Eschatology, or the doctrine of the end times, often is portrayed largely speculation, based on difficult to interpret biblical texts and subject to widespread disagreement among theological scholars. Join us for Scott and Sean’s interview with Talbot professor Dr. Mark Saucy, as he explains why eschatology is important, and why a particular view of eschatology is significant for the follower of Jesus.
More About Our Guest
Mark Saucy's interests lie primarily in the areas of systematic and biblical theology. Before coming to Talbot he and his family served as missionaries for 13 years with SEND International in Kyiv, Ukraine, assigned to encourage and develop theological education in Eurasia. Saucy has taught regularly at theological institutions throughout Ukraine and the Evangelische Theologische Facultait in Leuven, Belgium. Since coming to Talbot in 2007, Saucy continues his affiliation with the Eurasia region as Director of Talbot's extension program at Kyiv Theological Seminary and as member of the editorial board of the Eurasian theological journal, Theological Reflections. He is the author of The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: I'm your cohost Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here with our special guest today, Dr. Mark Saucy who is Professor of Systematic Theology here at Talbot and also son of Biola's eminent theologian, Dr. Bob Saucy, who taught on the faculty for more than 50 years here. This is a case of the apple not falling far from the tree because Mark is an incredibly insightful theologian and we've asked him to speak to one particular area of theology today known as eschatology. So this is going to be Mark's sort of Theology 101 for our listeners related to the field of eschatology. So to our listeners, don't let the term scare you because one of the things Mark is especially good at is taking complex theological subjects and making them accessible to people who may not have a lot of theological education. So-
Sean McDowell: That was a passive aggressive way of saying you better tone it down here for us on eschatology.
Scott Rae: Put the cookies on the lower shelf here.
Mark Saucy: Yeah, for sure. And happy to do that. But I got to give a disclaimer that my father was the real Dr. Saucy. I'm kind of the apple falling far from the tree. I'm not so sure I'm in that league.
Scott Rae: Well I think your students might say something a little different than that.
Mark Saucy: We'll do our best.
Scott Rae: Well Mark, I think first of all, for our listeners who are not familiar with the term, what exactly is eschatology?
Mark Saucy: Yeah, eschatology is literally the doctrine of the study of the last things, the eschaton, and it divides up in a couple of ways as far as the theological discipline. There's something that is the course of world history, the last things for this world, and then there's individual eschatology, which gets into last things for a person and what happens to someone after they die and those kinds of questions.
Scott Rae: So tell us, I mean you've spent a lot of your professional life studying this particular area of theology. What sparked your interest in this and why is this so important to you?
Mark Saucy: Yeah, I found myself to be kind of a big picture guy. I like stories. I think that's pretty common, but it's been fascinating for me to look at the big story of the Bible, that the Bible is a story. It's not a compendium of confessions, creedal confessions or an encyclopedia. It's a drama that's given to us. And so leaning into that has been fascinating for me. And eschatology is part of that, but there's another angle for me as well and that is the role of Israel in God's story. It's become a passion of mine probably in the last 10 years where I've even the kinds of things we're going to talk about today, becoming weaponized in a way that they never have against this part of the story. And that's peaked my interest also.
Sean McDowell: We want to come back to the dynamic of the church and theology and Israel today. But you mentioned part of your interest in eschatology is that the Bible's a big story. What is that big story of the Bible and how does eschatology play into that?
Mark Saucy: Yeah, that's a great question. Maybe I'll start off with what I think it's not, and this is a little counter intuitive. I don't think it's a redemptive story. I don't think redemption can cover the data as well as something else. I think redemption is a big, and what I say to students is the major sub theme that we are redeemed to do something. If you just look at redemption's storyline in scripture, it doesn't begin until Genesis chapter three. To redeem something, you have to lose something. What storyline does redemption cover in Genesis one to two? And in the back end, when is redemption done is at the end of revelation 20 is when judgements happened.
But I needed some theme that will cover the last two chapters of the book. So what it's not, that's maybe one way to start. But I would say the story is really one of kingdom and God ruling for blessing his creation. We moved from creation to a new creation narrative and redemption is huge important to that. I have to be redeemed to enable to fill that calling. And so I would put it in a larger category of kingdom.
