A Little “Believing Thinking”
The release of the “Left Behind” major motion picture in theaters this past weekend so closely on the heels on HBO’s popular “The Leftovers” series on cable television brings “eschatology” [from the Greek ἔσχατος “eschatos” meaning "last" and λόγος, “-logy” meaning “Word” as in "the study of"] back into the forefront of our cultural consciousness. And at the edges of this conversation there are already some completely predictable and well-defined responses.
Secularists, skeptics and cynics dismiss the very suggestion of a divine intervention in the course of human history to judge and rescue humanity in preparation for the final establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth as being a ludicrous proposition from the very start. Their worldview cannot accommodate the idea. President John F. Kennedy once said, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” And that saying stakes out the secular response pretty concisely.
Confidence in human goodness, potential and ingenuity is the engine that drives every expression of secular hope. Education and legislation will save us. “Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better,” or at least we could and would if we just had more and better information, and the right people running things in Austin and Washington D.C. And this isn’t just a “secular” response; it’s widespread in the church these days as well.
J.C. Wynn’s (a professor of pastoral theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School/ Bexley Hall/ Crozer Theological Seminary) 1977 book Christian Education for Liberation and Other Upsetting Ideas (Abingdon) included the essay “Why the Conspiracy of Silence about Eschatology in Church Education?” In answering this question, J.C. suggested that -
Church educators are too imbued with a secular belief in progress to find much place for a doctrine that speaks of calamity and utter finality. The marked influence of progressive education upon the Sunday church school… imported a pervading optimism about humanity and expectation of inevitable progress…. (91-92)
The “eschaton” [The “End”] is completely beyond the ability of men, even the educators, to affect or to control… Eschatology faces the reluctant church educator with a reminder that none of us moves toward God so much as God comes toward us. God does not wait for us to inch our way to Him, but invites us, leads us, falls into step with us. This encounter is not something that clever men have thought up, but a leading of the Spirit. His is the divine initiative. (94-95)
Church education tends to assume that its goals are so earthbound that we seem limited to teaching persons for here and now. The conviction that Christians are strangers and pilgrims on earth, en route to a city whose maker and builder is God, is too seldom emphasized… If our citizenship is elsewhere, as the New Testament holds, that hope is underplayed… Christian hope is equally for the first hour of life and for the last. …Christian education dare not avoid the nearly impossible task of teaching persons both for the next things and for the last things as well. (96)
At a Regional men’s retreat on the topic of hope a number of years ago I was asked to lead a workshop on what the Bible had to say about it. And so I used the occasion to orient the participants to the New Testament’s vocabulary of eschatology (The “Rapture,” the “Antichrist,” the “Tribulation,” the “Millennium,” the “Signs of the Times,” the “Second Coming,” the “Final Judgment”), to introduce some of the major schools of the interpretation of these words and concepts (Realized Eschatology, Existential Eschatology, Symbolic Eschatology, Historicist Eschatology and Futurist Eschatology), and finally, to lead them in a discussion about why it all matters, about what these “events” and theories tell us about who God is and what God is doing in our lives and in our world.
When I was finished I got pulled aside by an Area Minister who was really quite upset with me for having “wasted” his time and that of all the participants on such an “irrelevant workshop.” He accused me of filling their heads with nonsense and of failing to offer them anything of practical value for when their lives got hard and they needed something specific, concrete and helpful to hang onto. “You sounded like a wacko in there,” he told me, “like someone you would hear on the radio late at night!” And as he stomped away (it was the very last time that this man ever talked to me), I remembered J.C. Wynn’s observations about the “conspiracy of silence about eschatology” in the church and better understood just how pervasive and even militant it could be.
Eschatology is not even on the table for consideration in many of our churches; we don’t have the tools to think about it intelligently and we don’t take the time to talk about it helpfully. All we do is try to distance ourselves from it, abandoning the field to the extremists; derisively dismissing them as “ignorant fundamentalists” as we smartly walk off feeling superior. And there’s no doubt, as theologian Gabriel Fackre put it, that eschatology has become the peculiar domain of overzealous interpreters who “with their lush apocalyptic imagery and confident descriptions of the temperature of hell and the furniture of heaven sometimes claim to know more than the Son of God about the how and when of His coming” (Matthew 24:36).
This is the equal but opposite “predictable and well-defined response” to movies like “Left Behind” and TV shows like “The Leftovers.” They stir the religious imagination of some believers, and believe me, they will throng to their screenings. When the dust settles, “Left Behind” will make money and have fans, and that’s because there is an audience for such productions. In a frightening world people are looking for hope, and while the theology of “Left Behind” is not mine, I think that only a fool would stand outside throwing rotten tomatoes at it, mocking the sincerity of the faith of those who made it or the depth of the hunger of those who are going to see it.
