Eschatology, part I

I was recently reading a blog that is dealing with different theological propositions concerning eschatology. Before I add to the contemporary fray about the end of times, a couple definitions might be helpful so that we are speaking and reading a similar language. All definitions are from the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (WDT).

Eschatology – The study of the “last things” or the end of the world. (WDT)

Eschaton – The final event of history, considered by many theologians to be the return of Jesus Christ to earth. (WDT)

Teleological eschatology – the view that eschatological events mentioned in Scripture are not events that will occur at the conclusion of history but are events that are being carried out concurrently with human history. (WDT)

Existential – a philosophical term referring to that which is of ultimate importance to one’s being or existence. (WDT)

Immanence of God – the view that God is present in and with the created order. (WDT)

Transcendence of God – the view that God is over and beyond the created order and superior to it in every way. (WDT)

I realize that I have tested your patience with all of the definitions. However, it is important that we speak a common language despite the fact that each of us will approach what I write full of preconceived ideas concerning eschatology.

Why eschatology? It is certainly easier to pontificate about fun Christian things like: the Jesus action figure that sits in my seminary library. It is a special one with glow in the dark hands and comes with an assortment of plastic fishes and loaves, just in case G.I. Joe or Barbie gets hungry. Despite whatever inane ramblings I could devise while reflecting on the absurdity of this action figure’s genesis, I think a brief exposition on eschatology is an equally valid undertaking...

I opened the Wall Street Journal this morning to find an article (on the front page no less) about a Texas evangelist whose ministry was an utter failure in America. A few years ago he turned his style and theology loose on the continent of Africa, and he now draws thousands of people to his “crusades.” One of the reasons why this particular evangelist failed in the States was his extreme conservatism and the fact that no one wanted to hear him preach.

Ultimately or conveniently, he has come to think that there will be more Africans than Americans in heaven and that America, (by rejecting him) has rejected the Bible (he is however dependent on American funds to continue his mission to the “unsaved” and he spends half a year in Texas raising said funds). This person infects others with a brand of Christianity and eschatology that is popular today (think Left Behind series). I want to argue for a different kind of eschatology, one that emphasizes teleological eschatology, the immanence of God and existentialism. I hope to spend another week or two building the argument I want to make, beginning today with my understanding of the psycho-biblical underpinnings that create the eschatologies of fear that permeate the theological landscape.

Biblically speaking, Revelation and Daniel are the two major sources used when a literal eschaton is constructed. These two writers help conjure the beasts, plagues, horsemen, apocalypse and also the numerous PowerPoint presentations and artistic renderings of the end of times. However, what seems to be left out of the discussion is Jesus’ ambiguity concerning the time, place, and events surrounding the last days. He prefers to leave such ramblings to the transcendent nature of God that stands outside of human history. Jesus seems more concerned about the present and what it means to live today. However, given the human capacity and desire for knowledge and thus control over the future, it is no wonder that Revelation and the prophecies of Daniel have become centerpieces in modern fundamentalist and evangelical eschatological literature.

Those who preach ideas of strict inerrancy must ultimately bow to that which they serve, namely the printed text of the canon. This brings us to another idea concerning the Scriptures as a source of knowledge about the eschaton. Scripture is a culturally conditioned, highly contextual document that reveals each writer’s and redactor’s impressions of what Jesus meant to particular communities.

From my readings, the intention of the writers was to convey the message of Jesus to their contemporaries. Remember, in that day most Christians believed that Jesus was coming back in their lifetimes (circa 100-200 CE), if they could have conceived that humanity would still be around almost two thousand years later, reading their stories about Jesus, do you think they would have changed what they wrote? Moreover, there is a tension in the writings of scripture between the immanent and transcendent nature of reality. Most descriptions of Jesus relate the immanence of his work in the world, betraying the notion of only a fully transcendent God who stands outside of the created order. Instead, scripture generally conceptualizes God as immanent and transcendent.

Psychologically, I have to consider the motives of the writers of the canon. If you believed that the end of the world was happening soon, and if you believed that the central message of Jesus was love for God, self and neighbor. How would you express the message of the immanence and transcendence of God to those who had and had not heard of the Messiah? I might imagine that I would write something that expressed the urgency of the situation, the love of God, the fear of being excluded and the call to a certain style of living in the present.

Depending on my view of the end of times, any one of these four possible motivations for sharing an interpretation of the relationship between God and humanity could surface as primary, leading me to downplay the others in the hopes of getting a particular point across to the reader or listener. Are fear, love, urgency and lifestyle the primary motivations of the writers of the New Testament? No one can say for sure, and I willingly admit that my thematic musings are speculation. However, understanding the motivation of those who seek to guide us is helpful when discerning how we should incorporate their ideas into our own.

That is enough for now, I must return to the books or I will be “left behind” in class…

grace and peace



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