Tag Archives: Eschatology

Theology in a Time of Pandemic

W. Jackson Watts

Theology never arises in a vacuum. It always has a context, a set of circumstances shaping its development and reception. Augustine’s City of God was a response to pagan claims that the barbarian incursions into Rome were a consequence of Christian emperors abolishing pagan worship. Martin Luther’s early writing would have never been penned outside the shadow of a spiritually bankrupt church. Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy makes greater sense once you learn about his years ministering to spiritually and intellectually adrift youth at L’Abri.

The coronavirus pandemic is an occasion that forces us to theologize. As important as it is for church leaders to develop communication strategies and ministry procedures to ensure safety, it’s equally important to consider how our understanding of God, Scripture, and the Gospel are revealed in and through this crisis. Crises always expose the depth (or lack thereof) in our convictions. Yet they should also elicit careful theological reflection—reflection which presupposes that Christianity speaks to all of life.

I’d like to highlight five questions Christians should be able to address during this pandemic. My goal is not ultimately to answer all of these. Rather, it is to show how a clear understanding of Scripture is essential to begin to answer them at all.

Where is God and What is He Up To? (Theodicy)

As the death toll rises, so too do the questions that some ask about the presence of God. No doubt the present suffering is unequally distributed among families, communities, states, and nations. Some are better equipped to treat the sick, comfort the afflicted, or avoid the worst financial impact of the crisis. But rest assured, many are asking about God’s ways.

Theodicy is simply that: an account of the ways of God, especially in the face of suffering. Typically theodicy is a concept discussed in the context of what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” The problem, generally and simply stated, is that if an all-loving, all-powerful God exists, and evil exists, too, then how can we maintain belief in God? It would seem that a good and loving God would eliminate evil—at least in its most egregious forms. It seems just as likely that an all-powerful God could. While free will is usually used to show that it’s not a logical contradiction for evil to exist in a world where such a God exists, the problem of evil has many intellectually challenging forms that require us to pause, and avoid simplistic answers.

Imagine Christian parents who lose an infant child to coronavirus. Tragic. They then learn from hospital staff that their baby won’t be permitted a traditional burial. Moreover, it may not be safe to touch or kiss his body. He is their only child. The problem of evil lands a certain way for these parents: “Why God? Why this evil? Why did you let this happen?” How does free will sufficiently answer such questions? The problem of evil then presents a pastoral challenge as much as a theological challenge.

Now imagine unbelieving parents who experience the same tragedy. While they may not know what a syllogism is, at a deeply visceral level their suffering counts against belief in God. “How could we believe in a supposedly all-powerful, all-loving God who allows things like this? How could belief in such a God be maintained in the face of this kind of evil?”

Pastors, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, and believers of all kinds don’t need to wait until they, the believers under their care, or their neighbors face death to think carefully about these issues. We need attentive hearts and ears, to go along with a biblically-informed mind.

Is this Pestilence Like the Ones in Scripture? (Eschatology)

 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth (Revelation 6:7-8; ESV).

More than one Christian has read a passage like the one above and tried to find versions of it in their world. This isn’t new. What is new is our 24-hour news cycle where we receive real-time updates on our phones about every famine, plague, shooting, drought, tornado, and earthquake. Let’s face it: it’s hard to watch the evening news and not think, “The world is literally coming apart.” And it has, ever since Genesis 3. Most of us also have some basic eschatological beliefs which entail conditions on earth and for human life growing increasingly worse. This means both people’s love growing cold, as well as earth’s increasing travail, groaning for release from its bondage (Mt. 24:12; Rom. 8:18-22).

Beyond this basic conviction, Christians can certainly freely debate how similar the nature of modern disease and virus are to ancient plague and pestilence. I’m sure there are similarities and differences.

Where we want to be cautious is at the intersection of theodicy and eschatology. For example: “God is doing this to wake us up spiritually!” “This city had more coronavirus cases because it is an especially wicked city; it’s the judgment of God.”

Believing in the providence and sovereignty of God means that He is in control. Nothing happens that He isn’t aware of or that He did not allow. However, it takes a few extra theological leaps to claim to know precisely why a particular evil happened and had the specific effects it had. Some have done this even in recent years, whether it concerned Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans (2005), or Hurricane Sandy in the greater New York area (2012). I can see no biblical claim that would allow us, with confidence, to call specific natural evils divine judgments. It may be the case, but we cannot know. Just as important, it raises other problems we may not be prepared to answer: What if the calamities that impact Christians are just as likely to be judgments of God against His church for her unfaithfulness to Him? After all, the grain of the Old Testament certainly shows us that God’s judgments fell against His own people more often than it did pagan nations!

