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Eschatology and the Future of the Church

Dr. Jay Gary shares what a new eschatology might offer to the church of tomorrow in its work of rebuilding humanity’s future.

After the final no, there is a Yes and on this Yes, the future of the world depends. –Wallace Stevens, poet

Hour GlassRecently I heard one of our nation’s leading future forecasters identify “ten dark clouds on the horizon.”

About mid-way through his speech, he said:

The next area I would mention is one of the social institutions throughout the world which I think is a dead-lead weight on society and human development at every turn. It’s negative, it’s vastly oppressive of women, it’s retrogressive in what it wants to do. It holds back progress at every turn. And it sinks its head into the ground when it turns to future opportunities. And what is that? Organized religion.

I don’t know how you would react to a statement such as this. Rather than take offense, these words have become a goad which has spurred on my thinking. There was a time when true religion was once the soul and springboard of western civilization. But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. Christian religion began to be seen as civilization’s sink hole.

In popular parlance, religion is thought to be the keeper of the past and its conventions, rather than being the creator of the future. To be religious is to be backwards, closed, dogmatic, fatalistic, foreboding, pessimistic, reactionary or regressive. By contrast humanists are thought to be anticipatory, creative, forward-looking, open, optimistic, progressive and scientific.

Granted, these are stereotypes and ones I reject. But behind them lies a grain of truth. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, nor a world class theologian, to realize that after 2,000 years there is a great deal of unfinished business within Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Great awakenings have come along the way, but if the church truly aspires to be an agent of the divine, it must be empowered by a continued reformation that comes from criticism of its tradition, in light of holy scripture.

At the top of our agenda for reformation ought to be the church’s eschatology. This branch of theology is concerned with “last things,” the doctrine of the millennium, or the “bringing together of all things” in the fulfillment of redemptive history.

It is noteworthy that the church of the first millennium convened seven ecumenical councils, but not one council dealt definitively with the doctrine of the millennium. Providence may have left that task to the church of the third millennium.

The meaning of Christ in history and the relationship of God’s New Covenant to the future of humanity can no longer be a subject for just specialists or enthusiasts. It must become a subject for anyone who deeply cares about the “healing of nations,” i.e., the healing of whole persons and communities, the future of our planet and the destiny of humankind.

In this essay, I would like to inquire what a new eschatology might offer the church of tomorrow in its work of rebuilding humanity’s future.

1. A new eschatology could help the 21st century church reclaim its 1st century heritage.

For two hundred years, New Testament scholars have pursued the “Quest for the Historical Jesus.” What they have found is a Mediterranean “peasant revolutionary” who went around sharing parables.

Rather than bracket every statement which Jesus made about his imminent return as the imposition of a later church tradition, covenant eschatology aims to understand Jesus’ prophecy of the Cross and his Coming in the historical context of late Second Temple Judaism.

What emerges from placing the Christian scriptures in their first century context is a dramatic story of redemption. It is a story which religion in the Modern Age has largely lost, a divine drama which we are practically incapable of grasping due to centuries of compartmentalized thinking. Nevertheless, the story of redemption as told by a new eschatology goes like this…

For centuries humanity could only say no during the Mosaic Age. But after the final no, God spoke a Yes in Jesus, and on this, the future of the world depends. At first this community of the future was persecuted. But as the Herodian Temple fell, this resurrected church emerged intact from a time of tribulation.A new covenant church then stood at the heart of the world, as a new creation of grace. And God’s presence, through the Holy Spirit, dwelt in redeemed persons and communities as a new temple and a new Jerusalem. The Mosaic Age had been fulfilled and passed away. The eternal age of God’s becoming all-in-all dawned with grace and peace.

