Last year, Biola’s Board of Trustees released a new document, The Statement of Biblical Principles, to help articulate the university’s Christian identity for our day. In the process of commissioning this statement, the board also re-affirmed Biola’s historic position on eschatology as the official teaching position of the faculty. For some, such a move on something like eschatology raises questions about the place given this doctrine: Wait, isn’t Eschatology a second (or third, or lower) order issue of Christian faith and practice? Haven’t we moved beyond giving this doctrine such status? And following from these, How can Biola still require that some of its faculty must adhere to a certain eschatological view and that all of its faculty at least respect and don’t teach against it?
In the brief space of this post, perhaps I can offer a response to these questions. It is, after all, the subject I teach most to grad theology students! But let me approach this on two levels. First, to the issue of eschatology’s importance in general. Does this doctrine really matter? It’s a question that lands with greater and greater frequency from students who’ve not heard much about it from their churches. Eschatology? Really? How does eschatology help me love Jesus or evangelize better? Isn’t eschatology just speculation at best, or worse, fear-mongering about the end of the world that always comes out wrong? Don’t we need more “Kingdom Now” helping people in this world? Second, to the issue of Biola’s affirmation of this doctrine. Beyond the universally received points of Christ’s return, resurrection of the dead and judgment for Heaven or Hell, what’s the big deal? Why should Biola “get into the weeds” stipulating a particular position for its faculty? We’ll take these two in order, and as they both broadly address points I’ve made elsewhere in other blog posts, I’ll include references to those places as well should you care to read further.
Eschatology matters in general
1. Eschatology matters for knowing the Story, the Narrative, of which our life is a part.
Whatever Postmodernity is—and some today say we’re now beyond even that—it has leveraged the power of Story. We love stories: we love to tell them and we love to hear them. Every movie we watch is a story, and every culture has its own Story—they’re called cosmogonies. Brain science even now tells us that we are hardwired for Story. We naturally piece our experiences into a coherent expanding narrative that governs how we live. You might even say we need a Story. And eschatology, the doctrine of last things, is part of that Story we need, and that God has told us. But like all stories, the Bible’s ending needs the other parts of the Story, too. Eschatology needs—and will take us to—all of the Bible. It is something that concerns far more than one’s reading of a couple of chapters in the Gospels and Revelation! In fact, eschatology is a “key dimension of every biblical theme” as Brevard Childs says. To think about eschatology as some confusing and disputed topics tacked on to the end of one’s theological curriculum is naively reductionistic.
2. Eschatology matters for not falling for a false Story.
The next two go together. If Eschatology is about the Story that our Creator has written for us, both as individuals and part of the entire universe He governs, and we need a story to live by, then it’s important to have the right Story. From God, whose very nature is self-giving love, only His Story gives us the flourishing life we were created to have. And Satan, you can bet, aims to enslave us with false stories that kill and steal our life. His attempts in this are called the “world” in the New Testament, and we are duly warned of their appeal over and over. Jesus’ own warnings to his disciples about others calling themselves “christs” (Matt 24:23) is a profound example of such, as well as why God tells his people not to consult those pretending to offer a word about the future other than Him and His prophets. That’s right, no tarot cards, Ouija boards, psychics, astrologists or channelers for God’s people (Deut 18:14–15). We must not tell a false story!
3. Eschatology matters for living our Story.
Knowledge of our Story, the one God told us in the Bible including how it all ends, provides us stability for life against the false Stories. It gives comfort when standing for what’s right (1 Pet 2:23; Rev 2-3), strength for service when we’re weary (1 Cor. 15:58; 2 Cor. 5:10-11; 1 Pet. 5:4), grit to resist all that’s unholy (1 Pet 1:13-17), and intentionality for following the Master with all our heart (Matt 16:24, 27). This world is not our home, and Christ’s coming for His own marks the end of our alien condition. We must live every day in the light of this truth, but God alone knows the End. His Son said so (Mark 13:32).
4. Eschatology matters for knowing the God of our Story.
That brings us to the final piece of this first part of our discussion. Biblical eschatology is the means by which God distinguishes himself from all other gods or storytellers. Who else can say, “Truly I am God, I have no peer; I am God, and there is none like me, who announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred…” (Is 46:9–10)? For Israel and us, fulfilled prophecy confirms and validates the Author of the Story as well as the Story he is telling. It does the same for his messengers, the prophets. See Deuteronomy 18:12–22 and then Jeremiah 28:1–17 for strong words about not sanctioning your own words with God’s name! Clearly, it’s one thing to offer a false Story; it’s another to do so in the name of the Living God (not recommended)!
