I have watched many movies in my day. Some of my favorite movies are directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense. Most are not gruesome but they do bring you to the edge of your seat, wandering what will happen next. M. Night Shyamalan is another director who I like for many of the same reasons.
Occasionally, I have watched movies like these with others who are seeing them for the first time. Of course, part of the enjoyment in watching these movies with first timers is the ability to vicariously experience the movie anew through their reactions. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t work with certain people. About two-thirds of the way through the movie they begin pestering you with questions about “How does it end?” If the questioning persists I usually relent and tell them, “Okay. Here is how it ends. The credits roll and then we go get something to eat.” (More than once that response has led to my physical abuse and objects being hurled in my direction.)
In times of great distress or confusion, we want to know how “the story ends.” It is one thing to experience the anxiety created by a masterful movie maker. It is quite another when confronted with the loss of a loved one, a decaying culture, and especially our own deaths. Should we despair or are there firm reasons for hope?
Eschatology is the study of the end times or the “last things.” It assumes that history is moving toward the accomplishment of some great purpose. The Greeks called this telos. If we can have some understanding of the telos of existence and how it comes together at the end, then our anxiety in the present will be less.
I have written in various posts that Scripture can be viewed as an unfolding story. Theologian N. T. Wright has popularized the idea of Scripture as a five act play. God has told us the story but we find we are still living in the fifth act of the play (See How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?) Brian McLaren’s popular book The Story We Find Ourselves In builds on this idea by viewing Scripture as a six act play. Others have offered similar adaptations but they all include the idea of living in an unfinished story, the end of which has been revealed to us by the author. In the meantime, we are invited to participate in the unfolding of that story until the author brings the story to its inevitable end.
Certain knowledge of the story’s end has major ramifications for the present. For the person who has no certain knowledge of the ending, the present is the only thing that is concrete. Our circumstances in the present must be maximized and protected as we plan for a potentially threatening future. However, if we trust in the revealed ending given in Scripture, everything is stood on its head. The future is the only thing that is certain and the present is viewed as a temporary state. This gives us tremendous freedom and hope. I believe this to be a primary reason that God gives us insight into how the story ends.
Yet there is another critical reason that God tells us how the story ends. It isn’t just for our personal peace of mind. God gives us the end of the story so we may be united with Him in mission in this time between the New Testament and the end. Here is where a great danger enters the picture. If we misunderstand the telos God has in mind and we have misread the ending of the story, then we my find ourselves in the role of the religious leaders in New Testament Israel, looking for the wrong ending and tragically working cross purposes with God. It will affect everything we do from how we see justice, evangelism, mission and structure for mission. It is my belief that both Conservative and Liberal theology have missed the mark in understanding the telos and ending of the story. In so doing, we have unwittingly damaged the witness of the Church in our day.
I by no means consider myself and expert on eschatology. I am presently doing a lot of reading and reflecting on the topic but already I am coming to some conclusions. What I want to do now is share with you some of my initial thoughts on how errant eschatology has influenced the church and how returning to a biblical eschatology could transform all we do.