The Teleology of Eschatology

I sat and listened as a preacher – perhaps unwittingly – revealed his eschatology. Satan, he argued, began as a garden snake in Genesis. By the time we reach Revelation, the garden snake has grown into a great red dragon. Beautiful imagery. Bad eschatology.

Though I did not get the opportunity to question this gentleman, I would have asked him where the ‘already not yet’ fits into his understanding of Satan. You see, Christ Jesus has inaugurated His kingdom. The kingdom of God is here. Already. But not yet.

Where is the already aspect of this gentleman’s eschatology with respect to the power of Satan? It seems Christ’s ministry has done nothing at all to hinder Satan. If anything, Satan has gotten worse since Christ came to earth. The kingdom of God may have come to earth in Christ, but the kingdom of Satan continues to gain power. Perhaps such an eschatology is defensible. I see no reason to accept it.

A separate, but related, question. What is the telos of creation in a non-progressive scheme of eschatology? Really, what’s the point of history if it moves in circles, or is wiped away in one fell swoop when Christ returns? To put it another way, where is the teleological aspect of eschatology with respect to non-progressive models of eschatology?

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Capsized Canoes and Christ’s Commands

‘Transformationalism’ seems a bit of a loaded term. ‘Two Kingdoms’ seems a bit incoherent. Nevertheless, arguments against ‘transformationalism’ from those of the ‘2k’ position seem a bit weak.

One ‘argument’ 2kers use against transformationalism is to point out that the world is like a sinking ship. Trying to ‘redeem’ anything in this world is like polishing brass on that sinking ship. Dispensationalists also use this rhetoric. 2 Peter 3.5-7 appears to support the illustration:

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

Obviously, the antediluvian world is similar to the world we live in now in many significant ways.  Genesis 2.10-14 appears to support this contention:

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Moses assumes the audience he writes to after the flood is familiar with the rivers Tigris and Euphrates which existed before the flood. It would seem that at least two of the rivers of the world were left even after the flood. And if some geographic features survived the flood, and if the world shall perish in a similar geographical way in the future, then one might expect that at least some geographical features might remain after God destroys the world by fire. The observation is not limited to the Genesis text either, for all assume the world that was flooded is the very same world we live in today, changed though it was through flood, and changed though it will be by fire.

Of course, Noah and his family were saved from destruction. They went on living. They existed both before and after the flood. God will also destroy the ungodly in the future while saving His own through grace. So in the destruction and renewal of the world through flood and through fire, we observe great discontinuity and great continuity. And that leads to my next point.

The illustration begs the question. Supposing some form of postmillenial eschatological view is correct, the world is not a sinking ship at all. Many transformationalists are also postmillenialists. For them, the sinking ship analogy just doesn’t hold water. I imagine the same can be said for those onboard any eschatological view that affords some sort of continuity between the world before and after destruction by fire. And what eschatological view¬†doesn’t?

We know our bodies will be destroyed. Will they will be raised again? Read 1 Corinthians 15. If the world is a sinking ship, how much more the body? None of us have ever experienced the destruction of the world. We have witnessed the destruction of the human body.

Theologian B.B. Warfield believed the individual believer is a microcosm of the world. Without knowing much about Warfield and his theology, I would take this to mean that just as believers are ‘sanctified’ (in the abstract systematic sense) and thus become ‘better’ in terms of Christ-likeness, so also the world becomes progressively ‘better’ in terms of the expansion of the kingdom of God and the beneficial implications of that expansion. Thus argued Warfield the postmillenialist. But let’s run his thinking in reverse.

Let’s say that the world is not getting progressively better. So, postmillenialism is out (and indeed, should be out of initial clashes between so-called transformationalists and 2kers, since one can in theory hold to other eschatological views and still be a transformationalist, and, if I am not mistaken, vice versa). The world is not getting progressively better, and is a sinking ship. Our work here on this planet will ultimately be destroyed. The new heavens and new earth will replace the old. The 2ker tells us this is a good reason to stop with the ‘redeeming x‘ garbage.

