Reclaiming Christian Eschatology

Sunrise Over Frenchman Bay

Oh, dear.  What a week we had.  Between the CDC posting an article about preparing for the zombie apocalypse to the dire (and false) predictions of Harold Camper, it seems everyone became fixated on discussions about the end of the world.  But have no fear.  It’s Moltmann Monday, and I didn’t have to get further than the preface of The Coming of God:  Christian Eschatology to find some sane words to soothe your Armageddon-battered minds.  If you haven’t read the book in its entirety, I’d highly suggest it.  (Honestly, already worth your time in the preface!)  I happen to believe that reclaiming a rightful Christian eschatology is one of our biggest and most important tasks.

Eschatology is always thought to deal with the end, the last day, the last word, the last act: God has the last word. But if eschatology were that and only that, it would be better to turn one’s back on it altogether; for ‘the last things’ spoi one’s taste for the penulitmate ones, and the dreamed of, or hoped for, end of history robs us of our freedom among history’s many possibilities, and our tolerance for all the things in history that are unfinished and provisional. We can no longer put up with earthly, limited and vulnerable life, and in our eschatological finality we destroy life’s fragile beauty. The person who presses forward to the end of life misses life itself. If eschatology were no more than religion’s ‘final solution’ to all the questions, a solution allowing it to have the last word, it would undoubtedly be a particularly unpleasant form of theological dogmatism, if not pyschological terrorism. And it has in fact been used in just this way by a number of apocalyptic arm-twisters among our contemporaries.

But Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic ‘final solutions’ of this kind, for its subject is not ‘the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. Christian eschatology is the remembered hope of the raising of the crucified Christ, so it talks about beginning afresh in the deadly end. ‘The end of Christ–after all that was his true beginning,’ said Ernst Bloch. Christian eschatology follows this Christological pattern in all its personal, historical and cosmic dimensions: in the end is the beginning.

 

Sigh.  See?  All better.

3 Comments

  1. Intriguing quote from Moltmann. I would supplement this with a basic word study. The word “apocalypse,” in its popular, contemporary use, is laden with all sorts of unbecoming connotative luggage which is quite foreign to the ancient context’s use of the word in the biblical text. One only needs to google “definition of apocalypse” to see where the problem lies: the first definition, according to Wikipedia, is “the complete and final destruction of the world, as seen in the Bible’s Revelation;” the second definition is “an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale”. These definitions point exactly to the problem Moltmann is referencing here. The term “apocalypse,” however, according to the biblical context refers to something very different.

    The Greek word “apokalupsis” means “disclosure” or “revelation,” which comes from the word “apokaluptein,” meaning “to uncover” or “to disclose/reveal.” Further, the term was used by biblical writers to talk about the end of certain imperial epochs in high fashion — like Babylon — but it didn’t stop there. The “end” for the imperial strongman was also a “beginning” for the oppressed now released from their bondage; the end of times for King Neb was the beginning of a new times for Israel; when one door closes, another door opens. And so, this dual meaning of apocalypse when added with the finality of the biblical story as seen in the New Testament, we have the “uncovering” of the new heavens and new earth, which is ultimately celebrated by a wedding of the heavens and earth. Though, prior to this celebration of the consummated kingdom of New Jerusalem there is terrible war, destruction and pain manifested in the last throes of the empire of death/sin, but these events are to be understood as a preliminary step done in preparation for a fuller revelation.

    Perhaps the best way to understand this is by utilizing the imagery of “birth pangs” (which Jeremiah so often used): The biblical apocalypse will uncomfortably enter in something which is very painful and shocking at first, though the maturation of this will eventually bear something beautiful and lasting. But if we don’t first “get down” the overall, two-step meaning of the terminology of “apocalypse” as it was used by the ancients, then we bump into problems — Like 2 Peter 3. Clearly the burning of the earth is referencing the “purifying” effects of fire, which will burn away the dross (of sin) and reveal a renewed, steadfast creation; not the complete and utter liquidation of earth as we know it.

    — And, interestingly, along with Moltmann’s stress upon the process or road toward ultimate redemption, even the defeat of death and sin followed by the consummation of heaven and earth in Revelation retains, in the end, some road-like openness to it. For instance, the gates to the city are explicitly prohibited to close — they are to remain open day and night! Could it be that belated knees and tongues which have yet to bow and confess, presently shifting about in the fires outside the gate, are always and forever welcomed to come in and take part in the eschaton? This is somewhat different from universalist redemption, as it is up to the individual to choose whether they wish to enter in or not; it may very well be the case that some just may choose to wander for an eternity.

  2. Alas! Even “eternity” or “aion” means “an age/epoch,” which is very different from how we utilize the word eternity, usually denoting a perpetual state of things without beginning or end; suspended and outside of the time-space order of things. Indeed, God made the “ages” as it states in Hebrews, but Paul even speaks of an age or aios prior to the ages! And in the end, the an old age will pass away (eschaton). Either way, revelation and eschatology is situated in time and space.

    As Blake said, “eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

  3. Thanks so much for your thoughts! Great additions to the conversation, to be sure. It’s amazing how sloppy we can be with language, and how detrimental it can be to our theology. I do love that verse in Revelation about the doors being always opened (Rev. 21:25). As strange a book as it is, there are some breathtakingly beautiful images of the fullness of life with God. I wish more people would read it all the way to the end and pay attention! Thanks again for your interaction.

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