Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2Timothy4:8)
I was recently derided on social media for holding a “neo-fundy” position on the return of Jesus that, in the words of the one scorning me “will never hold a place in the academy.”
To which my reply was “Well, if it’s holding down a place in the academy you’re after…” Badda bing, badda boom!
But it’s about more than cheap shots across the bows on social media. I was writing about the loss of any robust eschatology among Christians, particularly those of the progressive crowd. I wrote that the opposite of the progressive Christian is not the conservative Christian, but the eschatological Christian.
Now one of the distinguishing features of a Christian is that they are gagging for Jesus to return. And mentioning that idea online touched a few raw nerves. Not sure why. Maybe because the idea of eschatology so often gets in the way of our best laid plans.
But the text is on my side on this one. Biblical Christianity is first and foremost eschatological. The very fact that we have God’s Spirit should alert us to this fact, as the Spirit is the gift of God from the eschatological future, dragged – “bungee-jumped” as it were – into the present, and then dragging us, like a most heavenly piece of elastic, back to the future. No eschatology, no Spirit. No Spirit, no eschatology.
I read 1Thessalonians again in light of that social media exchange and was struck (again) by how steeped it is in eschatology. I didn’t have to force it! Chapter 1 is bookended by those whose hope (an eschatological concept) is in the Lord, and by the fact that Christians are waiting for Jesus to come and rescue them from approaching wrath. And that’s just the start of it. The rest of the text lays it on thick.
Now I am reading Scot McKnight’s excellent book on heaven, entitled The Heaven Promise: Engaging The Bible’s Truth about Life to Come, and it’s a great read in the usual Scot McKnight style; understandable, pithy, engaging the reader, and more importantly, engaging with the Bible. (I will be reviewing it for The Gospel Coalition at a later stage).
And what strikes me about McKnight’s book is just how empty the gospel would be without eschatology. And more to the point, how, once we have taken eschatology out, or minimised it, we must fill up that giant hole with something, anything, else.
Which is where the progressive framework seems to come in, because it is busy filling the giant hole with a giant social justice agenda. Nothing wrong with longing for social justice of course. But not as an end in itself. Justice is not going to be ultimately fulfilled by us, and it’s not going to be fulfilled in the precise manner we want it to be, if indeed eschatology is the key to the God’s kingdom.
But unfortunately today, among professing Christians, that is an increasingly contested idea, and especially among progressives. Not necessarily scorned as strongly as I was in my social media exchange, but certainly given the “Yes, but” put down.
You know the way it goes: “We’re waiting for Jesus to come and rescue the world and put it right,” I say.
“Yes, but what about getting on board with his kingdom work now.” is the pushback, intimating that I am being so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good.
That is bunkum. Eschatology drives Christian ethics. Eschatology drives us to goodness, justice, mercy, peace, love. Why? Because eschatological Christians recognise that the age to come will be 100 per cent of all of those things all of the time for everyone. So we start now to do in a minor, broken form, what Jesus will do in a universalised, fulfilled form at his appearing.
Justice will come because of who appears, not simply because of what appears. If you’d settle for justice on earth without Jesus on earth to get in the way, then you’ve given up the gospel, and there’s a good chance you’re not Christian.
When deathly plagues raced through the Roman cities in the early centuries, the pagans fled in terror, abandoning their sick and dying. The Christians stayed. They stayed and cared for their own sick and dying and for the pagans. Why? Because they’d read the UN Charter on Human Rights? No. Because they were not afraid to die, knowing that their hope was in the resurrection in the age to come, a hope that sprang from the resurrection of Jesus. Eschatology drove their social justice, just as surely as it drives ours.
True justice will only come when “the Lord, the Righteous judge” hands out the gongs on the last day. Without seeing God as Judge we become judges ourselves. And we’re just not godly enough, indeed we are far too sinful, to be left with the task of ushering in ultimate justice, and meting it out.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying does it? We pick our sides. Anti-abortion OR pro-refugee, you can’t be both apparently in a view of history in which Jesus is neither raised nor returning.
Now, why pick on progressives, other than I am probably just being ‘ornery’? Here’s why: because at the moment in the West at least, there is a rising tide of hope among progressives that their star is in the ascendency. All of the ducks are lining up legally, politically, socially. There is definitely a sniff of victory in the air. Maybe slowly – not immediately and maybe not without pain, – but definitely surely.
Yet secular progressivism by its very nature cannot be eschatological, because it simply can’t countenance history being broken in to. Which does raise the question of syncretism for progressives. How can a Christianity marinaded in God’s continual breaking into history, culminating in the Incarnation, meld with such a polar opposite perspective without giving up its lifeblood?
It can’t. 21st century progressive Christianity is merely the natural grandchild of 20th century liberal Christianity. The junking of biblical theological frameworks in order to be relevant at the start of the 20th has been mirrored by the junking of biblical ethical frameworks in order to be relevant at the start of the 21st. That shift was as certain to happen – as certain as dark night follows bright day.
If the goal is to be taken seriously by the culture, then who can take someone seriously who believes a raised-from-the-dead Jew is going to appear to the world and wrap up history? None of the learned types took that seriously in the academy/Areopagus of Acts 17, so why should learned types take it seriously now. It certainly won’t get you a place in the academy that’s for sure.
For progressivism the idea of a full bodily resurrected Jesus is too much of an affront, the ultimate breaking in of God in history that sweeps away the notion of progress altogether.
NT Wright observes that the modern mind cannot comprehend that the centre of history, it’s fulcrum, occurred two thousand years ago at the cross and empty tomb (to which we might add the Day of Pentecost which signed, sealed and delivered those events). I genuinely can’t see how that view of history can be aligned with one in which progress is king, not Jesus.
So what’s left if that idea is ruled out a priori? Well the ultimate dream of God’s kingdom’s among progressives is a world full of all sorts of answers about justice, freedom, truth etc in which we are joining Jesus on his mission.
And since he’s not here to frame what those things look like, we get to decide that for him. Now, as I said, there is nothing wrong with desiring these things. However without a robust eschatology to anchor it, the now post-Christian secular West has fractured, and is ripping itself apart in a fierce battle to determine where the new anchor point of justice could be tethered.
Yet look again at that verse from 2 Timothy. Paul states that the true victors of history are those who “have longed for his appearing.” Whatever else Christianity is, it is steeped in a longing to see Jesus, a desire to be with him, a craving to see the living God face to face, a yearning to be astonished by the glory of the risen One.
And that Jesus-focussed glory as Scot McKnight says, will not draw away from our rightful and purified engagement with other persons or our activities in and through the new creation. It’s a wonderful insight. Eschatology is personal, corporate and global. Just try and get your head around that!
A world of justice determined by the righteous Judge. Is that something and someone you long to see appear?