The Christian bubble I grew up in was pervaded by talk about “eternity.” Over time this word has taken on an unfortunate connotation of dualism, a contrast between the compromised and fleshly experience of this life and the hyper-spiritual forever-dimension that is its opposite. This is a major mistake, as biblical talk of “eternity” and “eternal” things is actually concerned chiefly with the continuity of both human society and creation as a whole. Our hope is not that this life be forfeited in exchange for another one, but rather that it be redeemed and fulfilled.
A popular meme in my Facebook feed says (in words attributed to evangelical rapper Lecrae), “If I’m wrong about God then I’ve wasted my life; If you’re wrong about God then you’ve wasted your eternity.” Not only is this sentiment oddly aggressive and sanctimonious, it also reveals a problematic underlying theology. According to this meme, the purpose of believing in (or being right about) God is to secure a happy afterlife, and it would be OK to appear to “waste” this life as long as one was prepared for the next.
There was a time when I was deeply committed to that logic, but now it makes no sense to me. In addition to a strong moral sense that this is a flawed and dangerous way to look at life, I also find that this is out of line with the way Jesus talked about God, humanity, and the world’s future. Jesus never separated eschatology from ethics, and neither should we.
You Got Ethics In My Eschatology!
“Eschatology” simply refers to an idea, view, or belief about where the world is heading. This is not so much about predicting the future as it is about diagnosing the present. It’s about seeing the handwriting on the wall and calling for change in light of it. The eschatology of Jesus was centered around what he called the “kingdom of God,” a spiritual and ethical reality into which he invited his followers. In the kingdom espoused by Jesus, life, law, and justice are reoriented away from the familiar machinations of power and domination and toward love, empathy, and forgiveness. The kingdom is radical, political, and social as well as spiritual. It is both present and future, it comes from heaven but is already inside and among us.
Jesus’ eschatology employed (and subverted) the language of Jewish apocalypticism which insisted that God’s kingdom was actually becoming a reality, on earth, in history. This is not “just a metaphor” or some future disembodied experience in an alternate dimension, it is a vision for the real and tangible future of humanity and creation. For Jesus, time and experience are not to be divided between life and afterlife, this doomed world and “eternity,” but between the world as it is and the world as it must soon be. And far from teaching people to sit on their hands while they wait for a postmortem reward, Jesus invites us to live out the reality of the kingdom.
Divorcing ethics from eschatology has left many Christians with an unhelpful bifurcated view of time and the universe. The present and its concerns are seen as pale and irrelevant, and the future as a disconnected dimension where life will really begin. This is not the vision of Jesus. This is not how the kingdom of God works. The kingdom is forever but it starts now, and it is only as real and visible as our love for each other. The ethical vision of Jesus is not a set of suggestions for killing time until the apocalypse comes, it is the content of his eschatology. Because apart from love and forgiveness today, “eternity” is a pretty grim prospect.