Some questions for a Trinitarian eschatology

I was raised in an apocalypse-centered religion.  Since my years of teenage rebellion, I have mostly ignored eschatology, and it’s been a good re-centering experience.  But nowadays I find myself less and less able to keep saying “Eschatology doesn’t matter.”  Because it does.  The ancients were right to put “He will come again to judge the living and the dead” at the end of the creed rather than the beginning.  But they did include it, and I have begun to agree with their choice.  The future of the Triune God deserves a greater-than-zero level of attention.

Now as I seek to taste eschatology again for the first time, I approach it from the perspective of the One who has given me a future—the Triune God of Grace—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; this perspective changes everything.  What I am finding has little in common with the vision I was raised with.  For one thing, I am asking different questions than I used to, and today I want to share some of those questions with my Trinity-and-Humanity family, so we can all start to think this through together:

Question #1: Where is God?

I think this is the most important question that requires our voice, because I think the standard Christian message distorts the gospel.  People flock to the churches of the world, asking “Where is God?” and the fundamental answer they get is: “Not here yet.”  I don’t usually hear it said in exactly those words, but that is what it boils down to.  Why is there so much evil in the world? Because Christ hasn’t returned yet.  Right?  People are being taught that the world is unpleasant because God is absent.  But the “good news” is that someday his absence will cease, he will smite the wicked (more on that later), and then everything will be fine for us good people.  In the meantime, we say that oh yes, Jesus is already present through the Holy Spirit.  What does that mean?  When we say “I’ll be with you in spirit,” what we really mean is “I won’t be there.”

Our answer to this question needs work.  Yes, we want to affirm that the future of creation is New Creation, a world where the Triune God will be present in a way more intense and obvious than now. But we must find ways of communicating this without giving the impression that God’s current location is anything other than Right Here, Right Now, Always and Forever.  I believe one good path is to start using fewer spatial metaphors (“Christ went to heaven and will someday return to earth”) and start using more epistemic metaphors (“Christ’s presence is now hidden, visible only to the eyes of faith”).  We can make more use of Paul’s metaphor of Christ’s “Appearing” (Greek: “Epiphany”) (Colossians 3.4; 1 Timothy 6.14; 2 Timothy 4.8; Titus 2.13).  Spatial metaphors are fully biblical, but I find that in our deistic cultural context, they are easily misunderstood.  We cannot allow the gospel of God-With-Us be misinterpreted as the bad news of Us-Without-God.

Question #2: Is human history a predetermined downward slope (Or, “Is Greek eschatology right”)?

The Greek philosophical vision of time is simple—the eternal timeless ideal world is the real world. What we live in now is an illusory world of evil disgusting things like matter and time, and that’s why the world is getting worse and worse and worse all the time.  When the Greek mind looks to its future, it sees enlightened people being liberated from their bodies, re-joining the eternal timelessness, while barbarians are banished to Hades. Hmmm. How much has this philosophy polluted the Christian vision?  The eternal Triune Life is being earthed in the world, and the gates of Hell are not prevailing against it.  The darkness cannot put out the Light.  In what ways is this compatible with the idea that the world will inevitably get worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse, until God decides to dispense with this “Grace nonsense” and start kicking bad-guy butt, because we all know that violence is the only real solution to evil. Right?

God has already given his answer to the badness of the world; he sent his one and only Son to be one of us, to make us one with Him.  But we Christians talk about the future as if the solution has not yet arrived, that the real solution is that someday God will stop loving his enemies.  I have more questions than answers here.  We need our best minds working on this.  Messages that don’t make sense get ignored.

Question #3: When Christ appears, how will he treat non-believers?

The Koran says that Allah will one day come to earth and slaughter all the infidels like me, and that my Muslim friends will help.  This is…ahem…distasteful to me.  But do I believe the same basic idea, just with a different deity?  Christian culture is awash in a schizophrenic vision of God—with the kind merciful Jesus on one hand, but behind his back a vengeful Father who wants/needs to destroy us.  I believe this schizophrenia finds one of its greatest expressions in our eschatology—where we preach the grace and kindness of God, but then preach a coming apocalypse where God’s face will have changed somehow, where he will behave toward “the wicked” with something other than kindness.

I believe most of us Trinity-and-Humanity folks agree here that the Triune God has one and only one orientation toward us—Love—and that whatever “judgment” and “wrath” are, they belong to this love and must be defined in terms of love.  Can the Father, Son and Spirit’s presence be abhorrent and painful to those who hate them?  Absolutely.  I can testify to that from personal experience.  The Bible often gives us a very limited human perspective of what God’s presence can be like to those who wish he were absent.  It’s like my baby telling the story about the time I took him to the doctor to get his shots.  I don’t come off as a very kind person in that story, but that doesn’t change who I am as his dad.  Our stories about the pain of unbelief need to be less about torture chambers and more about hospitals.

One related bonus question:  Does grace expire after “The Judgment”?  I was raised with a vision of a sort of timeline of the future where there will come a day when God says “I’m not gotta take it anymore!” and he separates the good people from the bad people, and that’s that.  Period.  Forever.  But with my new understanding of what judgment is—Medicine, not Punishment for law-breaking—this requires re-thinking.  The whole point of the tortures of chemotherapy is the hope that it will eventually cease being necessary.  As Trinitarian worship musician Caleb Miller reminded me this week, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).  We must rehabilitate “eternal punishment”—by #1). Paying closer attention to the meaning of Jesus’ idea of “aionian kolasin” (“age of discipline”) as distinct from the Pharisaical notion of “aidios timoria” (“endless torture”), and #2). Listening to the early church’s take on this issue.  The patristics were not of one voice here, and that’s okay.  Just like it’s okay to pursue diverse notions now.

