There is an excellent series with the title ‘for Dummies’ in it. Normally written by those who are relatively competent in the subject they break it down so as the basics of a complex subject can be grasped. I wonder how a ‘for dummies’ on eschatology would be written? There is a need for one, not primarily because the subject is to hard for a normal person to understand, but because it has been subjected to almost endless speculation and in the process the core understanding has often been twisted and mystified. The result is that it has been taken away from the ‘normal’ person and only those with certain qualifications can unfold the deep mysteries!
Questions such as ‘who might the antiChrist be’, the nature of the millennium, the tribulation, the purpose of Israel, Armageddon, the rapture… endless concepts that seem to appeal more to the ‘I want to know the answer’ part of our being than to the ‘in the light of this how am I to live?’
How we are to live seems to be the normal implication of biblical eschatology, but the fruit too often is either a deep desire to escape this world or a pride in having inside information. If the fruit reveals the tree I think we need pay little attention to the speculative and deeply insightful approaches we can too easily encounter.
In what follows I do not approach this as an expert, but I want to focus on some issues at the centre that hopefully will simplify our understanding even if there are questions unanswered that remain. I do not intent to deal very much with many commonly-held beliefs that can be categorised as straight Dispensationalism or as a variation of that movement. I do not want to get involved in that as such teaching (maybe popularised in the term ‘the secret rapture’) does not find a place inside mainstream historic interpretations. Indeed the history is very recent, post 1830. (If the term means very little to you as the reader, perhaps books such as ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’, or the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels, or the Scoffield Bible might help locate those views. Those views, in short, are a grid placed over Scripture that could only be plausible outside of the context in which the biblical books were written.)
Rather I wish to focus on the big picture. If we have received a story-based faith (rather than a set of beliefs, or timeless wisdom statements, or a set of rules that we are to conform to) it should only be a short step to understand that there has to be a story line to what we read in the Bible. There is a beginning, various developments and we should be expecting an end. We might, as we read, encounter different explanations of how things are, or should be. We might encounter expectations that develop that conflict with other expectations in the same Scriptures, but it would be surprising if the end bore no resemblance to the beginning. There might well be surprises, but it would be highly unlikely that we face something as strange as ‘and now for something completely different!’ Like a good story we might not be able to predict the end but there should be a deep satisfaction that the end is a more-than fitting conclusion to the whole story, pulling in the threads that we did not fully grasp in the earlier ‘chapters’.
In focusing on the big picture I hope to avoid some of the issues I have with what often surfaces in teaching on eschatology, where:
- it is often speculative and at times the appeal is not too different from what is offered in horoscopes
- so often reading the events of today and finding them in the Bible feeds a fear-based and not a faith-based mentality
- giving the hope on escape not transformation
- it has more of a focus on a series of events than on a Person
- so often over-spiritualised with a focus on the rise of a ‘one-world’ government, rather than seeing the politicised world of oppression as the issue
And maybe I should have started with…
What is meant by the term eschatology? It literally means a study of the end-(times / things). There are two dimensions to that, issues at a world, cosmic level (is there an end to time-space?, will the earth burn up?, will there be an antiChrist?, etc. type of questions arise here); and issues concerning personal issues (what happens when I die?, who goes to heaven?, is there a heaven?, and what is hell and who goes there?, is the soul immortal?, etc. type of questions surface in connection to eschatology and the personal implications).
A brief comment on the popularised Dispensationalist viewpoint: although I wish to avoid getting into that teaching, suffice it to say as a reader you will probably best engage with the material that follows by laying on one side teaching related to ‘the secret rapture’, ‘going to heaven when I die’, ‘there will be an antiChrist (and of course the European Union is evil!’) and related type teachings. I don’t ask you to lay it on one side because that teaching is wrong, but so as you benefit from what follows – even if the benefit is to discard what I write and hold even more strongly to another set of beliefs!
An underlying conviction is that I consider that as far as possible we need to read the Scriptures in the context they were written in. For example the Creation accounts do not suggest the earth as a sphere going round the sun, but presents an ancient viewpoint of a firmament above that the sun, moon and stars travel across. Behind that firmament was water (how else is rain accounted for, which is made very explicit in the flood when ‘the windows of the heavens were opened’ (Gen. 7:11)?). This is not to dismiss the account, far from it. The profundities are incredible within it. Likewise as we approach the Scriptures on eschatology we have to let them speak from their context.
It is not too long when reading Scripture that we look for help when we get to such language as stars falling from heaven (implication being to the earth!!), the moon turning to blood and such. Language is challenging! In a recent UK election there was an image of a political leader appearing out of the top pocket of the then leader of the Scottish National Party. We understand how to interpret such images, and certainly no one would suggest that this image is a literal reflection of a physical reality. The imagery though was used to imply something about the relationship of the two people, and suggested nothing about their respective physical locations nor sizes! We too will have to seek to understand what is being represented at times rather than to woodenly (replace that with ‘literally’, ‘naively’, ‘stupidly’) interpret imagery as if it was an un-photoshopped shot taken by a high quality camera!
Ah well enough for an introduction.