Disciples of Christ and Eschatology—Part One
Note: This is the first in a series of posts that will conclude my postings about Disciples Theology that first appeared in 2017. This will be one of several posts, appearing over the next two weeks. The hope is that these posts will form the foundation for a book on basic theology for Disciples.
What do we mean, when we pray each Sunday the words: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” In the Nicene Creed, Christians have for centuries confessed that:
And he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end. (Nicene Creed – Book of Common Prayer, 1928).
Moreover, there is the confession that Disciples affirm (in The Design) these words that look to the future of God’s reign:
In the bonds of Christian faith we yield ourselves to God
that we may serve the One whose kingdom has no end.
Blessing, glory and honor be to God forever Amen.
While monarchical language might seem out of place in denomination like the Disciples, which emphasizes liberty and freedom and generally practices democratic principles in its governance, it is nonetheless present in some form. This is true whether we use kingly language or language of the reign of God.
When Christians affirm the reign of God, it brings up the way in which Christians think not only of the present but of the future. The Scriptures are full of imagery that affirms the reign of God, either now or in the future. When it comes to the future, there are promises of heaven (and hell). There is the also the promise made by Jesus on the day of ascension, that one day he would return in glory. While we tend to think of the Advent season as a time of preparation for Christmas, it also has a second and perhaps more important message. It is a reminder that we are preparing for a Second Advent—a second coming. Of course, as we ponder this question of a return of Christ, the question of timing is always with us. Then, there is the question of what it means to confess that God reigns over all.
Theological conversation about the future comes under the heading of eschatology. It is a conversation that includes matters of eternity, life after death, judgment, and the extent of God’s reign. It is a reminder to us that God is not only concerned about the past and the present, but that God is also concerned about the future.
It is unfortunate that in the popular mind eschatology and matters of the future have been defined by books such as Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (from the 1970s) and more recently by the Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series. These books have led many to believe that this is the “Christian” way of thinking, but, this is only one of many possible versions of the story, and I believe that there are other versions that are truer to the biblical vision than the ones that have captured the popular imagination. Of course, whatever we may say about God’s future must be said tentatively and with great humility, for the future has yet to take place, or they are taking place in ways we cannot discern from this vantage point.
It always helps a conversation to define the terms being used, especially when the terms are unfamiliar. When we’re talking of the future, as we do in discussions of eschatology, we must recognize that our view of history is involved. For the most part, Jewish and Christian understandings of history are linear. There is an alpha and an omega, a beginning and an ending. Although the liturgical year might suggest a certain circularity to history, history itself is not going in circles. Instead, it is seen as moving forward toward a goal—God’s ultimate victory. Consider the witness of a text such as Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he declares:
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)
Doctrinally, when we speak of the future, including the end of things, we’re talking eschatology, which derives from the Greek word eschatos. Eschatos can be translated simply as last, and thus eschatology refers to the doctrine of last things. In general, the term eschatology covers the full course of future possibilities. Because the future has yet to occur, we are often left with metaphorical and picturesque language with which to describe our visions of the future, which is one reason why a biblical book like Revelation is so full of metaphor.
There are several terms and concepts that are important parts of this conversation, including kingdom of God, judgment, and eternal life. Before we turn to those topics, I’d like to take note of two important terms that play a significant role in many contemporary eschatological conversations. These terms are parousia and millennium.
Christians from the earliest days have looked forward to the return of Christ in glory. It is part of the ascension story of Acts, where the messengers tell the disciples that Jesus will return in the same manner that he left (Acts 1:11). You see this sense of urgency in Paul’s letters, where he counsels people to understand that the current age might be short, and that Christ could return soon. So prominent was this idea in Paul’s teaching that he found it necessary to modify his instructions after they got misunderstood and abused. That is, it appears that some within the Thessalonian churches decided that the end was so close that they should quit their jobs and wait it out. Such scenarios have, of course, been repeated down through history. As a result, Paul found it necessary to tell this church that they should get on with their lives, including their jobs (1 Thess. 4:13ff; 2 Thess. 3:6ff).
