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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ethical Eschatology

Studying and understanding what the Bible says about the future (eschatology) is very important, and is necessary to live a successful Christian life. Studying and understanding what the Bible says about the future (eschatology) is not that important, and can even be a fruitless waste of time for a Christian. Can those statements both be true? I think so, depending on how you look at it.

Every passage in the Bible containing future prophecy is given for an ethical or "pastoral" purpose. None of them are intended as a mere "crystal ball" to satisfy our curiosity about what will happen, give us intellectual goosebumps, or to fill in our end-times charts. When the timing or sequence of events is even mentioned, which is rare, it is never the main point of the passage and is merely implied (or must be inferred). We get our theological systems regarding the order of future events (pre-, post-, etc.) mostly by bringing separate passages together or plugging them into a pre-existing overall scheme. A classic example of this would be the dispensationalist interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 that sees the "rapture" there as a removal of the New Testament church because God must return to the nation of Israel to complete the 70 weeks mentioned in Daniel 9:24.

But 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 is also a perfect example of ethical eschatology (a term I've stolen from my favorite seminary professor, Dr. George Zemek). The larger passage of which it is a part begins, "We do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope" (v. 13). And after talking about the rapture Paul adds, "Therefore comfort one another with these words" (v. 18). He has no concern whatsoever in this passage about whether this event is before, during, or after "the tribulation," or even if there will be such a time of trial in the future. He merely wants us to know that we will see our loved ones again, and take encouragement from that blessed truth.

(By the way, it seems to me that if we want to infer the timing of this "rapture," it would be better to look at the closer context of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10--same author, same audience--where Paul refers to the "gathering together," which is presumably this same event, and uses temporal participles to say it will happen at the same time that God judges the wicked.)

So I would say that the aspects of future prophecy which have a direct application to the way we live our lives are very important, and also happen to be the ones that are emphasized in Scripture. But the details of timing and sequence are far less important, because most of the views we might have on those issues are not going to interfere with the ethical and pastoral purposes of future prophecy. I say "most," however, because I do think there are a few extremes that we need to avoid in our eschatology, precisely because they would hinder us from fulfilling the practical purposes of biblical prophecy.

One extreme we should avoid is to assume that Jesus will not be coming back for a long time. This was one of the mistakes the bad steward made in Luke 12:45 ("My master will be a long time in coming") and it is a mistake made by many postmillennialists, who say that there must be a golden age prior to the return of Christ. I believe that there may be such a golden age, but I don't believe there must be one before the Second Coming. The biggest problem with this view, besides reading more into certain texts than is actually in them, is that we are told over and over again in the Scriptures to be ready at all times (e.g. Luke 12:35-40, then verse 45 as mentioned) and the apostle Paul clearly believed that Christ might return in his lifetime (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:2-4, and his language in 1 Thess. 4 mentioned above). The belief that Christ could return at any time bears much pastoral and ethical fruit in our lives, but what exactly he will do when he returns and whether he may do other things after that is not so important or impactful.

We should also avoid the other extreme of thinking that Jesus will necessarily return soon; he may tarry hundreds or thousands of years, and we need to know that so we will plan for the future and pass down God's covenant promises to the generations who succeed us. I realize that many Christians are constantly seeing the "signs of the times" in current events, but people have been doing that ever since the first century (see the introduction to Gary DeMar's book Last Days Madness) and they have all been wrong up till now. Why should we think we are different, or have greater insight into prophecy than they did? I personally do not see any clear indication in Scripture that Christ will return in our generation, and I think that is consistent with the spirit of his teaching that "no one knows the hour of my return." Or the day, or the year, or the decade, or the century...that's the idea, I think.

This is a good time to comment on what I could call the "intentional obscurity" of much biblical prophecy. The Old Testament saints had all kinds of prophecies concerning the first coming of the Messiah, but few if any actually understood what was going to happen in any detail. I think it will be the same for us in anticipation the second coming...we'll understand it all a lot better after it happens. In the meantime it is foolish and counter-productive to gospel ministry to make our eschatological views so important that we are suspicious and separatistic toward one another, or spend too much of our precious time arguing about them.

So my "ethical eschatology," for what it's worth, is that we should always be ready because Jesus could come back in our lifetime, and we should always be planning and preparing for the future because he may wait a long time before He returns. And things could turn around for the good in our culture and in the world at large...that has happened before in the ebbs and flows of history, and it could happen again. I don't believe everything must get worse and worse until Jesus returns--that's another extreme that can rob us of the hope and energy we need for gospel ministry.

Beyond those basic, life-changing truths, I'm a classic pan-millennialist...I believe it will all pan out in the end! We'll understand prophecy completely when it happens. Until then, let's discuss it graciously and with toleration for different viewpoints, and not let it become too important, or come between us, or get in the way of our Great Commission calling.

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