My latest Grove Booklet is now available and it offers an overview of eschatology—beliefs about the end things—starting with background ideas in the Old Testament and looking at the key issues in the Gospels, Paul and Revelation. My introduction explains why this is such an important issue.
Eschatology, meaning ‘understanding of last things,’ is of central importance for us as we read the New Testament. G E Ladd went so far as to claim that eschatology ‘is the unifying centre of New Testament theology.’ The idea of the ‘kingdom of God,’ central to Jesus’ teaching and a key part of NT eschatology, is key to understanding Christian discipleship and ethics. Pentecostal scholarship has pointed to the importance of the Spirit, the ‘end times’ gift for the people of God, within the theology of Paul. And interest in Jesus’ second coming, in scholarship and in the popular imagination, continues unabated.
But many people find the subject of eschatology either baffling or exotic—a subject to avoid because of the dangers of wild speculation. But if we ignore it, we run into trouble in at least three areas. First, we will miss or misunderstand a fundamental theme of Scripture. Secondly, we will not have the confidence to correct the wild speculation that will continue to come our way every time there is a ‘blood moon’ or an election result that feels rather apocalyptic to us. Thirdly, we will lack understanding that can help in key pastoral issues we and our loved ones will encounter. Why was my friend not healed after prayer—and does that mean we should give up praying for people? What is the relationship between the church and the world—should we be happy to adopt secular agendas or be critical of them? Where can we find God when faced with serious disappointment? And how can we make sense of all the suffering in the world—not least on the part of God’s people? All these questions are linked to eschatology, and we cannot answer them convincingly without understanding the eschatology of the New Testament.
This booklet follows the progressive development of eschatology in the Bible. Chapter two looks at the Old Testament background to the theme of God as king and the hope of his intervention in the world. Chapter three turns to the gospels and Jesus’ teaching; even though the gospels were written later than Paul’s letters, his theology was shaped by Jesus’ perspective. Chapter four looks at the distinctive expression Paul gave to eschatology in his missionary activity and teaching of the early Jewish-Gentile Christian communities, as well as noting some issues in the Book of Revelation. The nal chapter explores the implications of eschatology for pastoral practice.
One of the things that has struck me very forcibly in writing this piece is the consistency amongst different NT writers in their understanding of eschatology—but it is a consistency which poor exegesis has very often obscured. I was fascinated by one of the words that Paul uses in his description of the end in 1 Cor 15, his long discourse about the importance of resurrection, both Jesus’ in the past and ours in the future, and the relationship between the two.
In 1 Cor 15.51–52, Paul describes what will happen at the end, using the distinction also found in 1 Thess 4 between those who have already died (‘those who sleep’) and those who are alive when Jesus returns.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
(Just to file under Bad Jokes, this includes the verse put over all church nurseries: ‘We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed’.)
I was struck by the word for ‘flash’ or ‘instant’, which is atomos; it is related to the word ‘to cut’, and means ‘indivisible’. It is where we get our word ‘atom’ from—thought at one time to be the smallest indivisible unit of matter. Paul is clear that Jesus’ return and all that comes with it will happen in an instant, not as a staged process that we can anticipate.
This ties in which the language that Paul (1 Thess 5.2), Peter (2 Peter 3.10), and Revelation (Rev 3.3, 16.15) use, as well as Jesus in the gospels (Matt 24.43) when they talk of his return as coming ‘like a thief in the night’ (though Paul notes that for us, he comes as a friend in the day if we are always ready to welcome him, 1 Thess 5.4). The emphasis here is on suddenness and unexpectedness; the break-in of the thief does not come at the end of an extended process which we could watch and anticipate, but completely unexpectedly, which is why we must be alert.
Matthew goes on to recount one parable of Jesus (the ‘ten virgins’, Matt 25.1–13) whose focus is entirely on this theme of the sudden and unexpected return of the bridegroom, and another (the parable of the ‘talents’, Matt 25.14–30) which is interpreted by Mark, in his shortened version (Mark 13.33–37) to be making exactly the same point.
Why, then, have we ended up with so many ‘end times’ schemes, with signs that we are supposed to be looking out for? In relation to the New Testament, it is mostly due to poor exegesis of three key passages:
- Matt 24.3–35 are often cited as giving us ‘signs of the times’ to look out for. In fact that phrase comes much earlier, in Matt 16.3, and Jesus is using it to talk about the state of the nation, their failure to recognise who he is which he knows will lead to judgement. The word ‘sign’ is used by the disciples in their question (Matt 24.3), and by Jesus in Matt 24.30, and he talks of learning the ‘lesson of the fig tree’. But he immediately goes on to say that ‘all this will take place before this generation passes away’ (Matt 24.34)—all the signs he has mentioned relate to the immediate future for his disciples (as I have previously explored), and not his return! The moment he focuses on the longer term, he starts to emphasise suddenness and unexpectedness.
- 1 Thess 4.17 and Paul’s language of ‘meeting the Lord in the air’ has been used as the basis of the doctrine of ‘the rapture’, where Christians are whisked away to be with the Lord prior to an ‘end times’ ‘tribulation’ (period of suffering). But this assumes that the Lord whom we meet will then change gear and go into reverse, back into heaven—whereas Paul’s language about this uses the term parousia, meaning the royal presence with his subjects after he has been away for a long time (making another connection with Jesus’ teaching). Paul nowhere suggests that this is anything other than a single moment, just as he goes on to do in more detail in 1 Cor 15.
- The most complex is the sequence of events in Revelation 19–21, which includes in Rev 20 the millennial reign of Christ for 1,000 years. But it is quite characteristic of Revelation to describe a single phenomenon several times from different perspectives. The people of God in Rev 7 are described both as a Jewish, finite, numbered people who are sealed, and as an unnumbered people from ‘every nation, tribe, language and people’. Jesus is depicted in angelic terms, as resembling the Ancient of Days, as both a lion and a lamb, and in any number of other ways. The best way of understanding Rev 19–21 is not as a chronological sequence so much as visions of different aspects of Jesus’ return, with each of the seven visions being introduced by ‘And I saw’ (kai eidon, 19.11; 19.17; 19.19; 20.1; 20.4; 20.11; 21.1).
The best reading of the evidence sees Jesus’ return as a single event, but with multiple significance.
For a helpful review of the booklet, have a look at Richard Peers’ blog. Richard is kind enough to comment:
Ian’s writing style is always concise, and persuasive. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Grove Book and recommend it wholeheartedly.
To order the booklet for £3.95 and post-free in the UK, go to the Grove website. Note that there are discounts for buying multiple copies!
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