Eschatology is Everything

Eschatology. “The study of the end.” Or, “What we believe about The End.”

In Christian circles, eschatology is drawn to the fore when people are predicting that the world will end on a particular date. Or when we are trying to convince someone to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before it’s too late.

But all of this puts the accent on the wrong syllable (as Mrs. Heavener used to say in Spanish class, giving due stress to the second syllable of the word “syllable” for good measure: syl-LA-ble).

And this month’s Christianity Today has an outstanding, short essay by David Neff putting things back in order.

Neff makes six points about Christian eschatology:

  1. Biblical eschatology is about justice
  2. Biblical justice is about eschatology
  3. Biblical eschatology is about the world’s divine destiny
  4. Justice announces the kingdom’s arrival
  5. Sacrificing for justice is an act of faith that God will make good our sacrifices
  6. Jesus’ parables of judgment are often about justice

When you survey this list, one thing that sticks out is that eschatology is very much this-worldly. It is one of the ironies of traditional evangelical (Dispensational) eschatology that its focus on “the end” has made it other-worldly, so concerned about the coming of Jesus that it has taken all attention away from the world in which we live.

Why ironic? Because Jesus’ proclamation of the end served notice that the days were numbered for the powers that were disordering his world: hunger was disappearing with the advent of a kingdom of abundance. Sickness was being undone with the advent of the kingdom of healing. Exclusion was disappearing with the advent of the kingdom of transforming embrace.

The end means that God is bringing justice.

For the end to have drawn near means that the justice for which we wait in the days ahead is reaching backward and invading the days in which we live.

It is in the face of this, the advent of the justice of God, that Jesus proclaims, “Repent, for the reign of God has drawn near!”

16 thoughts on “Eschatology is Everything”

  1. I got so excited when I read this quote from Michael J. Gorman the other day that I tweeted it: “For the NT, the ‘end times’ is the period between the first and the second coming of Jesus” (Reading Revelation Responsibly, 72).

    It’s so critical that more American evangelicals get their heads around this, so that we can start shifting our culture away from this end-of-the-world, Armageddon mentality. The world thinks we’re weird for all the wrong reasons.

    1. I’m glad to see CT publishing articles like these. Call me cynical but, given our tendency to read the Bible as though the US was its primary audience, I suspect that if Barack Obama’s reelected in 2012 we’ll see a resurgence of dispensational fanaticism. (I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Left Behind series’ record-breaking sales occurred during Clinton’s second term.)

      P.S. I’ve been preaching through Romans the last couple of months and have relied heavily on your fine book. Thank you.

    1. David,

      I recently wrote an essay on Revelation and the environment (“How Green was John’s World: Ecology and Revelation”), and I appreciated your 2008 CT article when I was doing background reading for that.

      I can’t find this new CT article online that Daniel mentions in this post. I look forward to reading it. I like the emphasis on justice. I’ve long thought it interesting that in the debates about the doctrine of hell (esp., the recent debates), justice is the main criticism of the doctrine, yet from a historical perspective, justice was the main reason for the rise of that doctrine (justice for Jewish and then later Christian martyrs).

      Keep up the great writing,

  2. Very wonderfully written. It seems to me in my own observations that too many Christians (myself included at one time) are fixated upon the end times, heaven, hell, and salvation, but deal very little with life in God’s kingdom here… now. They don’t deal with the many injustices occurring throughout the world. They do very little to serve the weak, the poor, the orphans, widows, and the downtrodden. But hey! At least they are saved and have a free ticket to heaven. This, not to mention a free ride in the sky to meet Jesus someday while millions of others “left behind” will suffer.

    I have learned that being a Christian is so much more than eagerly awaiting the return of Christ. So much more than heaven… hell… and the afterlife. More than expecting the return of our Savior someday. It’s about incarnating the kingdom of God… here on earth… now. It’s about loving others, serving others, and sharing with them the love, grace, and truth that Jesus exemplified. We should be hoping that the return of Christ will be delayed, because there is so much more work to be done now. Billions of people still don’t know Jesus while millions have yet to hear His name.

    1. “We should be hoping that the return of Christ will be delayed, because there is so much more work to be done now. ”

      …but, then what would we do with Revelation 22:20?

      Were the first century Christians worried about the length of time they had to “fix” the world?
      Never-the-less…since we are here and while we are here we should be about walking in the good works which were prepared for us previously by God…*: )

  3. Thank you, Daniel, for bringing attention to this article by David Neff. It can be all too discouraging when we take our eyes & faith from God and put into the governments of this world. ISTM that could be what dispensationalists did, even inadvertently or ignorantly. When our gaze is removed from God, who brings justice and the reign of God, we flounder – as many do – with understandable human anxiety and fear. Escape appears so much easier, doesn’t it? Perhaps, in a way, dispensationalism is almost as seductive to a fearful & uncertain Christian as self-destruction can appear to profoundly depressed and hopeless people. May we always & really bear the hope and this-world salvation of Jesus Christ in us to others in need. Thanks again to both of you for building us up in Christ for this journey!

  4. Yes. I agree. But isn’t it sad that the people had to imagine an end of time for justice to appear. There are many ways to read this. One common way I’ve heard is that true justice in this life is impossible, this is why there is an end to this age. But here too, the emphasis is on the wrong syLAble. It is a sign that our Bible reading needs to penetrate deeper. In my reading, the writers are so discouraged by their OWN situation, that they can’t imagine it changing, something often foreign to the white Western reader. Reading about eschatology, not as if it is an ontological prescription, but as an existential hope can give a true urgency to the reader that things have got to change. For me, this is where Bible study begins.

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