A great deal of conventional eschatology is characterized by one of two problems. The first is an inordinate amount of optimism that sees the ethical actions of humanity in the present as literally building the kingdom on earth. Within this framework, we will simply continue down the path of progress until the eschaton arrives. Functionally, God has been pushed out of the picture. The resulting ethos of such a framework is one of endless toil and burden. The kingdom of God has become the kingdom of man’s own ethical action. The second problem is an idle inactivity that understands the second coming as an event in which God will come and establish the kingdom in a way that requires nothing of his church. Within this framework, there is nothing to be done in the present but wait for God to come and bail us out, as it were. Both of these options must be rejected in favor of a more balanced approach that is both humble (in that it recognizes our dependence on God to establish a kingdom that is, after all, his own) and contributory (in that it offers us a way to understand ethical action in the present as actually important). The purpose of this paper is to spell out, in greater detail, this third option which I believe is the best option when it comes to articulating an eschatology that equips the church with an ethical framework for living well in the present.
Identifying the Problem
The problem with conventional eschatology can be discussed by identifying the two extremes that dominate the discussion today: postmillennialism and premillennialism. We shall look at both of these in turn before attempting to find a way forward.
We begin with postmillennialism. This eschatological framework, simply understood, sees the kingdom of God as coming as a result of human progress and the church’s missionary activity. As more and more people come to understand Jesus as Lord and justice is brought about by means of a shift in societal structures and economics, peace will be the natural result (Erickson 56). The establishment of the kingdom, then, is not understood as a future, cataclysmic event but rather as a slow and gradual process. (Erickson 57). The kingdom is a present reality that becomes manifest in the hearts of women and men when they recognize Jesus as Lord and obey him (Erickson 55).The present age will, as the church fulfills its mission, give way to the eschaton in a rather seamless transition.
The problems with this eschatological framework are many and obvious. First, the futurity of the kingdom has been lost. One cannot deny that the presence of the kingdom was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a major theme of Jesus’ ministry but despite its presence in his work it remained a future reality. The fact that Jesus has us praying for its coming (cf. Matt. 6:10) implies that, in a very real sense, the kingdom is yet to be established. Secondly, the ethical demand that this eschatological framework places on humanity is unrealistic. In the words of Wolfhart Pannenberg, “…Christians should not succumb to the illusion as if an ultimate order of peace among human beings and their nations could be produced by human efforts and especially without regard to either God or religion” (6). The kingdom is God’s own and cannot be established without his involvement. Any eschatological framework that has human effort as determinative when it comes to the establishment of the kingdom must be thoroughly rejected. Thirdly, it is clear that postmillennialism is extremely modernist in that it emerges out of an inherent belief in human progress. With our society’s shift into postmodernism has come a pervasive skepticism of this notion. If the advent of the two major world wars of the twentieth century taught us anything it was that our social and ethical progress has not kept up with our technological progress. The present age does not seem to be giving way to the eschaton. It is because of this last problem that postmillenialists are becoming increasingly rare in many theological circles. Not many are willing to defend the notion of human progress anymore. The opposite extreme, then, has become the favorable option for many, not least for those who call themselves conservative evangelicals. This extreme to which I make mention is, of course, the eschatological framework of premillennialism and it is to this framework that we now turn.
Instead of viewing the present age as gradually giving way to the age to come, premillennialism sees the full establishment of the kingdom as a result of the dramatic and cataclysmic event of the second coming (Erickson 92). The establishment of the kingdom, then, is reduced to a future event. Additionally, the time leading up to the second coming of Christ is characterized by extreme moral degradation and social deterioration (Erickson 92). In short, things are going to have to get worse before they get better.
There are a number of problems with this view that must be highlighted. First, the establishment of God’s kingdom becomes a wholly future event. As we noted above, the presence of the kingdom in the person and work of Christ is a major theme in the synoptic gospels and is one that our eschatological framework must make sense of. Secondly, premillennialism breeds idle passivity in those who adhere to it due to the fact that there is nothing to contribute to the establishment of God’s kingdom as his people. Our job in the present is to simply wait until God comes and unilaterally accomplishes what his his church could not. Moreover, because of the fact that, within this framework, things must get worse before they get better, any work in the present for justice, peace, beauty, etc. could be interpreted as a working against God and the establishment of his kingdom. According to premillennialism we must simply let history run its course and not get too involved in matters that only God ought to be concerned with. Thus, the status quo is reinforced and there is no impetus to attempt to bring about the transformation that we see exemplified in the life of Christ.
The Way Forward
It is obvious that both of the options outlined above are inadequate. A third option is needed—an option that yields the humility that postmillennialism lacks as well as the impetus for action that premillennialism lacks. The rest of this paper is an attempt at articulating my own eschatological framework which, I contend, offers us both of these necessities.
