Eschatology may be the theological category that is the most divisive and misunderstood. Millennial theories abound, as do books and speakers claiming absolute certainty and leveling doomsday prophecies about the end of the world. Entire religious movements have risen and fallen on such claims. Because eschatological passages are so tied to apocalyptic literature in scripture, because Hebrew apocalyptic language is so uniquely cryptic, and because of the multiplicity of interpretations that its ambiguity elicits it is often tempting for Christians to throw up their hands in despair. After all, if there is no chance of landing at the truth of the matter or if you tend to say (as one friend used to tell me) “I’m a pan-millenial–I believe it will all ‘pan out’ in the end,” some simply conclude that the energy spent understanding eschatological passages could be put to more practical use: doing the kingdom of God now.
Modern theological liberalism has often borne this assumption, having explained away the supernatural stories of scripture through biblical criticism, these believers have chosen to see the message of Jesus the prophet as primarily a “now” message. They have emphasized the “this-worldliness” of Jesus’ kingdom over and against the “I’ll fly away” to that “home on God’s celestial shore” escapism of much Christian fundamentalism. Some have denied that Jesus had any eschatological message at all and that it is simply superstition which reads that in his words.
Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope seeks to correct exactly that thinking.
In reaction, modern conservatism has tended to emphasize a grossly over-simplified eschatology which amounts to nearly the very escapism which the theologically liberal were attempting to avoid. If we’re “saved,” someday we’ll go to heaven and that is pretty much the goal. The kingdom Jesus proclaimed is entirely “not yet,” so our task as the church is to try to get as many people to (as my wife calls it) “get their ticket punched for the glory train” by aligning themselves with a particular Christian denomination. Once that alignment has been made, there isn’t much for it but to make the best of things for ourselves while we wait to be whisked away to heaven.
Much of N.T. Wright’s work has attempted to correct this as well. Wright has emphasized what many before him have known, that Jesus’ kingdom has a “now” as well as “not yet” component. For Wright, God’s goal is not to remove us from this place he created for us, but to restore it entirely.
Again…it can be very confusing to understand, which is why so many simply give up to focus on “more practical concerns.” But, this assumption is wrong. Eschatology is inherently practical because eschatology presents hope. Here are what I consider the three reasons why.
Eschatology is about Resurrection
Probably the most common misconception about biblical eschatology is that it is about the destruction of the earth. Reading Revelation, as Thomas Yoder Neufeld says, “from the (illusory) safety of Rome” or to “domesticate its (intentionally) nightmarish quality into a self-serving scenario in which ‘imperial’ Christians do not see themselves in the crosshairs of this vision, as it were, but as its beneficiaries, even as they cheer on the violence of their own empires” creates a vision in the minds of Christians not of a Jesus returning to instate the final manifestation of his kingdom, but of an angry Lord coming back for vengeance on all of the people who they perceive to be against him (i.e.: against them), unreflective of whether they have ever truly aligned themselves with him. Everyone from terrorists to homosexuals and people who take advantage of welfare will burn in the lake of fire while they are taken to heaven forever. This is why I always tell people, “Please read the Gospels before you ever tackle Revelation.”
But this forgets the purpose of Jesus’ kingdom teaching: the restoration of Gods rule on earth as it is in heaven. The apostle Paul seems to understand this in Romans 8 (in my humble opinion, the most important eschatological passage in the NT). In this passage, starting in vs. 18, Paul describes a future vision not of escaping the bonds of earth but of the completion of the earth’s restoration. We Christians, now, are experiencing the firstfruits (v. 23) of the Spirit’s work (presumably the spiritual renewal Paul refers to in Ephesians 1-2) but are waiting for our bodies to catch up in that renewal process. In fact, the whole world (kosmos) (20-22) is awaiting its own restoration. This, I think, is consistent with Colossians 1 in which Paul insists that Jesus has come to restore “all things.”
In the NT, eschatology is about resurrection: the raising up of those who have died as well as the restoration of God’s good creation (from death to life). Resurrection in the NT is always very specifically tied to the rejuvenation of that which was once physically dead to something that is now alive. Resurrection (anastasis—literally, standing up) is never used to intimate something less literal—in fact, to spiritualize it or to assign it a more symbolic application robs it of the impact it has in passages such as Acts 4:2, in which the apostles’ teaching on the resurrection of the dead greatly disturbed those who heard it.
Recently, a well-respected friend attempted to argue to me that “resurrection” might be understood more symbolically—in the same way that the term “born again” is not meant to imply that a person is physically “born” a second time. My response: John tells us in his third chapter that “born again” is not to be taken literally, but is a figure of speech symbolizing a different reality. Yet, the same evangelist writes the strongest argument for a literal understanding of resurrection in the entire NT canon (perhaps only matched by Paul in 1 Cor 15). His witness to the physical appearances of the resurrected Jesus outnumber any other in the NT and only John speaks of Lazarus’ resurrection. To use “resurrection” figuratively is to do violence to the New Testament’s idea about being raised from the dead and to misread the Gospel of John because it robs it of its power to give us the real hope John intended it to give us. And it commits the same proto-gnostic fallacy (figurative resurrection) that John’s gospel and letters so obviously sought to address.
