Abstract and Keywords
Although “Christ” has come to be used as a name, it was originally a title that means “messiah.” Christian faith is thus messianic faith, faith in a savior who has come to deliver us and set up his kingdom. Contrary to Jewish expectations, Christians proclaim that the Messiah has died and that his shameful death is the very means to our salvation and deliverance. The salvation that Christ achieved is holistic in nature and as such is eschatological in its ultimate dimensions. Eschatology is the study of the final end of things, the ultimate resolution of the entire creation. While the main focus of this book is Christian eschatology, it also has a section devoted to eschatology in world religions. This book explores eschatology in the Old Testament as well as the rationalization of violence in new religious eschatologies, eschatology of the New Testament church, liberation theology, ecumenism, resurrection, and politics.
“Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” These pregnant lines, affirmed by Christians during the celebration of the Eucharist, sum up in pithy fashion the heart of their belief. These lines also bring into vivid focus how thoroughly and profoundly eschatological is the faith that calls Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. Although “Christ” has come to be used as a name, it was originally a title that means “messiah.” Christian faith is thus messianic faith, faith in a savior who has come to deliver us and set up his kingdom. Contrary to Jewish expectations, Christians proclaim that the Messiah has died and that his shameful death is the very means to our salvation and deliverance.
The salvation that Christ achieved is holistic in nature and as such is eschatological in its ultimate dimensions. This point was vividly conveyed in a climactic scene in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. In this scene, Christ looks up at Mary and says: “See, Mother, I make all things new.” Most significantly, this line comes not from the Gospels, but from a passage in the Book of Revelation that describes the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth.1 When this happens, God will dwell with men and be their God in the fullest sense of the word. Death, mourning, and crying will be no more for the old order of things will have passed away when all things are made new. Nothing less than this was implicit in the suffering and death of Christ.
The significance of his death was not understood at the time that it occurred, however. Only after he was raised from the dead did it become clear not only who had died on the cross when Jesus of Nazareth breathed his last breath, but also what it meant for the whole world. In his Pentecost sermon,2 Peter explained that Jesus had died according to God's foreknowledge and purpose, but that he had been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God in fulfillment of Psalm 110:1: “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies (p. 4) a footstool for your feet.’ ” Then he made this startling announcement to his listeners: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” In raising Jesus from the dead, God made him the Christ. Later Christian teaching would interpret this to mean not that Jesus literally became Lord and Christ in his resurrection, but that he was disclosed to be what he had been from all eternity, the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. As Peter had put it earlier in his sermon, “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” Christ is risen because he is divine. Christ could die because he was also truly and fully human. But having died and risen, he has been revealed as a messiah who has defeated even the last enemy, death itself. And yet death continues unabated, it seems.
That there is more to the story is suggested by the quote from Psalm 110. The key word is “until.” Christ is exalted to the right hand of God, where he is seated “until.” In a sermon shortly after his Pentecost sermon, Peter put it like this: “He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”3 The story will reach its proper end when the promises of God are fulfilled in the restoration of everything to the end for which it was created.
The Meaning and Motivation of Eschatology
The word “eschatology” comes from the Greek word eschatos, which means “last.” Eschatology is thus the study of the final end of things, the ultimate resolution of the entire creation. So considered, eschatology is obviously cosmic in scope, but it is important to add that the field typically distinguishes between issues of personal and cosmic eschatology. Personal eschatology concerns the final state of individual persons and what will become of them at the end of time.
While the main focus of this volume is Christian eschatology, it also has a section devoted to eschatology in world religions. This section is valuable not only for comparative purposes, but also for understanding the internal logic of different religions and how that logic gives distinctive shape to their understandings of eschatology. The broad definition of eschatology just given, for instance, may apply to theistic religions that hold to a doctrine of creation and a linear view of history and that believe that creation will come to a final end. Buddhism, however, would be a major exception even to this broad definition, and to speak of “Buddhist eschatology” requires careful qualification, as the chapter in this book on that subject makes clear.
