Our culture seems to have a genuine fixation on the apocalypse, or the “end of days,” as of late. Post-apocalyptic, dystopian stories fly off the shelves faster than you can say “exclusive movie rights.” Popular Christian culture isn't getting left behind either. A steady stream of best-selling book series and movie adaptations have given us a fanciful, modern interpretation of Jesus' Revelation. And why not? The end of a story is arguably the most important part. Everyone understandably wants to know what's going to happen on the last page. Will the hero defeat his enemy or overcome his obstacle? Will he finally get where he's going and achieve what he's after? How we see the ending of the story—what we identify as the point of it all, the culmination, the climax—will greatly inform how we read the whole story. It will inform how we see our part in the story, how we live it out in our everyday lives, and how we tell the story of God to others who have yet to hear.
I don’t plan to get into the nuts and bolts, the nitty-gritty, of all the various eschatological positions. This probably comes as a great relief to many and perhaps a disappointment to some. If you find yourself among the latter, we’ll have to set up a time to sit on my porch with our tea and pipes in hand to gleefully deliberate for hours about the eschaton (I’ve never actually smoked a pipe, and I’m not much for tea, but it just seems like the thing to do when one is having a deep and nerdy theological discussion). My aim in this post (and in all my posts) is to speak primarily of the Gospel, and hopefully to let that which is of “first importance” frame our understanding of biblical eschatology.
I think we have to approach this topic, as we should all theology, with a humble and teachable spirit. As human beings, we are extremely susceptible to marrying ourselves so completely to a way of thinking, or an ironclad theological model, that we may end up inadvertently imposing our beloved framework on the biblical text (creating theological tunnel vision). We should be very alert, even reasonably terrified, of this all too common and mostly subconscious behavior. The Jewish theologians of Jesus’ day, for example, held to a specific and finely tuned eschatological model that didn’t line up with the young Galilean prophet who stood before them. Ultimately, when faced with the contradiction, it was their Messiah and not their misconstrued model that they foolishly abandoned. These were learned men. They spent their lives studying the Scriptures. Many of them could quote entire books, replete with messianic prophecy, just as readily as we could rattle off John 3:16. It’s unnerving to think that we can arrive at a place of extreme biblical familiarity only to find ourselves, due to our theological presuppositions and hard hearts, still incapable of perceiving the heart of God as it’s dancing off the pages. We are each of us undoubtedly wrong about something, probably a great many somethings. We must be willing to learn what those somethings are.
While one can easily get bogged down in the details (and I’m not saying they aren’t important), we simply can’t afford to miss the broad strokes of the story. We must, at the very least, be able to see the forest for the trees. So by all means, study the various barks and leaves within, become a master of the theological flora and fauna, but God forbid that while doing so we fail to connect the dots, to appreciate the cumulative sum of the individual parts, and to grasp the overall lay of the land (How's that for a hearty mixing of metaphors?).
As best as I can see, the overarching story that the Bible is telling is of an all-powerful, all-knowing, timeless, just, loving, hyper-personal, and completely self-sufficient spiritual Being who (for reasons only fully known to himself) decides to create an incredibly vast and beautiful physical universe (comprised of space, time, and matter). Within this universe, he fashions an ideal world and populates it with all kinds of amazing life. He then establishes one set of his creatures above the rest as his uniquely crafted image-bearing representatives to creation. Heaven (what we now think of as “God's space”) and earth (“our space”) seem to harmoniously coexist in this early state, characterized by perfect communion between the Creator and his image-bearers. Curiously, this all-powerful Being intends to rule his creation through these fragile human creatures. But the first humans, of course, reject the Tree of Life and abandon their noble vocation. All of his once-good creation suffers the harmful effects of these unwilling, and now unqualified, administrators. Earth is, in a sense, torn from heaven (though God is of course ever-present, our ability to perceive him, to experience his life-giving fellowship, and to benefit from universal human submission to his reign, is at this point tragically constrained). Undaunted by this colossal setback and unwilling to wipe the board clean, the Creator patiently works through flawed human messengers and broken leaders—committed as ever to his original intent for humanity—to reveal his heart for reconciliation and to foretell his plan of restoration (an extremely truncated summary of thousands of years of human history). The culmination of these efforts is finally seen in the dramatic and miraculous appearance of a divine human in 1st Century Palestine. According to the story, this humble God-man is the Creator’s only Son, the perfect image-bearer, the promised King, and the sort of human we were all meant to be. He alone is uniquely qualified to reclaim humanity's birthright and, in so doing, to return to God what is rightfully his, as well (The Creator certainly knows how to untangle a knot). God then takes back his rebel world through this man, Jesus, and gives birth to his everlasting and long-promised kingdom (as he begins to mend the tear between heaven and earth one person at a time). Previously disqualified humans are now scandalously invited to