Eschatology: A Guide for the Perplexed

The following was presented as a lecture for the “Faith Seeking Understanding” course of the Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh on Tuesday, March 19.

Much of Christian theology is driven by the concept of salvation.  But what does it mean to be saved? Although we have a special name for the doctrine of salvation, “soteriology,” all areas of theology relate to this question.  For we must ask why we need to be saved—that is, what we are saved from; how we are saved and by whom; and what the point of it us, that is, what we are saved to.  Our doctrines of creation and the fall, of theological anthropology, attempt to tell us why it is we need to be saved, what it is we are being saved from.  Christology, soteriology  and ecclesiology all address the questions of who it is that saves us and how.  This leaves us with the question of just what it is we are saved to, and that is what “eschatology” is about.

In much of the tradition of Christian theology, but perhaps especially in Protestantism, and perhaps especially especially in evangelicalism, there has been a tendency to think of salvation almost exclusively in personal/individual terms, and almost entirely as a matter of the afterlife.  To be saved means to be promised that I, as an individual, will have a happy afterlife in the presence of God.  Of course, we also have all this biblical language about the end of the world, about “the new heavens and the new earth,” but this has often been treated as something quite different.  Eschatology, then (literally, the study of the “last things”), has often been subdivided into two branches, one concerned with our individual judgments at death, and the other concerned with the end of the world. But this way of thinking has led Christian theology to become oddly detached from the language of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament.  Let’s look at Is. 60:8-11:

Who are these that fly like a cloud,
and like doves to their windows?
For the coastlands shall hope for me,
the ships of Tarshish first,
to bring your children from afar,
their silver and gold with them,
for the name of the Lord your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel,
because he has made you beautiful.
Foreigners shall build up your walls,
and their kings shall minister to you;
for in my wrath I struck you,
but in my favor I have had mercy on you.
Your gates shall be open continually;
day and night they shall not be shut,
that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations,
with their kings led in procession.

We are struck here by the fact that salvation is here conceived of in national terms.  It’s also conceived of in very material, this-worldly terms.  How do we make sense of this?   Now, one of the difficulties here involves the relationship of the Church to Israel.  We believe that in Christ, the church transcends any one nation, and is meant to encompass all the peoples of the world; it also lacks the usual features of a literal “kingdom” or political entity, since Christ alone is its king.  But we should not assume thereby that the whole social and this-worldly element of salvation has been abandoned, as some forms of Christian theology often have; this would render incoherent Jesus‘ claim to be fulfilling the hope of Israel.  It has thus been one of the great tasks and contributions of Christian theology in the last century to start trying to think these four things—eternity and history, individual and the whole creation—back together: salvation is something that we experience in history, and we experience it socially; our own final salvation is bound up with the salvation of all things.

Now, if we were to stick just with those verses from Isaiah 60, we might imagine that the prophet is talking about something that takes place entirely within the confines of history; transposed into a Christian key, the equivalent of this would be an eschatology that hopes for the day when the church, perhaps together with the benefits of technological and scientific progress, gives us a world of material abundance and social order, when peace and plenty shall reign.  This is the hope of the popular Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” which was written, in fact, for a Unitarian, not a Christian church:

For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

But Isaiah has more than that in mind, as we find when we turn to verses 19-21:

The sun shall be no more your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give you light;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down,
nor your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended.
Your people shall all be righteous;
they shall possess the land forever,
the branch of my planting, the work of my hands,
that I might be glorified.

The Israelite hope is one that looks forward to a fulfillment that somehow has continuity with history, and yet which transcends altogether anything that we could expect history to produce.  It looks forward to a time when not merely strife between man and man is ended, but when man is reconciled to God in perfect righteousness and perfect fellowship, and God will reign over all things, when creation itself will be transformed into an unrecognizable form.

This hope is taken up by Christian theology quite clearly, most especially in the Book of Revelation.  Let’s read Rev. 21:1-4:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

We see here the ideas of cosmic renewal or transformation, of the end of death and suffering, of our dwelling together with God, and of all this as a social reality, not something we just experience individually.  If we look toward the end of Rev. 21, and at chapter 22 as well, we find the same themes elaborated more, in language that is deliberately echoing Isaiah and other prophets: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

Two other themes that we find among the Old Testament prophets also appear in these latter chapters of Revelation, and indeed throughout the New Testament: the Last Judgement and the Resurrection of the Dead.  So that we don’t spend all our time in Revelation, let’s look at Matthew 25 for the first, and 1 Corinthians 15 for the second.  Let’s read Matthew 25:31-32, 41-46:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. . . .