Future Israel Eschatology matters
As mentioned earlier, Biola University was founded with a confessional belief that eschatology matters, and, furthermore, that a particular eschatology matters. In this section, we want to briefly consider the second part of that statement. Why was eschatology considered important at the founding of Biola University, and does Biola continue to view it as important today? Drawing the lines of difference most succinctly, I’ll call Biola’s view a Future Israel eschatology. By this, Biola advocates the view that the nation of Israel (land, people, polis, god, language) are still important in God’s narrative of salvation for the world. The opposite view, also held by conservative evangelical Christians, goes by many names—Covenant Theology, Amillennialism, Historic Premillennialism, Progressive Covenantalism—but will deny the need of a restored nation of Israel for God’s Story. In this alternate view, Jesus Christ himself is the final piece of the divine Narrative script. His coming and establishing His church fulfills everything in God’s World-Story.
So why contend for one view over the other, like Biola does? In some of the points that follow, you will see that we expand upon the topics of the first section. And that gets in large part to the answers to our question. Namely, without a Future Israel eschatology the benefits of eschatology in general are impoverished. That is, without a restored nation of Israel and the period of time after Christ’s return when that restoration happens—typically called the millennium—the Story and the Scriptures that support it are adversely affected. Without a Future Israel eschatology our view of the God of this Story is adversely affected. Without a Future Israel eschatology our view of our own human and Church identity is adversely affected. And finally, without a Future Israel eschatology our view of God’s salvation mission, including our role in it, is adversely affected. Bold words, I know, but eschatology matters, and Future Israel eschatology matters, too!
1. Future Israel eschatology matters for how we read the Bible.
What do we do with the scores of texts in the largest section of the Bible, the Prophets (about one in eight verses by Walter Kaiser’s reckoning), where God swears by His name that He will remember His covenant with Abraham, regather this people to their land in safety and security, pour out His Spirit on them, bring them to their Messiah, and use them to bring His culture of justice, peace, and prosperity to the nations of the world? And that’s just the Prophets! From Abraham’s covenant in Genesis 12:1–3 through Moses in Deuteronomy 30:1–10, a Future Israel eschatology is the consensus message of the Old Testament.
And when we come to the New Testament writers, they give every indication they are still following that Old Testament script. Peter launches the Church in Acts 3, citing the “times of refreshing” that are still ahead when “all things are restored as God declared through his holy prophets” (3:20–21). Paul cautions the Roman church against being arrogant and in thinking their efforts in witness would even come close to what the prophets have declared a Future Israel would bring to the world (Rom 11:12–15). The covenants, the promises and the people God has foreknown in them are moving “irrevocably” to fulfilment (Rom 11:2, 29). For John, it is Psalm 2 that places the Old Testament script behind the whole book of Revelation. The reward promised to the Thyatiran church for when they will get to co-rule the world with the Messiah before the Heavens and Earth are made new (Rev 2:26–27; Rev 20:1–7; cf. Ps 2:8–9). And Jesus encourages his countrymen with the promises of Psalm 37 for sovereignty in their homeland when they will have a repentant heart (Matt 5:5). All as the prophets said.
These and myriad more show us how these thoroughly Israelite authors of the New Testament do not “rework” the prophetic record by redefining terms like “kingdom,” “Israel” and “nation.” They don’t invert the order of prophetic events, or shave the prophetic details of God’s holy word down to some reduced “symbolic core” so they can fit the Church. It’s even a little bracing to suppose they would even try! They also don’t cast doubt on the faithfulness of the God who first elects this people in the Old Testament and then unelects them in the New Testament!The Church and Israel is not an Either-Or fulfillment/replacement proposition. It’s a glorious Both-And of Church and Israel both bearing witness around successive comings of the Lord’s Messiah. Future Israel eschatology is just a better reading of the canonical record.
2. Future Israel eschatology matters for understanding our humanity.
What does it mean to be human? Who are we? What are we made and called to do? Future Israel eschatology helps us in a couple ways with these questions about our nature in the image of God.
First, human life is nationed life. By this I mean that to be human is to be a member of an ethnic group and to be identified with a homeland. Space doesn’t allow much development here, but our ethnicity is part of the beauty of the unified diversity of God’s design and what God has always intended for us in our charge to fill the earth as His images. Our ethnic/family identity will be ours for eternity just like all the other features of God’s image that define us—Jesus is still an Israelite (see Rev 22:16)—and that identity is what Scripture knows as the basis of our organization as nations. The Bible is consistent in its account of our nationed-ness and the importance of its restoration in God’s redemptive plan (more in point 3 below). And it is in this biblical context that “Israel” functions in Future Israel eschatology always as a particular national people with common territory, culture, and God—the features that mark nations that we noted earlier. Even in the New Testament, this Israel still clearly exists—there is never a “new Israel,” which is what one would expect if the Church were Israel’s replacement. But when other eschatologies positively make “Israel” mean just anyone who believes in Jesus, and even in some cases, make the Church a transcendent, nationless “New Man” from Ephesians 2:14–15 (and Gal 3:28). We have taken a step back from something important about ourselves and the ethnic beauty of God’s creation. We have also opened the door to far more unsavory effects, as recent research on America’s troubled ethnic history shows.
