Let’s discuss that long-bearded theological word everyone should know…eschatology.
Wikipedia: “Eschatology is a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity. This concept is commonly referred to as the ‘end of the world’ or ‘end time’.”
Oxford Dictionary: “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell’.”
The definitions say a lot about what the church pew-sitter thinks about eschatology. Revelation. Millennium? Lots of fire. Armageddon. Weird. Far away. As it goes with Google, the quotes say something that has some truth, somewhere, but misses the wood for the trees.
Eschatology is not far away, and it is not weird. It covers the New Testament like a rash (a good one), and if you want to read the New Testament (and indeed the Old) with greater understanding, you would do well to know something about this big long-bearded-theologian word: eschatology.
Bible and story
To understand eschatology we must see that the Bible tells a story. The Bible is not a book full of rules, and we are not meant to go digging it up in search of one liners describing the will of God. The Bible is not a doctrine textbook, and we are not meant to go hunting for our favourite little doctrines all over it. The Bible is not data. The Bible is a story, and we are meant to read it as a story.
Perhaps the shortest way to tell the story of the Bible is: creation, fall, and new creation. This basic summary gives a startlingly powerful shape to history. Eschatology is the last part of the story (this is why there is some truth in saying that it is the ‘last things’ or the ‘end time’).
“My boy, we are living in the last days.” You can hear the lightning flash, and the dark music start to play. I have heard that so many times! What people mean by that (I think) is that the big evil world has become even bigger and evil-er, and so Jesus must be coming soon to make everything burn.
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1.1-2). Now it is perfectly obvious that Hebrews (and for that matter the whole NT without exception) understands the last days to have begun in the coming, ministering, dying, and rising of Jesus. We have been living in the last days, the part of the story called new creation, for just about 2000 years. So, we are living in the last days, but that’s not what you think it means.
A better definition
Eschatology is the age of God’s salvation, which is expected in the future, breaking into the present. Eschatology is the presence of the future salvation of God. So for example, when Mark summarizes Jesus’ preaching in Galilee, we hear Jesus saying, “The time has come, the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1.15). Or in Luke 4.14-30 Jesus reads a passage full of future hope from the scroll of Isaiah and then says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is saying that what the Old Testament longed for is dawning in his ministry. The future salvation of God is a present reality in Jesus ministry. Far away? Weird? No. Gospel? Yes.
If the Old Testament longs for God’s future salvation, then the New Testament fulfills this longing in a particular way. In the New Testament, the part of the story called new creation is understood to take place in two great events: (i) the first coming of Christ, and (ii) the second coming of Christ. This means that there is a sense in which we can say that we have already seen God’s salvation, and a sense in which we can say that we will still see God’s salvation. The eschatological age has already broken into the world (inauguration), but it has also not yet finished its work (consummation). This diagram should help:
We then, live in the overlapping of the ages, looking back on the death and resurrection of Christ, the inauguration of God’s final saving work, and looking forward to his return, the consummation of his final saving work.
Story and church
God’s redeemed people, the church, has been caught up in the ending of this great story of the Bible. We are not only observers of the story, but characters in it. We live in the age of already, not yet. This has some important consequences:
- Our pattern of life follows the already, not yet of the New Testament. We are saved. But we are not saved. I don’t mean that we are both sheep and goats, I mean that God has done something remarkable for us and in us through his Son to save us. Yet, we go on suffering (1 Cor. 4) waiting for its end on the last day (Rev. 21.4). Q: How can we live in God’s eschatological age and go on suffering? A: It has been inaugurated, but not consummated. Similarly, although we have been saved from sin, we go on sinning (though not with the same ferocity as before). Q: How can we be saved and yet we still sin? A: Although we have been saved from sin we wait for the final salvation when “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3.2). Already, not yet is paradox. Salvation is paradox.
- Eschatology is hope. The reason that I have heard, “My boy, we are living in the last days” so many times is because the world is in such desperate need of saving. We need God’s intervention. We long for evil to be judged, justice to be established, and the Lamb to be glorified. Eschatology is the consummation of what has been inaugurated by Christ. It is the hope that an age of Life is going to break into our world. Eschatology gives hope.
Far away? Weird? No. Gospel? Yes. Eschatology is a word for everyone in the church.
For more on the Bible as one grand story:
ROBERTS, V., 2002. God’s big picture: tracing the story-line of the Bible. Leicester, IVP.
GOLDSWORTHY, G., 2003. According to plan: the unfolding revelation of God in the Bible. Leicester: IVP.
For more on eschatology:
WRIGHT, N.T., 2008. Surprised by hope: rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church. New York: Harper Collins.
Written by Nicholas Koning. Nick is from East London, ZA, and is studying his Honours at GWC.
 Of course, once we understand this story, and how it is told, there is plenty of ‘data’ for doctrine and ethics.
 I stole that wording from the title of a book by George E. Ladd, The presence of the future.