True “repentance” isn’t merely confession or contrition, it’s a constant and radical reconsideration of all things, a willingness to reject old and bad ideas and to embrace new and better ones. In this (final?) installment of an ongoing series, I apply the spirit of repentance to the Christian notion of eschatology, what many refer to as the “end times.” This is a long post, based in part on work I did in seminary. I hope this will surprise and intrigue both long-time believers and spectators alike.
Introduction: Defining Eschatology
Eschatology is one of the most divisive and volatile topics within Christian theology, and the subject of much debate, confusion, and distress. “Eschatology” is often flatly defined as “the study of the end times” or even “the end of the world.” Indeed, the Greek word means “the study of the late things,” but perhaps a more appropriate encapsulation of the eschatological material in the bible would be “a hope for God’s future.” A broad, positive definition like that is a good first step to navigating the chaotic and often lopsided map of contemporary Christian beliefs about the future. Before we take further steps toward a solution, however, we have more to say about the problem.
The Problem: Making It Up As We Go Along
I have sat in church services, bible studies, and even seminary classes where the following statements (and many more like them) were confidently made by Christian pastors and teachers:
“When we get raptured our new angel bodies will be huge, at least thirty-feet-tall, since heaven is so big and there will be so few of us there!”
“Every night I pray that if Obama is the antichrist, someone will assassinate him. And for good measure, my wife prays that he’ll get saved.”
“The bible reveals the exact date when all of the stadiums in America will be converted into concentration camps to hold all of us Christians!”
“I can’t wait until Jesus comes back and gives me a sword so I can fight some demons!”
These are extreme and ludicrous examples, of course, but in each case no one objected, and in fact many people were feverishly taking notes! (For my part I was flummoxed but said nothing. Until recently I had little to say about eschatology that was constructive.) These statements may be nutty, but they are all just imaginative variations on mainstream “dispensationalist” teachings cherished by many fundamentalist and evangelical churches. The world will soon meet a violent end, Jesus will return to fetch his few and faithful followers to take them away to heaven, and all of this, they say, is clearly laid out in the bible.
But is it? In reality, most contemporary Christian eschatology is anything but “biblical.” It plays fast and loose with bits and pieces of bible text, but its form and logic generally spring from other sources: nineteenth century dispensationalist theology (Darby by way of Scofield), popular culture, and whimsy of the speaker. A bit of biblical data is taken out of context and synthesized with personal ideology and pure imagination to produce some assertion about “the end.” The claim is “based on” words from the bible so it is presented and often accepted as “biblical,” but typically it reveals much more about the speaker’s personality and politics than it does about the bible or the future.
It’s easy to see through bad eschatology (e.g. Left Behind, Harold Camping). What is not so easy is to know how to move forward with eschatological thinking that is constructive and authentically biblical. The solution, I propose, is an open-minded approach which takes into account the history and literature of the whole bible (not just Revelation or the New Testament). In my experience, this kind of holistic approach makes it very difficult to proffer specific predictive claims about what MUST or WILL happen in the near or distant future. In fact, the more I have studied the diverse witnesses of the ancient writings on these topics (biblical and apocryphal), the more agnostic I have become regarding any specific eschatological expectation. What I hope will emerge from a study like this is not a timeline or a list of answers, but an overwhelmingly bright and hopeful spirit, an orientation, a new and better way of thinking about tomorrow.
Thesis: A Holistic Biblical View To God’s Future
The full category of things “eschatological” is far too broad to cover in a single blog post. I will focus instead on three central eschatological doctrines: the Resurrection of the Dead, Judgment, and Heaven. My thesis is this: The doctrines of resurrection, judgment, and heaven are best understood in the full light of their foundations in the Hebrew Bible as well as their reconfiguration by the Jesus movement. In each case we will attempt to avoid the typical speculation, boil the doctrine down to a fundamental question, and examine the biblical responses from Ancient Israel, First Century Judaism, and Early Christianity. This may result in uncomfortable confrontations with some of the more popular beliefs and assumptions of the church in our day, but it also affords us the opportunity for illumination and discovery.
