Whatever Happened to Eschatology?
I am a geek when it comes to end-time scenarios. I appreciate the creativity and skill that goes into producing charts, timetables, and future histories. One can bend and twist Scripture over other theological categories such a salvation, ecclesiology and the nature of Christ, yet it will always be a derivative of previous work. Since eschatology involves the future, every age is able to create new and surprising end-time scenarios based on recent developments. Nineteenth-century millennial schemes are boring with their dull dispensations absent of any mention of a Nazi Empire, war in the Middle East, cloning, and microchips. I admit to a guilty fascination with sci-fi flavored end-time scenarios, but I am humbled that some of my spiritual ancestors were guided by a richer eschatological vision than I have.
Whatever happened to our enthusiasm for Christ’s return? Why aren’t we sincere when we sing “this world is not my home?” The church has rightly discarded anxious and fearful revivalist eschatologies, but have we replaced them with a healthier perspective? I call us to embrace a biblical view of the last things, and what follows are my first five contributions to the matter:
- No more charts, please. The London Underground is less complicated than the average “Biblical Chronology of the End Time” chart. Reducing the scriptural imagery and narrative into a single diagram has boiled all the flavor out of the text. Our modernistic cosmological sensibilities have obscured the meaning of God’s word. Do we truly have to distinguish between hell and hades or heaven and paradise to understand the meaning of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus?
- We need more than heavenly reservations and fire insurance. Our evangelism suffers when the gospel is reduced to a set of instructions that will preplan our eternal address. The biblical vision of heaven is multidimensional and resonates with themes of perfection, glory, triumph, justice, and intimacy with God. How unfortunate that heaven gets reduced to being “safe on base” when hell steals the show.
- Let’s dream of a future beyond a five-year plan. The vision of a mansion on a hilltop on the other side of Jordan in Canaan’s fair and happy land seems a bit homespun in the 21st. It can seem like old grainy black-and-white films with bad special effects. But that doesn’t mean the story is bad. Many churches get excited about their five- to ten-year growth plans, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. But can we see out beyond that? The ultimate vision of 2 Pet. 3:13 is a new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells. That is the star on the horizon that guides our now and our near future. Which brings me to my next point.
- Eschatology is the GPS for discipleship. If I had to list the top 10 technology innovations in my lifetime, GPS navigation devices would be on that list. I learned to drive in the time of the ancient mariners with map and compass, but I am not so proud that I won’t take directions from Siri, Garmin, or Google. I am thankful that even when I make a wrong turn my robotic assistant recalculates the route to get me back to that all important destination. (Sometimes I intentionally take wrong turns just to throw the computer into an endless cycle of “recalculating”). Our loss of vision and expectancy for the return of Christ and a new creation impacts our discipleship and church activity. The politics, the people, and the stewardship of this world should matter to Christ’s disciples, but we need to always keep that concern as a waypoint on the destination. If we do, then we can always recalculate when our agenda turns us the wrong way.
- Happy are those who have the right eschatology. Most of us are familiar with the first sentence of Reinhold Niehbuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.” The full prayer, however, concludes with the confession that if we surrender ourselves to God’s will—that is, God’s plan—then we have the opportunity to be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy forever in the next life. This is not a pie-in-the-sky wish for those who are struggling, but an ever widening course toward happiness for those who yield to God’s emerging rule over this realm.