Faith, Work and Eschatology
If you knew that Jesus was returning next week, would you go to work tomorrow?
This is not an idle question. Behind it lies the issue about how to relate our work in this world to the next. Why endeavor to improve the human condition when the whole project is doomed? One well-known evangelical author argues that our calling is not to “tinker with the kingdom of this world.” He explains, “It’s the same with my motel room: I don’t like the wallpaper, but I don’t call an interior decorator to redecorate, because I’m only staying for one night.”
His reasoning is clear: since the present era is so temporary and brief, and an individual’s time in it is even briefer, expending one’s life to improve things now seems to be quixotic at best and poor stewardship at worst. However, I will argue that the Bible presents a far different perspective. As we will see, Scripture presents our present vocation as vitally connected with eschatology.
A Fixation on Millennialism
If one thumbs through the typical textbook on eschatology published during the last 50 years he or she will find the discussion almost always focused on millennial expectations. Generally these expectations are grouped under three major headings—Premillennialism, Postmillennialism and Amillennialism. The idea of “millennialism” comes from Revelation 20:1-6, which describes Christ’s reign as lasting 1000 years (i.e. a millennium).
Premillennialists teach that Christ will visibly return before he establishes his earthly reign. The world will experience a time of great travail, known as the Great Tribulation, immediately prior to his coming. Premillennialism predominated during the early church, and it has seen such resurgence in the 20th century that it has become once again the dominant view among evangelicals.
Postmillennialists hold that the present age will give way to an era characterized by an increasing manifestation of the Kingdom of God, with greater numbers of conversions and the Church exerting an ever greater and more positive impact on society. This era of increasing Kingdom blessings will continue for a millennium until Christ returns (hence the term “post-millennial” which means “after the millennium”). Postmillennialism was the dominant position from the time of the Puritans up through the 19th century.
Amillennialists understand Christ to be fully reigning at the present time. They do not believe there will be an earthly visible kingdom (hence the prefix “a-” which means “no-millennium”). The first major advocate of Amillennialism was Augustine. This view predominated from the medieval period up through the Reformation.
Robert Doyle is probably right when he says “to a great extent, millennialism since the sixteenth century has been a search for certainty in the flow of history” (Doyle: 1999, 254). Each millennial viewpoint sees history going in a different direction. In other words, the controversies about millennialism are in no small part debates about where the arrow of history is headed. Premillennialism understands the arrow to be headed generally downward. Postmillennialism sees the arrow overall going upward, while Amillennialism views the arrow simply to be going forward.
Each View Has Its Strengths and Weaknesses
All three of the major millennial approaches are compatible with a robust theology of vocation, but they have their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Opponents of Premillennialism sometimes characterize it as the “everything is going to you-know-where in a hand basket” view. This caricature is unfair but not entirely without basis. At its best Premillennialism provides a helpful skepticism towards enthusiastic claims of human progress. Premillennialists remind us that Christ’s Kingdom is still predominantly in the future. They rightly declare that we cannot truly enjoy the Kingdom without the visible presence of the King.
At its worst some Premillennialists have exhibited a fatalistic or defeatist attitude towards culture that comes across as sullen hostility. At times Premillennialism has tended to view the Kingdom as a future promise, with little or no present manifestation. Cultural engagement seems to be like attempting to improve conditions on the Titanic. Or to make a more biblical analogy, it is like organizing flood relief during the days of Noah. At times, Premillennialism has fostered a tendency to cultural isolationism that stands off in a corner while wildly speculating about Bible prophecy.
This isolationism has encouraged an individualistic understanding of salvation and ecclesiology. There is a real danger of reducing salvation merely to a matter of individuals escaping the judgment to come. Indeed, every morally responsible individual must repent and believe the Gospel, but the New Testament does not present salvation as mere individual escape pods.
If Premillennialism can at times be overly pessimistic then Postmillennialists are often viewed as “Pollyannas R Us.” On the positive side, Postmillennialism has historically provided an optimistic basis for missions, creation care and social engagement. Many of the great social movements of the 19th century, such as the Abolitionist and Temperance movements, were inspired by postmillennial motivations.
On the negative side, at times Postmillennial optimism has morphed into naïve enthusiasm. Consider the claim made in a sermon by the famous 19th-century evangelist, Charles Finney:
If the Church will do all her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years…If the Church would do all her duty [emphasis original], she would soon complete the triumph of religion in the world…If the whole church as a body had gone to work ten years ago, and continued it, as a few individuals, whom I could name, have done, there would not now be an impenitent sinner in the land. (Murray: 1998, 37)
Such utopianism was not uncommon. Postmillennialism at times degenerated into liberalism, with a tendency to equate progressive politics with the Kingdom of God.
