It has been my unscientific observation that the decline of the influence of the church in American life since the social revolution of the sixties has encouraged an ongoing search by church culture for relevancy and renewed popular appeal. This search expresses itself in a number of forms that are customarily responsive to moral or social crises. One such response is to "fix" the church so that it functions as a community of believers, a phenomenon reportedly lost and mourned; another is to forge community by appeal to the peoples' fear of and reaction to culture. The latter commonly manifests itself in an apocalyptic reading of current cultural and cosmological events leading to an imminent Second Coming of Christ. Particularly among many grass-roots Evangelicals, the notion that in our current state of moral and social decline God has no other option that to speedily institute the Second Coming is so ingrained that is has become part of the doctrinal idiom.
I recently received a form letter from an organization called the "Pre-Trib Research Center." Boasting such public personalities as Dr. Tim LaHaye, Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. Larry Crutchfield, Martin DeHaan, Dr. Norman Geisler, Dave Hunt, Dr. Thomas Ice, Dr. Robert Lightner, Dr. Hal Lindsey, Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost, Dr. Charles Ryrie, Dr. Stanley Toussaint, Dr. John Walvoord and Jeffrey Townsend, the letter had this to say:
As we near the year 2000, many contemporary events are pointing to our Lord's return. The fact that Israel has been back in her land for 50 years constitutes "God's super-sign for the end times." In our lifetime, the stage is being set for the end-time drama that has been laid out for us in the Bible.
...We have two main objectives: First, to help Christians avoid the deception our Lord predicted would plague people in end times. And, second, to help them anticipate His imminent coming. Historically, whenever the church has anticipated his return, it has motivated Christians to holy living in an unholy age, greater evangelism and more zeal for world-wide missionary giving and sending. Contrary to what some Evangelicals are saying, anticipation of the Lord's return, when properly understood, does not lead to inactivity; instead, such a hope in the Bible is the basis for sacrificial action.
This letter is sent to you because we believe you are vitally interested in promoting those same effects in your own congregation. Attending such a conference will help! In addition, it will help offset some of the "false teachers, false prophets," and even "false messiahs" Jesus predicted would come, by presenting them the truth about future things.
The themes are very familiar: Hope in the Bible, Identifying the false teachers among us, Holy living a direct result of truthful perspectives in eschatology and The year 2000 and "God's super sign of the end times." Some of the finest Christian minds in our nation seem to be united in promotion of their common eschatology. It is troublesome, however, that this letter appears to be a call to strengthen an apologetic against Evangelicals holding different beliefs concerning the "end times." Such defensive tactics, while they may well serve certain constituencies, are not in the spirit of dialogue among fellow-believers. One wonders the extend of the damage done to those who are without the benefit of theological training.
My church lay experience has ranged from Christian and Missionary Alliance to Southern Baptist to United Church of Christ, spanning some fifty-five years. I presently am an ordained American Baptist pastor of a small, rural mission church in central Maine. On the matter of "last things," I have been left with a number of simple, unanswered questions:
How can folks who claim the same Holy Spirit as guide refuse so vehemently to consider each other's points of view on matters of doctrine or practice?
Why is there not ongoing dialogue, in the form either of an ecclesiastical council or an investigative panel among theologians of differing opinions, attempting to prayerfully resolve such divisive issues?
How important are these dividing issues to our Christian witness?
These questions are beginning points of a search for the kind of common ground that, it seems, ought either to prevail or to be in view within the community of Christ. The questions do encourage the larger question: "Is it possible that there is a common ground that has been buried in the differing details?" Specifically, is it possible that each school of eschatology has uncovered a predominant facet that, combined with the predominant facets of other schools, offers a more accurate description of the methodology of God than does each on its own? To consider that question is the intent of this project. Specifically, this work reaches for an informed interpretation of the nature of the Parousia of Christ derived from the best that each eschatological school has to offer.
In the winter of 1992, I stood on top of Masada, where 960 Jewish zealots had trusted God and awaited a miracle that never occurred. Why had Masada and the Roman siege of Jerusalem been no more than a postscript throughout my Christian teaching, including that of seminary? How could it be that that which was a significant part of the last Discourse of our Lord had become such an insignificant part of my theology? Has a wholly-futuristic interpretation of "end times" stunted an awareness of the active presence of God in any history other than our own? Have we become like the ancient Jews in their blinded anticipation of a Messiah who had already come?
