This article is the first in a miniseries within our ongoing Guide for the Perplexed series, in which we define a weighty theological term, and describe why it matters to Christian communities.
Eschatology is “the doctrine that concerns the final aim of human life and the world beyond death and annihilation” (Carl Braaten, The Christian Faith). It refers to the second coming of Christ, to the day of judgment, to the resurrection of our bodies, and to the realization of the new heaven and earth. It is one of the most crucial doctrines of the Christian faith, thus one of the most crucial doctrines to contextually engage with in our Christian communities. It is where ultimate cosmic and existential hope can be found, both for the future and for the present.
Theologian Oscar Cullman called the in-between space we live in the “already, but-not-yet.” Beth Felker-Jones similarly describes it this way: “The kingdom of God is a future we long for, but it is also breaking into the world today” (Practicing Christian Doctrine). We already have signs that all things will eventually be better. Some things already are, some will be soon, some will be later, and some not until Christ’s return. This will not be a straight-line progression; some things may get better for a time, and then get worse again, but when Christ returns all will be made whole. Eschatological hope is hope for the future, but also hope for the present, because if we trust in God’s promises of all things being made new eventually, we can also look for where that breaking-in of God is occurring in our present day and context.
We get into trouble when we focus only on the “already” or only the “not-yet.” As J. Deotis Roberts writes in his book, Liberation and Reconciliation, “An eschatology without a future dimension is only partially complete.” The same could be said in the opposite manner, that an eschatology with only a future dimension is equally incomplete. If we think that because Christ’s Resurrection has already happened, we are already living in full-realization of what the work of salvation will do, we run the risk of becoming hopeless. We will see the ongoing problems of this world: the greed, the hatred, and begin to wonder if the resurrection did anything at all. On the other hand, if we get stuck on the “not-yet” we may give in to fatalism, and stop coming to God in prayer, no longer expecting things to ever get better in our time, which is just hopelessness in another form. However, if Christ’s final return is the fulfillment of time, the good done in our time will remain, and we will understand that the good was there all along to give us a taste of the greater final good that is to come.
Like most things, eschatological hope will look different in varied contexts. Communities who come from a long line of oppression, such as Black communities in the United States, will view eschatology differently than a community that doesn’t have that kind of hardship at the center of their history or present-day lived reality. J. Deotis Roberts writes “Only after we are aware of what God is doing in this world to make life more human for blacks, may we speak of God’s future breaking into our present and look forward to the new age.” It can be difficult to believe that things will get better in a promised afterlife, if nothing at all seems to be getting better in this one.
This goes much further than marginalized racial groups. From any group that has been consistently mistreated by society at large (people with disabilities, people living in poverty, people without stable housing, people with mental illness, etc) to individuals whose lives have largely been very difficult for reasons entirely unrelated to what groups they are (or are not) a part of. Roberts warns us not to view people only through the lens of victimization, though, as it “overlook(s) the multidimensional aspects” of people’s unique individual experiences and what is shared by many across the wide spectrum of varied experiences. After all, like one coach said to another in Apple TV’s soccer comedy, Ted Lasso, “all people are different people.”
One way a faith community can live out eschatological hope is by continuing to gather in prayer, and doing so with confidence that God can and will do something (perhaps through us) to heal what’s broken, and rightly order currently disordered things before the second coming. We can look at our liturgy and see if the language we are using is faithful, or, if it is largely hedging its bets. Are we asking God to right wrongs? Are we asking for something to actually be done? Or are we coming to God half-heartedly: expecting nothing more from prayer than what could be gained by an entirely secular mindfulness exercise? What do our hymns/worship songs say? Are they closer to the miraculous honesty of the Psalms? Or more like the vapid platitudes we find in discount greeting cards? The language of corporate worship and prayer matters, because it shapes our beliefs and actions.
A second way a faith community can live out eschatological hope is by speaking out against the injustices we see (both towards groups and individuals), and giving aid to (or helping seek it with) those who are experiencing these injustices. Faithful, discerning prayer is essential in these circumstances. We often do not have the clearest eyes when it comes to who to help, how to help, when to help, or even if to help at all. Especially when we decide to do so without first going to God in prayer, trusting that the Holy Spirit will help us discern what to do. It is also crucial to go to the people we think we are helping and ask them how they actually want us to help. A lack of listening (to both God and our fellow human beings) before acting is the cause of a great deal of harm in this world, even if generally good-intentioned.
Similarly, we might think it is generally a good thing to advocate for action from the people in our pews, however, we need to listen to them before doing so. Most want to help, but some who are fighting battles of their own might not have the bandwidth, and it is of dire importance to not make these people feel any less worthy of welcome and inclusion in the faith community. As with all that should be done in and through the Church, a massive dollop of grace needs to be applied across the board. If someone who is dealing directly with the ramifications of discrimination, or a cancer diagnosis, or divorce, or job loss, or who is suddenly saddled with caring for her aged parents, barely scrapes her way into church on Sunday, and is only met with more demands and no promises of deliverance, she will not continue to show up. The existential element of eschatological hope is not extraneous.
Eschatology could not be any more important to the life of the Church than it is. However, it needs to be dealt with comprehensively, it needs to address groups and the individual, all of creation and every particular creature, it needs to be focused on the future and the present, it will happen in one way but also in all ways. It can feel distant and at times, indistinct, but it is also the only real hope we have.