The problem and necessity of eschatology

(See my previous post on Craig Hill’s In God’s Time.)

Hill goes on to identify some of the obstacles to a retrieval of eschatology for non-fundamentalist Christians. While he recognizes that significant work has been done in recent theology to put eschatology back at the center of the faith (he cites Moltmann and Pannenberg among others), he also notes the ongoing scholarly efforts to drive a wedge between the historical Jesus and the eschatological outlook of the New Testament. Hill also observes, “I have heard hundreds of Sunday-morning sermons in ‘mainline’ churches; I cannot recall one that dealt squarely with the subject of the future” (p. 7).

Nevertheless, the problem isn’t just academic fashion, embarrassment, or the fact that preachers have other favorite topics. There are real differences between us and the first few generations of Christians that make it difficult for us to inhabit New Testament eschatology in any straightforward way. These differences fall broadly under the umbrella of reconciling faith with science.

Early Christian hopes were expressed in ways that assumed that the earth was the center of a relatively small universe, that it had existed for at most a few thousand years, and that prior to “the fall” humanity and creation existed in a state of sinless harmony. Within this framework, it was relatively straightforward to imagine what “a new heaven and a new earth” meant. But many of us at least no longer share these views, and it’s unclear how or whether a belief in the triumph of God’s purposes can be re-expressed in ways more consistent with a contemporary world-view. Hill also cites the fact that many early Christians, including Paul, and possibly even Jesus himself believed–mistakenly as it turns out–that the world would end in their lifetime. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to jettison the whole idea?

The problem with that move is that eschatology is “basic” to Christian faith. To get rid of it would undermine the entire structure. He points out that Christianity without eschatology wouldn’t really be Christianity at all, since Jesus, if he was not raised, would not be the Christ, but at best an inspiring ethical teacher and social reformer. Moreover, Jesus’ ethic itself was eschatologically grounded and not obviously valid as a free-floating ethical system: “because the coming reign of God has a certain character and value, says Jesus, one would be sensible to respond to it in certain specific ways” (p. 8).

Instead of abandoning eschatology, we need to reevaluate it, starting with coming to grips with the history, purpose, and context of eschatological thought in the Bible. That’s the task Hill turns to next.

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