I. RESURRECTION: A FUTURE FOR HUMANITY
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake…” (Daniel 12:2)
“Thus says the LORD God to these bones: ‘I will breathe into you, and you will live.’” (Ezekiel 37:5)
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in tombs will hear his voice and come out…” (John 5:28-29)
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)
Christians tend to think about resurrection primarily in terms of something that happened once to Jesus, and perhaps as a vague description of the believer’s future experience “in heaven.” In the full context of the bible, however, resurrection concerns the question of the future of humanity. The question might be put like this: What will happen to the living and dead bodies of humans in the future? That is not a particularly poetic question, but it is important that we frame this discussion properly. As we will presently see, the bible’s response involves the notion of physical bodily resurrection to some new kind of earthly life, not simply a metaphor for some spiritual journey or celestial escape.
A. Resurrection in the Hebrew Bible and First Century Judaism
The resurrection tradition appears to have its origins in Israel’s horrific experiences in exile. While ancient Hebrew wisdom taught that justice would be done in this life (Proverbs 3:33, for example), the brutality and trauma of exile were such that the traditional view was called into question. When the survivors began to despair, prophets offered a new vision. If justice wasn’t being done on this side of the grave, it would have to happen on the other. Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel offer three imaginative and contextually unique illustrations of this new way of thinking and hoping. Daniel 12 sees the victims of exilic violence physically raised back to life and rewarded, and their abusers punished. Isaiah 24-26 envisions a sort of death and resurrection of the entire world, with special attention to the happy fate of Israel and its citizens. And Ezekiel 37 finds the prophet in a valley filled with the bones of his fallen brothers and sisters, which spring back to fully incarnated life before his eyes. In each case the circumstances and details are different, but the purpose and effect of resurrection is the same: vindication for those unjustly cut down by enemies who seemed to “get away with it” in the present.
These (and other) historically-located visions of vindication evolved over time into a spectrum of Jewish beliefs about the resurrection of the dead on the “day of YHWH,” the day when Israel’s God would show up to put the world right (more on that in section II). It’s impossible to say “here is what all Jews believed” about any number of theological questions, but in the pre-Christian, Second-Temple world of the First Century as depicted by the gospel authors, we find evidence that resurrection had become an assumption among many Jews. First, in John 11:24, Martha takes (some small) comfort in her belief that her recently deceased brother Lazarus will “rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” and Jesus does not correct her but takes the opportunity to associate himself with “the resurrection.” Matthew 22:23 concerns an exception which proves the rule; the Sadducees “who say there is no resurrection” interrogate Jesus about his belief in it. This, of course, implies a common and pervasive belief among some Jews of this time in the bodily resurrection of humans at “the end.”
B. 1 Corinthians 15: Jesus and Resurrection
The New Testament has much to say about resurrection, and while modern Christian interpreters have not emphasized a connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the ancient resurrection expectation, it is actually the climax of the apostle Paul’s message in his first letter to the Corinthians. And while we have typically used the Hebrew Bible to “prove” assertions about Jesus, Paul actually moves in the opposite direction. Consider this, from 1 Corinthians 15:
20 But in fact the Messiah has been raised from the dead, as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since it was through a human that death arrived, it’s through a human that resurrection from the dead has arrived. (1 Corinthians 15:20-21)
The big deal about the resurrection of Jesus, says Paul, is that it fulfills all the old hopes and proves that they were true. Nobody imagined that a single human would be raised from death in the middle of history, but for Paul this is the heart of his “good news.” Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, just the first of many, and his followers have assurance that death is not the final word. In the context of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses this to encourage a church full of screw-ups to get their act together. Because of the renewed hope of resurrection – Jesus’ resurrection as a preview of their own – they can get busy doing things that matter. For the apostle, resurrection is the opposite of escaping this world or “going to heaven,” it’s the hope that human existence and the work of the Kingdom on earth will go on. He closes the resurrection passage like this:
58 So, my dear family, be firmly fixed, unshakable, always full to overflowing with the Lord’s work. In the Lord, as you know, the work you are doing will not prove worthless.