It’s certainly not my intent to squash every theological judgment we might personally consider as reasonable or even probable. I find in my own congregation that we all have a sense that God is reminding us all of important truths: “We are not in control of our lives. God will take care of us. God is good even when things are going wrong. We need to obey civil authorities, even when we find it difficult.” It’s not irresponsible to say that God has His purposes, and some are more clearly discernible from Scripture. Yet we should not go beyond that.

Should We Take the Money or Not? (Conscience)

One provision in the CARES Act involves the government (specifically the Small Business Administration), through banking institutions, providing loans to smaller businesses to help them meet their payroll needs. The loans actually convert to grants if the company can demonstrate that they used all of the funds for payroll. After all, the government has a vested interest in seeing small businesses survive and workers continue to be paid.

The wrinkle in this bill that many Christians have been debating is the inclusion of churches and other religious organizations. In other words, a church could be the recipient of a loan. Baptists have a long and complex history when it comes to its relationship between the church and state (see more below). But this specific provision in the law cuts across denominational lines, whether one belongs to the free church tradition or not. Many pastors, theologians, and parachurch legal groups have landed on different sides of this question. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has written a short, helpful piece arguing that it may be permissible. Yet even he acknowledges the reasonable, conscientious objections some Christians and churches may have to accepting such financial support, even if the funds appear to have no strings attached, and enough lawmakers thought it was a good idea.

It’s not my intent to analyze the merits of this argument, but simply to caution about how we debate matters of conscience in general. Sometimes Christians understand conscience in a sub-biblical way. We essentially adopt our society’s basic understanding: “If it bothers you, don’t do it. If it doesn’t, go for it.” This is not a biblical understanding of conscience. Scripture is clear that one’s conscience is not reducible to how we feel about a given choice before us (I commend Andy Naselli’s excellent, short book on the topic). As Harold Senkbeil thoughtfully puts it, “Conscience is not so much a moral compass as it is an umpire, or the capacity to see oneself as God sees you.”[1]

Our conscience can be misinformed, desensitized, and just plain wrong. Our “umpire,” to use Senkbeil’s metaphor, must be trained by the wisdom of Scripture. I say this because we can yield to the moral relativism of our highly secular age. Christians need to avoid merely saying, “You do what’s best for your church, and we’ll do what’s best for ours.” Christian truth is such that we need to come together and discuss thorny questions in a gracious, patience, respectful way without checking our brains at the door. Such a discussion will not yield uniformity, but it will yield greater unity, even when we have come to different conclusions.

What is the Church and How Shall it Gather? (Ecclesiology)

The same considerations concerning Christian dialogue certainly apply to more than the CARES Act. Probably the first question pastors asked when they realized the severity of COVID-19 was, “What can we do online?” Of course, the first question should always be, “What should we do?”

I spent countless hours thinking about and discussing this particular one. I’ve written elsewhere about my concerns concerning the interface of religious practice and technology. It’s ironic that I should find myself teaching and interacting with church members through Facebook and Zoom each week. But technical ability (or the lack thereof) should never be bracketed off from theological reflection about what the church is and isn’t, what worship is and isn’t, and how we maintain those distinctions, even while using certain crutches that we’ll gladly lay down when gatherings begin once more.

Technology has surrounded worship practices for nearly two thousand years. The moment anyone gave any thought to a building, keeping records, or musical instruments they were discerning what tools or artifacts could be faithfully used to support Christian ministry. I dare say our forefathers thought a bit more carefully than we do about these types of issues. They had their own temptations to resist. They also had to try to discern how much liberty to extend to one another, especially as various congregations (and later denominations) made different ecclesial choices.

I think what’s crucial to affirm again and again is this: A worship service is an embodied gathering. No amount of virtual proficiency will create that. Now, this is a separate question from, “Can we provide a context for our households to be edified while they are apart? Are there some Scripture-based messages, songs, or other resources we can provide each week to foster private worship, while at the same time saying: Won’t it be great when we actually do worship together again?”? To me this is a delicate balance to strike. Yet this is the challenge all church leaders have. At least this strange and uncomfortable time should give us some space to feel how unnatural it is for the church to be apart.

