The end of time

Interest in eschatology, even among those who have never heard the word, is alive and well in the US, if sales of the Left Behind book series [Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: The Series (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1995-2002)] are any measure. Craig Hill writes of bookstores, “T. LaHaye and J. Jenkins’s dark apocalyptic novels monopolize the religion section” [Craig C. Hill, Eschatology for the Rest of Us in Catalyst Online; see: http://catalystresources.org/issues/302hill.html]. The premillennial dispensationalism of the Left Behind series – with its underlying theme of Christ returning not once but twice, first to rapture believers and then to rule for a thousand years – has undergone a sudden resurgence since its original formulation by J. N. Darby in the nineteenth century [John Nelson Darby: Defender of the Faith at http://www.according2prophecy.org/darby.html]. Darby’s thirty-two volumes of collected writings shaped the theology of Scofield, whose First Reference Bible has become the standard for many Biblical literalists [C.I. Scofield, KJV Scofield 1917 Reader’s Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)]. Premillennial dispensationalism is but one of a spectrum of eschatological viewpoints each of which differs in its understanding, most commonly because of varying readings of apocalyptic Biblical texts.

All eschatology is not, however, of the Left Behind variety. The recent writing of Pannenberg and Moltmann is illustrative of contemporary work. Pannenberg sees the resurrection of Jesus as a prolepsis of ultimate outcomes. Only at the eschaton will there be a completeness of knowledge and hence the possibility of a complete witness to God. To speak of God is to speak eschatologically. In Mostert’s work on Pannenberg’s God and the Future, he succinctly captures six important factors in Pannenberg’s eschatology: “(1) the restoration of eschatology is demanded by a proper understanding of the Christian faith; (2) the doctrines of reconciliation and salvation call for eschatological understanding; (3) nothing else is adequate to the universality of God (ie. his relation to the totality of history – not just “a salvation stream”); (4) humanity seen in the context of ultimate reality is necessarily eschatological; (5) the desire to articulate persuasively the doctrine of God, consistent with Jesus’ proclamation of the coming kingdom; and (6) the necessity for a critical and constructive eschatology in the public realm. “Eschatology provides a challenge to the self-sufficiency of an entirely secular view of the world”” [Christiaan Mostert, God and the Future. Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Eschatological Doctrine of God, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark / Continuum, 2002)].

Moltmann’s theology of hope calls for all of our attention to be paid to the ultimate apocalyptic goals of history; in other words, God’s promises to act in the future have priority over the fact that God acted in the past. Moltmann writes, “From first to last, and not merely in epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving . . . The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything is set.”[ Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (London: SCM Press, 1967)].

Of the eschatology encountered in local churches, much is described in language conditioned by the reading of Scripture, most especially the Book of Revelation. John Wesley saw the prophecies in Revelation as related, in large part, to events that occurred immediately after they were written [John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon The New Testament for Revelation (electronic version)}. Other parts of the apocalyptic book he saw as prophecies fulfilled in the middle ages in Papal Rome. The “first woe” of Revelation Wesley saw as ending in 589 AD., with the second and third woes quickly following. The second woe he saw as ending in 840 AD and the third woe ending in 1000 AD. He understood Rev 10:6 as a reference to a period ending in 1836. In his comments on Rev. 13:1 he notes, “The beast is the Romish Papacy” and in his notes on Rev 13:15 he observes, “By this the Pope manifests that he is antichrist” In reference to Rev 20:2 and the devil being bound for a thousand years, Wesley’s notes state, “But such time the church has never yet seen. Therefore it is still to come. These thousand years are followed by the last times of the world”. In his notes on Rev 22:21, Wesley presents a table which assigns all of the prophecies of Revelation to times preceding 1836 other than “The loosing of Satan for a small time, the beginning of the thousand years’ reign of the saints; the end of the small time, the end of the world; all things new.” Wesley died in 1791 and, contrary to his expectations, nothing of spectacular note occurred in 1836. Sandeen, who used this category to include those who interpret Revelation largely in terms of the past history of the church, has classified the eschatology of Wesley as “historical pre-millennialism” [Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p 63].

