Archive for the ‘return of christ’ Tag

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?

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