Is Eschatology Important?
Eschatology is the study of last things (εσχατολογία). Most often it refers to the end of the world, particularly Jesus’ prediction that within the lifetime of some of his disciples he would return to usher in the end times. The prediction is found in Olivet discourse, referring to the Mount of Olives where Jesus delivered his prediction in Matthew and Mark. It is found in all three synoptic gospels in similar form (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21).
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. . . . Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Mark 13: 26,30-31)
Jesus was wrong. He didn’t return within the lifetime of some of his followers. He hasn’t returned yet, and doesn’t seem likely to. His return is unlikely because we live in a different world, in which the magical reappearance of the Lord is unbelievable.
A great deal of energy and ink has been spent justifying Jesus’ claim. Rudolf Bultmann states the problem clearly. Modern man no longer believes, and can no longer believe, in the cosmology of the biblical world, the world of myth, magic, and wonder, where heaven is above and hell below. The return of Jesus on clouds of glory only makes sense in that world. In today’s world, the hope that someday Christ will return is impossible even for many who want to believe. What is a deeply religious man like Bultmann going to do? What are the rest of us who long to believe going to do?
An apocalyptic prophet
Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Those who would turn him into a wise teacher by discounting his apocalyptic sayings as additions by later authors and editors miss the point of Jesus (Funk). Christ was crucified. Christ arose from the dead. Christ is the son of God. This is the core Christian teaching. It does not require belief in Christ’s glorious return. Though most would include this belief as central to Christian doctrine, only evangelicals and a few theologians talk about it very much
The great advantage of eschatology is that it avoids the tendency toward individualistic escapism: ‘If I’m good, then my soul will go to heaven when I die.’ Eschatology reminds us that Christ was about the transformation of the world. Christ returns not to demonstrate his divinity, but to transform this world into the image of the kingdom of heaven. The whole world is the stage upon which Christianity is finally realized.
Is there any way to retain this project without the magic of Christ’s return? Realized eschatology, as it is called, seems the best bet (Dodd, N. T Wright). Eschatology refers not to the end of the world but the transformation of the world in the spirit of “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Eschatology is not about individual salvation; it is about bringing the spirit of the kingdom to practices in this world. Rather than lifting us out of history, eschatology is a historical phenomenon, the work of Christians to make this a better world. Eschatology isn’t the end of the world, but its rebirth, inspired by the life of Christ, and continued by all who believe in the kingdom of God (Moltmann).
Some might argue that this is no longer Christianity. I disagree, for it retains the core beliefs of Christianity, above all that Christ is the son of God. It is this belief that gives meaning to our lives, and a purpose to history, one that depends not on Christ’s return, but his original incursion into history.
Dangers of a liberal interpretation of Christianity and the virtues of eschatology
Humans are able to make this a better world, one closer to the kingdom of God. But humans are not going to bring us closer to the eschaton. If one looks at the terrible twentieth-century, the bloodiest century in world history, then we are headed in the opposite direction. Fukuyama’s “end of history” is idolatrous nonsense. Though we seek to realize a world that comes closer to the kingdom of God, we will inevitably fail. The best humans can do is hew to this ideal in their efforts to make this world a better place.
Even if we no longer take Biblical prophecy literally, eschatology reminds us that we are under the judgment of God, for we have sinned in creating and tolerating an unjust world. Eschatology reminds us that sin is a collective noun.
Rudolf Bultmann, who rejects the magic and wonder world of the New Testament, sees biblical apocalyptic thinking as “the judgment of God” upon humankind for turning the world “into a place where evil spreads and sin rules.” (Bultmann, 1958, p 26, quoted in Congdon, p 19) Though Bultmann would reject my version of realized eschatology, mine has the virtue of being relatively straightforward, concise, and concrete, something Bultmann is not. Bultmann is deep and profound, something I am not.
The failure of Christ’s return has led to at least a dozen explanations and interpretations. Inaugurated eschatology (Ladd) is the most popular, holding that the death and resurrection of Christ are already the beginning of the end. We are already in an eschatological age, which has not yet been fully realized.* That will only come with the parousia (παρουσία), the second coming of Christ. The teaching of “already but not yet” appears to allow us to have it both ways, but only because it does not take Christ’s Olivet prediction seriously. Once one does that, all that is left to say is that Jesus was wrong.
Other attempts to save the appearances, as it is sometimes called (Barfield), include stretching the meaning of aeon, so that Christ’s claim that the end of the world is at hand, is interpreted to refer to the end of the Jewish age with the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE (Sproul). The most extreme version of this claim is called preterism, which claims that the eschaton has already happened, that Revelation refers solely to the occupation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by Rome. Nero is the beast, whose name can be rendered as 666 in Hebrew numerology.
None of this addresses the Olivet discourse, which is generally ignored, even as it is the most conspicuous example of failed prophecy, so exact that it cannot be readily reinterpreted.
The virtue of eschatology is that it reminds us that Christianity is not just about individual salvation from sin. Christianity is about the fate of the world, which is today largely in human hands. From this perspective, global warming is a sin. Nevertheless, eschatology is not the only framework from which to extend the love of neighbor that Jesus taught to a larger world. All we need do is to take seriously Christ’s own words about how we should live, while not transforming him into something he’s not. Christ was the supremely good man, but to stop there is to abandon Christianity for temperate wisdom. Christ was closer to an Old Testament prophet, predicting the fate of a greedy and selfish people. That he used myth as well as truth to do this is just one more continuity between Christ and the prophets.
* The difference between realized and inaugurated eschatology is not crystal clear. Realized eschatology says that the eschaton was begun and completed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. What remains is to complete the work begun by Jesus. The work is historical, not transhistorical. Inaugurated eschatology says that while Jesus began the eschaton, it remains to be finished with his return. “Already but not yet” is its slogan. The distinction makes a real theological difference, but it’s hard to see how each would guide practice differently.
Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Wesleyan University Press, 2nd edition, 1988.
Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology. New York: Scribner, 1958.
Rudolf Bultmann, History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity. Baylor University Press, 2019.
David W. Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology. Wipf and Stock, 2015.
C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures. Fontana Books, 1965.
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press, 2006.
Robert Funk, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, new translation and commentary, with Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar. Harper, 1997.
George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament. Eerdmans, 1993.
Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. SCM, 1967.
N. T. Wright, “The End of the World?”, Gifford Lectures no. 4. History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. Baylor University Press, 2019.