What is a Hopeful Eschatology?
Eschatology is simply the study of “last things” or “last days1;” the word stems from the Greek word eschatos meaning “final.” But yes, there is nothing simple about this area of study. There are many different views on how the curtain comes down on our present age, and too many, in my opinion, spurn a fatalistic perspective—a grim “Let’s blow this joint!” eschatology.
In sharp contrast, the Bible inflames our hearts with hopeful expectancy, inspiring us with the sublime privilege we have of cooperating with an ever-increasing, advancing Kingdom here on this earth. So, bear with a little cage-rattling as we look at a hopeful eschatology.
So, what is a hopeful eschatology?
I once read that Sam Harris, infamously considered America’s leading atheist, said: “We have a society in which 44% of the people claim to be either certain or confident that Jesus is going to come back out of the clouds and judge the living and the dead sometime in the next 50 years. It just seems transparently obvious that this is a belief that will do nothing to create a durable civilisation. And I think it’s time someone spoke about it”.
Of course, I first got defensive. Who does he think he is? Then, after the blood rush to the head subsided, I found myself challenged by his comments. Worse was to follow. I had to agree, he had a valid point.
If we believe everything is going to get worse and worse; if everything’s going to come apart at the seams, why bother doing anything at all? Why not just wait-it-out, survive it, escape it? Actually, if this is our end-times worldview, wouldn’t it be more logical to hasten the end by allowing (or even helping) things to get worse? While that would be ridiculous, it would make sense; that is, it would be consistent with a fatalistic perspective.
The early church certainly believed that Jesus’ return was imminent—even a casual reader of the New Testament would come to this conclusion. So, why was the early church not guilty of the same fatalistic ideology that Harris correctly, in my opinion, chides our generation for?
The early believers transformed their world, creating a “durable civilisation”—to use Harris’ words—and so much so that their heroic example inspired much of what is good and sustainable about our civilisation 2,000 years later. If they too lived with a sense of His soon return, why were they spurred on to Kingdom exploits when, all too frequently, Western believers in the twenty-first century are spurning responsibility, banking on escape?
The difference, I think, comes down to whether we nurture a hopeful eschatology or nurse a fatalistic one.
A fatalistic viewpoint envisions everything getting progressively worse until things are so bleak, the return of Christ rescues the redeemed from this God-forsaken planet, whipping us off to heavenly bliss, leaving the unbelieving on earth to be “nuked” along with the planet’s destruction. (Or something to this effect, various timing for the rapture and diverse viewpoints of hell notwithstanding).
The 1970’s book The Late, Great Planet Earth, and movie by the same name, dramatically popularised this notion, mesmerising the Christian mainstream with supposed prophetic parallels and revelatory connections—making it hard for most to digest any other end-times viewpoint, even one that has more historical roots. (Of course, the more recent Left Behind book series has popularised this viewpoint for another generation).
It’s kind-of enticing in one way; we get rescued before things really hot up, and we’re absolved from any responsibility for the planet: “Ol’ terra firma is headed for the incinerator anyway”. Nice. (Not!2)
Cut from another cloth, a hopeful eschatology acknowledges that while evil men while get worse and worse (2 Timothy 3:13), in a redemptive backlash of abounding grace (Romans 5:20), Jesus envisioned a prevailing ecclesia against which the plans of the evil one will fail (Matthew 16:18). This Kingdom-advancing juggernaut of compassion and power will cooperate with God’s express intention to bring heaven to earth; His will manifest on this planet (Matthew 16:19; 6:9, 10).
A book and movie called The Restored, Great Planet Earth just wouldn’t have enough Hollywood drama to it, I’m afraid. As a culture, we’re suckers for drama and histrionics.
