by Richard Beck. Originally at Experimental Theology; reprinted by permission.
I don’t recall the first time I heard the term “eschatology.” But what I can be fairly certain of is that I likely equated eschatology with “Judgment Day.” In your faith tradition eschatology might have meant “the End Times.” Armageddon. Thousand Year Reign. Rapture. Anti-Christ. Stuff like that. In my tradition, it was just “Judgment Day.” No drama. No signs. No big climatic battle. Just Jesus-can-come-back-at-any-moment-so-be-ready! That was the beginning and end of our eschatology. Pretty simple.
Here’s a funny story in this regard. Many years ago my wife and I were invited over to dinner by one of her co-workers at school. They were Baptist and the husband was an associate pastor at a local Baptist church. Which was good because I knew we’d have lots to talk about. I’d get to ask: “What do Baptists think about this? What do Baptists think about that? What are conservative Baptists like? Progressive Baptists? How do your conventions work? What’s a Southern Baptist? How do you fund mission work?” And so on.
Anyhow, during the evening I eventually got to “What do Baptists believe about how the world is going to come to an end?” And in response he gives this amazingly complex reply. It’s the whole Armageddon, thousand year reign, rapture, Anti-Christ deal. And I’m just completely transfixed, thinking through this maze of theology, prophecy, biblical text, history, and global politics. I don’t care what you think, but this sort of end times thinking is really quite amazing. True, it’s the theological equivalent of Oliver Stone’s JFK, but both are intellectual accomplishments.
So after about an hour of me quizzing my host over an eschatology that was, essentially, dramatized in the Left Behind novels, he turned to me:
So what is your end times theology in the Churches of Christ?
Well, it’s pretty simple. Jesus comes back and you don’t know when.
No rapture, tribulation, battle of Armageddon?
No Anti-Christ, mark of the beast, or thousand year reign?
Just, ‘Jesus comes back’?
Yep. Just ‘Jesus comes back.’
To be clear, it’s not like everyone in the Churches of Christ sees this the same way. We are, of course, Protestants. Which means that, growing up, members would occasionally wander into church with some odd ideas about 666. It’s the risk you take when you let everyone go home with a bible with the mandate to “study for yourself.” This sort of procedure is bound to spawn some pretty screwball ideas. Some people just shouldn’t be trusted with a bible. Fortunately, group pressure can be brought to bear upon deviants to get them back in line with the “Jesus will come back without warning” position. The sign of the beast–666–really represented, I was told, Nero or the Catholic Church. I can’t remember which…
But I digress.
So I grew up with an impoverished eschatology. Which is interesting because eschatology has become increasingly important to my spiritual life. So much so I can’t have a conversation today about faith without saying “eschaton,” “eschatology,” or “eschatological.” Shoot, I even think of my dog in eschatological terms. Or Office episodes. I see eschatology just about everywhere.
So much so I had my artistic sister make me a sign that says “Eschaton” for my office. I’ve hung it on the wall opposite my desk so that I look at it a lot during the day. I got the idea from William Stringfellow who called his home “Eschaton.”
I can’t tell you how many times this summer I had to explain my sister’s sign. “Eschaton? What does Eschaton mean? Why do you want a sign for your office that says Eschaton?” I tried to explain this a couple of different ways. But the best explanation came in an exchange with my son Brenden:
What does Eschaton mean?
(Sigh.) I’ve been trying to explain that all summer.
I know. But what does it mean?
(Pause. Thinking.) Well, you know how we pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday at church?
Do you remember the lines, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?
Well, that’s what Eschaton means. It means that God’s Kingdom, when all the world will be set right, is coming.
But it’s more than that. Eschaton also means that God’s Kingdom has already come. It’s here, breaking into this moment. Wherever God’s will is being done the Kingdom has come. The End has appeared, for a moment, in the middle of our day. Heaven on earth.
I think I see.
Here’s one last way to think about it. The Eschaton is in the future, but it’s kind of like a Time Machine. Something from the future–something joyous and whole–has shown up in the middle of today. Here it is, right in front of me, this peice of the future, this bit of heaven.
And here’s the totally crazy part. If you are a Christian, the Eschaton isn’t just a Time Machine from the future. No, if you are a Christian you are, in your own being, the Time Machine. You are the time traveler from the future. You don’t, not really, belong here to this time and place. You’re from the future, but living in today’s world. Which means, like a time traveler, you know how it all ends. You’ve seen the future. And that helps you know how to live today. Knowing the end of the story you can see your way through life, often in a way that won’t make sense to a lot of people. They will look at you and ask, “Why are you doing this? You’re crazy.” And you can say, “I know it looks that way. But what I’m doing actually makes a lot of sense. See, I’m from the future. And I’m acting this way because know how the story ends.”