July 29, 2014

A Way Forward for Eschatology

Christus Victor, Ravenna

By Chaplain Mike

Two years ago, Scot McKnight did a five-part series called “The Future of Christian Eschatology” on his Jesus Creed blog. We have all had this subject on our mind this week, thanks to the looney predictions of Harold Camping and all the press they received.

Today, I offer a summary from one of Scot’s posts that I think points in a fruitful direction for our continuing consideration of the Bible’s eschatological message.

Take some time to read and meditate on his thoughts. I think you will see the fruits of his own specialty in NT studies—the Gospels—as well as the influence of contemporary Jesus scholarship such as that of N.T. Wright.

I like what Scot says here. It brings the Jewish context and events in the days of Jesus into prominence in the discussion in a way that is not always considered. So many crazy things have been said about the end times that it’s almost as though pastors and teachers are talking about science fiction. Indeed, I think “science fiction” pictures are what many people actually have in their minds when they imagine Christ’s return.

Instead, what if we were to imagine eschatology in terms of Jesus’ own socio-political context? N.T. Wright has helped us do this with regard to the mission of Jesus. Scot here summarizes an approach that does the same with Jesus’ eschatological message.

Let me now try to draw together some threads. The temporal indicators of Mark 13 and parallels suggest that Jesus envisioned everything therein described as occurring within one generation. Roughly speaking, he sees things occurring in about 40 years. History shows that the Romans sacked Jerusalem brutally and banished them from the City, and this event largely confirms what Jesus predicted. …Furthermore, we have seen plausible reasons, some more compelling than others, for seeing the language of Mark 13:24 27/Matt 24:29-31 as metaphorical descriptions of Jesus’ vindication and reception of power in the event of Jerusalem’s destruction. When Jerusalem went down, Jesus went up — down in ignominy and up in vindication.

Jerusalem’s destruction was proof that Jesus was right. In addition, this event marks and shapes the focus of Jesus’ ministry and message: his mission was to call Israel to repentance (and that meant to live a life of love and justice and peace) before the final bell rang. If Israel responds, the destruction can be averted; if it does not, the destruction will establish him as Messiah. What Jesus saw beyond this is, in my mind, a mystery. I think he saw connected to this event the resurrection, the final judgment, and the establishment of the Age to Come. He tied them together, the destruction and these “eternal things” because, as a prophet who relied upon God’s revelation for knowledge of the future, this is how prophets worked all along. The next event on God’s calendar was the End Event — and when it did not occur literally on earth, no one was bothered because prophetic knowledge about the future is like that. It trades in metaphor and metaphor is capable of various interpretations. What Jesus was referring to was Israel’s destruction; it had ultimate significance to him. And he got it right.

…The implication of what I have said about Jesus’ eschatology is this: before Jesus’ message is brought into our world, and he needs to be, Jesus has to be understood in his world. And that means as a Jew, as a Jewish prophet, a prophet who spoke to his people, Israel, who spoke to his people about Israel about the need to repent and live in light of the Kingdom before it is too late, and that “too late” is to be understood temporally for Jesus as before A.D. 70 when God would wreak vengeance on the nation for its waywardness (as God had done with both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans). In other words, Jesus’ eschatology was fully immersed in his day and was about his day — he spoke to the political disaster about to fall upon the Land.

This Jewish prophet Jesus, however, is also the Messiah of the Endtime who was destined to come to lead Israel into the “fortunes of Israel”. Those fortunes have not yet been completely fulfilled.

 

Comments

  1. Hi all,

    I’m convinced of this interpretation and I am also an amillennialist and partial preterist. To be sure, Jesus’ prophecies are to be interpreted in his time. The question becomes is there a future expextation for us. For me, it’s just one event the final drawing of curtains as Jesus reveals himself to the world. How this will happen I’m not sure. Literal or metaphorical…well do we take a resurrected body literally and I think we should. That’s about all there is for us in terms of prophetic expectations. These wild-eyed end-times scenarios with one lone evil man dominating the world seems to me too simplistic. I say simplistic because the way God will tie everything together is beyond our imagination and also that God has the best interest of the world at large and not just about saving and “secretly rapturing” his people. God has the best interest of the world at large too. I try to think of how can I actualize the reignof Christ here and now and not in the by and by. Healing people, loving them, feeding and clothing them are just some basics to start with.

    Yuri

  2. Steve Newell says:

    Kim Riddlebarger, one of the hosts on the Whitehorse Inn, wrote a very good book called “A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times”. Pastor Riddlebarger is a Reformed pastor.