The Kingdom of God
It is clear that the eschatological kingdom of God that Jesus preached was the power determining his whole life (Braaten 13). To say that the kingdom is eschatological is to say that it is most definitely a future reality. In what way, then, was the kingdom present in the person and work of Jesus? In response to this question I appeal to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s work on eschatology and prolepsis. For Pannenberg, the kingdom was proleptically present in Jesus, that is, in his life and ministry we see an anticipation of God’s eschatological rule. In other words, through Jesus’ surrendering of himself to the rule of God he becomes a revelatory medium of God’s eschatological kingdom. Jesus becomes a down-payment, as it were, of the fulfillment of humankind and the entire cosmos (Braaten 14). It must be stated clearly at this point: the real future of the eschatological kingdom does not cease to be future in relation to its real and powerful presence in Jesus’ life (Braaten 14).
Life After Death
The fact that the kingdom of God remains a future reality begs the following question: what about those who die before the kingdom is consummated? This question reveals the inherent problem in any eschatological framework that says justice will only be a reality to those at the end who happen to be born on the right side of the consummated kingdom. Marxism could be employed as an example here. Marxism envisions a classless society at some point in the future but on the way to that goal individuals get sacrificed in its service (Pannenberg 11). Some forms of naturalistic process theology which define the afterlife in terms objective immortality cannot avoid this same critique. Pannenberg does well to point out how Christian eschatology provides a satisfying answer to our question:
…our life, whose history ends in the moment of death, passes away in that moment from our experience, but not from the eternal presence of God. In God’s memory our individual life is preserved. Thus, there is no element of our earthly existence that would escape death in order to guarantee our continuous existence beyond death, but only God himself is able, because of his unlimited power, to preserve our temporal lives in his memory and to grant them a new form of existence of their own (8).
To summarize, at the point of death we cease to have experience. To suggest otherwise is to fall into a platonic dualism which affirms the existence of an immaterial soul that can live on in some way after death. There is nothing, after all, in the biblical narrative that would suggest that humans are inherently immortal. In fact, Paul himself states in 1 Timothy 6:16 that God alone is immortal. Having said all this, life after death in the Christian hope entails more than simply an absorption of the human life into the memory of the divine. God is committed to affirming the existence of his creatures in distinction from his own (Pannenberg 12). Of course, this is the Christian hope for the resurrection.
Without resurrection, I would suggest, there is no way to avoid the critique we laid out above in regards to Marxism and some process eschatologies. Having justice in the eschaton does not solve the injustices that were committed before that new age arrived. Affirming the resurrection of the dead, then, is a way of granting justice to those who have died before the consummation of the kingdom. It also connects the future of the individual with that of all humanity. In the words of Pannenberg,
Although the individual person enters into eternity in [the moment of death] and the future resurrection of the dead is also concerned with their transformation into eternal life, still that future is related to the end of history so that it occurs to all the dead persons together. In that way, the ultimate future of the individual is connected with that of all humanity (10-11).
Of course, the hope for resurrection is founded on the belief that it happened to Jesus of Nazareth three days after he was crucified. What can we say about the resurrection of Jesus? For one, we can say, with Paul, that Jesus is the first born from among the dead (Col. 1:18), that is, in Jesus’ resurrection we see the the proleptic presence of the escahtological kingdom come into sharpest focus. God’s raising of Jesus from the dead reveals to us the meaning of human history; in that event we see a foreshadowing of the end of the story that we ourselves are a part of. In Jesus’ resurrected and transformed body we get a glimpse of what God will do for the entire cosmos.
Secondly, it is important that we note the difference between resurrection and resuscitation. Of course, the New Testament is clear that what happened to Jesus was the former. To say that Jesus was resurrected is to say that he passed through death and came out on the other side. In the words of Paul, what was perishable and mortal became clothed with the imperishable and immortality (1 Cor. 15:54). Jesus’ resurrected body was more than simply a reconfiguration of the atoms that made up his mortal body. Instead, in his body we see a glimmer of new creation—something that only God can bring about. Because of the fact that Jesus’ resurrection was an act of new creation it would seem to me that discussions about whether or not the tomb was empty miss the point. To discuss the empty tomb leads too quickly into the meaningless speculation that comes with such a discussion (i.e., Augustine’s musings about a cannibal eating a man and then God having to raise both of them back to life). It seems better to me to simply affirm that what happened to Jesus was something inherently new. What we have at the end of our gospels are stories that come out of a community that is trying to make sense of an unfamiliar occurrence using the symbols and concepts that were available to them.
