Is eschatology important?

EschatologyIs 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?

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It should have been a good book by a dying man.

dying manIt should have been a good book by a dying man.  Review of The end of Christian life, by J. Todd Billings

This should have been a good book.  Billings is dying of a slow-growing cancer.  He will not die young, but he will not die old either.  Billings’ reflections on death have an urgency lacking for most authors.  But the book doesn’t work.  He criticizes the prosperity gospel, but a heavenly version takes its place.  Why can’t people just die?  Is the question too simple?  Too harsh?

The pit

Sheol, misleadingly translated in the Septuagint* as Hades, is the pit, Gehenna, a burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem, generally considered a metaphor for Hell.  Sheol is mentioned 66 times in the Hebrew Bible (Strong’s Hebrew 7285).  Most of the time it sounds like Sheol in the Odyssey (book 11), where feeble shades float around in what we might call a semi-conscious state.  Eleven times Jesus refers to Gehenna, only once to Hades (Luke 16:19-31).  Never does he go into detail, for he is far more interested in heaven, the kingdom of God on earth.  That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is about (Matthew 5-6)

“In general, I suspect that no mortal lives for long without visiting Sheol for a time.” (p 30)  Billings makes a good point.  If Sheol is alienation from God and man, then one might say that it is the living, especially when confronted with the death of a beloved, but also in states of serious depression who are in Sheol.  For some, a diagnosis of incurable cancer will be enough to send them there. 

But we are the ones wailing, not the deceased.  It’s almost as if we are the ones who have gone to Sheol, not them. (p 34)


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