Eschatology: The Grand Purpose Realized (SBD 16)

[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 that is it about the future that is 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 of the old age which still exists. The old age and the new age co-exist and God is moving his 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 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 as God intended from the very beginning.

Nevertheless, it appears that 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 good creation—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 firstfruits as the resurrected new human, the redeemed people of God are the harvest of new humanity (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). The firstfruits 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 is 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 us of 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 the material substance that is 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 Jersualem—“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.

So What?

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.



21 Responses to “Eschatology: The Grand Purpose Realized (SBD 16)”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    This is a great post, period!

    My hope is that this view of eschatology can become more understood in the church because, as you address in the last section, eschatology has huge implications for who we are as the church and how we live as the church. To be very punctual, what is regarded as important or not so important church doctrine would get a major makeover in terms of priorty as well as some of the ethical claims. For example, how the church responds to the “aliens” among us (legal or illegal) would not just be a political issue but would also be a theological issue — that is, if the church is truly to be the instruments of God’s love for all people of the world.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Also, by saying the alien issue would not be just political but also theological…I mean that Christians would refuse to address the issue from merely a secular political standpoint and instead address the issue from a Kingdom of God viewpoint.

    That is but one of many examples.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  3.   rich constant Says:

    just great
    just not wordy enough

    blessings
    i will read this a few times
    i do hate to say this.
    i say the same dang thing all the time

    RIGHT ON JOHN MARK

  4.   randall Says:

    Well, that is certainly something to look forward to as well as participate in now.
    Thanks for the post.
    Randall

  5.   clyde s. Says:

    Gr8 stuff–thanks for the SBD posts. I’m looking fw to auditing Historical Theology with you in a few weeks.

  6.   John Kenneth King Says:

    John Mark,

    Amen and Amen! What a difference eschatology will have on us when we capture this Biblical perspective. Thank you for challenging our lack of understanding this theme. Thank you, brother!

  7.   Jr Says:

    I fail to see where repentance and forgiveness of sins comes in in this view (mainly, because it was never mentioned). NT Wright is guilty of an over-realized eschatology as preterism is all the rage in these days. I’ll save that for your review on his new book “Justification” (which is really just a repetition of everything else he’s always said). He’s still wrong.

    I’m not arguing against social action in the slightest; as I agree that the church could be seen as an “Incarnation-type” to the world; and certainly, the church as a whole could do more and should do more (we always could). But the most important message the Church brings to society is reconciliation with the Father, Creator God through His Son Jesus the Christ; who saves man from the wrath of God that is due on all unrighteousness (Rom 1).

    The secular world offers every single thing the over-realized eschatology offers. Indeed, many evil people do very “good” things! This is a very important point. Being overly-consumed with physical needs with a near disregard for the gospel message (forgiveness of sins through Jesus – the One and Only Way) does nothing to help anybody eternally. There could be a lot of well-fed or nurtured people in hell.

    The Church offers something the world cannot. To be truly loving to people we must not only be concerned with reducing suffering in the temporal life; but most importantly in the eternal.

    I just fear an over-reaction of the likes of McLaren; who has seemingly run away from the biblical and historical gospel in favor of the cliffed-edge of a political and ideological ambition.

    Only Jesus brings pure life; and that will happen one day. While we may be players in the Kingdom being preached, we are truly players in that which Jesus told us to pray “send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt 18:35-38). For some reason; I doubt his core message he was referring to was 3rd-world hunger …

    Again, not dismissing social action (to the contrary!); only trying to bring our attention back to what is of central importance… especially in regards to eschatology.

    By the way – nice to meet you in person John Mark. I’ll be in Memphis the next 3-years so if you ever pick up a course there, I have some electives to spare…

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Jr,

      It is a both/and. I wrote this in the context of my whole series, so when I talk about redemption it includes forgiveness (see the post on soteriology).

      It seems to me that we should not play either side of the coin against the other but see it wholistically at every level. Indeed, I would prefer to think of “social action” as “kingdom action”–and laborers sent into the harvest are sent both to heal and announce the coming kingdom.

