End-Times (eschatology: introduction)


In this series of articles we consider eschatology - the study of the End-Times.  The New Testament Church was a living organism, a subversive and counter-culture movement and had a clear eschatological focus.  New Testament Christianity was plainly eschatological; it transcended the here-and-now and pointed forward to a future hope that one day would be realised. 

Although rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these historical events, that form the foundation of Christian belief, can never be an end in themselves.  J Gresham Machen, in his influential little book: 'Christianity and Liberalism,' said as much when he wrote that:

Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.

Much harm is done to the Christian faith when its eschatological dimension is either forgotten or, as is more often the case, deliberately ignored.

Living as aliens and strangers

That Christianity is infused with an awareness of eternity is obvious from reading the New Testament.  The Apostle Peter refers to Christians in this life as ‘aliens and strangers’ (1 Peter 2:11) and constantly points them forward in their thinking toward the eschatological fulfilment of their faith in Jesus, which he describes as the ‘coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time’ (1 Peter 1:5).

We're encouraged repeatedly as Christians not to identify with this world and its structures and institutions, but to focus solely on the coming of the Lord from heaven to earth.  The Apostle Paul makes this point explicitly in Romans:

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all.  Who hopes for what he already has?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:23-25)

Consequently we're called as Christians to resist all earthly agents who seek to lay claim to our ultimate affections and loyalties.  In Luke’s gospel Jesus says:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

Every earthly bond, even the love that exists between family members, must not be allowed to trump our ultimate allegiance focused as it is upon the imminent return of Jesus.  Our affections must never be allowed to settle in the here-and-now.  Indeed that is what makes Christianity so counter-cultural - the subversive commitment to not identify ultimately with anything in this world.

At the very beginning of the Church salvation itself was painted in unmistakably eschatological terms. 1 Thessalonians was probably the first of Paul’s existing epistles to be written and it resonates with eschatological expectation. Paul warned those who listened to him that at any moment a divine outpouring of wrath would engulf an unsuspecting humanity and bring sudden inescapable destruction. 

The Apostle John highlights the tension that exists for all Christians between this world and our eschatological future:

Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Machen was right when he said that it is the ‘thought of eternity’ that defines Christian orthodoxy.

An eschatological focus affects how we live now

Interestingly, it is this commitment to eternity that transforms Christian living in a very practical way in day-to-day life.  No doubt critics will complain that focussing exclusively on eternity will lead inevitably to a vague otherworldliness that will render Christians useless during their time on earth.  This, however, could not be further from the truth.  The Apostle Peter argues that it is because Christians have their hope anchored in the future that they can lead such good lives now.  He writes:

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, that they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11-12)

Later he writes that:

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming . . . So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him (2 Peter 3:11-14)

Far from removing motivation to live worthwhile lives, the Christian focus on eternity actually inspires us to live truly godly lives in a very practical way.

Church has lost its eschatological focus

The problem for much of the Church is that it has forgotten that Christianity is inherently eschatological.  Therefore, whilst the Church is engaged in many good activities we might legitimately ask if they are genuinely Christian.

For many Christians, particularly in affluent congregations in the West, this world, and not eternity, is at the centre of their thinking.  They have abandoned any sense that they are in fact strangers and aliens, and have become so immersed in the world that the faith to which they adhere no longer resembles anything found in the New Testament.  What religion they have is, in the words of Machen, ‘merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.’

When this happens, Christianity ceases to be the counter-cultural and subversive movement it started out as.  So identified is it with the here-and-now and with ameliorating the worst effects of human sin that it is inevitably embraced by the powers-that-be as a vehicle through which society can be transformed.  Machen describes it this way:

Thus religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state.  So it is looked upon by the men of the present day.  Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed.  But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end.  We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help.

This, of course, is a far cry from the Christianity of the New Testament where the Apostle John warns Christians not to be surprised if the world hates them (1 John 3:13).

The Church's social improvement programme

Machen’s words, first published in 1923, describe accurately, however, the position of much of the Church in the West today, consumed as it is with programmes for social improvement.  No doubt many of the programmes are good but how Christian are they?  It is our conviction that much of the social justice movement is rooted in an un-eschatological vision of Christianity.

The temptation for the Church to throw in her lot with other earthly agents will no doubt increase as Western governments look for ways to cut spending whilst maintaining public services.  We will doubtless be told, even by Christians, that this represents a great opportunity to show how relevant Christianity is and will increase the popularity and cultural acceptance of the Church, thereby giving her greater opportunity to present the Gospel.

The danger in throwing in one’s lot with the world is that the Gospel you end up presenting is really no gospel at all and that the eschatological dimension of Christianity is lost amidst the work of social transformation.

Whilst we would never encourage Christians to isolate themselves from the society in which they live and would always be eager to love our neighbours as Jesus commanded, we must endeavour to do so within the parameters of Christian orthodoxy.

We are never more than temporary residents in this world and it is our eschatological hope for the future, namely the return of Jesus and the consummation of his Kingdom, which makes us Christian in a genuinely biblical sense.

The Apostle Peter repeatedly urges us to take the future into account and tells us to set our hope ‘fully’ on the grace we shall receive ‘when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (1 Peter 1:13).  C S Lewis expresses this truth with clarity and ease:

Hope is one of the Theological virtues.  This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do . . . It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.   

Ironically, perhaps it is as we orientate ourselves toward the future that we become most effective in the present.  Lewis was right to say that:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.    

Few Church leaders, it seems, are confident enough to boldly proclaim the reality of the return of Jesus, the awful judgement of both the living and dead and the creation of new heavens and a new earth.  That, however, is the only context within which the Gospel makes any lasting sense.

It's our conviction that if we want to see the lost saved, churches grow and the Kingdom of God advance in this nation we must recapture our eschatological focus.  If we don't the Church will slide further into irrelevance and her message will continue to be met with shrugs of indifference.

The New Testament Church was a living organism, a subversive and counter-culture movement and had a clear eschatological focus.  Orthodox Christianityis plainly eschatological; it transcends the here-and-now and pointsforward to a future hope that one day will be realised . . .

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