Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Whither eschatology?

When will Jesus return?

He has promised to do so.

We are getting ever closer to the exact point when it is 2000 years since Jesus taught about his Second Coming (though no one knows when that anniversary will be reached, only when it will have been reached, c. 2034).

Does it matter whether it is 2000 years since?

Here is a thought: in the year 4020, if the Lord has not returned, will we Christians be any more or less anxious about the not yet fulfilled promise?

Is Christianity - as a faith movement, as a way of living, as an aspiration to rule the world [kingdom of God] - timeless or time bound?

Can we continue - as long as the sun shines on our planet - just being faithful, quietly ignoring the promise to return?

Or will we get anxious as we confront the challenge of the end - eschatology - as Jesus taught it? (By "confront" I mean have a wide ranging, earnest, global, potentially church splitting debate agonising over "what Jesus really meant" ... as we do over, you know, Another Topic.)

Of course the challenge has been faced before!

I am old enough to remember the 1970s and the excitement which Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth induced (or was it surfing a wave already heading towards Christian shores?).

In NT itself there are signs of distancing between the inaugurated eschatology of the Synoptic Gospels and Paul (e.g. 1 and 2 Thessalonians) and the realised eschatology of John's Gospel - between the former's conviction that Jesus would be returning very soon and the latter's disinterest in the matter.

Yet, if Revelation is the last NT document to be composed, the ending of the collection of new sacred scriptures fans the flames of urgency and anticipation about Christ's return.

As best I understand periods of renewed urgency and anticipation in the history of the church, Revelation is the much invoked scripture which continues to fuel such flames.

One of the puzzles in 2020 - I venture to suggest - is that when we live in a world anxious about its future (if Coronavirus doesn't kill us, it will destroy the global economy; if global warming doesn't fry us, it at least raises the question whether we humans deserve to call Earth our home, so perhaps we should all leave), there is not a new outbreak of eschatological fervour, a renewed yearning for Christ to Return, to release us from the mess we are in.

And, surely on past performance, the corollary of eschatological fervour, the enthusiasm to identify the AntiChrist would have no shortage of candidates to consider, starting with one Donald Trump.

I mean, look at how many Christians more or less idolise the ground upon which he walks!

So, a question, "whither eschatology?"

Will we show a renewed interest in the matter?

Will we engage with some decent depth of commitment in the exegetical puzzle of what Jesus meant when he taught the imminent end of the world, even before the generation hearing his teaching had passed away?


Anonymous said...

Peter, among "gospel people" here up yonder, but also down under in Mike Bird's primer Evangelical Theology, exegesis motivated by your question is focused, as you suggest that it should be, in the Revelations, especially xx 1-6.

A few years ago, folks in Minneapolis bought tickets to watch this onstage discussion of that passage--




Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, as Bryden was saying last week, Tom Wright's Gifford Lectures published as History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology, dispute some claims of older critical scholarship about the end-time expectations of early believers. As in his other scholarship, Wright there reframes the texts that we find on those expectations as expressions of an ongoing Judaic tradition that was unknown to Enlightenment readers and disparaged by C19-20 liberal scholars.


Anonymous said...

Why no eschatological fervor in 2020?

Well, there is plenty of fervor for Jesus's return, but it is found among believers with a pre-trib eschatology. They believe that, until things get much worse for them than they are now, Jesus will not return.

In an odd way, this belief somewhat informs their sceptical yet staunch support for Donald Trump. If Jesus will not come until there has been a persecution of believers, then you have to believe that you will be persecuted to have an eschatological hope. But in a land of extreme religious freedom, what possible persecution can their be? What lion in what arena will rip open any believer's throat?

Wicked godless Democrats will make you pay taxes on money you give to Christian schools that are not LGBTQ-approved. (So far as I have noticed, no Democrat is campaigning for POTUS with a proposal anything like this.) Shifting to a pragmatic mindset, who can protect the righteous from this "persecution" to come? Despite his flaws-- maybe all the more because those flaws let him fight dirty-- Donald Trump.

The same belief that things are fated to get catastrophically worse before Jesus will come back to make them better can also numb some to the evidence for climate change. On one hand, global catastrophe is prophesied-- what can anyone do? On the other hand, Jesus will take his remnant to another world anyway in the Rapture. And in the meantime, wicked godless Democrats trying to stop climate change will persecute the faithful remnant by taking away their military-grade weapons, taxing their snowmobiles, closing coal mines and coal-fired generators, etc. Only Donald Trump will defend them.

In short, the pop eschatology of the '70s never went away. It fostered a persecution culture that contributes to the political polarisation here up yonder. Since polarisation makes every disagreement look like a zero-sum conflict, it makes the polarised care more about their survival than about their former scruples. That, of course, goes for both sides: if pre-trib believers care only that Trump wins, not how he does it, then, both in self-defense and for the sake of those scruples, the other side will care mainly about defeating him. Washington 2016-2020.

