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.”
Mike Gantt says
A straightforward reading of the New Testament documents leaves the clear impression that both writers and recipients believed they were living in eschatological times. For those of us in the 21st Century who believe their testimony about Jesus, which is more likely: that they were wrong about the timing of future events and just how imminent the Lord’s coming was…or…that they were right about the timing and we have simply assumed they were predicting something physically cataclysmic when they were actually talking about something that would be spiritually cataclysmic?
Personally, I find it almost impossible to believe that they could have been right about everything else but utterly premature when they spoke about when the prophesied future would occur.
Regardless of then & now we are to keep on living in expectation…like Abraham, a stranger in a foreign land. I see no reason for some kind of hidden meaning as if there is some kind of world within a world & Christs return is some kind of spiritual essence that lives inside us & the world is not really going to change in the twinkling of an eye…
It would be helpful if you narrowed down “New Testament documents.” I expect there was much persecution of the early church so believers had every reason to think the time is near. Yet scripture also speaks of patience as God graciously includes the “ends of the earth” as lands were yet to be evangelised & people saved from every nation..
Some things repeat themselves growing in intensity creating a certain impression…I would of thought WW2 had a few people thinking this was it….WW1 also…No time or date is prophesied, only a promise of return. Ironiclly some Christian nations (historically) are now being witnessed to by believers from non Christian nations (historically)
Richard Bush says
This was wonderfully stated and serves as a very practical challenge to us to live everyday in the expectation of Christ’s return. Thank you.
I have often wondered what we really mean my saying “Happy New Year”.
today when I awoke in spiritual darkness this hit home. Thanks for your article that reminds us that our focus is not on this world, but on what we can expect when Christ takes us to our eternal home. THEN we will see the meaning of Happy New Year!!
Lee Kirkwood says
Bible history points to the Eschatological conclusion of man on earth. The “Second Coming of our Lord can be seen in two phases, the Rapture of the Church, and the Lord’s return to earth to destroy earth’s remnant unbelievers. We might remember this jewel of the Bible….”The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” On another note, there is wide concern that our world leaders are evil men (and women) with little to no regard for the future welfare of their people. Why is it they cannot reason as the masses do, and turn the nations toward peace? The answer can be found throughout biblical history concluding with the eschatological ‘Wrath” of God against man and earth. Where is all of this going? Can we compare the destruction of America by political greed and individual power to that of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar? Yes, because both nations [were] the most powerful nations of the world, and it is Daniel who teaches: “You O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands He has placed mankind and the beast of the field and the birds of the air. (Daniel 2:37-38). We must never forget that it is God who moves men into power for His ultimate purposes, all leading to a New Heaven and a New Earth.
I think there are a couple of interpretations regarding the last days & 2nd coming. The masses want peace & prosperity but even leaders are subject to things outside their control. We truly are limited more than super people or super nations for all our wealth or intellect…Ps 2 also reflects Christ dominion & wrath, but also His peace & refuge
In the business of life with all its uproar & worries with many countries & corporations positioning for wordly wealth & profits at the expense of godly wisdom it really is wonderful to know God has a deep concern & is working on his promises, not only now but also regarding a new heaven & a new earth & the joys that wait us there. I have to admit, I dont reflect on Christ’s return as much as I ought.