By Bryan Bibb
Imagine that you are sailing on the Titanic, and you alone know that the great ocean liner will hit an iceberg in 24 hours. What do you do? Whom do you tell? The answer depends on one important factor: can the crisis be averted? If you can somehow get the captain’s attention, the crew might be able to change course and avoid disaster. But if you know that the ship will sink regardless of your best efforts, what then? In that case, the best course of action is to get as many people as possible lined up for the life rafts. There are not enough rafts to save everyone, but anyone who listens to your warning and follows your direction has a chance to survive the sinking ship. Everyone else is doomed to an icy grave.
That is a terrifying scenario, but it captures an important difference in how religious people often view the nature of the world and the “end times.” A part of contemporary American Christianity is shaped by the idea that this world is like the sinking Titanic, a doomed ship following a path to inevitable destruction. God, they say, has revealed in advance when and how this destruction will take place and has given believers the information they need to secure a place among the saved. In the meantime, the important thing is to stay alert and diligent, looking for the signs that the end is nigh.
Another perspective is more optimistic about the world’s future. This Earth might be a leaky old boat, but it is under God’s merciful care and protection. At the creation of the world, God set in motion a plan to establish a community of universal justice and righteousness, known by some as “the kingdom of God.” With hope, believers watch for signs that God is bringing the kingdom to fulfillment. With faith and perseverance, they strive to embody this divine vision in the world around them. The world certainly has problems, they say, but it travels under God’s providence, with the help of those whom God has called and equipped for its redemption.
In other words, how we live in this world today is influenced in large measure by where we think the world is headed. Is the world doomed to destruction, and if so, how can we survive it? Can the world be saved, and if so, how can we help?
The theological term for these ideas about the future is “eschatology,” literally, “theology about what is at the end of the journey.” In the Bible, there are two kinds of eschatology that resonate with our Titanic metaphor. The rather pessimistic view is influenced by “apocalypticism,” the kind of theology that we find in Daniel and Revelation. Apocalypticism developed during a period of brutal Greek and Roman occupation of Israel (roughly 200BCE to 100CE). It reflects the early Jewish and Christian idea that this world is caught in a battle between Good and Evil and must be violently destroyed along with all the forces of evil. Those who are faithful now will be rewarded with life in the new creation to come.
One challenge with this apocalyptic view is that since it believes the world to be doomed, any effort to improve or reform the world is a waste of time, a major distraction from the need to warn people. A second challenge is that this view leads people to see war and violence as the necessary and inevitable precursor to the final End. When war breaks out in the Middle East, in particular, some interpret these tragic events to mean that it’s almost time to jump ship. There is no need to intervene with peace-making efforts, and no hope that such efforts could be successful. They sometimes even greet war with anticipation, because of their interpretation of certain Biblical predictions.
A more optimistic biblical perspective on the future is called “prophetic eschatology.” This is the kind of thinking that we find in the work of prophets like Isaiah, as in the Old Testament reading for this week, Isaiah 2:1–5. In this passage, the prophet says that a day is coming in which all the nations of the world will cease their fighting and come to worship God together. In this redeemed world community, God’s teaching will settle any disputes and make sure that justice and righteousness prevail. Isaiah looks past his own time of war and violence to the coming Kingdom of God, the extension of God’s rule over the whole of creation. One will know that war has truly come to an end, he says, when weapons are turned into farming tools: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (v. 4).
Isaiah describes a peaceful and reconciled community in this world. This new kingdom includes all the nations of the earth, not just a faithful minority. And even though it may seem completely impossible, it is a realistic future that changes the lives of actual people living in natural time and space.
The question, of course: how can those who live in this broken and violent world have hope enough to believe that such a future is possible? Can the world really be redeemed? Isaiah tells his audience that God’s presence (v. 2), instruction (v. 3), and light (v. 5) will transform and guide this new community. So, even though real people are involved in living out this communal vision, the redemption is God’s doing and thus must remain the subject of faith. In Romans, Paul addresses the need for hopeful living when he says that “the night is far gone, the day is near;” the light has not become fully visible yet, and so followers of Christ should “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:12). In other words, even though it is still dark, believers should begin to live as if the light were already fully revealed.
Can this world be saved? The prophet encourages us to answer, “Yes.” If we “lay aside the works of darkness,” we will see that violence is a problem to be solved and not part of God’s plan to destroy the world. We will use our resources to shape a sustainable and flourishing community rather than instruments of war.
Throughout the world, there are communities who dare to live in hope for the reconciliation of the world. Hopeful believers in Palestine live, work, and study together, offering a new model for multi-faith community. Hopeful believers in Philadelphia turn weapons into farm tools, as Shane Claiborne presents in this video:
Shane Claiborne beats swords into plowshares to help promote a peaceful and reconciled community in this world.
In these places, and in every place, hopeful believers gather to pray for God’s healing for the world, and to be strengthened for the task.
- What factors in today’s world would lead Christians to be either optimistic or pessimistic about the future? What motivates and sustains those who work for peace and justice in difficult environments?
- How should modern readers handle the differences between prophetic and apocalyptic perspectives in the Bible? Is there a way to take hopeful prophecies seriously without reducing them to a spiritual vision of heaven?
- What are some specific ways that churches can promote hope and peace rather than enable believers to retreat from the world or to celebrate war as part of God’s plan?
- Bill T. Arnold, “Old Testament Eschatology and Rise of Apocalypticism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (edited by Jerry L. Walls; Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 23–39. [PDF]
- Walter Brueggemann, “Prophetic Energizing and the Emergence of Amazement,” chapter 4 in The Prophetic Imagination (Revised Edition, Fortress Press, 2001), pp. 59–80.
- Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Basic Books, 2005).
Bryan Bibb is Associate Professor of Religion at Furman University in Greenville, SC. He received his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary in Biblical Studies, and his research interests include Israelite Religion, Ritual Theory, the Hebrew Prophets, and controversies related to biblical translation. He is the author of Ritual Words and Narrative Worlds in the Book of Leviticus (Continuum, 2009) and God’s Servants, the Prophets (Smyth & Helwys, coming 2014).
Learn more about the ON Scripture Editorial Board