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

This passage may sound an uncomfortable note for many amidst our discussion of the Christian hope.  In the modern West, we don’t really much like the concept of judgment and punishment, and particularly not the concept of eternal punishment.  We’re inclined to dismiss the whole notion as barbaric.  However, it’s impossible to get it out of the texts that describe the Israelite or Christian hope.  It’s there alongside the bits we just looked at from Isaiah and Revelation, even though we didn’t read those portions aloud just now.  And it’s quite clear on the lips of Jesus.  It’s important for us to understand that for the Jewish mind, for the people to whom Scripture was written, the concept of judgment was not something added on top of the concept of salvation, but was part and parcel of it.  When you are being violently oppressed by someone, then if you want someone to save you, that means they will have to bring judgment on your oppressor.  This is how Israel was saved out of Egypt, the experience that provides the paradigm for God’s salvation of his people throughout the Old Testament, and on into the new.  Likewise, in Revelation, we see the souls of the martyrs crying, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” It is partly because we, in the comfortable modern West, have rarely if ever had experience of violent oppression that this notion of judgment seems so alien to us.

However, there are theological and ethical reasons, as well, that have contributed to the “decline of Hell,” the unpopularity of the idea of eternal judgment.  It is partly because the Western conscience has been shaped by the Christian idea of loving enemies, and of forgiving our oppressors, that we have little desire to see the wicked eternally punished.  And there are other considerations, derived from what Scripture reveals of the nature of God and his desire to save all, from the variety of Scriptural metaphors used to talk about the last judgment, and from philosophical problems with the concept of eternal punishment, that have led to other theories besides the traditional doctrine of Hell.  Two main alternatives are universalism of some kind, which contends that, although they may go through a period of judgment at the end of the age, the wicked will, through that suffering, be brought to repentance and in the end restored to fellowship with God along with all the saints, or annihilationism, which argues that the wicked are consumed by God’s wrath such that they cease to exist, rather than persisting in eternal torment.  Both views have some Scriptural passages that appear to support them, but also have to reckon with a number of other passages (such as Matthew 25), which appear not to.

But, in any case, Scripture is not nearly as interested in the punishment of the wicked as it is in the salvation of the saints.  The little that it tells us about the former is rather elusive, compared to the intensity and clarity with which it portrays the hope that we have as Christians.  A crucial aspect of this, which we haven’t looked at yet, is the resurrection of the dead.  So let’s look briefly at 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 50-55:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Then comes the end, when he deliversthe kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him.  Whenall things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. …

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

This is perhaps the greatest distinctive of the Christian hope.  It draws upon elements in Jewish literature, but these were transformed by the experience of Christ’s own resurrection.  The resulting hope that at the end of the age, all the dead shall rise to a new life—a life that is in human bodies, but transformed, immortal bodies—is a particular contribution of Christianity.  It does not consist, as it has so often been reduced to, in “life after death” but in, as Tom Wright puts it, “life after life after death.”

Now, although we can look forward to all of these things at the end of history, we have observed already that it’s not entirely clear to what extent, if at all, the Christian hope is realized within history as we normally experience it.  There are a few different options for understanding the relationship; indeed, it has been common to distinguish three, based around their understanding of the millenium, the “thousand years” that Christ will  reign for in Rev. 20:6.

Premillenialism tends to be based on quite a literal reading of Revelation and other such prophecies, and believes that Christ will come back physically to earth before this millenium, during which he will reign over an physical earthly kingdom, within the world as we currently know it, in terms much like those described in some Old Testament prophecies.  After that will come the last judgement, and the resurrection of the dead, after which the world as we currently know it will be destroyed or replaced with a new heavens or a new earth.  Prophecies like Revelation 21, then, will be fulfilled in this latter stage.

Amillenialism takes all these prophecies quite metaphorically, and treats the millenium in particular as a period in which Christ invisibly reigns in the hearts of his faithful—which is to say, the Church Age that we are currently in.  All the prophecies, then, which describe this as an era of peace and prosperity, of justice and righteousness, have to be spiritualized as describing the inward state of believers.  At some indeterminate point in the future, Christ will suddenly put an end to this period of invisible reign, when he returns for the last judgment, resurrection, and transformation of the cosmos.

Postmillenialism is kind of half way between premillenialism and amillenialism in that it too does not take the millenium so literally, and it believes that it refers to an invisible reign of Christ from heaven, but it believes that we will see, in history, many of the prophecies of justice and peace fulfilled, as the gospel succeeds gradually in transforming the world, and nations pursue justice under Christ. On this view, Christ’s physical return at the end of the age will be more about bringing to completion a transformation already begun, than about doing something completely and altogether new.

The important thing, though, is that we hold together on the one hand an optimistic confidence that Christ is reigning and redeeming the world through us now, and a healthy sense of the dramatic change that is yet to take place, which only He can accomplish himself and which will go beyond anything we can imagine.

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