When is the End Not “THE” End: Biblical Eschatology (7)
This is the last post of the first part of this series on biblical eschatology. We have been trying to wrap our minds around key elements of the data in this first part. To this point we have seen that:
-Jewish thought did not (could not) conceive of the end of history as translation in a more “spiritual” (that is, immaterial, angel-like) existence totally discontinuous with earthly life. Rather, they thought of it as an intensification of earthly life, life on this creation as God always intended it to be;
-the use of “end-time” language does not necessarily mean it is speaking of the “end of the world”;
-Jesus operates with a firm sense that the kingdom of God will come in all its fullness and glory and that no one, including he himself, knows when that will happen (it comes like “a thief in the night” is how he puts it);
-when he speaks of the end, and its imminent arrival, he is speaking of the end of ethnic Israel’s world, the end of its existence as the Abrahamic people who will bring blessing to the whole world; and
-that there is no such thing as “the rapture” as it is expounded in much popular end-times literature.
That leaves one more item for this part of the series. It may well be that Jesus’ talk of the nearness of the end can be reasonably, even plausibly, explained as I have earlier in this series. That however still leaves us with the rest of the New Testament in which passages do speak of what by any reasonable account is the temporal nearness of “the” END. This section from 1 Corinthians 7 is a parade example:
“Stay as you are. 27 If you are married, don’t get a divorce. If you are divorced, don’t try to find a spouse. 28 But if you do marry, you haven’t sinned; and if someone who hasn’t been married gets married, they haven’t sinned. But married people will have a hard time, and I’m trying to spare you that. 29 This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: The time has drawn short. From now on, those who have wives should be like people who don’t have them. 30 Those who are sad should be like people who aren’t crying. Those who are happy should be like people who aren’t happy. Those who buy something should be like people who don’t have possessions. 31 Those who use the world should be like people who aren’t preoccupied with it, because this world in its present form is passing away.”
There are two basic ways such a phenomenon can be evaluated. When I first started studying the Bible seriously in the early 70’s, this near expectation of the end was taken as a characteristic feature of early Christianity. However, because it was mistaken – the world obviously did not end – a crisis ensued. How to understand life in the ongoing and (seemingly) unending flow of history? If Paul and the early church were wrong about this, how do we trust whatever else they said? Nevertheless, the church carried on, making adjustments for the error and carrying on without this expectation.
Not so much is made of this “mistake” these days, though, it remains a bit of an embarrassment. I offer here another take on this situation. It is true that Paul and the early church lived in lively expectation of nearness of “the” END. And it is well that they did! Indeed, I suggest that such is the attitude of genuine biblical and Christian faith!
To live in such near expectation, and to order one’s life in its reality is just how we should live as followers of Jesus Christ. We cannot faithfully do otherwise. While we can’t know the calendar date of the end (as even Jesus couldn’t), we can live with the reality that it will come like “a thief in the night.” That we find Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 7 odd if not unintelligible is evidence of how little such expectation truly impacts us anymore. That they so lived and ordered their lives accordingly is to their credit, even if they risked their reputations and opportunities by doing so.
Rather than a liability we should be embarrassed about, the early Christians' passionate expectation that Christ might return at any moment is a faithful expression of discipleship. Between the fanaticism that knows the day and hour that Jesus did not and the modern who “knows” Jesus is not coming back today, tomorrow, or, perhaps ever, stands Paul and the rest of the New Testament churches who expect his return “soon” and are prepared to live out that expectation till Jesus does in fact return (2 Peter 3:8-13 captures this attitude well under the rubric "waiting for and hastening the coming day of God").