Decades of dispute over the timing of Christ’s return in relation to the millennium, tribulation, and other aspects of “the end times” have resulted in a general unbiblical apathy and agnosticism toward eschatology. Academic eschatology is narrowly defined as the “study of the last things” and relegated to the back of systematic theologies while its popular forms are dismissed as the substance of fanatical fringe groups on the outskirts of evangelicalism. Some express their eschatological apathy and agnosticism through clever jokes about being “pan-millennial” (“it will all pan out in the end”) or “pro-millennial” (“I’m for the millennium!”) while others take a more stern (even hateful) reactionary approach to anyone or anything that smacks of serious eschatological discussion. The trouble with the aforementioned attitudes is that eschatology cannot be dismissed by anyone who takes his or her Christian faith seriously.
One of the most popular ways to silence participants in the classic debate between Calvinists and Arminians over topics like election and the extent of the atonement is to point out that the topic has been debated for centuries and no one is any better off in the end. The theory is that with such brilliant minds having gone before us in this debate and coming to no resolution we should just admit that we cannot know the answers and move on. However, there are three immediate problems with this suggestion.
First, even if a topic has been debated for centuries, it does not follow that one or the other party involved in that debate is not correct. Imagine if we were to take the argument expressed in the previous paragraph and apply it to the “question” of whether or not God exists. For centuries there have been many brilliant minds who have debated whether or not God or gods exist and what they are like. We might think that by now we would have a clear answer articulated in the consensus of the various parties involved in the debate, yet it continues even today. Most topics are much more controversial than the majority of people believe that they are. Just because something is controversial does not mean that there is no right answer about it.
Second, those who dismiss the importance of debate over issues that are like the example of Calvinism and Arminianism and claim that no one can really know the right answer about them go on to affirm an answer anyway. Sticking with the example, Calvinism and Arminianism are so antithetical to one another, and are so central to one’s understanding of soteriology, that saying almost anything about the Christian faith, and especially saying or doing anything related to evangelism and personal salvation, assumes some parts or the whole of one system or the other. Or, if you are one of those people who still believes that there is some “middle ground” between the two opposite theologies, then you might adopt that middle ground while claiming that no one can know which position is correct. Affirming agnosticism with regard to a topic is often a convenient way to subtly take a position on the topic. Likewise a willfully blind dogmatism often masquerades as apathy because a person set in his or her ways wants to avoid conversation about it.
Third, and perhaps most important, the Bible addresses such things as election and the extent of the atonement both explicitly and implicitly. Thus it has something to say about the various aspects of Calvinism and Arminianism, though not necessarily using the same terminology. If the Bible addresses a topic, then we as finite and sinful human beings have no place to stand and complain that the topic it addresses is unimportant or inconsequential. Far from it! God does not reveal what He does for no reason at all. If something is in Scripture, then there is a reason for it being there, and our lack of discernment in attempting to discover, through sound methods of study, what that reason is, does not justify our dismissal of it as unimportant or even less important. If Scripture discusses a topic then we should as well.
Pointing out that eschatology is controversial, has been debated for centuries, that there is no resolution, and the like as though these observations constitute a reason for dismissing eschatological discussion is every bit as flawed as the analogous argument made with respect to Calvinism and Arminianism mentioned above.
Scripture is full of eschatology. Books like Ezekiel, Daniel, Matthew, and Revelation are usually thought of as exhibiting more eschatological themes than other books of the Bible, but Scripture as a whole is full of such themes. The progressive nature of Christian revelation should leave no question as to the eschatological emphasis of the entire Bible. The books of the Old Testament more often than not leave their original recipients expecting significant events and people to come about in the future. The Gospel itself is eschatological, for Jesus Christ was dead, but now lives, and He has been given a kingdom. The New Testament is clear about the physical return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the general resurrection. If we are not going to ignore the Bible, then we cannot ignore eschatology either. Or to put it another way, if we ignore eschatology, then we ignore God.
Like Scripture, people are also full of eschatology. Unlike Scripture, they do not always have it right. Often the opposite is the case! Even if they have not given them much thought, people hold beliefs about what will happen to them in the future, and what will happen to them when they die. A personal eschatology affects the way a person chooses to live his or her life. So does a cosmic eschatology. That is, everyone has some idea(s) about the way that everything around them is headed, and it influences the way people think and behave during their time on earth. Everyone does not have a correct or well-articulated eschatology, but everyone has an eschatology. Ignoring eschatology is impossible.
Eschatology is nevertheless an exceedingly difficult area of doctrine. Eschatological themes are inextricably tied to the worldviews they permeate. Christian eschatological positions affect the way one interprets the whole of Scripture and the way one interprets Scripture affects one’s eschatological positions in a hermeneutical spiral. Eschatology involves every realm of Christian theology including biblical, systematic, and exegetical categories as well as text criticism, hermeneutics, and church history. It is perhaps the most difficult of the theological disciplines; however it is crucial to a proper understanding of one’s place in the world and the world’s place in God’s plan. A Christian should approach a difficult topic like eschatology through prayer and study, not by scoffing at it. Though we may want to hold some of our theological particulars less dogmatically than others, we should not think that there are no right answers, or that we should not decide upon any of them as our own.
Claiming that eschatology is difficult, insignificant, controversial, and the like before proceeding to thereby silence those who are interested in eschatology is not something a Christian should be inclined to do. It may even be sinful. Certainly there are dangers of being unbalanced in the amount of importance we place upon particular Christian doctrines. Certainly we want to conduct ourselves as Christians in our disagreements over doctrinal positions. But that is relatively uninteresting in the grand scheme of things. We acknowledge such ethical principles in every other sphere of Christian thought. Eschatology is no different.
If we are going to take our Christian faith seriously, then we must recognize eschatology as an area where all of us have room for growth, and we must begin to take it much more seriously than most of us do. Its implications reach much farther than the lengthiest end-times chart, and we would do well to examine ourselves and our ministries in light of what those implications are. Eschatology is not an appendix to the Christian worldview, but the lens through which we must view each of its tenets in relation to the whole.
So what does eschatology have to do with apologetics? Why is eschatology necessary for apologetics? Some of the answers to these questions are implicit in this post, but this post has consisted mainly of offering an apologetic for eschatology, rather than in offering an eschatology for apologetics. Stay tuned for the latter.