An Optimistic Eschatology

Cornfield Theology
Cornfield Theology
An Optimistic Eschatology

A Few Pastors Chatting It Up

It is not uncommon for pastors to chat it up with other pastors from another church. I imagine being a pastor is like being a part of a fraternity. A select few people in the house identify with one another due to the present circumstances. Over time, a myriad of conversations come up, and everything from politics, food, and theology is discussed. When pastors get together, it is like being with a brother who understands the joys and challenges of pastoral ministry. And woven in and out of all these conversations is theology. Did God elect the people he would save? What do we do with the ending of Mark and the latter part of John 8? Are they legit, or should we dismiss these passages from our Bibles? What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments? So, a few pastors chatting it up over a hot cup of coffee are never short on words. 

This blog post is because an idea developed when I was chatting with a few pastors. During the course of the conversation, I mentioned how I am optimistic in my eschatology. It was a throwaway statement at the time. I might have been lamenting the state of culture and confessing the tension between my eschatology and all the tom-foolery that is taking place. One of the men with me also said he was optimistic. But I began to ponder driving away from that meeting; Did we mean something different when we said we were optimistic in our eschatology? I wonder if some people are emotionally optimistic and others are optimistic in their escatology because of how Holy Scripture is interpreted.

Defining A Few Terms

I have good friends in the church who always urge me to define terms. And so I shall. Let’s first deal with eschatology, and then I’ll explain what I mean by optimistic

The term escatology means the study of the last times. In Koine Greek last times is ἔσχατος. And whenever you slap on the suffix ology to the end of a word, it basically means the study of. So, ἔσχατος+ology= eschatology. The cliff notes are that pastors, theologians, and Christians read the Bible, in particular the Book of Revelation to arrive at eschatological conclusions. They try to figure out the nature and rule of God’s Kingdom on earth and what the 2nd advent of Jesus Christ has to do with God’s Kingdom on earth. 

The word eschatology is thrown around in local churches. Some churches chuck it around like a game of ultimate frisbee. The frisbee is constantly on the move, and the frisbee is the center of the game. I remember having lunch with a pastor, and 70% of our conversation was him telling me about his eschatological position. I never asked, but he offered. Other churches occasionally dust off the frisbee from the sports bin every 4th of July. It’s dusty because many pastors do not know how to articulate a theology of the last times. The Book of Revelation is more intimidating than Hulk Hogan in his prime. I think there is a healthy balance for churches to talk, teach, and preach on eschatology between these two extremes. 

Now on to the next term.

When I use the words positive and optimistic, I am referring to what I believe is the impact of the church of Christ on the world. Christ is reigning on high, and at his ascension, he began to fulfill a promise that he gave the keys of the kingdom to his bride, the church. Jesus tells Peter.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

– Matthew 16:18–19

To all my Catholic friends, this passage does not mean what you think it means. But I’ll deal with that issue at another time. One of the primary objectives of Jesus during his earthly ministry was to prepare his followers to carry forth His message and teaching because the kingdom of God had been established on earth through Christ. Jesus was laying the foundation. 

Since the ascension of Jesus Christ and the confirmation of the church at Pentecost (Acts 2), the church has been mandated to evangelize the world and uphold God’s moral law. And I quote.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

– Matthew 28:18–20

Jesus has handed the church his authority. And until Jesus returns the church is called to exercise the authority of Christ. If the church (universally speaking) were to fail, then the plan of God can be called into question and we would have every reason to be pessimistic.

All The Feels

What I do not support is optimism in eschatology which is driven by emotions, feelings, or a person’s disposition toward the world. Some people are the glass-half-full kind of people. When emotions get in the way, the temptation is to understand escatology by reading “the signs of the time.” So, for example, I do not allow my emotions to rule my eschatology when there is a horrific school shooting. The shooting is awful, but the sense that the world is burning down does not play a factor. 

And thank goodness my optimism (or pessimism) as it relates to eschatology is not rooted in emotions or feelings. If my feelings drive my escatology, I would be up and down like a rollercoaster at the Adventure Land theme park. 

An Observation

After the good Lord saved me in my early 20s, I was introduced to the Left Behind series. I read the first five books, and the series greatly impacted my eschatology. Within five books and aid from the local church, I was a bonafide premillennialist. What I had not sorted out right away was what kind of premillennialist. Here are the options:

  • Pre-Tribulation Premillennialist
  • Mid-Tribulation Premillennialist
  • Post-Tribulation Premillennialist 

The first option is where most dispensationalists land. I won’t define that term at the moment because it might result in my blood pressure to rise, but they do love to talk about a rapture. The third option is also called historic premillennialism, which I can respect to a degree. But there are more nuances to the premillennialist position that matter to a whole lot of people. The maps and charts are pulled out when an eschatology class is taught in Sunday school. Everyone is trying to interpret the news by mapping events onto the symbolism of Revelation. According to most premillennialists, things will get a lot worse before they get better. 

But here is my observation. Many premillennialists feel pessimistic about the world because their eschatology is pessimistic. So, my brothers in Christ, who are premillennialists yet feel optimistic about the world, are like a unicorn. Their feelings cut against the trajectory of their theology – at least until the next great war or recession. 

The Brass Tax

Let me get down to the brass tax. If my optimism is not emotional, then what is it? My optimism is grounded on the faithfulness of God to complete the rescue mission he started. My optimism is in God’s church to spread the gospel far and wide to spur change in homes, communities, and countries. Jesus did not command his disciples to sit in a bunker to look at charts and graphs that correspond to the Book of Revelation and the ending of Daniel. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us to pray,

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

– Matthew 6:10

And then, earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus kicks off his ministry with these words.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

– Matthew 3:2

When Jesus says, “at hand” I do not take him to mean that the Kingdom of Heaven is thousands of years away. My bedtime is “at hand,” so I better get to it.

The King of the universe has ushered in his kingdom, and the church has been on the long road to see the message of Christ go from Jerusalem, Samaria, Rome, America, a large swath of the continent of Africa, many countries in South America, and to a large underground church in China. The mission is not complete, but the progress is undeniable. So, again, my optimism is based upon the faithfulness of God to use the church to see the world evangelized and disciples made. 

Not the Last Word

It is not lost on me that I have not touched the most pressing questions about eschatology. When is the millennium (Revelation 20)? What is the best way to read the Book of Revelation, which is an apocalyptic book? Can it be read literally, or should we read it naturally? What about Israel? Do they have a special separate track to be ultimately restored and redeemed? Kind of like the HOV lane in a large city?

I will frustrate some of you by tabling my response to these questions. But I will say that I left behind premillennialism long ago. I put down the charts and graphs and burned the Left Behind series. Instead, I have opted to formulate an eschatological position through sound hermeneutics and exegesis with an assist from the Reformed Tradition. And after many years of study and prayer, I am convinced that the church of God has every reason to be optimistic. I join Mr. Beaver when he says in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Aslan is on the move.” 

Shawn Powers is the lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church. You can follow him on Twitter at shawn_DSM