As Christians, we are fond of reminding people that the Bible is a book of history. It is not just a book of rules, nor a collection of philosophical treatises, but is decidedly a book about the past. It is about what God has done in real time and space. Indeed, that is the core of the Christmas message we have heard over the last month—two thousand years ago, God became man.
But often forgotten in our zeal to show that the Bible is a book about the past, is the reality that the Bible is also a book about the future. The Christian message is fundamentally eschatological (to use the standard theological nomenclature). It is not only about how God has entered the world during the first coming, but also about how God will enter the world again during the second coming. And when he does so, he will set all things right.
As we look forward to beginning a new year, perhaps it is appropriate to remind ourselves of the importance of the Bible’s future-oriented focus. What exactly is at stake if the eschatological dimension of the faith is overlooked? Let me suggest a few things:
1. We will forget that redemption is more than “spiritual.”
When it comes to hopes about the future, most evangelicals think primarily about dying and going to “heaven.” While it is certainly wonderful to know that upon death we will spiritually be with Christ (Phil 1:23), there is more to the Christian hope than just this. We are promised not just “spiritual” deliverance, but also, and ultimately, physical deliverance. One day, we will enjoy more than heaven—we will enjoy a new heavens and a new earth. God will give us new resurrected bodies and we, like Christ, will dwell in them forever.
While this downplaying of the physical within modern evangelicalism may seem quite innocent, unfortunately it can have a serious impact. It can create a quasi-Gnostic spirituality amongst Christians, where the spiritual and physical are pitted against one another. When that happens, it becomes all to easy to equate“salvation” with Eastern-style enlightenment.
2. We will lose perspective regarding the problem of evil.
One of the challenges faced by both believer and unbeliever is how to deal with the evil so prevalent in the world. In a world filled with massacres like Newtown, Connecticut, even Christians find themselves at a loss when asked about the solution to the “problem of evil.” We look around and God seems to be silent. We wonder why he doesn’t do something.
But, as long as we stay focused on this world, the resolution of this problem is veiled to us. It is only when we look to a future world, a world where God creates a new heavens and a new earth where “righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13) that we begin to gain perspective. For, in that world God brings full justice and all wrongs will be made right.
This doesn’t mean that a focus on the second coming gives us relief from all of life’s sufferings, nor does it mean that it answers every theological or philosophical question related to evil in the world. However, the second coming does provide an essential perspective without which the problem of evil could not be addressed.
3. We will lack an appropriate context for personal holiness.
Perhaps most fundamentally, the lack of focus on the future stifles one of the most helpful aids to our pursuit of holiness: the belief in the second coming. Peter draws a direct link between our belief in the second coming and our living lives of holiness (2 Pet 3:11). But, what exactly is the link? Why does a focus on the second coming lead to holiness?
I suppose one could say that the answer has to do with accountability. If we know we will have to answer to God for our actions, then that leads to holiness. This may be partially correct.
But, I think the link between a belief in the second coming and our holiness is more profound than this. It is more than just accountability. A belief in the second coming provides the appropriate context in which holiness and godliness make sense. If we only focus on this current world, then holiness is going to seem strange and out of place. In this world holiness is not lauded, honored, praised, or appreciated. In this world, simply put, holiness does not fit.
But, what if our minds were set on another world? What if our hearts were longing and waiting for a future world? A world where “righteousness dwells”? If we did that, then holiness has a context where it is meaningful. Holiness and godliness make sense.
In essence, then, people who focus more on the world to come will find that holiness comes more naturally. C.S. Lewis was correct:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.
In sum, to get a renewed church we need a renewed eschatological focus. A healthy church is a future-oriented church. By this we don’t mean the church needs to be obsessed with hammering out competing views of the millennium or end-times chronologies, rather we mean that the church needs to recover the grand vision of Rev 21:5 when God says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”