Eschatology and the Christian Life

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Dory of Wittenberg Gate has started a new blog Evangelical Diablog. Check it out to see a place for evangelicals to discuss matters in real dialogue rather than unfair mischaracterizations and an unwillingness to listen. One of her posts asks people to discuss how their eschatological views (i.e. views regarding the end times) affect how they live their life. I responded that it shouldn't. At least what we commonly think of eschatological views shouldn't affect how we live. Sometimes those views do affect how people live, but they shouldn't. There is a central Christian eschatology to all the views, and that should affect Christian life, but those things can be common to all the disputed views. This post expands on my comment.

The most popular view among Americans is the dispensationalist view. Most people affected by this view don't know of the full theological background behind it and call it the pre-tribulational rapture view if they call it any view at all (if they're even aware of multiple views, as many assume not and are shamefully never taught otherwise). Still, it's part of the larger dispensationalist picture. I've never been much attracted to that picture, even though I grew up in congregations that mainly assumed it and sometimes taught it explicitly. This view takes there to be a removal of all believers from the earth before a judgment is brought on those who rebel against God. They call this judgment the Great Tribulation.

I don't see how the rapture issue should affect anything of how we live, at least not in the way it's often claimed. Tim LaHaye is now the most prominent name associated with this view due to the Left Behind books Jerry Jenkins wrote under LaHaye's name and based on LaHaye's eschatological outline. LaHaye frequently claims that you won't live as if Christ could return at any minute if you don't accept dispensational eschatology. The problem with this argument is that anyone could die at any moment regardless of the rapture issue, and anyone willing to recognize that will have the same attitude as the rapturist, at least with respect to the fact that your time in this life could be over at any time.

On the other hand, those who oppose the dispensationalist view say that it's an escapist mentality, but I don't see how it need be. It certainly is for some people, and I wonder sometimes if that's why it's so popular, but you can believe Jesus might return at any time and believe that he might not come back during your lifetime at all. If you don't believe the latter, then you believe he will come back in your lifetime, and Jesus tells us not to believe such things because no one knows the hour. Anyone who is sure the second coming will be within the next millenium is, I believe, departing from scripture to the same degree as someone who is sure that it won't be in the next millenium. The signs are not here except the signs of normal life throughout scripture. War, rumors of war, earthquakes, etc. are normal life, and normal life will precede the second coming.

Also, you can believe the church will escape the Great Tribulation without believing the church will escape all tribulation. Therefore, you should still expect tribulation, because we're told to expect it throughout the New Testament. The great anti-tribulation that is the United States, welcoming of free religion, etc., is a temporary lull in the normal persecution of believers throughout church history and throughout the world even in our time. Americans don't tend to be aware of this, and the attitude that the rapture will be soon does have negative consequences given that belief, but the dispensationalist view doesn't require that belief. It's consistent with dispensationalism that one will expect great tribulation during one's lifetime or at least think it's unusual for it not to happen.

Another issue in eschatology that I think shouldn't affect much is what some people call optimistic vs. pessimistic views. Ultimately, any Christian will be optimistic in emphasizing the return of Christ and the restoration of all things to the perfect order God intends as history is resolved. Some Christians are optimistic about what precedes that in thinking things will get better and better at the end, and then Christ will return and confirm the progress by ushering in a new era of perfection. This view is generally called postmillenialism. Amillenialism is basically the same view except that it sees things getting worse at the end before Christ returns. The names are thus completely misleading. Premillenialism is like amillenialism but has a 1000-year (perhaps metaphorically in terms of chronology) perfect reign of Christ after Christ returns before people will rebel again and then be judged. I happen to be an amillenialist myself, but I don't think these differences have much bearing on how people live their lives as long as they submit their view to the basic eschatology that all the views should assume because scripture is clear on it.

The postmillenialist disagreement with all other views seems to me to affect little of what happens in our own life. Unless you take a very wooden reading of the way that the church will increase over time, as if it's nothing but growth with never any increase in persecution and never any shrinking, I can't see how a postmillenialist will assume anything about our own time with respect to the great growth in Christianity at the end of this world. We might be in a period when the church's growth is minimized. At any stage in the process, we don't know which direction it's heading for our short time, even if the overall direction is that things are getting better.

