Eschatology is a potent and rich field of theological study. The investigation of what the Bible has to say about the “last things” is profitable for numerous reasons, not least of which that it frequently puts our own troubles into perspective and acts as a caution to the idea that we can metaphoricalise the alchemists’ ancient dream: we can make golden ages by our own power and goodness.
More, the return of Christ is something we are instructed to earnestly look for and expect imminently, and we know that the Bible places this coming at “the end of the age”. Revelation is the only one of the sixty-six books which specifically proclaims a blessing on those who read and take to heart its message.
Eschatology is also, however, one of the fields of theological study which cause most dispute, upset and plain error, as we falteringly try to grasp and make sense of the prophetic language in which the Biblical material deals with the Last Days and relate it to the world we see.
In our own day, we see this fascination with teaching on blood moons and the idea of national judgments connected with the heptannual cycles of the Hebrew calendar. We see a peculiar certainty that ours is the last generation, that events are even now occurring that harbinger the social chaos out of which the new world order of the antichrist will arise. We see detailed charts of the events of the Biblically-foretold Great Tribulation and its surrounders, charts in which the Son of Man sometimes appears to bounce up and down like some sort of celestial yo-yo.
I personally find some of these just a little irreverent in their suggestion of a “bouncing eschatological Jesus” (my term), but there you go.
There are two main kinds of error into which it is possible to fall regarding the Last Things.
The first is to ignore them, the second is to hyper-focus on them so that we are in danger of ignoring anything else. I’ve been guilty of this second error, and I’m sometimes now guilty of the first in the way I live my life, but like all who call on His Name, I’m trying to align my perspective with Christ’s.
Culturally we seem to be more in danger of this second error at the moment, but even so we can fall prey to this first danger by living as if Jesus isn’t coming back, treating our national and this-worldly concerns as if they are absolute. Beside the coming End, even the prospect of the potential accession to the US Presidency of a notorious mocker like Donald Trump is, if you will pardon the pun, not the end of the world.
Our small concerns are rendered petty and unimportant alongside the great events of His Kingdom; what does it matter that the United States lose a little of its power in the world, if Jesus is coming back to put an end to all of our Republics and Kingdoms and Empires and Federations? What does it matter that this or that political party come to power in one of many nations on the Earth? Is God constrained to work only through one political party?
This is not to say that followers of Christ should be indifferent to politics and government, but neither should we treat the process as if it is God’s own major project. We live in the world, as the Scripture says, and rightly maintain a concern for God’s will to be done “on Earth as it is in Heaven”, but we must take care not to be captured by the world, to fall into the trap of believing that our agenda is necessarily God’s.
The second error into which we may fall is to become captivated by echatology to the diminution or exclusion of much else.
We are specifically warned against inquiring too much into “the times and dates which the Father has set by His own authority”, and that even Jesus, quizzed by the Eleven, didn’t know when the End would come. Some of our modern (and ancient) attempts to read the signs come perilously close to this error of date-setting, if they do not actively constitute that error. Interestingly, no-one seems to want to set a date that is far removed from their own generation; the practice invariably seems to lead to a date within a few years of its being floated.
Attempting to set a date, of course, counteracts one of the main thrusts of Biblical teaching on the Last Things: namely that we must be ready at all times, not only a select few dates, for “the Son of Man comes at an hour you do not expect”.
But attempting to determine the day and the hour is only one of a cluster of eschatological errors that can be caught up with overfocus on it. There are probably as many perspectives on the Last Days as there are theologians, and Christians disagree with one another on the relative timing of the Rapture of the Saints, the Great Tribulation, the Millennium and the Last Judgement, so that a great confusion can sometimes result among the unschooled in such things. The temptation, with so many conflicting views, to side with one and go forth to do war against the others, is a very real one, and one to which we none of us are immune. Despite the fact that some even among our sisters and brothers in the faith can view the whole debate as an abstruse theological argument rather like discussion over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, we want to be right and to visibly conquer wrongness wherever we find it.
The simple fact of the matter is that until that which is prophesied actually occurs, all that we have is speculation. We try hard to make it informed speculation, but it is speculation nonetheless. Whether those who follow Christ will be caught up to meet Him in the air before, during or after the Great Tribulation (“time of great troubles”) we cannot know until it actually happens.
At which point all of our disputations necessarily become moot.
Increasingly, I find my question to be “what does the Kingdom of God gain by numbers of us engaging one another in verbal combat over our divergent speculations?” The only one who would appear to gain by that is our enemy the devil, sowing discord among the Body of Christ and distracting us from the task of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom.
Some people go so far as to stockpile food, money and even weapons so that they will “be prepared” for the social chaos which they presume will occur before the end and out of which the Antichrist will rise to power. This, again, would seem to me to be a distraction from our main task, and evidence of a lack of faith in God’s ability or willingness to take care of us. The Lord really does know all our tomorrows, and will take care of us so that we may trust that whether by life or by death we will glorify Him and be known as His. Or as the Bible puts it in connection with the End, “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go”. Your guns and food and stockpiled money will not thwart God’s plans, and He really is in charge of these things. Stockpiling “just in case” would appear to be exercising the spirit of worry and unbelief rather than the “patient endurance” that the same Bible passage says is called for.
Simply put, I believe that enough is written so that we’ll recognise it when we see it. Indeed, if we have eyes to see we will hardly be able to keep from recognising it; it is those who wilfully close their eyes who will be caught napping.
Are we doing what the Lord has charged us with doing? Then even if we are taken by surprise we need have no worries when the Master of the House returns.
Are we “beating the other servants” with our own speculations about when and how He will be coming back, drunk on our own certainty and disengaged from the task? Are we trying to begin the feast on our own rather than extending the invitation to those who haven’t heard? Well, Jesus’ parable doesn’t have good things to say about that servant.
So on the one hand, we need to remember that Jesus is indeed coming soon, that our this-worldly concerns aren’t necessarily at the centre of His agenda nor our earthly fears actually absolute. But on the other hand, we need to remember that what we are told about His coming we were not told so that we could spend all of our time trying to fit all the pieces together ahead of time, but so that we would recognise it when it comes. We need to recognise that His coming places a time limit on the task He’s given us: we do not have forever to accomplish the Great Commission, nor is He going to put up with human sin continuing to hurt those He loves for the next aeon. This world is not all there is, and time does not go on forever. There will come an End.
And that is a Good Thing.