In case you can’t tell, I haven’t figured all this out yet.  But I hope I’ve started having some almost-coherent questions.  What do you think?  What are the theological and biblical arguments for or against what I’ve said here?  Perhaps even more importantly, what are some other, better questions?

19 comments so far

  1. jamesbrettglover on

    “judgment is medicine…not punishment for law breaking”…this resonates so loudly with my spirit. Thanks for this post. I am fairly new to the Trinitarian conversation by find myself falling in love with this new image of the Triune God that has always existed. I blog about my journey and new findings at:

    http://welcometotheuglybeautiful.wordpress.com/

    • I’ve started looking through your blog, James, and I like what I see. Your one about talking with your son is awesome! Happy to be on the journey with you.

  2. Nan Kuhlman on

    Loved the questions you raised, and the inconsistencies you pointed out. I saw a quote this morning that I think fits your post:

    “…the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” ~ Fred Rogers

    • Thanks for affirming my questioning, Nan. For some reason, raising these topics provokes an unusual amount of anxiety for me. But I find rest in knowing that God and Mr Rogers love me anyway.

  3. Stuart Johnson on

    There are two areas that the early Christians found highly challenging to articulate in human language. The first was heaven and the other was the return of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the same at the end of the age as He was in the Incarnation. When he comes, there will be an ‘unveiling’ of who He is. Apocalypse literally means ‘uncover.’ What we will see is beyond our description and what He will do is out of our sight. Eschatology is not about the eschaton or ‘last things’ but is about the Eschatos or the ‘last one’ which is Christ. It is true that too much of non-Hebrew stuff has got into the Christian doctrine and has distorted it. What remains is a mystery but filled with the truth of love and grace.

    • >>”What we will see is beyond our description and what He will do is out of our sight.”
      Thank you for this, Stuart! That is the line I am struggling to dance on here. I want to say what ought to be said, but then to stop and clap my hands over my mouth when it is right to do so. One of the difficulties in walking that line is when things get preached that are across that line of unknowing, but I know it HAS to be wrong bc it is so contrary to the Gospel. It’s hard to know the right way to counter that kind of thing.

  4. Jeannine on

    Absolutely love your post, John. I was reading recently about the difference between hope, faith and trust. I won’t get into it here, but I saw there as here that it all comes down to trust, really. Trust that it couldn’t possibly be any other way.”It” being so far from our human comprehension that all the dogma and all the arguments are silly. All I can do is trust that “it” is GOOD in the purest, truest sense of the word – and I do.

    • When I look at my motivations for thinking about this topic, I will admit to a part of me that doesn’t trust God to be good, and my efforts to document his goodness on paper is, to a small degree, an act of idolatry where I make a graven (or in this case, printed) image of God as I currently understand him. But there is a much bigger part of me which really just wants to speak back to those who use eschatology to paint God with a dirty brush. So yeah, I’m a mixed bag, clinging to God grip of me, because everything else has already let me go.

  5. Jerry C. Stanaway on

    There is no Trinity. Only the Father is God.

    • Josh on

      I don’t believe there will be a Judgment Day. I believe the Second Coming is already here through the works of the Holy Spirit here in the now. Jesus said the Kingdom of God “is within you” (John 17:21) and so we have no need to await for an apocalyptic coming when we can make the kingdom present right here and right now through living as Christ taught us.

      • Josh, within the framework you describe, where do “resurrection” and “life everlasting” fit? I find agreement with you in seeing many of our “Second Coming” texts are not really about this thing we call the second coming. Thanks for the comment!

    • I hear what you’re saying here, Jerry, but I’m a pretty long way from agreeing with you. I cannot find sense in the Jesus story without the Trinity.

  6. jcooperforpeace on

    Thanks for the post… Have you considered that when Jesus comes again in robes soaked in his own blood to judge the living and the dead that he might judge all “Not Guilty?” judgement does not necessarily mean “guilty”

    John Cooper
    Tuscliisa, AL

  7. Jerome Ellard on

    God as Trinity gives me great hope for “the last things,” because a God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit has lived in a loving, giving relationship for time out of mind. So, we need to put fear out of our minds! When I read in John 1 that Jesus dwelt in the bosom of the Father and in John 17 that Jesus said the Father loves us just like He loves His Son, my breath is taken away. And this will all be magnifed in the “apocalypse” when everything will be revealed and we will see Him as He is, in the full clarity of His love. We can’t separate His grace or His love from His person – that’s dualism. In the same way, we can’t separate the “last things” from the One who is the First and the Last.

    • Jerome, I absolutely agree! In your thinking, how do you account for the various images that have led people to think that “apocalyptic” means “The Lord will kill us all!”? That imagery (in Revelation, and Matt 24, for example) can be pretty terrifying. For me, I have been helped a lot by N.T. Wright’s argument that “the Coming of the Son of Man” is not the same thing as the future event that we call “the Second Coming.”

  8. kuhlmancraig on

    John,

    Great questions, my friend. I especially love #3 and the bonus question. Our congregation seems to be wrestling with these questions right now.

    I hate to simply post a link, but the conversation is 30 plus minutes and the transcript becomes a 7 page Word document, but I would SO MUCH encourage all of our readers to listen/read it. The conversation is between Dr. Gary Deddo, and J. Michael Feazell, posted on You’re Included at the GCI website, entitled, “Those who never heard the Gospel.”

    http://www.gci.org/yi/deddo27.

    It provides such insight to how Jesus will treat non-believers, and the “expiration” of grace at Judgment. My short “paraphrased” answer that Dr. D. provides is…His love will never end…forever…and ever.

    Amen Brother!

  9. Mario on

    Wow! Good job John I agree with everything your saying. Please keep up the work brotha!


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