When you hear the word eschatology, do you feel its significance to your present life — I mean the people, responsibilities, and decisions before you today? Or do you (more likely) think of debates over when Jesus is coming back or whether we’ll be raptured? Do you even know what the word eschatology means?
Eschatology means “the study of the last things,” and this precious and relevant doctrine often gets relegated to the periphery of church life. I remember leading a Bible study through Revelation that routinely devolved into a debate between a couple of elderly saints over whether the rapture would be “pre-trib” or “mid-trib.” For some, eschatology conjures images of multiheaded beasts, the dissolution of stars and planets, or mountains swallowing people alive. Like the painting of a master hung on the wall, eschatology might invite animated discussion and yet seem to bear little consequence to work or marriage or rush-hour traffic.
The problem is that the portrait of the end times in the New Testament refuses to stay on the wall. Like the picture of the ship in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when you look closely, the waves begin to move, the briny wind whips your hair, and before you know it you find yourself treading water in a cold and wild sea.
We can’t approach eschatology like Eustace Scrubb (the whiny, narrow-minded cousin in Lewis’s story) looks at his dead beetles: specimens pinned to cards for the purpose of mere analysis. The end of the ages has come barreling upon us; we live in the end times.
‘End of the Ages’
The New Testament persistently speaks of Christians as living in the end times near to the return of Christ. The author of Hebrews, for instance, says that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). Likewise, the apostle Paul, recounting the punishments that fell on Israel for their sins, writes, “These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). James writes, “You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:8).
First-century Christians understood they inhabited a new epoch of world history: the last of the ages. The end times burst upon the world when Christ rose from the dead and ascended to the Father. And the next event in redemption’s sequence, as the Apostles’ Creed reminds us, is Christ’s return to judge the living and the dead.
Centuries have passed, but our basic situation hasn’t changed. Christians today still live in the unique age of history that some theologians have described as the “already–not yet.” Christ has already come; he has not yet come again. The hyphen between those comings has become our home. Moreover, the hyphen is not some motionless, undefined line without purpose or end but a vector, containing both magnitude (a predetermined length) and direction (a predetermined end). Like all history, God has ordered that little hyphen to a particular purpose. And thus, everything contained within that hyphen, even the most mundane moments, echoes with eternal weight and meaning.
Life Within a Shrinking Frame
The apostle Peter captures the weight and relevance of the hyphen in his second letter. There he reminds believers that many scoffers will not recognize the significance of the already–not yet life. Failing to understand that because creation had a beginning, so too it must have an end, they mockingly say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). Rejecting what God has clearly revealed, they live as though the world will continue as it has from the beginning, locked in an immanent frame with which God (let alone Jesus Christ) has little or nothing to do.
Thus, they give themselves to sinful desires, empty pursuits (2 Peter 3:3). Self-realization becomes all in all. Life consists of the possessions one owns. Happiness grows out of the fragile planters of career achievement or relational success. “Real living” shrinks to the size of weekends or vacations. And even for those who find satisfaction in their work, a certain meaninglessness dogs every step.
Not so for you Christians, says Peter. You recognize the space in which you live. You know the brevity that characterizes life and work on this earth. You know that “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise” to return “as some count slowness” (2 Peter 3:9). You know that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar . . . and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). You know the limited nature of the hyphen and its end. Jesus will return. Judgment will come. So, “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” (2 Peter 3:11).
A friend recently told me about a youth pastor who ends youth gatherings with a simple creed: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” The purpose of that recitation is to train the youth how to live in the present. He wants them to understand that the immanent frame, the boxed-in natural world in which God plays no part and to which he won’t return, the motionless painting on the wall, is a delusion. There will come a day when “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). All the works of humankind will face judgment.
A Hyphen Changes Lives
This two-thousand-year hyphen changes how we spend our lives, awakening us to the preciousness and import of each moment. The regular routines of today, the tasks (big and small) that we’re required to complete for work, the multitude of interactions we will have with spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends, classmates, coworkers, and strangers — every moment is an opportunity God has provided (planned, in fact, from the beginning) to show that we live for the glory of the one who will return. When we remember our beloved Master is coming back, we aim for faithfulness in every activity.
Christ’s coming provides us with necessary perspective as we deal with these everyday moments. The frustrations of rush hour — getting cut off by an errant motorist, another detour due to seasonal construction, an accident that adds ten minutes to your commute — are opportunities to remind yourself and show others that your clock is set to a heavenly time zone. An extra few minutes on the way to work is given by the God who owns all times. Will we squander it in frustration or put it to use in prayer?
Likewise, the work you do each day bears great significance. Your vocation may seem unimportant in the grand scheme of world history, yet the one who planned the end from the beginning included your labors in the blueprints for this day. And in some small way, these labors can become part of hastening the return of Christ. Whether your work today means changing yet another diaper, crunching numbers in a spreadsheet, or serving the needs of an ailing stranger, remembering that it fits into God’s eternal purpose guards us from the despairing thought that none of it really matters in eternity. Rather, because Christ rose and will return, “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Eschatology also matters for our relationships. Each interaction you have with spouse or children or others is an interaction with an immortal being whose existence is eschatologically shaped. The passing remarks and small jests, the serious conversations, the tender or harsh tones, the kind or disparaging looks — in every instance we are, as Lewis reminds us, helping others toward either the new heaven and earth, where righteousness will dwell, or the lake of fire, reserved for the devil, his angels, and all who reject the love and reign of Christ (The Weight of Glory, 45–46).
The day of God is coming, says Peter, so “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish” (2 Peter 3:14). Strive in his strength to walk in holiness and godliness as you order your life toward his glory in these last days.
Magic Beneath This Life
The study of the end times bears heavily on the here and now, precisely because the end times are not some future age to come but the very real present. Every moment of daily life, every drawn breath, every word and act takes place within a realm, so to speak, of magic.
The Eustaces of the world cannot see this for they’ve become enthralled by the events, inventions, and busyness of a God-less world. To them, the picture on the wall of life between the advents of Christ is just that, a picture and nothing more. The challenge for Christians is to not succumb to such blinded ways of thinking but to remember that the picture, if you look closely, is more real and expansive than what we see.