Scott Rae: So if we take the four primary chapters in that big story of the Bible of creation, falls, what we've lost, redemption and then the consummation when the kingdom comes, we'd spend a lot of time talking about sin and redemption, but we don't spend as much time talking about the bookends of creation and consummation. Why do you think that is in a lot of our churches?
Mark Saucy: I think for one, you could claim a general malaise for eschatology or for doctrine, I should say in general. I think churches are not doctrinally astute and teaching people the way that they used to and leaning into just biblical literacy. Okay? So, and I think these types of questions, like eschatology may suffer a first in such types of things, second, third, or whatever kind of order you're going to talk to, place it at, I think the bookends, very few witnesses. In fact, there were no witnesses to the front bookend and the future ones obviously haven't happened. So that gives a pale of speculation and so people wonder why spend time on stuff that's just speculation. There's a plenty of abuse around the speculation too that I think is off-putting in church history, our day too. I joke with my students, I haven't been to a good prophecy conference in a long time, but there's all sorts of abuses of that floating around. And I think even the blood moons controversy is the latest one that kind of gives eschatology, the book ends, a black eye.
Scott Rae: So I take it everybody in the Christian community, most people in the Christian community agree, that Jesus is coming back.
Mark Saucy: Right.
Scott Rae: We don't know when.
Mark Saucy: They better. Yeah.
Scott Rae: We don't know when.
Mark Saucy: You're right. Uh-huh (affirmative).
Scott Rae: Why isn't that good enough for our eschatology?
Mark Saucy: Jesus. Even when you say Jesus is coming back, you're asking another question, what's He going to do when he gets back? Okay? And that's why I think a particular kind of eschatology helps you lean into the answer to that question better than other kinds. Is He going to restore God's Eden-like culture to this world? Overwhelm sin and establish justice, prosperity, generosity as human culture was designed to be? Or is He not? Is it just going to be fire and dust and He judges the place and we go to heaven? It puts huge importance onto what we do now and what we think this period that we're living in now is for.
Sean McDowell: So let's flush that out a little bit more. So why as a whole, is eschatology so important? So we would admit that it's not essential for salvation, but holding a certain view, like you said, of when Jesus comes back or not so much when He comes back, but what He's going to do when He comes back really seems to play out in the way we live right now. Is that correct? So connect those dots for us.
Mark Saucy: Yeah, I think you got a couple of options. If when Jesus comes back, that's the end of this age. We're thinking about some things about what the picture that God has designed us for is going to look like and our involvement in this and our intentionality toward it. If you think salvation is supposed to claim the national level of human life, but you think when Jesus comes back, that's all over. You are going to want to lean into those kind of dimensions, get political activism, get sort of social justice. They're going to take on a different tone now than if you think, well, we're going to apply those things after Jesus comes back and this period is more of a preparation. This is kind of a training for reigning. I think I like Dallas Willard's statement although I'd load it a little different than him, but if this is a training period, it's not exclusive of those types of pursuits, but it puts them in a different tone and a different tenor to your activism and your everyday choices that you make today.
Scott Rae: Now Mark, as I'm sure you point out to your students, there are a handful of different options available for how one views the last things. So scholars have technical terms for these. Just briefly spell out what are the various, maybe two or three eschatological options that are on the table for discussion that people really have to choose from?
Mark Saucy: Yeah, I think maybe the question needs to be qualified a little bit first by how serious are you going to try to take the Bible at all? Because there's eschatological narratives that don't take the Bible very seriously. We put those in a classic liberal camp.
Scott Rae: For example.
Mark Saucy: Yeah. That it follows a fairly evolutionary or Darwinian type of a narrative, social Darwinism I mean, but for conservative folks who take the Bible seriously, there's really basically two options. I just call them a future Israel option, and that would be the one that Biola advocates, that I advocate, that God still intends to fulfill the promises that He made to this people and as a nation for the blessing of the world sometime in the future that they have not been fulfilled. They're certainly not fulfilled in the church. So that would entail a future Israelite state, government, just like other governments on the face of the world occupying its traditional land and fulfilling these things in a period called the millennium, which would be the period after Christ returns so that He comes back and establishes this kind of kingdom that would over overtake the cultures of the world over a period of time. That's one option.