As the term is primarily used in this volume, however, it is important to understand that eschatology is not only a temporal concept, but a teleological one as well. Things will reach their end when they achieve the purposes for which God (p. 5) created them. A crucial component of Christian teaching about Jesus is that he was a man who did the will of the Father perfectly, and who thus achieved the end for which human beings were created. In this sense, his whole life was eschatological. As the second Adam, he shows us how human beings will live when they are transformed and delivered from the power of sin introduced into the human race by the first Adam. Moreover, his resurrection is an eschatological event because it is the first example of what will happen to all believers at the end of time. As Paul put it: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then when he comes, those who belong to him.”4
As we survey our world, it is apparent that it is far from the ends for which the God of love created it. Indeed, many are doubtful that there even is a God of perfect power and goodness, let alone a Savior who has defeated death and evil and is reigning over this world from a position of supreme authority. It is this ambiguity that requires a resolution; it is this reality that reminds us that the eucharistic proclamation is profoundly incomplete without its final phrase, “Christ will come again.” Without this claim, the notion that Christ is the risen Lord is an unrealistic sentiment.
The author of the Book of Hebrews put the point rather poignantly. This book begins with some of the most exalted Christological language in the New Testament: “The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”5 A bit later, the author concedes that commonsense observations do not easily align with this lofty description of Christ's authority: “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.”6 It is in the present that Christians live and proclaim their faith that Christ has died and is risen. And it is in this present that we do not see everything subject to him. A few chapters later, the author of Hebrews famously defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”7 Faith is thus essentially future directed, and its certainty hinges upon events we do not yet see.
Claims about a God of supreme power and goodness who demonstrated his love in the death and resurrection of Jesus can seem not only hollow but even desperate in a world where violence and injustice and death are the order of the day. The constant challenge to faith presented by these hard realities points up the important fact that eschatology is rooted deeply in the fertile soil of the age-old problem of theodicy. Craig Hill draws the connection thus: “At heart, all eschatologies are responses if not quite answers to the problem of evil. … Eschatologies differ in how they conceptualize God's triumph, but they are essentially alike in asserting God's victory as the supreme reality against which all seemingly contrary realities are to be judged.”8
Eschatological faith has about it an undeniable defiance of commonsense appearances. In the face of suffering, violence, and seemingly hopeless injustice and tragedy, it is bold to believe that these are not the deepest and truest realities. In his framing of the topic of eschatology, Gerhard Sauter says we must first of all answer (p. 6) the question: “ ‘What dare we hope?’ The emphasis in this sentence rests on the word ‘dare’—on what are we allowed to hope—and thereby the reasons for hope.”9 Christian faith holds that we are warranted in our hope, that there is reason to dare to believe that suffering, injustice, and tragedy are ultimately superficial and shall be exposed as such at the end of the day.
In a similar vein, David Hart contends that Christian faith emphatically rejects the misguided profundity of “tragic wisdom.” Such wisdom sees beauty in tragedy, in heroic resignation in the face of the invincible violence and destruction that always seems to carry the day. While there is undeniably a certain sort of grandeur in such heroism, Christian faith celebrates resurrection, not resignation. This is not to deny that tragic wisdom correctly discerns something that is palpably real, namely, the pain that penetrates our souls when our dreams are shattered and the very meaning of our lives is threatened to the core.
But the doctrine of resurrection opens up another, still deeper kind of pain: it requires of faith something even more terrible than submission before the violence of being and acceptance of fate, and forbids faith the consolations of tragic wisdom; it places all hope and consolation upon the insane expectation that what is lost will be given back, not as heroic wisdom (death has been robbed of its tragic beauty) but as the gift it always was.10
Eschatological faith, then, is a daring hope, an “insane expectation” that refuses the consolation of stoic resignation in the face of loss and devastation. It dares to continue to believe that our most painful losses, even those due to death, are not irretrievable. For our world, though fallen, was originally a gift from an infinitely powerful and loving Creator who has redeemed it and promised to restore it as the perfect gift it was intended to be. Though we do not yet see all things made new, though we do not yet see everything subject to him, we refuse to resign our hopes or diminish our desires. In this sense, our hope is our pain. Resurrection is the only consolation that will suffice.
Eschatological faith dares to believe that our world finally makes sense, that life is fully meaningful. Contemporary cosmology, by contrast, tells us that our universe is condemned to a final futility and will end either in a big crunch, or go on forever expanding in continual disintegration and decay, long after all life has vanished. To believe that Christ is risen and will come again is to insist that laws of nature, with their steady march toward disintegration, decay, and death, are not the ultimate reality.
