Jesus Eschatology

When I last made an impassioned plea for eschatology, I said that eschatology is what happens when the people of God, not seeing the promises of God with their own eyes, nonetheless continue to believe that God will make good on what God has promised.

More specifically, I suggested that eschatology needs to be read as one dynamic of the story of Jesus–not as a self-contained entity to be strung together based on various Bible verses.

So what is Jesus-story eschatology? It is about the goal of this world breaking into history with the advent of Jesus, the Messiah.

When Jesus sets out, he proclaims, “The time has been fulfilled! The reign of God has come near!”

As I like to tell my students, Mark gives us a two-sentence sermon, but then two chapters of stories: the stories are the way that Mark shows us what it means that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom drawn near.

The reign of God is breaking into the world through

  • authoritative teaching
  • power over hostile spirits
  • power over physical illness
  • power over social and religious isolation
  • power over the guilt of sin
  • an open invitation into the reconfigured people of God

What is the eschatology that Jesus brings about? It is the regathering of the people as promised, the restoration of the people to full standing in God’s family. It is a defeat of the hostile powers that warred against God’s people to keep those people from experiencing the fulness of the blessing of God.

It is even the provision of an abundant land, where the baskets of grain overflow.

All of this means that the reign of God has drawn near. In the person of Jesus, the king of God’s kingdom, God is restoring the earth to rights.

But here is where we have to be careful. In fact, we are right up to the point where the history of Christianity has shown us that we are always most often prone to go astray.

Image: Sura Nualpradid / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The danger is that by embracing an inaugurated eschatology we will get the idea that we are now able, at long last, to walk by sight. The disciples thought they understood the abundance of the kingdom that was unfolding before their eyes. They were pretty sure it meant that the throne of the king would be established in Jerusalem, with them on thrones next to it.

But that’s not how the kingdom works.

What they should have learned from the parables, what they should have learned from the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000 is that the kingdom breaks in where there is nothing we can see with our eyes capable of producing the needed abundance.

What they should have been ready for after eight chapters of watching a Galilean peasant walk about doing miracles, bringing healing and life out of despair, is that the ultimate victory of life in the age to come is ushered in by the ultimate nothingness (death) bearing fruit in an incalculable harvest (through Jesus’ resurrection).

Eschatology is the refusal to give up on the promises of God, even when it looks like God has given up on us and on his world.

Inaugurated eschatology is the conviction that the power of the kingdom, the promised fullness of God, will burst forth and provide in rich abundance here and now, even when we cannot see with our eyes the fullness of the harvest.

Inaugurated eschatology is the summons to move out on faith, trusting that the smallest seed will sprout and bring forth a plant in which all the birds of the air can find their food.

Inaugurated eschatology is the summons to begin to feed the hungry with the little we have, trusting that the God’s kingdom economy of abundance is not constrained by the lack by which we would measure it.

Inaugurated eschatology is trusting that if we truly become servants, loving others with the self-giving love of God in Christ, that life untold will spring forth from that place of death.

The danger of inaugurated eschatology is triumphalism, that in our round proclamations that all things are made new we might miss the fact that we cannot measure with our eyes and hands, yet, the abundance of God’s kingdom.

The solution is to remember that it is still eschatology, about the end–and that in Jesus-eschatology the great and climactic end comes by way of the cross.

We still walk by faith, not by sight. And the way we walk is the one to which the Crucified summoned us: take up your cross and follow me.

16 thoughts on “Jesus Eschatology”

  1. I know it’s become almost a cliche, but I find it helpful to remember that we are living “between the now and the not yet.” God gives us just enough “sight” to whet our appetite for more and that requires even more faith to walk it all out.

  2. These are exactly the points I was highlighting in my mind while you were articulating them on Saturday. I need to keep this post and the October 15th one on file because they are helpful in terms of some issues coming up in the later chapters of my book. BTW – great tunnel photo. I can’t for the life of me find images on the internet that I can download without signing up for this – paying for that. I love the visuals you include. It’s like a little tour in an art museum and hey – just like in D.C. – free of charge!