I could not stand on Masada without realizing that something of a critical nature happened there which marked a new era in God's redemptive plan. It seemed like a moment of cleavage, with the old order giving way to the new Messianic order, and Jews completed in Christ, violently and suddenly (albeit unwillingly) being severed from their Jewish traditions. I began to see that in a very real sense, Masada was a moment in the fulfillment of John the Baptist's "coming wrath" (Luke 3:7), from which Christians in obedience to Christ had escaped.
By this violent rendering, they at last were free to worship unencumbered by the temptation to revert to the old Jewish customs. Masada signaled the end of the overlapping of the ages. The Temple had given way to the Cross. Surely, A.D.70-72 marked the last days, at least for the moment, of national Israel as God's chosen people, and of Jerusalem as God's dwelling place.
In his scholarly treatment of the Mark 13 account of the Olivet Discourse, George R. Beasley-Murray focuses on the dilemma that modern scholars face in attempting to resolve the imminence language of Christ's return with the apparent two-thousand year delay. Jesus promised to come soon and He has not done so. (1) The reason scholars "know" that Jesus has not come is that there is no record of a bodily, visible return.
There are at least four options available to the scholar to resolve this dilemma. The first is to discredit the divine nature of Jesus, thereby rendering His statements as those of mere man. The second is to discredit the Discourse as either the false or the self-serving account of the apostles, thereby rendering the Scriptures non-authoritative. Neither of these two options is acceptable to the Evangelical.
The third option is to hold to the divinity of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures, interpreting figuratively or literally such terms as "generation" (Matt. 24:34), "at the door" (James 5:9) and "a thousand years" (Rev. 20:6). As will be considered below, this option screens doctrine through a construct of "versification of Scripture" in support of certain presuppositions. "Versification of Scripture" is a topical form of exegesis that supports ideas through a carefully-developed network of Scriptural parts.
A fourth option is the subject of this proposal. It is to hold to the divinity of Christ and the authority of Scripture while searching for an alternative interpretation of the nature of the Parousia of Christ that will offer resolution to the time-sequence debates and honor the imminence language. The objective will be to seek an explanation for the event which will satisfy God's revelatory methodology, while at the same time conform to Scriptural constraints.
With so little research devoted to the nature of the Parousia and so much devoted to the timing of the event, an opportunity for new perspectives on Christ's Second Coming presents itself by first exploring its nature and then seeing if the time-sequence problems fall into line. This is a major departure from most approaches to the doctrine of eschatology, forcing us out of the constrictions of a strictly linear model of history. Such an approach is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to the Western mind. But, it is very important that the reader understand that the approach taken in this work employs a methodology foreign to most Western research -- a methodology other than the vertical building blocks of knowledge so common to Western scientific research.
In order to explore the nature of Christ's return, we cannot limit ourselves to building on the foundation of any one of the major schools of eschatological thought, all of which assume history to comprise linear, cataclysmic, concrete-sequential events. Even the term "event" must be examined to determine if we are guilty of imposing strictly temporal constraints on God's Plan for the ages. This treatise, therefore, represents a major departure from traditional eschatological thinking simply by virtue of its approach to the problem. While its conclusions are less shocking, its methodology levels the playing field by assuming that although all schools are presuppositional and wrong, each contains some merit. This work intends to build on the merit uncovered by all those schools, while rejecting presuppositions that strain the test of Scripture and logic.
The early chapter will cover four ground-breaking thoughts preparing the way for this radically different approach. First, we will consider evangelical scholarship in eschatology that has promoted presuppositions that have heavily influenced how modern Evangelicals interpret Scripture and its relationship to modern culture. Driven by an epochal understanding of God's acts in human history, evangelical scholarship has often failed, or labored ineffectively, to fully accommodate the "already/not yet" of God's plan and His concurrent employment of both divine prerogative and temporal frames of reference. While all the major evangelical eschatological schools do indeed assume scriptural authority, that authority is sometimes abused to accommodate constructs designed outside the guidelines of the knowledge of God. Doctrines are true, not because "it says so right here," but because what it says here is interpreted within the framework of what we know about God and how He works.