Apart from funerals, maybe, Anglican preaching on eschatology is rare. When we do hear it, it is somewhat alienated from the apocalyptic current in the canon without which a Messiah is inconceivable. (I once preached an Advent homily on Revelations 12. Well received, but the congregation wondered why they had not heard anything like it before.) In a decade of crisis, pop eschatology found that current, and populist angst rides it to this day, but with no comprehension of the Judaic river in which it runs and no love for the New Jerusalem to which it flows. Our problem-- and it is much more urgently the Body's business in the world than certain distractions-- is to acknowledge the whole of the scriptural witness to hope amid suffering while convincingly freeing it from a tribalism and fatalism contrary to the nature of God.


Jean said...

I think every time we are dismayed about an injustice or dismayed at the inhumanity of man we are indirectly desiring accountability and therefore the return of the only one who can carry it out, Christ. However, in the waiting this verse comes to mind, "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).“

Here and now. In my lifetime there have been a few ‘popular Christian’ end time predictions by various people convinced it was to be, the Year 2000, Saddam Hussein... etc. Truthfully there are so many horrific things, both present & past that any could fit the picture of Armageddon quite well. Personally I am not hankering to be around at the time, however, the understanding there will be a time when all are held to account and the awareness of the opportunity to get on the right path will not be always available contains in tension both hope and the impetus to not take the gift offered for granted.

If there is a general eschatological focus in my sphere the one I have encountered it comes mostly in the form of, this isn’t the end of the story, the light will win. For our place here at this time I have this intuition with absolutely no concrete basis, scriptural. experimental or otherwise, that the differentiation between what is truthful and genuine and what is false and self-seeking will grow wider and in the process the Church and what it stands for will stand out more from the what has become the common way to ‘be’ or ‘behave’. I am sure such intuitive comments drive empirical people up the wall.

In terms of marrying the timing it will happen with scripture passages around the second coming I still can’t get beyond the ‘we will not actually know the time or day,’ mixed with the terrific descriptions of that time, and so I take the wimps way out a.k.a. I opt out and generally avoid the subject. In thinking of your post Peter, it appears the apostles had views as diverse as are still currently held today. Funnily enough the time that has elapsed since the first coming of Christ doesn’t weigh on my mind or place any doubtful seeds in regards to questioning whether the second coming will happen.

Father Ron said...

Surely, the most important FACT about Christian eschatology is that we are bidden to be prepared for Christ to return at any time? However, Jesus did warn his disciples that they shuld not try to forecast the actual timing of the event - merely to be aware of 'signs and portents'. One legitimate question might be: "Is the fundamental dishonesty of Donald Trump one of the signs we are meant to look for?"

Anonymous said...


Close readers of my 3:20 will have noticed that the beliefs that I attribute there to "pre-trib" (pre-Tribulation, generally Dispensationalist) evangelicals could also be attributed to "post-trib" (post-Tribulation, often Reformed) evangelicals. The former and latter believe that Jesus will return respectively before and after a Great Tribulation. Together, they are usually called *premillennialists*.

That, or the shorter "pre-Mill" is the term that I should have used for readers down under. Thinking of evangelical believers as voters here up yonder, I mentioned the much larger "pre-Trib" tendency. But readers here who explore evangelical eschatology online will likely find more strong writing from premillenialists who are "post-Trib." Occasionally they will also find evangelicals who are *amillennial* or *postmillennial*.

Put another way, the belief that there will be a Rapture in which Jesus meets his true believers in mid-air to take them to a new world just before the Great Tribulation begins on this one is "pre-Trib." Conversely, the "post-Trib" expectation is that all believers will be tested by a purifying Great Tribulation, that the true ones will be rescued by Jesus, and that these saints will reign with him for the thousand years of the Millennium.

Behind these views are rival intuitions about God's view of the unmerited suffering of those he loves-- pre-Tribs believe that it's an evil that he prefers to spare them; post-Tribs believe that he uses it to test their allegiance and purify their hearts. Once one grasps what is at stake in that difference, one understands why opinions about this seemingly obscure exegetical problem could be argued at a very high temperature. They were a widespread test of fellowship among North American evangelicals in the 1970s.

In those same years, Episcopalians were often ridiculing the evangelical debate while no less heatedly debating a new BCP and the ordination of women. But although Anglican synods rarely debate the end of the world, the same pair of intuitions about God and suffering inform their rival views of the topics that they debate instead-- eg That Topic, euthanasia, the welfare state. Like most evangelicals here up yonder, most Episcopalians see unmerited suffering as something so unfair that their faith is troubled that God permits it at all. But vocal minorities of both Episcopalians and evangelicals see suffering, especially unjust suffering, as a sign of God's determination to save particular souls he loves, and faith as the disciplined art of fortifying oneself for temptations and trials.

