I have been researching some famous takes on ‘the end’ (or ‘final things’) in preparation for an upcoming Theology Nerd Throwdown (TNT) about the resurrection and eschatology.
One of the reasons that I wanted to go back a re-visit this topic wasn’t just because we got several calls into the phone-in hotline (678-590-2739) – and not just because it is 2012 – but because my own eschatology has changed so radically in the past 10 years. So, I should probably put all my cards on the table before I interact with these legends. Two confessions:
- I do not believe that the book of Revelation is about the end of the world. I see it primarily as a political commentary on the first centuries (CE) utilizing an apocalyptic genre and therefore of little profit for purposes of this doctrine or for future-casting. Our hope come not from the book of Revelation but from the truth of Christ’s resurrection.
- I was raised pre-millennial partial-dispensationalist, with amillenial charismatic leanings and an eye toward post-millennial expectations. My dad was a church historian and preacher so I know those camps’ strengths and weaknesses pretty well. I would obviously no longer frame the conversation the way that whole argument is constructed.
I find that in each of the following authors there something deeply attractive and then something a little troubling – some more troubling than others. Here then is my sampling of perspectives. I would welcome any feedback or new suggestions.
Irenaeus: this 2nd century writer was perhaps the first great postbiblical theologian and he believed in a physical resurrection (Against Heresies, book 5, chapters 32-33, 36). You can see in his writings where we get most of our historical literal reading. He even believed that the new flesh would be identical to the old in which the saints would inherent the ‘new heavens and the new earth’.
The hesitation comes when he gets to this part where he is working with Matthew 26:27-29 where Christ promises not to drink of the fruit of the vine until the new kingdom. He is putting a lot of stock in the literalness of both the presence of grape vines as proof of the physical nature of new creation and the assuredness of the resurrection because of the disciple’s presence for the drink. There is a hermeneutic in place that I am just not sure anyone wants to assimilate in the 21st century.
Origen: this 3rd century writer has a spiritual take that stands in sharp contrast to the literalness of the Irenaeus. His doctrine is known as apokatastasis ton panton – the restitution of all things (On First Principles, book 3, chapter 6). I was prepared to like Origen – as I am a big fan of his on several other subjects.
I was not prepared however for his big leap! He puts so much stock in the idea of God being ‘all in all’ that he even goes as far as to say that there will be no more contrast between good and evil and this will be true for each individual person as well. He was definitely working with a model of ‘Mind-Body-Spirit’ that is ancient and I was not sure I wanted to go back to.
Augustine: this 5th century writer is perhaps the most famous writer on this subject (City of God, book 22, chapter 30). He helps us dream of perfect peace and promises rewards where “virtue will be the best and greatest of al possible prizes”. His is truly the stuff of bliss and delight.
I have several hesitation with Augustine, not least of which is the whole best of all imaginable worlds suspicion of human creation and limitation … but it is how he get there that is notable.
“There is a clear indication of this final sabbath if we take the seven ages of world history as being “days” and calculate in accordance with the data furnished by the Scriptures. The first age or day is that from Adam to the flood…”
We obviously live in the seventh day (of indeterminate length) before the 8th day of Sabbath rest. I’m assuming that I don’t need to elaborate why this antiquated mental construct and hermeneutic employed is problematic for the contemporary thinker.
Schleiermacher: This 19th century writer actually has a really healthy and vibrant reading (The Christian Faith) … but it is framed in a unique bracket. He begins by saying (essentially) that the doctrine related to the consummation of the church is going to be different than other doctrines (like Christology) because so much of it is speculation and can not come from human experience. He makes a strong case for seeing prophetic pictures through the rules of art and an insistence on tracing everything back to the utterances of Christ. He points our the inherent limitations of conceiving of a future life by analogy with the present one. He is right about that! Too often talk of heaven is nothing more than a projection of the best of here. The glitch with this guy is that the minute you bring up his name in conjunction with experience you have a whole can of worms you have to deal with.
Bultmann: This 20th century writer stressed that our is essentially an eschatological religion that is not simply ethics or morality. He says “According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ is the eschatological event, the action of God by which God has set an end to the old world.” (History and Eschatology)
I like what Bultmann had to say. I mean REALLY liked it! But let’s be honest: unless you are going to get down with his whole existential-demythologized program … you are not going to be quoting a lot of Bultmann. He just comes with too much baggage. It seems to me that he is an all-or-nothing kind of resource.
Tillich: This 20th century giant runs his interpretation of the kingdom of God through his philosophy of history (The Protestant Era) making an important distinction between Kairos (fullness of time) from Chronos (measured time). I won’t review it here except to say that it is blazing awesome stuff and if you are prone to liking Tillich, then definitely check this out. He even explains how democracy, socialism, and anarchy are leftovers of religious utopia concepts. Tillich, however, is not for everyone – his heady and philosophically elaborate ideas are not entry level stuff.
Pannenberg: I have never read anyone like Pannenberg. This 20th century writer accounts for the existentialist concepts of his peers while transcending their concerns and focusing on a real history and real future of the kingdom of God, not just internal personal experiences. I read a selection from The Idea of God and Human Freedom because I had just recently reread Theology and the Kingdom of God. Tripp is a big fan of Wolfhart P. so I will not take too much time here as I am sure that we talk about this plenty in the TNT. I will just pass along this quote:
“In my opinion this is to misunderstand the meaning of the eschatological prophecies of the future. They are of course concerned with the real future, but in a different sense from predictions on the basis of natural laws, forecasts of political developments or the intuitive foreknowledge of contingent future events. The eschatological prophecies of the future formulate the conditions of the final realization of man’s humanity as a consequence of the establishment of the righteousness of God, which is essential to man’s being as such.”
You can see that it is thick reading with nuanced distinctions… but I love his insistence on a real historical expression while accounting for the abstract-conceptual concerns of the existentialists.
I am excited to talk with Tripp about Marjorie Suchocki’s process idea of being taken back into God and our experience being remembered in God and being free to experience the fullest of God’s presence for eternity – as well as N.T. Wright’s concept of “the world being put to rights” that is so popular right now, as well a little Jurgen Multmann to make our good friend Tony Jones happy.
If you haven’t signed up for the conference yet, it is not too late! You have a month get your tickets and get to Southern California where it will be 86 degrees and sunny today. Go to http://www.processtheology.org/