Theological Eschatology 2 – In the End, God
This is the second in a series of articles, the first of which can be found here ~ Mark McDowell, the editor< I. Beginning and End
God is not only instigator of but also integral to our hope.
Before we consider the end, we do well to pay attention to the beginning. The first creation account (Gen. 1:1-2:4) tells of many grand and glorious things: the division of the land and the seas, of day and night, and the many inventions of species and selves. It culminates not with production, however, but with presence: God dwells in the midst of his people, resting there on that seventh day. Recent commentators have helped us note the temple imagery present there in significant ways, showing that God is fashioning a world fit for his dwelling much like a temple will later be made as his home. And this is neither merely a feature of the creation account, nor the form of its telling; no, God’s special presence with his people is the finale of the entire creation story.
The end is not all that different. The terminology has shifted somewhat, with language of a city and of buildings inserted amongst the portraits of gardens and rivers. The division of the righteous in Christ and the wicked apart from Christ marks this grand and glorious portrait; the glitz and glimmer involve not only the natural order and architectural beauty of the New Jerusalem but also the relational harmony of a land without tears. And yet, again, the central word is not one of newness but of nearness. The great promise is “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3). The centrality of this tenet may be seen not only in the way in which the one element missing in the picture is a temple (21:22-27) but also and especially in the final repetition of the good word: “Behold, I am coming soon” (22:12, 20).
These moments which serve as bookends to redemptive history tell us not only about ourselves but, ultimately, something fundamental about God. That God is the Alpha and the Omega, that the triune one is the Beginning and the End.
II. Divine Priorities or Human Idolatry
In thinking about Christian eschatology, we do well to keep in mind a fundamental rule of all Christian teaching, namely, that our emphases and priorities ought to be given and governed by God himself through his appointed instruments, namely, the scriptural testimony of his prophets and apostles.
Why might this rule be significant? Well, John Calvin suggested that each of us has a heart that is an idol-making factory. In suggesting this, he was not simply talking like a lawyer (though he’d been one), nor expressing a morose personality (though you might be morose if you’d had to flee Paris through an open window). He was reflecting upon biblical teaching that idolatry marks all people, not just the pagans of Egypt or of Canaan but even the liberated slaves at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Owing to zeal without knowledge and left to ourselves, each of us is quite capable of worshipping the right God with the wrong golden calf.
Because we are sinners who continue to struggle with indwelling sin and live amongst a people of unclean lips, we require recalibration. The apostle Paul addresses this need famously in his words to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Knowing God’s will doesn’t come easily or naturally to those living east of Eden, even those saved by Christ. We must present a stiff-arm to the culture, first, but also must seek the renewal of our own minds as they are, second, because we are not unaffected by the stain of sin. The transforming renewal of our minds occurs now as it did then, by being taken to school by the apostles: the formation that comes from learning of the works of God and the ways of God, the faith and practice that mark the evangelical community.
The danger of idolatry is especially significant in the realm of eschatology. When we speak of eschatology, we are speaking of fundamental hopes and ultimate desires. Matters of priority and significance come right to the surface, because we are addressing what has lasting significance in God’s economy. Numerous errors can be identified in this eschatological realm, wherein people have suggested that the eventual triumph of some superior race, or the financial wealth of the truly faithful, or the final harmony of all world religions will be brought to pass. Each of these errors flows from some cultural and personal ideal being given independent significance in a way not acknowledged or upheld by (and oftentimes quite contradictory to) the teaching of holy Scripture.
III. The Cause and Center of Christian Hope
After these methodological words, we must turn back to our scriptural and doctrinal concern and ask how this theological rule (re-)shapes our eschatology. I want to suggest that we need to remember that God is not only the cause of but also the center of our Christian hope.
God is the cause of our hope. The New Testament makes plain that faith and sight are juxtaposed (Heb. 11:1 et al). This distinction marks not simply the temporal nature of our hope (yet to come) but the generative source of our hope (as not being immanent or intrinsic). The Lord brings about what he has promised: the gates of hell will not prevail against the onward movement of Christ’s church (Mt. 16:18); and the commission to Christ’s disciples will be fulfilled owing to the authoritative presence of their Lord unto the very end (Mt. 28:19-20; note “I am with you always, to the end of the age”). Theologians have varied in how they articulate language of causality (whether taking it up and fashioning it to suit divine agency amidst a creaturely realm, or suggesting that it be replaced or translated into another idiom like that of divine gift and provision). In either approach, however, they attempt to point to the singular agency of God in grounding our hope, and in bringing what can now only be grasped by faith unto such reality and presence that it can be seen.
But God is also the center of our hope. We see this in Jesus’s comments regarding the practice of his disciples: they do not fast while he’s there, though a time will come when they do so (Mt. 9:14-15). Notice that Jesus does not offer just any circumstance as the telling measure for when one mourns and when one rejoices; rather, his personal presence tilts the mood one way or another. He focuses on this matter of personal presence (of the nearness of the bridegroom) not because health, worldly peace, the clean conscience, relational unity, and the like do not matter. Rather, he focuses upon personal presence because it is primary – the word Immanuel (God with us) connects his teaching with the Alpha and Omega of Holy Scripture.
Whereas idolatry may take the form of instrumentalizing God, treating him as the liberator from captivity and the sovereign who brought one to prosperity before turning to worship in an illicit form, scriptural theology that seeks to follow the emphases of the scriptures will be alert to the reality that at the end of God’s grace is, ultimately, God. His creation, sustenance, instruction, patience, deliverance, reconciliation, forgiveness, resurrection, and so many other intermediate and unnamed kindnesses… they are all unto God. The gospel logic runs: “from him, through him, and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36).
Augustinian naturalism would treat God as the sovereign instigator and cause of Christian hope, the almighty and gracious Lord who brings his kingdom to pass. But when it comes to describing or articulating that glory, it searches for other items, realities, and persons to mark its very nature: the shalom of the city, the redemption of creation, the resurrection of the body. Its ends can and have at times become naturalistic, limited to the horizontal or immanent frame (to use Charles Taylor’s terminology). Of course, there is no logical reason that the confession of the resurrection of the body, or of social harmony, or of a renewed heavens and earth might prompt such theological forgetfulness when it comes to the end. And in its better forms (as, e.g., in G. C. Berkouwer’s The Return of Christ) the Kuyperian tradition has continued to affirm the spiritual center of our hope amidst its broad reach into every nook and cranny of our cosmos, selves, and society.
In the end, then, heaven comes to earth. We do not hope for an angelic existence (see not only Ps. 8 but also Heb. 2:6-9), and we do not ultimately long to be absent from the body (though this is an intermediate hope: Phil. 1:21-24). But Jesus taught us to pray in this way, aspiring unto heavenliness (Mt. 6:10), and called us to seek first the kingdom of God, the realm in which God resides and rules, not all the other good things which accompany God’s blessed presence (Mt. 6:33). In the end, as in the beginning, God will be there.
Michael Allen is associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida
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