(For more on the broader context and eschatology of 1 Corinthians, see this podcast.)
C. Summary – Resurrection Not Rapture
The hope of resurrection grew out of the injustice and terror of exile, and evolved into a general belief that even death couldn’t keep Israel from God’s blessing and purposes. After Jesus, influential Christians like the apostle Paul preached that this hope had been spectacularly affirmed and inaugurated. At its essence, resurrection is not about escaping from this world but about discovering new and continued life within it. The “rapture” anticipated by dispensationalist Christians is a foreign concept to the bible (based almost entirely on an interpretation of a single verse in 1 Thessalonians which we’ll look at in an upcoming podcast). Resurrection is the prevailing expectation of New Testament authors and figures, with many colorful and diverse interpretations, from Jesus in Matthew 25 to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and John of Patmos in Revelation 20. Each of these moves thematically toward the next eschatological category we will examine: judgment.
II. JUDGMENT: A FUTURE FOR THE WORLD
“Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.” (Psalm 96:12-13)
“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge…?” (Rev 6:10)
We struggle with the bible’s talk about resurrection because it sounds too good to be true. For most of us, the same cannot be said about judgment. We (in the West, at least) live in a very different world from that of the bible’s authors, with very different notions of justice and security. As a result, the bible’s vision of God judging the world seems to us either terrifying or ludicrous. But if we take the time to appreciate how these ancient people conceptualized judgment, we might realize that it is actually meant to be most excellent news. While our version of “divine judgment” typically involves a distant deity invading our space and doling out arbitrary punishment, the biblical picture (often cloaked in parable) is that of this world’s rightful owner and caretaker coming home to tidy up and put everything right.
They lived in a brutal world and, OK, so do we. But they had no police force or door locks or credit cards or firewalls, no banks or insurance or Better Business Bureau. Violence, corruption and every kind of abuse could run rampant unless a strong and noble authority figure showed up to settle disputes, side with the oppressed, and make sure the widows and orphans were looked after. Kings and emperors operated under a pretense of this sort of justice, but sadly almost always (according to the authors and prophets of the bible) betrayed the expectation. The prophetic/eschatological notion of God as the true and noble judge of the world grows out of this very problem. It’s a hope for long-awaited rescue, not a threat of retribution. If it sounds scary or silly to us, it’s because we’re seeing it outside of the broader context of the bible’s story. In particular, the hope of judgment is rooted in two major biblical themes: creation and covenant.
A. Creation and Covenant in the Hebrew Bible
One could easily write an overlong essay just on this two-pronged topic alone, but for now an overview will suffice. When we talk about creation in the Hebrew Bible, we’re talking about more than the assertion that elohim made the world, as opposed to some other god, gods, or natural processes. Israel’s creation story is about the inherent order and goodness of the natural world, and God’s role as the founder and sustainer of that good order. This was never just a fact or a cultural truth-bomb to be lobbed in the faces of unbelievers, it was the basis for hope and positivity in the face of disasters both natural and human. It was also the basis for the expectation that God could and would rescue his beloved creation from those disasters. It is the foundation of God’s judgment – his rescuing, restorative judgment – of the world he loves.
Meanwhile, covenant is the bible’s ancient way of describing how God interacts with the humans that populate his creation. A “covenant” is a treaty or a contract, an, arrangement between ruler and subjects. At crucial points in Israel’s history (and prehistory), YHWH is depicted entering into a series of covenants with the Hebrew patriarchs. Noah, Abram, Jacob, David and Solomon each have covenant-renewing encounters with God. Each time the circumstances and terms are unique and contemporary, but the central promise from God is the same: to make his name, presence and blessing known to the whole world through his special relationship with Israel. By the time of the exile, prophets like Jeremiah (see Chapter 31) are rethinking the notion of covenant altogether, anticipating a radical new type of arrangement between God and all people (not just Israel). While creation describes the ancient, unchanging love relationship between God and the natural world, covenant concerns the ongoing and ever-evolving love relationship with human beings. To see how both come together to inform the hope of judgment, consider a passage like Psalm 96:
11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 Let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before YHWH, for he comes,
for he comes to judge earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the people in his faithfulness.
