Hill, wisely in my view, declines to meet the popular “end times” view of conservative dispensationalism on its own turf by countering one proof-text with another. He recognizes that different views of eschatology arise from fundamentally different approaches to the Bible. He names these the “deductive” and “inductive” approaches.
A deductive approach takes it as axiomatic that the Bible is the perfect, inerrant word of God and therefore it provides an internally consistent and true map of the end times. Thus books that may at first blush seem inconsistent (e.g., the gospels, Paul’s letters, and Revelation) are “harmonized,” often in what seem to outsiders as outlandishly complicated or implausible ways. Nothing is allowed to count as counter-evidence to the Bible’s perfect, factual accuracy and consistency.
By contrast, an inductive approach takes the Bible to be a collection of witnesses to God’s self-revelation, but ones that offer complementary–and not always consistent–perspectives on that revelation. The inductive approach begins with the particularity of the varied biblical witnesses and tries to arrive at some general truths. For this view, Jesus Christ always stands “behind” scripture as the ultimate norm, albeit one that we only have access to through the biblical witnesses.
Hill also offers to ways of thinking about how the Bible functions in the life of the believing community. We can think of the Bible as something we must conform to, or we can think of it as something that models the life of faith for us, providing “archetypes of Christian thinking and living” (p. 27).
Recognizing this fundamental division, and taking his stand with an inductive, modeling approach to the Bible, Hill is free to look at the eschatological and apocalyptic texts in the Bible (as well as extra-canonical sources) in all their bewildering diversity. For instance, he points out that the extra-canonical Jewish text I Enoch shares many specific themes with Revelation, and may even have influenced it. In fact, one significant outcome of Hill’s survey is to show how close Jewish and early Christian thinking about the end was. The common assumption that Jesus presented a way of being the Messiah that broke starkly with Jewish messianic expectations overlooks the rich diversity of 1st-century Jewish apocalyptic thought.
Hill also offers close readings of Daniel and Revelation itself, as well as a survey of Paul’s thought on eschatology, and a succinct, but convincing, rebuttal to historical Jesus scholars (e.g., the Jesus Seminar) who seek to “de-eschatologize” Jesus.
The upshot is that these visions of God’s ultimate victory are both rooted in a specific historical context (a hostile Roman Empire in the case of Revelation) and also convey profound theological truths that have application beyond that context. Hill thus seeks to avoid the extremes of viewing the text as only of historical interest or as something that is speaking exclusively about some future time (usually the interpreter’s own).
This plurality of images can play itself in a variety of ways within Christian thought; Hill notes particularly the tension between future and realized eschatologies in the New Testament, and the theologies, forms of church, and social ethics that tend to go with them. He sees this division working itself out within Paul’s thinking–which oscillates between a theology of the cross that sees Christian life as one of patient suffering while holding to a future expectation of fulfillment and a theology of glory (my term, not Hill’s) that is more optimistic about the possibilities for transformed human life here and now.
Hill concludes that the Bible “provides us with numerous models of hopeful expectation,” which should caution us “against holding too-certain ideas about what lies ahead” (p. 197).
At its core, eschatology is about the character of God. If God can be trusted, then the future can be trusted with God. (p. 197)
While we should sit loose to the details of what God’s ultimate victory will look like, our vocation is clear: it’s “insofar as possible, to bring the eschatological future into the present” (p. 197). This is the polar opposite of the attitude (in)famously displayed by Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior James Watt, who said that there was no point in protecting the environment or conserving nature since Jesus was coming back soon anyway. On the contrary, says Hill: it’s precisely the eschatological message and mission of Jesus that provide the urgency to the call to discipleship. Because God is “making all things new,” we are called to live into that new future.