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April 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 2 · pp. 3–7 

Eschatology: What Are the Issues?

David Ewert

Our Brotherhood has been mercifully spared from some of the issues that have divided other Christian bodies in the past several decades. In Paul’s words, we have tried to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Though we often fail to live up to the precepts of Scripture, I think that most of us hold the Bible to be God’s Word and are prepared to hear what it has to say to us.

In the interpretation of the Bible, however, several issues threaten to divide us. One of these issues is what in theological jargon is called “eschatology.” Paperbacks, radio and television programs, conferences and sermons are claiming to interpret what the Bible has to say about the future. There is small likelihood that this barrage of prognostications will let up as the second millennium of the Christian era draws to a close. And so the warning of Paul “not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited” by the Advent fever which ran high among the Thessalonians should be sounded once again.

This issue of Direction speaks to several eschatological questions which are answered in very different ways by Bible readers in our Brotherhood. No good purpose is served by passing them over in silence. I do not know how the other contributors will treat their topics, but I am sure they will stimulate our thinking. My duty is to identify several of the issues which threaten to become contentious if we are unwilling to allow for any options in the understanding and interpretation of the biblical texts that speak of the things to come. Let me then ask, first of all, what the New Testament means by “the last days.”

THE LAST DAYS

Everywhere we hear it said that we are living in the last days. I do not doubt that; indeed I firmly believe it. But we do not all define “the last days” in the same way. For some the “last days” are somewhere between 1948 and 2000. (Hal Lindsay puts the outer limit more precisely, at 1988). A thousand years ago faithful followers of Christ expected the Lord in their generation. Why not? Go back another thousand years, to the first century of the Christian era. Did the New Testament saints not hold that they were living in “the last days”? Indeed, they did.

According to the New Testament “the last days” began with Christ’s first coming. “In many and diverse ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in the last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1,2). “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake” (1 Pet. 1:20). “Children it is the last hour,” wrote John in his day (1 Jn. 2:18). {4}

The Old Testament prophets had looked forward to the “last days” when God would do a new work, and when the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost Peter saw the hopes of Joel fulfilled: “In the last days . . . I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17). Pentecost inaugurated the last days.

This means that Christians always live in the last days, waiting for their Lord to return. But since a thousand years are for the Lord like a day, they must not set dates (especially when Jesus himself stressed that no one knew the hour except the Father).

These “last days” will, of course, come to an end in God’s own good time. By God’s power we are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed “in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). And Jesus promised to be with us “to the close of the age” (Mt. 28:20). But certainly “the last days” are not the same as “the last day.” The period from Pentecost to Parousia is “the last day” (Jn. 6:40). The church, Christ’s Bride, always waits for her Bridegroom to return.

If that is so (and the explicit statements of Scripture can hardly be gainsaid), then we must raise a serious question about identifying “signs of the times.”

THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES

Those who fail to observe carefully how the apostles use the term “the last day,” and who define “the last days” concretely as the very days in which we are living, take an approach to the “signs of the times” that is hard to square with the New Testament and with history.

Paul predicts that in “later times” some will depart from the faith (1 Tim. 4:1),and he then warns Timothy (and the church) against them. So, there were apostates already in Paul’s day—and there have been throughout history. And while apostasy may well be on the increase, one could hardly establish the proximity of the Parousia by trying to establish the number of apostates from the faith in, say, 1975.

Jesus characterized the last days as days of conflict, famine, and cosmic catastrophes. While we may expect an intensification of these phenomena as the “last day” draws near, one must not point to historical catastrophes to determine how close we are to the end. Some saw in World War I a clear sign of the end; others had said the same about the Napoleonic Wars. And while the next world war (may God spare us!) may well be the beginning of the end, it is “not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).

What has made date-setters overly confident of late is the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. And that leads to a third question.

THE NATION ISRAEL

Paul never gave up hope for the salvation of Israel. As a matter of fact, the conversion of Gentiles (wild branches) was for him good ground to believe that Israel (natural branches) could be saved. Nowhere is this hope expressed so strongly as in Romans 11:25-26.

However, there is no general agreement on who this “Israel” is. If “all Israel” is to be understood nationally, does this mean that all the Jews that have died in the last 1900 years are lost, but that just prior to Christ’s coming there will be a “privileged few” who will be saved? Would this include only the Jews living in the state of Israel? (There happen to be more Jews in New York {5} than in Israel.) Moreover, Romans 11, as does the rest of the New Testament, makes it very plain that there is no other name by which anyone can be saved than by the name of Jesus.

One would have to be blind if one could not see how miraculously the Jewish people have come through the vicissitudes of history, but we should be very cautious of saying that any particular current political event is the fulfillment of prophecy.

Of course, the New Testament nowhere speaks of the reestablishment of the state of Israel. Indeed, Jesus said the kingdom would be taken away from Israel (Mt. 21). And that raises a serious question about the use of Old Testament predictions concerning Israel.

OLD TESTAMENT PROMISES IN THE NEW

The apostles had only the Old Testament Scriptures and the oral teachings of Jesus from which to teach and preach. They were Jews themselves. They knew what God had promised Israel. How is it, then, that the New Testament books (which represent the witness of the apostles) make nothing of these nationalistic promises?

The reason is not difficult to discover. Jesus had come to create a new people of God from every tribe and nation. And so the promises given to God’s people (the nation) in the Old Testament are transferred to the new people, the church (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9, 10). David’s throne had been set up in the coming of Jesus, David’s Son. The hope of the new temple was fulfilled in the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:20-22).

