Eschatology – The Home Stretch
Scripture employs stunning and fantastic imagery to illumine our understanding regarding end times. To interpret these images is quite trying and demanding and taxes our theological categories and imaginations. Visionary symbols, word pictures and prophetic/apocalyptic literature all require skillful engagement with God’s word by His Spirit. The end times genre are more abstract then representational, more like poetry than prose, more like jazz than classical music and more like impressionist painting than a photograph. Yet the reward far exceeds the challenges (Revelation 1:3).
First, let’s clarify some terms. Eschatology is a compound word meaning the study of last things. At the center stands the eschatos, Christ Himself, the end of all things. He is the omega, the telos, the goal of all creation. Events related to His return are as follows: epiphany meaning appearance; apocalypse meaning unveiling or revelation; parousia meaning return or arrival of a dignitary and the second coming i.e. Christ’s return to consummate all things.
The kaleidoscope of images given us in end-times related Scripture defy systemization. An incomparable multiplicity of aspects of the prophetic word make it impossible to reconstruct these richly diverse elements into a closed system of doctrine, let alone calculated time tables and blueprints. Ridderbos in his The Coming of the Kingdom said this colorful collage will not yield a doctrine that in a fixed order, piece by piece, indicates the composite parts of the picture. Every programmatic description of a sequence of events and how it is going to happen is lacking. For now we must be content with sneak previews and trailers rather than a full-length motion picture. The eschaton however is going to be much better than we think (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9ff). We can face the future with that uniquely believing combination of knowing the “already” of the kingdom and knowing the “not yet” is surely certain. Much is shrouded in mystery, and apocalyptic symbols often conceal as much as they reveal.
Last things are related to first things. Christ is the mediator of both creation and redemption. He is especially the mediator of the consummation of all things. Christ is identified repeatedly as both the alpha (beginning) and the omega (ending). He is the consummation of all things (Ephesians 1:10). The doctrine of first things and last things in full cosmic scope are centered in Him, and everything in between as well. Through all the twists and turns of covenant history and the coming kingdom Christ is God’s first and last word. The eschaton (consummation) and the eschatos (consummator) are connected in His person and work. Every created thing is infused with meaning. To understand end times is to focus on Christ. The consummation points to the final restoration of our life in the world to all it was and is still meant to be, the garden however will become a city (Revelation 22). In both ends of the eschatological drama, Genesis and Revelation, we see through a glass darkly but one day face to face.
Eschatology is not a divine afterthought. The King’s coming is always front-page news. It is integral to all aspects of biblical revelation from the beginning to the end. The history of redemption is eschatological, moving toward its appointed end. It is teleological i.e. directed to a goal from the mother promise (Genesis 3:15) onward through the call of Abraham, the creation of the chosen people to inherit the promised land, through the era of the kings, captivity, return from exile and finally the preservation of a remnant. God’s way with Israel held its course and the older phase in covenant history reached its eschaton for the time being in the appearance of the Messiah, the Consolation of Israel.
The incarnation is not the end of the story but another new beginning in the biblical story line. But the decisively new beginning of God’s way with the world exceeds Israel’s expectation. In His life, death, resurrection and ascension Christ has inaugurated the final phase of kingdom history. We now have entered the last days. These contours of the biblical drama have two parts: The prophets’ point of view and the apostolic point of view.
The prophets of Israel had less to go by and certainly less to see. They lived in the shadows—exclusively in the not yet and with no already and no messianic reality to appeal to Israel’s faith. The prophets basically saw a two-age construct i.e. the present age and the age to come. We no know there are two comings, not just one. They saw only one cataclysmic crisis they called the Day of the Lord. It was a day of judgment and restoration concentrated in one event. The Day of the Lord would be the end of the age (Isaiah 65:17-25). The idea of eschatological convergence echoed in the disciples questions regarding the signs at the close of the age (Matthew 24:3ff). In the eschatological view of the Old Testament prophets their anticipation of fulfillment was a geopolitical, nationalistic, earthly Jerusalem-centered kingdom. The New Testament has a clearly differentiated point of view. We await the same eschaton but the present age and the age to come have merged into these last days.
We, according to the apostolic view point live between the times. Anthony Hoekema, in The Bible and the Future says, “The New Testament believer is conscious, on the one hand of the fact that the great eschatological event predicted in the Old Testament has already happened, while on the other hand, he realizes another series of eschatological events is still to come”. These parameters define the in-between times, the moment of Christ’s resurrection being the already and His return the not yet. These two overpowering events together define the opening and closing acts of the eschatological drama. The Old Testament prophets saw the consummation as a single, compressed event. The apostles saw a sequence bounded by the first and second comings of Christ. The resurrection and the return are the two bookends that hold together the Gospel message. The kingdom is inaugurated in the first coming and consummated in the second. We have the firstfruits now and the final harvest later. The eschatological not yet is not the norm for Christian living, rather obedience to the already is normative. The approach of the return is a constant reminder that all is not yet fully restored. The cross and resurrection is the abiding turning point in history, the center of time no longer in the future but in the past. We look both backward and forward as we live in the present. The new creation has begun, yet we await its fullness. The analogy of D-Day and V-Day in World War II is helpful in understanding our eschatological moment. D-Day was the cross and resurrection, the decisive turning point and victory of history. V-Day, the celebration of victory in its fullness hovers on the horizon. He is coming soon. How soon is soon? Eschatologically speaking it is imminent. He could come at any time and most certainly will come at his predestined moment.
How then shall we live in the light of eschatology? As the future has already penetrated the present we are to live semper paratus, in a state of readiness. Biblically we are to be watchful. We are not to retreat but the expectation of the future reinforces our present mandate. We have a missional calling to be laborers in the harvest. We have a cultural mandate, a calling to bring the Gospel to bear upon all creation. We are to be active peacemakers, earth keepers, advocates of justice and neighborly love.