Eschatology and Ethics

April 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 pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24