September 2, 2014

It Always Comes Back to the Ending

Advent is about eschatology.

That five dollar theological term simply means “the study of the eschaton” (the last day). The Bible divides time into two great epochs: this present age and the age to come. We live in the now; we await the not yet. Scripture anticipates the end from the start. When Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning…” it is already preparing the way for what the Torah calls “the end of days” (see Deut. 4:30). When Jesus proclaimed that God’s Kingdom was at hand, he was announcing the in-breaking of the age to come, and Peter specifically spoke of the arrival of “the last days” on the day of Pentecost.

The intriguing characteristic of Biblical eschatology is that the age to come actually breaks in and infiltrates the present age now, before the end. Therefore, theologians speak of the “already” and the “not yet.” By grace through faith, believers are raised up with Christ into the new creation already even as they hope for its consummation when Christ returns and the dead are resurrected. We live simultaneously as citizens of two worlds, continually looking forward and moving toward a goal that not only defines our future but also transforms our present.

Eschatology is not just a teaching of the Bible, it is the very structure of reality, the context of creation and new creation, the enlivening power of the Christian’s life.

Today, here is a remarkable passage from Jürgen Moltmann that I encourage you to savor and keep in mind throughout this Advent season.

Eschatology was long called the ‘doctrine of the last things’ or the ‘doctrine of the end’. By these last things were meant events which will one day break upon man, history and the world at the end of time. They included the return of Christ in universal glory, the judgment of the world and the consummation of the kingdom, the general resurrection of the dead and the new creation of all things. These end events were to break into this world from somewhere beyond history, and to put an end to the history in which all things here live and move. But the relegating of these events to the ‘last day’ robbed them of their directive, uplifting and critical significance for all the days which are spent here, this side of the end, in history. Thus these teachings about the end led a peculiarly barren existence at the end of Christian dogmatics. They were like a loosely attached appendix that wandered off into obscure irrelevancies. They bore no relation to the doctrines of the cross and resurrection, the exaltation and sovereignty of Christ, and did not derive from these by any logical necessity. They were as far removed from them as All Souls’ Day sermons are from Easter. The more Christianity became an organization for discipleship under the auspices of the Roman state religion and persistently upheld the claims of that religion, the more eschatology and its mobilizing, revolutionizing, and critical effects upon history as it has now to be lived were left to fanatical sects and revolutionary groups. Owing to the fact that Christian faith banished from its life the future hope by which it is upheld, and relegated the future to a beyond, or to eternity, whereas the biblical testimonies which it handed on are yet full to the brim with future hope of a messianic kind for the world, — owing to this, hope emigrated as it were from the Church and turned in one distorted form or another against the Church.

In actual fact, however, eschatology means the doctrine of the Christian hope, which embraces both the object hoped for and also the hope inspired by it. From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day. For Christian faith lives from the raising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ. Eschatology is the passionate suffering and passionate longing kindled by the Messiah. Hence eschatology cannot really be only a part of Christian doctrine. Rather, the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, of every Christian existence and of the whole Church. There is therefore only one real problem in Christian theology, which its own object forces upon it and which it in turn forces on mankind and on human thought: the problem of the future. For the element of otherness that encounters us in the hope of the Old and New Testaments — the thing we cannot already think out and picture for ourselves on the basis of the given world and of the experiences we already have of that world — is one that confronts us with a promise of something new and with the hope of a future given by God. The God spoken of here is no intra-worldly or extra-worldly God, but the ‘God of hope’ (Rom. 15.13), a God with ‘future as his essential nature’ (as E. Bloch puts it), as made known in Exodus and in Israelite prophecy, the God whom we therefore cannot really have in us or over us but always only before us, who encounters us in his promises for the future, and whom we therefore cannot ‘have’ either, but can only await in active hope. A proper theology would therefore have to be constructed in the light of its future goal. Eschatology should not be its end, but its beginning.

Theology of Hope

Comments

  1. CM: This is very,very good. Are you reading Moltmann in your present studies or have you read him in your earlier days, was it Trinity? At Westminster, Motmann was pretty much off limits, not sure why.

  2. David Cornwell says:

    It seems I’m always saying the same thing, so I write again with hesitancy. However…

    “Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.”

