In a theology class recently, we had a forum on eschatology, based upon our reading of various theologians on the topic. Here are a few of the questions I was asked by my classmates in the course of that discussion, and my responses to them. (Tami, did I hear you correctly??? uh, yeah, you did!):
Q: Tami, As I read through your summary, I was confused. Are you saying that the end of the age that Jesus spoke of and that the apostles spoke of already happened and everyone missed it?
A: Yes, I do see “the end of the age” that Jesus and the apostles all said was about to be fulfilled in their generation as the end of the old covenant age. As Hebrews says, “in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son,” and “that which is waxing old is ready to vanish away.” And no, if we are believers in the gospel, we didn’t miss anything, but rather are living under all the benefits of the glorious new covenant (“there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”).
Q: Why do Christians believe time is linear?
A: I think you may be referring to [our textbook editor's statement here]: “A characteristic Christian belief, of decisive importance in this [eschatological] context is that time is linear, not cyclical.” Why is this of decisive importance? A few thoughts:
God’s plan of redemption laid out in Scripture, beginning in the garden (Genesis 3:15) is a historical plan. The historical event that was prophesied from the beginning that accomplished the redemption of God’s people was the death and resurrection of Christ. Some (probably a minority within Christianity) take an “idealist” (I am not sure whether this is the same as “cyclical” or not?) approach to redemption and remove it from its historical context, which in effect renders the cross of Christ unnecessary. It is instead then viewed as a “show” or “demonstration” of a redemption that was already performed, rather than the actual performance of that redemption. But Luke states that Jesus came to “perform the mercy promised to the fathers” (Luke 1:72). He had to do something. I think this will become more and more significant the more time we spend contemplating how God worked progressively (e.g. the law was a tutor to lead them to Christ, cf. Galatians 3:24) throughout the history of His people as recorded in the Scriptures to reveal, and eventual accomplish, their salvation. Things were prophesied, then they happened according to those prophecies, all leading up to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. So that:
Ephesians 1: 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time,to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
Those are just some of my thoughts on why a linear concept of time is theologically significant.
Q: Do you think dispensationalism has died down?
A: I grew up being taught dispensationalism in church. (At the age of 8, I watched a movie produced by Billy Graham's group called "A Thief in the Night" about the "rapture" and it scared the sh*t out of me. I was almost scarred for life! ) In fact, it wasn't until fairly recently that I even knew there were other ways of understanding eschatological prophecies, because I was sheltered within that specific denominational culture.
You ask if dispensationalism has died down? I think it depends on where you are. For example there are some big mega churches (e.g., John Hagee's in San Antonio) where it is still preached with fervor. But I do think that it has begun (thankfully) to die down. From my view point, one factor has been the growth of the emergent church movement, another the increasing prominence of voices within evangelical churches like Greg Boyd's (see his book "The Myth of a Christian Nation"), and another has been the increasing involvement of activist groups with mainline associations (e.g., Methodist, Episcopalian, some more liberal Lutherans--and in this case I use "liberal" in a positive sense!) in speaking out against American foreign policy which has been so heavily influenced by dispensationalism (e.g., Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson). I don't mean to sound arrogant here, but dispensationalists are by and large not very educated about things beyond this country's borders (I sure wasn't!). The "left-behind" craze is primarily an American evangelical phenomenon. So there is a shift happening in the culture which I think will result in the marginalization of dispensational eschatology, even in America where it has enjoyed such mainstream prominence and influence.
The other thing that is going to cause it to inevitably die out is time passing. How many more definitions are they going to be able to come up with for a "generation?" (Their "last generation" clock started ticking in 1948--and time is running out.)
[And in response to a comment someone made about "newspaper eschatology"]:
A: The thing that has always perplexed me about those who practice the "newspaper eschatology" that you mention, is that they see "signs" today that lead them to believe "the end is near." But where do they get this idea? What I mean is, what tells them what the "signs" of the end are? They say the Bible (specifically the New Testament) tells them what the signs are, yes? And yet the Bible was written by the apostles who believed with unwavering conviction that *they* were seeing the signs *then*. So if the apostles mistakenly believed they were seeing the signs that Jesus told them to look for (the apostle John *knew* without a doubt that it was the last the "last hour," precisely because of the signs he was seeing), and if Jesus was mistaken when he told them *when* to look for those signs, then on what basis would a "newspaper eschatologist" today consider their writings to be authoritative? This is just what perplexes me when I hear people say that the Bible is what is telling them that this or that event in the news today is a "sign" with some prophetic significance, when the apostles who wrote the Bible (which describes the very signs these modern folks are pointing to!) were saying the signs were happening back then.
