argued from Genesis; and Christians go to where He is now; it begs the question: Why did God create the physical in the first place? The answer lies in what a person holds as the central thing of creation. If a person holds to the prideful view that God created out of love for man; then man becomes center. If a person holds to the view that God created for God; then God is central. The centrality of man view presupposes the premise that God is only interested in salvation of man. The centrality of God view presupposes that God is interested in the salvation of all of creation and man has been given the opportunity to join in that process.
Temple theology has largely been ignored by the academic world. However, it has recently been a strong voice by the likes of notable scholars such as John Walton and N.T. Wright. These voices have brought strong challenges to traditional and orthodox Christian beliefs especially within the Western Church.
I have argued, based on the theological underpinning of temple theology, that the doctrine of the rapture is subject to serious questions. I have offered a proper definition for temple theology and shown a unilateral theme of underpinning from Genesis to Revelation. I raised three serious objections to the doctrine of the rapture; while demonstrating how temple theology answers those same questions. It seems reasonable therefore that a serious discussion and re-visitation of this doctrine is called for. However, it is not only the rapture that must be reexamined in light of this crucial theology. All doctrines must be subject to the entirety of scripture and the totality of the word of God as truth. There is much work to be done by the present generation of scholars and teachers and the generations yet to come.
Dunnam, M.D. Exodus: Exodus. Thomas Nelson, 2004.
Enns, P.P. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Moody Publishers, 2014.
Homan, Michael M. “The Tabernacle and the Temple in Ancient Israel.” Religion Compass 1, no. 1 (2007): 38-49. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8171.2006.00006.x.
Kaiser, W.C. and M. Silva. An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning. Zondervan, 1994.
Keener, C.S. and InterVarsity Press. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. InterVarsity Press, 1993.
MacDonald, William. “Temple Theology.” Pneuma 1, no. 1 (1979 1979): 39-48. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/15700747 (Subscriber access);
Stevens, B. Why God Created the World: A Jonathan Edwards Adaptation. Tyndale House Publishers, 2014.
Towns, E.L. Theology for Today. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2001.
Towns, E.L., M. Couch, and E.E. Hindson. The Gospel of John: Believe and Live. AMG Publishers, 2002.
Von Rad, G. Genesis: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 1973.
Walton, J.H. Ancient near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Baker Publishing Group, 2006.
Walton, J.H., V.H. Matthews, and M.W. Chavalas. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperCollins, 2008.
Wright, N.T. Colossians and Philemon. InterVarsity Press, 2015.
 N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperCollins, 2008), 31-32.
 P.P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Moody Publishers, 2014), 26.
 William MacDonald, “Temple Theology,” Pneuma 1, no. 1 (1979 1979): 45, http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/15700747 (Subscriber access);
 Ibid., 39.
 Ignatius Press, Catholic Bible-Rsv (Ignatius Press, 2006).
 Holy Bible (Niv) (Zondervan, 2008).
 G. Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 1973), 57-58.
 J.H. Walton, V.H. Matthews, and M.W. Chavalas, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2000).
 J.H. Walton, Ancient near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Baker Publishing Group, 2006), 119.
 Ibid., 118.
 M.D. Dunnam, Exodus: Exodus (Thomas Nelson, 2004).
 Michael M. Homan, “The Tabernacle and the Temple in Ancient Israel,” Religion Compass 1, no. 1 (2007): 38, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8171.2006.00006.x.
 C.S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 249.
 N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (HarperCollins, 2011).
 E.L. Towns, M. Couch, and E.E. Hindson, The Gospel of John: Believe and Live (AMG Publishers, 2002), 4.
 N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (InterVarsity Press, 2015), 79-80.
 For reasoning behind this date, see Keener and Press, 723-24.
 E.L. Towns, Theology for Today (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2001), 753.
 W.C. Kaiser and M. Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Zondervan, 1994), 33.
 For a detailed discussion on the reason for creation; see B. Stevens, Why God Created the World: A Jonathan Edwards Adaptation (Tyndale House Publishers, 2014).