    • I agree…this is a good intro to amillenialist thinking.

      • Riddlebarger also has a lot of material online, articles and essays. Very thoughtful and respectful, I recommend him .

        GregR

  3. Our Western minds deceive us sometimes into an either / or dichotomy, and this holds true with prophecy. Prophecy can be true on many levels, including the near term and further out periods of time. Take a look at the prophecies on the exile in Isaiah and Jeremiah and ask yourself if these could have been fulfilled more than once.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I do agree with NT Wright, but I don’t think his interpretation is the end of the story quite yet.

    • Libby, I think what you are saying is exactly what Wright says (and what McKnight is saying above). 70AD was not the end.

      • It would have helped if I read the last two sentences! Not feeling well today, which alerted me to the fact that I had not been raptured when I woke up. At least I am in good company with my interpretation of prophetic scripture. Phew!

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

        I agree :)

  4. Very much off-topic, but I had to share this because I’m a SF fan, interested in the space programme, and of course, Catholic.

    Pity that NASA is winding down the shuttle programme, does anyone know what the replacment will be? Sure, we have a European Space Agency, but I don’t know if we’re capable of taking up the slack (remember all the crashing Ariane rockets?). We’ll see!

  5. dumb ox says:

    I’m not sure I can go so far as to accept amillenialism. I definitely disagree with post millenialism/dominion theology. I’m definitely not a dispensationalist. What’s left?

    • Classic premillennialism as taught by George Ladd, I believe, is reasonable. His writings gave me a door out of dispensationalism. I don’t think he goes far enough, but that’s my opinion, dumb ox.

  6. Kenny Johnson says:

    Honestly, I haven’t spent much time studying eschatology theologies. I have some opinions, but they are probably not well formed. I really like Wright’s (and McKnight’s) approach. I find a lot of hope in Wright’s eschatology. However, I find don’t feel the same way about full-preterism. I actually took a crash course in both last night when I couldn’t sleep. I realize this doesn’t give me a very detailed picture, but full-preterism seems so… hopeless? It really feels like salvation is just a “get out of Hell” card. Jesus was done 2000 years ago and now we’re all just waiting around to die so we can join God and Christ in heaven.

    The partial-preterist view of McKnight and Wright feels so much more hopeful to me. It says Christ is not done yet. The already but not yet. There is hope in a redeemed creation. A sense of justice — of putting things to right — and that the church can be co-workers with God in this.

    I realize that our theologies shouldn’t just be based on what we’d like best, but I have to admit — a full-preterist interpretation doesn’t sit well with me.

    • David Cornwell says:

      The way I understand Wright is that there is a LOT left to happen, including the bodily resurrection of the both the just and the unjust, the final judgement and the bringing into being of a New Heaven and New Earth. This is in final fulfillment of the the prayer “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The coming of the Kingdom is both realized and waiting.

      The only question that does not seem clear to me is the present state of the dead. I know Wright addresses this to an extent and maybe more than I have read. However it might be, our trust and faith in the Risen One will not fail or disappoint us.

    • Your reservations are completely natural, Kenny. Full preterism is not an orthodox view and is essentially the heresy Paul opposed in Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Timothy 1:20. However, “partial”/orthodox preterism is quite a reasonable view and probably the closest to my own (that or amillennialism, probably.) The church needs to take a clear stance against heretical positions like full preterism.

      • ????

        I don’t follow the comment about Hymenaeus and Alexander. How’d you make the link to full preterism?

    • Josh T. says:

      I find full preterism to be confusing. While it does purport to take seriously the idea that “these things will happen soon,” it doesn’t seem to take seriously the this-worldly aspect of biblical prophecy and so spiritualizes/allegorizes the concept of resurrection and focuses on the “separation” idea of spiritual death instead of physical death.

      For me, it doesn’t make good sense of Genesis 3:22 and any other references of physical death being such a problem.

  7. Is there any good reason why eschatology is worthy of study for the average believer?

    I have studied this somewhat, have forgotten more than I’ve learned, and perhaps it’s just as well. I think my aversion to eschatology comes from having been burned by Hal Lindsey et ilk back in 1979 (HUG calls me a newbie; Lindsey got hold of him in a bigger way, years earlier).

    Among the seminary courses I’ve taken through Gordon-Conwell’s distance learning program has been NT Theology, lectured by Greg Beale, and it turned out to be largely eschatology because Dr. Beale is a leading authority on the book of Revelation. Fortunately, we didn’t use his commentary in the class. We did use books by George Eldon Ladd and Anthony Hoekema, and I do need to dust them off and re-visit. The course didn’t go off the deep end (it’s Gordon-Conwell, after all) and presented a responsible outlook, but I must have yawned my way through it.