But is it? To take Warfield’s thought in reverse, do we really want to say that the process of becoming more like Christ Jesus with faith working through love is actually for naught? There are certainly times when we do not feel as though we as individual Christians are getting any better. In fact, if we were honest with ourselves, we often despair that we might be getting worse. We are like capsized canoes. We are going down (quite literally). We will die. Our bodies will rot. Our souls remain sinful to the last. The new glorified self – body and soul – will replace the old. Is this a reason to stop with individual transformation through the gospel? Is all of our work for nothing?

Of course not. I wrote that the illustration of polishing brass begs the question. And it does. It assumes that polishing brass does not count for much, if anything. That’s simply not true. We need not become postmillenialists to agree. We merely need to be Christians. Not only is the individual Christian transformed through the gospel, but he must be transformed through the gospel. It is Christ’s command, and he works toward obedience to that command, whether the brass is tarnished or burnished. So also for the transformation of the world through the preaching of the gospel.

Newspaper Exegesis

Sadly, ‘newspaper exegesis’ is one of the most popular hermeneutics of our day. People practice newspaper exegesis when they mistakenly take biblical prophecy as describing what is happening right now in the news. They read Scripture through the lens of the news. Suddenly the president is the anti-christ. Computer chips are the mark of the beast. Helicopters are locusts.

Newspaper exegesis is nothing new. Ancient Hebrews failed to find Jesus in their prophets. First-century Jews thought their Messiah would end Roman rule. People were running around saying, “I am the Christ.”

Myopia may be to blame. Egocentrism. Ethnocentrism. Sociocentrism. Many other centrisms besides. We tend to view ourselves, and those around us, as being at the center of world history. Thus, if our life, culture, or country are coming to an end, we mistakenly believe the world is coming to an end. Hence, newspaper exegesis maintains credibility. At least in our eyes.

Now, at least, we can understand one reason why future events in the Bible are described in such sweeping terms. The close of a major chapter of redemptive history through judgment – which culminates in the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70AD – is prophesied, in some senses, as though it were the end of the world.

Because that’s what unbelieving Jews would have thought it was.

Willy-Nilly Wisdom: How to Put a Stop to Theological and Philosophical Agnosticism

Once upon a time, a particularly pragmatic professor gave my class advice I had never heard before, and have not heard since. The advice was simple enough, but somewhat shocking.

Can’t decide between theological and/or philosophical alternatives? Pick one. Move on. Wise words? Perhaps. But this willy-nilly wisdom must be carefully qualified.

My professor was not talking about essentials of the faith. We all know…well, the orthodox among us know…’thou shalt not play fast and loose with doctrinal essentials.’ I fear for my fundamentalist readers already. Right now they are scratching their heads wondering what doctrine is non-essential. And so we have a good illustration of why it’s terribly impractical to be a fundy.

My professor was referring to theological and philosophical positions that are non-essentials. Tertiary. Debated. Not terribly clear. Insert your maddeningly stupid ‘pan-millenial’ joke here. Now I fear for those holding an overly simplistic view of the perspicuity of Scripture. Allow me to clarify. Not all of Scripture is every bit as clear as every other part. Regardless, we can think up lengthy lists of hotly debated non-essentials of the faith. That’s not difficult. What is difficult is finding our place in all the fuss.

One response to the difficulty is to ignore it. Focus only on essentials. That’s good, to an extent, but God gave us his word for a reason, and addressed particular topics for a reason. So let’s at least pretend to look interested. Perhaps we won’t be willing to go to the stake for something we believe, but that’s okay. In fact, that type of attitude shows some Christian maturity on our part. The danger is in cracking jokes about ‘pro-millenialism’ and angels dancing on the tips of pins. That type of attitude does not show Christian maturity on our part. It’s theological/philosophical agnosticism. Worse yet, it promotes the lie that theology does not matter, or is not terribly important.

Theology is important. Philosophy is important. We really should choose between alternatives. And we should do so in an informed manner. But it’s terribly unhelpful to be ever-learning and never coming to the truth. Picky. When we know about various options available to us, have done some study, and still cannot make a decision, it’s time to choose up sides and drop into the trenches to defend a view. If we lose, then we are better off for having found the weakness(es) in one view and having moved on to defend a stronger one. If we don’t lose, well, it looks as though we’ve found the position we’ll continue defending.

For now.