    Yet the Church today seems to be stuck in at least a couple of ruts. One is the “get saved” rut, and all the Church is about becomes evangelism, even on Sunday mornings. Get saved, prepared to escape hell and go to heaven. Earth is relegated to a sort of wasteland that will eventually be left to the anti-Christ and burn up.

    The other is a save yourself, ourselves, and the world program of social justice and action, designed to sooth the conscience and hopefully make things a little better, at least around the fringes, but it takes an awful lot of work. Christ becomes a social reformer of sorts, if important at all.

    These are simplistic descriptions and thus leaves out wide swaths on both sides. I’ve mentioned this many times, but this is why the “Our Father…” is so important to me. It connects the power of the Jesus who walked the earth, and is now the King of Glory, to us in the present, and makes the Kingdom real in the now. It’s beyond the rational and full of mystery. Thus it falls through the descriptive floor provided by both conservatives and liberals.

    Moltmann provides tasty refreshment.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      What you have stated, David, is two incomplete Gospels. One a Gospel without personal salvation (only Social Reform), the other a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.

      And Eschatology goes really sour when it’s reduced to “Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist” and “Beam Me Up, Jesus”. Which thanks to John Nelson Darby, Hal Lindsay, and Left Behind has become the default.

      “We have signed the future over to The Antichrist, and only await an airlift out.”
      — don’t know where I heard that, but it’s a good description

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      One is the “get saved” rut, and all the Church is about becomes evangelism, even on Sunday mornings. Get saved, prepared to escape hell and go to heaven. Earth is relegated to a sort of wasteland that will eventually be left to the anti-Christ and burn up.

      Here’s an essay on that subject from the original Internet Monk:
      Hell House: an Evangelicalism Eager to Leave

    • Josh in FW says:

      Does hesitate saying the same thing. Folks like me need the repitition.

  3. I love me some Moltmann. I think The Crucified God is still my favorite from what I’ve read of his so far.

    • Love that book.

    • Randy Thompson says:

      “The Crucified God” is a terrific book. I’ve been meaning to read his “Theology of Hope” but haven’t gotten around to it. This makes me want go get around to it sooner rather than later.

  4. Marcus Johnson says:

    I feel bad that I haven’t keep up on my reading regarding different Christian perspectives on eschatology. I’m a former Seventh-day Adventist, and although I am not affiliated with that particular denomination anymore, I miss being as engaged in those discussions. As that quote above said, eschatology is about hope.

    For that reason, though, I’m really uncomfortable with some Christian perspectives on end-times prophecy, especially ones that tend to focus so much on worldwide disaster and literal tribulation that they miss the forest for the trees. I like to think of eschatology as the pursuit of how God tries to tell us, “I know that you have been waiting for a while, and you can’t quite see it yet, but every even in human history–good and bad–is leading to the end.” I like focusing on the hope of eschatology, the REAL end times, leading into the world made new, that last into eternity.

    I guess I’ve always been concerned that I’m going to walk into a Christian bookstore, and see nothing but row after row of writers who emphasize the tribulation over the triumph. CM, can you throw up some more texts, maybe from different Christian perspectives, that you feel might touch on that stuff?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      What I remember about Seventh-Day Adventists (who I don’t consider a “cult (TM)”, just a very offbeat branch of non-liturgical Protestantism) is that they have a unique End Times choreography. There was this book I remember as a kid titled “What Jesus Said” that I later found out was SDA and let’s just say they were very similar to the Hal Lindsay types in emphasis on The End but with a completely-different timeline and checklist.

      And I ramble on with the words of SciFi Catholic:

      “Our eschatology should at least pass the Cool Test. Since nobody knows exactly how The End will come, our speculations about it should at least be Cool.”

      • Marcus Johnson says:

        “Our eschatology should at least pass the Cool Test. Since nobody knows exactly how The End will come, our speculations about it should at least be Cool.”

        Which is why, if folks choose to focus on the tribulation rather than the triumph in their eschatology, I suggest that we affirm our belief in the zombie apocalypse. Because zombie apocalypses are much cooler.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          And a Vampire Romance set during a Zombie Apocalypse is a Guaranteed Best-Seller.

    • Yes. We’ll have a focus on eschatology throughout Advent.

    • Give NT Wright’s “Surprised By Hope” a read.

