Why does eschatology matter?

I've pretty much recovered from the hullabaloo created by the Left Behind books back in the late nineties. Frankly, the writing was so bad I wouldn't have grabbed the bait, even if the theology was compelling.

Recently, I've had a couple of blog comments here and at www.essenceproject.blogspot.com that keep reminding me of the centrality of End Times eschatology in pop Christian culture. One was from the makers of the Left Behind video game, pissed that I would have the audacity to critique their game without playing at least up to level 14. The other was from a woman who apparently numbers among the Bono-Is-The-Antichrist ranks. Ah well...

There is certainly nothing cut-and-dry about end times eschatology in the New Testament. That is why my own position on the rapture focuses primarily on the purpose and intent of scriptural revelation. Why have we been given these apocalyptic visions and what purposes do they serve?

Tony Campolo writes in Adventures in Missing the Point that in spite of current pop-cultural trends which sensationalize the dispensational Second Coming story, “Christianity has historically believed in general what the Apostles Creed declares: that Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead – that is, a single event, a climactic and purposeful end.” While dispensationalism focuses on a failing, dying world, Campolo argues that human history is “infused with the presence of God… Human history is going somewhere wonderful.”

"Somewhere wonderful” is hardly the focus of those lovely Left Behind novels, with their seemingly endless parade of sequels. In fact, so intent are LaHaye and Jenkins to establish these “evil days" that they demonize the very fruits of goodness Jesus came to establish: “Tribes and nations have come together to pledge their wholehearted commitment to peace, brotherhood, and the global community,” announces Antichrist villain Nicolae Carpathia in the first book. Multiple "Rapture Watch" websites (try googling that phrase for horrifying fun!) identify occurences of social justice, peace, freedom, fair trade and egalitarian economic practices as dire signs of the apocalypse.

Hell, even Jesus himself was "The Prince of Peace." Maybe he was trying to deceive us...

While it is true that the Biblical Antichrist would be a liar and a deceiver – no doubt creating false miracles and spreading half-truths to lead humankind astray – the dispensational economy capitalizes on fear, even to the point of creating distrust of those things which are truly good, truly noble, truly pure.

If Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, and the Kingdom of God is among us, then how dare we justify distrust of peace? Though the fruits are good, we live in fear and suspicion of productive trees. Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote that the church itself was the expectation of the Kingdom of God, and that although the church is not equal to or synonymous with the Kingdom, God is present, accessible and visible within it. A church that functions by fear and survives by cultural removal cannot reflect these virtues Pannenberg posits. My view on the rapture in particular and the end times of Revelation in general rests on the belief that our Biblical glimpses into the future were meant to invigorate, excite, and prepare us for the work left to us on earth – not to hide us away, safely in our subterranean fallout shelters.

In the postmodern matrix there is a good chance that the world will reverse its chronological polarity for us. Instead of being bound to the past by chains of cause and effect, we will feel ourselves being pulled into the future of God’s will, God’s dream, God’s desire… this new vision sees the universe as only partially created, an unfinished symphony, a masterpiece in progress. In this eschatology we are invited to be part of God’s creative team working to see God’s dream for the universe come true. (Len Sweet, A is for Abductive)

I echo Sweet’s optimistic exhortation, above. For my own purposes, I find a moderated, “open-handed” postmillennial view to be the most useful and productive end times model. Moderated, because a postmillennial view can easily push Christians into a despiritualized Social Gospel that lauds only human effort and idealizes human goodness. Open-handed because my limited encounters with Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, not to mention Liberation Theology, lead me to believe the purposes of such writings are not always in face value, nor are they universally, objectively distributable. What’s more, there are academic and theological writings that question whether the events in Revelation are as succinct as an unbroken read-through might suggest. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, holds that Emperor Nero was “the beast” the number 666 alluded to. If this is the case, then the events in Revelation are already well underway – we are not waiting for Nicolae Carpathia to emerge. Nero already committed unspeakable atrocities against the early church. Even the number itself, 666, is found earlier in manuscripts to be 616. Too much of our popular modern theology is based on incomplete or imbalanced truths and half-truths.

In postmillennialism, I find values most intrinsically linked with the teachings of Jesus, particularly in the beatitudes, which outline a blessedness in humility, lowliness, selflessness and compassion in this world.Stanley Grenz offers a brief but succinct description of postmillennialism in an article from the collection, Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times. Pop-sociologist David Brooks also writes about America’s historical and even colonial roots in postmillennial theology in his 2004 book On Paradise Drive: from the beginning, colonists believed the Americas heralded a new opportunity for the redemption of humanity. In spite of countless atrocities that would suggest otherwise, this nearly nationalistic, uniquely American, hope managed to survive into the 20th Century.

While I think it’s vital to avoid romanticizing the ability of humankind to redeem itself – the wars and genocides of the 20th and early 21st Centuries should quickly sober us to this point – I believe it is most responsible for Christians today and in the future to take the Great Commission as a call to deliver the Kingdom of God, spiritually, socially, and economically, to every nation.

As long as we are maintaining a consistent ethic that holds spiritual connection to God as our highest value, we should take it upon ourselves to continue the redemption of this world that began with Jesus’ nascent Christmas arrival two thousand years ago.

Christ will return, of that Scripture is crystal-clear. If another millennium does happen to await us after he returns... well, can rest in confidence, knowing we manifested the Kingdom of God on earth. But if we are in or are approaching the millennial period even now, there is much work to do in his name!

read more about my thoughts on Christianity in the real world at www.essenceproject.blogspot.com...

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