The Theology of the End & the End of Theology

Christianity that is not entirely and altogether eschatology has entirely and altogether nothing to do with Christ. (Karl Barth)

Introduction - Drawings, Jigsaws and Spirit-Levels

I have always been completely rubbish at three things. First, I am no Monet: at school I was never able to draw buildings with any sense of three-dimensional perspective - everything looked the same size on my page. Second, I will never pen a best-seller called The Joy of Jigsaws: I get so frustrated trying to discern how each piece fits into the big picture. Third, I will never be nicknamed ‘DIY Dan’: I find that even wiring a plug is a struggle for the old grey matter. When I was younger I would help my dad around the house by just standing back and holding the spirit-level for him. Bored out of my mind I used to occupy myself by trying to get the bubble to stay in the middle - not as easy as you might think.

Why this morbid introspection? Well, because of the trend in the academy towards specialisation and the increasing compartmentalisation of different theological disciplines, my theology, and much evangelical theology I read, suffers from similar failings. Like my drawings, we lack a sense of theological perspective we focus too much on secondary things in the background and neglect the primary things in the foreground that should attract our attention. Like my ‘jigsawing’, we long to see how our ‘specialism’ fits into, and is part of the big theological picture, framework or worldview which would show us why what we are doing is relevant and how our part fits into the whole. Our problem is that we just don’t know where to start. Finally, like my spirit-level game, we find theological balance hard - just like the little bubble within the spirit-level our tendency is to lurch from one extreme to the other: evangelicals are very good lurchers.

As those involved with full-time theological study, I believe we have a further responsibility in helping the Church in its doctrine and praxis to get a right sense of perspective, to see the ‘big picture’ and to pursue the right balance. How are we achieve this? I would like to contend that a clear biblical eschatology will help us achieve all these things

I realise that to some this may seem a strange proposal, because in the past evangelical eschatology has created more heat than light: it is the last thing we should go to for theological perspective, clarity and balance. However I maintain that we need to put last things first because this is what the NT does. Unlike some systematic theologies that not only chronologically finish with sections on eschatology, but also deal with the doctrine in such a way that they only begin to refer to ‘last things’ after a thousand pages, the teaching of the apostles is riddled with an eschatological perspective that is part of the warp and woof of their theology. Therefore eschatology is foundational, not merely ‘decorational’. Skewed eschatology will lead to skewed doctrine and praxis. Eschatological thinking that is incorrect, or just plain absent, has contributed to our three weaknesses outlined above. My aim is to meet this problem head on and in the rest of the article I will outline three points. Point one will aim to recover something that has been lost; point two enters an old controversy; point three puts forward an old challenge to us as theologians. Before doing this I will briefly re-lay some foundations by outlining the contours of an inaugurated eschatological outlook.

Inaugurated Eschatology: A Basic Overview

In his comprehensive study, The Bible and the Future, Anthony Hoekema summarises the eschatological outlook of the NT:

1) In the New Testament we find the realisation that the great eschatological event predicted in the Old Testament has happened. 2) In the New Testament we also find the realisation that what the Old Testament writers seemed to depict as one movement must now be recognised as involving two stages: the present Messianic age and the age of the future. 3) The relations between these two eschatological stages is that the blessings of the present age are the pledge and guarantee of greater blessing to come.1

Rather than associating eschatology exclusively either with present events, or with future events, ‘inaugurated’ eschatology ‘does full justice to the fact that the great eschatological incision into history has already been made, while it does not rule out further development of eschatology in the future.’2 Michael Hill gives us a neat summary:

A biblical perspective divides history up into two ages. The first is the evil age where the forces of evil are active and effective. The evil age is followed by the age to come where God has vanquished evil and death. The age to come is inaugurated by the coming of Jesus, while the present evil age ends with Christ’s return. We are seen to live in the overlap between the two ages where both the power of God and power of the evil one are both active. God’s promise of victory over sin and death has been fulfilled by Christ through the cross. The resurrection is the guarantee of victory. Yet this fulfillment awaits its future consummation. Ours is the age of the now but not-yet.3