Whether the consolation of resurrection is a rational one or a desperate expedient hinges, again, on the truth of Christ's Second Coming. This is a point on which skeptics and orthodox believers can fully agree. In a debate on the resurrection of Jesus, Gerd Lüdemann, a New Testament scholar who formerly defended a liberal version of Christian belief, but no longer considers himself a Christian, put the matter rather sharply. He noted that “if you take one of the elements out of the sequence—resurrection, ascent to heaven and then heavenly return—the whole (p. 7) thing will collapse.”11 Indeed, Lüdemann thinks that the fact Christ has not returned after two thousand years is a strong argument against the resurrection and a good reason for Christianity to collapse.12 For if the resurrection did not happen, then the other essential beliefs of orthodox Christianity are without warrant as well. As noted above, the resurrection shows that Jesus is the Messiah, the ascended Lord who is the second person of the Trinity, who became incarnate. If the resurrection did not happen, there is no reason to believe in incarnation and the Trinity, nor to believe that the death of Christ redeemed us from our sins. So the connection between the return of Christ and the viability of Christian belief is as strong as Lüdemann avers it is.
Christians should not shrink from acknowledging this fact; to the contrary, they should insist on it. Indeed, the point Lüdemann made from a skeptical standpoint can be stated positively as well, from the standpoint of belief. Physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne puts the matter as follows: “Christian belief must not lose its nerve about eschatological hope. A credible theology depends upon it and, in turn, a Trinitarian and incarnational theology can assure us of its credibility.”13 There is a certain circularity here, though it is not a vicious circularity. The point rather is that central Christian beliefs are interdependent and mutually supporting. The return of Christ will complete the circle and provide definitive confirmation of the beliefs which imply it.
The Decline of Eschatology
Now, given the integral place that eschatology has in the structure of Christian belief, and given that a substantive eschatology is essential for a credible theology, it is more than a little noteworthy that it has not always enjoyed the attention and prominence that it deserves. Indeed, we need only look at the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century to see a period when Christian theology lost its nerve, and consequently eschatology did not receive due consideration. An often-quoted remark of Ernst Troeltsch epitomizes that earlier situation. In surveying the eschatological thinking of that time, he commented that “nowadays the eschatological office is closed most of the time.”14 In a similar vein, Karl Barth criticized Protestant theology for lulling us “comfortably to sleep by adding at the conclusion of Christian Dogmatics a short and perfectly harmless chapter entitled—Eschatology.”15 In much academic theology of that era, Roman Catholic as well as Protestant, eschatology was little more than an appendix to systematic theology.
Some of the key influences that led to this state of affairs are not hard to detect. Many theologians since the Enlightenment have labored under the strictures of philosophers such as Hume and Kant, who articulated widely influential arguments (p. 8) against traditional Christian belief. Hume's argument that belief in miracles could never be rational is obviously hostile to eschatology for it renders irrational the conviction that Christ is risen and will come again. Moreover, Kant's interpretation of “religion within the bounds of reason alone,” with its rejection of historical revelation, had in effect reduced religion to morality. As Kant put it: “For the final purpose even of reading these holy scriptures, or of investigating their content, is to make men better; the historical element, which contributes nothing to this end, is something which is in itself quite indifferent, and we can do with it what we like.”16 Eschatology in this scheme plays the innocuous role of providing images that inspire us to be morally earnest.17
The nineteenth century was very much animated by visions of human potential and perfectibility, inspired by the Enlightenment. One of the core sentiments of the Enlightenment is that humanity, released from the bondage of authority and tradition, is free to actualize possibilities hitherto thought beyond the reach of human achievement. The future is open and bursting with possibilities we have yet to discover, and by employing the resources of education, science, and social engineering, we have the power to perfect society on our own. Rather than look to God, we must take the initiative to accomplish this ourselves.
Whether this idea comes from Marx, with his utopian vision of a classless society, or Darwin with his picture of evolutionary development, or perhaps even Nietzsche, with his notion of superman, the expectation was that the forces of history as well as nature itself are leading to this goal. Traditional religious eschatology, with its reliance on God, represented what Enlightenment thinkers thought they had been delivered from and left behind. Secular visions of progress and perfection were no doubt inspired by Christian theology more than their authors often realized or acknowledged, and the popular appeal they enjoyed is likewise largely explained by the fact that Western culture had been schooled for two millennia by the Christian expectation of a glorious future. But the fact remains that the Enlightenment-crafted projections of humanity's future were bereft of distinctively Christian eschatology.
