Let’s Bicker about Eschatology!

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By Greg Forster; part five of a series.

You don’t work in this movement for long without hearing about eschatology. But we don’t connect eschatology to suffering as often as we should. If we did, I think we might find that our differences over eschatology can be fruitful rather than destructive.

So, let’s bicker about eschatology!

(The previous post in this series was, in a roundabout way, about ecclesiology. That’s another topic we talk about a lot in this movement; the difference is that when we talk about ecclesiology we usually aren’t aware that’s what we’re talking about, whereas our eschatology is very – perhaps too – self-conscious. That brings our differences to the fore and contributes to bickering.)

Good eschatology needs to acknowledge both continuity and discontinuity between the present world and the world to come. Our differences center on how much emphasis we give to one or the other end of the spectrum.

Lurking behind these disputes is usually a personal reaction to our ecclesial environment that has little to do with exegesis. People who think the church has sold out to worldly culture often embrace eschatologies emphasizing discontinuity more out of a desire to resist what they see as ecclesial drift in the wrong direction than out of exegetical persuasion. Meanwhile, those who think the church has become self-serving and self-referential often embrace eschatologies emphasizing continuity for the same reason.

Until the last five years or so, the faith and work movement belonged almost entirely to the latter of these groups. It was very common to hear people claim that you couldn’t have a sound theology of vocation (or even a sound faith) if you didn’t hold their eschatological views – for example, the view that the physical world would be refined at the end but not annihilated and re-created. (These people often seemed to be ignorant of the theological possibility of annihilation and re-creation; they spoke as if anyone who thought the present physical world would be annihilated was a heretic who denied the resurrection of the body.)

You don’t hear that kind of thing much any more, because so many people who don’t share that kind of eschatology have now come into the movement, demonstrating not only their genuine concern for vocation but the positive contribution their eschatological position brings to the conversation about it.

For example, continuity helps us set a higher standard ethical standard for our work, while discontinuity helps us stay grace-based rather than pharisaical when we confront the world about ethical standards. Until the Holy Spirit has built us up to the point where we are all skilled at keeping these two factors integrated, our movement needs people who champion both continuity and discontinuity, so we can keep each other honest.

I think suffering is a topic that allows us to see the value of both continuity and discontinuity in our eschatology. I remember, early in my days in the movement, listening to a famous movement leader waxing rhapsodic about the beautiful and glorious things we’ll be able to do with our work in the next life. Things we can’t even imagine now!

“That’s nice,” I remember thinking. “My wife just wants to be able to get up and walk across a room without pain.”

One of the biggest contributions the discontinuity people have brought into our movement is the comfort they bring to people who are suffering in their work in ways that can’t be remedied now. Emphasizing that the future world will not be like the present one is one of the most important ways we can help people suffer.

But, as we have seen, we need to help people suffer without helping them suffer, and that’s where continuity comes in. Because this world is the seed of the one to come, the church is called to act, responsibly but proactively, to remove suffering and challenge injustice where we can.

I don’t know whether the physical world will be refined or annihilated and re-created, and I have never succeeded in understanding why it matters – unless you think that one or the other position on this issue is really a stalking-horse for some kind of deep heresy (materialism or gnosticism, take your pick).

What I do know is that the future world will be unlike this one in that all suffering will be gone, yet like this one in that we, God’s people, will be opposed to suffering and responsible to care for God’s world in a way that leads to flourishing rather than destruction. That, I hope, we can all agree on.

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