Cullman’s wartime illustration is still helpful. The believer lives between D-Day, the first coming of Christ when the enemy was decisively defeated, and V-Day, the second coming of Christ, when the enemy shall totally surrender.4

Living between two ages and within a tension, albeit a God-ordained tension, is more complex and ‘messy’ than living in one age and within a resolution, but this is the reality of the believers’ situation. Our problem of perspective, big-picture, and balance is that for much of the time we, both consciously and unconsciously, seek to naturally resolve this tension with impoverishing results, instead of coming to terms with the tension supernaturally. What do I mean - we need to see that it is the divine third person, the Holy Spirit who plays a peculiar role in our ‘now and not yet’ lives. It is the Spirit who assures us that we are sons of God in Christ in the present, but that there is still more to come in terms of our Sonship in the future (Gal. 4; Rom. 8). It is the Spirit who is pictured as the firstfruits (Rom. 8:23):

now we have the Spirit; after the Parousia we shall have the full harvest, which includes the resurrection of the body. Therefore we groan within ourselves, since we only have the beginning of the harvest. But the present possession of the Spirit as the firstfruits makes us certain that we shall sometime reap the full harvest.5

It is the Spirit who is our guarantee, pledge and deposit (2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5), our seal (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:3, 4:30) that ‘means our security for the future, and the certainty that we shall finally receive our inheritance in Christ.’ [6} Finally it is the same Spirit who was active in the resurrection of Christ, who will be involved with the resurrection of the believer’s body (Rom. 8:11). It is this idea of resurrection that forms the content of my first section.

1. Expectation: What exactly are we waiting for?

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes - I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! (Job 19:25-27

Re-Prioritising the Ultimate over the Penultimate

In this ‘now and not-yet’ existence what is our hope as Christians? What are we looking forward to? In using our gifts of teaching and preaching what are we telling others about eschatological hope? Walk into any Christian bookshop and many church bookstores at present you will see what many believers are craving for - fiction that is completely saturated with certain views of future events in terms of the millennium, the middle-east or the Antichrist. What is most troubling about these books and their popularity is not so much their dispensationalism and post-tribulational pre-millenialism (which I happen to think is profoundly suspect both exegetically and systematically), but rather the disproportionate amount of time and energy spent on an area which, when put in the context of an inaugurated eschatological framework, is just one pole in a large scaffold. For many evangelicals the intermediate state, the rapture and the Millenium have become all-consuming, not to mention these doctrines’ other role as ‘orthodoxy’ markers which indicate whether or not you are truly sound. I am not saying that these future eschatological events are unimportant or that we should never reflect on them, they raise important questions of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. However, I am afraid that the believers’ concrete and certain ultimate hope is being, and perhaps has been, replaced by flimsy and speculative penultimate and intermediate hopes. What we need to re-prioritise is the ultimate over the penultimate and give our time and attention to the final eschatological vision

The centrality of future physicality…

We need first of all to re-assert the physicality of the future. Christians must resist the intrusion of popular cultural images that picture heaven and the after-life as being ‘up there in the sky’; of apparitional spiritualised existence; of clouds and harps and wings. We believe in something that is distinctive to the Christian faith: the final resurrection of the body and the new heaven and new earth which have been transformed and renewed

The Bible assures us that God will make the new earth on which we shall live to God’s praise in glorified resurrected bodies. On that new earth, therefore, we hope to spend eternity, enjoying its beauties, exploring its resources, and using its treasures to the glory of God.7

While admitting that there is both discontinuity as well as continuity with regard to our bodies now and our resurrection bodies to come, just as there is with the earth now and the earth to come, our hope is more physical and concrete than is often believed. In a wonderful little essay ‘Holding a Living Hope Before a Dying World’ 8, Paul Blackham focuses on the hope of future physicality. He notes the topsy-turvy reasoning behind much popular Christian thinking:

The real danger of a rapture-based eschatology is not so much that it has such a small exegetical foundation, but that it abandons the earth to the wicked. The righteous are taken away from the world, whereas the wicked remain - the exact opposite of Christ’s point, where, with Noah, the eight Christians alive on the earth, whereas all the wicked we taken away by the flood. It is the meek who inherit the earth - not the wicked.9