So we have the apostles on one hand....and we have the "newspaper eschatologists" on the other, who claim the apostles as the source of their eschatology which directly contradicts what the apostles taught. Are you confused yet? I sure am!
A while back someone posted on our forum some thoughts about our obedience to Old Testament law today, not suggesting that it is required we obey it in order to be justified, but that perhaps we should be motivated out of gratitude to obey those laws, and also for practical reasons as many of them are wise guides for living. And another question was raised: If we are not under obligation to obey the law--either Old Testament or New Testament--in order to be justified before God, then what is our motivation to live morally? Or for that matter, to abstain from immorality?
The reason I am so drawn to having this conversation is that it's right where we all live. And it involves that tension I think we all feel between the legalism we were brought up with and our understanding of liberty in Christ, and also the tension between the fact (yes, it is a fact) that our consciences have been cleansed and are now absolutely perfect and guilt free--no, we couldn't possibly be cleaner, purer, or more righteous in God's sight--and the feeling we sometimes have that we are guilty.
And how do we assuage that "guilty" feeling? I think it's often by trying to be more obedient. It's our nature to try to do that. But when we find ourselves seeking relief from the feeling of guilt in obedience to law--any law, OT, NT, some standard we set up in our mind derived from comparing ourselves to others, whatever--it should be a red flag to us that we have forgotten the cross. For however brief a moment, and to whatever degree, when we seek to relieve our guilty feeling through our own performance, we have forgotten His mercy. And that is a very dangerous thing. Because as soon as we forget His mercy to us, we diminish our capacity to show it to others.
Something else that needs to be pointed out whenever we start talking about obeying Old Testament law (even as a wise and practical guide for living), is that Scripture doesn't make any distinction within that code that allows any parceling. So you simply cannot separate a discussion about obedience to any Old Testament law without dealing with the dilemma presented by the fact that Jesus and the apostles never said anything along the lines of, "Ok, guys, here is a list of the ones we are doing away with, and here is a list of the ones that still apply." Christians have those lists in their heads but they are nowhere in Scripture. So if we speak of obedience to certain laws--or to even one of them--"out of gratitude," then how do we avoid advocating the obedience of the entire law out of gratitude?
But now back to motive. If our motive is not to assuage our guilty conscience, since we are truly guilt-free, then what motive do we have to obey--specifically, setting the Old Testament law aside, what motive do we have to abstain from immorality as defined by the New Testament? Certainly, the "law of Christ" can be summed up as 1. Love God and 2. Love others. And if that is all we ever thought about, if our motive was simply love for God and others in response to His love for us, out of thankfulness, then wouldn't "immorality" be a non-issue? When we think of New Testament admonitions toward how we should "walk" as God's people, love as the motive really does cover everything. "We love because He first loved us," and we prove He has loved us when we love one another (1 John).
But there is another "motive" we all tend toward. Or I know I am confronted with this every day. The best way I know to illustrate it is with this familiar passage:
1Co 6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 1Co 6:10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 1Co 6:11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
Legalists loooooove this passage. The self-righteous simply adore it. Never mind that it condemns them all with the same standard by which they judge others. They can't be bothered with that. They just love to use it to prove that salvation is by works!
Let's face the facts, if it were true that by doing something on that list, you are disinherited from the kingdom, then we are all dead. The cross did nothing for us, and we have no hope. We've all done things on that list since becoming Christians. But the power of the cross and the glory of mercy is stated right there in that passage: even though we still do those things, those things are not who we are.
"And such were some of you. But you are washed." In other words, in God's eyes that is not who you are, anymore. And it has nothing to do with your ability to avoid doing those things. And thank God it doesn't!
What then is my motive for abstaining from those things which I know to be immoral as the Bible defines immorality, and both harmful to myself and others? It certainly is not to assuage my guilt over having done them, or even my guilt for continuing to fall into them. I am free of that guilt because of Christ's righteousness. And because of His mercies new every morning. But when I do those things I still may feel guilty. And such a feeling of guilt or shame , when it doesn't drive me to my knees in thankfulness at the foot of the cross, may instead drive me back to legalism, which always leads to projecting judgment onto someone else. Self-righteousness is the twin brother of guilt, they are truly two sides of the same coin. And both are an affront to the finished work of Christ.
So just as falling into self-righteous law keeping should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross; falling into immorality should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross. And when I do fall and feel guilty, I need to run to the cross and be reminded that I am forgiven and cleansed. And be restored once again to the joy of that forgiveness so that I can share it with others. And love them. My motive? "The love of Christ compels me." That's the communion we are invited to experience with Him and with one another in Him, whereby we "fulfill the law of Christ."
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.