Few churches or seminaries understand Bible prophecy in such a realized manner. But it could some day, given serious comparative study by those who value the integrity and inspiration of Scriptures. All it requires is a new openness, from both scholars and the laity to reexamine “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

No one can project whether the church will experience a reformation in eschatology over the next ten or a hundred years. But we don’t have to wait for the tide to fully turn to recover our 1st century inheritance as a 21st century church. The maturation of redemptive history brought forth a new covenant people and gave world history a new lease on life.

2. A new eschatology could help the church of tomorrow and future civilization avoid the “pursuit of the millennium” through violent schemes.

In his influential book The Pursuit of the Millennium, historian Norman Cohn analyzes the tendency in medieval society of half-crazed outcasts to create end-time hysteria, to justify revolutionary politics, murder and mayhem.

Back in the 16th century, radical Protestant groups began to reassert the imminence of the millennium. In 1534 there emerged an intense and short-lived drama in the German city of Munster, which illustrates how unstable personality types can prey upon the marginalized. After Catholics and Lutherans were driven out of the city, a charismatic tailor named Jan Bockelson ran naked through the town in a state of ecstasy and proclaimed himself the divine appointed leader of a new vanguard which would prepare the way for the Second Coming.

After instituting polygamy, fifty dissidents took up arms, only to be put to death. With the city under siege by the Catholic bishop, Bockelson proclaimed himself the king of the New Jerusalem and called for the slaughter of all the world’s priests, monks and rulers to usher in the Second Coming. Bockelson daily presided over mass beheadings of townsfolk. After a prolonged famine, the city finally fell by the summer of 1535, with all the apocalyptic leaders being killed immediately. Public opinion was horrified by this Gothic horror, as it would be today.

Less we think our times are immune from millennial induced violence, one only has to think of the apocalyptic violence of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, the subway cyanide gas attacks by Shoko Asahara in Tokyo, or the chilling millennial inspired murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.

Tragically, postponement millennial theology has been an untilled back lot in which the weeds of heresy and totalitarian ideologies sometimes flourish. Our century alone has witnessed the rise of Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Both of these utopian movements preyed upon populations which yearned for simplistic solutions framed in secular millennial terms.

Now with the emergence of the Year 2000 Computer Crisis, enthusiasts are convinced the last days are here again. An apocalyptic spirit is stirring across America, and doomsday, survival and conspiracy books have become hot items in the U.S. evangelical book market.

The only genuine inoculation I see to protect the body politic of the church and society against this infectious “millennial meme” is a new eschatology.

A robust eschatology can appeal to the internal consistency of Scripture to demonstrate that all things have been fulfilled in Christ. It can testify with the confession of biblical writers that the “terminal generation” was the last generation of the Old Covenant, not some distant future generation which established the modern state of Israel in 1948.

3. A new eschatology could help the church of the future proclaim the gospel with increased clarity, conviction and power.

For centuries the church saw Jesus largely through the lens of Hellenistic culture. In doing so, they overlooked his message of the kingdom, which was deeply rooted in Jewish consciousness.

Ironically, in this century, the colonial powers and totalitarian states of “Christendom” drove biblical theologians like Dietrich Bonhoffer back to the scriptures to recover Jesus’ primary message of the kingdom of God. Not only did this transform life in the church, it energized movements for social justice.

Gandhi embraced non-violence after discovering the Sermon on the Mount through Tolstoy. Later, Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired by Gandhi, embraced the radical kingdom ethic which Jesus practiced-to literally love one’s own enemy-and advanced the civil rights movement.

But for all the recovery of the central theme of the kingdom of God as Jesus preached it, the church has yet to transform its own evangelistic message. This is where a new eschatology can help the church of tomorrow.

In this century, the church has only embraced the first part of Jesus message, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The church grasped the force of “repent” as “metanoi” or turning around-but it neglected the kingdom. In plain language, Jesus said, “Be transformed by God-as God transforms this age.”

Far from being a different gospel, this is just more of it. It affirms the ethics of Jesus and embraces the eschaton-that transforming power of God to close the Old covenant and inaugurate the New. Covenantal transformation then goes to the heart of understanding the gospel as Jesus preached it.

