Geerhardus Vos says in his ‘Biblical Theology’ that “Biblical religion is thoroughly eschatological in its outlook.” Many of us know what the Westminster Shorter Catechism says: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” The end and purpose of man’s existence and God’s work of redemption is eschatological. The glorification of God and our enjoyment of His glory—of this we have a foretaste, and we will see it in its fullness in the age to come, at the consummation of the Kingdom. Eschatology is much more than trying to figure out the date of Christ’s coming, or if the nation of Israel plays a major role in the last things, or who or what is the antichrist. Just like the rest of our theology, our eschatology must begin with God, not with man. Depending on our hermeneutical focus we will come to different eschatological conclusions. Our focus determines our theology and worldview, and in the same way, it determines our eschatology. What does our eschatology say about Christ’s Kingdom? Is it earthly or heavenly? Should we center our eschatology on the glory of God in redemption through Christ, just like we do with the rest of our theology? What does our eschatology say about the way we should live here on earth?
In this article, I will make a contrast between different eschatologies, not by looking at the different eschatological views, but by looking at the focus. It is not intended as an attack to any particular eschatological view, but simply as a way for us to consider whether we have the correct focus in our eschatology. Some of you might disagree with me, so I’m warning you, but please consider it from a biblical perspective.
Eschatology of fear
It is quite common to see an eschatology of fear in evangelical churches. Those who hold to this eschatology are scared of what might come in the future. They are always worried about whether they won’t be saved at the time of the return of Jesus, and about each and every event that comes out in the news. Speculation is their daily bread. “Who is antichrist? It this the mark of the beast? Is Israel going to war again?” and many other questions go through their mind because they have no choice. Is this what our eschatology should make us do? Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we don’t think about the return of Jesus enough, but there is a difference between longing for His return, and being constantly worried about every political event or economic collapse that happens on this planet. We should also examine ourselves as though Jesus were to return the next day, not in desperate fear, but in sober-mindedness, because our panic may turn our faith away from Christ and towards our works.
Puerto Rican Pentecostalism is very dispensational. I have been told by some friends of mine that they have been in conversation with a girl in the Pentecostal church, and the topic on Jesus’ return came up. She was anxious because she didn’t know whether she was ready for the rapture or not. Dispensationalism mixed with the legalism that we see in many Pentecostal churches in Puerto Rico is a deadly combination. The message of much of Puerto Rican Pentecostalism is a message of fear. If you don’t conform to the norms of the Pentecostal church, you’re not ready for the rapture, and you’ll suffer through the great tribulation. This girl’s anxiety is not surprising, considering this background. She has been brainwashed by an eschatology of fear which tells her that if she doesn’t work hard enough to keep her salvation, she is only ready to meet antichrist. Now, it is no secret that I dislike dispensationalism, but this is not specifically an attack on that system of interpretation. It’s an attack on an eschatology that makes us fear the future instead of longing for Christ’s return.
Eschatology of pessimism
This eschatology is related to the eschatology fear in that it focuses on the things that happen around the world and worries about them all the time. The difference is that the person with the eschatology of pessimism does long for the coming of Christ, except the reason that he does long for it is simply to escape the evil he sees in the world. Some might adequately call it ‘escapism’. It has almost the same level of speculation as the eschatology of fear, looking for signs of the coming of Christ in every single event that happens around the world. The anxiety that emerges from this speculation, rather than producing fear, produces a sort of eschatological depression. “Everything is going bad. Nothing is right. I want to escape.” There is nothing wrong with looking at the world and longing for Christ to put all things in order. The problem is when we focus on the earthly things so much that we long for Christ’s return for the wrong reasons, wanting to escape from our responsibilities here on earth. In some cases, the escape looks more like an earthly utopia, which brings me to the next eschatology.
Eschatology of utopia
Those holding to the eschatology of utopia look at the world with a mixture of anxiety and hyper-optimism, and want to change the world through cultural influence. The difference between the utopia of the eschatology of pessimism and that of utopian eschatology is that the first utopia is simply a method of escape from the problems we currently face, and the second utopia is an ideal that the believer works hard for. Cultural influence is the way the believer wants to change the world. Is it wrong for individual Christians to have influence on the culture? Not at all. I would encourage individual Christians to be good at their calling, whether it is in education, in business, in the arts, and even in politics, all for the glory of God. Yet, we should realize that cultural influence is not the way through which Jesus and the Apostles changed the world. They changed the world with the Gospel. We do not change the culture to change individuals. We preach the Gospel that changes individuals who will then change the culture in their own way. If we want to see our culture change, preach the Gospel, but remember that God chooses whether the people and the culture will change or not. The outcome of the preaching of the Gospel is not under our control, it is under God’s control.