Liberal theologians of the era interpreted the kingdom of God in the spirit of the age as something we must bring by our own efforts or, at best, as a “joint project” of divine and human action.18 Jesus himself was domesticated within this theology as a preacher of Kantian ethics whose golden rule would lead to a golden age of cultural flourishing. Events of the twentieth century, particularly in the form of two world wars, were of course a rude shock to those who entertained these expectations. But understanding these expectations is crucial for grasping the intellectual currents of the twentieth century, especially in the field of eschatology. Christoph Schwöbel has put the point thus: “Twentieth-century reflection on eschatology cannot be understood without the background of nineteenth-century views on the actualization of the ultimate state of everything in an open future which is to be filled with content through the means of human self-actualization.”19
(p. 9) The Century of Eschatology
The nineteenth-century background illuminates not only the nature of twentieth-century eschatological reflection, but the variety and extent of it as well. As Schwöbel aptly remarks, the twentieth century “could correctly be called the century of eschatology.”20 This claim is confirmed by even a cursory glance at twentieth-century theology, which reveals an astonishing, if not bewildering, array of eschatological literature and movements. Indeed, one hardly knows where to begin, or end, when talking about eschatology in the twentieth century.
One appropriate starting point is a book which appeared early in the century and undeniably played a crucial role in the revival of eschatology, namely, Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first published in 1906. The significance of this volume is that it exposed the Kantian Jesus, so beloved by liberal theologians, as a historical fantasy. Drawing on the work of Johannes Weiss from the last decade of the previous century, Schweitzer critiqued various liberal “lives of Jesus” by showing that Jesus' message was inescapably eschatological in character. Weiss had argued that Jesus' central message was that the kingdom of God was coming soon, a kingdom brought by God's intervention in history, not one built gradually by human effort. If Jesus' teaching is indeed eschatological in its very essence, then any Christian theology worthy of the name would have to come to terms with that fact.
A survey of major theologians of the twentieth century makes clear that the centrality of eschatology for theology was rediscovered all across the church. Protestant theologians Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg are not only easily acknowledged as among the most influential Christian thinkers of the century, but their theology is noted for its profoundly and pervasively eschatological character. The same could be said for Roman Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar and Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky. Moreover, high-level ecclesial councils also gave prominent emphasis to eschatology in their official pronouncements. The 1954 Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches, for instance, debated eschatology extensively in its deliberations, and, later, Vatican II underscored the central place of eschatology in its documents.
However, the eschatological character of the century cannot be captured by focusing only on academic theology and high-level ecclesial declarations. Surely the most widely publicized and popularly influential expressions of eschatology came from various evangelical and fundamentalist quarters. During the first half of the twentieth century, when fundamentalism as a distinct movement was taking shape, a novel eschatology called “dispensationalism” became a hallmark of fundamentalist orthodoxy. As the name suggests, dispensationalism holds that God reveals himself to humanity through a series of different dispensations, the last of which is the millennium. Before the millennium, God will rapture the church out of the world, and a great seven-year tribulation will follow, during which the Antichrist will rule the world.
This version of eschatology is nothing if it is not fascinating, however one may assess it. During most of the century, however, it remained relatively obscure, promulgated mainly within the relatively tight circles of fundamentalist Christianity. All of this changed dramatically with the 1970 publication of The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, a book Paul Boyer has dubbed a “kind of ‘Dispensationalism for Dummies.’ ”21 In this volume, the intriguing eschatology of fundamentalism, elaborated in terms of current world events and politics, was spelled out in colorful and highly readable fashion. Indeed, as Boyer notes, Lindsey's book was the bestselling nonfiction book of the entire decade of the 1970s.
More recently, fundamentalist eschatology has again hit the bestseller list with a series of sensational end-time novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the Left Behind series, the first volume of which appeared in 1996. The twelfth volume in the series appeared in 2004, with total sales for the books of over 80 million copies, and counting. Fundamentalist eschatology has become so much a staple of popular culture that it was the subject of an episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer, through a series of bizarre calculations, predicted the date of the rapture and issued dire warnings to those who would be “left below.”22
While elite academic theologians might find the enormous appeal of fundamentalist eschatology somewhat amusing, if not embarrassing or even annoying, they can hardly afford to ignore it, as much as they might prefer to do so. Consider the following comment by Harold Attridge, dean of Yale Divinity School: “Much of this eschatological fascination could be dismissed as misguided nonsense, but for the fact that so many people take it seriously, allowing it to form their image of a Rambo-like Christ, whose future violence against the powers of evil we might emulate now.”23 Attridge's comment appeared in a recent issue of Reflections, a Yale Divinity School publication noted for urbane theological analysis and insight. In this issue, devoted entirely to eschatology, the following query appears on the front cover: “End Times and End Games: Is Scripture Being Left Behind?” Popular fundamentalist eschatology is clearly the foil for most of the articles in this publication.