Second, human life is to rule over and subdue evil. This is part of the functional aspect of the image of God in Genesis chapter one (vs 26–28). Adam and Eve’s people were to advance God’s rule to the ends of the earth. And this is a glorious and beautiful calling, for God’s culture is a culture of justice, peace and flourishing. However, as is clear in Genesis, this is an advance against a hostile foe— “subdue” always means this in the Old Testament. Human life is intended by God to combat, overwhelm and subdue all that opposes God’s agenda. And such a calling undergirds the entire redemptive storyline: our fall into sin was a fall from this task, and our redemption is a renewal of it. But when do we ever get to beat sin? We all know of the battle (and failure) against sin. When do we get to fulfill the longing of every heart to create God’s beautiful culture of justice, prosperity and peace in the world? A Future Israel eschatology says we get to fulfill our calling against evil in Christ’s millennial kingdom where we will rule evil, bring justice, peace, generosity and prosperity to the nations of the world. Without such a kingdom narrative for this world, other eschatologies are left trying to answer this human heart cry either in this Age–an epic Non-Starter against the increasing accounts of Christian martyrdom—or with some insipid picture of a rule in or from Heaven. This world becomes a loss, and even though we have “victory” in our hearts and can enjoy little “foretastes” of God’s intention for the world, we continue to watch as evil ravages our culture and crushes our souls. But still we sing, “He rules the world with truth and grace.” Really? Some rule…
Forgive the sarcasm, but like you, I long for justice, peace and prosperity in this world and I long to be part of bringing it. Effectively, and finally, bringing it. I’m sick of evil’s deceit and de-humanizing rot, and it is this passion for beauty and good that drives social-justice warriors of all stripes (see more in point 4 below). It’s the beautiful picture God made us for and that we all know deep down. And I submit that a Future Israel eschatology satisfies this call to our hearts better than its opposite. Philosophers call this the Beauty Test of Truth where we know—I mean really know in the depth of our being—the truth of something by its intrinsic beauty, how it “connects” and orders with other realities synced deep in our souls. I know it sounds ridiculously subjective, but the Beauty Test is important. Future Israel eschatology is God’s beautiful Story for the world.
3. Future Israel eschatology matters for understanding salvation.
The previous two points set up most of what follows, and so these next points can run more quickly. In this case, the point is that a Future Israel eschatology offers a more compelling account of salvation. If sin has ravaged every dimension of our identity, including our national and familied identity and our Calling to rule over sin, then God’s salvation must restore this, too. But as we have tried to show already, only a Future Israel eschatology offers a real account of a salvation of this scope. In Christ we get to finish our Calling for this world, shine the glory of His Truth for every dimension of human life, and take that Truth into the very halls of our nations’ governments. Salvation doesn’t get watered down to just getting right with God, learning how to suffer “better” in the world, or fighting your own flesh. No, it is salvation deep and wide—a full-throated, all-encompassing, and compelling picture of overwhelming and ruling sin in every dimension of human life. And it’s the meaning of Jesus’ statement, that salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), for this people’s narrative history in the Old and New Testaments claims us all, and it claims us all for our flourishing.
4. Future Israel eschatology matters for understanding the Church’s mission in the world.
The salvation of human life up to its very national echelons that takes place on this earth after Christ’s return in a Future Israel narrative keeps clear the Church’s evangelistic mission for the present period. But if the present period is the only period left for this earth before Heaven, then the national, political and social dimensions of salvation begin to confuse the mission in two ways. First, we can think that our social action establishes the kingdom of God and will transform entire cultures and nations before Christ comes (the postmillennial error), or second—and less optimistic but just as ardently—we can think that our work in service of a “culture commission” to redeem and transform society now is “just as binding” for the Church in the present age as the Great Commission. Into such confusion a Future Israel eschatology will never go. That’s because it keeps separate the way the Church and Israel are a “light to the nations.” While witness is the role of both (see Is 49:6 and Acts 13:47), Israel’s witness will achieve the just and prosperous peace we long for, but the Church’s will not. Israel’s witness will come from the power of coercive force of the Lord’s Son who will bring the nations to heel with a rod of iron (Ps 2:8–9), but the Church conducts its witness from the upside-down power of cruciform suffering (Col 1:24). Israel will witness through the model of an entire nation where every institution of society shines forth the ways of the Living God, but the Church will never show the world a nation whose military and legislative agendas serve the true God. For reasons like these and others, Miroslav Volf is correct when he says “we search in vain in the New Testament for a cultural mandate.” Biola’s eschatology keeps us clear of this confusion of missions.