In the same way, the premillenialist and amillenialist concerns that the world order against God will increase to the end while the church is persecuted more does not assume that we are in that very end time. It's a general tendency, but it affects little of how we should live in a way that the other views won't also allow it to affect them, because we live with what's happening now, and we know only that the end time that is upon us began with the church age's beginning. We don't know if the end time is drawing to a close. The optimism or pessimism (if you want to call them that, which I would prefer not to myself) should both be somewhat present in any view, and any real person living in a real time should not know exactly how things will go in their own microscopic situation just because some general trend toward things' getting better or worse might be true.

So my conclusion is that you can take any of these views and read the view in a way consistent with the biblical emphases. Eschatology in terms of these views thus should not affect how Christians live. All my arguments have assumed an eschatology that should be common to all the views, and thus eschatology is affecting how we live, but my point is that those eschatological elements can be common to all the views on things we tend to realize are unclear. The key Christian eschatology is consistent with all those views. This central Christian eschatology is that this world will end, Christ will return, we will be raised to new resurrection bodies, both the dead and the living, we could die at any time, we might live full lives and thus need to live responsibly as if we will, and the times of the end are upon us since Christ's ascension, thus leading to a different quality of life for those who follow God than before Christ. Judgment will come for those who reject Christ, and eternal life will come for those who follow him. That eschatology does affect how we live, but it's all assumed by any healthy view among the disputed eschatological views. So I just don't see how any one of those views, when held in a healthily biblical way, with the emphases of scripture correcting for any possible tendency in unfortunate directions, should lead to a different practical consequence from any other of those views when held in the same sort of way.

6 Comments

I believe the dispensationalist is the correct interpretation and agree with you: it should have little effect on your life.

If God is on your side, what do you have to fear (or worry about?)

Wow! I wrote the same basic argument a couple weeks ago, but I didn't really get my point across like this. Great post!

By the way, for those of us who have only been taught the PD view, could you point us toward some resources that show how the amil view works? I called myself a happily undeclared man when it comes to the eschatological views, but that doesn't mean that I don't long to know something more than just the Dispy view.

I don't have any handy resources online, but I've seen more than a few recommendations of Dennis Johnson's Triumph of the Lamb, which is sort of an exposition of Revelation from an amillenial point of view. There's a review of it here at Westminster Seminary's website. I did write up this haphazard reflection on these issues at one point, but it's not exactly a systematic treatment.

I'll add Dennis Johnson's Triumph of the Lamb to my list of books to read sooner rather than later. Thanks!

I would tend to agree that it shouldn't make a huge difference, but I do think that often times it does.

Many times when talking to dispensationalists, if I emphasis any element of a social gospel - reaching out to the poor in the neighborhood for example there is a detectable shudder.

For a documentable example - You will see some people opposing Rick Warren's P.E.A.C.E. plan for eschatological reasons. (I think there are other valid reasons to oppose the plan) Opposing it because it is doomed to failure and conflicts with our biblical expectation that things are going to get worse until the return of Christ is a failure to be ambassadors. There are bloggers and even denominations that seem to be taking this stand. If everybody in history had had that attitude we would all be catholic slave holders buying indulgences.

On a personal level, it shouldn't make a lot of difference, but on a corporate level, I think the prevailing view does have a huge effect on the mission of the Church body.

I am still undecided on my eschatology, but I do think that the kingdom should be now, but not yet -- We should be building a model of the kingdom here, as imperfect as it may be. To give those around us a foretaste of the love that is to come.

Maybe I should clarify my view. To take just the dispensationalist view, I would still insist that dispensationalism doesn't have the practical consequences that some people are taking it to have. It's not in fact dispensationalism that has led to the behavior you're criticizing. It's dispensationalism plus a very questionable moral premise that has led to that behavior. While I disagree very strongly with dispensationalism, it's the very questionable moral premise that I really find evil.

The idea that we shouldn't care about what happens to people in cases when we only expect things to get worse is simply crazy. We should still do what we can to minimize evil in the world, even if the world will never improve overall. It's not as if we might try to relieve someone's pain or the symptoms of poverty only because we thinking doing so could bring a Messianic age. We might do so simply because it will help that person have a more enjoyable life now, and God cares about individual people and insists that we do love our neighbor. It takes a very anti-Christian moral premise combined with dispensationalism to get the kind of heteropraxy you describe. It's that moral premise that we should spend our energy disputing we all our might, and discussions of dispensationalism can stand apart as worthwhile so that we have a better understanding of God's plan, not because it's the real problem behind this behavior you point to.

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