Eschatology: The End in the Present
This week on Place for Truth the topic is Eschatology, or the study of Last Things (i.e., final, or ultimate, not least important things). For some, the mention of Eschatology conjures up memories of end times dramatizations, or elaborate charts for the sequence of future events, or heated debates over a-, post-, or pre-millenialism, in which each opposing view point was denounced as hopelessly destructive to Christian faith and living. Others will recall their pastors, or perhaps themselves, saying, “I am a pan-millenialist; you know … it will all ‘pan out’ in the end?” Unfortunately, Eschatology is often seen as either a hysterical obsession or an irrelevant appendix to Christian faith and life. However, in Scripture, our understanding of ultimate things has immense significance for our lives in the present.
Let me suggest a couple areas in which that is the case, but let me first say, by way of preface, that these areas will resonate even for the “pan-millenialist”. After all, I’ve never met a Christian who didn’t believe that, in the end, Jesus will return and set everything right. As the Apostles’ Creed says, “from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” And as it concludes, “I believe … in the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”
The first way in which the end comes into the present is in the area of suffering. This is an area to which all can relate, and some more than others at the moment. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Ultimate things are unseen things. And last things are also lasting. Paul says that the weight of future glory will outweigh present woes. Now, if you are in the midst of suffering, that’s a hard calculation, because suffering feels anything but light or momentary when you’re in the midst of it. Yet the Christian faith says, if you are Christ’s, your present suffering is preparing you for future glory, just as Christ first suffered and then was raised (cf. 2Co 4:11). It also tells you that future glory, when it comes, will make your present suffering more than worth it. That is hope: powerful motivation to persevere through suffering.
The second way in which the end comes into the present is in the area of our work and witness. Peter writes about a great conflagration in which the present world will be transformed into a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2Pe 3:13) – hardly could a more ultimate reality be imagined! Then he draws this conclusion: “Since all these things are thus to be … what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” (2Pe 3:11). Since the world will one day be a place of righteousness, we ought to get on with growing in godliness now.
Similarly, Jesus pictures the final judgment as a harvest in which the righteous and wicked will be separated like wheat from weed (Mat 13:36-40, cf. Rev 14:14-20). He also sees present evangelistic mission as a harvest opportunity: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Mat 9:37-38) Since moving to a rural, farming community, I’ve become more aware of how harvest time can bring a sudden increase of urgent work, before the window for reaping is closed. The reality of the final judgment is supposed to give an urgency to our Christian work and witness.
I hope these considerations have persuaded you that Eschatology is highly relevant to daily Christian living, whether it is in the areas of suffering, holiness, or evangelism and mission. This list is far from exhaustive, but I hope it is persuasive. Like anyone, Christians must live their lives one day at a time, but unlike many, Christians also live the end each day, because last things really are of ultimate importance.
Steven McCarthy is pastor of Walton Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is enjoying life with his wife and son in the Catskill region of Upstate New York.
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