When the church embraces this age changing gospel, evangelism will be re-energized like nothing we have seen since the floodgate of world missions broke open in the 1790s. World evangelization will once again have the power to re-energize world civilization, as it did through the early church.

4. A new eschatology could help empower the church to shape society’s future.

In his book, Cosmos Chaos and Gospel, David Barrett outlines several horizons which Christians can use to examine the future:

(1) Immediate future (up to 1 year from now).
(2) Near-term future (1 – 5 years from now).
(3) Middle-range future (5 – 20 years from now).
(4) Long-range future (20 – 100 years from now, i.e. up to AD 2100).
(5) Distant future (100 – 1,000 years from now, i.e. AD 2100 – 3000)
(6) Far-distant future (from AD 3000 up to 100 trillion years)

Everybody is interested in horizons #1 – 2 and to some extent in horizon #3 with respect to their children. Most futurists make cultural or technological forecasts for horizons #3 and 4, ecologists examine horizons #4 – 5, while astronomers and cosmologists focus on the latter developments of horizon #6.

Up until the second half of the 20th century, the empirical tools to evaluate ideas about the future and introduce change to arrive at a more preferable future, were not clearly delineated.

In the minds of most ancients, time was vague; the future was tomorrow’s sunrise, the next harvest, the coming winter or inevitability of death. In contrast to Eastern religions, Christianity came to see history not as an endless cycle, but as moving in one direction, ahead towards something new. The Kingdom of God would ultimately transcend history, but it would be fulfilled in some way through history.

The relationship of individuals to redemptive history and the future eventually became embedded in how we mark and sanctify time. Initially, the early church followed the Jewish dating system based on the age of the world (Anno Mundi). This meant that by the early 3rd century, the church fathers thought of the Incarnation of Christ as coming 5,500 years after creation. Over the next three centuries, however, destructive and popular end-time speculation based on the approach of the year 6000, prompted the church to adopt the Anno Domini calendar.

Rather than count down to a sabbath millennium, the A.D. calendar counted up from the birth of Christ. The Second Coming was still envisioned, but as an appendage to a secular periodization which extended far into the future. By the year 1300, open-ended chronology prevailed over apocalyptic time and the church began to celebrate the arrival of a new century. By the eighteenth century, the spread of clocks, the consolidation of calendars and the notion of progress empowered people, without much difficulty, to daydream about life in the year 2000 and beyond.

Today some can only imagine the future of the world through the lens of Old Covenant theocracy. A new eschatology would approach the future in a different way. In keeping with the new creation in Christ, it offers the church discernment to envision and advance the work of the Holy Spirit in society.

Eschatology is more than a mere antiquarian study of first-century apocalyptic literature. The reality of Christ’s new covenant provides a trinitarian foundation to articulate a unified theology of civilization. This means the City of Man can reflect the City of God. By faith, we can build open societies before God which continually aspire to transcend themselves and transform the human context.

In The State of Humanity, the late Julian Simon, economist and apologist for progress wrote,

An expectancy of health and a standard of living higher than that which any prince enjoyed 200 years ago is the birthright of every middle-class and working-class person in developed countries… What is to come is to bring these material gains to all groups of humanity. That may take half a century or a century.

Some are far less upbeat than Simon. But if I have learned anything as a Christian futurist over the past 20 years, it is that faith is not only the “conviction of things not seen,” it can also become a learned competency as Martin Seligman writes.

Rather than curse the darkness, the church of the third millennium will focus on how to turn on the light through futures research and action. The church will redemptively engage fields like agricultural genetics, material engineering, astronomical sciences, artificial intelligence, environmental management, governance, health or gerontology.

