The Strange Silence of the Church
I was keynoting a regional men’s retreat a few years back, and as a part of the weekend, I was asked to lead a workshop on any topic that I wanted to talk about. Since the general theme for the weekend was Christian Hope, I decided to talk about eschatology – the church’s teaching on Last Things.
In seminary I read J.C. Wynn’s provocative essay, “Why the Conspiracy of Silence about Eschatology in Church Education?” in his book Christian Education for Liberation (Abingdon 1977), and I found his observations to be entirely consistent with my own experience. After showing the consensus of contemporary Biblical scholarship that the New Testament is “unambiguously eschatological,” Wynn went on to name what he saw as the “four outstanding causes for the curious situation” of the church’s strange silence on the doctrines of last things –
- 1. We don’t know what to do with the New Testament’s imagery of the Second Coming and the Final Judgment. We are “embarrassed” by the clumsy literalism with which some Christians have taken these Biblical ideas (Take Harold Camping’s misguided announced date for the end of the world earlier this year), and we are deeply bothered by the finality with which the Bible speaks of them (Consider the recent furor over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins).
- 2. We are so supremely confident of our own powers and potential as human beings that we have pushed our need for God and our reliance on His promise to finally “rescue” us completely off of the table. It was President Kennedy who said that just as our problems are all of our own making, so will their solutions be of our own making as well. If taken to the extreme, this perspective makes God unnecessary.
- 3. We are managers with our plans and procedures. We plot the progress of things step by step, manipulating the variables and controlling the environment to get the anticipated result and the intended outcome. Looking for God to intervene from outside into the structures and systems that we think we have figured out and have well in hand is deeply offensive to our sense of pride.
4. Finally, we have become increasingly comfortable with and at home in this world. The idea that we are pilgrims and sojourners on this earth whose true citizenship is in heaven is an idea that is rarely brought up in church these days. Our attention is almost completely focused on the here and now. Once it was said that Christians were “so heavenly-minded as to be no earthly good.” But now the exact opposite is true. Most Christians are so “earthly-minded as to be no heavenly good.”
The upshot of all this is that somewhere along the line the mainline church just stopped talking about eschatology – the doctrine of last things. Even though I grew up in a mainline church where my family attended worship every Sunday morning, I honestly can’t remember ever hearing a sermon about eschatology even though at every service I ever attended we stood and said that we believed that Jesus Christ would “come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead,” and was the One “Whose kingdom would have no end.” In my experience, it was a hollow affirmation, an empty box of a belief, something we said, but wouldn’t or couldn’t take seriously. And this was the same reaction that I got from a regional denominational leader who was at that men’s retreat when I used my workshop time to talk about the doctrines of Last Things.
First he was incredulous, and then he just got irritated with me. Initially he just sat there looking at me as if I had sprouted three heads as I provided the workshop participants with the vocabulary of Biblical eschatology – words like “rapture,” “tribulation,” “millennium,” “Armageddon,” and “antichrist,” words the meaning of which we really need to understand in order to engage intelligently in the conversation. And then when I began to put these words together like pieces of a puzzle into the various configurations of the different schools of interpretation – “amillennialism,” “postmillennialism,” “historic premillennialism,” “dispensational premillennialism,” and “realized” – he exploded.
After labeling what I was saying as utter nonsense, he charged me with irrelevance. “What’s the use of any of this?” he demanded to know. “How does this have anything to do with the hurts and hopes of real people?” he snarled. “How does any of this translate into real ministry?” he asked me. “What good is any of this when I’m sitting in the hospital with a suffering church member, or counseling a couple on the brink of divorce?” And while his tone with me was disrespectful and his intention dismissive, I actually thought that his questions were exactly the right ones to be asked.
What’s lost when the church stops talking about eschatology?
What difference does it make when the church simply excises part of its traditional “package”?
Does it really change anything?
I’ve had a couple of years now to think about these questions since leading that retreat and conducting that workshop, and I find that my reason for thinking that eschatology matters answers finally rests on three big ideas.
