Eschatology and Ethics

Apr 25, 2014

Too often, the way evangelicals have talked about the end times has relegated the end times—to the end of time. But the Scripture asserts the end of the ages has come (1 Cor. 10:11, Heb. 9:26). It is sometimes suggested that evangelicals have been too focused on eschatology, the study of the end, but I think the opposite is true.

An earlier generation focused on prophecy charts and discussions of the rapture, antichrist, tribulation and the millennium; but younger evangelicals seem to talk very little at all about eschatology. It is not uncommon for me to hear a young seminarian assert, “Well, eschatology is not all that important.”

I think the problem with both groups is that they need to focus more on eschatology.

Tragically, in much of the popular talk about last things, Jesus is rarely a focal point. Jesus said that in his presence, “the kingdom of God was at hand” (Mark 1:15). The decisive time for God’s action of invading this present evil age with the glory of the age to come was at hand in the person of the seed born of woman—God’s own son, the anointed, incarnate, messianic king (Gen. 3:15, Matt. 12:28, Heb. 6:5).

When the church understands eschatology as an addendum restricted to the end of time, or as a relatively unimportant matter in Christian theology, the formative nature of Christian eschatology is jettisoned from the community of faith. Failure to acknowledge that we live simultaneously in two ages—the already but not yet of the kingdom—severs Christian living from redemptive history and an orientation toward eschatological hope.

I fear this already sounds abstract and heavy rather than concrete and practical when, in reality, nothing is more practical than Christian eschatology. When we hear about the study of last things, we often think of complex, bizarre imagery and detailed futuristic itineraries. Some are attracted to sensational and speculative accounts of the end times, precisely because they can be abstracted so easily from their daily lives. But the biblical account teaches us that nothing is more real-world practical than eschatology. When the apostles proclaimed the kingdom of God and spoke of the age to come, they simply thought of Jesus, “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13).

The church of the crucified and resurrected Messiah knows that genuine power is not trapped in worldly seats of power. The stable-born Savior, from small-town Nazareth with blue-collar parents, rules and reigns the cosmos and will consummate his eternal kingdom. The church makes history every day through gladly living under the reign of King Jesus. The power of his sovereign rule is on display as moms wash clothes, change diapers and lovingly discipline their children, pointing them to the gospel of the kingdom. It is on display as men head out to pedestrian jobs and exercise Christ-centered dominion over some piece of this world. The power of the church is in its witness to Christ and his kingdom, whether that witness takes place in a home, school, Little League ballpark, or before the U.S. president in the Oval Office (Matt. 28:18-20, Acts 1:8).

Apostolic preaching was the preaching of the kingdom of God in Christ. The apostles knew they were living in the last days because Jesus had inaugurated the kingdom (Isa. 2:2, Hos. 3:5, Jer. 23:20, Acts. 2:17, 2 Tim. 3:1, Heb. 1:2, 1 Pet. 1:20, 2 Pet. 3:3, 1 John 2:18). Their message was the eschatological kingdom was already at hand in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who brought into this present evil age the glory of the age to come. But the apostles also proclaimed the “not yet” aspect of the kingdom that awaits final consummation (Rev. 11:15). This redemptive, historical framework meant that every apostolic sermon was Christocentric and eschatological because in Jesus, the eschatological man, the end had begun.

The kingdom of God is not an abstract concept, and biblical eschatology does not consist of speculative theology. The focus of biblical eschatology is less on last things (the end of time) and more on “the last Adam,” (1 Cor. 15:45) who by his life, death, resurrection and ascension ushered in the age to come, a new creation. Understanding the meaning of all biblical history in light of Christ and his kingdom is taking biblical history seriously.  Such understanding is purposive; it is targeted.

The church of Jesus Christ is the eschatological community and is composed of people united by faith in King Jesus, people living on the basis of the Good News of his kingdom. Failing to construe biblical history in light of Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom displaces the gospel from the center of our lives and the lives of our churches.

I would not say that theology is eschatology, but certainly I would say that all theology is eschatological. A beginning implies an end. No doctrine can be rightly understood apart from its eschatological dimension. Redemption in Christ was not God’s reactive response to man’s unforeseen fall into sin. Paul asserted that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world” and that “he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5), intended to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:10). It is clear from Paul’s argument that God’s creative activity in the very beginning was for Christological, eschatological purposes.

Biblical truth abstracted from redemptive history and its eschatological orientation loses proper gospel context. Thus, biblical morality becomes mere moralism, its meaning not contextualized by the gospel. None of the truths of Scripture are meant to be understood in isolation. When ethical and moral imperatives are proclaimed as sufficient, even abstracted from Jesus and his kingdom, the result is a cross-less Christianity. In such a context, Phariseeism flourishes and the genuinely godly are often wounded. On the political and societal level “the sky is falling,” and “it’s us against them” becomes the method of cultural engagement.

Only cruciform communities, who believe the eschatological turning point of human history was the life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, will maintain a prophetic gospel-centered witness to the powers of this age. Only those who believe they are already participating in the age to come will refuse to be co-opted and marginalized by political parties and promises of political power.

The most important political statement the church makes is “Jesus is Lord,” but in making that assertion the church is liberated to fearlessly speak to any and all ethical issues. The servant church lives confidently but humbly in the world, testifying to Christ’s lordship and challenging all rival eschatologies.

Without Christ-centered eschatology there are no ethics, just party platforms. The Christian’s eschatology is not simply a set of beliefs about what will happen in the future; it is the atmosphere of courage and hope in which we live and serve our Messiah-king—in the already but not yet, no matter where we presently find ourselves. The fact that God will sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10) is an eschatological truth and the beginning of Christian ethics, causing us ourselves to sum up all things in Christ, here and now.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is the Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to his role on the faculty, he is also the pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. He is married to... Read More