If Premillennialism sees a downward trajectory while Postmillennialism sees an upward arc, Amillennialism discerns no particular elevation. There is a static quality to Amillennialism. One of its strengths is its recognition of the paradoxical relationship between the Church and culture, and that in the present era a tension will continually exist between the two. It weakness has been a willingness to accept the status quo. Historically, Amillennialism has demonstrated a readiness to wed the Church with the current political power structures. This union has proved to be more than detrimental to the spiritual health and vitality of the Church.
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Perhaps There Is a Better Way
The three millennial positions have their respective strengths and weaknesses, and theologians have debated the relative merits of each viewpoint. However, there is a growing consensus among evangelical scholars that this debate has been unfruitful and misguided.
Medieval eschatology focused primarily, but not exclusively, on the eternal destiny of individuals (i.e., resurrection, judgment, Heaven and Hell). Modern eschatology, as we have seen, has mainly discussed the nature of the millennium. All these issues matter, but they are not the central eschatological emphasis of Scripture. Russell Moore argues (correctly in my opinion) that the Bible’s primary eschatological focus is on the Kingdom of God. (Moore: 2004, 36)
While disagreements about the nature and timing of the millennium remain, broad agreement has developed about the Kingdom of God and certain accompanying themes. One can find Premillennial, Postmillennial and Amillennial scholars affirming these themes. They are notions of Inaugurated Eschatology, the Temple Motif and the Exile Motif. These three themes, or motifs, provide helpful insights as to how believers are to view vocation in the light of eschatology.
The Kingdom of God Is “Now, but Not Yet”
The first biblical theme is that of “inaugurated eschatology.” There is an “already, but not yet” aspect to the Kingdom. That is, there is an overlap between this age and the age to come. Jesus’ arrival signified the beginning of the end of this present age and the advent of the next. The earthly ministry of Jesus Christ initiated the Kingdom, but it did not fully arrive. The kingdom has been begun, but it has not been fully realized.
The inaugurated nature of the Kingdom means that believers today experience a dual reality. The Apostle Paul describes us as dwelling between two “appearances”:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:11-13 ESV, emphasis added)
We live in the time between Christ’s first appearing and his second.
The Church Is the Manifestation of God’s Eschatological Temple
Closely related to the “now, not yet” theme of the Kingdom is a second theme, that of the Temple motif. In their book, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Ends of the Earth, Greg Beale and Mitchell Kim present Scripture’s great story of how, beginning in Eden, God has been on mission to establish all of Creation as a temple in which He will dwell with his people. This theme emphasizes the missional aspect of our vocation. The Church is the present-day true temple of God in which we are to serve as royal priests (1 Peter 2:9). One day we will give account for our priestly service. Paul describes this examination in 1 Corinthians 3:10-17 as an eschatological fire that will consume everything unworthy of being building materials for the church/temple. He concludes, “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (v. 17).
This Present Era Is a Time of Exile
If Inaugurated Eschatology tells us how to understand the Kingdom of God and the Temple Motif informs how we are to view the Church, then a third theme, the Exile Motif, instructs us as to how we are to conduct ourselves in the broader culture.
The great catastrophe of the Old Testament was the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC. The people of God were carried away captive. In the midst of this gloom the prophet Jeremiah sent to the exiles a surprisingly hopeful message. He instructed them to build houses, plant crops, and start families. He specifically told them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV) They were always to be mindful that they were exiles. But with this mindset they were also to be a benefit to their alien communities.
The New Testament continues and universalizes the exile theme. Christians are to live in this age in the light of the coming age. In 1 Peter, the Apostle explicitly applies Jeremiah’s admonition to New Testament believers. We are to understand ourselves as “strangers and pilgrims,” living in exile in spiritual Babylon (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11). Even when Christians suffer unjustly, we are to continue in faithful service and work (1 Peter 2:13-18). The author of Hebrews echoes Peter’s thought. For those are “strangers and exiles” on the earth, “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:13-16 ESV). We are expatriates, seeking to bless our communities while being ever mindful of better things to come.
These three eschatological themes provide the theological grid for understanding our present vocation. We live at a time in which the Kingdom is advancing—yet not fully arrived. The Church is the earthly manifestation of Christ’s reign, but until he returns we are to see ourselves as exiles. As exiles, we are to “seek the welfare of the city.” When the Lord returns, he will bring his reward with him.
Let’s return to the question that started this essay. If you knew that Jesus was returning next week, would you go to work tomorrow? According to NT Wright, Martin Luther answered a similar question. When asked what he would do if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, Luther is reported to have replied, “I’d plant a tree.”
Our work is not a distraction from what God calls us to do; it is part of it. The Bible’s eschatology makes this point clear.
This article is a part of the Faith, Work and Economics Curriculum Project. Come back next week for a new installment.
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