Secondly, we will consider the cultural implications of this evangelical scholarship in eschatology - that is, how one's worldview and one's doctrine of last things seem to be interrelated. Of concern is the carry-forward of worldviews that are grounded in either/or dichotomies. What the believer knows about God forms the clear, antithetical difference between the worldview of the Christian and that of the unregenerate (2). The Christian has the capacity, but not always the inclination, to see human history in both its concrete, visible form and in its ontological dimension as an outworking of the interaction of a transcendent sovereign God with His material creation.
The tension between the reality of the material world and the transcendence of God yields wide-ranging interpretations in such doctrines as creation and eschatology, principally because the scholar has great difficulty grappling with detachment from strictly temporal or "other worldly" perspectives. Nevertheless, that tension is the mystery of Divine Rule and we, as believers, are forever compelled toward its resolution. This work seeks today the groundwork for a consideration of that tension as it may be inherent in the nature of the Parousia.
Thirdly, we will assess major streams of thought in the field of eschatology specific to their treatment of the "nature" of the Parousia. Three major streams of eschatological thought will be briefly evaluated - Dispensationalism, Liberalism and Preterism.
Fourthly, we will offer a methodology for arriving at our "paradox" idea for expressing the "nature" of the Parousia. This methodology will search for the best that the major expressions of the Parousia have to offer and will test our hypothesis against that data. This fourth topic, more than anything else, is an exciting new approach to theological research. It breaks with the current application of scientific method to theology by allowing space for both linear history and the transcendence of God in a both/and framework. Thus, it offers the potential of circumventing objections to "doing" theology either above or below. It does this by assuming that both realities of above and below must be simultaneously held in the description of any event in God's redemptive plan. Ironically, the methodology appropriated for this task has enjoyed cultic standing among skeptics and puzzle solvers worldwide but has never, to this author's knowledge, been applied to theological research.
Later chapters will explore, in depth, the major contributions that the schools of eschatology have made to Church culture. But, we will examine those contributions as bedrock, stand-alone features of Christian life and expression - outside the framework of eschatology: "What really is the 'blessed hope' for the believer? Are the Kingdom of God and the King interchangeable terms; if so, can the Kingdom be present if the King is 'away'? What is the meaning of 'event' in redemptive history? Do the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70 signal a material change in the history of the Church?" These are the types of questions carefully considered in the later chapters. They are questions that it seems more than obvious must be answered before one can assume to construct a "last things" scenario. To do otherwise is to force doctrine to fit the model, rather than the other way around.
I began this journey with a gnawing sense that something was drastically wrong with the way we do our eschatological thinking. Besides the obvious problems with treating prophecy as history written beforehand, it disturbed me that such divergent eschatologies were driving how believers lived out their relationships to Christ. Entire denominations and seminaries have sprung from eschatologies adamantly opposed by other serious believers within the body of Christ. Most of the differences have centered around how one interprets Scripture. What gnawed at me is the confusion that has resulted from all of this controversy. Is it possible that God is indeed the author of confusion?
As I moved through the research, I began to appreciate the underlying premises that each school had to offer. Dispensationalists have forced us to think about the hope of the believer. Liberals have forced us to pay attention to the works of faith. Postmillennialists have pointed us to the great features of the New Covenant. Preterists have insisted that we not relegate A.D.70 to a postscript in history. Confusion, perhaps, but none-the-less a kind of confusion that can bring believers together in gratitude for God's methods of keeping our theology in balance. I have come to believe that these differences are ordained to keep us sharp and examining the Scriptures. In that respect, they have done their work on me. I find myself appreciating Scofield, while at the same time seeing much of God's Spirit in the writings of Schweitzer. Both are fundamentally wrong, in my view, but in their misappropriation of Scripture, they both point to the holiness and transcendence of God.
While the conclusions reached in this work make infinitely more sense to me that anything I have read or heard thus far on the topic of eschatology, that does not make them true. Yet, those conclusions are, in my opinion, of far less importance than the approach. Some will accuse me, of course, of pandering to the liberals. But, such accusation assumes that the accusers are 100% right. Nothing in my Christian experience has convinced me that this is the case. Let us simply say that the same God who can teach through the voice of a donkey can teach through the voice of a theologian of any stripe. Enough said indeed.
1. G.R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Last Days, p. 19
2. Greg L. Bahnsen, "At War With the Word: The Necessity of Biblical Antithesis," Antithesis 1: 6-11;48-54, p.7