Don’t Give Up on Eschatology

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.

Unholy Clothes Get Left Behind

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.

12 thoughts on “Don’t Give Up on Eschatology”

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention it, but we’re actually right on the verge of Camping’s revised end-date: October 21st.

    Well, to be fair to him, this is only a partial revision. May 21st was only ever supposed to be the date of the Rapture. He always had the world itself ending on October 21st. When the Rapture didn’t come, he merely revised his prophecies to say that it was all going to happen on October 21st.

    I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the media isn’t anywhere near as abuzz about this whole thing now as it was in May….

    (I comment more on the whole thing here, if you care to check it out.)

  2. Help me with this: why such an intense focus (not you specifically) on the END when Chapter 22 of Revelation is all about a new BEGINNING? Isn’t the point that END TIMES are just a means to an end – which is a beginning? If the New Jerusalem will be a paradise that will wipe away all memory of prior worlds or realities, then obsessing over when the present reality will end (eschatology) almost feels trivial. The citizens of New Jerusalem will not think in terms of what’s been lost or how the prior world ended, they will have perfect contentment at home with the Lord.

    The “when” of the end shouldn’t matter. For those who believe it’s an inevitability. It’s like the kid in the backseat who keeps asking “When will we get there?”. The parent driving sighs “We’ll get there when we get there.” Same thing with the END. This world will be over when it’s over.

    Like your blog!

  3. Agree with your post…until the very end. It seems to me that the (fairly new) talk about shalom (Wright is a good example) comes only from western culture (America/Europe) and not from a culture where being a Christian actually costs one something. In other words it is pretty difficult to imagine a North Korean believer being at all interested in a theology of “shalom” in North Korea. And this, it seems to me, is the value of eschatology, no matter our situation, no matter our misery, no matter the cost of our faith on this earth, we are going home, our citizenship is in heaven. That is worth perseverance. I’ll side with Paul on this one.

  4. “The end has already begun”

    What major practical difference in the world is there for a modern Christian and for an ancient Israelite, say Abraham? Why could Abraham not say “The end has already begun”? Both Abraham and a modern Christian live in a “wild world”. Will the ‘wildness’ of the world as practically experienced significantly change before the ‘final end’?

  5. I love the pic! As I hear you, there is a lot of parallel to the various discussions about Scott McKnight and The King Jesus Gospel. The cultural focus on eschatology seems to be about us and what we want instead of God and what He is doing in the world. Getting past that is the first step to making any progress in the Kingdom of God.

  6. I think part of the problem is that we start with a category, Eschatology, and then we ask “what does the Bible say about this…?” Then we cobble together the answers to our questions. Rather, we should read the Bible for what is there, and only answer the questions that we find (reasonably) behind the text, that the text actually answers. I’m learning that often times we force answers to questions that just are not being answred, or we ask them in a way the original audience could have never even envisioned.

    Then again, the rapture may be Friday ;-)

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