To What Extent Should We Obey the Government? (Church and State)

As I said above, Baptists have a rather complicated history when it comes to relating to the state. Heritage aside, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are in our Bibles. We may not teach it so explicitly on a weekly basis, but the Lord has reminded us that obedience involves reading Scripture with Scripture. Can we square the command to assemble together in Hebrews 10 with the command to obey the authorities, who tell us not to assemble?

With few exceptions, Christians across this country have clearly seen that civil obedience and love of neighbor (both Scriptural principles) shape our application of the command of Hebrews 10—that a temporary suspension of public gatherings is not compromising our faith. In fact, it may be the exact embodiment of the faith needed in a world that so often misunderstands the church.

To be sure, as we see what appear to be positive signs in the fight against COVID-19, we are all chomping at the bit to gather again. The test of our theology of civil obedience will be whether our impatience is born out of a spirit of passion for Christ, or disdain for authority. Sometimes we struggle to discern the difference. Regardless of motives, being in an emotional uproar is seldom a good place to begin good theology.

All five of these questions are complicated. Unfortunately they often elicit a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. This is part of why the Commission for Theological Integrity exists. Our prayer is to lean into the conversations that others are already having, and to serve as a resource for clear, theological reflection and action. I pray we serve Free Will Baptists and their neighbors well in this pandemic.

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[1] Harold Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019), 128.

Eschatology for the Now

by Kevin Hester

I was not the student to whom my fellow commission member, Rev. Randy Corn, referred in his recent post The First Word on Last Things, but I could have been. My attitude about eschatology was one that saw it only as an intramural Christian debate over the interpretation of a number of vague Biblical references in apocalyptic literature. The National Association of Free Will Baptists has wisely chosen to allow significant freedom on this theological doctrine, so I resolved not to make it an issue myself. In reality it may have been more of a copout. The theological openness on this point meant that I could remain open on it myself, and I therefore limped along with a malnourished, milquetoast panmillennialism. I have since repented.

This repentance was slow in coming. Jaded as I was by television preachers, Y2K, and the First (and then the Second) Gulf War, it was not until a class at Covenant Theological Seminary with Dr. Gerard Van Groningen that I first began to see that eschatology was more than dire predictions of the sky falling. Van Groningen was an Old Testament scholar who looked the part. Adorned with the most patriarchal beard I could imagine, he walked his students through the covenants of the Old Testament in a way that demonstrated the consistency of God’s progressive revelation in His program of redemption. It was in this class that I began to see that a truly biblical theology was a theology that refused to artificially separate the theological categories of creation, redemption, and consummation, but saw all three as summed up in the works of a personal God whose love overflowed in all His acts.

I began to realize that God’s work of redemption was cosmic in nature, and not confined to the internalized, individualistic experience of salvation bequeathed to me by the Protestant revivalism of my tradition. My experience of God in the present was an effect of God’s redemption in the past and was causally connected to God’s purposes in the future. As Paul demonstrates, my experience of salvation is the outgrowth of God’s promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:29) and Moses (Romans 10:4) and is itself a harbinger of the hope of a renewed creation (Romans 8:22-24).

With this realization, Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God took on new meaning. The universal promise of God’s blessing to all the nations made to Abraham (Genesis 12:3) is fulfilled in the eternal worship of the heavenly state when those from every tongue, tribe, and nation gather in worship (Revelation 12:9). The means of this fulfillment is the Church’s present proclamation of Christ and his Gospel to the world (Matthew 28:19-20). The missional purpose of the Church, my own justification and ongoing sanctification, were a part of God’s eschatological plan. Eschatology was about the “now” just as much as it was about the “not yet.”

Eschatology, therefore, has a number of practical applications for the present. These applications touch on how we view the world and how we interact with it. The model of interaction gives us a plan for engagement.

Impact on the Present

Eschatology teaches us that at this moment we are living in the midst of God’s activity. God is sovereign over history and is working right now in our lives and in His church. This hope is not dependent upon our feelings or even the apparent general course of this world or our country.

               Sovereignty

God gave John a vision in Revelation that was meant for a small, persecuted group of believers in Asia Minor that is, by extension, also for us. The message was one of His presence and His promise. Christ is present among us in the midst of our difficulties (Revelation 1:13) and God rules in complete control from his throne (Revelation 4). God’s sovereignty means that He is working out His purposes in the world. God will manifest His lordship in time and space in this world. No heavenly or earthly powers will be able to ultimately frustrate His work (Revelation 6:15-17).

