The Apocalypse. Armageddon. The End Times. Judgment Day. These terms are popular in our culture and evoke strong images of destruction, war, and the violent wrath of God. Most of these images come from a literal interpretation of the book of Revelation, particularly Chapter 19, where many see Jesus returning as a bloodthirsty warrior to slaughter His enemies, both human and demonic.
Celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll, albeit more infamous these days, said it like this: “In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.”
Eschatology—one of those “big theological words” that can often scare people when they read it (perhaps more than the Apocalypse itself)—is actually a very simple concept. It means “the study of the last things” — the study of the “eschaton,” which is the Greek word for “last things.”
Many people tend to see, and study, eschatology as an “appendix” of Christian doctrine. Not only is Revelation at the end of the Bible (and thus easily forgotten), but it’s content is confusing for most, perhaps even seen as unnecessary for following Jesus in the here and now. I mean, who really reads the appendix of any book.
With all the confusion and irrelevance surrounding eschatology, Revelation, etc., many people opt for the version Mark Driscoll or the Left Behind series teaches, because Christian movies and celebrity pastors must be right. No?
When it comes to matters of eschatology, I propose we listen to two voices God has placed in the Church for us today: N.T. Wright and Jürgen Moltmann. Both basically teach and believe that Jesus ushered in the “end of the world,” not as a mission of destruction and punishment, but as a promise of cosmic renewal through the resurrection of Jesus.
In the Christ event, the end of this world has already begun. So move over current reality. The kingdom of God has come.
The eschatology of N.T. Wright
In his book Surprised by Hope, Wright sketches out “the big picture of cosmic redemption that the New Testament invites us to make our own.” Eschatology is about renewal and hope, not destruction and wrath. The end of the world is about final redemption, not final destruction. Wright continues:
God will redeem the whole universe; Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of that new life, the fresh grass growing through the concrete of corruption and decay in the world. That final redemption will be the moment when heaven and earth are joined together at last, in a burst of God’s creative energy for which [the resurrection] is the prototype and source.
Wright, who is a bible scholar, centers his eschatology in the resurrection and the coming of Christ as the hope and future for the world. The inauguration of the kingdom of God in the Christ event should be our central focus when thinking about the end of the world. Wright gleans his theological conclusions from his intense study of Scripture.
Similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, who is a theologian, talks about eschatology and the end of the world through the resurrection of Jesus and the coming—and already present—kingdom of God.
The eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann
Traditionally, theologians have presented the teachings of eschatology as if they “were like a loosely attached appendix that wandered off into obscure irrelevancies,” remarks Jürgen Moltmann in the opening pages of his book Theology of Hope (all quotes here forward are from this book).
Eschatology—the study of the last things— is mainly interested in the final events of the biblical story. Of them, the most significant are the return of Christ, the judgment of the world, the consummation of the kingdom, the resurrection of the dead, and the renewal of the heavens and the earth. The events themselves are worth studying, not least because of their enigmatic narratives and dramatic nature. “But the relegating of these events to the ‘last day,’” says Moltmann, “robbed them of their directive, uplifting and critical significance for all the days which are spent here, this side of the end, in history.”
For Moltmann, eschatology is not a theology of the last things, but rather, a theology of hope. When we treat eschatology as the appendix of Christian doctrine, it becomes “uncoupled from the present” and can “serve as an escape mechanism from here and now responsibilities,” he says. Instead, “Eschatology is the page of the theological encyclopedia that appropriately deals with hope,” says Peter C. Wagner in the article, Mission and Hope: Some Missiological Implications of the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann, “and thus Moltmann concentrates his intellectual energies in building a Christian theology on eschatology as his basic hermeneutical principle.”
“The eschatological is not one element of Christianity,” writes Moltmann, “but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.” And central to the Christian faith is Christ’s resurrection Moltmann declares: “Christianity stands or falls with the reality of the raising of Jesus from the dead by God.” For Moltmann, eschatology should not be the end of the Christian story, but its beginning.
The resurrection of Christ speaks hope into a world that is afflicted with pain, assaulted by death, crushed by shame and terrorized by evil. The resurrection, says Molmann, is “God’s contradiction of suffering and death, of humiliation and offence, and of the wickedness of evil.”
The end of the world begins with Jesus and ends with life-giving hope and cosmic renewal.