Tag Archives: History

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.

Adam, Eve, and Maple Tree Leaves

by Kevin L. Hester

I have the privilege of working at Welch College which is nestled in the historic Richland Village neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee. Every fall I am greeted with the brilliant yellows and bright reds of the neighborhood’s American maples. The beauty of this time of year always brings me back to the glory of God’s creation. My Christian worldview understands the beauty, intricacy, and order of this world within the context of God’s creation as outlined in Genesis 1-2. Sometimes I take this worldview for granted. After all, it isn’t the only one, and it certainly isn’t the predominant view in this country.

Modern science has argued for an alternative worldview story of accident and happenstance. Since Darwin, Christians have wrestled with the implications of his theory for Christianity. At times the Church has incorporated the view by reading “gaps” in the Genesis narrative or epochal “days” of creation. Still other parts of the Church have rejected naturalism entirely, preferring the “literal” interpretation of Genesis. This latter view has been the predominant evangelical view until recently. But more and more evangelicals have embraced forms of “theistic evolution” in an attempt to reconcile science and theology. This has led them to reread or reinterpret the Genesis narrative according to a scientific framework.

While many evangelical Christians have done an exemplary job responding to the challenge of Darwin’s thought, others have embraced it. New “advances” in the study of genetics promise to raise similar questions. Recently, Francis Collins and Karl Giberson of the BioLogos Forum have questioned the existence of a historical Adam and Eve as presented in Genesis. Their position was heavily covered both in Christian media and in secular news programs.

The appearance of a book covering this topic in Zondervan’s Counterpoint Series indicates that such thinking is infiltrating a number of branches of evangelicalism. Yet what is sometimes overshadowed or overlooked by these discussions are the implications of the loss of a historical Adam and Eve for the Church, for the Christian worldview, and for the gospel.

I am sure that technical answers from Christian scientists will be forthcoming. Already advances in discoveries about what was previously thought to be “junk DNA” are promising that there is much more to the story of human diversity both in reference to other species and variety in our own (see here).

Those technical answers will not come from me. I am not a scientist. Rather, I am a Christian theologian who knows what it is like to live in a beautiful, broken world. It is the story of Adam and Even that holds the key to the beauty, the brokenness, and the promise of redemption.

This promise lies in a historical Adam and Eve. Rather than reading Genesis 1-3 according to a scientific preconception of what it must mean, perhaps we should attempt to read it according to the narrative of the book in which it is found. In this case, the Bible is thoroughly historical in nature. Even books that are not strictly historical are set within a historical framework. Some books such as Kings, Chronicles, and Judges are historical in the highest degree. Others like prophecy occur in the context of historical disobedience or punishment. The wisdom literature is tied to historical authors striving to live their faith out in community. Likewise, the Psalms are linked to human authors, attest to human events, and cry out for lived experience in the present and future communities of faith. The Gospels describe the incarnation of Christ in historical detail dating the events by Roman rulers. Acts and the Epistles relate the growth of the Church in time and narrate its experience of living out the faith until Christ’s return. The whole scope of Scripture is historical in nature. Why should we expect anything different from the book of Genesis?

Genesis itself reads as a historical narrative starting as it does “in the beginning.” The ordered arrangement of the creation days speaks to temporal flow. The genealogies and events described all function to set the narrative firmly in the historical genre. The author clearly intends the text to be taken as history. Jesus and Paul likewise understood and presented the story of Adam and Eve as a literal event (cf. Rom. 5:12-14).

The events of Genesis 1-3 tell the basic worldview story of Christianity. Christianity is a historical religion. It preaches a historical gospel about a historical Jesus crucified under Pontius Pilate. But the events of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection have no meaning without the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. Paul, in Romans 5, outlines that it was Christ who came to set right all that had gone wrong because of Adam’s sin. The effects of the fall are being undone as we are recreated in God’s image as sons and daughters of God, and it is these effects that will be finally undone at the restoration of all things in the new heaven and the new earth. The Christian doctrine of the atonement, of salvation, and the eternal state–of the Gospel itself–are rooted in the historical Adam and Eve.

The story of Adam and Eve also explains human culture and relationships. According to Genesis 1, humans were designed, we did not simply come to be. Things that are designed have a purpose and this purpose is likewise described in the first few chapters of Genesis. Humans were created in God’s image so that they might have a relationship with God and with all the rest of creation. Genesis 2 points out how Eve was created to govern the world together with Adam and to be his partner establishing marriage and the nuclear family as the basis for human culture. Jesus himself makes precisely this point when he discusses the importance of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6. Without the story of such a design, there is no basis for societal norms and no standard for human relationships.

Genesis 1 tells us that what God created was good, but in Genesis 3 we see what humanity has done to God’s creation. Original beauty is marred and relationships are broken by sin. Consistent human experience tells us this is true. We inherently “feel” that something is wrong with the world. Evil exists and we are uncomfortable with it. We recognize beauty, but all too often see the grotesque creeping in around us. But where can such ideas of beauty and brokenness, of right and wrong come from?

The naturalistic worldview has no basis for such categories. In naturalism there is only good and bad for me but human experience consistently tells us that there really are such categories. The story of Adam and Eve, of a good creation corrupted by an evil use of free will explains the categories and promises a way back to the garden.

We need a historical Adam and Eve. The story’s historical reality is confirmed by the literary genre and by its use in Scripture. The historicity of the narrative from Genesis best accords with the historical faith of the Christian Church doctrinally expressed in the atonement as found in evangelical Christianity. It best explains the human desire to love and be loved and the human experience of good and evil, beauty and brokenness. Without Adam and Eve there is no Christianity, and without Christianity there is no hope.

This hope is also promised in the narrative of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:15, in the midst of the curses that came as a result of original sin, there is a promise. This promise shines a glimmer of hope in a dark world broken by sin with the story of the defeat of sin and death. You see this is why I can enjoy those autumn leaves. I know they are dying and will fall. I know that there will be months of cold and days with more darkness than light. But because of Adam and Eve, I have hope. I know that what appears dead and broken can be made new again. I know that a beauty lost can be regained.