The importance of eschatology is something I am convinced about. If we have a good framework concerning the future this will then shape and inform who we are. Conversely where there is a bad eschatology that will shape us. I have been disturbed by many eschatologies that are essentially predictive. They inevitably focus more on the negative side of what will rise, on events that will take place, than they do on the return of Christ.
They are often concerned about escape and this translates as abandoning any real hope of transformation. These first podcasts will simply try to lay a foundation for what is to come.
What do we mean by Eschatology?
Literally it means ’the study of the end / doctrine of the last things’. It has been an area full of speculation and time charts, particularly in and through the teaching known as Dispensationalism. With regard to certain aspects it is possible, and even wise, to be agnostic. We will have to be content with ‘I don’t know about that’. But the shape of our eschatology is important: it will have an influence on our behaviour and expectation.
It can be divided into two aspects:
Personal eschatology – dealing with issues such as:
- What happens at death / is there an ‘intermediate’ state?
- What is meant by heaven and hell? What is the fate of the unbeliever and of those who have never heard the gospel
- Who finally is saved?
- What is resurrection? and why is resurrection important?
Cosmic eschatology – dealing with such issues as:
- What events / signs lead up to the end?
- What about a tribulation?
- A rapture?
- An antichrist?
- What is Israel’s destiny / its place now?
- When will Jesus return?
- Is there a millennial rule?
We must resist the temptation to answer all the questions – indeed we have to ask if they can all be answered given the limited Scriptural data we have with regard to some of the issues. An important first task is to clear away some rubble from the ground. And there are some immediate challenges for us when we approach the Scriptures and in particular this subject.
A clash of worldviews:
The foundations for our faith are a Hebraic worldview. We have not only been distanced from that through the different culture we live in and the centuries that have elapsed since the Scriptures were written, but the Christian faith has also been shaped through Greek thinking, so much so that much popular theology owes more to a Greek philosophical framework than it does to Hebraic thinking.
There was a Greek phrase that was used soma sema (the body is a tomb) that gives a good insight to the mindset. The body is not the real ‘me’, the soul (the real me), is inside this body which acts as a prison and so salvation will take place when I escape the tomb, this body which has imprisoned me. Real life is to do with life after death and a spiritual existence in heaven. (And by spiritual existence it is often thought to be bodiless or non-physical.)
The goal when translated into evangelism is to ‘save souls’.
Such a philosophy is not a creation-affirming philosophy and sadly this has also been the case in a lot of Western evangelical theology. The Bible, beginning as it does with an affirmation of creation (for God says ‘it is good’) is creation-affirming, this-life affirming.
In the Bible normal human existence is embodied. The hope of Scripture is not just for life after death but for embodied life after death.
The Hebrew worldview will have implications for our future expectation for God’s creation. In summary:
- the Greek perspective will push us toward everything being destroyed as the physical realm has no real value
- the Hebrew worldview will look to eschatology to be a fitting final word to what began in Genesis 1
- So in approaching the subject we must be careful that we do not force the Bible to answer questions it is not answering. There is very little in it about life after death (perhaps we might also concede that there is not too much in its pages about the so-called ‘end times’). There is, however, much in it about the resurrection of the dead, and about God”s manifest kingdom.
Some general worldview comments
- ‘Creation is good’ – there is an affirmation of this world. There is the hope for the redemption of creation. In Romans 8 Paul says creation is groaning for redemption, and certainly the expectation in that Scripture is not of its destruction.
- Normal human existence is embodied. Resurrection is the goal of Scripture. To say that Jesus was alive would not have raised an eyebrow in Jerusalem, but to proclaim that he had risen bodily provoked much opposition. The claim was that Jesus body could not be found in the tomb, his body had not been destroyed but raised.
- Hope in Scripture is of the coming of the kingdom of God, and this is understood in earthly terms, so ‘the trees of the fields will clap their hands’ or, ‘the desert will blossom’, are common expressions to convey this hope.
- When the kingdom comes it will mean fullness of life here. This then presents a problem for those who were righteous but have died. They will not be present to enjoy the reward that the Lord has for them. But a belief in a God of justice who is faithful to his promises meant that the Jew believed in a resurrection for the righteous. They will be raised bodily to experience fullness of life here.
- All major movement in Scripture is from heaven to earth. Heaven is a temporary place for Jesus, for ‘he must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything’ (Acts 3:21, and it is a temporary place for the departed righteous). We await for a Saviour from heaven to appear (Phil. 3:20). Our cry is Maranatha, meaning ‘Lord Come’.
The Scripture quoted in the last paragraph is of value to look at a little deeper at this point of time to show that once we lose the Hebrew world view that we inevitably interpret it in a different direction to how it was (almost-certainly) intended. It is with that Scripture we will begin our next podcast, and with an expansion on the issue of resurrection.