The key theological term here is parousia, a Greek word that means presence or arrival, and it is used to refer to the return of Christ in glory at the end of the age. This is key, because the point is not simply that Christ will return, but that this return will bring to an end the present historical age. If, however, since Paul and Jesus seem to suggest that the end is near, why has it taken history so long to reach that point? As we wonder about an answer, the biblical witness suggests that we not get too caught up in date setting (imminence: Mk. 9:1; 13:30; Rom. 13:11-12; unknown date: Mk. 13:32; Acts 1:7).
A second but related term is millennium. Although the term simply means a period of one thousand years, and the term is used but once in scripture (Rev. 20:2-7). It is a term and a text that have given birth to all number of theories of God’s future. There have been at least three major ways of understanding the text, all of which focus on the timing of Jesus’ return in glory. Will he return before or after the millennium, or as some came to believe, is the term best understood metaphorically?
One of the earliest forms of millennial thinking was pre-millennialism. This formulation presumes that after Jesus returns from heaven, he will set up a thousand-year reign, after which the last judgment would occur. This belief is rooted in a straightforward, even literalistic, interpretation of Revelation 20. It also imbibes Jewish apocalyptic expectations of an interim messianic reign. As to why this interim period is required, Scripture is held to be largely silent, but it shall begin with the defeat of the Anti-Christ and the imprisonment of Satan, which will last for a thousand years, after which Satan will be released and lead astray those who are still unregenerate. There will then be one last battle, a final resurrection, and judgment. Among Disciples founders, both Barton Stone and Walter Scott were attracted to its message. [Mark Toulouse, Joined inDiscipleship: The Shaping of Contemporary Disciples Identity. Revised ed., (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2009), pp. 101ff.]
A popular modern offshoot of this theory is dispensationalism, which forms the basis of the interpretations found in the books of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, and is rooted in the theories of John B. Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren. The primary assumption of this theory is that Scripture must be interpreted literally, unless otherwise stated, which means that the millennial statement found in Revelation 20 must be taken literally. Following upon this belief is an assumption that every prophetic statement in both Testaments must be fulfilled in literal terms, and in their mind, most prophecies have yet to be fulfilled, and will be fulfilled in the last days. Dispensationalists tend to have a very pessimistic view of the world and history, with the assumption that human history is winding down toward a period of great tribulation, during which the Anti-Christ will rise up and cease control of the world. Most Dispensationalists also believe that Christians will be "raptured" prior to the tribulation, and therefore they will not have to endure the horrors of this time. What is distinctive about dispensationalism is its view of history. They divide history into a series of ages, in each of which God relates in a unique manner, and certain Scripture texts either apply or don’t apply. Thus, the Sermon on the Mount is seen as a Kingdom teaching, and thus not applicable to our current age.
A second form of millennialism emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries, as chiliasm or millennialism began to lose its popularity. Known as “amillennialism” (“a” = no), adherents insist that the term should be taken metaphorically, and thus there will be no actual millennial age. This view was taught by, among others, Augustine. Its rise corresponded with the embrace of Christianity by the Roman Empire, and thus the reign of God came to correspond with the church and its role in society. It remained dominant through the middle ages and was taken up by the Reformers, who believed that the millennium should be seen in figurative or symbolic ways.
If premillennialism is pessimistic about the future, and amillennialism essentially takes no position, postmillennialism is quite positive about the future. It envisions a conversion of the world to Christianity occurring prior to the return of Christ to rule for a thousand years. This millennial age will be one of peace and prosperity for all—but generally it was believed that this would occur without supernatural intervention. Some of the Reformers were attracted to this view because they saw the Reformation as the "dawning of a new age" of the Spirit. It also became very popular in nineteenth century America, as theologians and church leaders, including Alexander Campbell, came to believe that the social and technological progress of the age was a "harbinger" of a new age. Campbell saw the progressive policies of American politics—including universal education—and the freedom of religion allowed in America, along with efforts at unity of Christians, as promising the reign of Christ was beginning to flower. At the dawn of the twentieth century a Disciples journal took the name The Christian Century to give expression to this vision of human progress. Unfortunately, the optimism expressed by postmillennialist advocates was undermined as the twentieth century unfolded, marked as it was by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism. It is no surprise that as postmillennialism lost ground, premillennialism regained popularity among American Christians. [Toulouse, Joined in Discipleship, pp. 113 ff. Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of Disciples of Christ, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1979), 92-93].
To be continued . . .