What Does the Future Hold? Toward a Christian Eschatology

Last Judgment (Jan van Eyck - 15th c.
                When I was a teenager, I became entranced by apocalyptic speculations. I read books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and I became convinced that the last days were upon us. All the signs were there before us. The Book of Revelation was being unveiled before our very eyes. We weren’t quite sure when the rapture would occur, but it was coming soon. In fact, Lindsey suggested that Jesus would return within the generation following the restoration of the state of Israel. He also suggested that biblically, one generation equaled forty years. Thus, as I read the book in the mid-70s, that meant Jesus would be returning sometime before 1988. As you can see that date has come and gone. Over time I moved away from that version of eschatology (the study of last things). When it comes to the discussion of the nature of millennium I turned to that oft used term—panmillennialism—it will all pan out in the end.

Will there be an ending or is the future open-ended? Will Jesus return? Will there be a moment of judgment, when we stand before God? Many liberal-progressive types (of which I count myself a member) struggle with questions of judgment. Yet, one of the favorite texts for social justice activists to turn to is Matthew 25, where Jesus speaks of the day of judgment when God will divide the sheep from the goats. It’s a powerful vision that has important social justice implications, but if there is no judgment how should we read a passage like this?

A friend and I have decided to write a book on eschatology with moderate to liberal Christians as our chosen audience. One of us is a biblical scholar and the other (me) is a historian and a pastor. Our theologies are similar, but not exactly the same. It’s possible we will differ in terms of how the future unfolds, but that’s not really the point. We’re not intending to write something that will be read as prescriptive. Instead, we want to open up a conversation about how we view the future. We know that all visions of the future are not the same. Those that prevent us from pursuing matters of justice or stand in the way of dealing with climate change need to be challenged.

We know that Paul believed that the end was near. We see it time and again in his letters. Some of his followers even took things too far, as we see in the second letter to the Thessalonians. He doesn’t want them to be confused about the timing of the day of the Lord. It seems that some in the church had decided to quit working and just wait for Jesus to return. Apparently, that’s not what Paul had I mind. As time passed, and Jesus didn’t return the church began to settle in for the long haul.

I just finished reading Brian Daley’s book The Hope of the Early Church. It’s interesting to see how both millenarian visions sat alongside non-millenarian visions, as the church moved out of the first century and onward into the future. A lot of how we view the future has to do with how we view our own security. When people are living under oppression or with insecurity, or when there is a social or economic strain, they are more given to millenarian and apocalyptic views. But, when people were living with greater security and freedom, they might embrace a different form of eschatology. They might be more given to personal conversations about life after death.

Daley, who is a Jesuit teaching at Notre Dame writes that “eschatology includes, among other things, the attempt to construct a theodicy: a justification of faith in God, a hope in the final revelation of God’s wise and loving activity throughout history, with a longing for final reckonings. It is the logical conclusion of the biblical doctrine of creation, in the attempt to foresee the fulfillment of creation’s purpose.” [Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, p. 2]. Eschatology deals with the omega to creation’s alpha, the end to the beginning. The question for moderate to liberal/progressive Christians is what this omega looks like? If we embrace the idea that there is a realm of God, into which we are moving, is there a point at which the realm comes in its fullness? That leads to other questions, such as whether there is a judgment and whether some will be left out? My tendency is toward universalism, but what does that look like? Interestingly, early Christian theologians such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa had something valuable to offer to the conversation. They might not have been in the majority, but they were influential.

With this project getting started, I will be trying out some ideas on the readers of the blog. I’m interested in what others think about the eschatological conversation, and whether there is hope for the future!

image attribution: Eyck, Jan van, 1390-1440. Last Judgment, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48741 [retrieved January 29, 2020]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.


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