Blackham argues that for some reason we have lost this stress on physicality. He puts this down to what could be called a strange ‘over-realised’ eschatology that concentrates on the believers escape from this world to the next now rather than concentrating on the then - the final appearing of Christ. He writes,

From the concrete, physical and cosmic hope of the Bible and the apostolic fathers, a sizeable section of Christian thought has been reduced to a straightforward Gnostic desire to be free of the body-to escape the physical universe. The hope that the whole of creation would be redeemed, is too often now simply a desire to be ‘right with God’ in merely abstract relational terms. The excitement in the realisation that the resurrection of Jesus signalled that the kingdom of God would finally fill the universe, seems to have been replaced by something far less tangible and physical … So much theology speaks as if the purpose of the Work of Christ were simply to grant our souls safe passage to the throne room of the Father. But, this effectively Gnostic gospel fails to grasp the Biblical presentation of Creation, the Cosmic Fall and the cosmic redemption … The biblical doctrine of the Fall is a much bigger and deeper teaching than the kind of ‘existential angst’ language that so often passes for the doctrine of the Fall … The Fall was cosmic - and the cosmos will be redeemed from this curse. We should not long to leave the earth - we should long for the earth to be redeemed, for the regeneration of all things at the return of Jesus.10

... with present applications

A Real Christian Hope

Are we really looking forward to the new heaven and the new earth? We say yes, but maybe through gritted teeth, because our hope for the future tends to be based on agnosticism and rumour rather than on the solidity of biblical faith:

It is this cosmic, physical, realistic eschatology that needs to be refreshed. It is very hard to get excited about the prospect of being taken away to some entirely alien kind of existence that looks like an infinitely long church service. One has to be very spiritual to find that even slightly appealing. What kind of good news is that to turn the world upside down … This kind of hope is hardly able to give us joy and excitement - rather it becomes almost a threat to be afraid of … How much more appealing is the Bible’s final scene in which God moves house, bringing his dwelling to earth, where he lives with us there, wiping away our tears and seeing to it that everything that makes life bad is taken away. That is good news to hope for … It forces us to take this kind of life seriously, bodily life in a physical world - because we will, apart from a possible brief interlude, experience nothing but this kind of life for ever and ever in fellowship with God.11

When our framework encompasses the movement from Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, then there is a sense in which the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 ‘to make disciples of all nations’ serves the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28 ‘to fill the earth and subdue it’. If the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve’s responsibilities within Eden are in some ways paradigmatic of the new heaven and the new earth then we will rejoice and be excited in the physicality of the life to come, of the potential for creational exploration, of the joy of work without toil, and of the possibility of relationships without dysfunction. This is something to be excited about - this is the Christian hope. But:

A Real Christian Discipleship

As much as we long for new heaven and the new earth, we have to be realistic about our present existence and remember the ‘not-yet’ nature of now. Our theological puzzlement; our wrestlings with and railings against God over our stresses and struggles; over our material lack; over our weakness, illness and bereavements could be all minimized if only we were supported by a biblical eschatological framework which teaches us that we are waiting for our redemption, that we need to be patient and long-suffering (Rom. 8). In a previous edition of this publication, Tim Chester notes that the pattern of NT discipleship is that of suffering followed by glory modelled by Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:11). Suffering is to be expected - our resurrection life is a hidden life, revealed in conformity with Christ and his cross:

In 1 Corinthians 15:29-32 Paul asks why do ‘I die every day’ if the dead are not raised? I want to use the same logic, but turn it around. I want to suggest that failure to look to the resurrection of the dead leads to weak mission and weak discipleship. Many Christians today do live as if the dead are not raised. Without hope we seek blessing on this earth. We do not live as aliens and strangers. Actually we are quite comfortable here, thanks. Without eschatology we are left with a limp Christian existentialism in which immediate experience is everything. That may be a charismatic existentialism with highs and healings. It may be a conservative existentialism with freedom from guilt and reassuring orthodoxy. It may be a pietistic existentialism with leading from God and peace in my heart. But they all lack the rigor to meet the demands of discipleship. In contrast the New Testament calls upon us to look to the future: Matthew 6:19-21; Colossians 3:1-4; Hebrews 12:2-3.12

2. Engagement: What exactly should we be doing while we wait?

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Eph. 4:15ff).