Resurrection is about Making Things Right
That said, there is another important reason to understand “resurrection” as the raising of the dead—and that is that the resurrection of Christ, according to Peter, is the Father’s vindication of the evil done to the Son. Acts 2 includes Peter’s brilliant (and very Jewish!) sermon to the temple worshipers which (for the sake of brevity) should be understood this way:
- 14-21 Don’t be surprised about what you’re seeing. As even Joel has said, these things are a sign of “the day of the Lord.”
- 22-23 Jesus is the one God sent to you, and he proved it. It’s the day of the Lord and you killed the Messiah.
- 24-35 God undid the evil that you did and restored him to life. God made right what you did wrong by giving the Son his life back. (i.e.: resurrection is God’s vindication of the injustice done to the Son).
- 36 Conclusion: You’re on the wrong side.
- 37-39 Call to find forgiveness for the evil they had done by turning to follow the one who God was raised.
It seems to me that the most central assumption of Peter’s is that the way God undoes what is done wrong to his beloved is by vindicating them in the resurrection. This, I think, is echoed by John the Revelator’s work. Rather than see the book of Revelation as a statement of God’s impending judgment on the world before he removes his people from it, Revelation is the story of a church who follows the lamb in his victory (which John recognizes as a slain lamb in chapter 5). The church is victorious over the powers by being slain, by suffering with Christ, while they wait on his return to set to rights what is wrong.
Therefore: Eschatology Gives us Hope to Empower us to Endure What is Still Wrong
This leads us to the final point: that it is the resurrection which gives us hope to endure what is still wrong. This is evidenced, again, by the aforementioned Romans 8, however we have to go back to the beginning of that chapter to understand how.
Romans 8 begins to draw a conclusion for Paul after his lengthy (and oft-misunderstood) monologue about the Hebrew Law. Perhaps no more impressive commentary has been written on chapters 6 and 7 than can be found in Paul Axton’s The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation. Which analyzes Paul’s teaching on the effect of the Law in light of the critique of Slavoj Žižek. In Romans 6-7, Paul is attempting to demonstrate the need for Christ within all of us—those who have the “Law” (the Jew) as well as those who do not (the Gentile), to draw us out of what Žižek would call “the death drive” of what I take to be a radical individualism (the subject elevated to god-like level) to a life of submission to Christ. Of course, for Paul (and here the reader is recommended to find a fantastic book by Michael Gorman, Cruciformity) that submission to Christ means that we live a life of dying to self which will be, as Jesus called us to pick up our cross daily, a life of daily sacrifice (Ro 12:1-2).
Paul is not unaware that this will entail no small amount of suffering in this life, which is why he says Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (vs. 17) That is when he then launches into his beautiful image of the resurrection and its significance,
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
For Paul, suffering with Jesus is part and parcel of being part of his kingdom (as Gorman illustrates well in his book). And that suffering is made possible by the promise that what is coming will be far better for us. To consider the resurrection of the dead and the world does not, as some insist, take our focus off of what the Gospel means to do now, nor does it mean that we are turning to Paul instead of the Gospels. Instead, it is quite the opposite: the hope of resurrection empowers us to continue to walk in the way of Jesus’ cross because we know that sharing in his suffering means also sharing in his glory.
This is why Paul is adamant in 1 Cor 15 that if it is only for this life that we have hope in Christ, we are of all people the most to be pitied (vs. 19). If all we have to look forward to is the cross, then what is the hope of following Jesus? “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (vs. 32).” For we are all promised that we will endure the cross in doing his kingdom work. But it is the promise of resurrection that makes the cross endurable and, truly, possible. It was true of Abraham when he was to sacrifice his son (He 11:17-19), it was true of Jesus who, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross” (He 12:3-4), and it is true in our lives as well.
For these three reasons (eschatology is about resurrection, resurrection is about making right what was wrong, and eschatology is about giving us hope to continue to bear the cross) eschatology is essential. Without it, the message of Christianity is hopeless. This is because we follow a man who, the apostle claims, has disarmed the powers (Col 2:15), yet we see them armed to the teeth today. He has equalized us according to race, gender and status (Gal 3:28), yet we see injustices all the time. Jesus came preaching and instituting a kingdom of peace and mercy, yet we live in a world of violence and greed. We pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” knowing that, as of yet, it is only so in part. We may, as Paul said, see the “firstfruits” of the Spirit, but we do not see resurrection. This is because, prior to the resurrection, we are currently enduring the cross. We are, unlike Thomas in John’s gospel, not people who see the resurrection but people who “don’t see but still believe.” We believe in what we hope for. For, as Paul said, “But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (Rom 8:24-25).”
 Ironically, the term “apocalypse” in the New Testament refers to that which is revealed.
 Neufeld, Thomas R. Yoder. Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011. 134.
 Axton, Paul. The Psychotheology of Sin and Salvation: An Analysis of the Meaning of the Death of Christ in Light of the Psychoanalytical Reading of Paul. New York: Bloomsbury T&T, 2015.
 Gorman, Michael. Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.