But even taking proper account of the impact of Christian fundamentalism is not sufficient to take appropriate measure of what it means to say that the twentieth century was the century of eschatology. For the twentieth century was also marked by the emergence of Muslim fundamentalism as a force in world politics. Acts of terrorism that have made headlines the world over have often been overtly motivated by eschatological convictions, especially with respect to beliefs about rewards in the afterlife for Muslim martyrs.
It is not too much to say that some of the most passionately contested cultural, political, and social conflicts in our world today are rooted in competing eschatological claims. In a wide-ranging study of life after death in Western religions, author Alan Segal notes that while, ironically, life after death is affirmed by more Americans than belief in God and while most continue to affirm resurrection, there is a fundamental divide over how Americans conceive of the nature of resurrection (p. 11) and life after death. Whereas liberal believers hold either to the immortality of the soul or, at best, a spiritual resurrection, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jewish believers insist on a bodily resurrection. Indeed, Segal suggests that the “distinct line” that divides conservative believers from liberal ones is “the big story in American religion at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”24 He goes on to point out that asking about an afterlife “cuts to the very quick of what we Americans think is important in life.”25
Our brief overview of some key highlights of twentieth-century eschatology serves clearly to show that interest in the topic is far from waning as we move into the twenty-first century. While there is no way to know whether the coming century will also witness a comparable explosion of creative eschatological thinking and activity, there can be little doubt that the issues currently under discussion will continue to be contested. Precisely because these issues bring into focus what is really important, they will remain at the forefront of discussion and debate.
The failure to realize this is a major reason that many secularists dismiss eschatological beliefs as nothing more than misguided fanaticism, thereby exposing their own failure truly to understand the world around them. In an article revealingly entitled “Kicking the Secularist Habit,” David Brooks describes himself as a recovering secularist who has come to see what many secularists are loath to acknowledge, namely, that it is an Enlightenment myth that humanity necessarily gets less religious as it becomes richer and better educated. He expresses irritation at “secular fundamentalists who are content to remain smugly ignorant of enormous shifts occurring all around them,” who do not know who Tim LaHaye is or “what makes a Pentecostal a Pentecostal.”26 As Brooks has come to see, human beings yearn for things deeper than money and success, in particular “for righteous rule, for a just world or a world that reflects God's will,” a longing that can only hope to be satisfied fully by the sort of future that eschatology promises. Of course, not all agree on what such a world will look like, so we are “inescapably caught in a world of conflicting visions of historical destiny.”27
The enormity of these shifts and the complexity of these competing visions take on even larger proportions when we take into account global trends in Christianity. The recent work of Philip Jenkins has raised awareness of the remarkable growth of Christianity in the “global South” and what this means for the shape of Christianity in the decades to come, not only in terms of how the dominant centers of the faith may change but also in terms of how the faith will be articulated and practiced. For our concerns, it is particularly noteworthy that Christianity in the global South has a strong Pentecostal flavor that includes, among other things, a distinctively apocalyptic reading of history. The Book of Revelation is a favorite text that speaks with immediate power and clarity to conditions of oppression, persecution, political injustice, and the like.28 Looking at the global picture, it seems likely that eschatology will remain in the forefront of discussion and will continue to foment creative work in theology and biblical scholarship as well as political and social change.
(p. 12) Hot Topics and High Stakes
So let us turn now to focus more directly on some of the broad issues that polarize the eschatology debates. The nature of resurrection, as just noted, is one such question. Where are the other main fault lines that divide the participants in these disputes, and what is at stake in them? For a start, let us take the query posed on the cover of Reflections: is scripture being left behind in fundamentalist eschatology? The contributors to this publication obviously think it is. Indeed, one of the more ironic aspects of these disputes is that critics of fundamentalist authors frequently charge that they are not really serious in their handling of scripture, despite their strident avowals that they are the champions of clear biblical teaching and that their end-time scenarios are the straightforward product of an honest reading of scripture. Not only are they simplistic in their reading of scripture, say their critics, but they exploit earnest readers who are theologically naïve and lack the historical perspective to evaluate the merits of their interpretations. As Boyer puts it: “The dispensationalists' supposedly biblical eschatology appeals to a public that reveres the Bible but knows little of hermeneutics or the dismal record of failed prophecy.”29
The hermeneutical issues to which Boyer alludes are among the most profound and pervasive in this field. One of the most central and contentious of these issues is the nature of apocalyptic literature and how correctly to interpret it. Involved in this dispute is the question of how apocalyptic literature is related to prophecy as well as to extrabiblical literature of a similar nature. To what degree is biblical apocalyptic literature similar to such literature in other ancient cultures, and how should these similarities influence how we interpret it?