      I would also add the notion of “vocation” is quite Reformed and one of Calvin’s insistent points. The Christian vocation–or the kingdom vocation–is our identity as imagers of God, and this vocation continues in the eschaton. But it is also present now–a vocation that includes more than preaching the forgiveness of sins but also kingdom action. And both, I think, are “practicing the kingdom of God,” that is, we are sent to heal and announce.

      I was happy to meet you as well, and I am on the schedule for next June at HUGSR—providence and suffering. Providential for me, suffering for the students. :-)

      Blessings
      John Mark

      •   Jr Says:

        I agree not to play the sides against one another. On one end you end up with a type of Gnosticism and on the other end you have the social gospel (to which as Carson recently said; if you preach on hell, those who are interested in only the social gospel won’t want to have anything to do with you.)

        Not sure how deeply this would go into Calvin and the two-kingdom issue; but he was particular on his two-kingdoms description. The soul/heavenly/eternal and the body/earthly/temporal. I’ll have to re-read that section on the institutes …

        As to the class: Great, now I have to decide between your class and Black’s Gospel of John in July (not sure I want two summer courses; though maybe I’ll try taking both). Both would be electives at that point. Hmmm…

        • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

          Agreed…and, my, my, decisions, decisions, decisions….for summer 2010. :-)

          Calvin, interestingly, believed in a renewed earth, but it was primarily for contemplation rather than inhabitation. Redeemed souls are in “heaven” for Calvin. His Platonism was just too much for him, I think. In any event, a good account of is Heaven: A History by McDonnell and Lang (1988) from Yale University Press, p. 154.

          Calvin on vocation, however, is worth thinking about. See Schuurman, Vocation (Eerdmans, 2004).

          Blessings, John Mark

        •   rich constant Says:

          Jr
          you might want to go back a little
          father than Gnostic’s
          back to Socrates and the sophists,
          and there rejection of true knowledge
          we today have accomplished the
          same thing in 21 cent.humanism…
          the bottom line on this is the
          truth and the spirit acting
          in the world through the
          faithfulness of the saints in
          the building up of the body
          in LOVE to the glory of god.
          the true ETHIC.
          and then there is the true knowledge of
          the world that works through lust.
          and sophomoric ethics.
          john mark did not
          Socrates say something along
          those lines.
          i could build on these two points
          although if my generation said
          if your over thirty don’t trust um.
          and we’re about ready to take a dirt
          nap.
          now our kids are left to suffer
          or pull the the world together with
          a spirit filled true knowledge of
          god and the love of a trueand faithful
          ethic
          of his sons body.
          father all things are possible for you.
          blessings
          rich

        •   rich constant Says:

          if
          i jumped to much,for ya.
          what i am saying is that our ethic
          of the 19th and 20th century gone
          from a fundamental
          theocentric norm to a sophist overview
          in morality and ethic.
          neither was based in the Spirit and
          it is the natural progression of wealth,in a culture
          what i am saying is “it is time for our free unethical free market system to change.
          to me it is time to market the ethics of the spirit
          the true ethic.
          true stability the men of god running banks and major corporations.
          i know what myopic means though.
          it would work and we could turn the world upside down with the teaching and help of the spirit

  8. Avatar of W Keith Brenton  Keith Brenton Says:

    John Mark, have you written anything that expresses your view of what we call Jesus’ “second coming”?

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Keith, a chapter in my Yet Will I Trust Him is on eschatology, but I have not written much (except the occasional blog) on the whole topic of the second coming. You might look at my tag “Eschatology” and see what pops up, but not much on the specific topic of what happens when Jesus comes again.

      I do believe that when he comes again, he comes to stay…on renewed earth and to reign in the new Jerusalem.

      John Mark

      •   Randall Says:

        JMH,
        I am wondering – when he comes again will we experience hunger or famine (other than routine hunger, like I am hungry let’s go eat) or disease that needs to be healed etc. or will we be free from that when in his presence? Will there be tears that need to be wiped away or will that be a thing of the past during the escaton?