resume their original vocation as “ambassadors” and “priests” of God and to participate in his redemptive work in the world. By way of his death and resurrection, Jesus counterintuitively wins a decisive victory over his enemy and purchases a costly citizenship and adoption for once-rebels who now acknowledge him as their rightful King. His kingdom-people are empowered with God’s own Spirit and commissioned to share the good news of his reign. Like a tiny mustard seed, his kingdom steadily grows and will continue to grow into a mighty tree that fills the whole earth. No human kingdom will be able to overthrow it or even resist its advance. And yet it will not spread by the typical human means of violence, hollow propaganda, or coercion but by a diverse army of sacrificial servants and martyrs who follow their Founder's example (as a Spirit-filled extension of him) and faithfully demonstrate and declare his better kingdom. In many cases, the illegitimate powers of this world will not even notice his subversive kingdom's liberation movement until it's too late. Though all authority in heaven and earth is already his, there are still many who do not know, or simply refuse to accept, that Jesus is now King. His rule will therefore be complete upon his physical return to earth, at which point evil will be permanently eradicated from his restored universe, he will judge the living and the dead, death will be swallowed up by Life, heaven and earth will be once again seamlessly and fully reunited, and we will see him face to face. All of human history is leading up to this climactic moment when death and decay—the results of human rebellion—are forever undone and God's good and perfect will is at long last carried out consistently and effortlessly here “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Our hearts should ache for this (Rom. 8:23). The heart of God—including his Spirit who resides within his people—longs for this steadily-approaching future (“The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!'” -Rev. 22:17a). All of creation groans, as well (Rom 8:22). Jesus instructs his followers to regularly pray that God would essentially bring heaven to earth (Matt. 6:9-10). The Lord's Prayer should cause our anticipation for the reunification of heaven and earth (both incrementally in the present and universally at the eschaton) to build into a fever pitch. In his well known Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to live as if it were already so, even when living this way will presently cost us dearly.
There are numerous popular predictions about the eschaton that I would disagree with, but I don't feel the need to vehemently debate every potential error (although, we'll certainly leave no stone unturned if you happen to hit me up for the eschatology-fest on my porch). There is undoubtedly a hierarchy of errors, and we should always give greater attention to the errors that erode (either directly or indirectly) the core elements of the Gospel. If one is unfamiliar with the common use of metaphor in apocalyptic genres, for example, then one may be very sincere in their expectation of seeing a literal, scaly, fire-breathing dragon at some point near the end. They also may be racking their brain in a good faith effort to creatively figure out how all the stars will literally fall from the sky or the moon will turn to blood. They may even take a certain pride in their remarkable ability to believe such absurdity. Many of these hyper-literal conclusions (when the biblical author is clearly attempting to convey something else), in my estimation, are extremely misguided but arguably benign to a point. However, regularly divorcing apocalyptic prophecies (such as Jesus' colorful predictions in Matthew 24 and his subsequent elaboration in the Revelation to the seven churches) from their clear biblical antecedents (like Isaiah using similarly cataclysmic language and hyperbole to predict the 539 BC judgment of Babylon—Isaiah chapter 13) can also lead to egregious error (It's easy to see how some small exegetical errors naturally produce greater errors down the road. In arithmetic, for example, if we misstep early in the process, our initial miscalculation is magnified as we continue on).
One popular interpretation of God's story (with multiple eschatological implications) insists that God has “two distinct people” and subsequently “two distinct plans.” This teaching has led many evangelicals to conclude that there are two ways to be reconciled to God: one (for Gentiles) being to trust in the finished work of Jesus and the other (for sincere, ethnic Jews) to simply be genetically related to Abraham's grandson, Jacob. This grave error (which essentially undermines the exclusivity and sufficiency of the cross, a core tenant of the Gospel) is not often expressly taught, but, given what is commonly taught, it is easy to see how the laity within this camp arrive at this erroneous conclusion. On this point, I would say shepherds and teachers are responsible, to some extent, not only for what they say but also for what the flock hears. According to the story of God, there is decidedly only one Seed of Abraham with the power to save, only one ancestry that affects our standing at the eschaton, and, by the grace of God, anyone can become related to him. I've also heard well-intentioned Christians of this persuasion express how they think it would not only be a “good idea” but perhaps even a moral imperative for Christians to help rebuild the Jewish temple (right where a high-profile Muslim mosque now stands, no less). This sort of thinking reveals catastrophic ignorance about pivotal developments within the Gospel story (i.e. Jesus as a better Temple, a better Priest, and a better Sacrifice). Rebuilding the temple and re-instituting the sacrificial system are dangerously regressive endeavors for a Christian and completely at odds with Christ's clearly articulated kingdom agenda (Check out Galatians and Hebrews for more developed warnings).