      • Josh in FW says:

        Wright’s ‘Surprised by Hope’ is next on my list.

        CM: How do you think it compares to the book by Moltmann?

        • Moltmann and Wright approach things on pretty different levels. Moltmann is primarily a systematic theologian, while Wright is a historian. Surprised by Hope grounds eschatology in careful study of Jewish scripture, Second Temple Judaism, and the culture surrounding Jesus while He was on earth. Wright also spends quite a bit of time explaining that Jewish and Christian understanding of eschatology is rooted in the hope of a bodily resurrection, not just a spiritual state. Moltmann probably wouldn’t disagree with Wright in these things, but the way he approaches things is much on philosophical level.

          I appreciate both of their work a lot, but I think Wright writes with a lot more clarity, and he seems to me to ground all of his work much more in Scripture. Compared to Wright, you’ll find much less actual Scriptural references in Moltmann’s work.

  5. Perhaps we can steal (and no doubt twist just a little) a page from Derrida’s thoughts on prefaces. A preface is usually seen as of little importance and can be skipped. Conversely, if a preface succeeds at presenting the thought of its book, then the book may become unnecessary. Just read the preface and you’ve got it. What we really want is a preface that keeps the future open. If we map that thought to life, then our present life is to be a preface that is significant without determining the future. I believe we may find some helpful ideas if we put something like this in dialog with your quote from Moltmann. Forgive me if this is a little obscure. My wife would point out that I don’t get out much.

    • Derrida was as wrong-headed and culturally destructive as they come! Those of us who enjoy language and think it can actually mean something read the preface AND the book and don’t think our time wasted. If this life I’m leading is the preface, with the meat of the text still to come, then hooray. (Sorry — Derrida is a red flag to me and the first on my slap-upside-the-head list.)

      • Josh in FW says:

        Well, based on this I’m not even going to waste my time googling Derrida. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Damaris

      • No need to apologize. You’re not the first to have an almost visceral response of disgust to the very mention of Derrida. I will pass on a warning that one of my seminary professors once gave to me. Sometimes the critic judges the art, but sometimes the art judges the critic.

        • In the early 1980s, there was a literary cocktail party at Yale at the house of a professor. The professor owned a Great Dane who was wandering among the guests. Just as a guest declaimed, “But what about Derrida?!” the Great Dane succumbed to a sudden and violent access of dysentery in front of the speaker. It makes me happy to think of that.

          I don’t mean to be spiteful, but Derrida’s ideas need to be responded to in just that way. His insistence that language and culture cannot carry meaning is one of the most profound blows that the West has suffered in the last millennium. The inevitable result of his so-called “playful” ideas is the descent into madness and chaos that Lewis brilliantly depicts at the end of “That Hideous Strength.”

          • Klasie Kraalogies says:

            Dogs are honest creatures :)

          • Derrida’s ideas are completely in agreement with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self, but in complete disagreement with the core of Christianity. And isn’t it ironic that, although according to Derrida, “language and culture cannot carry meaning,” he nevertheless employed language and culture to carry meaning? The deconstructionists are always wanting others to “Do as I say, not as I do.”

  6. Josh S Blake says:

    “I don’t do eschatology. I makes me want to be a Buddhist.” – iMonk
    I miss that man, and I agree with him completely on this.

    • He was talking about prophecy stuff, not the kinds of things we’re discussing here.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Problem is, CM, “Eschatology” has been redefined to mean date-setting and Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist.

      • Josh S Blake says:

        I understand that, but most often eschatology is thought of merely as ‘prophecy stuff’, not what you’re talking about here. Any time I hear it spoken of in church it does not sound anything like what you wrote above, even when the word eschatology is used.

        • And that’s exactly why the word and reality need to be reclaimed by responsible and sober Christian leaders and laity alike. It’s a beautiful word,”eschatology,” and refers to a beautiful concept and reality. It speaks to our ultimate concern both for the body and the spirit, it expresses how redemption is both cosmic and personal, and it professes that our hope and our future are Jesus Christ. People need to have this existential concern addressed in sober and considered ways; when it’s not, the crazy end-time prophecies exploit and escalate and distract from the core of gracious meaning in the subject. Yes, you are dying; the world is dying, too. But Jesus lives beyond death, both body and spirit, and if you are in him, though you die, you will live.