A summary to date
This will serve as a reminder of where we have come from and will also enable anyone joining at this stage to catch up.
Eschatology: a good conclusion
The framework I have tried to put for an understanding of eschatology is fundamentally about the bringing to a conclusion what began in Genesis. It is the completion of God’s creation project. This pushes us beyond simply thinking about souls being saved and a home in heaven, and toward that of the renewal of creation.
Creation is good and to be redeemed, not destroyed and thrown away. Creation is fallen – it has followed the pathway that humanity has taken. Now there is redemption for humanity, with creation groaning for a similar redemption (Ro. 8).
This means that all eschatology is focused on the breaking in of the age to come, not about a set of events that can be plotted to give us an inside track about what is to come. We are not encouraged to try and live as we are the ones who know where we are, but as those who are calling for ‘the kingdom to come, on earth as in heaven’.
Our work now
We cannot bring in the kingdom – we do not through our achievements bring heaven on earth. However, we are being shaped by what is to come. We can legitimately work with the Spirit of God to see manifestations that are pointers toward what is to come (the end of Acts 2, once the Spirit of Pentecost has come, there is a transformation of community. What manifests is something of ‘heaven on earth’.)
Secondly, we can suggest that we are now preparing the building blocks for what is to come (there is a relationship between this age and the age to come).
Apocalyptic language and the end of the world (as we know it)
Another aspect that I gave some attention to was that of apocalyptic language. Language that speaks of the end of the world is far more related to giving meaning to events in history rather than describing the end of history. End of history language is to mark an event with meaning – it often describes the end of the world as the hearer / reader knows it.
Use of celestial signs – sun darkened, moon turn to blood, the stars falling all fit into this category. This becomes very important when the book of Revelation is looked at as it is full of that language. To say it has to be taken literally is a fallacy, and those who suggest this almost always mean ‘once the symbol has been interpreted’ it has to be taken literally. We do not need to find a historic reference in what is written there, indeed I suggest we should not be looking for that. (There will be historic allusions but this does not mean they are simply historic references.)
This type of language also has a major bearing in on the Oliver discourse, e.g. Matt. 24. There ‘end of the world’ descriptions far better are seen as fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem in AD70. Overall much ‘end of world’ language in the NT is to do with the major shift that took place a generation after Jesus died and rose.
This takes away from us the liberty of trying to speculate about how our times are a fulfilment of prophetic Scriptures. It also releases us to work, pray and live now with a much more blank page regarding the future. We can make a difference, rather than we are caught up in something predetermined (particularly those pessimistic views that everything will get worse).
The above framework will probably indicate that on such issues as a millennium, the appearance of the Antichrist, how modern day Israel fulfils Scripture I maintain a measure of agnosticism. (These will be the subject of future podcasts.)
Pessimism and the future
It is very naive to see today’s world as ‘better’ than that of before. The enlightenment belief in progress is not the same as an eschatological hope. However, if we have a pessimistic belief in ‘things will only get worse’ that is very debilitating to faith and long-term action. The best we can do is rescue souls so that they too can escape.
This escapist mentality manifests very strongly in the (relatively recent) teaching of Dispensationalism, which indicates that we are living in a final Laodicean (luke-warm church) age.
It seems the NT apostolic gospel inspired the early church to think about the transformation of their world. They were not intimidated by the Babylonish structure of the Roman Empire, and carried a political (society re-ordering) message through the proclamation that not Caesar but Jesus was Lord.
This then too is at the heart of eschatology, it is the discovery of, and commitment to a message that will turn upside down the powers as they currently manifest.
I suggest all the above leaves us in an eschatological tension of working toward something, knowing that we will need the parousia of Jesus to see the fulfilment of it. However, we never need to pause and sit back, but can continue to work toward this societal level change.
Is there a new world order? There has always been a world order. There has always been a kingdom of darkness, there is always a clash between the two. Prophetic writings might not be simply describing what is coming (predictive writings) but unveiling the true nature of things. They could well be describing the outcome of a world that has been abandoned by God’s people, leaving us with the choice of what we want to work for. This I believe is the best way to understand the many ambiguities in the book of Revelation.
Pessimism must be ruled out by the faithfulness of God and his commitment to his world. Pessimism must give way to faith that engages.
I suggest the above is very pertinent in our day as we seek more understanding of the nature of empire and how it has even gained greater authority through its marriage to the church.
Personal aspects of eschatology
In the most recent podcasts my attention has been on the more personal aspects of eschatology: what happens to the individual both after death (the intermediate state) and as far as final destinies are concerned.
Here the Bible is less focused than many would like it to be. However, once we understand that resurrection is the central hope: bodily resurrection to enjoy the coming of the kingdom of God to earth, we can then try and fit in the other pieces of the jigsaw.
After death, I suggest there is conscious ongoing relationship with the Lord and in his presence. This will give way to resurrection at his return. There is then an intermediate state, a bodiless experience. In that sense ‘going to heaven’ when you die, although not biblical language, carries some essential truth. This though must be strongly subsumed to the kingdom that is come on earth.
For the unbeliever, the material is even less clear. Perhaps some shadowy existence, but probably non-existence. Giving way to a judgement, and final non-existence. (Only a belief in the immortality of the soul can really challenge that – and that belief is not sustainable from Scripture.)
Optimistic about who is to be saved
Finally, in line with who the living God is, we have to have an optimism in the wideness of the mercy of God. We are not here to proclaim who is and who is not saved. We are here to proclaim that in Christ the new has broken in, he as the ‘Gardner’ is calling for co-workers to live in the light of his work.
Eschatology then envisions us and informs all our work. The sacred can begin to invade the whole of God’s creation. What does it mean to follow this Jesus: it means to get involved in ‘temple-building’ as we take the Gospel to the whole of creation, seeking to be those who make disciples of all nations.