Re-Prioritising the Eternal over the Temporal: The centrality of present proclamation…

What activities should the church be involved in while she waits for the return of Christ? As Christian leaders, preachers and teachers (both potential and actual) what should we be saying about our activity and involvement in the world and the church, to those under our care? Here we stray, but with some purpose, into the intra-evangelical debate on the relationship between evangelism and social action: a debate that continues to divide opinion within the community and that shows no sign of abating. I don’t claim to be able to provide a solution to this ‘hot potato’ in a few hundred words, but I think that once again eschatology can help us see a path through the confusion and help us acquire some perspective, framework and balance.

First and most simply, we need to have an eternal rather than temporal focus. We need to put everything we do now in the context of the End. This does not mean that we should prioritise the ‘spiritual’ over the ‘physical’ - this is an unbiblical dualism (note what is said in the first section). However prioritising the eternal over the temporal will lead to some definite outcomes and priorities. If the essence of the gospel and salvation is the truth that we are saved from God (in his wrath) by God (through the death of Christ who appeased divine wrath), and for God (to continue in Christ Jesus as Lord), then the greatest need of humanity, from the poorest to the richest, is reconciliation with God in the gospel. Although temporal needs are perhaps more visible, immediate, instinctive and ‘felt’, our eternal perspective will stress the need to proclaim the revealed truth of the gospel. This gospel proclamation is something only Christians can do. We see this emphasis on proclamation throughout the NT. As Tinker notes:

Was Paul’s aim as an evangelist to bring about social change? Not directly. His priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God was ‘so that the Gentile might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 15:16). That is, they become incorporated into the people of God by believing the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins through the Lord Jesus Christ. But if social responsibility is put forward as the principal aim of evangelism, it is a small and logical step to conceiving change as part of the evangel itself. To take this step is to produce ‘another gospel’.13

…with temporal societal implications that are neither eschatologically over-realised nor under-realised.

Second, we need to work hard on our theological foundations. One of the central building blocks in the evangelism/social action debate is the eschatological theme of God’s rule and the ‘Kingdom of God’. On the one hand some tend to veer towards an over-realised eschatology that over privileges the present to the detriment of the future, and on the other hand some veer towards an under-realised eschatology which over-privileges the future to the detriment of the present. However a balanced view will take into account the dual nature of God’s rule.

It is precisely the dual nature of God’s rule that allows the biblical writers to maintain both a realised and futuristic aspect in relation to the Kingdom of God. God’s direct and explicit ruled has been realised in those who respond to the gospel in repentance and faith. But God’s indirect and concealed rule will not be manifested to the unbeliever until the Day of Judgement. In this sense God’s rule is yet to come. It is on the Day of Judgement that God will make the consequences of people’s action match up with their actions.14

With regards to the evangelism/social action debate, I believe that this dual nature of God’s rule implies a particular dynamic: remembering what I said above about the Great Commission serving the Cultural Mandate, with Barber, I believe that there is a reverse of this configuration, which takes priority:

Between the Great Commission serving the Cultural Mandate, and the Cultural Mandate serving the Great Commission, I contend that the latter relationship is the more important one. Unless the Cultural Mandate is principally seen as a servant of the Great Commission, we will run the risk of allowing the Church’s earthly agenda to overshadow its heavenly agenda. The Cultural Mandate is not an end to itself. It is a means towards an end - the building of God’s spiritual kingdom on earth.15

Hill has a similar understanding of the relationship:

