Part one of a series.
A chance word from a friend has got me wanting to bicker about eschatology again. This has been a sore spot for our movement. But I wonder if we’re coming to the point where it’s time to start having this conversation again.
The movement’s increasing maturity should be positioning us for mutual learning and edification between those who focus on eschatological continuity (the dimension in which Jesus’ return continues and brings to fruition the redemptive work of the New Era that he’s already doing today) and those who focus on eschatological discontinuity (the dimension in which Jesus’ return brings the Old Era to a close in a catastrophe of destructive judgment and radical new beginnings).
Continuity and discontinuity are both needed for a sound eschatology; continuity alone brings us vocational captivity to worldly standards and moralistic legalism, while discontinuity alone brings us vocational detachment and even resentful isolation. Until the Holy Spirit so sanctifies the church that we all spontaneously get the balance exactly right on our own, our best hope is to listen to and learn from those whose tendency is to lean in the opposite direction from our own preferences.
It really was not that long ago that this movement belonged so wholly to those with a strong focus on eschatological continuity that some important leaders felt no hesitation in asserting that you couldn’t have a sound theology of work without sharing their eschatology. Some said you couldn’t have a sound faith without sharing their eschatology.
However, as large numbers of those who focus on eschatological discontinuity (among whom I count myself) came into the movement as part of its dramatic growth, such talk declined precipitously. I think it has now been years since I heard such a statement. Of course, with the flood of new books and conferences coming out, the days when anyone could claim to know even most of what is being said in the movement are long gone. But I feel confident asserting that, in general, an uncomfortable shroud of silence has fallen over the topic of eschatology.
A period of silence may (I’m not sure) have been healthy. But it can’t be healthy forever, or even for very long. We were not made by God to think and speak only about the things we all agree on. Indeed, it is only by listening to one another when we disagree that we have any hope of learning anything, for of course if I only listen to opinions I agree with I will never hear anything but what I already know. And for me to listen to you when we disagree, you need to be talking.
The chance word that has me thinking about all this afresh came in the context of a conversation on another topic. We were talking about the more traumatic parts of the Old Testament, and the difficulty they present to many who are discovering the faith but not yet committed. The absolute destruction God demands his people inflict as part of entering the promised land was naturally a key topic. Such limited insight as we are able to gain into God’s purposes in this episode does not relieve our spontaneous moral shock at reading what God demanded his people do.
And right in the middle of this, my friend casually commented that in demanding absolute destruction in the promised land as his people entered it, God was modeling the eschatological catastrophe of Christ’s return.
Now, as I said, I number myself among those who emphasize discontinuity. I make no bones about the reason, which is shamelessly autobiographical: my wife suffers from multiple chronic illnesses, and it is difficult for me to look forward to anything else in the eschaton beside the permanent destruction of physical pain and disease.
However, even I balked at first at the suggestion of the herem warfare of the Old Testament as an eschatological image. Upon reflection, though, I accept the connection. Jesus’ return is described in scripture with terrifying images of warfare and destruction. The irreversible perdition of the lost produces a spontaneous moral shock comparable to what we experience reading about herem warfare. The image even, as a purely logical matter, limits the extent to which we can emphasize discontinuity, for it implicitly challenges annihilationism. I’m only surprised I never saw this connection before.
But what do such things have to do with our daily work? In the posts ahead, I plan to explore what these two tendencies – continuity and discontinuity – have to learn from one another when it comes to vocation:
- Continuity emphasizes excellence in our work; discontinuity emphasizes comfort and hope when we suffer in our work.
- Continuity emphasizes fighting for justice; discontinuity emphasizes moderating our ambitions for vindication.
- Continuity emphasizes serving the common good of our communities; discontinity emphasizes treating those of other faiths with grace.
Hopefully, by correcting one another’s aim, we can hit the bullseye together – or at least quit shooting arrows into the crowd.