But this does not mean that the Church’s Great Commission mandate is devoid of social action either. Far from it. It just means that the Church’s social action in this age will always be rightly ordered to the service of proclamation evangelism. This is what a Future Israel eschatology enforces, and it is why in a day when many claim that universities exist for the sake of social justice, Biola University will always be able to say that social justice exists for the sake of evangelism.
5. Future Israel Eschatology matters for understanding world events.
What is it with the nation of Israel? Why does that piece of real estate seem to upset the world year after year after year? In such times as we now live, a Future Israel eschatology at least allows you not to fall in with an aggressive pro-Palestinian theology and claim that Jews in that land have nothing to do with the Bible. Political and religious Zionism is a complex issue to be sure, but a Future Israel eschatology will never fund Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism.
In fact, it might well be that the opposite is the case. With the rise of the modern State of Israel, it may well be that God is again gathering his people to their ancient lands. The apologetic value of such a scenario was not lost on Karl Barth for whom the establishment of modern Israel in 1948 was proof of Scripture’s authority. Years ago, Barth, who is renown as the most influential theologian of the 20th century, was asked by a journalist why he believed the Bible. Apparently, this poor man couldn’t imagine why someone of Barth’s intellect and stature would spend his life with such a pre-scientific compendium of fairytales. Barth gave the answer in two words—Die Juden! (the Jews!). The history of this ancient people, contrary to countless other such peoples, continues to be written just as the prophets said it would. It was compelling for Barth, anyway.
Time to draw this excessively-long post to a close with a couple of reminders. First is that, yes, eschatology is not a first-order question of the Christian faith. One’s eternal salvation does not hinge on a view about Future Israel or not Future Israel. But second, as we have seen, eschatology probably matters more than we might think for how we will attend to vast portions of Scripture and therefore live the Christian life. Kind of like a computer’s operating system always working in the background, the narrative of how the world is going to go that we all own in some way or another informs our everyday choices and values, what we pursue and what we don’t. It informs what we think the Church is here to do, how we view the scope of salvation and the human Calling to rule and subdue evil, when that Calling is completed or not, which Story is beautiful and satisfying to our hearts and worthy of our God and which one is less worthy. Whether this effort has been sufficient to make eschatology’s stock value rise for you, I leave for you to decide. But perhaps I have given you enough to convince you that eschatology is not the complete non-issue that some claim it to be. Eschatology impacts our understanding of God, his Story for the world in the Bible, our humanity, salvation, the Church’s mission and how we see world events. Eschatology matters.
- Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments [Fortress, 2011], 93 [author’s emphasis]).
- The five principal features of a “nation” (Heb. gôy) in Scripture, according to Daniel Block (“Nations,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley et al. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 2: 492–494).
- Biola’s eschatology statement reads:
“In fulfillment of God’s historical purpose for humanity to rule and establish God’s kingdom on earth (Gen. 1:28; Ps. 8:4-8; Matt. 6:10; Heb. 2:6-9), the Scriptures teach a millennial reign of Christ with His saints on earth following His literal return. The nation of Israel, having been redeemed, will play a central role in bringing the blessings of salvation to all nations during the millennium in fulfillment of biblical prophecies (e.g., Is. 2:1-4; 11:1-12; Jer. 23:5-6; Ezek. 37; Amos 9:9-15; Zech. 14; Matt. 19:28; Acts 1:6; 3:19-21; Rev. 20:4-6). Following the millennium, this kingdom will be merged into the eternal kingdom (I Cor. 15:22-28).
“Before these millennial events, the believers will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (I Thess. 4:13-17). The time of this “rapture” is unknown, and thus believers are to live constantly watchful and ready.”
- Is. 2:1-4; 11:1-12; Jer. 23:5-6; Ezek. 37; 39:21–29; Amos 9:9-15; Zech. 12, 14, just for starters, and there is no disagreement among interpreters that this is what the hope of Israel was at the end of the OT (see Donald E. Gowen, The Eschatology of the Old Testament [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986], 2). The pouring out of the Spirit that changes Israel’s view of messiah (Zech 12:10; cf. Ezek 39:29) and their dwelling securely in their own land “with no one to make them afraid” (Ezek 39:26) make it difficult to see this hope as having been fulfilled by any prior return of exiles to the land of Judea, including what happened in 1948. Jews have never considered any of these returns as the answer to what the prophets predict!
