Shaped By the Future: Reclaiming the Hope of Eschatology
Eschatology. Often simply defined as “the study of last things,” the mere mention of the word conjures up a variety of responses. Some think of weeklong prophecy conferences, led by biblical scholars who have spent a lifetime developing charts, maps, and graphs of end time scenarios. Having attended many such conferences, I recall speakers confidently predicting the time of the rapture, the (possible) identity of the Antichrist, and an overview of the events surrounding his rise and demise. They emphasized the suffering and persecution he would bring and the wrath of God to be poured out on earth during the seven years of tribulation. And I was afraid.
I also recall graphic pictures of terrifying dragons, cruel and evil people, and images of devastation, destruction, and death. And I was afraid. For others, the word “eschatology” brings back memories of claims, backed by charts of statistics, that the rates of earthquakes, famines, and wars have been increasing exponentially in recent years. And they are afraid. Others might think of the return of Christ to the earth as a warrior king who will destroy all life on the earth and even the earth itself. And they are afraid.
Some Christians have been obsessed with eschatology, and have treated it as the most important set of doctrines taught in the Bible. For many of these people, eschatology could be summarized: “Things are bad on the earth today. They will get worse and worse until Jesus returns and destroys the earth.” Is it any wonder that fear is the overwhelming response? Some even picture the return of Christ as a terrifying judge, warrior, and king. The hope of resurrection and new creation is often overshadowed by the fear of suffering and persecution during the Tribulation.
On the other hand, when some Christians hear the word “eschatology” they want to flee, as fast as they can and as far as they are able. They consider eschatology too esoteric, irrelevant, and confusing to be worth the time. They see little value in charts and discussions of the rapture, tribulation, and millennium, and assume these topics the sole subject matter in eschatology. They would rather remain ignorant than obsess over such issues. Their response is often “eschatology schmeschatology, I am a panmillennialist; it will all pan out in the end.”
Is Fear the Focus?
I am not dismissing these concerns, even though I think ignoring eschatology is not the best response to those who obsess about it. I am also not dismissing the value of prophecy conferences. After all, the Bible says a great deal about the future, and conferences devoted to helping people understand these parts of Scripture are valuable. Surely Christians, who understand the Scriptures to be the revelation of God himself and authoritative for life and godliness, should be zealous about comprehending what God has said. Finally, I am not dismissing fear as an appropriate emphasis on preaching or a legitimate response to certain end times prophecies. Fear has a time and a place. A great deal of evil in the world exists, and fear is sometimes warranted. The description of the Tribulation period in the book of Revelation is terrifying. But is fear the focus of the book? Is fear the focal point of eschatology?
The book of Revelation begins with the declaration that it is the “revelation from Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1) and it ends with the promise that he is coming soon (Rev 22:20). When Jesus returns, he will make the earth his home for 1,000 years (Rev 19–20). Then, the Trinity will dwell on the earth forever; all will be made new (Rev 21:1–5). This promise that Jesus rescues and restores is good news, it is the heart of the gospel, and it should give us hope.
This hope of redemption and new creation should be the ultimate focal point of eschatology. In short, the focus and the content of eschatology is hope, the hope God will complete the work he started, not just for us individually, but for all creation. Eschatology is not just the answer to the question, “what does the future hold?” It answers the question, “how does the future shape the present?” Eschatology is the culmination of God’s plan for his creation, the completion of his work of redemption. The Creator will make all things new.
Hope. This word also conjures up a variety of responses. For some it is merely wishful thinking, “I hope some stranger will buy me a new Ford F150 truck.” Or it could be based in some level of confidence, like “I hope it rains this week” (and I have checked the meteorological charts which indicate a reasonable hope of rain) or “I hope my favorite team wins this Saturday” (and there is some basis in that hope since my team is undefeated, and the opponent has been winless for two years). But when the Bible uses the term “hope,” or when the concept appears in the biblical story of redemption, hope refers to a settled confidence or assurance that what is longed for will be realized, and this hope grounds our waiting patiently for it to come (Rom 8:22–25). Our hope is rooted in the promises of God. Such a hope is not merely reasonable, and it is not wishful thinking; it is grounded in the character of a faithful God. We can, thus, have confidence that God will complete what he started, that his promises are true, and that our hope will be fulfilled.
What is this hope? It is the hope promised in the gospel. Jesus died and was raised, and his resurrection provides the assurance we too shall live (1 Cor 15:1–8, 50–56). His resurrection was not a spiritual one, but the body that went into the grave is the body that came out (1 Cor 15:4–6). We too will be raised, or, if we are still alive at the coming of the Lord, we will be changed (1 Cor 15:50–54; 1 Thess 4:13–19). We are embodied humans and, like our Savior, we will be embodied forever (1 Thess 4:17). This gospel hope extends beyond the resurrection of the redeemed.