Suppose that you are wrongfully imprisoned. Both will agree, privately and publicly, that you are being wronged. Both will encourage you with a kind of hope. Which sort of visitor would you rather receive?

One sort sticks to a this-worldly mindset that wants to right what is wrong right now. From these, you get validation and protest. The other-worldly other sort urges you to turn the evil against itself by choosing to endure it-- cultivate gratitude; starve your vices; feed your virtues; claim a crown from God. From these, you get wisdom and companionship. You might welcome visitors of both minds, but they would care for you on different planes.

From time to time, I mention that, in Jesus, the apocalyptic and wisdom of Judaic tradition are cross-bred, so to speak, for hybrid vigour. Apocalyptic after the cross is no longer just weather-forecasting, although there are still signs to be interpreted, and wisdom after the cross is no longer just the prudence of those whose hearts have never been broken.


Peter Carrell said...

Thank you for discussion here.

I will continue to be expectant!

I am increasing my conviction that Trump is an anti-Christ (deceiving many) in our day (but not the only one ...).

I love the last words of Bowman's most recent comment above:

" in Jesus, the apocalyptic and wisdom of Judaic tradition are cross-bred, so to speak, for hybrid vigour. Apocalyptic after the cross is no longer just weather-forecasting, although there are still signs to be interpreted, and wisdom after the cross is no longer just the prudence of those whose hearts have never been broken."

Anonymous said...

Everyone knows that Jesus returns to SMAA every day and thrice on Sunday.

What more than that do we want? If the Jews could be content with the Shekinah in the Ark, Tabernacle, or Temple, then how can we be discontented to be receiving the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation from Father Ron? It would be odd indeed if the old Jews were sure that they were in the Presence yet disciples of the incarnate Lord were not.

I do not say that we should not want more, nor that God will not sometime give more. But I do think that we should be clearer than most are about what more could possibly be. Mystics and doctors of the Body have believed the Presence of the Lord to be the greatest experience of which human consciousness is almost capable. If we disagree with that, then why on earth do we do so?

Jesus taught something similar. He commanded his disciples to break the bread and drink from the cup until his coming again. So, when he says "This is my body..." etc, he is indeed saying something with metaphysical implications (hence debate down the centuries about the mode of the eucharistic presence), but what he is saying is more straightforwardly about the hope of Israel that becomes the hope of humanity in the Body. If the hope does not make sense, the metaphysics do not matter.


Father Ron said...

Bless you, Bowman! Yes we shared Jesus at today's Sunday Mass at SMAA, Christchurch. We experienced the thrill of the Presence of the Ineffable Lord of Glory - as Jesus promised to all who love him! We at SMAA kown that Jesus is The Way; The Truth and the Life and that the Eucharist is the closest we can get to him in this life. T.B.T.G!The future is up to God - beyond out human speculaton.

Anonymous said...

Does thinking about Jesus's return make you sit back and wait or get up and work?

Biblical motifs often spark different sentiments in different situations, and so it is with Jesus's return. When we are overwhelmed while serving the kingdom it is consoling to think of the King's return, of course. But we are not continuously overwhelmed in our proper vocations (cf Romans 12-15), and foreknowledge of that return is not given us to induce fatalism that there is nothing that we can do about evil in our midst until then. To the contrary, as N T Wright rightly insists, it is an encouragement to live knowing that right will prevail and good will endure. But how exactly do we think and feel that?

Before this OP slides off our screens, I want to remind adventurous readers here that was the central concern of one of the most extraordinary priests in the Church of England of the C20-- Paul Philip Levertoff. Levertoff is most widely known today as the father of the poet Denise Levertov (also interesting on this topic). But in mid-century London he was known as a Jew celebrating a hybrid of Cranmer's Holy Communion with a Lubavitcher's Hasidic Sabbath. The weekly services at Holy Trinity, Shoreditch were for Jews who, like himself, had discovered that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel.


The Church of England knew Levertoff as a scholarly Jew from Russia who had found Jesus in a German graduate school, of all places, and had spent his adult life proselytizing his fellow Jews in the Near East until he met and married a Welsh woman in Istanbul. Returning with her to Wales, he was ordained by the archbishop there, and thus becoming an Anglican. In London, he continued his proselytizing efforts, which to his superiors there were all fine and good, and proposed that there should be a subcommunion of messianic Jews within the Anglican Communion, which to everybody sounded a little odd. A church and some special permission were given for his pious work. All true, but burying the lede.

