Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Eschatology Today

When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, some wits put out an occasional satirical journal entitled "Eschatology Today." The title still makes me chuckle. Nothing seems to change more dramatically than fundamentalist versions of eschatology, that is, the doctrine of last things, e.g., the second coming, final judgment, the end of the world, and so on. As New York Times' journalist Nicholas Kristof points out in his outstanding article, "Apocalypse (Almost) Now," Hal Lindsay's The Late, Great Planet Earth seemed to anticipate that the Second Coming would occur before the end of the 20th century. Kristof also references William Miller's prediction that the world would end in 1845 which brought hundreds or even thousands of people to hills and mountain tops all over America to await the event. Well, Miller's followers had to go back home while he recalculated his predictions, and Lindsay's readers are still waiting. And one could cite hundreds of similar stories throughout the history of the church.

I bring this up not to ridicule either conservative Christians or Christian eschatology per se. Eschatology is an important element in the Bible and in Christian theology, and liberal Christians are seriously mistaken if they either dismiss it or misconstrue it. For example, in her weblog, "Sarah Laughed", the Rev. Sarah Dylan Breuer writes that "We're in the season of Advent, and time of prayerful reflection and keen watching for Christ's coming. This is not the second coming of Christ. We call that one 'Easter.'" (link) Huh? Easter the second coming? I don't THINK so! I'm not aware of any Christian theologian from St. Paul to Rosemary Radford Ruether who would equate Easter with the second coming of Christ. When the Risen Christ leaves his followers, the heavenly messenger tells them, "This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." (Acts 1.11) And the Nicene Creed is pretty clear that we're still waiting for a fairly significant event: "He will come again in power and great glory."

There are at least five main strands of eschatological thought in the Bible: the prophets, the synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the letters of Paul, John's gospel, and the Book of Revelation. And they do not speak with a single voice. The prophets anticipate that God will vindicate Israel and establish a reign of justice centered upon Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty, although they hint that this will have a cosmic dimension. For example, Isaiah writes, "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.... He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth...Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them." Isaiah seems to anticipate a world redeemed and restored under the direction of a ruler from the Davidic line. Second, the synoptic evangelists present the teaching of Jesus about his second coming in terms heavily influenced by the prophets, especially the Book of Daniel and the later prophets. The classic statement is the so-called "little apocalypse" in Mark: "In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory." (Mark 13.24-26) Third, John's gospel has little if any eschatological horizon. The closest John gets to a prediction of the second coming is Jesus' statement in 15.26 that "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. " Fourth, Paul has an eschatology deeply influenced by first century Jewish thought, although his unique contribution was to associate the resurrection of the faithful with the second coming: "Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed." (1 Cor. 15.51.52) Finally, the Bible's most highly developed eschatology is in the Book of Revelation. Its vision is profoundly informed by first century Jewish apocalyptic thought which (in turn) evolved out of the ideas put forward in the Book of Daniel and similar documents. Needless to say, the Book of Revelation is far too complex to be summarized in a few sentences.

Conservatives too often over-emphasize eschatology and under-appreciate the Bible's divergent eschatological views. On the other hand, liberals often use those divergent views as an excuse to dismiss eschatology altogether. However, the Bible is consistent in its overall eschatological message.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells us that the universe is finite. It had a beginning and will have an end. Thus far, science and faith agree. But what faith tells us (and science does not) is that the universe is God's good creation and that whether it ends in a bang or a whimper, God will both judge and redeem all that God created.

Christian eschatology has undergone a rebirth, thanks primarily to the towering figure of J├╝rgen Moltmann, who "rehabilitated" eschatology in his book Theology of Hope and subsequent volumes. But the eschatology we need is one which puts the emphasis where it belongs: on the God who comes to establish justice in the sense in which Israel's prophets used that word. That is to say, the future anticipated by Biblical eschatology will bring good news to the poor and bad news to their oppressors. The question for us is not about how to interpret all the complex and confusing symbolic language of the Book of Revelation. It is far more important to be attentive and alert, ready to open the accounts of our lives to the One who will come to judge and redeem those for whom he died and rose again, and as far as possible to build God's realm upon earth. The question is not, Who is the anti-Christ? There have been anti-Christs from the time of Nero to the present, and they will continue to the very end. And the question is certainly not, When will Jesus come again? No one knows. The question is, What did we do when the homeless Christ needed shelter and the thirsty Christ needed a drink of water? (cf. Matthew 25.31-46)