In early Jewish tradition the connection between resurrection and judgment was one of necessity—God needed to raise the dead at the end so that they could stand before him at the final judgment. In the New Testament, however, resurrection comes to imply salvation in and of itself (the origins of such a view can be glimpsed in OT passages such as Isa. 26:14, 19). For Jesus (Mark 12:26ff) and for Paul resurrection implies “eternal life in communion with God” (Pannenberg 8). As is made clear by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, this resurrection involves a transformation which was otherwise the consequence of divine judgment. The two previously separated events, namely, judgment induced transformation and resurrection, become for Paul a single process (Pannenberg 8). At this point it is best for us to quote the words of Pannenberg at length:
Paul compared the future judgment according to our actions (2 Cor. 5:10) to a great fire which destroys everything that cannot possibly persist in the presence of God. The fire also functions as purification of the more valuable materials used in the building of the church (1 Cor. 3:13-15). If one considers that the transformation of the faithful in the resurrection of the dead is described as transformation into the light of God’s glory, does that not suggest a conception of the light of glory and the purifying fire of judgment that burns away everything in our lives that is not compatible with the presence of the eternal God in terms of one and the same reality? In the presence of the eternal God our finite life, which develops in a climate of alienation from God, cannot persist without being transformed. However, some human beings long for such a transformation even now in the course of their earthly life and anticipate it by penitence while others abhor such a transformation as if they suspect it to threaten them with annihilation (9).
The separation, then, that takes place between what is acceptable and what is repugnant to God takes place within each individual rather than between whole persons. Of course, the extent of the purification that takes place varies from person to person (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13-15).
The Consummation of the Kingdom and the Role of Human Effort
The fact that the New Testament hope is found in new creation forces us to do away with the postmillenial concept of restructuring society in order to help usher in the eschaton. Just as Jesus’ body was resurrected (as opposed to resuscitated) so all of creation must be resurrected and transfigured. The hope for new creation causes us to dream bigger than simply a progression of human society as we know it into some sort of perfect state. We could call that nothing more than a perfected old creation. New categories are called for and a bigger imagination required.
Caution is needed at this point, however, lest we fall into the same trap that premillennialism does in claiming that the establishment of new creation requires nothing of us as God’s people in the meantime. The connection between eschatology and the church’s impetus for ethical living in the present is found, once more, in the concept of prolepsis. Just as the eschatological kingdom of God was proleptically present in the words and deeds of Jesus, so it is present in the words and deeds of anyone who allows that same kingdom swaying power in their lives (Braaten 111). Ethical actions “do not realize the kingdom; rather, the kingdom reveals itself through actions that prefigure its coming” (Braaten 111). As God’s church, then, chooses to live the life of the kingdom we proclaim in advance the eschatological consummation that will one day be a reality. We are a future people—doing the future now ahead of time (Braaten 122). In this way, there is a delicate balance between both the presence and the futurity of the kingdom.
N.T. Wright helps to give language to this balance and the role human effort has to play in it. His notion of “building for the kingdom” stands over against both building the kingdom (the postmillennial view) and passively waiting for God to build the kingdom on his own (the premillennial view). For Wright, all Spirit inspired work for justice, peace, beauty, etc. in the present gains its significance from the eventual design in which it is meant to belong (211). That is, ethical actions in the present will somehow, in a way that is as incomprehensible as Jesus’ own resurrection, last and be incorporated into God’s new creation. Thus, the work we do now is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). We are contributing to the kingdom without determining its coming.
This begs the question: what does determine the consummation of the eschatological kingdom? In response we must say that it is nothing more than the eternal faithfulness of the God who persuades his creation into ever deepening experiences of himself. Thus, we can maintain eschatological assurance without having to attribute omnipotence or coercion to God.
It is my contention that the eschatological framework explicated in this paper avoids the two extremes that were highlighted at the outset. Both of those extremes lead to a way of life that I see as foreign to the New Testament vision. On the one hand, postmillennialism cannot help but yield an ethos of anxiety and weight. Indeed, to build the kingdom of God on earth without the help of God is a heavy burden to bear. On the other hand, premillennialism breeds complacency and contentment with the status quo due to the fact that it leaves us with nothing to do until God comes and builds his kingdom without us. Over against both of these options, the proleptic eschatology that I have attempted to spell out here affirms our dependence on God and his gracious commitment to establish his new creation in our midst while, at the same time, charging us with the task of building for God’s kingdom in the present.
Braaten, Carl E. Eschatology and Ethics: Essays on the Theology and Ethics of the Kingdom of God. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974. Print.
Erickson, Millard J. Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977. Print.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. “The Task of Christian Eschatology.” The Last Things: Biblical & Theological Perspectives on Eschatology. Ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002. Print.
Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. Print.