The most prominent biblical examples of apocalyptic literature are Daniel in the Old Testament, and Revelation in the New. In fact, the Greek word for “revelation” is apocalypse, coming from two Greek words, apo, which means “from,” and kalypsis, which means “covering.” Thus, an apocalypse is an uncovering, or a revelation of what could not otherwise be known. Given the nature of such literature, it is hardly surprising that it holds such fascination. The desire to know the future is only natural and takes on even more urgency in times of uncertainty, disaster, and calamity. Moreover, apocalyptic literature is full of graphic imagery and mysterious symbols which invite speculation and creative interpretation. The urge to correlate these with contemporary events and world leaders is one that interpreters in many ages have found hard to resist. Numerous attempts have been made to identify a contemporary figure as the Antichrist, and these have often been attended with predictions of the return of Christ and the end of the world. This is presumably what Boyer has in mind when he refers to the “dismal record of failed prophecy.” The charge that fundamentalists are not serious in their handling of scripture contains more than the observation that they seem to have learned nothing from this dismal record. It also implies the further claim that they have not taken the effort to understand apocalyptic literature in its historical context and to allow this to inform their interpretations.
However, it is hardly the case that having a well-formed understanding of apocalyptic literature will settle all the hermeneutical issues in the Books of Daniel and Revelation. The meaning of Revelation was a matter of deep disagreement long before dispensationalism came on the scene, and it continues to be so among the hermeneutically sophisticated. Broadly speaking, there are two extremes in the interpretation of Revelation. On the one side are those who emphasize that it must be understood in its original context as a book to encourage Christians in the midst of persecution in the Roman empire and to help them make theological sense of their suffering. The other side is represented by those who want to read the book as a detailed prediction of events in the twentieth or twenty-first century, or in whatever century Christ returns. Others read the book as a message to its original recipients, a message that also teaches important theological truths for Christians of all ages, including truths about the end of the world.
One long-standing controversy in eschatology that illustrates the variety of interpretive options for the book concerns the meaning of the millennium in Revelation 20. As indicated above, a hallmark of dispensationalism is the belief that the final dispensation is the millennium, a literal thousand-year reign of Christ that will occur after his Second Coming. Dispensationalism is the best-known version of the position called premillennialism, the view that the return of Christ will initiate an extended period of peace and justice on the earth before the final judgment, but not all who hold this position are dispensationalists. A second option, held by many classical theologians and prominent contemporary scholars is known as amillennialism. The essence of this view is that Christ's millennial reign has already been inaugurated through his death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The millennial reign is thus an invisible one that is presently manifested in the church and that will be brought to fulfillment when Christ comes in glory for all to see. A third prominent position is postmillennialism, which maintains that the millennium will come as a result of the progressive growth of the kingdom, culminating in the entire world being converted to Christ, after which he will visibly return. Other variations on these three main options are possible, but these three highlight the fact that mainstream interpreters have read the Apocalypse in very different ways.
