[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page. This is the final post in this series]
Too often “eschatology” (the study of the last things) is limited to millennial debates (postmil, pre-trib premil, mid-trib premil, post-trib premill, historic premil, amil?) and the eternal destiny of human beings (heaven or hell?). For some the debates are ignored because they seem relatively irrelevant (God is going to do what God is going to do) but for others they are a consuming passion (evidenced by discussions of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series).
Unfortunately, in my opinion, both misunderstand the theological significance of eschatology. I would suggest the eschatology is not so much about what happens last—and the order in which it happens—but is it about the future already present and at work in the world.
Christology: the New Creation has Begun
The kingdom of God is already present and has been introduced alongside the old age which still exists. The old age and the new age co-exist, and God is moving creation from old to new. God is engaged in the redemptive work of transformation. The church, indwelt by the Spirit of God, experiences that process of transformation—we are changing from one form of glory into an increasing form of glory.
The root of the presence of the new creation is the Christ Event. In one sense, we may think about the whole Christ Event as eschatological. The resurrection, for example, is clearly eschatological as it gives birth to a new humanity. But we might also think about the death of Jesus as eschatological as well, that is, his death was, in some sense, the experience of second death or an eschatological death for our sakes. Also, the ministry of Jesus is eschatological in that the proclamation and deeds of the kingdom were the presence of the future. Jesus’ healing ministry was itself a kingdom act of reversing the curse of brokenness and death in the world. Even the incarnation, especially within the Orthodox tradition, is eschatological as it is the ultimate union of God and humanity God intended from the very beginning.
Nevertheless, the ascension after the resurrection Christ is the grand eschatological Christological event but also one of the more neglected ones. Raised from the dead, Christ ascended to the right of the Father to sit and reign in the heavenlies. From there he pours out the Spirit upon the people of God, rules the creation as he brings it into subjection, and intercedes for this people. Most significantly, as the new human he lives in the form which unites heaven and earth—or, with N. T. Wright, the place where heaven and earth intersect. His glorious humanity (both body and soul) lives in the presence of God and one day will return to earth to dwell in the new Jerusalem upon a new earth.
The reigning Lordship of Jesus—a reign to last till the last enemy is destroyed—is the reign of the new human preparing a new Jerusalem for a new earth.
Resurrection: The Christian Hope
Death is the epitome of the fallen, broken world. Death is the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is an alien invader into God’s Edenic sanctuary—at least in the form it exists now. It is a hated enemy that enslaves humanity as it creates doubt and fear in the hearts of people. The Christian hope is not the immortal soul living in heaven, but the immortal body living upon the new earth.
If Jesus is the first fruits as the resurrected new human, the redeemed people of God are the harvest of new humanity (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). The first fruits were the initial part of the annual production of grain, oil, etc., that were offered to God in acknowledgement of his ownership of all the produce of the field. The grateful offering trusted that God would bring the rest of the harvest to fruition.
The resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of believers are essentially one: they are intrinsically connected since they belong to the same harvest. The resurrection of Jesus and that of believers does not have a mere superficial similarity. They belong to the same continuum. They are a single event in redemptive history. The resurrection of Jesus was proleptic, that is, it is a present reality that belongs to the future and assures the future. The resurrection of Jesus is part of the harvest—as elder brother he participates in the same immortal humanity that his siblings will experience. The resurrection of Jesus, then, is a present pledge of the future harvest. It is a preview of coming attractions.
However, the resurrection of Jesus is conceptually as well as temporally distinguishable. He is first—the firstborn from the dead. But he is more—he is the pattern as we will bear the image of the heavenly human just as we now bear the image of the Adamic human. Jesus is new humanity himself (1 Corinthians 15:49; Philippians 3:21). We will participate in his new humanity.
The resurrection of the body, patterned after and grounded in the resurrection of Jesus himself, is the Christian hope. The contrast between our present Adamic existence and our future Christic existence is the contrast between mortal and immortal, between dishonor and glory, between weakness and power, and between “natural” and “spiritual” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
The “natural” (literally, “soulish”) body is the material substance that is animated by earthly resources where “flesh and blood” are nourished by created life. The “spiritual” body—or, rather, Spiritual—is material substance animated by heavenly resources where new humanity is nourished by the Holy Spirit. The resurrection body is animated by the Spirit of God, and thus it is called “spiritual.”
New Heavens and New Earth: The Divine Goal
Where will this material body animated by the Holy Spirit live? This raises the question of the Grand Purpose of God.
God rests in the creation, delights in the creation, cares for the creation, and rejoices over the creation. The narrative of Scripture represents God’s love for the creation. It does not anticipate its annihilation but its redemption, just as humanity (body and soul) is also redeemed. The creation, like humanity, groans for redemption and expects the glory of liberation alongside the children of God (Romans 8:18-24).
This is the expectation of the prophets—the restoration or regeneration of all things. Isaiah gives us the language of “new heavens and new earth” (Isaiah 65) which is utilized by both Peter (2 Peter 3:13) and John (Revelation 21:1-4) to describe the final goal of God’s redemptive work.
John’s vision in Revelation sees the new Jerusalem descend out of the heavenly throne room onto the new earth. In effect, heaven comes to earth. God comes to dwell in the new Jerusalem—“the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22). Just as in the Garden of Eden, God rested and dwelt upon the earth, so in the Grand Purpose of God—redeeming history—God again dwells upon the earth.
The old age, at this point, has passed away. There is no more death, mourning, pain—there is no more curse (Revelation 22:3). The old order is gone and the new order fully emerges. The kingdom and glory of God will then fill the earth, and the people of God will see the face of God.
The church—as a visible sign of the kingdom of God in the present evil age—is a pilgrim community of Christ-followers. Having been raised with Christ through baptism, they participate in the new age through the Spirit. They are the presence of the new age in the world: they practice a new ethic empowered by the Spirit, and they experience the new age through assembling around the Lord ’s Table as a community. They practice the kingdom of God in both life and assembly. The pilgrim church is ever moving closer to the full manifestation of the kingdom of God.
The new age has already begun. We do not merely receive this gift, but we become participants in it. Just as in the beginning God created us as co-rulers (or, vice-regents) and co-creators, so even now we reign with Christ and are invited to pursue our original vocation. We are called to be instruments of the kingdom of God in the present as we anticipate the fullness of the future reality.
This vocation is more than pastors, shepherds, evangelists or deacons. This vocation is more than functioning as a “church member.” This vocation is our identity as imagers of Christ, co-rulers with Christ.
Through this vocation we become instruments of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. As environmental scientists, we protect and care for the creation. As medical personnel, we heal the brokenness in the world. As lawyers, we pursue justice. As economists, we work toward the elimination of poverty. As farmers, we feed the hungry. As debt collectors, we protect the debtor from abuse but seek justice for the creditor. As IT workers, we bring order to chaos and increase effectiveness. This is practicing the kingdom of God.
And we practice the kingdom of God in hope, not in despair. We are neither moral defeatists nor pessimistic Chicken Littles (“the sky is falling, the sky is falling”). Empowered by the Spirit we seek to live transformed lives according to the ethic of the new age and in the hope of the age to come.
Christians are hope-filled people. That hope comforts our grieving, empowers our ministry, and announces that the kingdom of God is coming.