The Good, Bad and Ugly about Christian Eschatology

Many of us are just turned off when anyone wants to write or talk about “eschatology.” I know I usually am, and here’s why: I grew up RaptureWorld where Christian eschatology was about the Rapture, about Jesus’ returning (almost)  to earth to snatch up genuine Christians, which didn’t include most who said they were Christians. Then there was the Millennium, which was designed for us genuine Christians. And the Great White Throne Judgment, and then Heaven. All in caps, but the inner core of eschatology is almost entirely left out in this scenario — like a world reborn to be shaped by peace, justice, love and wisdom — and joy and banquets (with wine) and fellowship. Like the end of death and the eternality of life. Like resurrection and reunion and union with God — forever. In other words, Christian eschatology is either hope or it is not Christian eschatology. (Tweet that.) And since eschatology has already begun in the Now, hope reshapes the present.

What major issues in life are addressed by Christian eschatology?

Eschatology needs to be rewritten from the angles of its substance instead of its debates, though we need to remind ourselves that a number of scholars have begun that work — like Moltmann and Pannenberg and Bauckham. I didn’t mention the debates but churches go to the mat and end up  splitting over the Rapture Debate — pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib? Or NoTrib? And what about Modern Israel? And the League of Nations or the Euro and the European Union? OK, enough of that. On to Ronald Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine, and his nice chp on early Christian eschatology that focuses on the resurrection. What did the earliest Christians believe about resurrection? (We’ll get to the Millennium in his next, and final, chp.)

Christian eschatology begins with the resurrection of Jesus from among the dead. That body was trans-physical — physical as we now know physical yet designed for a new world order. But the first debate after the apostles was with the gnostics and the orthodox (Irenaeus, Tertullian) argued vehemently for the resurrection of the flesh vs. the gnostics who despised body.  The resurrected body will be, they argued, both spirit and body. Origen differed somewhat, and he attempted to expand what was concluded before him. The soul is clothed with a body appropriate to the conditions, so that the body of the now is not the same as the body of the future (and here he focuses on immaterality as the state of the future). Origen was much closer to the gnostics. He wanted continuity, like Irenaeus and Tertullian, but emphasized immateriality more than they did. Some, Heine, argues, overdid the differences of Origen.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rudolph Grobler

    “Christian eschatology is either hope or it is not Christian eschatology.”

    One of my professors, Coenie Burger, said that Christianity is indeed about faith, hope and love. He states that the problem is that we focus so much on faith and love that we have forgotten about hope. In my own country of South Africa I can really see this playing out. We need hope and we need the Christian community to be the bearers of that hope in the community. This post is very helpful, because the debates that shift away from the core of Christian hope tend to miss the point completely.

  • Norman

    “Many of us are just turned off when anyone wants to write or talk about “eschatology.”

    Yes and many that study “eschatology” extensively to root out the historical churches mistaken assumptions are frustrated with the lack of knowledge because of this over reaction. It is very difficult to have a biblical discussion with Christians today because we often run away from these issues. The problem is that “eschatology” is the backbone of Christian fulfillment concerning Messiah and it becomes a rich study once we grasp the literary methodology and lose our intimidation. It’s much like the study of Genesis where once we delve into the literature extensively we start becoming more comfortable and realize that metaphors should not be taken literally. We are often more prone to accept Genesis as analogy than we are Revelation for various reasons which is a bit funny considering Revelation plays off Genesis extensively.

  • http://www.wheretoreach.us/ T Freeman

    Best bit I’ve read on Christian eschatology in years. Bravo! Where’s our story headed? Resurrection!

    So nice to have proof that eschatology doesn’t have to be an adventure in missing the point.

  • Bob B

    Like the tweet, but would add the second sentence: “Christian eschatology is either hope or it is not Christian eschatology, and since eschatology has already begun in the Now, hope
    reshapes the present.”

  • josenmiami

    i love the “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” metaphor. I just watched the movie with Clint again with my dad (age 87).

    I frequently use the metaphor with my history students and I call it my “Clint Eastwood theory of History.” All history, every time and place has a little bit of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Good history (even American history) takes into account all three without simplistic reductionism.

    Actually, Blondie was not all that “good” in the movie … he had his ruthless side … and Eli Wallach was not all that Ugly or Bad. I think Lee Van Cleef was both bad and ugly, but hey, why complicate the story? back to the good, the bad and the ugly and hopeful eschatology ….

  • NateW

    I think that many are turned off because by eschatology talk because it has often been accompanied by a tendency to denigrate the present moment. Eschatology is surely about hope, but it is not at all about a hope that is centered on knowledge of future events and happenings. It is a moment by moment active hope (taken up by faith, evidenced/worked out by love) that as I live in Christ and put Self to death Christ will rise from the ashes of what seems like the catastrophe of my own down-going to be manifested before and partaken in by those who witness it.

    In other words, to answer your question, I think that every aspect of Christian life is addressed by eschatology in that every Christ-like sacrificial act of love depends on a faithful hope that, despite all appearances, Christ will rise and reign, raising me with Him, as I lower myself into servant hood and self-denial.

  • Jean

    Actually, Scot, this is the tweet: “[S]ince eschatology has already begun in the Now, hope reshapes the present.” :-)

  • Chuck Roberts

    Scot, I grew up in a church exactly as you described. The END TIMES was about all we heard about and that seemed to satisfy most of the people. As an adult I’ve had no interest in it. That’s probably not a good thing but I’ve been worn out on the subject. I know it upset some family members that I had no interest in the Left Behind series.

    But if you wrote a book that cleared it up for people like me I would definitely read it.

  • Timothy Furnish

    Professor McKnight: as a current Lutheran and recovering Baptist whose doctorate focused on Islamic eschatology, “I feel your pain.” You might be interested in some of my comparisons of Christian (particularly Evangelical) and Muslim eschatology that I’ve done on my website, such as http://www.mahdiwatch.org/2013.05.01_arch.html#1368460721975

    and

    http://www.mahdiwatch.org/2012.12.01_arch.html#1354645053244


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