These differences also point up one of the most fundamental tensions in this field of theology, namely, that between future and realized eschatology. While realized eschatology emphasizes how the kingdom has already come, or has already been “realized,” future eschatology stresses the fulfillment that is yet to come. In a phrase that invariably appears in discussions of eschatology, the kingdom is “already but not yet.” There is a sense in which it is a present reality but another in which it has not yet come in all of its fullness. Those who tend toward realized eschatology emphasize the resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the difference these can make now in our individual lives and in society. Those who lean toward the future end of the spectrum emphasize the cross and are less optimistic about our prospects for personal transformation and for changing our world. Differences among various theological traditions and denominations often (p. 14) hinge on where they are located on the spectrum between realized and future eschatology.30
Now, these differences are not merely theoretical in nature. To the contrary, they have significant practical and even political implications. Whereas a strongly realized eschatology gives one reason and motivation to work for social change, confident that God wills and empowers such work, an eschatology that is predominantly futurist may be less motivated to work for social change and improvement. Indeed, critics of dispensationalism often charge that the dispensationalist eschatology inclines its adherents not only to despair of changing the world for good, but even to take a certain grim satisfaction in the face of wars and natural disasters, events which they interpret as the fulfillment of prophecy pointing to the end of the world.31 Moreover, their interpretation of biblical prophecy moves them to give unflagging support for the nation of Israel and to oppose any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would involve conceding land to the Palestinians.32 The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah was interpreted by Tim LaHaye as another sign of the end times, and gave his followers more reason to anticipate the apocalypse.33 It is sometimes charged, furthermore, that fundamentalist eschatology has shaped American foreign policy. George Weigel notes that a lengthy report by a group of the Church of England's bishops “spent several pages bemoaning the alleged impact of Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye's Left Behind novels on what the bishops deplore as aggressive American nationalism and the Bush administration's unilateralism.”34
When biblical interpretation becomes entangled with international politics, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that eschatology is concerned with ultimate issues, not penultimate ones. An issue of personal eschatology that brings this point sharply back into focus is one that has traditionally incited much fervor and has recently returned with a vengeance, namely, the doctrine of eternal damnation. The doctrine of eternal hell has not only stirred the imagination of Western culture for centuries, inspiring great poetry and visual art, not to mention numerous “Far Side” cartoons, it has also troubled many a sensitive conscience, whose owners have doubted how it can be compatible with a God of perfect love. Despite this controversial pedigree, the doctrine of hell, along with heaven, has also played an undeniable role in the moral foundations of Western culture. In the centuries since the Enlightenment, however, the doctrine was trivialized to the point that it had quietly faded from the theological consciousness and the public imagination. This is reflected in an article Martin Marty published in 1985 tellingly entitled “Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed. A Civic Argument.”35 As part of his evidence that the doctrine was no longer “culturally available,” Marty pointed out that a bibliographical search of recent literature turned up almost nothing on the subject.36
Just six years after Marty's article appeared, U.S. News and World Report ran an article entitled “Hell's Sober Comeback,” in which it claimed that “hell is undergoing something of a revival in American religious thought,” even among theologians.37 Were Marty to do a bibliographical search today, he would find plenty of material on hell. Indeed, he would discover a lively debate on the nature of hell, (p. 15) particularly among evangelical theologians. Traditionally, hell has been defended primarily as a matter of divine justice, whereas today many defenders would appeal to human freedom to account for eternal damnation. That is, eternal hell is construed by many contemporary defenders not so much as a matter of punishment for sinners but as the natural separation from God when sinners freely reject God and his love. Moreover, a minority of noted evangelical scholars have recently argued that the eternal punishment of hell is annihilation rather than conscious misery, and others have rejected the doctrine of eternal hell altogether in favor of universal salvation, the doctrine that all will be saved in the end.
These disputes hinge largely, of course, on different interpretations of scripture. Proponents of each of these positions can cite passages of scripture that, on the face of it at least, appear to support their view. Universalists and annihilationists38 as well as traditionalists make the case that scripture, rightly interpreted, teaches their view. This requires that each position offer a plausible interpretation of those texts that appear to support positions contrary to their own. For instance, advocates of the traditional view that hell consists of conscious eternal misery must provide an explanation of those texts that appear to support annihilation and show why they do not do so.
But these controversies also involve a number of disputed moral and philosophical judgments. Advocates of annihilationism often argue that the traditional view of hell is morally indefensible and that their view makes better moral and theological sense. Universalists contend that the traditional view that appeals to freedom is incoherent because we cannot make intelligible sense of why anyone would freely choose eternal misery.