Levertoff's hard-to-find writings stretch the extreme messianism of the Lubavitcher Hasidim into a Christian shape. Yes, he told Jews that Jesus was the Messiah; but he also told Christians that they were living as though they did not know what that means. Yes, he was a scholar of Hasidism-- his work may have inspired Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim-- and akin to the first Lubavitcher Rebbe; but his writings show him discovering the insights of centuries of Jewish mysticism in the pages of the New Testament. When he wrote, "It is the business of the chasid ** to live now for the realization of this messianic age," he was writing to the mass of Christians who seemed to him to be foolish virgins forgetting their Bridegroom.

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shneur_Zalman_of_Liadi

** Superfically, one could say that a *chasid* is a *disciple*, but that misses the Hebrew *ch-s-d* (= love) signaling that love for one's mentor and the Messiah is the receptivity that makes learning possible.

In the 70s, I found a Levertoff book by chance in a rather Anglican library, and asked the librarian if there was more. She told me that it was a mistake that should have been discarded but had been missed in the last culling. That sounds daft now, but in her defense the full appreciation of some of Levertoff's early moves requires the familiarity with Bible, Talmud, Kaballah, Zohar, and Tanya that he acquired as a top student in an elite Lithuanian yeshiva. His overall perspective was thrilling to discover but the details... Fortunately for adventurous Anglicans, some Messianic Jews can work comfortably with his high voltage circuitry, and are beginning to translate and teach Levertoff.



Anonymous said...

+ Peter is worried that we do not know how to present the gospel in a way that speaks to the condition of contented, post-Christian materialists. It is not an unreasonable worry. When God next raises up an evangelist who does at last crack through the hardening complacency, then we will see that + Peter has been on the right track all along.

But I have a different-- non-competitive, rather Lutheran, even penitential-- worry. It is that we have several good presentations of the Gospel, but that they are inaudible and impotent when they are preached apart from their dialectic with the Law.

And why do we preach Gospel apart from Law? Because we share with our contented, post-Christian, materialist brethren an alienating individualism that cannot bear witness to the Promised Land ethos behind any law, and all of the Law, from God.

Now if I say exactly that in a crowded coffee shop, heads turn. Every living soul knows that Western societies are pathologically isolating, and many materialists have living, if sick, souls. A serious and recognised problem has been named.

But if I go on in a conservative way about the need for individuals to be more exacting in their obedience to scriptural regulations, then the eavesdroppers will hear me contradicting myself. The fastidious zealot is the most estranged of us all. Love for God, perhaps, but too often hostility or indifference for man.

Yet if I go on in a liberal way about inclusion inclusion inclusion then, again, the eyes drift back to the bubbles in the foam of their lattes. The coffee shop is already more inclusive inclusive inclusive than any church we know. And still the suicide rate climbs. Community, community, they say, when there is no community (Jeremiah 6:14). And anyway, Hitler's rallies at Nuremburg had community.

This is why, against my inclinations, I look to the Law side of the dialectic.

On one hand, every major cause that has enthused our synods in the past century has been about making the Body safe for more individualism. A few of the causes have been just and sane; the rest may do no harm; eccentricity is not necessarily alienation. But it is disquieting not to be able to think of any cause inspiring us to be better integrities of all of these precious souls. Have we spent a century replicating the alienation of our societies in the Body?

On the other hand, we do church as though we were still in George Herbert's parish in Bemerton. By this, I mean that, in the preached and sacramental Word, we assume congregations with an inter-relatedness and transparency that has been steadily declining for four centuries. At some point, the performance of Sunday church began to be a perverse blessing of the plague of isolation and estrangement.

So then what law can be the Law that the Gospel needs to speak to the condition of our contented, post-Christian, materialist brethren-- and ourselves? Any law that obliges us to be the Body rather than a simulacrum of individuals enjoying its ancient rites as we stand among strangers to approach the Cup.


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bowman
Can you say a bit more - for a bear of small brain - about “the Law” in dialect with the preaching of the Gospel to the world and “the Law” which makes the Body be (a better) Body?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Peter, but not before your Wednesday.


Anonymous said...

Peter, if this does not satisfy your curiosity, feel free to inquire further.

The Law/Gospel dialectic is one of the earliest of Luther's doctrines, and was conserved in the confessions of the Book of Concord. As a first approximation for today, we might say that the divine will behind all of God's demands and all of his promises is a single will. So then for any promise that a preacher makes in his behalf, there is some divine demand for the congregation that is inseparable from it. And vice versa.

In God's name, a preacher can promise a congregation that God will end the anomie, alienation, isolation, etc of postmodern Western societies. At least in the New Jerusalem, but perhaps before. Insofar as we can speak of a formulation of the gospel for this moment, that is it.

But then what concretely does God demand of those who trust this promise?


Peter Carrell said...

Very clear! Thank you, Bowman, and, of course, utterly part of the message and significance of the day on which I write, Ash Wednesday. Turn from sin and be faithful to the gospel.