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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Eschatologies


I no longer believe in Eschatology – that is: the study of last things and end times.  I no longer believe in eschatology; I believe in eschatologies.

When I was young my parents (who are Salvation Army officers – clergy in our quirky denominational nomenclature) didn't talk much about eschatology, not that I remember anyway [i].  Though my dad did show the Thief in the Night series of films to our congregation.  And those films left a significant mark (heh heh heh) on my young and impressionable soul.

I remember vivid nightmares of earthquakes and volcanoes.  I remember that fear of coming home from school and not finding anyone and being immediately convinced that I had missed the rapture.  I remember freaking out any time the moon seemed especially large or orange.  Eschatology made me afraid. We didn't talk much about eschatology but held a sort of half-digested and barely understood Premillennial  Dispensationalism.

Later, when I was 19 or 20 I started studying eschatology for myself – partly as a way to undo some of that fear that had never left me. And I quickly dropped the Pre-Millennial Dispensationalist system.  The continued “it could happen at any moment” hype left me dry and I wanted to discover an eschatology that was based less on fear and artificial divisions between “Israel” and “the Church”  (It seems to me that Dispensationalism excels at creating a multiplicity of artificial divisions). 

I began reading about Postmillennialism – many of the early members of The Salvation Army held a post-millennial eschatology and were convinced that they would be instrumental in making the world a better place and ushering in the Kingdom of God.  That kind of eschatology influenced some of the songs they wrote.The song, “Shout Aloud Salvation” by Salvationist George Scott Railton, for instance:

March on, march on! we bring the jubilee;
Fight on, fight on! salvation makes us free;
We'll shout our Saviour's praises over every land and sea
As we go marching to Glory.

Early Salvation Army soldiers and officers believed that the expanding work of the Army would, in fact, bring about the great Jubilee, the kingdom of God on earth.

But I didn't stay long there.  I soon discovered Preterism – an eschatological system that holds that most (or all) of the predictions of the end times were fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  And this system seemed to make a lot of sense.  The pieces of the puzzle began to come together for me.  When Jesus said that “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Luke 21:32) he meant what he said… this generation, the very one he was speaking to as he made his predictions.

This belief freed me of that dispensationalist fear, established within me a deeper commitment to seeing the Kingdom of God here on earth, and gave me a great impetus to deeper study of scripture.  But that same impetus toward study has, in recent years, moved me (however reluctantly) away from a Preterist understanding of eschatology.

I say “reluctantly” because I liked that Preterism made sense.  It was a single unified theory that explained everything (or seemed to).  I liked that it was whole and complete.  There was comfort in that. But (and there’s always a “but,” right?) I have had to let it go.

Because I’ve come to realize that there is no eschatology of the bible – there is no one eschatology; there are many.  Daniel’s eschatology is not the same as Zephaniah’s. And the eschatologies of the synoptic gospels (though strikingly similar) are not the same.  And neither is Paul’s eschatology the same as John’s.  They were all writing at various times, to different peoples, with different expectations and with different goals.  And they each had different expectations about what “the end” would (or should) look like. 

I’ve come to accept that there is no way to meld all these eschatologies into one Grand Unified Field Theory.  There is no eschatological Theory of Everything. 

So what do I believe?  I do believe in the resurrection in Jesus Christ – that we who believe live in Christ – and that in some sense we live in and create the Kingdom of Heaven within us and around us in this world here and now.  “Making heaven on earth is our business,” said William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. I believe that.  I love that.  Making heaven on earth is our business.

And whatever I might learn from the many and varied eschatologies of the bible – I filter them all through that thought: how will this help me to better see and create the Kingdom of God in the world around me?  I don’t expect the world to end in a matter of days or weeks or years.  The kingdom of God is an eternal and everlasting Kingdom and it begins anew each day.









[i] The Salvation Army does not officially endorse or embrace any particular form of eschatology.  There is a wide variety of opinion on the topic within our ranks.

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