B. Jesus and New Creation, New Covenant
Christians have historically been fixated on “judgment day” and the eternal fates of individual sinners, with little consideration for the fate of the world or – worse yet – an assumption that the world as we know it has already been scheduled for demolition. We have lost the threads of creation and covenant, and in so doing imagined a scenario of final judgment which is detached from the bible’s own vision of global hope and justice. Does the New Testament abandon the Hebrew Bible’s vision of God the good judge, rescuing and redeeming all creation? Certainly not. Romans Chapter 8 and the concluding chapters of John’s gospel are two prominent texts that connect the resurrection of Jesus with the advent of a new creation, as the natural world itself prepares to be reborn and refreshed. (See here for more on Romans and new creation, and here for more on new creation in John.) The stunning announcement of these texts is that, along with Jesus, the entire world that God loves is now bracing itself for long-awaited rescue.
Elsewhere, Jesus famously picks up Jeremiah’s new covenant language (see the Last Supper narrative in Luke 22), indicating that his own prophetic announcement (and imminent death and resurrection) is the herald of God’s “new deal,” a new type of arrangement between humans and the divine, an arrangement not written on stone tablets or in law books, but “written on the hearts” of human beings. Creation is renewed, and so are humans, no longer obligated to laws, rituals and religion, but free to know God and join with all creation in anticipation of judgment and rescue.
C. Summary – Restoration Not Retribution
Bleak “judgment day” scenarios are usually extrapolated from parables (like Matthew 25) and visions (like Revelation 20) that are taken out of their immediate contexts and the broader context of creation and covenant. God’s judgment of human beings, according to the bible’s own voices, is not an arbitrary and vindictive crashing of our earthly party. It represents one aspect of a much wider and more wonderful vision of rescue and redemption for every rock, tree, bird, squirrel and human being that God created and loves. But if, as we’ve considered and demonstrated, biblical eschatology is chiefly concerned with new and improved life here in this world, what are we to make of the bible’s talk about heaven?
III. HEAVEN: A FUTURE FOR GOD
“I have lifted my hand to YHWH, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:22)
“YHWH is in His holy temple; YHWH’s throne is in heaven;” (Psalm 11:4)
“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:22)
It may seem odd to frame a discussion about heaven around the question of God’s future, but this propels us quickly to the heart of the matter. For too long we have thought about “heaven” strictly in terms of location. Our notion of heaven is typically that of a compound in outer space where God lives, and where we hope to go ourselves someday if our salvation is true. This is not how heaven is conceptualized in the bible.
A. The Hebrew Bible: Heaven Is Where God Is
One of the major surprises when we start paying close attention to Hebrew Bible’s presentation of heaven is that the dead people are not seen going there when they die. A few lucky individuals are “taken up” into heaven (e.g. Enoch and Elijah), but these are rare instances of passing from the one dimension directly into the other. The dead instead are collected in sheol, the abode of the dead, to join with their ancestors and await resurrection on the “last day.”
The ubiquitous phrase “heaven and earth” has two possible connotations in the Hebrew Bible: It can refer to the sky and the land, the physical contents of the created world, or it can refer to the two realms of creation: “earth,” the physical reality in which you and I are hanging about right now, and “heaven,” the realm of elohim and his reality. Elohim’s heaven is the place from which he rules over all of creation, the “administrative offices.” And while we have often imagined heaven in terms of an extreme (and unbiblical) dualism wherein heaven is the good place far far away from this bad place, the biblical language about heaven describes a reality much closer and more immanent. Heaven is a place which pushes up against earth, and which promises one day to overtake it.