While social action is necessary there is a sense in which evangelism is primary. God’s rule and kingdom is not brought about by social action. People enter the kingdom and come under God’s rule by hearing and responding to the gospel. Evangelism is primary in a temporal sense. One has to be brought under the explicit rule of God and transformed by the gospel before one becomes a member of the people of God. But once people are brought into the community of believers where God rules they are transformed by the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit will manifest themselves … Evangelism and social action are like shape and size, you can’t have one without the other. Nevertheless it is misleading to proclaim that the church has a twofold mission - that of evangelism and social action. Such a declaration implies that social action is an end to itself. But social action could only be an end to itself if one accepted a holistic view of the Kingdom and equated the kingdom with the world … Even conceding that evangelism is primary in a very limited sense has its dangers. Such thinking might deny the logical link between evangelism and social action. It might suggest that there could be a choice between the two. Furthermore it could recommend that evangelism is the only legitimate preference. To suggest this option would be like suggesting one can enter a house and not be subject to the shape and boundaries of the house. The reality is that evangelism will lead to conversion and conversion will lead to a new creation and that new creation will oblige people to be involved in social action. 16

Such a relationship needs further exploration and sophistication but is on the right lines concerning this particular issue

3. Expecting and Engaging: What exactly will our theology look like while we wait?

The End of Theology as we know it?

I remember one Thursday during my doctoral studies grappling with the trinitarian truth of perichoresis and finally beginning to make connections between this doctrine and others. I was satisfied, enthused and elated. The next day while leading my church youth group, I was involved in trying to pull a kid off the roof who wanted to set fire to the place. I was frustrated, depressed and deflated. Reflecting on these incidents later I began to ask myself some searching questions: How had my erudite trinitarian discoveries in my study helped me at my church as I attempted, I thought somewhat pathetically, to love this child love and tell him the gospel? I believed there must be a connection between the two things but could not see exactly what the relationship was. A trite ‘trickle-down’ theory that I had always comforted myself with suddenly seemed rather flimsy. I needed to do some joined-up thinking on how these things did relate to one another? All at once I realised that if my studies were doing nothing for the building up of the Kingdom and the edifying of the Body then, from the perspective of eternity, there was little point in continuing them? As theologians, we must ask ourselves these, and similar questions, throughout our studies: Will our studies enable us to convey to others the importance of ‘speaking the truth in love,’ and the urgency of telling others about the gospel of Jesus Christ or will they distract us and others from the church’s primary task? Are we even able to convey and communicate anything of our studies to those in our church or are we just too clever, too wordy, and too erudite for the good of the church?

If we are determined to do all our ‘theologising’ in light of the End with its implications for then and now, we will see the end of much theology as we know it. The End unmasks the folly of pursuing things of little importance and perhaps the sign of a good theologian is all about knowing what not to waste time on. Do we have the right perspective in our studies? Do we see how our ‘bit’ fits into the eschatological jigsaw? Are we keeping the right theological balance? Let us pray that God by his Spirit will help us to achieve these things and that our studies will indeed have an eternal value.

[1] Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994), 15-22.

[2] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 17f.

[3] Michael Hill, ‘An Evangelical Rationale for Social Action’ (Social Issues Committee: Anglican Diocese of Sydney {}

[4] Oscar Cullman, Christ and Time trans. Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950), 87.

[5] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 61.

[6] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 63f.

[7] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 274.

[8] Paul Blackham, ‘Holding a Living Hope Before a Dying World’, {}.

[9] Paul Blackham, ‘Holding a Living Hope Before a Dying World’, 7f.

[10] Blackham, ‘Holding a Living Hope Before a Dying World’, 4f.

[11] Blackham, ‘Holding a Living Hope Before a Dying World’, 6.

[12] Tim Chester, ‘Putting Last Things First: The importance of eschatology for Christian living and mission’ From Athens to Jerusalem (Vol. 2/3 Spring 2001), 4.

[13] Melvin Tinker, ‘Reversal or Betrayal? Evangelicals and Socio-political Involvement in the Twentieth Century’ in Tinker, Evangelical Concerns (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2001), 156.

[14] Michael Hill, ‘An Evangelical Rationale for Social Action’, 11.

[15] John Barber, Earth Restored: Calling the Church to a New Christian Activism (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2002), 69.

[16] Michael Hill, ‘An Evangelical Rationale for Social Action’, 13.

This article is an adapted and edited version of a lecture given on 1 January 2003 at the IVCF Graduate and Faculty ‘Following Christ’ Conference, Atlanta, USA. It first appeared in the RTSF Newsletter From Athens to Jerusalem, Vol. 3, Issue 5, Spring 2003.