People preparing for Christian vocations will be taught constructive “futures fluencies” or applied covenantal skills which will improve community life and the quality of service in the global marketplace. Here is how Wendy Schultz, author of a forthcoming book, Defining Futures Fluency lists these learned competencies or skills:


1. looking for change
2. critiquing implications
3. imagining difference
4. envisioning ideals
5. planning achievement

The application of eschatology could not only change the way we prepare our youth to practice their professions, it could also reform our seminaries and Bible colleges, with “church futures” being given equal time with “church history” as a way to discern what God is doing in the world.

5. A new eschatology could help unlock the vision, creativity and leadership to take humanity to the stars.

Many forces interact to make history, but according to Fred Polak, a positive “image of the future” is critical as a guiding motif to create desirable societies. In 1955, he wrote:

The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as society’s image of the future is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full blossom. One the image of the future begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture cannot long survive.

Throughout history, the dream of a millennium age of peace and prosperity has energized exploration, inspired scientific discovery and shaped industrial enterprise. But now, after 500 years of the modern age the “idea of progress” is being called into question.

Despite the material gains in the West, half of our planet is still in poverty, living on less than $100 a month. Financial fraud, militarization, organized crime, natural disasters and third world debt service consume a third of our gross world product, and paralyze a majority of countries in Africa and Asia. Many people feel we have entered a “post-industrial age” or a “post-modern” world.

To conclude his book, The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas writes,

As a civilization and as a species we have come to the moment of truth, with the future of the human spirit and the future of the planet, hanging in the balance. If ever boldness, depth and clarity of vision were called for, from many, it is now.

That “clarity of vision” for the “sustainable future” must not just come from economics or ecology, but also from eschatology. Based on the covenantal transformation of the first century, a new eschatology can offer inspiration that the sovereign Lord can lead us through a cultural transition beyond the modern age and bring forth a new world epoch. It can call society’s artists, writers and intellectuals to recover and renew the Western dream for a more interdependent and intercultural global age.

Gregory Wolfe, 39 year-old editor of the “Image: A Journal of Art and Religion,” sees the potential of the arts to create a religious vision of the future. He writes,

The new religious humanists know that culture shapes and informs politics far more powerfully than the other way around. They recognize that symbolism, imagery and language play a crucial role in forming attitudes and prejudices, and have devoted themselves to nourishing the imaginative life.

A new eschatology can also inspire science fiction writers to create what Olaf Stapledon called “true myth.” Rather than be self-serving through merely the sensational, the fantastic or extreme, science fiction can rise to its vocation as a modern school of wisdom, and explore through epic drama the direction and moral meaning of each science and technologies into the far future.

Another frontier for Christian theology in the 21st century will be the dialogue between science and theology over the final goal of creation. We could see Einstein symbolically meet Christ as scientific cosmology encounters Christian eschatology. The bare “physical eschatology” of quantum physics might come to grips with the priestly function of redeemed humanity throughout the universe. On its own terms, science could develop a personalistic cosmology.

If the launch of Sputnik or the landing of a man on the moon has taught us anything, it is this: the church of the third millennium will not be bound to earth. Faith itself will move out and help transform communities in space, starting with settlements on the moon, on Mars and with our inner solar system. A new eschatology can further inspire this outward movement and remind new generations that the Lord reigns and earth is just his footstool.

“Be not afraid!”

In speaking to a post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela said:

Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…You are a child of God; your playing small doesn’t serve the world…We are born to manifest the glory of God within us.

The Risen Christ again walks among humanity today and says, “Be not afraid!”

It has been said that every movement which has done something great for God and humanity has had three characteristics. First, it has been bold and inspired the imagination. Second, it has built up leadership as it progressed. Third, it has offered humanity a vision of the future which is clear and compelling. A renewed eschatology can be such a movement for the third millennium. It only needs you to embrace God’s “Yes” to humanity’s future.

DR JAY GARY has served as a pastor, college educator, magazine editor and conference planner for Christian leaders, over the past two decades. Today he serves as president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years Jay has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses. This lecture was first given to a Bible Conference in 1998.

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