I once knew a preacher who told me that he had preached on the book of Revelation every Sunday night for the full length of his more than ten year ministry in a particular church, and that he still wasn’t done when he left. And when I asked him if his people ever got tired of his singular focus, he told me that on the contrary, that they couldn’t get enough of it! Personally I’ve attended the protracted meetings of traveling Bible teachers with their charts and time tables who style themselves as “Prophecy Experts.” I’ve read their books and listened to their tapes. I know the passion and precision of their arguments, and while they never personally persuaded me of their particular positions, I spent enough time with them to know that they were serious and sincere, and that they deserved my respect rather than my ridicule. It’s not enough just to call them stupid, and I’m not prepared to concede to them the domain of Biblical eschatology.
“Left Behind” is the popularization of an indefinable interpretive tradition of eschatology. Because it generates popular novels and movies, and because we operate in the shadow of Dallas Theological Seminary and within the sphere of C.I. Scofield’s lingering influence (the Scofield Bible Church is not more than 2 miles east of Northway’s front doorsteps and many of my church members could produce a Scofield Reference Bible if asked), Dispensational Premillennialism (the name of the “identifiable interpretive tradition of eschatology”) holds a certain primacy in the public perception of what it is that Christians believe. And some Christians do believe it, fervently. But Dispensational Premillennialism is not the only eschatological option available to a Christian who is trying to be Biblical in his or her beliefs. Despite its popularity today, especially in the American Bible Belt, Dispensational Premillennialism has never been the majority opinion of the church on eschatological matters. Augustine wasn’t a Dispensational Premillennialist, and neither were Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, Barton Warren Stone, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II. Democracy – who wins the popular vote – is a lousy way of arriving at theological truth; but when most of the church’s big hitters from across the centuries of church history took a different interpretive path than that of Dispensational Premillennialism when it came to matters of eschatology, that should be duly noted in one’s own deliberation.
Because it’s never enough just to criticize what somebody else believes, when the release of a movie brings into cultural awareness a question of Biblical interpretation and theological conclusion, we should welcome the opportunity to enter into the conversation fully. But that requires us to have given the matter of faith that has made its way into our field of vision some careful thought. I am not a Premillennial Dispensationalist in my eschatological beliefs; but I am something. I have some settled convictions, and they are the fruit of a sustained engagement with Scripture and the Christian tradition over many years.
Millard J. Erikson in his magisterial 1998 systematic theology Christian Theology (Second Edition) [Baker Books] helpfully laid out some of the big theological questions that one has to come to terms with on your way to your own personal eschatological conclusions and convictions (1160-1161) -
Is eschatology (the study of last things) thought of as pertaining primarily to the future (dealing with matters still remote from us) or the present (dealing with events in the here and now)?
Is your view of the future of life here on earth primarily optimistic (an improvement in conditions) or pessimistic (a general worsening of the circumstances of human existence)?
Is divine activity (supernaturally realized) or human effort (familiar and natural processes) thought to be the agent of eschatological events?
Does your particular eschatological view speak of hope for the church alone or for the human race in general? Do the benefits anticipated accrue only to those who are believers, or are the promises to all? If the latter, is the church the agent or vehicle of the good things coming to all?
Does your eschatology hold that we will come into the benefits of the new age individually, or that their bestowal will be cosmic in character?
Is there a special place for the Jewish people in the future occurrences? As God’s chosen and covenant people in the Old Testament, do they still have a unique status, or Are they simply like the rest of the human race?
The way that I personally answer these questions make me a Historical Premillennialist. This is the interpretive tradition of eschatology that makes the best sense of the Biblical witness to me, and that I believe roots me in the faith of the early church. But I refuse to make my eschatological conclusions tests of Christian fellowship or fidelity. My Historical Premillennialist conclusions belong in the arena of “inferences,” conclusions that I have drawn from Scripture, but a construction that is separate from Scripture, that goes beyond Scripture. Other equally serious and sincere Christians can and do arrange the same biblical materials in different ways, and I welcome faithful conversations with Christians who have drawn different conclusions than I have. I want to be thoroughly Biblical in my faith and practice as a Christian, and if somebody can help me do this by challenging the way that I think about what the Bible says, then I’m all in. But, in this, I understand that we are just arguing the details.
I don’t think that the theological point of view that is at work in the movie “Left Behind” is the best way to make sense of what the Scriptures say or the best way to keep faith with the historic teachings of the church. But having said that, let me quickly add that I still have so much more in common with them, mistaken as I think they are, than I do with those parts of the contemporary church who are part of the conspiracy of silence about eschatology.
As George Eldon Ladd, the teacher from whom I got my Historical Premillennial leanings, used to say, a Christianity stripped of its eschatology is a Christianity that will be “forever incomplete.” At the center of the Gospel “past” is Christ on the cross and at the center of the Gospel “future” is Christ returning in glory; remove either of these poles from Christianity’s equation, and you wind up with something very different from what the New Testament proclaims and the church has historically embraced. DBS+