The second option is a non future Israel. They would say talk about themselves in terms of fulfillment, a type of, they would say, Jesus Christ has in his first coming fulfilled. He is a redefinition of Israel and so all who are aligned in him regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, homeland, or anything, they are participating in the fulfillment of what old Israel or national Israel of the Old Testament was promised. So they don't need a future restoration. They would say that things that are happening in the land of Judea right now, since 1948, is just a historical thing. It really has nothing to do with Bible. They would say, we don't need a period after Jesus comes back. He comes back and He judges and we enter the eternal state. So those are your two kind of options among conservatives.
Scott Rae: So just to be really clear about this, it sounds like two things distinguish these two options. One is whether there a place for Israel or not, or whether the church, the people of God today have replaced Israel.
Mark Saucy: Fulfilled is how I would say.
Scott Rae: Fulfilled, fulfilled. Okay. And then second, when Jesus comes back, is there a period of restoration, redemption that is on the earth as opposed to just being a part of eternity? Would that be a fair-
Mark Saucy: That's correct. Those are the two [sinequan] knowns that separate these two statements or two views. Do you have the church and Israel distinct fulfilling different roles in God's economy for salvation? And do you have a literal period on this earth after Jesus comes back or not?
Sean McDowell: Okay, so let's flush this out because a moment ago you said our view of eschatology shapes activism ministry focus of the church now. So how would believing in a future Israel that'll have a state in the millennium, et cetera, versus not having one shape the way somebody would do ministry, practically live their life now as a Christian?
Mark Saucy: Yeah, it's a kind of a nuanced question. It's maybe a question of where your symmetry or balance between two entities lies. Social activism, involvement in this world, a pursuit of justice, all of those things, what kind of salt and light you are in the world versus your evangelistic narrative, your proclamation narrative. Okay. When you put those two in different balances, they take a different tone or they take a different tone depending on your narrative. For example, a future Israel narrative where you have a restored nation being the center of Christ's work for all the nations in a time period after He comes, you are essentially leaving and you're okay to say that look, the efforts that I'm going to be engaged in now for political activism, justice, they are not. I'm not going to be duped or diluted to think that I should expect success and that I still work in these areas, but I work in them so that I could raise the fame of what my real purpose now is and that's to raise the fame of Jesus. That's an evangelistic narrative.
I do social activism to serve that one. It doesn't have a life on its own for believers. The world has all sorts of philanthropy and social justice movements. The church needs to be about Jesus's. So raising His fame, we do good because we've been loved and we've been accepted and that's why we seek these things. But we understand there is a God of this age who still enters into conflict, who still takes away the fruit and the finality of what God intended.
Sean McDowell: So is it fair to say when you look in most conservative churches, you would see belief in the future state of Israel, hence we work for justice? But when it's all said and done, it's about evangelism and saving souls versus in more progressive churches, there's not a belief in a future Israel. So there's more of an urgency for justice in the present.
Mark Saucy: Yes. I think that's where the lines, they fall down very clearly around that. Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Scott Rae: But wouldn't you also say that because the fact that the millennial kingdom will come actually on the earth and redemption takes place on the earth-
Mark Saucy: Yes.
Scott Rae: And that as a result of that, God is in the process of redeeming all of creation now [crosstalk 00:15:39].
Mark Saucy: That agenda for sure.
Scott Rae: And when Jesus returns, he will finish it.
Mark Saucy: Yes.
Scott Rae: Romans eight is very clear that all of creation is groaning for its redemption, which suggests that it's in the process of being redeemed at the moment, which Christ will finish. Wouldn't that provide a sufficient incentive for someone to pursue things that have to do with justice on the earth now?
Mark Saucy: A sufficient incentive, I guess it comes to the question of what you think salvation entails.
Scott Rae: Okay.
Mark Saucy: That if you think salvation is supposed to penetrate to the national dimension or not, there's a clear part of eschatology in that alternate narrative, a non future Israel that would say, well, the church and God's people are really not ethnically defined. The church is not a nation and things like that, and so it's muting kind of the human identity that is to be part of a people. It is to be part of a people that I would even say identify with homeland. So you start to qualify and move in different directions when Israel becomes something other than a nation. And so that kind of muddles things, it muddles things for the nature of salvation itself. Does God intend to redeem human life up to the very national dimension or not? And when is he going to do that?