    I remember almost nothing from the course, but did end up at least where I started: That we are in an “already/not yet period of the Kingdom of God, and that the Cross initiated the end times (graves were opened, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, earthquakes, etc.). And in 70 AD the Temple was destroyed, fulfilling that portion of Matthew 24.

    The Wailing Wall doesn’t count, folks. Sorry to disappoint some of you. The Temple was destroyed by the Romans and “not one stone [was] left on another; every one [was] thrown down.” No need to hope for a re-build of the Temple so it can “really be torn down” this time. Waste of time to chase that rabbit.

    For most of us, a study of eschatology leads to a kind of astrology or numerology, using the Bible as a horoscope, and turning us into literalists who chase after answers to unlock the secrets of heaven, like those who built the Tower of Babel, or those who ate the fruit trying to learn from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not saying that we shouldn’t continue learning, but the fruits of some of this stuff often turn out to be the teachings of Harold Camping and other false prophets.

    Should we allow ourselves another Gospel? Why can’t we keep reading Galatians Chapter One and remind ourselves what the Gospel really is, and that there is no other? Too much eschatology becomes a works-oriented, gnostic dead that will lead us away from Jesus if not very careful.

    Again: can anybody give a concise reason (more concise than my challenge) why we should get involved with eschatology at all, outside of Matthew 24 and a plain meaning of it within its historical context?

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

      I think Eschatology is important for the average believer because it’s really important to have an idea of how the Big Story goes from a biblical perspective. I’ve found it amazingly important to view most everything with the bible’s Big Story as the backdrop and context. Eschatology being the endgame, so to speak, is a MAJOR part of that Story. The problem, of course, is that so many of us aren’t viewing eschatology that way. We’re looking at it from a systematic theology perspective rather than a more narrative one.

      • Isaac, I think the Big Story approach is good. Too many end-time prophets try to fine-tune it into a crystal ball approach, as if there were power in the knowledge. Simon the Magi comes to mind.

        I think it’s important to know “that” God has history under control, but the “what” is for us to see as it unfolds, and simply to be still and know that God is God. Jesus did say, “Watch,” but I don’t think it was for us to hold power over those who don’t do the math and chase after the rabbit-trails. Thanks.

    • I do think our eschatology influences how we live in the present. If we think everything is going down the tubes at any moment, then the thinking easily shifts into that the best thing we can do is evangelize everyone so that they can be saved. We do not think of building for the long term, and as one pastor once told me, that kind of thinking is reflected in our architecture. If we think all is soon to go away, a tendency develops to not think things through because we belive we live in the wrap up of history. We also may end up not focusing on growing as mature disciples of Christ IN THE HERE AND NOW, loving others and being in the world but not of it. I think its interesting to have heard over the years evangelicals conceed that they do evangelism well but not so much discipleship. It is for that reason I think that writers like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson have had the appeal they have had on evangelicals. They are writing about how to grow in our faith in a way that is rooted and ground in church history down through the centuries. They are filling a definite need.

      • Interesting to compare our growth as disciples to our architecture. You’re right, if it’s all gonna burn, why would we spend the effort?

        Our church has been doing a series of workshops and Sunday school classes on the relationship between art and worship. My architect wife has done a few classes on architecture, with one more Sunday left. I’ll see what she says about comparing this with our growth as Christians. I do know that she’s frustrated with the feedback she’s been getting (or not getting).

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I do think our eschatology influences how we live in the present. If we think everything is going down the tubes at any moment, then the thinking easily shifts into that the best thing we can do is evangelize everyone so that they can be saved.

        And except for the drive-by soul-winning, hiding behind the four walls of your Fellowship in prayer and devotions, everything dedicated to keeping your nose squeeky-clean so you’ll pass God’s Litmus Test and NOT be Left Behind.

        That’s the attitude it shakes down to eventually. That’s not living.

    • David Cornwell says:

      The tradition I grew up in simply taught that someday Christ would return. The dead would be resurrected. No one knew when this would happen. No one knew how. It was important to live in this expectation. After His return there would be a final judgement. Those judged worthy– Heaven. The lost– hell. Until college I can’t remember one sermon in my local churches on the book of Revelation. Minister’s referenced it only in funerals.

      I’d never heard of the rapture until I was a freshman in college. My roommate had a Scofield Bible. He also had books on prophecy with all kinds of charts and diagrams and tables. I thought is was fascinating but never tried to understand it.