It seems that many of the ideas contained in the notes on Revelation were not Wesley’s own work. In his introductory materials he freely acknowledges that the notes are “mostly those” of Bengelius (i.e. Johann Albrecht Bengel (1684-1752), the Tübingen Pietist whose field was Biblical studies) and he states in his Explanatory Notes, “by no means do I pretend to understand or explain all that is contained in this mysterious book”. In his journal for December 6, 1762, Wesley writes, “I corrected the notes upon the Revelation. O, how little do we know of this deep book! At least, how little do I know! I can barely conjecture, nor affirm any one point concerning that part of it which is yet unfulfilled.” In a letter Wesley wrote in 1788 he ascribes the attribution of dates associated with the events of Revelation to Bengelius and wrote that he could, “determine nothing at all about it. These calculations are far above, out of my sight” [John Wesley, Letters to Mr. Christopher Hopper in The Works of John Wesley. Vol. 12, p. 319]. It seems that Wesley, although choosing to cite the work of others in his Notes, himself refused to engage in speculation about the exact timing and nature of end-time events, preferring not to be caught up in the enthusiasm of his day for such prophetic utterances. Indeed, in Wesley’s own words, there was but one thing that was the focus of his attention, “I want to know one thing, — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore” [John Wesley, Preface to Volume 5, in The Works of John Wesley. Vol. 5, p. 3]. Thus, for Wesley, eschatology entails redemption in its fullest sense. Indeed, Wesley held the notions of present reality and future goal (in connection with the Kingdom of Heaven) conjunctively in tension with respect to Christian Perfection. He acknowledged that Christian Perfection is attainable now (i.e. it is a present reality) and that all must strive for this (i.e. it is a future goal) while never claiming such Christian Perfection for himself [John Wesley, Sermon 40, Christian Perfection, in The Works of John Wesley. Vol. 6, p. 1].

Wesley’s understanding of both the personal and social dimensions of holiness allows his soteriology and the derived eschatology to extend far beyond the individual person. In his sermon, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” he asks rhetorically if Christianity is “A universal remedy, for a universal evil?” and notes that wickedness “overspreads the face of the earth.” [John Wesley, Sermon 116, On the Inefficacy of Christianity, in The Works of John Wesley. Vol. 7, p. 282]. Underlying Wesley’s social concern appears to be the notion that God ca
n act eschatologically within the flow of human history and is not limited to acting as an external force disrupting human history. Hence, Christianity, operating in the world as the church, becomes the eschatological agent of God. While some authors have described Wesley’s thought as “realized eschatology” [Franz Hildebrandt, From Luther to Wesley (London: Lutterworth Press, 1951), p. 53.], others have suggested the term “anticipated eschatology” [Cyril Downes, The Eschatological Doctrines of John and Charles Wesley, (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1974)]. Such a term seems consistent with Wesley’s teleological approach to reasoning – where the telos is the Lordship of Christ – and his concern for the complete redemption of all of creation, expressed in Discourse II of his sermon, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount”. The process and instantiation of the Wesleyan Via Salutis, extended through death to judgment, glorification and the new kingdom make redundant questions of pre- or postmillennialism. These understandings of eschatology focus on instantiation to the neglect of process while theologies that discount any serious eschatological thought tend to focus on process at the expense of instantiation [In process theology, for example, the future is open and undefined so the emphasis is always on process and never on instantiation].

According to Bauckmam, the relevance of the Book of Revelation for today may be summarized as follows: (i) it provides a counter-culture view of the world that calls “for the church to witness to values not held by the dominant culture, and to be prepared for the cost of doing so;” (ii) it offers a strongly theocentric view of the world; (iii) it resists dominant ideologies and “sees the world as open to divine transformation into God’s kingdom;” (iv) its perspective is one that speaks across socioeconomic classes; (v) it “calls Christians to active participation in this coming of the kingdom;” (vi) its prophetic critique is “of the churches as much as of the world;” (vii) it shows that “the essential form of Christian witness, which cannot be replaced by any other, is consistent loyalty to God’s kingdom;” and (viii) it places the central New Testament theme of “salvation in Christ into its total biblical-theological context of the Creator’s purpose for his whole creation” [Richard Bauckman, The Relevance of Revelation in Catalyst Online at http://catalystresources.org/issues/224bauckham.html]. These understandings of the Book of Revelation seem appropriate for any current discussion of an eschatological statement that is faithful to the Biblical witness. Indeed, in our own conversations we spoke of the appeal of he Book of Revelation to oppressed people seeking hope and how the vision of the lamb as victor, in contrast with the vision of the “evil empire”, is a sign of hope that resonates through the ages.

