In this essay we begin to study the doctrine of last things. The big theological word is “eschatology.” It comes from the Greek eschatos, which means “last things,” and “logos,” which means “reason.” So “eschatology” is reasoning about last things.
To talk about “last things” implies a very definite view of history, perhaps we should say, a philosophy of history. The two common broad views of history are the cyclical and linear. According to the cyclical view the universe functions according to laws that cause history to repeat itself. Thus there are constantly recurring cycles. Historians call them by different names: ages (Plato), cultures (Spengler), or civilizations (Toynbee).
In the linear view, history is moving in a recognizable direction. It has a goal, a destiny. Some whose thinking was from this perspective suggested that progress is made when there is a strong ruler. And that ruler should rule according to his own self-interest. When Machiavelli’s prince or Nietzsche’s superman is in control, history moves forward. When there is no strong leader, then there is no real progress.
Interestingly, Augustine took a similar position, but with God as the great determiner of progress. Augustine believed that God is the Great Leader, who is leading the world to a predetermined end, his kingdom. John Calvin later advanced Augustine’s ideas to their logical conclusion. Many would say that Augustine and Calvin overemphasized the degree to which God determines events. But they were correct in understanding that the Bible has a linear view of history, and that God will bring human history to a proper conclusion.
We can say at least five things about the Biblical view of history. First, history is a growth process. That is to say, history is not just a willy-nilly succession of events. God is guiding history, and those of us who are following his guidance are growing and developing. As a result, Positive change takes place.
Second, history is a scene of trial and error. Obviously there are failures along the way. But there also are breakthroughs.
Third, history is a scene of the unusual. That is, miracles occur. God is not locked out of the system he created. Rather he is involved with it, and sometimes he acts within it in ways that are miraculous to us.
Fourth, history is moral. This is where we see the eschatological element coming to the fore in biblical thought. In the end, God will make things right morally and bring about justice. We certainly do not see that happening in the present. We more often see the innocent suffering, the just being persecuted, and the wicked prospering. But the biblical message is clear. There will be an accounting in the end time. The righteous will be vindicated. Those who have suffered unjustly will be rewarded. And those who have prospered at the expense of the downtrodden, who are unwilling to repent, will be punished.
Finally, fifth, history has a goal and purpose behind it. History is going somewhere. It has a destiny prepared for it by God. If we are confused, it is because we have not seen the end of the story. The goal, the end, as far as the biblical revelation is concerned, is the second advent of Christ. Jesus is coming back! And when he comes, he will consummate the future Kingdom of God. And of course as soon as we raise that subject, we are talking about the end times.
When one studies the various views of the end times, one discovers that there are three basic positions concerning the second coming of Christ. The first is that the second coming already has happened in the past. Persons who take this view generally would say that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room at the first Christian Pentecost was the second advent.
The second view suggests that the second coming is happening every day in the present. Persons who hold this position usually will claim one of two things. They may claim that Christ comes again every time an individual accepts Christ. In other words the reception of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, at conversion is the second coming for that individual. Or they may claim that the presence of Christ in the sacraments is the second coming. Jesus taught his followers to “eat, this is my body.” Thus Christ comes again to each believer in the Eucharist every time one partakes of it.
The third view is that the second coming of Christ will happen in the future. This is the orthodox view of the Church. The Bible teaches that the return of the Lord will be a personal, bodily return that will take place sometime in the future. And when he comes he will institute the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of Heaven (which is a synonymous expression), represents an idea that is found in both the Old and New Testaments.
In the Old Testament the expression, kingdom of God, is not found. But the idea of God’s being a king over his covenant people is. In the New Testament, the kingdom of God constitutes the central theme of the teaching of Jesus; and thus it is of supreme importance to the Christian faith. Both Jesus and the Gospel writers center their eschatology on the idea of the Kingdom.
The Gospel writers expressly declare that the kingdom of God was the theme of Jesus’ preaching. For example Luke writes, “Soon afterward he went on through the cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God” (8:1). Matthew says it just a little differently, “And he went about all Galilee teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (4:23). A study of Jesus’ sayings and parables shows that the kingdom was indeed central in Jesus’ thought and teaching. So the important matter is to get at what he meant by the phrase.
As I already indicated, the idea of the kingdom of God was found in the Old Testament. And so the concept was not new to those who heard Jesus. The Old Testament clearly teaches that God is eternally the king, that God is sovereign right now, whether people acknowledge it or not, and that there is a kingdom which lies in the future. All of these ideas are found in the teachings of Jesus.
But the most important emphasis of Jesus in respect to the kingdom is the eschatological, or end-time, element. In the New Testament, the Greek word basileia means, basically, “kingship” or “rule.” And when the word is associated with God, it means the “rule” of God.
Therefore, the “kingdom of God” is not so much a place as it is a sphere of authority. If you are a part of the kingdom of God, it is not because of where you are located. Rather it is because you are under the rule of God, wherever you might be.
Now Jesus taught, on the one hand, that the kingdom of God, that is the rule of God, is to come in the future. On the other hand, some of Jesus’ sayings clearly imply that the kingdom, in the eschatological sense, already has come in the person and ministry of Jesus himself. This paradox has troubled many scholars. Some have attempted to deal with it by bringing all of the teachings of Jesus under one or the other of these senses of the kingdom, either present or future. These attempts invariably have failed, because they force all of the sayings into the one mold or the other, whether they fit or not.
The most famous representatives of these two interpretations are C.H. Dodd, who stressed the present aspect and Albert Schweitzer, who stressed the futuristic aspect of the kingdom. Dodd is famous for the phrase “realized eschatology,” and Schweitzer for the phrase “consistent eschatology.” By realized eschatology, Dodd meant that believers realize (experience) the blessings of the end-time kingdom in the present. Jesus never intended that we are to receive those blessings in the distant future. We are to experience them now.
By consistent eschatology Schweitzer meant that we must interpret Jesus’ statements regarding a future kingdom consistently as something that would take place in the future. Neither of these approaches is correct. The best approach to Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom is to accept the fact that Jesus indeed taught us about two very real aspects of the kingdom of God, one present and one future.
The kingdom has come in fulfillment of the promised messianic salvation. That is, the promise in the Old Testament of a coming Messiah has been fulfilled in Jesus. But the perfect realization of the Kingdom of God (and remember that means the perfect rule of God over everyone everywhere) has not yet come.
George E. Ladd expresses this beautifully in his Theology of the New Testament. After stating that the glorious kingdom will be experienced only in the Age to come Ladd writes:
In advance of the manifestation of the Kingdom in glory, however, this same Kingdom of God, his kingly reign, has manifested itself among men in an unexpected form. The Kingdom is to work secretly among men. While the evil age continues, the Kingdom of God has begun to work quietly in a form almost unnoticed by the world. Its presence can be recognized only by those who have spiritual perception to see it. This is the mystery of the Kingdom: the divine secret that in the ministry of Jesus [God’s present kingdom] has for the first time been disclosed to men. The future, apocalyptic, glorious Kingdom has come secretly to work among men in advance of its open manifestations (p. 158).