Living in Light of the Kingdom: Reframing Our Eschatology
Among the many doctrines in Scripture, eschatology plays a vital role for the believer’s perseverance. Knowing what life holds for tomorrow helps us to live faithfully today. It provides hope for the hopeless, justice for the oppressed, and joy for the sorrowful. Without any knowledge of the “last days,” the Church’s trials and troubles would be unbearable and would make her task seemingly impossible to accomplish.
And though this doctrine is necessary for life, no doctrine has created more confusion and polarization among evangelicals than eschatology. N. T. Wright laments, “At the one end, some have made the second coming so central that they can see little else. At the other, some have so marginalized or weakened it that it ceases to mean anything at all” . In a previous generation, debates on eschatology were significant, and even served as identity markers for some denominations and educational institutions. Now only a shimmer of these debates remain.
As we look at this dichotomy, it leads us to ask, “Where have our discussions of eschatology gone astray?” How should the discussion be framed? How do we avoid a minimalist approach of merely creating charts and timelines, while not ignoring it altogether? Most importantly, how is eschatology necessary for Christian living?
The Eschatological Decline
“Christianity in its very origin bears an eschatological character,” writes Geerhardus Vos . Eschatology has also had an important role in evangelicalism, remarks Matthew Lee Anderson, who states, “Eschatology has historically been one of the chief hallmarks of evangelical theological reflections” .
Despite this, eschatology has taken a decline of sorts. Part of the reason is that pop-Christian culture has added unnecessary confusion to the subject. It could be that this mindset results from the medium through which eschatology has been taught. This has come in the form of the many books and movies produced from Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkin’s Left Behind series in the 1990s and other similar series. These books’ influence on the eschatology of many evangelicals is undeniable. Though merely fictitious accounts, many have used these books as a basis for doctrinal teaching. This has caused much confusion, requiring pastors to wade through the muck in order to teach a proper eschatology.
Adding to the angst is the narrow focus eschatological discussions have taken. When examining how many evangelicals think about eschatology, they usually focus on millennial views, whether pre-millennial, post-millennial, or amillennial. Often when reading the book of Revelation, the focus is on the chronology of the seven seals, bowls, and trumpet judgments. Surely the importance of these prophecies must not be minimized, but is our focus directed toward the wrong place? Is the purpose of these prophecies for us to understand specifically their chronology and enable us to predict the time of their occurrence? It was Jesus Himself who said that He knew neither the day, nor the hour in which the Son of Man would return. Should we really expect our understanding of the end times to be much greater? Or is eschatology meant to go beyond this?
Michael Horton thinks so: “Eschatology should be a lens and not merely a locus. In other words, it affects the way we see everything in scripture rather than only serving as an appendix to the theological system” . So rather than ending with eschatology, we should start with it. We do this because eschatology has historical-redemptive significance. It will clarify for us the relationships between the Old and New Covenants, or the function of Christian liberty for the believer (Gal. 3). It explains how these things function in the drama of redemption. Eschatology helps equip us for the present, yet prepare us for the future. As this happens, we will become less concerned about having a cookie-cutter approach to interpreting Revelation and more focused on eschatology’s spiritual significance.
The Cultural Climate
But is this the only reason for the eschatological decline? What other cultural, ecclesial, and social trends have affected this transition? The so-called “escapist mentality” in the eschatology of our recent past is of no interest to younger evangelicals . The continual, positive progression of the Christian journey into the coming age seems to be a lie when compared to the current despair many Christians experienced following the terrorist attacks of September 11 or the utter destruction of Hurricane Katrina. The distant reality of “going to heaven” seems to be a far cry from the current predicaments in which Christians presently find themselves. “Heaven isn’t coming anytime soon,” we think.
Instead, disinterest in the future now shifts toward cultural engagement in the present. As Anderson points out, “The disappearance of eschatology from a young evangelical framework has much to do with a renewed focus by younger evangelicals on their view of the Kingdom of God” . This inclines them to support issues of social justice and creation care. However, discussions regarding these issues are often too idealistic, causing us to ignore the Church’s limitations. The necessity of Christ’s second coming for final renewal must not be overlooked. While we work for change, only Christ’s second coming will ensure that these wrongs ultimately will be righted. Though the previous generation may be criticized for having an under-realized eschatology, young evangelicals must not ignore their own over-realized eschatology .
“Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done”
So what kind of eschatology do we need then? More attention to God’s kingdom is essential. Simply put, “It is God’s reign, the divine sovereignty in action,” states George Ladd . When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we are praying for God’s divine rule.