Nevertheless, in a hopeful viewpoint, the return of Christ will consummate the prevailing work of the redeemed, removing the curse from this planet while delivering the ungodly to judgment (2 Timothy 4:1; Matthew 13:36-43; 24:29-51), establishing an open-heaven on a restored, upgraded new earth (Revelation 21:1ff)—upon which the redeemed reign forever (Revelation 5:10; 22:5). We’re not escaping, we’re taking occupation. Amen!3
Fuelled by the hope His return ignites, the early church advanced the Kingdom and changed their world, preparing the way for the return of the King (or His purpose for the next generation). They nurtured a gripping attitude of expectancy; they weren’t bound by a fatalistic linear time-table of supposed end-time events (as is often the case today).
You see, anticipating Christ’s return refers to a mindset we nurture rather than a timeline we plot; a life-transforming expectation, not events on the calendar. Enamoured by a prescribed timeline (or a determined sequence of events, or a clinical check-list of world affairs), we become fatalistic, marked by resignation, cynicism and despair. Gripped with an eschatological expectation, we become catalytic.
It was Peter, who wrote, “since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11, 12).
He urged us to not just “look for” but to actually “hasten” the coming of Christ—to intentionally live in such a way as to usher in God’s expressed will on earth as it is in heaven. Resigning from our dominion mandate, settling for an escape plan, was surely not even on his radar.
Filled with this hopeful eschatological attitude, the early church lived with a mesmerising sense of destiny and riveting sense of responsibility; they lived believing that they could be, not necessarily would be, the generation that Jesus would return for. And thus, they transformed the seemingly all-powerful Roman Empire from the bottom-up with compassion and grace; heroically opposing social injustice and oppression—and wicked social ills such as infanticide4—sacrificially healing and selflessly feeding the sick, young, old, marginalised and needy.
“Hang on a minute Craig, explain yourself!”
Okay, let me take some excerpts from Living at the Edge of Time? to outline the reasons why I have a hopeful eschatology, in answering these four questions:
- What’s the Parousia of Christ?
- What signs point to the end?
- Who’s left-behind?
- What happens to planet earth?
What’s the Parousia of Christ?
The New Testament does not actually use the phrase, “the return of Christ;” rather it refers to His “coming,” a Greek word (parousia) used to describe the official coming of a king whose arrival would be permanent and whose impact would be lasting…
The “coming” of Christ then refers to the arrival of the King whose occupation is permanent and lasting. The implication is that King Jesus is coming to occupy; hence, we’re to prepare for the King’s return not our own getaway. Surely, we should plan for “occupation” not bank on “evacuation?” … Moreover, the phrase, the “age to come” or the “coming age” then powerfully refers to the “parousia age”—the age inaugurated in Christ’s coming. Wow!
What signs point to the end?
In Matthew 24, Jesus answered three questions, one of which concerned the end of the age. Jesus said: “You will hear wars and rumours of wars … nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places”(v. 6).
It is these “signs of the times” that usually get so much airtime. I have personally sat in seminars that have detailed to the nth degree affairs in the world economy; the Middle East; changing weather patterns; world-wide disasters; blah, blah, blah … as definitive indications that the end is upon us. Because of this, many believers find it almost engrained in their psyche to view events on the global stage as decisive pointers of the end of the age.
But Jesus’ words are emphatic.
Having just warned us to avoid deception (v. 4); Jesus explains that the world, subject to fallen men, would always be on the brink of catastrophe, but clarified: “See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (v. 6).
I had to reread that several times. But the end is not yet!
Too much end-times teaching today foments anxious hysteria, yet Jesus taught otherwise: “see that you are not troubled.” Surely, He’s actually teaching us to avoid the confusion caused by obsessing on world-wide events; for to do so, takes our eyes off what matters—and in so doing, we become anxious and may shrink from our day of opportunity…
If the usual “signs of the times” aren’t the focal point, what should our “time clock” be set against? … Fortunately, we need not scratch our heads on the matter. Again, Jesus answered it emphatically.
Jesus revealed the critical factor against which He sets His clock: “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (v. 14).
Did you see that? “And then the end will come.”