Occasionally the thin curtain between the realms of earth and heaven is pulled back, and we get a glimpse “backstage.” A dramatic example of this is Jacob’s experience at Bethel and his dream of a “ladder to heaven” in Genesis 28. Elsewhere, in the Torah and the Prophets, the Temple emerges as the point at which the two dimensions meet, where God dwells in His created world and rules over it. Ezekiel goes so far as to envision the power and presence of God – which constitute “heaven” itself – flooding the abandoned Temple and flowing outward to fill the whole world with new life (Ezekiel 43). This is an explicitly eschatological dream that heaven will ultimately overwhelm the earth.
B. The New Testament: Heaven Is Already Invading Earth
The language of our English New Testaments may feed our confusion on the topic of heaven. We read Jesus’ announcement of the “Kingdom of God” (In Mark and Luke) or (more confusingly) the “Kingdom of Heaven” (in Matthew) and we envision a giant castle floating in the clouds. God lives in a kingdom, and someday I hope to go there. Once we adjust our understanding and hear “kingdom” as “rule” or “reign,” we immediately discover the connection between Jesus’ announcement and the eschatological hopes of his Jewish compatriots. The expectation was that God would arrive to rescue Israel and redeem the world, and Jesus announced that this was happening during and because of his prophetic campaign.
The picture of heaven colliding with earth is even more stark in the New Testament than we might recognize. In 1 Corinthians 15 (again) Paul speaks of “our heavenly bodies,” which we might take for a reference to “the bodies will have when we are in heaven,” but which in context seems to mean “the bodies we will inherit at resurrection which will come from heaven,” from God’s realm into the newly recreated world. Furthermore, in Romans 8 the apostle describes creation as “longing to be set free from its bondage to corruption.” This is a world waiting to be redeemed, not abandoned or destroyed! But perhaps the most vivid depiction of heaven’s “marriage” to earth is found at the very end of the bible, in Revelation 21 and 22, where the holy city of “New Jerusalem” comes down from heaven and is established on the earth. We are struck with the fundamental similarity between this and Ezekiel’s eschatological temple vision, with the important distinction that in Revelation there is “no temple,” for God’s presence in the world IS its temple.
C. Summary – Oh, Heaven Is a Place On Earth
The overwhelming sense of these and many other bible passages is that somehow, at the end (or rather, the new beginning), God and all of his restorative power is going to be unleashed from heaven onto the earth. With this will come resurrection, judgment, victory, redemption, and new creation. Every eschatological hope we have considered and many more are swallowed up inside this one. When heaven comes to earth, this hope maintains, the whole world is judged and set right, and its inhabitants discover a vibrant future instead of a bleak end.
CONCLUSION: Back to the Future
This is merely a framework for beginning to talk and think constructively about Christian eschatology. Many distinct biblical voices imaginatively explore these hopes and possibilities for their own times and circumstances. Israel’s prophets answered the horror of exile with the hope of divine rescue. Jesus announced judgment and vindication that would come “before this generation passes away.” Paul expected a messianic “appearance” (Greek parousia, what we call the “second coming”) that would bring resurrection and new creation within his own lifetime. John of Patmos configured his eschatological Revelation around the fall of the Roman Empire. Thinking “biblically” about the future isn’t as simple as opening the book and reading the predictions, imagining them to be for and about us and our circumstances. There is no explicit “blueprint” in the bible for what will unfold in our future. What we discover is a wild and pervasive sense of hope and longing, a diverse collection of visions, poems, dreams and prophecies which manage to come to the same crazy conclusion: that this world has a bright, God-centered future. That what we do now matters, because the world and each of our lives will echo into eternity – not in a vague, disembodied, spiritual sense, but in some kind of redeemed, ongoing, embodied, terrestrial existence. Our best way forward is to find new and creative ways to express this same hope in our own moment, to embrace the expectation of resurrection (new life), judgment (rescued world), and heaven-on-earth in a way that speaks to the crises and fears of our modern world. This would be far more “biblical” and Christian than any doomsday prediction.