Also, I think it relates to our calling that I think human life is called to rule and subdue and in the context of scripture, that word subdue always in the Old Testament means to overwhelm a hostile force. And so my question for other views is when do I get to participate in this part of the human calling and salvation as a return of that to me? And if it's just a Jesus comes back, we all know the toil of this time that we live in. It's two steps forward, one step back. The battle of sin is as deep as your own heart, but it is always the cultural artifacts of what my social justice, my activities now will produce is always subject to being hijacked and defeated in this age.
I tell my students that, look, we should never be against something that William Wilberforce accomplished for the British empire, the outlawing of slavery in all of the empire. But let's not kid ourselves and think that we got rid of slavery. It's worse today than it ever was. It's just called human trafficking. So this idea that now human work will really make the kingdom of God, that's where you get a really some... Well, what should I say? Disparate types of agendas and we get lost, we lose our way, and we subtly now start to move off of evangelism. We start to move into other projects taking the lead.
Sean McDowell: So for the church today, based on the position that Biola holds, and you hold, that there is a future state for Israel. What do you think in general it should look like for the church to support Israel without alienating Palestinians or other people from a different background? There's the theology, there's the future, but there's also this political dimension and obviously one of the criticisms is that the church seems to blindly support Israel. What do you think genuinely would be a biblical way of doing so?
Mark Saucy: Yeah, I think there's a big difference between religious and a political Zionism. Probably where I would land right now is probably some moderate place that I cannot go along with those who have an aggressive pro-Palestinian narrative that say Jews in that land has nothing to do with the Bible. That's what I meant when I said earlier this kind of a non-future Israel eschatology is being weaponized. It is becoming politicized now to support that agenda that Jews have no right to the land. They're an oppressor, they're an occupying force. Future Israel eschatology would never say that. Okay. I'd say no, Jews in that land is part of God's picture, but I would back it off from given carte blanche to these people right now and this nation right now.
I think God, it's a great example of the possibility of God being able to regather people to that land, but by the biblical scenario that people is still not messianic. That people at best we could say there's a skeleton, there is a national state government skeleton that I think God may use but it does not allow me to give that skeleton right now carte blanche in questions of justice and questions of it needs to be held to the court before the nation that all nations are.
Sean McDowell: Here's a question we can come back and unpack for an entire episode or two, but just give us the beginnings of the outline, kind of a 101 biblically speaking, why you see Israel having this future. What passages or where does this come from?
Mark Saucy: Yeah, it goes back to the story narrative or the story approach and stories, you read them from the beginning to the end and earlier parts inform later ones. There's always a bilateral movement. Later parts also help you understand the earlier ones too, but when you just read straight through the story for the future of this nation starts explicitly in Genesis chapter 12 with a covenant of Abraham. God promises to bring blessing to realize blessing and that's the story narrative from the first chapter of Genesis. God creates to bless and the restoration of blessing from sins chaos happens through a nation. In Genesis chapter 12 that's the Magna Carta of the Abrahamic covenant, which is the redemptive narrative that follows the redemptive sub theme all the way through.
That's why even for believers today, Abraham is our father, not Moses, not David, Abraham. He's the one that's important. And so starting from there, you have Abraham, you have Moses being quite prophetic at the end of Deuteronomy, the end of the Pentateuch, which is the corner piece of all of the Old Testament literature, the cannon, and he tells the history of this people God will send them for not obeying, for not following His way. He will send them into exile, but He will not leave them there. He will regather them. And that's the story of the Old Testament. And the prophets pick on this. They are living it. They're up close to it, closer than Moses is, but they're living this prophecy. So that God will, and He did, send them to exile. But even in that state, that apostate state, He promises them over and over in the prophets.
It's like one in eight times in the prophets, there's some reference to I will regather you, I will still use you. I have chosen you, you are my elect. I will be faithful to my word for my namesake and that I will use this people to bring his life to all the nations still. So when you come into the New Testament, you let this kind of narrative do the leading. And that's what I see is missing in other theologies who think the story kind of starts with Jesus and Matthew. But no, we're really talking about how these Israelite authors, and that's the authors of the New Testament, they really saw Jesus as the completion of a prophetic narrative begun with Abraham and Moses. Okay. And I think that they need to do the lead when we see the New Testament bring new information. For example, two comings. I don't think two comings of Messiah were seen by the Old Testament folks. They didn't see that, but the New Testament is quite clear, that's the reality. Okay? How do we deal with this? How do we deal with this new reality?