“Rapture” theology plays heavily into this eschatological model as well. A fascination with being “caught up” has certainly caught on among many evangelical Christians (as clearly seen in the numerous book sales and movie adaptations of rapture themed fiction). I really think Paul’s beautiful picture of believers being lifted into the sky to greet the returning King (1 Thessalonians 4) has been commonly misinterpreted as a mass evacuation, but, if so, it’s probably a misinterpretation of the mostly harmless sort. Something to be cautious of, however, is the resulting escapist perspectives that can arguably be traced back to rapture theology. Some of these rapture-centric Christian traditions have at times produced a very pessimistic, “duck and cover” outlook on the world within their respective church cultures. The story they're telling seems to go something like “everything is getting worse all the time, but if you'd like to say this prayer to 'accept Jesus as your personal savior' then we can all hunker down in my basement together and watch the news for subliminal clues to which world leader may or may not be the 'antichrist' this week while we're waiting for Jesus to come back.” “When he gets here, he'll get us out of this hellhole—right before he torches the whole thing—and we'll finally be able to live with him forever in heaven.” This may be an extreme characterization of this camp, but, even in its milder forms, it starts to sound far more Gnostic than Christian (i.e. “the physical world is inherently evil and irredeemable, therefore God's endgame is to eventually extract me so that I can live with him forever in an ethereal, spiritual realm”). I've written about this elsewhere, so I'll just briefly recap here: Resurrection (which is, by definition, a physical event) is an essential element of the Gospel, as is the eventual complete restoration of creation. These repeated themes of the physical universe being redeemed and restored are not “unimportant” details that we are free to overlook or outgrow—they are bedrock to the biblical narrative (Rom. 8:19-23). Contrary to what many may think, the story the Bible is telling is not of a great escape from earth to heaven. It's a story about God bringing heaven back to earth through the person and work of Jesus (Rev. 21:3).
Some of this retreating from “secular spaces,” accompanied by extreme pessimism about the state of God’s kingdom, and trends toward spiritual escapism (marked by an abandoning of the physical world) now commonly seen in American evangelicalism is due in part to a long history of bad examples and failed attempts at “kingdom expansion.” Centuries of European “theocracies” have contributed to the reluctance most modern American Christians presently have in referring to “God’s kingdom,” as Jesus did, as something that is happening (or at least starting to happen) now. The rise and fall of Christian Triumphalism and movements like the “Social Gospel” of the early 20th Century, which is often criticized for merely focusing on societal reform and scientific advancement (perhaps over-emphasizing the demonstration while neglecting the clear declaration of the Gospel), has contributed to a far dimmer outlook of the future for those who are left in the wake of these flawed movements. The response tends to be one of overcorrection. Many of today’s church cultures have, with their theological traditions, completely neutered the dynamic and world-changing kingdom of which Jesus passionately spoke; Instead, promoting a merely internal and harmless, spiritualized version of God’s kingdom message. It’s both equally wrong to pursue a man-made utopia (in which Jesus is conspicuously absent) as it is to abdicate or abandoned the real-world implications and demands of God’s all-encompassing kingdom agenda.
My purpose here is not to mock, malign, or conversely promote a specific eschatological model (though adherents to some versions of Premillennial Dispensationalism may feel like they’ve taken some lumps in many of my cautionary examples. I only bring up so many issues resulting from this theological camp, however, due to its extreme popularity within the evangelical circles in which I run. If I were fellowshipping more often with mainline traditions, I would probably have more to say about the potential pitfalls of Preterism, and so on). Ultimately, I think it’s helpful to hear multiple perspectives from a variety of studied and Spirit-filled brothers and sisters. I’ve routinely disagreed with many of my closest and dearest spiritual family members on secondary theological issues. In spite of our differences, we’re able to live, learn, and serve together in a spirit of deep mutual respect due to our shared love of the God his story reveals. The conversation within the church regarding what story the Bible is telling, including sub-conversations about the ending, has been going on for some time now (with great saints of the past and present contributing much to the collective effort). As such, there’s really no need for us to start from scratch, nor should we.
So be a proud Premillennial, Postmillennial, Amillennial, or even eschatologically undeclared follower of Christ. But also be alert to elements of these eschatological models that might undermine core tenants of the Gospel by becoming extremely familiar with the broad strokes and governing themes of God’s epic story, as it plays out from Genesis to Revelation (i.e. Be able to distinguish between primary and secondary elements of the narrative). Be aware that your understanding (or misunderstanding) of the story’s ending will inevitably affect how you live. Be inquisitive and willing to surrender your most beloved theological presuppositions and cherished church traditions if they turn out to run contrary to the higher authority of God’s word. Be reasonably informed about our brothers and sisters who came before us and who tackled many of these same complex questions. More than this, be genuinely excited about the return of Christ, and be about your Father’s business.
I would respectfully suggest that if you're more enthusiastic about “blood moons,” implanted micro-chips, and stocking up your personal bomb shelter than pursuing the mission of God (by meeting the neighbors, welcoming the stranger, serving the least, and declaring and demonstrating the good news of God's kingdom in numerous other ways throughout your everyday life) then you're tragically missing the heartbeat of the redemptive story that God has been telling—that he's even now telling. Likewise, if you find yourself at the other end of the spectrum, with the crowd who smugly allegorize everything to the point of meaninglessness, or who reject the resurrection, the physical return of Christ, and the ultimate supernatural restoration of the cosmos, and instead seek generic social justice and man-made utopia, then you are also telling a different story of your own making (in which Jesus and some of the language of his Gospel has merely been appropriated in order to promote a secular humanist fantasy). The Gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached has an amazing third act. Let's learn the story right, live the story well, and tell the story often.