John Phelan wants to convince readers of Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hope (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013) that, “Far from being at the periphery of the faith, it is no exaggeration to say that eschatology is the heart of Christianity” (11). Phelan, who serves as Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary, believes that “. . . Christianity . . . is eschatological to its core” (17), primarily due to the fact that Israel’s future hope is consummated in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, a hope in which the church now participates. In ten chapters, Phelan seeks to convince readers that eschatology is centered on the person and work of Jesus and the subsequent kingdom-centered missional task of the church, rather than on timelines and charts of the end times. Chapter topics include the church and the kingdom (chs. 2, 5, and 7), resurrection (ch. 3), the second coming, which includes judgment (ch. 4), Jesus’ return (ch. 6), and the millennium (ch. 8), and Israel and the church (chs. 9 and 10).
Essential Eschatology succeeds time and again at demonstrating how eschatology is central to the Christian faith, namely because it shows how this often controversial doctrine is focused on Jesus’ life and work rather than on differing views of the rapture and millennium. By shifting the reader’s gaze from theories of reading Revelation onto the person and work of Jesus, Phelan breathes new life into a systematic loci that is often ignored, passed over, or summarized with a simplistic “it’ll all pan out in the end.” Too often eschatology is relegated to a last lecture in a theology class or avoided altogether in the church, on the one hand, or it is forced to focus on timelines, charts, and matching current events with texts from Daniel and Revelation on the other hand. Rather than either of these two options, according to Phelan, “Christian eschatology is a critical source of hope, not just in the future but in the present as well” (48). This is because Jesus fulfills the hope of Israel as articulated in the Old Testament, brings the end of time into the middle of time in his life, death, and resurrection, and empowers the church through his Spirit to live between the times as signs of his inaugurated kingdom. Church life is thus life in the last days, an eschatological life that both lives in the power of Christ’s inaugurated end times work and in anticipation of the consummation of it at his second coming. Additionally, Phelan correctly notes that this future hope for the church is not one of unbodily existence in an ethereal sphere, but a thoroughly physical renewal of all creation in which the church dwells with God. Phelan should be thoroughly commended for re-focusing this vitally important doctrine on Jesus and his renewal of all things rather than on charts and tables.
That being said, there are a few cautions for readers. First, Phelan appears to buy in to the typical bifurcation between Old Testament teaching and New Testament thought, namely in his assumption that the OT does not say anything definitive about hoping for the resurrection until very late (51-59) or about the afterlife. This “developmental” view of doctrine is apparent in a number of places (e.g. his discussion of the law, p. 93). In my opinion this does not do justice to the complex and often narratival way that the same doctrines we find taught in the epistolary literature of the NT are also taught conceptually in the OT. For instance, John Levinson has demonstrated that death and resurrection, specifically of the “beloved son”, is a recurring motif in the OT. While this may not be the same type of expression as, for instance, Dan. 12:2, it should not be discarded as a possible background for NT teaching on resurrection.
A second critique from my perspective is Phelan’s postmillennialism, specifically of the Wright-ian variety. Phelan is obviously indebted to N. T. Wright, and especially to Surprised by Hope, for his articulations of eschatology, so it should be no surprise to see Phelan talk about “practicing resurrection” (e.g. 33) and giving a very strong view of the church’s ability to change culture in ways that will be carried over into the new heavens and new earth. Not only do I find his postmillennial arguments unconvincing, I also think he incorrectly ties amillennialism to Constantianism. Even for those who identify with transformationalism rather than a two kingdoms approach or separatist approach, Phelan seems to me to go a bridge too far on the church’s ability to transform culture and on the biblical warrants for postmillennialism.
For these two reasons, as well as some other lingering questions, I would recommend this book, but only for situations that provided an opportunity for me to critique and correct. A college or seminary classroom, or perhaps an advanced level Sunday school class, would be ideal. Phelan is an engaging and clear writer, and corrects many of the misconceptions about this doctrine. He should be commended for showing how Jesus is central to eschatology and for demonstrating that the church’s power and hope lies in Christ’s end times inaugurating work that will be consummated at his return. I highly recommend it for this reason. Still, for the two cautions noted above, I recommend it for settings in which the teacher or professor has the opportunity to engage it critically with his or her audience.
**Thanks to Adrianna Wright and IVP Academic for providing a review copy.