               History

Eschatology also tells us that history is significant; both individual and cosmic history. History is a record of God’s engagement with humanity. It is purposeful, having a telos or goal. History therefore gives meaning and purpose to our lives and our relationships. Even our trials and tribulations lie under His sovereignty and He works through them to accomplish His purposes (Romans 8:28). It is at the consummation of all things that we will come to understand and God will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4).

               Hope

Eschatology gives Christians a reason to hope. The divine rule of Christ has been inaugurated in the Church and in the lives of Christians. The kingdom is within us (Luke 17:21) and will come about through us. This gives us a foretaste of what God is going to do universally. In the midst of a highly technical eschatological discussion of the resurrection, Paul makes the following practical application of hope in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, “comfort one another with these words.” With this hope we are called to face any and all situations. We can be assured of God’s ultimate victory in this world.

Impetus to Action in the Present

               Evangelism

I realize that there are some millennial perspectives which raise questions about the imminence of Christ’s return. Scripture, however, couples the offer of the Gospel with the entrance of the kingdom. God’s truth is for the present. We often miss the eschatological link between the Great Commission passages and coming of the eschatological kingdom seen in references to Jesus’ authority (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8). But the eschatological link is made especially clear in Jesus’ original commissioning of the twelve (Matthew 10:7 and 10:23).

Eschatology also promises that we can proclaim the Gospel in confidence. God’s Word and work is always accompanied by His power (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation of faith was that the Church would be built on this faith and that as it advanced Hell’s gates would not withstand the onslaught (Matthew 16:18).

              Courage

The eschatological promise means that we can have confidence in the success of the Gospel, but it also calls us to courage. We have a promise of victory, but that does not mean that the battle will be an easy one. Jesus reminded His disciples that they would be opposed as He had been opposed and prophesied tribulation (Matthew 10:16-25). The primary burden of Paul’s eschatological teaching in 2 Thessalonians was a call for the church to remain loyal regardless of persecution and trial (2 Thessalonians 2:13-7). Eschatology teaches us to keep our lamps trimmed and burning (Matthew 25:1-13).

              Holiness

Though Christians do not know the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36) we are assured that Jesus is returning to judge the living and dead (Revelation 22:20). We too will be judged at His return. This truth encourages us to live lives of holiness and consecration to God. As Peter reminds us, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” (2 Peter 3:11).

              Justice

Eschatology invites the church to initiate the life of the kingdom in the world. We are called to redeem the world and take everything captive to the Gospel of Christ. The church exists as God’s hands and feet in the world. The doctrine of the keys of the kingdom means that what we do, God does (Matthew 16:19).[1] This includes evangelism, but it also includes living out the kingdom ethic in such a way that our light and salt promotes a world that is characterized, inasmuch as we are able, by righteousness and social justice.[2] We are to fight for and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This likely means that we will be forced to ask the kinds of questions and give the sorts of answers that are broader than our political parties. If James tells us anything he tells us that a true Christianity, and by definition, a true eschatology will be known by its works (James 2).

Eschatology refers to the future, but if we confine it to that sphere alone, we have missed its relevance for ministry today. The verses I have referenced above are all eschatological in nature, but they all speak to what the Church is doing and should be doing in the world right now. Eschatology isn’t for arguing about the future; it’s for living in the world today.

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[1] While the reference to the “keys of the kingdom” most directly applies to the proclamation of the Gospel which has been entrusted to the Church and the entrance to the kingdom through its acceptance, the overall meaning is broader. The link between the work of God and human participation is seen in the connection of “binding” and “loosing” in heaven and earth. These terms have primary reference in rabbinic tradition to what was permitted under the Law and what was forbidden thus speaking to the ethical ramifications and demands of the Gospel. This is why this passage is also paralleled in Jesus’ discussion of church discipline in Matthew 18:18. The parallel is also expressed by John in his gospel in a different way. John links the work of the Father, the work of the Son, and the work of the disciples (John 14:12-14). It is in light of this agreement which is led by the Holy Spirit that believers can ask and receive from God (c.f. John 16:23-24).

[2] This term has become a “buzzword” that is often associated with particular positions and programs. My use of the term here is not meant to advocate for such positions but to indicate its earlier (primary) usage of the application of justice to the social sphere of influence held by the Church. Aristotle defined “justice” as giving to people those things to which they have a right. The law of love discussed by James is to be broadly applied in the Church and as the kingdom of God continues to break forth it calls the Church to greater cultural engagement in its application.