Although these three eschatologies have many differences, they all have something in common. On the surface, it may seem like there is no similarity between them, but a closer look will make you see what makes these similar. The focus of the eschatologies of fear, of pessimism, and of utopia is an earthly one. The first looks at the world in fear at the outcome of daily events. The second looks at the world with pessimism and anxiety wanting to escape from the evil around us. The third looks at the world with hyper-optimism wanting to bring about the new heavens and new earth through cultural influence. Yet, they all look at the world as their focus. The world has become a blindfold to many believers so that we may not see the glory of God in redemption and so that we may not long for Christ’s return as we should. This brings us to our final eschatology.
Eschatology of heaven
The author of Hebrews in chapter 11 describes faith and lists some of the people written about in the Old Testament as examples of faith. After taking a good look at Abraham, he writes a bit of an early conclusion:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)
The people listed by the author of Hebrews as examples of faith looked forward to the eschatological state. They desired something beyond what they saw here on earth. Yet, that faith made them do great things while they were here on earth. That faith did not make them want to leave their earthly responsibilities behind, but instead do everything to the glory of the King of the heavenly city. I believe Geerhardus Vos couldn’t have said it better:
Man belongs to two spheres. And Scripture not only teaches that these two spheres are distinct, it also teaches what estimate of relative importance ought to be placed upon them. Heaven is the primordial, earth the secondary creation. In heaven are the supreme realities; what surrounds us here below is a copy and shadow of the celestial things. Because the relation between the two spheres is positive, and not negative, not mutually repulsive, heavenly-mindedness can never give rise to neglect of the duties pertaining to the present life. It is the ordinance and will of God, that not apart from, but on the basis of, and in contact with, the earthly sphere man shall work out his heavenly destiny. Still the lower may never supplant the higher in our affections. (Geerhardus Vos, from the sermon Heavenly-mindedness)
Our first father Adam was promised the eschatological state—the same perfect communion with God that we will have in eternity—for himself and his descendants on condition of perfect obedience. I mention this because, as Vos would put it, eschatology precedes soteriology. Adam did not need salvation until he sinned. My point here is that from the very beginning the Bible looks forward to this eschatological state, even when man did not need salvation. Adam failed, and then Christ came to accomplish Adam’s work for us. This is because God has chosen to glorify Himself in the redemption of sinners. A bad eschatology fails to take into account these truths, and deviates its focus away from God’s glory in redemption. It fails to place all categories in order. A bad eschatology makes the earthly things primordial and the heavenly things secondary, making the heavenly things a copy and shadow of the earthly things.
This is why I wrote this article: to challenge us to have a heavenly perspective not only on eschatology, but on all of life as well. We may not realize it, but our eschatology affects much of how we view world events, the culture, daily life. In other words, our worldview is, in a sense, affected by our eschatology. It was Christ who told us to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). Our perspective on what the Kingdom of God is affects our evangelism and our ecclesiology. If we believe that the Kingdom is an earthly one, we will use earthly means to bring about this Kingdom. If we listen to Jesus who said “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), then we will not place our trust in earthly means to attract people to church and keep them there, and instead we will obey God and use the means that He has given us for the growth and preservation of the church—Word and sacraments.
What should be our focus in our eschatology? Heaven, or more precisely, God Himself. He is our greatest reward, and He has offered and given Himself to us by grace. When we have our focus placed on heaven, everything will look different (I speak from experience). When we look to heaven, we see God on His throne, sovereign over creation and providence, controlling all things for His glory and our good. We see Jesus reigning with the Father in majesty, interceding for His people. We see the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He reigns until His enemies are put beneath His feet. When we worship God on the Lord’s Day, we enter into the very presence of God, a foretaste of the age to come. We join the angels in worship who day by day sing “Holy, holy, holy is YHWH of hosts”. There is much more I could say about having this heavenly perspective, but that would take quite a lot of time and space.
It all comes down to this: heaven should be our focus. I’m not calling for pietism or escapism, but for heavenly-mindedness. What I’m saying is that everything that we do here on earth must be done in faith, looking forward to the city of God, like the examples of faith in Hebrews 11 did. Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18). He also promised that He would be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Let us live our lives knowing these truths, that Jesus is King and that He will never leave our side, and no one will ever be able to take us from His hand. The Gospel must also be preached to every nation. We cannot rest until the body of Christ is completed. Let us do these things knowing that at the end of the age we will see God in all His majesty, and we will glorify and enjoy Him forever in perfect communion.