- The millennium passage of Revelation 20:1–7 is not a “one-off” proof text for Future Israel eschatology that is often claimed by opponents. The role of Psalm 2 in the book shows, as Allan McNicol notes, that the millennium is in fact the book’s goal for tribulations of this world: “Revelation 20.4–6 is a victory celebration. A straightforward reading would indicate that integral to the victory celebration of those who refused to bear the mark of the beast is their assumption of power over the nations. Psalm 2, a paradigmatic text for the Apocalypse, is now fulfilled (1.5 - 6; 2.26 - 27; 3.21; 5:10; 12.5 and 19.18). The Lamb (God’s son) is now the evident ruler over the kings of the earth. The martyrs (6.9 - 11) now have the answer to their prayers” (Allan J. McNicol, The Conversion of the Nations in Revelation [LNTS 438; T & T Clark, 2011], 66).
- The English “land” and “earth” are the same Greek word. It is a theological assumption that makes Jesus’ citation of Psalm 37:11 to Jews be about the earth and not their homeland as the Psalm originally meant (Nelson Hsieh, “Matthew 5:5 and the Old Testament Land Promises: An Inheritance of the Earth or the Land of Israel?” MSJ 28 , 42, n. 4).
- Jacob Jocz’ statement in this regard is classic: “Theologically [the replacement of Israel’s election by the Church is an impossible position for it calls in question not only God’s wisdom and power, but his faithfulness. Thus the very meaning of covenant in the biblical sense is annulled. In the context of prophetic revelation berit invariably means God’s “unswerving loyalty to Israel” and stands as a sign and token for “the faithfulness of the unchanging God.” Israel, therefore, must remain the am Yahweh not because he deserves it, but because the God of Israel is a Covenant-keeping God.” (J. Jocz “The Connection Between the Old and the New Testament,” Judaica 16 : 142–143).
- The Table of Nations in Gen 10 is the fulfilment of the commission to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth in Genesis 1:28 (Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis:1–17. NICOT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990], 347).
- There are only two possible and disputed exceptions (Rom 9:6 and Gal 6:16), but even if granted here, “Israel” still means the OT nation nearly 70 times in the NT.
- There is neither Jew nor Greek (Gal 3:28) is not a statement against ethnic identity in the Church. It is a statement against weaponizing ethnicity for advantage before God.
- William Campbell’s work on Paul’s understanding of Christian identity makes clear that Paul is against the abuse of ethnicity, not it status in the Church (Campbell, Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity. New York: T. & T. Clark, 2008; and Ibid., “Differentiation and Discrimination in Paul’s Ethnic Discourse,” Transformation 30/3 : 157–68).
- If Carter Kameron’s theological account of Black slavery in America is accurate, then the denationalizing/universalizing of the Church stands behind this human atrocity as well. Kameron argues that whiteness was the result of non-Future Israel eschatology when “Western, mainly Gentile, Christians no longer had to interpret their existence inside another story—Israel’s… Stated differently, whiteness is the accomplishment of interpreting the self simply by reference to oneself, and in this respect, it is the uniquely ‘‘Christian’’ accomplishment of no longer having to understand Christian identity as unfolding within another reality, the reality of Israel’s covenantal story with YHWH” (Carter J. Kameron, Race: A Theological Account [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008], 261–262).
- John N. Oswalt, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 1: 430.
- This is not a claim against God’s sovereignty but only a note that now He sovereignly turns and uses evil on this earth. But this is not the final chapter of the world in a Future Israel eschatology that will see God sovereignly put down and rule evil through his people on this earth. Such a scenario registers a stark contrast with amillennial/Covenant theology narrative such as Andy Crouch’s. In his book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2008), the title of chapter eight, “Why We Cannot Change the World” is telling. For a Future Israel eschatology, such is not the title of this world’s last chapter.
- Citations from Charles Colson’s comments in Christianity Today (“What Are We Doing Here?” CT 43/11 [October 4, 1999]; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1999/october4/9tb152.html), who represents an amillennial/Covenant theology viewpoint.
- Moyer Hubbard writes that Paul’s “weakness is strength” in 2 Cor 12:9 is “what Paul considers to be God’s primary modus operandi in human affairs… Through human weakness and frailty, God’s power is revealed to be utterly his…” (Moyer Hubbard, “2 Corinthians,” in A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit, eds. Trevor J. Burke and Keith Warrington [London, UK: SPCK, 2014], 172–173).
- Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 93.