The First Word on Last Things

by Randy Corn

“Mr. Corn, I just don’t understand why we have to study this stuff.”

That was the objection of a student at Welch College where I served as an adjunct Bible instructor. The “stuff” was an introductory overview to eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) before our class surveyed First and Second Thessalonians.

My first thought was this was the typical college student objection to studying anything. I recalled the remark of one the longest-tenured teachers at my alma mater: A college student was “someone who paid for something and then hoped he didn’t get it!”

But this young man was not the class sloth; he would end up with a solid B at the end of the semester. Why did he object to spending a day discussing such things as the Second Coming of Christ, the differences between Amillennialism and Premillennialism, and the differences within Premillennialism about the Rapture?

Why Study Eschatology?

When the question was asked, my immediate response was because this was a biblical subject and we were in a Bible class. I was convinced that if the students could put First and Second Thessalonians in an eschatological framework it would give them a deeper understanding of what the apostle Paul was driving at in these epistles. I’m afraid it came across to my questioner as, “I’m the teacher, you are the student, and I get to decide what we will study.”

The question and the inadequacy of my answer stuck with me until I was back in my church office that afternoon. I wondered if this was one of those subjects I found fascinating but the next generation could dismiss with a yawn. Was the problem in my presentation? Had I unnecessarily complicated it with a number of hyphenated theological terms?

Maybe the problem was application. Perhaps that questioning student was voicing the complaint many feel when preachers and Bible teachers fail to show how a biblical subject touches their lives. There was probably some truth in all my ponderings. I decided what I needed to do was convince my class that eschatology really was in important Bible doctrine, one that impacts daily Christian living. I would present them with an apologetic for eschatology.

     (1) Frequent Bible References

The next class period I met the students at the door with a single sheet of paper which gave my reasons for studying eschatology. The first was that the Bible gives a great deal of attention to the subject. Christians should be interested in anything God chooses to reveal in His Word.

Scholars have counted as many as 1,845 references to the Second Coming of Christ in the Old Testament and 318 in the New. In fact, 23 of the 27 New Testament books speak of the Second Coming in one way or another.

     (2) Basic Elements of Faith

My second reason for studying eschatology is that the Bible speaks of it as one of the elementary things of the Christian faith. This is explained by such passages as Hebrews 6:1-2 :“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us goo n unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”

Note that the last two items mentioned in verse 2, “resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment,” are listed in what the writer of Hebrews calls “the principles of the doctrine of Christ. The word “principles” is literally “of the beginning.” Some translators even render this “the elementary principles.” Obviously then, eschatology is one of the foundational things Christians should learn.

The apostle Paul certainly believed this. He speaks often of the Second Coming in First and Second Thessalonians and seems to do so building upon the knowledge that the Thessalonian church already had of those doctrines. When we go back to Acts 17, we find that he only spent three Sabbaths there before being run out of town.

The only conclusion we can draw is that Paul had some basic teaching about eschatology in what we might refer to as his new convert course. If Paul the great church planter thought it was so foundational, eschatology certainly ought to be studied by Christians today.

     (3) Guidepost for Tomorrow

A third reason I gave the class for studying eschatology is that it gives us insight into what to expect. Now some obviously make too much of this, going to the extreme of setting dates for the return of Christ. Still, it can be a reassurance to us that the very things which will shock the world are prophesied in the Bible.

On the Test

I shared a few more reasons with the class, and then a hand went up. “Mr. Corn, is this going to be on the test?” I had taught only two semesters, but I knew if I said “no” the students with rare exception would toss my notes in the waste can almost as quickly as they would dismiss my lecture from their memories.

“Probably” was my reply. I know that kind of answer frustrates students, but my hope was that in putting my reasons for studying eschatology into their short-term memory, a few might seep into their long-term memory as well.

Eschatology is important. The same reasons I gave my class for studying it should compel preachers to make it part of their pulpit plan. As long as we avoid being either too technical or too abstract, the insights of eschatology can be of real benefit to every believer. After all, if we take seriously the admonition to preach the whole counsel of God, then what excuse can we give for failing to instruct those under our care?

As we have pointed out, eschatology is one of the “elementary principles” with which all Christians should be familiar. Our church members may not be facing an exam over the sermons we preach or the lessons we teach, but a healthy dose of eschatology can help them pass the test of day-to-day life.