      • David, I grew up in a nominal Congregational church, and also never heard of the rapture until I was about 22. People around here just don’t talk religion outside of church, and inside our church the rapture was never mentioned. The David C. Cook sunday school materials never mentioned it either (Thank God for David C. Cook comics!) and stuck to the text of the gospels and Acts for the resurrection and return of Jesus.

        So, my surprise was probably like yours when I grew up and heard that I was supposed to believe this stuff. One complication came with the realization that those who believed in the rapture were at least believers in Jesus, while those in my nominal congo church weren’t, necessarily. In fact, not only did they not believe in the rapture, they didn’t necessarily believe in the resurrection either. So for many people, the rapture wins converts to itself by default. You wanna believe in Jesus? It’s rapture or no-go!

    • I like NT Wright’s emphasis which stresses that (in my own words) the seeds we plant now will bring forth a harvest in the age to come. There is a continuity between our lives now and then and knowing that our lives now will indeed make a difference for the new creation invests them with a transcendent sense of meaning.

      • Kenny Johnson says:

        And that’s the hopelessness I see in the full-preterist view. I very much like Wright’s view on this.

      • Hmmm, but Mike, wasn’t it Jesus who said something about planting seeds that will bring forth a harvest in the age to come? Did Tom Wright plagiarize? :-)

        So what you’re saying is that we by our actions can become partners with God in the outcome of history? That it’s not already set in stone?

        I may like that. It gives incentive–and even though we’re saved by grace not works, the works may count for something at least, altruistically or for the glory of God.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Because when it is “already set in stone”, you get Fatalism, Passivity, and Uber-Predestination. Why bother with anything in that case? Especially if what’s already set in stone is “It’s All Gonna Burn”?

          Islam has had that intrinsic problem with its extreme emphasis on God’s Omnipotence. So does Calvinism and Hypercalvinism. Add Dualism driving a wedge between the Physical and Spiritual and you end up with a VERY dangerous combination.

    • It’s part of the historical creeds: “He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead”…”I look for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what’s important and worthy of study.

      Also, just as we can look back and study the historical books of the Bible and gain comfort from seeing God’s sovereign hand in history, we can also look forward and take comfort from the knowledge that the Gospel will triumph, though individual churches and believers may experience suffering or temporary setbacks.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        ”I look for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”.

        Which in itself may be more than expected. I have written two spontaneous stories (both too weird for publication) where Imaginary Critters hope for Resurrection from Imagination into Reality.

        • Cedric Klein says:

          Heck, I’d say that’s the theme of ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’. I never read it, watched a cartoon version just a few years ago (probably in my late 30′s at the time, I’m 49 now) and wept at the realization “THIS IS ABOUT OUR RESURRECTION! Jesus’ Love makes us Real!”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            And I have a third, unrelated series of stories where I DO reference the Velveteen Rabbit. In the form of a genetic construct — a programmed nymphomaniac sex toy — who ran away from her owners and with the help of antiaphrodisiacs and others is learning to be real instead of Velveteen. And catching up on all the non-sexual life she missed. (The fact she looks like a topheavy blonde bombshell with rabbit characteristics helps make the Velveteen Rabbit analogy all the more obvious.)

      • I think that’s a healthy outlook, JeffB. Comfort in God’s sovereign hand in history and that the gospel will triumph despite setbacks by believers.

        Habakkuk 3:17 and following: “Though the fig tree not blossom…”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      For most of us, a study of eschatology leads to a kind of astrology or numerology, using the Bible as a horoscope, and turning us into literalists who chase after answers to unlock the secrets of heaven…

      Like Camping going back to recalculate the date with his KJV and numerological formulae — “THIS TIME I *KNOW* I GOT IT RIGHT!”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I think my aversion to eschatology comes from having been burned by Hal Lindsey et ilk back in 1979 (HUG calls me a newbie; Lindsey got hold of him in a bigger way, years earlier).

      Wasn’t that much earlier than you, Ted. We’ve both seen the damage that sort of eschatology can cause.

      Funny thing is, “Eschatology” originally meant “The Four Last Things — Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.” In that respect, David Hopkins Hard-R online furry comic “Jack” is more about Eschatology than a lot of End Time Prophecy preachers, as speculation about those Four Last Things are a major theme of the comic.

  8. JoanieD says:

    “I like NT Wright’s emphasis which stresses that (in my own words) the seeds we plant now will bring forth a harvest in the age to come.” I like that too, Chaplain Mike.

    And to David Cornwell…I grew up being taught the same thing you were taught about Jesus’ return.