Leette and I are the proud grandparents of Matthew Alexander Lance, born to our daughter Deborah on August 14. As most of you know, Deborah and her husband Michael live in Mexico City where he is a banking officer with Standard Chartered of England.
Matt came into the world in San Diego, and so it will take awhile for the parents to process the paperwork in order to take him out of the country. Meanwhile we get to have him here at the house where we can pamper and spoil him, making it hard for the kids when they take him home to Mexico!
Eschatology, Part 1
With this letter I begin a new series on the importance of eschatology in the life of the Christian. The dictionary defines eschatology as “any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters as death, the judgment, the future state, etc.” Perhaps you wonder as to the relevance of this.
I remember when finishing my formal education, that a close friend and I formed a new denomination entitled The Reformed Dispensational Baptists. Calvinists use the acronym TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) to summarize their systems’ doctrine. My buddy and I decided we would use the acronym PANSY.
Pan-millennialism – we didn’t know much about the end times, but believed it would all “pan” out okay.
Allegorical demythologizing – with this we could make the Bible say anything we wanted it to say.
Neo-ecumenical – we believed in unity – on our terms!
Supralapsarianism – which has to do with the order of events in the mind of God before creation, and formed the foundation for our whole theological system.
Yom Kippur – which formed our doctrine of the atonement and was the date of our annual meeting.
As you can see, we didn’t consider doctrine in general, and eschatology in particular, all that relevant to the main task of the believer which is to depopulate hell and populate Heaven. It wasn’t until several years later that I began to change my thinking, which resulted from interacting with another close friend. It occurred to me that doctrine is the formulation of truth, and truth is by definition relevant. If I don’t see the relevance of a particular doctrine, it means that I do not understand it. I subsequently learned that eschatology is eminently practical.
As you know, the Church is divided over what the Bible teaches regarding the end times. There are three basic divisions, with sub-groupings under each. They are:
Historic pre-millennialism. This position, held by the Patristics (from the word “fathers,” i.e. the leaders of the Christian movement following the apostles) and a minority of the Church today, believes that the thousand year reign of Christ recorded in Revelation 20 applies to the Church. The Patristics lived during days of persecution, believed that their troubled days were the tribulation of Revelation 6-19, and looked expectantly for the imminent return of Christ. The millennium was designed for the Church rather than for the nation of Israel. It was a literal thousand-year period, a golden age for the Church.
A-millennialism. This theory, held by the vast majority of Christendom including Roman Catholics and Protestants, holds that we cannot take the Revelation of John literally, and therefore the thousand year reign of Christ in Revelation 20 is a figure of speech referring to the life of the Church during the time between the two advents of Christ. The kingdom of God is now present in the world as the victorious Christ rules through His Church. Good and evil will continue to develop during this time. “All the wealth of historical associations and social emotion which were contained in the Old Testament had been separated from its national and racial limitations and transferred to the new international spiritual community. Thereby the Church acquired many of the characteristics of a political society; that is to say, Christians possessed a real social tradition of their own and a kind of patriotism which was distinct from that of the secular state in which they lived.”
Dispensationalism. This view, held by only a small minority of the Church, came into prominence in the nineteenth century, principally through the teaching of the layman, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). It teaches that Israel and the Church are separate meta-physical entities (as distinct from both historic pre-millennialism and a-millennialism which teach that Israel and the Church are one and the same) and that the millennium of Revelation 20, a literal thousand year period, applies to the nation of Israel. God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament are inviolable, and will find their fulfillment in the millennium, during which time Christ will literally sit on the throne of David and judge the nations. The tribulation of Revelation 6-19 refers to a literal seven year period prior to Christ’s return. Advocates of this position differ regarding the role of the Church during the tribulation, although most believe that it will be “raptured” prior to the event in fulfillment of I Thess 4:16-17.
