With great confidence (and financial expenditure), May 21, 2011 is declared to be the day of Jesus’ return. Or the rapture. Or whatever.
But, of course, it wasn’t.
Neither was 1994 or 1982.
When the obsession with eschatology (ideas about “the end”) produces such crazy results, it’s tempting to leave eschatology aside altogether. Let the obsessed have their little obsession while the rest of us get on with the business of real life, and real faith.
But it would be a mistake to give up on eschatology altogether.
The Bible is, if not properly “eschatological” throughout, always heading toward a goal, a brighter future. The first creation story, Gen 1, does not depict a perfect world to be preserved. It depicts a wild world that needs to be subdued, that needs to be filled, that needs to be brought under human rule in faithful service to God.
The stories of the patriarchs pick up on the language of Gen 1 when the covenant promises include God’s word that God will “make you fruitful and multiply you.”
The creation project is not abandoned. The world still has a future. And God’s people are at the very heart of it.
So where does eschatology come in?
Eschatology proper begins to develop as people find themselves in places where they cannot see the promises of God with their eyes and yet continue to believe that God will be faithful to bring those promises to fulfillment. It is the deliberate choice not to give up on God, even when it looks like God might have given up on us.
And so when Israel is in exile, it looks to the return: God arriving on the scene, present with God’s people once again, and restoring land, seed, abundance, kingship, and even hearts.
And when the return fizzles out? When there’s no king, slavery to foreigners while on the land, a shoddy temple, and continued disobedience?
Eschatological hopes begin a fresh fomentation and the people look for the day when the cleansing, earth-shattering visitation of God will come on the scene to make good on all that God has said God will do.
Eschatology isn’t bad–it just needs to be read as part of the story of which Jesus himself is the end, the goal. When he arrives on the scene and proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has drawn near,” we are confronted with the claim that all of Israel’s hopes for “the end” have begun to arrive on the scene.
Such a reading of the story highlights two mistakes that popular eschatology can make: (1) it can be too other-worldly. Notice how promises of land, abundance–what folks nowadays are referring to as “shalom” are what typify the end. As N. T. Wright says, this is not about God saving us from the world, but God saving the world through us. Or, to put it my way, God has not given up on the story that began in Gen 1.
(2) Popular eschatology can be too future-oriented. Jesus came and said, “Now is the time.” The end has already begun. That is going to have massive ramifications for how we think about our eschatology.
More on that next time.