One of the dangers of many approaches to reading apocalyptic literature is that they can easily lead to a fixation on future at the expense of present. Thus, we see disregard for the environment somehow excused because “Jesus is coming soon”. We see individuals more concerned with “getting into heaven” than with addressing poverty and homelessness in the world today (a personal piety at the expense of social piety).

We noted that even among those who assent to a second coming, there is some question as to whether that is a second coming of Jesus of Nazareth, of the post-resurrection Jesus, or of the Christ (if these are indeed different). Our concern position was that our eschatological focus is one of hope for the fullness of the Kingdom of God, certainty that God will win in the end, and that there is no knowing the day or the hour. Better be alert……perhaps it is today!

4 Comments

  1. Julian A. Davies

    I just made a connection with an earlier post by Rick Gaillardetz (under “God in a body”) in which Rick described Jesus as the “definitive and eschatological human”. This seems to me to be a great way of thinking eschatologically while talking of Christian belief.

  2. Rick Gaillardetz

    I appreciate Julian’s making the connection with my earlier post. I would like to add a “Catholic take on eschatology” to complement the very important contributions of such Protestant luminaries as Pannenberg and Moltmann. According to Karl Rahner, eschatology is concerned with the transposition of the present experience of salvation from the mode of beginning to the mode of consummation. This is an important corrective against the view that eschatology is limited to esoteric speculation about future events that is intended to distract from contemporary concerns. According to Rahner, eschatology articulates in the mode of consummation what we are already experiencing haltingly on earth here and now. In other words,eschatology informs our our present experience of sin, grace, the quest for justice, solidarity with the disenfranchised, concern for the integrity of the earth and creation itself. This insight is an important response to the Marxist critique that Christian eschatology functions as an opiate, numbing people to the unjust circumstances of their present existence. Eschatology does not just anesthetize us, it calls us into a new future. Another important point tht needs to be made concerns the fact that eschatology often employs fantastical images and metaphors to communicate important insights. We misunderstand the nature of eschatological assertions when we literalize them. We need to remember that these function as religious symbols that mediate an encounter with realities that go beyond the limits of human language. As St. Paul reminded us, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard nor has it entered into the minds of men and women what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

  3. Brad

    Because so much of popular eschatology is conceived from careless readings of Revelation, a more nuanced reading serves as a necessary corrective. First we must acknowledge the problems with the doctrine of biblical innerrancy, which has been addressed here in a previous blog. Then the methods of literary analysis can be usefully applied to understanding Revelation. St. John’s Revelation conforms to the conventions of ancient apocolyptic literature, common at its time of writing. Ancient apocolyptic literature employed fantastical imagery and symbolism that often represented real people, places and institutions. In the case of Revelation, symbols referring to the Roman Empire permeate the text. A careful reading of Revelation indicates undoubtedly that Rome was the anti-Christ that St. John had in mind. Therefore, to read Revelation literally in anticipation of a boding anti-Christ is hermeneutically irresponsible. (Although I am often tempted to demonize Walmart as the anti-Christ.) Dispensationalist readings also often overlook the role of the slain lamb throughout Revelation. Not by the world’s methods of oppression and strength does the lamb win. Rather, through submission and sacrifice, the lamb overcomes the world’s powers (at that time, Rome) and thereby gives hope to the hopeless. St. John’s Revelation reminds us that God’s way for humanity contradicts the world’s ways and that by the path of the lamb we may experience salvation and overcome the world’s oppressive forces. A more careful reading of Revelation points to truths more relevant and more hopeful than those of dispensationalism. For a very readable examination of Revelation, see The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing.

  4. Secret Rapture

    Let me elaborate.
    It is when I once again, for the last time, get inside everyone’s head with the result of billions gone.
    Within months, if not years, by my hand, we will be in the post apocalyptic world of ‘Jericho’ on TV! Stay tuned!

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