Archive: Eschatology

By J.B. Phillips

“Eschatology” is the doctrine or teaching about “the last things” – death, judgement, heaven and hell. Much of today’s Christianity is almost completely earthbound, and the words of Jesus about what follows this life are scarcely studied at all.

This, I believe, is partly due to man’s enormous technical successes, which make him feel master of the human situation. But it is also partly due to our scholars and experts. By the time they have finished with their dissection of the New Testament and with their explaining away as “myth” all that they find disquieting or unacceptable to the modern mind, the Christian way of life is little more than humanism with a slight tinge of religion.

It is not only advertisers who attempt to deaden our critical faculties by clever words. There are New Testament scholars who, whether consciously or not, do the same thing. Thus, if you are to be thought up-to-date and “with it,” you are expected to believe in current phrases. One of these is “realized eschatology,” which means that all those things which Jesus foretold have happened, either at the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 or in the persecutions of the Church. In other words, the prophetic element in the teaching of Jesus is of no value at all to us in the twentieth century. Such a judgement makes Jesus less of a prophet than Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and the rest.

I find myself quite unable to accept this. There is an element of the prophecy of Jerusalem’s terrible downfall and of the desecration of the Temple – the horror of which we who are not Jews find hard to appreciate. But the prophetic vision goes far beyond this. It envisages the end of the life of humanity on this planet, when, so to speak, eternity irrupts into time. There is no time scale: there is rarely such an earthbound factor in prophetic vision. The prophet sees the truth in compelling terms, but he cannot tell the day or the hour of any event, still less the time of the end of the whole human affair.

We are ourselves somewhere in the vast worldwide vision which Jesus foresaw. And for all we know, we may be near the end of all things.

You simply cannot read the New Testament fairly and come to the conclusion that the world is going to become better and better, happier and happier, until at last God congratulates mankind on the splendid job they have made of it! Quite the contrary is true; not only Jesus but Paul, Peter, John, and the rest never seriously considered human perfectibility in the short span of earthly life. This is the preparation, the training ground, the place where God begins His work of making us into what He wants us to be. But it is not our home. We are warned again and again not to value this world as a permanency. Neither our security nor our true wealth are rooted in this passing life. We are strangers and pilgrims, and while we are under the pressure of love to do all that we can to help our fellows, we should not expect a world which is largely God-resisting to become some earthly paradise. All this may sound unbearably old-fashioned, but this is the view of the New Testament.

In a true and real sense the Kingdom of God was already established upon earth, but none of the New Testament writers expects the vast work of redeeming the whole world to take place either easily or quickly.

Some, at least, of the early Christians apparently expected the return of their risen Lord in power in a very short time. Both Peter and Paul had to remind their converts that the “time” was entirely a matter of God’s choosing. Meanwhile the Christian life must be led with patience and courage, the true Gospel must be proclaimed, and Christian worship continued. The light must shine in a dark and cruel world.

It might be thought that if a man’s hope and treasure lay in another, unseen world, he would have little contact with, or interest in, the world in which he is only a temporary resident. Of course there have been, and are, sects who live apart from the world. But that is not the general picture. It is not usually the atheists and agnostics who are to be found fighting disease, ignorance, and fear in the most dangerous and difficult parts of the world. And this is because the Christian faith, although inevitably rooted in “heaven,” is incurably earthly. The seeds of this paradoxical attitude are scattered throughout the New Testament. “Religion” which does not express itself in compassion is a dead and, indeed, a dangerous thing. Yet the root of the relief of disease, the removal of ignorance, and the teaching of faith lies in the love of God. We love because God first loved us.

I feel I must stress this point because we seem to live in an atmosphere of “either/or,” whereas it is really a matter of “both/ and.” Certainly it is useless to preach a Gospel of the soul’s redemption to a starving man. But it is equally valueless (and the world around is full of examples) to make man affluent in this world and at the same time deprive him of any sense of God or of any meaningful life after death. “Compassion” and “charity” are both popular words today, while faith in God is regarded as largely irrelevant. But in fact both compassion and charity can be monstrously misused unless they are informed by the love of God. Hence we get situations in which compassion goes out to the violent thug who assaults an old lady for her meagre savings, but none at all to her! Charity means instant social acceptance for the adulterer but little compassion for his deceived and deprived wife. To love God is the first and greatest commandment, said Jesus. And this is the priority insisted on throughout the New Testament.

J. B. PHILLIPS, an English pastor and student of Holy Scriptures, is world famous for his popular translation, “The New Testament in Modem English,” © 1958 Macmillan. Our article, “J.B. Phillips on Eschatology” is reprinted by permission from his latest book, “Ring of Truth” © 1967 Macmillan. -Editor

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