It is hermeneutically wrong to go straight from the nationalistic promises of the Old Testament to the modern state of Israel and to by-pass completely the New Testament. We should not be wiser than the apostles who had been in the school of Jesus and who remain silent on the national restitution of Israel. If Paul had to confess that he knew “in part,” and prophesied “in part,” how much more should we be humble in our attempts to identify modern events as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

Perhaps it is precisely because the New Testament writers make so little of the promises to national Israel (because they see these fulfilled in Christ and the church) that the teaching of an earthly millennium is so popular.

THE MILLENNIUM

There is only one chapter in the New Testament which speaks of the millennium (Rev. 10), and that is enough to take the concept seriously. But where can we find even a suggestion in Rev. 20 that the Old Testament promises of an earthly, national Israel will be fulfilled during this period?

Besides, the thousand-year reign described in this chapter does not look very earthly. In the Revelation when John sees thrones set up (as in 20:4) they usually speak of a heavenly rule. What is more, since the numbers of the Revelation are frequently used symbolically, we should be cautious in applying our concepts of time to this transition stage in the great cosmic drama, when God will wrap up the history of this world. If there is to be a kind of preliminary rule of Christ with his saints on earth; and in that event chapter 20 of the Revelation may be of one piece with the last two chapters which describe the eternal city after a new heaven and new earth have appeared.

I heard a lot of millennial preaching as a boy; and while some farmers {6} envied those who would be privileged to till the soil in the prosperous times that lay in the distant future, I never found this kind of teaching convincing. Quite surreptitiously these bright millennial prospects, in which, presumably, mass conversions were to take place, opened the door to the doctrine of “the second chance.” But the Scriptures say, “today is the day of salvation.” We do not have sufficient information to be precise about the nature and the time of the millennium. Nor is this a doctrine that determines our Christian life and ministry in this present age. Therefore we must be magnanimous enough to let others, who take the Bible every bit as seriously as we do, espouse their own interpretation of it.

The dogmatic insistence of some that the church has only the rapture to look forward to, and that God will never let his people suffer the tribulations which are to attend “the last days,” needs to be put in question also.

THE TRIBULATION

Missionary David Adeney, who has spent half a life-time in Asia, makes the observation that when tribulation came upon the Church in communist China it was caught off guard because missionaries had taught that the church would be spared the tribulation.

What do the New Testament writers have to say about the suffering of the church? Jesus in his apocalyptic messages foresaw much tribulation for his followers (Mt. 24; Mk. 13). Paul informed the early churches that they had to enter the kingdom through much tribulation (Acts 14:22). He encouraged his Thessalonian converts by reminding them that they have been “set” for tribulation (1 Thess. 3:3). Peter wrote, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that comes upon you.” John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar and heard them ask: “how long?” (Rev. 6:10). And in chapter 7, John saw the saints coming home to Zion out of “great tribulation” (7:14).

Our Anabaptist forebears held that suffering was one of the marks of the church, and they were right. Suffering has been the experience of the church throughout the ages. The last book of the Bible makes this explicitly clear.

To suffer does not mean, however, to be exposed to the wrath of God. Paul comforts the Philippians by saying that to them it had been graciously given (charizomai) not only to believe but also to suffer for Christ’s name (Phil. 1:29). The suffering of the saints is a “filling up of what is lacking in Christ’s affliction” (Col. 1:24).

It would be comforting to think that God will save his church from the sufferings of the end times, but that view could turn out to be very deceiving. If, as is widely held, the church will be raptured before the terrors of Antichrist, then what do Paul’s words in 2 Thess. 2:3 mean? “Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day (our assembling to meet Christ, 2:1) will not come, unless . . . the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition. . . .” I am only asking!

CONCLUSION

There is little hope that the entire Brotherhood will ever agree on the details of eschatology. To preserve unity of spirit, then, we must be big enough to allow for different points of view. It is a sign of deep insecurity and meanness when someone makes charges of “modernism” against those who take the Bible seriously but do not agree with his interpretation. {7}

In Mennonite theology the details of eschatology have usually not been spelled out, allowing for differences in the minor questions, but calling for unity in those that really matter. And when we begin to ask what we as a Brotherhood agree on, there is reason to rejoice. We hold to the imminent return of our Lord, the resurrection of all mankind, the doctrine of recompense. We all look forward to the final triumph of the Kingdom of God and the hope of sharing the glory of God. And that’s a whole lot.

If then we do not all agree on the exact sequence of the events of the last day, is that important enough to create rifts and divisions?

Moreover, does not the burden of the New Testament teachings on future things rest on ethical concerns? The blessed hope is to encourage us in our labors and trials. The conviction that Jesus will come is a call to readiness. “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3). Let us take seriously the words of Hebrews 12:24, “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

Also, we should take seriously the answer of Jesus to the question of the disciples concerning the end times. Not only did he tell them that this was a secret hidden in God, but he also told them what their task was until God would usher in the End: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and the end of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8). And rather than spending our energies in speculations on the end times, let us be mindful of Jesus’ farewell discourse in which he said: “The Gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mk. 13:10). If we do that, we shall not be found sleeping when he comes.

Let me close with a solemn warning from the great evangelical preacher, C. H. Spurgeon:

I do not find many souls have been converted to God by exquisite dissertations about the battle of Armageddon, and all those other fine things; I have no doubt prophesyings are very profitable, but I rather question whether they are so profitable to the hearers, as they may be to the preachers and publishers. People have a panting to know the future; and certain divines pander to this depraved taste, by prophesying for them, and letting them know what is coming by-and-by. I do not know the future, and I shall not pretend to know. But I do preach this, because I know it, that Christ will come, for he says so in a hundred passages.”

(Cited in Searchlight on Spurgeon, by Eric W. Hayden. Italics his.)

David Ewert is Professor of New Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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