Friday, June 20, 2008

Concerning the Methodology of Eschatology

It is hard for me to think of eschatology anymore without thinking of the hilarious and brilliant larknews article on how the rapture happened but Jesus only took the two people whose eschatological views were perfect. The article is a joke (who really thinks that perfecting eschatology will get you raptured?) but the satire is poignant: what actually is the point of attempting such precision? For that matter, what kind of precision is even possible? Some issues in eschatology are of course worth pursuing, e.g. are we or are we not in the millennium? More broadly, the covenant theology vs. dispensationalism debate also has some serious implications for how you read your Bible on a daily basis. So I understand the point in some of this and have to be careful that my general lack of interest in the subject doesn’t make me too jaded.

The problem for me comes when we try to get much more precise than those more foundational concepts. I have no doubts about the validity of systematic theology (which I do not, generally speaking) and neither am I overly intimidated by Revelation. And while I do struggle to find much practical payoff to spending so much time on the subject, this is not my concern here.

My primary concern is this: has not past revelation revealed to us that God’s future eschatological plans are not always as they first appear? I think of two specific instances.

First, while Jeremiah was told that the exile would last seventy years (and that with far more clarity than much of what is revealed in Revelation, Jer. 29:10), Daniel was told that it would actually be seventy weeks (i.e. seventy weeks of years; Dan. 9:24-27). God apparently had that plan in mind the whole time but chose not to reveal it as such in the beginning. Imagine Jeremiah dictating to Baruch where to draw the lines on his exilic eschatology chart: the one thing Jeremiah could have bet the farm on was that after seventy years the exile would end. But it was not to be so.

Second, there are literally no existing pre-Christian texts that predicted a suffering Messiah or that interpreted Isaiah’s Servant Songs as Messianic. That is, if you only had the Old Testament, what would your Messianic (i.e. eschatological) expectations be? Probably similar to those of the Rabbis. And this does not even begin to touch the paradigm-exploding nature of an inaugurated kingdom.

So my point is this: Scripture consistently teaches that while the future is in no way out of God’s control, it is in his hands and mind only. The outworking of God’s future plan often does not happen the way it appears it should. This is not to say that God is not faithful to His word; it is to say that His plan is not very predictable even when He reveals it. Combine this historical Biblical precedent with the fact that the only thing that Jesus himself ever expresses limited knowledge of is eschatology, we probably would do well to follow his lead.

All of this combines to lead me to the conclusion that the God’s intention in declaring future events to humanity is not for us to figure out their timing, but to respond with faithfulness. I can think of no instance in the Scriptures where a misapprehension of God’s eschatological plans precluded them from following Him. Such misunderstanding does reveal the hard-heartedness of first-century Jews, but this is not at an issue of wrong eschatology but of sin. Apocalyptic texts in the Bible (esp. Revelation) vividly show that Jesus will win in the end, and win decisively. This much is beyond question. Our role is, like Baruch’s in Jer. 45, to seek faithfulness rather than earthly greatness until that end comes, whenever that will be.


Anonymous said...

Let me recommend Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation by Dennis E. Johnson. It provides an excellent introduction to the book of Revelation.

Unknown said...

Nice reference to Curtis in there.

Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I was recently quite frustrated when one of the pastors at my church devoted his sermon to explaining what "will happen" in the "end times."