Last night a friend asked me two questions via Twitter: why is eschatology important, and what are the dangers of holding an incorrect eschatology? I responded with a few 140 character bytes, but wanted to flesh those out a bit more here. I don’t know the motivations for my friend’s questions, but I’d imagine that, for many Christians, the first is borne out of a few popular assumptions about the doctrine, namely that it a) only deals with the very end of history, b) is tertiary and therefore relatively unimportant, and c) is basically summed up in the Left Behind series. None of these assumptions, though, at least in my opinion, strikes at the heart of this vitally important doctrine. So then, what about my friend’s questions?
First, why is eschatology important?
- Eschatology is important because the whole Bible is eschatological. The Old Testament moves forward with eschatological messianic hope (Sailhamer’s phrase) and culminates in Jesus’ first coming. The “last days” promised by the Old Testament, in which Yahweh comes to Israel and sends his Messianic Davidic king, Israel and the nations experience the tribulation, resurrection and the giving of the Spirit occur, etc., are inaugurated in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. But the NT structure demonstrates the bipartite nature of the last days; they are inaugurated at Christ’s first coming, but not consummated until his second. So the NT also looks forward and is imbued with a similar eschatological messianic hope, this time looking forward to his return.
- Eschatology is important because it provides the context and motivation for missions. As far as the former is concerned, the “last days” are the days in which we now live, and thus missions is set in the context of continuing to fulfill God’s promises to Israel through the church’s mission to the nations. The in-gathering of the Gentiles was part of the “last days” OT promises, and it is primarily this promise that continues to be fulfilled in the church’s evangelistic efforts around the globe. Concerning motivation, both Christ’s giving of the Spirit in the last days and the immanence of his return give Christians the proper impetus for sharing the gospel. They are empowered, and thus motivated, to do so by Christ’s Spirit, and they are compelled by their knowledge of his sudden return, a return that could happen at any moment. Knowing that unbelievers will spend eternity in the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8) ought to motivate all Christians to share the gospel liberally.
- Eschatology is important because it provides the shape of the Christian life. Salvation, and specifically sanctification, are embedded in the already/not yet shape of Christ’s work, namely that he has already paid the penalty for sin, defeated God’s enemies, and restored creation in his resurrected body but has not yet consummated these things in his final judgment at the second coming. In his application of his work to us by his Spirit, we thus benefit from his work in each of these areas, but still suffer from indwelling sin, sin that will not be ultimately removed and destroyed until his return.
- Finally (at least for this post), eschatology is important because it gives shape to human history. The end of time has dropped into the middle of time in Christ’s work. Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit bring to the world new creation (in his life, and especially in his miracles, and in his resurrected body), the defeat of God’s enemies and his reign over all the world (in his death, resurrection, and ascension), and the ability of his people to obey (through his own obedience on our behalf and its application to us in his giving of the Spirit).
Second, what are the dangers of an incorrect eschatology? I’m going to briefly note one danger I see in each of the typical eschatological positions. Much more could be said here, but this post is already long.
- Concerning postmillenial perspectives, there is the danger of having an over-realized eschatology, and especially one which attempts to bring about the effects of Christ’s work in this world through our own efforts, whether they be ecumenical, political, or social.
- Concerning premillennial perspectives, and especially pre-tribulational perspectives, there is the danger of abandoning the world to its own devices, believing that Christ’s kingdom will have no tangible effects on this life until his millennial reign. Further, from a pre-tribulational perspective, abandonment is sometimes derived from an emphasis on the tribulation period, in which God destroys most of what exists now, and on an understanding of “new heavens and new earth” that sees no continuity with this present creation.
- Finally, concerning amillennial perspectives, there is the danger of complacency with respect to Christ’s return. While the immanence of Christ’s return is especially palpable in a pre-trib pre-mil perspective, amillennials, at least in my reading, tend to so emphasize Christ’s first coming as the beginning of the last days that they under-emphasize his return, and especially its immanence.
So, what do you think? What am I missing? Would you articulate any of the points above differently, or strike one or more altogether?