Well, we take the lead from the unfolding script that's been developed in the cannon up to this point and I think it can be demonstrated very clearly that all the writers of the new Testament operate from an old Testament script and they fit two comings of Jesus still into that. So when Jesus comes, when the church has a witness mandate, I want to go back to the prophets and say, how did they help me understand what this means? Rather than exclude them and say, oh, we know that if this is fulfilled in the church, and so draw the lines that way. I think it's quite obvious that these are old Testament people who venerate this word. They are not going to play with it. They're not going to recalibrated, redefine, no they're going to go right along with it and they do. Especially when you get to Paul in Romans nine through 11 it's quite clear that the church is not a replacement or fulfillment of Israel. God intends to successively use his people in different time periods to gain his end, which is the whole world salvation.
Scott Rae: So is this what Paul means, for example, in Romans nine 10 and 11 when he talks about the church being grafted in?
Mark Saucy: Yes, clearly.
Scott Rae: To Israel.
Mark Saucy: Yeah. In chapter 11, he goes into great detail to explain why is this promised people still resistant to the gospels comments? It's why they should have taken it. He could have easily said, guys, you, you Christians, the church, you are Israel. And why spend three chapters on that? But he doesn't. In chapter 11 He says this hardening, He calls it, this is not permanent. It's temporary. And He uses the grafting in illustration from the olive tree and yeah, He says that remember Gentiles, you are the ones standing on the shoulders of an old Testament narrative, that's their covenants, that's their promises. They are irrevocable and God has not forgotten his people. All right? You stand upon them and you do your witnessing and they'll do theirs and but it's about different time periods.
Scott Rae: It sounds like that may also be a helpful antidote to antisemitism.
Mark Saucy: Oh yes. Unfortunately, the way that this has cashed out in a kind of abusive ways, unhealthy ways. Yeah. This type of replacement or what should I say? Dispossessing of this nation from the narrative has made them easy fodder for abuse and it has also made easy access for alien ideas to creep in. Okay? They say that nature doesn't love a vacuum, but the theology doesn't either. Is that if you take one part of the story away from the Bible, you're going to be able to put other parts in and I think the church history is unfortunately replete with examples of that.
Scott Rae: Mark, and I appreciate you bringing this back to the big story of the Bible repeatedly. That narrative emphasis I think is so helpful as opposed to the way we've typically done this in the past was by doing proof texting often with narrow passage of scripture that are often really difficult and challenging to understand. But situating this in the big story of the Bible I think is really helpful. One last question. How would you suggest that our eschatology could be an encouragement to the church, particularly the church as it exists in parts of the world in very hostile cultures and I think it's fair to say in the West in increasingly hostile culture for the church?
Mark Saucy: A good question. I think the answer to that is you can go right to the New Testament because that's exactly the scene that they wrote to and that they were living in. It is our experience in kind of the Christian West, no matter what you think postmodernism has done to us or not, post-Christian even, that we've enjoyed a not normal place as far as persecution and things like that compared to the rest. And certainly the first century, the early church, new incipient and not even just incipient. They knew full-on persecution and suffering for their faith. So the question is what eschatology did to help them. Okay? And it provided hope. It provided the means to endure and not just grit and bare it. It was how to be triumphant, how to love sacrificially, even beyond persecution, being hated for doing what's right.
So we are increasingly returning to a first century, I think, world in our post-Christian experiences here in America and certainly the acceleration of martyrdom in the rest of the world, of Christian martyrdom, in the rest of the world. Hope is what we are designed for and need. Okay? And that is why eschatology, hey the end serve the King of Kings. All right? And so there's where you have the grit, steadfastness to keep pursuing, to even try out in suffering of this age. So there is encouragement at that level for sure.
Scott Rae: Mark, this has been really helpful. I hope our listeners have found clarity to be instructive and helpful because this is a very complicated issue. We could spend a lot more time going way into the weeds but I so appreciate your clarity with this and linking it back to the big story of the Bible I think is incredibly helpful for our listeners. So for our listeners, I hope this little foray into sort of Eschatology 101 has been helpful, has been enlightening and most of all, I think been clear about what we think the Bible teaches.
Mark Saucy: I hope so too.
Scott Rae: Mark, thanks so much for being with us. It's really helpful to have you with us.
Mark Saucy: You're welcome. Great to be with you.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Mark Saucy, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/think biblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.