        Also, and not to start off somewhere you didn’t intend for this to go, will we all serve him willingly all the time? or will some of us still be rebellious all the time and all of us still be rebellious some of the time? Of course, I am wondering about the implications for our “free will” when in his presence eternally.

        Thanks for all the contributions you make to our edification. I am certain your work is appreciated by many of us.
        Randall

        • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

          Admittedly, there are some questions I simply cannot answer. Surprise, surprise! :-)

          Seriously, there might be hunger that is satisfied rather than destroys, and there might be tears that are comforted rather than wound. But I don’t know. Shalom will be the mode of our existence–of that I am certain.

          I do think freedom–as part of the human identity, and part of imaging the freedom of God–will exist. But I can imagine that our characters are so refined, so transformed, etc., that our freedom willingly embraces the life of God continually and without regret. But I don’t know on this point either. I am certain that whatever our “freedom” God’s promise of “forever” is certain.

        •   randall Says:

          JMH,
          I suspect that we use the word “free” with different understandings of the meaning. I think of it as being free in the sense of having the ability to choose anything; and the lack of “free will” to mean that there are things we would not and could not choose b/c they are contrary to our nature (or character or condition of our heart). So if I am invited or commanded to be perfect, but incapable of being perfect (choosing to do so all the time) then I understand that as an infringement or limitation on my freedom. Thus, I believe I can only do that which is in accordance with my nature.

          When we say God cannot sin we usually explain that he would not and could not sin b/c his nature is absolutely pure and good and holy so he will only want to do that which is pure. On the other hand, when we sin we do it b/c we want to – it is our nature, that is, we sin b/c we are sinful and he does not sin b/c he is not sinful.

          I think that most of those that affirm human free will only believe that when man chooses things he does so b/c he wants to and was not under outside compulsion.

          So I deny human free will b/c I think it is limited by man’s fallen nature. As a Christian, I believe I can do all things through Christ who enables me to do things I could never do on my own; and in the eternal state I think my nature (or character or heart) will be so changed that I will only do those things that are good. But while in the not quite yet, I have to admit that I sin and I do it b/c I want to and not b/c of any outside compulsion.

          I think we both believe that man chooses God b/c he worked in our lives and made us willing to love him. One of us thinks that work of God is resistible and the other thinks that is not likely. Taken to the logical conclusion, perhaps I place a little more emphasis on God’s sovereignty and you place a little more emphasis on his holiness.

          I suspect that the intellectual currents that have influenced so much of western thinking have led us to view “free will” more highly than we should.

          Thanks again for a great series.
          Peace,
          Randall

  9.   Edward Fudge Says:

    Thanks for this great series, John Mark. I have made a very brief animated Power Point show illustrating some of what you present here about new creation already beginning, at http://www.EdwardFudge.com/last_days.ppt

  10.   rich Says:

    ed
    I looked at that site thanks.

    although

    1:21 far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 1:22 And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things. 1:23 Now the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

    ‘Sit at my right hand
    UNTIL
    I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ ” (Psalm 110:1).

  11.   Terrell Lee Says:

    This post helped me polish my thinking quite a lot. Thanks. I’ve noticed that as preachers/teachers get a few years on them they find themselves studying eschatology a little more. In the past I’ve thought maybe they were closer to death and were searching for self-sake. Now I’m wondering if perhaps one needs a few decades of study under his belt before he can get the bigger picture and so become qualified to address the subject. Maybe both.

    Either way, outstanding summation.

  12.   Stanley Adams Says:

    Hey John
    2 Corinthians 4-5 says this the best, IMO. God has allowed us to have hope while our body is decaying (nekros) and while the fight lingers in our mortal bodies our spiritual side is made more into the image of Christ. Suffering is at the center of the Gospel, both for Christ and for us. Whether it be suffering in a general context or in a spiritual context there is only so much we can take and God through the Christ sees that and keeps us in a state of Nekros knowing that it will only bring redemption. “Who has placed eternality into the mind of man”? God has and we await for the heavenly kingdom with longing spirits.

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