Jesus stressed that “the gospel of the Kingdom” will be preached in all the world “then the end will come.” Notice too that Jesus was not just referring to the proclamation, but the demonstration of the Gospel; He said the Gospel must be preached “as a witness” not just “a word.” Surely, Jesus is calling us to focus on our mandate, urging us to remain undistracted by events upon the world stage?
Who’s left-behind in the rapture?
(Warning! What’s to follow is not for the faint of heart). Continuing His discourse, in Matthew 24, Jesus explained that His return would bring judgment; in fact, likening His coming to “the days of Noah” (v. 37). Remember Genesis, Chapters 6 and 7? God flooded the world to remove the ungodly in judgment?
Jesus taught that just as “the flood came and took them all away” (v. 39), at His return “two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left” (v. 40).
Why do so many conclude that the one taken is the believer (in the rapture), and the one left behind is the unbeliever? Jesus seemed to imply the opposite in this passage. Just as the flood came and took the ungodly of Noah’s time away, so Jesus will remove the ungodly at His coming.
It’s amazing how this thought floors so many believers. Do yourself a favour and read Matthew 24:37-42 for yourself.
It’s startling how many have believed a “left-behind” dispensational theory of the rapture based on a book or a movie when Jesus’ words were fairly clear on the issue all this time. Of course, this has ramifications for how one views the coming of Christ and the rapture … The bumper sticker warning of an unmanned car is now looking as silly as it was cheesy.
What happens to planet earth?
Both Peter and John refer to the glorious promise of a new heaven and new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). So, what happens to the old earth?
The clearest indication of what might be in the mind of God comes from the word “new” in “new earth” and the phrase “had passed away” in “the first earth had passed away”(Revelation 21:1). The word “new” (Greek: kainos) is the same word used to describe who we are now in Christ: “a new creation”(2 Corinthians 5:17). And the phrase “had passed away” is the exact same description of our old life before Christ: “old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
The Greek word used for “new” in both these verses refers to a new form or quality, not to a new time or season (as the Greek word neos does). In other words, it’s not referring to something that is brand-new, never-before seen in existence; rather it refers to something reformed and restored to its original purpose.
When we become a new creation by His grace, we aren’t re-created completely from scratch; rather we are miraculously redeemed and restored. Surely, in the same way that we become a new creation through the redemptive act of God, the earth will become a new earth through God’s redeeming power? He will judge the systems (kingdoms) of this world and remove the curse of sin from the earth. John declared in wide-eyed wonder: “And there shall be no more curse”(Revelation 22:3).
Think about all the words in the Bible that begin with the prefix “re-,” meaning, “to go back.” Revive, restore, redeem, repent, regenerate, renew, refresh, refine, reconcile, rebuild, repair and resurrect are a heap that come to mind. They all refer to God taking us and His creation back to something original. God’s not going to nuke the earth; He’s set on restoring it. The “earth is the Lord’s” after all (Psalm 24:1). And He’s going to ask us to give account for our stewardship of His earth, entrusted to us from the beginning (Genesis 1:26-28). Amen, or O-me?
Working through these kinds of questions, brings me to one conclusion.
When Jesus taught us to pray, “Father, Your Kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9, 10), He meant it! After all, the Grand Story concludes with the heavenly Jerusalem coming to earth, not with us flying off to heaven (Revelation 21:1ff).
Surely, in the power God provides, the ecclesia advance His Kingdom in ever-increasing glory until His parousia consummates (and completes) our Spirit-empowered efforts? In this glorious moment, aren’t the redeemed transformed—the ‘rapture’ of 1 Thessalonians 4:17; the ‘resurrection’ of 1 Corinthians 15:52—as God’s glory overshadows this earth in a time-altering, phenomenal makeover, establishing an open-heaven upon a restored earth. God’s original plan in Eden is fulfilled, and we “shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5)?
“Gee, my head is spinning … so, what then is a Biblical eschatology?”