  3. You say “the kingdom breaks in where there is nothing we can see with our eyes capable of producing the needed abundance. What they should have been ready for … is that the ultimate victory of life in the age to come is ushered in by the ultimate nothingness (death) bearing fruit in an incalculable harvest (through Jesus’ resurrection)”. Now, they didn’t see where the loaves came from (I suppose) but they did see that they had come. So, why should they be ready to see that the harvest was coming but they wouldn’t be seeing it here and now?

    Likewise, for us, you say “Inaugurated eschatology is the conviction that the power of the kingdom, the promised fullness of God, will burst forth and provide in rich abundance here and now, even when we cannot see with our eyes the fullness of the harvest”. So, you are asking us to trust that abundance is in fact present here and now and increasing, but we don’t actually get to see it here and now (maybe in some sort of retrospective vision when the kingdom has completely come, we will see that much was already here and increasing though invisible to us).

    Have I got what you are saying! (As I’ve already posted, how is the experience of Christians different, then, than that of Abraham? We don’t see any more practical difference in the state of the world than he did. But, you seem to be saying that, nevertheless, there is more invisible abundance around Christians now than there was around Abraham in his time. And I suppose you are saying that there is now more invisible abundance around us than there was around Christians a thousand years ago, as the kingdom comes in more and more, etc.)

    Just trying to figure out what you’re saying!

  4. Some thoughts:
    1. For all of your…ahem…railing against systems of theology, this appears to be a…system of theology.

    2. As I’ve already pointed out, I just don’t see how this theology gets any traction in North Korea or Iran or Iraq, etc. It seems to be an eschatology formed from one cultural experience (western Christianity)rather than from the Scriptures. Where does Paul ground hope? “For I consider the sufferings of our present time not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

    1. As for 1: you’re going to get yourself blocked if you keep that up. :-)

      As for 2: I should think that folks in countries such as you list would be the first to articulate a cruciform eschatology. A couple of challenges we’ve got here: first, I’m wanting to allow Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God to have continuing significance in the church’s theology. If all is simply future, then Jesus was wrong, his ministry a series of pranks, and Christianity false.

      There is in-breaking, but not yet wholesale transformation. And Paul’s own appeal to the cross is central to the “nothing” that we see with our eyes that nonetheless produces an “abundance” of kingdom return.

      I’d say that Paul himself envisioned his cruciform life producing kingdom fruit now: “So, death works in us, but life in you.” His churches are a manifestation of the kingdom abundance that comes from self-giving love.

      Moreover, his articulations of Christian identity: possessing the Spirit, the sanctified, the justified–these are depictions of an inaugurated eschatology. So is his anticipation that there is a healing ministry in the church. So is his expectation that from an abundance of poverty there overflows rich liberality that provides for other poor believers’ needs.

      1. Thanks, Kirk, for identifying the kinds of things that you have in mind for the manifestations of the kingdom pre the end. I wonder if there is increase over time, or whether the manifestations of the kingdom now will remain low scale and not visibly increase (as surely has been the case until now – can ‘abundance’ really be the right word) right up to the end.

  5. The signs are partial and provisional, and yet in those moments very real and present. They break into our present and draw us into the future. Now to live it.

  6. Amen! I have long been a proponent of inaugurated eschatology – or more specifically, enacted inaugurated eschatology as we have to walk out our theology and not just think about.

    Good stuff. :)

  7. You say: “If all is simply future, then Jesus was wrong, his ministry a series of pranks, and Christianity false.”

    Wow, there are a lot more choices than that. Jesus followed John the Baptizer in believing in the imminence of the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets. The time was ripe for the kingdom of God to be set up right then and there, or so they thought.

    Jesus was so sure the end was near he described how the end would happen while they were alive. Paul was so sure the end was near that he told people to not marry. Peter was so sure the end was near that he said, well “the end is near.”

    They were sincere adherents of a religion that had a particular eschatology. It turned out they were wrong, but it was no prank. What that means about Christianity is for people to decide.

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