In Christian theology—particularly for many denominational groups—the study of biblical “prophecy” is extremely important.
Eschatology is the study of the end of history and the world as we know it. It relates to the ultimate destiny of humanity. It is from two the Greek words; eschatos, meaning “last” and logy, meaning “the study of.” In Christian theology, eschatology is the study of the religious beliefs concerning the future, final events or the end times, as well as the ultimate purpose(s) of the world, of humankind, and of the church.
Eschatology refers to doctrine about the destiny of all things. In a Christian context, this inquiry is vested in prophecy and the purposes of God as documented in the Bible. Another way to look at eschatology is “the coming of God,” because in Christian theology, the coming of God is the decisive event that signals the end of an age and the beginning of a new age.
Because of the current social and political environment—especially in Western culture—many nonbelievers are very skeptical about grand visions of the end of the world, especially as those visions entail widespread destruction and bloodshed. Their skepticism is not a bad thing. Many of the views widely published are not what God has in mind.
Postmodern people in particular need a different way to come at a conversation about “ends,” or the destiny toward which humanity is moving. Many people will no doubt have images of worldwide destruction in their mind when they hear about end-times because some Christians have for so long spoken in those terms. Many people wonder, If God loves the world so much, why is He so bent on destroying it?
To broaden the conversation about eschatology, especially for the person who is not committed to following Jesus, it is important to understand two main streams of
Christian eschatology. These are broad categories that include many specific, detailed approaches. One is an eschatology that focuses on escape. The other is an eschatology that focuses on hope.
Eschatology of Escape
In this category are all those views that are more or less rooted in a fundamental assumption that the world as we know it today is completely discontinuous with the world as it will be when the Kingdom of God is fully restored. This view seems to be supported by texts like this: “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10, NKJV). This view is based upon an assumption that posits a bad world and a good heaven, which drains away all the theological motivation for making the world we actually live in a better place. Why should we “act justly and . . . love mercy” (Micah 6:8, NIV) if the world as we know it is going to perish completely and be abandoned for a place called heaven? The only answer that can be given from within this paradigm is the hope that these actions will be useful in persuading a person to make certain theological commitments so they, too, may escape to heaven.
But if the world and all that is in it is going to perish, then what motivation do we have
to work for good in the world? Indeed, many in our society see Christians as part of the
problem precisely because of their eschatological commitments. The expectation of
the eschatological destruction of the world is not consonant with the belief in the goodness of creation: what God will annihilate must either be so bad that it is not possible to be redeemed or so insignificant that it is not worth being redeemed. It is hard to believe in the intrinsic value and goodness of something that God will completely annihilate.
Eschatology of Hope
There is another view, however, that better captures the essence of Christian thought. One of the clearest statements about God’s future for creation is in Romans 8: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (vv. 19-25, NIV).
Here Paul depicts the entire creation groaning in agony, subject to futility, and literally
rotting in the results of sin. But Paul also says the same creation also lives in the hope “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (v. 21, NIV). We all live together in this hope of redemption, not just of our spirits or souls, but of our bodies. The entire physical creation is being redeemed and renewed by God, and this is our hope.
The Spirit of God is the down payment on this future redemption. So, we, along with the creation, wait in patience. In contrast to an eschatology of escape or annihilation, the Bible pictures not so much a new earth as a renewed earth. The important point to notice is that this vision of the future—this eschatology of hope—still involves a power outside ourselves. The question is not whether God will intervene in human history to accomplish His purpose. The question is what kind of action will God take in human affairs? The answer that Scripture presents is one of restoration, reconciliation, repair, and healing.*