I’m not advocating a dogmatic school of end-times thought in this article—since there isn’t one. Championing one theory over another simply ends in useless arguments, mindless justifications, and pompous posturing if the argument is won (or vengeful plotting if lost).
If we go back to the Creeds, we really get back to basics.
The Apostles’ Creed states, “He will come to judge the living and the dead”. The Nicene Creed explains, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”. That’s all they say on the matter.
Anything else is non-essential—which doesn’t necessarily mean unimportant, but does mean we avoid being dogmatic on the matter. (Paul’s instructions in Romans 14 guide us on non-essential issues. You may want to see, What is essential for church unity? on this topic).
However, the point this article tackles is the spirit behind our eschatology. Biblical eschatology imparts faith not fear; it stirs catalytic hope, not fatalistic despair. And it’s against this marker that we ought to weigh the end-times viewpoint we hold.
For a detailed look at what we learn from Jesus, Paul and John about the last days, see Part One of Living at the Edge of Time? Space prevents me from unpacking more on the subject here, or amplifying on my answers to the four questions above.
1 The Bible does not use the phrase, “the end-times”—the closest is Paul’s amazing statement: “upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Instead, it uses the phrase: “the last days”.
The first time it’s used in the New Testament is Peter’s quotation of the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). Then several other phrases also refer to the urgency required ahead of the coming of Christ. Paul spoke of “the last days” (2 Timothy 3:1) and “in latter times” (1 Timothy 4:1). John referred to “the last hour” (2 John 2:18) and Peter also used the phrase, “the last days” (2 Peter 3:3). Jude refers to the “words … spoken … by the apostles” about “in the last time” showing that an essential part of the apostles’ teaching concerned eschatological passion (Jude 17, 18).
So what time period does “the last days” refer to then? The term “last days” refers to the church age; the time period between the first and second coming of Christ. The writer to the Hebrews said: “God … has in these last days spoken to us by His Son”(Hebrews 1:1, 2). Thus, we are in the last days today just as Paul was in the last days in the first century.
Some will use the phrase, “the last of the last days” implying we are living right at the edge of time; the return of Christ being imminently imminent.
While I don’t necessarily disagree with this, being a truly eschatological people means that we are to live with an urgent, earnest expectation whether we feel we are in the last of the last days, or perhaps just at some point in the last days unfolding. Either way, we are to “look for and hasten the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11, 12); living “this day” in light of “that Day”.
2 Excuse me for being blatantly honest here, but I find this extremely arrogant and ignorant. We live in a day when more people die for their faith in Christ than at any other time in history. How can Western believers think they’re going to dodge tough times when our third-world brothers and sisters are thriving, despite the life-threatening persecution they endure?
3 One finger pointed at this kind of hope is that it borders on naïve triumphalism, “We’re untouchable … and we’re going to kick some butt!” While it may foolishly do so; it need not to. The Gospel often thrives under intense persecution, and Jesus made it clear that there is a direct correlation between persecution and triumph (Matthew 24:8-14). Paul, a man who knew both well, explained it like this: “We must through many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And again, reminding Timothy, Paul said: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).The victory hoped for in this present age is despite adversity and, through testing, ushers in the coming age.
In contrast, a fatalistic eschatology doesn’t even anticipate victory, relying instead on an escapist theory to avoid tribulation.
4 In a world riddled with temple prostitution meshed against the backdrop of the lustful gods of the Greco-Roman Pantheon, infanticide—the intentional killing of unwanted infants—was common; a practice called “exposing.” The newborns usually weren’t directly killed; rather they were left to die in a jar or pot dumped outside the house—thus, “exposing” them to a “natural death” (!) In this way, they were left to the gods, supposedly alleviating human responsibility.
The early Christians’ value of life and ethical teachings—the Didache taught, for instance, “You shall not kill that which is born”—opposed this godless practice and their “go the extra mile” generosity and practical compassion provided answers to the abandoned children of the Empire.