Eschatology for the Rest of Us

Craig C. Hill

Anyone who doubts the extent to which the Left Behind phenomenon now dominates Christian publishing is encouraged to visit any Barnes & Noble or Borders bookstore, where T. LaHaye and J. Jenkins’s dark apocalyptic novels monopolize the religion section to a degree that even Bill Gates might envy. Alongside the novels are Left Behind comics, guides, and videos, plus a legion of supplementary texts written by LaHaye/Jenkins as well as their many adjuncts and imitators. Clearly, the last days are big business, what my teacher R. Jewett memorably labeled “the doom boom” (“Coming to Terms with the Doom Boom,” Quarterly Review 4.3 [1984] 9-22).

Like H. Lindsey’s 1970s blockbuster, The Late Great Planet Earth, the Left Behind books are written from the side of “premillennial dispensationalism,” a system of biblical interpretation first articulated by J.N. Darby over a century and a half ago. Among Darby’s distinctive beliefs is the idea that Christ will return twice, first to “rapture” (from the Latin raptus, “snatch up”) Christians to heaven, followed a few years later by his return to earth to rule for a thousand years.

Even if one grants its literalistic presuppositions (which I do not), premillennial dispensationalism is a deeply flawed reading of the Bible. For example, it is a simple fact that no biblical author anticipated multiple returns of Christ. The text usually cited in defense of a separate “rapture” of the saints is 1 Thess 4:16-17: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

It is likely that Paul wrote to allay the Thessalonians’ concern that deceased believers would not participate in Christ’s earthly kingdom. Among other things, this makes sense of v 13, where Paul feels compelled to instruct his converts concerning the resurrection. It seems unlikely that Paul would not already have mentioned the subject of resurrection, but it is quite possible that he had not specifically related the resurrection of believers to the return of Christ. Hence v 14: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”

The word Paul used for “meet(ing),” apantēsis, in verse 17 is a technical term “used of citizens, or a group of them, going out of the city to meet a visiting dignitary and then escorting him back into the city” (cf. A.J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, AB 32B [Doubleday, 2000] 277). The same word is used in Acts 28:15 for the meeting of Paul and his Christian escort outside of Rome. Hence, the force of v 14: “God will bring with him those who have died.” Likewise, 3:13 refers to “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” Paul nowhere speaks of multiple returns of Christ nor, for that matter, of multiple resurrections, which would be required were ch. 4 to refer to an initial gathering of the saints to heaven (for a fuller treatment of this subject, see the appendix “Not Left Behind” in my In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future [Eerdmans, 2002]).

There are a number of reasons to be concerned about the influence of writers like LaHaye, not least because of their tendency to demonize those groups and institutions with which they disagree (e.g., the United Nations, the Roman Catholic Church, and the World Council of Churches). As a United Methodist, however, it might seem that I would have little cause for concern since only a minority of the eight million members of my denomination (along with other “mainline” churches) read, much less believe, this material. What is more problematic, in my opinion, are the negative perceptions reinforced by most apocalyptic speculation. Under¬standably, many people look with disdain on the date-setting and text-twisting habits of so many end times authors. Moreover, they reject the deeply pessimistic worldview that dominates such books, together with their often reactionary politics. It is not surprising, therefore, to see eschatology neglected or even dismissed in our churches. One consequence is the popularity of recent books claiming that the “historical Jesus” wanted nothing to do with eschatology. This revisionist account flies in the face of the evidence; nevertheless, it scratches where a lot of mainline Protestants itch. Surely Jesus was just as reasonable about all of this as we are!

Should we not rid ourselves of eschatology and just get on with the business of being Christians? If by “eschatology” one means prophetic conjecturing and last days fantasizing, then yes, that sort of eschatology is altogether dispensable, and the sooner the better. It is regrettable, however, that the Christian hope is so frequently reduced to such a miserable caricature. Classical eschatology is much grander and far more vital. At heart, it is the belief that God—not evil, suffering, death, and futility—is the final reality in the cosmos. This hope is at the very heart of Christian faith. As J. Moltmann put it, “From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology….The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day (Theology of Hope [Fortress, 1993] 16).

Or, in the words of K. Barth, “Christianity that is not entirely and altogether eschatology has entirely and altogether nothing to do with Christ” (cf. The Epistle to the Romans [Oxford, 1933] 314). One might equally say that it has nothing to do with God, if indeed God is the Redeemer as well as the Creator of the cosmos.

The Christian philosopher, J. Walls, wrote that our eschatological faith “allows us to hope that the worst things that happen can yet come to a good end rather than to dread the prospect that the best things will come to a bad end” (Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy [Oxford, 2002] 200). The alternative is to posit a universe that is ultimately meaningless, such as that which microbiologist J. Monod described as “an abyss of darkness” whose final end is not noise and fury, but silence and futility, signifying nothing (in H. Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief [HarperCollins, 2001] 41).

Unfortunately, most popular books that deal with eschatology fall into one of two equal-but-opposite errors, which I refer to as “uncritical infatuation” and “overhasty divorce.” In the first instance, biblical teachings about the future are embraced without much thought being given to their particular historical context, original meaning, diversity of perspective, and so on. Such books might theorize at length about the interpretation of Revelation, but they almost never address the fact that it is only one of a number of ancient apocalypses, some of which predate it by centuries. Other inconvenient problems are also overlooked, such as the fact that the author of Revelation, like many other NT writers, expected Christ to return in his lifetime. Coming to terms with the Bible requires facing such difficulties squarely. Last days books that do so are very few and far between.

The opposite mistake, mentioned above, is to focus only on the problems and so to conclude that eschatology is an antiquated and disposable relic of our primitive past, an uncouth relative who should have been shown the door long ago. This is an understandable reaction; nevertheless, it is ultimately self-defeating. As I have stated in my book, “[T]heologies are like organic systems in which a change in one part affects every other part. Micro-organisms might seem inconsequential, but they are essential to all of life. If they go down, the whole system eventually goes down with them. Eschatology is similarly basic. Its elimination undermines all of Christian theology” (9).

I wrote this book to define and defend the broad middle ground between these extremes, to show that it is possible to take the difficulties seriously without jettisoning the core of Christian hope. As I have already indicated, it is the second problem, that of neglecting or rejecting eschatology, that is my primary concern. By and large, mainline Protestantism suffers from an enfeebled, not an overheated, expectation.

Why does it matter? In part, because the gospel places demands upon us that conflict at so many points with our worldly self-interest. Loving our enemies might not make us happy. Serving the poor probably will not advance us socially or economically. It is no accident that the radical ethic of Jesus is situated within an equally radical proclamation of the coming reign of God. That is the only context within which it makes sense. To attempt to follow Jesus’ teaching while denying its central affirmation is an exercise in futility. “Eschatological demands require eschatological commitments and eschatological resources” (198).

To live as a Christian is to live in hope. That is not always easy; in fact, it can be exceedingly difficult. Nevertheless, we believe that, when all is said and done, our “hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5:5a). That is the eschatological faith of Jesus Christ, in which we all have a stake and a share.

Posted Feb 01, 2004