The work of redemption will not be completed until all the effects of sin are eliminated, when all creation will be made new (Rom 8:18–21; Rev 21:1–5; 22:1–5). Jesus rescues and restores human beings and their environment; all the effects of sin will be removed.
According to the Scriptures, God continues to reveal himself in creation. Not merely the existence of the universe, but God’s providential care of his creation reveals his eternal power and divine nature (Rom 1:20). Deeply revealed in creation is the hope that one day there will be no more death, that the Creator will redeem his creation. Paul expresses it this way, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom 8:22). Thus, we see and hear in creation not only the pain that sin has caused but also the hope that the pains will culminate in new birth, in a new creation. Hope is so deeply imbedded in the world that God has created that it bubbles to the surface regularly, sometimes in unusual, unexpected, and unexplainable ways. Even though fallen, even though it appears out of control, even though death and decay are the major plotline of the stories of our lives, creation groans, and in groaning it looks forward to redemption.
Acts of Rescue and Redemption
Since God is revealed in his creation, including not merely the earth but all its inhabitants, then God is also revealed in the creatures he created in his image, humans (Gen 1:26–28). Since God is revealed in these creatures, then he is also revealed in what his creatures create. And since all humans are created in the image of God, God is revealed in the presence and the work of both believers and unbelievers. Throughout human history, artists, writers, poets, musicians, inventors, entrepreneurs, and others have revealed their Creator by what they have produced. Divine imagers are perhaps most like the Creator when they make things of beauty in a fallen and broken world, taking what is damaged and making it useful, taking what is corrupted by sin and making it good.
These acts of rescue and redemption point forward to the world to come. Poets describe what is and point their hearers back to what was in the Garden and what will be in the new creation. Storytellers unfold the great story of creation, fall, and redemption, and the hope of new creation. This is the story of the Scriptures, from a good creation cursed by human sin, God will bring a new beginning, a new world. Eschatology is the final chapter in that story. To understand last things, it is essential we understand why things are as they are, how God is at work, and how the end fits into this grand narrative, because the story of hope has present as well as future implications.
Believers in Jesus, people indwelt by the Spirit, have the privilege and responsibility of orienting our lives by this hope. Our hope of resurrection and an eternity spent caring for the new earth must impact our lives today. Hope is not merely found in the future, but it energizes, empowers, and enables our faithful service today. Along with all creation, we too groan, we too reveal our hope, we too look forward to the new creation (Rom 8:23–25).
Our Hope in Christ Alone
Our hope is not found in charts, graphs, or theological positions. Our hope is found in a person. That some Christians believe in the millennium and others do not should give us pause before we make a millennial position the priority in eschatology. That some Christians believe in a seven-year tribulation period, and even those disagree about the timing of the rapture, should also give us pause before we make that the primary focus in our eschatology. On the other hand, belief in the resurrected Jesus makes everything we do matter. We share this gospel hope with all Christians.
The hope of our resurrection and the new creation gives us a proper focus in life. We do not merely exist until the end of life, we are storing up treasures in heaven, we are preparing for the life to come, and we are making a positive contribution to the world while we are here (Matt 5:13–16; 6:19–21). That this earth will be redeemed, that it will be re-created into an eternal home for the Creator, means that we should care for it, protect it, and be good stewards of the environment. That we were given care of the earth, including the animals who inhabit it, means we should be diligent in caring for their environment, providing clean water, clean air, and food for those animals.
Our hope is not located in a place, a position, or a set of practices, but in the person of Christ. Jesus is our hope. He is our reason for living, our reason for serving, our life itself. He is our inheritance, waiting in heaven for the day of redemption, when he will return to the world he created, make all things new, and make this earth his home forever (1 Pet 1:3–9; Rev 21:1–4). He has promised he will return to the earth (Matt 24:30–31; John 14:3). He promised we are not orphaned, but will one day be united with him forever (John 14:3; 17:24). Jesus is coming again.
While we wait we should remain faithfully involved in the work of making disciples (Matt 28:18–20). To us God has given the responsibility and privilege of helping others come to know him. We proclaim boldly the gospel of the resurrected Jesus in the hope others will come to him by grace through faith and share in the hope of resurrection and new creation. We believe the words of our Savior, “Yes, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:20). And we pray, as John did on the island of Patmos, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).
About the Contributors
Glenn R. Kreider
Prior to teaching at DTS, Dr. Kreider served as Director of Christian Education and then as Senior Pastor in Cedar Hill, TX. His research and writing interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, theology and popular culture, and our eschatological hope. Dr. Kreider believes that grace really is amazing; it is a thought that will change the world. He is married to his best friend, Janice, and they have two grown children and one granddaughter, Marlo Grace. He and Janice enjoy live music, good stories, bold coffee, and spending time together and with their rescue dogs—a terrier/greyhound mix named Chloe and a black lab named Carlile.