Now, these issues are intramural disputes among Christian believers, all of whom agree that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are a revelation of God from which we can learn important truths about the end of the world and the life to come. While orthodox Christians disagree over the interpretation of contested passages of scripture and over the details about how the end will unfold, they share the conviction that scripture, correctly interpreted, reveals significant truths about the end of the world. This shared conviction makes the differences between them trivial compared to the gulf that separates them from those who affirm a different revelation or those who are doubtful whether there is any revelation at all or, if there is, whether we can hope to hear God's voice through it.39
What this points up is that the deepest and most passionately contested issues related to eschatology are the truly fundamental questions of whether God really exists and what he is like and how we can know these things, if we can know them at all. The disagreements among those who hold substantially different beliefs about how God has revealed himself and which scripture is truly his authoritative word are so profound and far reaching that there is no hope of resolving them short of the eschaton itself. What is at stake is nothing less than getting right the ultimate matter of God himself and how we are properly related to him. Given that theistic eschatology in its Judeo-Christian and Muslim variations includes the inestimably important prospect of eternal happiness or eternal misery, the intensity (p. 16) of interest and personal investment is altogether understandable. Indeed, as Pascal argued centuries ago, the indefensible attitude here is one of indifference. As vitally important as this question is to our own happiness and how we should live our lives, he insisted that “one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter.”40
What Lies Ahead
The chapters that follow range over the whole field of fascinating issues and debates in the vitally important and complex subject of eschatology. Obviously, there are numerous biblical and theological disputes, but there are also significant philosophical and cultural questions as well, not to mention the distinctive eschatological claims made by the various denominations and theological movements within Christianity. I have made no attempt in this introduction to summarize or even cite all of these issues, but only defined some of the key vocabulary and given some idea of the lay of the land. The chapters will fill in the details of the map that I have only unfolded in a few places. The authors represent various theological traditions and schools of thought, but they are united in the aim to present the debated questions fairly and authoritatively. However, they do not shy away from taking controversial positions and pointing in directions they think the discussion should go.
Readers can learn from this diverse collection not only more about what makes a Pentecostal a Pentecostal, but they can also gain insight into why eschatological beliefs about the end of time may illumine such perennial enigmas as the nature of time itself. And while Christian eschatology is the primary focus of this volume, the section devoted to eschatology in other world religions and modern religious movements is also crucial to understand the conflicting visions of where our world is headed and what it all means. In short, the chapters that follow are richly informative about a broad array of material that is crucial for understanding issues of profound and urgent concern, matters that will remain at the forefront of discussion and debate as long as human beings live by hope.
(1.) Revelation 21:5.
(2.) See Acts 2:14–41.
(3.) Acts 3:21.
(4.) 1 Corinthians 15:22–23.
(5.) Hebrews 1:3.
(6.) Hebrews 2:8.
(7.) Hebrews 11:1.
(8.) Craig C. Hill, In God's Time: The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 4.
(9.) Gerhard Sauter, What Dare We Hope? Reconsidering Eschatology (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), ix.
(10.) David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 392.
(11.) Gerd Lüdemann, “Opening Statement,” in Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? A Debate between William Lane Craig & Gerd Lüdemann, ed. Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2000), 40.
(13.) John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 149.
(14.) Cited by Christoph Schwöbel, “Last Things First? The Century of Eschatology in Retrospect,” in The Future as God's Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology, ed. David Fergusson and Marcel Sarot (Edinburgh: Clark, 2000), 217.
(15.) Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 500.
(16.) Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 102.
(21.) Paul Boyer, “Give Me That End-Time Religion: The Politicization of Prophetic Belief in Contemporary America,” Reflections 92:1 (Spring 2005): 24.
(22.) The episode began with Homer watching a movie entitled Left Below.
(23.) Harold Attridge, “From the Dean's Desk,” Reflections 92:1 (Spring 2005): 2.
(24.) Alan F. Segal, Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 5.
(26.) David Brooks, “Kicking the Secularist Habit,” Atlantic Monthly (March 2003): 26.
(28.) See Philip Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 149–153.
(31.) See Tyler Wigg Stevenson, “Revelation's Warning to Evangelicals: Left Behind May Be Hazardous to Our Health,” Reflections 92:1 (Spring 2005): 35–39.
(33.) See the interview with LaHaye by Brian Braiker, “Are These the End Times?” at http:/www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14083809/site/newsweek. Also see Jason Boyette, “Apocalypse Soon,” at http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2006/08/07/apocalypse/print.html.
(34.) George Weigel, “Iraq: Then and Now,” First Things 162 (April 2006): 35.
(35.) Martin Marty, “Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed. A Civic Argument,” Harvard Theological Review 78:3–4 (1985): 381–398.
(37.) “Hell's Sober Comeback,” U.S. News and World Report (March 25, 1991): 56. Nine years later, hell was the cover story in the same magazine. See Jeffery L. Sheler, “Hell Hath No Fury,” U.S. News and World Report (January 31, 2000): 44–50.
(38.) Some who hold this view prefer the name “conditionalists” because they hold that eternal life is conditional upon acceptance of a relationship with God, the only one who is immortal. Those who reject this relationship will not continue to exist in the world to come.
(39.) Alan Segal is doubtful that there is any way we can know the truth about life after death, including through divine revelation. “God may be sending revelations,” he writes, “but we are talking to ourselves when we interpret our scriptures.” Life after Death, 710.
(40.) Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1966), no. 427.