The first big idea behind my thinking that eschatology really matters is the integrity of the delivered tradition. I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough. Christianity is a revealed religion (Galatians 1:6-10). Paul challenged the Corinthians, “Did the word of God originate with you?” (I Corinthians 14:36). And of course the answer was “no!” It originates with none of us. We don’t invent Christianity, and it is not up to us to decide its content. Instead it is handed down to us. The Christian faith is delivered to us from those who believed it before us, and the sacred charge in this transmission process is “faithfulness” (I Corinthians 4:1-4). As Paul told his successor Timothy, he was first of all to “retain the standard of sound words which he had heard from Paul” (2 Timothy 1:13). And then he was to carefully “guard the treasure” of the Apostolic faith that had been entrusted to him (2 Timothy 1:14). And then finally he was”to entrust” to other faithful Christians “the things that he had heard from Paul in the presence of many witnesses,” so that they in turn could teach others (2 Timothy 2:2). The New Testament is the product of this “apostolic succession,” and as such it is our reliable authority for all matters of apostolic faith and practice. And so, if for no other reason than that the New Testament teaches eschatology emphatically, I would be leery of any church or preacher that did not address the subject. Any Christianity that ignored eschatology would be a less than Biblical version of the faith.
The second big idea behind my thinking that eschatology really matters is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ promises more than it delivers without it. The great theological influence on me in my first year of seminary at Fuller was Dr. George Eldon Ladd. And he was insistent that “the second coming of Jesus Christ is an absolutely indispensible doctrine in the Biblical teaching of redemption. Apart from His glorious return, God’s work will be forever incomplete. At the center of redemption past is Christ on the cross; at the center of redemption future is Christ returning in glory” (The Blessed Hope 6). Pastorally and personally, socially and cosmically, I see no solution to the problem of pain, suffering and loss without the fulfillment of the Biblical promise that the day is coming when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 11:15). This is when and this is how the tears finally get wiped away from every eye, and there shall no longer be any death, or mourning, or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). Remove this promise from the equation of Christian faith, and misery gets the final word.
The third big idea behind my thinking that eschatology really matters is that without it I really don’t have anything more than sympathy to offer people in their suffering. I can sit and pat the hands of the sick and the dying, and of the broken and the damaged, but I can’t honestly promise them healing or a different and better kind of future. But as it is, I do sit at hospital bedsides and stand at cemetery gravesides and speak of hope. And it’s not just wishful thinking on my part in doing so; it is the calculated and steely-eyed conclusion of faith. As Morton Kelsey put it so powerfully –
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead gives me hope. It is the only event in history in which I have seen evil and ugliness, pain and violence, destructiveness and death confronted, defeated, transcended and transmuted. The evil of this world is very real to me. I have experienced a lot of pain and destructiveness within me and around me. Much of my life has been hard and full of tension. The resurrection makes it worth the struggle. I doubt very much that I could muster much realistic hope if Jesus had not risen. If he had gone up to Golgotha, to the place of the skull, and died nobly and that was the end of it, I would admire him as a human being, but human existence would look like trivial, meaningless farce. If love and glory were not somehow manifested in this world, I would doubt their ultimate reality and power. I know the power of evil and destructiveness, attacking us within in depression and despair and outwardly in war and poverty. I know that death lies ahead for all of us whether in nuclear holocaust or by sudden death or by linger sickness. If these for us are not somewhere defeated in history, is there any ultimate meaning or hope? (Resurrection 11-12)
What roots and grounds my belief in the relevancy and urgency of what the New Testament tells us about last things is that what has been promised is part and parcel of what has already taken place. As Paul put it in I Corinthians 15, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the “first fruits of those who are asleep” (15:20). What happened on Easter Sunday morning is the provisional demonstration of what the future holds for everyone who believes. The work of salvation that God began in the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus Christ, and then continued in the sending of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit into the hearts of each and every believer and into the life of the whole church is what is going to be finally completed when Jesus Christ comes again. And if you truly believe this, then how can you possibly keep silent?