SABBATICAL ON ESCHATOLOGY
As most of you know, Leette and I took a six-week sabbatical in Wales in 1992 to study eschatology as viewed by the Patristics. The practical relevance of the subject occurred to me when I reasoned that all of us are motivated by our hope. Hope has at least two qualities: it is future, and it reveals our value system. As Paul teaches in Romans 8:24-25, we do not hope for something that has already come to pass. Also, the object of our hope reveals what we value. We always hope in the direction of what we consider gain, profit, or reward, never the opposite.
I have short-range hopes (e.g. I hope to finish this series on eschatology before the end of the year), mid-range hopes (e.g. I hope to see all my children educated and married with families of their own), and long-range hopes (e.g. I hope to go to Heaven when I die and live eternally with Christ). My eschatology is an outgrowth of my long range hope.
Since we all hope, and since we hope in the direction of our values, and since our long range hope is our eschatology, then our eschatology appreciably influences our understanding of what is important in life. Eschatology is critically important!
As noted, however, the Church is divided on the subject of eschatology. This brought me to the next step in my reasoning: Have you ever wondered about a passage of Scripture and wished you could talk with the author regarding what he meant? The Patristics had such an opportunity, at least those who immediately followed the apostles. They not only had access to the documents written by the apostles, but could interrogate them regarding what they said.
Possibly I could go to the writings of the Patristics and find answers to these perplexing questions regarding eschatology. They had opportunity to discuss Matthew 24 with the disciples of Christ. Some were able to discuss the Revelation with John after he received it. Maybe they will give fresh understanding on what was said and meant. Saint Deiniol’s Library in Hawarden, Wales, was an ideal place to go, since they had an extensive collection on the Patristics. When an anonymous donor made it possible for us to go, we accepted the opportunity.
THE PATRISTICS ON ESCHATOLOGY
Before going to Wales, I knew that the Patristics (men such as Papias and Ireneaus, and later writers such as Justin and Tertullian) were all pre-millennialists. Others like Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp did not mention it in their writings. All that addressed the subject of eschatology, however, interpreted Revelation 20 literally. The Early Church generally believed in the approaching end of the world and the return of Christ, or the Parousia. This would be preceded by great troubles and by the revelation of the Antichrist. At Christ’s coming the Antichrist and the wicked would be destroyed.
The chronology adopted by most of the writers, and indeed of later periods, was that history was divided into seven, one-thousand-year periods. Even Augustine, in his famous City of God, embraced this division of history into seven periods. Christ came in the sixth thousand-year period, and the seventh millennium was a time of rest, corresponding to the seven days of Creation in Gen 1-2.
What I had not anticipated, and did not discover until my sabbatical, was that the Patristics, who addressed the subject, were anti-Semitic. As the historian Bietenhard rightly notes, even in the Epistle of Barnabas we see an anti-Jewish strain. Three ingredients produced this antipathy towards the Jews:
1 – They were perceived as responsible for killing Jesus Christ.
2 – By the time Paul’s ministry was coming to a close, circular letters were sent from the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem warning the synagogues of the Dispersion to bar Christians from their fellowships. As a result, the Jews quickly became hardened to the gospel.
3 – They participated with Rome in the persecution of Christians. This was probably the deciding factor in the Church becoming anti-Semitic.
For the first twenty years of my ministry I labored with The Navigators. My friend, who provoked my interest in eschatology, noted that the modern para-church organizations, including The Navigators, were born out of a dispensational, Bible-school matrix. When he asked me why that was, I didn’t know, but was intrigued by the question. I thought I would find traces of dispensationalism among the Patristics, since both dispensationalists and the Patristics are pre-millennial, but I found none.
In the next issue we will explore more fully the dynamics that brought about the estrangement of Judaism from Christianity, but at this point in my sabbatical, one of the doors closed. You cannot be dispensational and anti-Semitic, for dispensationalism believes that the Jewish people still hold a special place in the heart of God and will one day be restored as a nation in accordance with the Old Testament promises.
Most issues of the Dear Co-laborer are self-contained units. Each issue can stand on its own. This series on eschatology will be different in that the subject is so vast and intricate that my feeble mind is unable to package it as separate units. It may be that you will feel left “hanging” after an issue such as this one, and I acknowledge this limitation.
Yours in hope of his early return,