In my new Grove booklet on eschatology, after outlining eschatological expectation in Old and New Testaments, I end my reflecting on the pastoral implications of what we have found.There are many aspects of Christian living which are affected by our understanding of eschatology, and where misunderstanding creates serious obstacles both within the church and at the boundaries of faith.
Mostly due to the widespread influence of dispensational premillennialism, which divides the history of the world into epochs and has labelled our generation the ‘end times,’ there is no end to announcements today that the end is nigh. This is sometimes linked to so-called ‘blood moons,’ or to political developments in Europe, or the election of particular presidents. It is all based on a misreading of the key NT texts on eschatology, and (somewhat ironically) is just another expression of modern belief that our age is the pinnacle of history. Despite that, most ordinary Christians do not feel they have much of an answer to such claims; after all, should we not welcome something which encourages people to take seriously Jesus’ return and which might make them review their life? No, we should not, because each claim will prove false, and it contributes to the idea that Christian hope is delusional and belongs to the lunatic fringe.
A simple answer comes from noticing where Jesus’ command to ‘learn the lesson from the fig tree’ comes: in the first part of Matthew’s account, relating to the temple, but not in the second part, relating to Jesus’ final return. In fact, all the metaphors for the latter prohibit the possibility of looking for ‘signs of the times’ (Matt 16.3, a saying Jesus uses in relation to his own ministry, and not eschatology). You cannot know when lightning will strike (Matt 24.27) or when the thief comes to break in (v 43) or when the master returns from his trip (v 50); the whole point is that none of these are preceded by a series of indications that they are near, which is why Jesus repeatedly says, ‘You do not know!’ (vv 36, 42, 44, 50). The consistent encouragement in the NT in the light of this is to every day ‘live a life worthy of your calling’ precisely because we do not know when Jesus will return and cannot predict it (Eph 4.1, Col 1.10).
Israel and the Land
Both Christians and Jews are divided on the significance of the establishment of the modern state of Israel as a Jewish homeland—which by any account is certainly a remarkable historical phenomenon. Some Christians (along with some Jews) see this as a fulfilment of the promises in Isa 43.5 and Ezek 39.27 that God will bring his people back to the land from the nations in which they have gone into exile. If Tom Wright’s theological reading is correct—that Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom signals the end of exile—then we should see these promises fulfilled in Jesus, who now takes the place of the temple and the land, so that being ‘in Christ’ is the true fulfilment of the security and blessing that the promise of the land offered.
In fact there is absolutely no suggestion that the return of ethnic Jews to the geographical location of the land forms any part of NT expectation of Jesus’ return. This is perhaps not surprising in the letters written before the destruction of the temple in AD 70—but it is rather striking in both letters and gospels which were written after. After all, if Jews and Gentiles together are now the ‘Israel of God,’ what could such a ‘return’ look like (Gal 6.16)? For Matthew, the ‘gathering of the elect from the four winds’ (24.31) is now a way of talking of the Gentile mission, and Revelation makes the same move in describing the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel as an uncountable multitude from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev 7.9). Any Christian reading this booklet who is not circumcised is a living fulfilment of the ‘gathering’ promised in Isaiah 43 and Exodus 39.
Suffering, Healing and Answer to Prayer
The key contribution of NT eschatology to Christian discipleship is to locate all that we do between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom of God. John models this when he talks of being ‘your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance in Jesus’ (Rev 1.9). The strong sense of fulfilment that we find in the gospels and letters encourages us to have a great sense of expectancy when we pray for healing and the alleviation of suffering. Jesus announced that ‘the kingdom is at hand,’ that it was present in his ministry of healing and deliverance, and that we as his followers would do ‘even greater things than these’ (John 14.12). This does not leave much room for either an intentional or an accidental secessionism, where we think that Jesus’ ministry and the experience of the apostles belong in a different world from ours. We still live in the ‘end times,’ between Jesus’ coming and his return, the age when the Spirit of God can be poured out on every kind of person, and where God wants to perform signs and wonders.
Yet we still live in an imperfect world, where we do not see God’s name honoured, his will done or yet his kingdom come in all its glory. We are subject to suffering, which we share to some extent with all humanity, still subject to the ‘birth pangs’ of the age to come. Having ourselves tasted the ‘firstfruits of the Spirit,’ the wonder of the new creation that we look forward to, we ‘groan’ for all creation, longing that this future be realized in the present and frustrated by the pain and suffering we continue to see (Rom 8.23). In this, Jesus himself shared (Mark 7.34) echoing the people of God as they longed for God’s intervention (Acts 7.34), and the Spirit groans with us (Rom 8.26). Part of living out NT eschatology is making space for lament which expresses those groans of the Spirit in our corporate worship, alongside the exuberant praise and expectation that we find in what is realized of his kingdom. Worship and lament, kingdom and suffering, can only be held together by the ‘patient endurance’ that John commends.
Social Reform and Transhumanism
Jesus’ teaching on the transformation that he can bring, not just to individuals, but to relationships and therefore to cultures and society, has been a powerful motivation to Christians in all generations for being committed to social reform. At times, though, Christians have acted as though social reform is the sum total of what the kingdom of God is about, and that it might even be possible to see the perfect transformation of society in this age. This has sometimes been motivated by a suspicion of the supernatural, and a reduction of Jesus’ teaching to the social; at other times this has been motivated by postmillennialism, a belief that the millennium of Revelation 20 will be established on earth in this age and that Jesus will only return after this has been realized (hence ‘post-’). But it can also happen when Christians become so immersed in political debate that they act as though political solutions will answer all the questions that people have.
There is also a particular movement which sees the transformation of human life as about to take place within contemporary history. Transhumanism sees almost unlimited possibilities for human life facilitated by technological advances, and specifically the technological enhancement of the human body using both mechanical and computer implants, which enable us steadily to overcome our creaturely limitations.
To both of these inclinations—the realization of human perfection by social or technological means—Christian eschatology says very clearly that our salvation comes from beyond ourselves, and the realization of the end (in the sense of both goal and termination) of the world will only come by divine intervention.
Death and Post-mortem Destiny
The popular understanding of Christian views of death and life after death, both within and outside the church, are very often individualized, disembodied and detached from creation. So it is not uncommon at the time of death and funerals to hear the comment, ‘He/she is not here anymore; the body is just an empty shell and his/her spirit has gone to be with God.’ Or perhaps the theme is being reunited with loved ones in death.
The theologian Karl Barth was once asked, ‘Will I see those I love in heaven again?’ Barth replied, ‘Not just those you loved!’ The most common New Testament language about those who die in the faith of Christ is of ‘sleeping in death’ while awaiting the resurrection of the dead that will happen when Jesus returns and the whole creation is renewed (1 Thess 4.13; 1 Cor 15.51). And the universal New Testament hope for life after death (or perhaps ‘life after life after death’) is that we will be raised bodily, just as Jesus was, to inhabit this heaven-come-down-to-earth, rather than being disembodied spirits in an ethereal heaven as is often imagined. Our hope is not that God will restore or imitate our life and pattern of relationships, but that we will live a transformed bodily life in transformed relationships within a transformed and renewed creation.
I began this study by noting the importance of eschatology in understanding the New Testament, and have concluded by re ecting on the range of practical and pastoral issues which a proper understanding of eschatology can positively shape.
Given its importance both in our reading and in our discipleship, it seems high time that we should stop shying away from this subject, and make it once again an essential element of our teaching within our churches.
You can order the booklet for £3.95 and post-free in the UK, on the Grove website. Note that there are discounts for buying multiple copies!
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