However, God’s kingdom has various connotations in the Bible. Ladd notes three: (1) God’s kingdom merely refers to God’s sovereign reign; (2) God’s kingdom is the realm that we enter to experience the blessings of God’s reign presently; and (3) God’s kingdom is the future realm that we may only experience upon the future return and reign of Christ . It is within this context that Christians find themselves living.
In its proper context, eschatology focuses on God’s kingdom both as present and future. This is called inaugurated eschatology. It brings the reality of the future into the present. It understands that God’s kingdom has been inaugurated, but not yet consummated in its fullness. Knowing this helps us to understand the present and future in light of one another.
Practically, this means that Christians live in light of Christ’s resurrection and second coming. Christ’s resurrection inaugurated His kingly reign, and His ascension into heaven declares that He is Lord over the entire cosmos. And if Jesus is Lord, then we are His co-heirs. If we are His co-heirs, then this demands a certain course of action: We stand for truth. We protect the defenseless. We pursue justice. We become outraged with human trafficking. We show compassion toward widows. We support crisis pregnancy centers. We forgive others their trespasses. We evangelize the lost. Each of these actions comes from Christ’s commands as well as our hope in His return.
However, we must remember that what Christians do as God’s new creation is only a sign of things to come . We should not understand this task as building the kingdom ourselves (as if we bring it about), but as “building for the kingdom” . God’s work in and through us is merely a reflection of what He will consummate upon Christ’s second coming.
Of course, Christ’s return ultimately leads to our bodily resurrection and the creation of the new heavens and new earth. Though new creation begins in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), its fullness has not yet appeared. Here lies the tension of living in the “already, but not yet.” Though we build “for the kingdom,” we neither inaugurate, nor consummate it. At times, our work will seem futile as we see the decay and despair around us. Thus, we look to our future hope, of a day when God sets the world right and peace reigns. But while we wait, this future hope keeps us on task.
If we are not careful, our eschatological discussions can easily miss the forest in light of the trees. On the one hand, our concerns for future eschatology must not ignore its present effect. Upon Christ’s reign, we are commissioned to be His vice-regents who rule on His behalf (Mt. 28:18-20). Therefore, we are to be concerned about the state of this world socially, culturally, politically, and morally.
On the other hand, a proper eschatology realizes that these matters will not completely resolve themselves in this age. Often, we become so concerned about the current state of this world that it causes us worry, grief, anger, and bitterness. But we should not be dismayed when things are distraught. Though Christ’s reign allows us to live in light of the kingdom, our final hope only comes at His return.
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 120.
 Geerhardus Vos, “Eschatology of the New Testament,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 25.
 Matthew Lee Anderson, “The New Evangelical Scandal,” The City (Winter 2008); http://www.civitate.org/2009/01/the-new-evangelical-scandal/; Accessed June 22, 2012; Internet.
 Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 5.
 By escapist mentality, I am referring to the idea of an eschatology that focuses on escaping the earthly realm and entering into the heavenly realm. The saying, “You’re so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good,” helps get across the idea. This tends to be the case with some of the church music of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The gospel songs of a previous generation are consumed with the thoughts of heaven and the life-to-come. Songs such as I’ll Fly Away, Mansion Over The Hilltop, or When We All Get To Heaven do not have nearly the hearing among today’s younger audience as they once did with evangelicals in the past. This is mostly because many of these songs are so concerned with “going to heaven” that they don’t teach about the effects of God’s kingdom for the present.
Furthermore, bad theology may be another reason for the decline in popularity in many of these songs, which were born out of revivalistic backgrounds. Though many of the songs of this period discuss much on the topic of heaven, they have taught us very little about a biblical view of heaven, God’s purpose in creating it, and His desire to bring about new creation here on earth.
 On a further note, too much focus on the here-and-now of the kingdom places an unbelievable amount of stress upon the Church. While concern for the social issues of our day is an appropriate concern, it ultimately gives the Church responsibility that she was not intended to bear, and cannot possibly fulfill. Her limitations and, at times, failures would be utterly discouraging. This is why Christ’s coming is crucial.
 George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 24.
 Ibid., 22.
 Wright, 208.
 Ibid. While I think Wright offers a helpful critique of eschatology, at times he overstates his case in regard to the traditional understanding among evangelicals. His focus is on new creation and how this works itself out in our present circumstance is commendable. However, the traditional focus on heaven is not so much concerned with leaving this sin-torn earth as it is about being in God’s presence, since heaven is where Christ is said to be present.
For Further Reading:
Horton, Michael. Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. (Academic audience)
Ladd, George Eldon. The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959. (General audience)
_____The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974. (Academic audience)
Vos, Geerhardus. The Pauline Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953. (Academic audience)
Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: Harper Collins, 2008. (General Audience)