Ethics and Eschatology

Two weeks ago, my colleague Dr. Rodney Cooper and I were leading a group of doctoral students and during his first presentation to the group, Rodney said something that struck me: “Our eschatology determines our ethics.” I’ve been mentally kicking that thought around since I heard it, pondering its meaning and its implications for American and Canadian Christians who live in what has become a divided, fragmented culture driven more by images from social media than any disciplined  and thoughtful approach toward individual and corporate life.

As one fascinated by the assumptions that historians bring to the subjects, I’m mindful of several ways that historians can approach their work. Some work from a “progressive” stance and assume that humanity is constantly improving and that historical events demonstrate a movement from the primitive to a world where human agency will solve all of our problems. Others are “Marxist” historians in that they see everything through an economic lens with history representing the struggle of the working classes to overcome the power of the upper classes and create a world of genuine equality. (Please note that the Leninist revision of Marxism practiced in the Soviet Union represented only one, albeit deeply failed, way of looking at this. Marxists come in several varieties.) Still others view history in cyclical terms, with events repeating themselves in different ways as the world cycles through time. Cyclical historians give wide berth to the idea of “fate,” an unknown indecipherable force that controls the how historical events unfold. The term “accident of history” gets at this idea.

Christianty and history

Christianity offers a very different understanding of history. In the Christian understanding of history, all activity is seen as the outworking of God’s purposes for creation and the creatures that inhabit it. God’s providential care is at work, although as human beings we are mostly unable to discern how specific events and movement fit into those overall purposes. Still Christians trust in the God revealed in Holy Scripture, and trust that in the midst of our fragmented, chaotic existence, God is providentially working out his purposes.

Moreover, like the historical progressives, Christian historians are ultimately optimistic about the course of history. The big difference between the two schools of thought is that while progressives place great value in human agency, Christians are deeply skeptical of human nature and therefore look to God to bring its ultimate outcome. In other words, history points toward eschatology and the events described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 and John in Revelation 21-22, when all of creation will be redeemed and the people of God will dwell with God eternally in a “new heaven and new earth.”

If history points us to the future that God has for creation and for the people of God, and if that future determines how we live and work, then a biblical eschatology is vitally important for Christians like you and me (and if you are not a Christian, I invite to read, study, and reflect not on all of the “noise” coming out of American evangelicalism these days, but on the overarching purposes of God for creation and for us). Scripture is clear that the Christian understanding of history centers on the coming of Kingdom of God from heaven to earth where God’s rule over all of creation will be demonstrated first in more hidden ways, and finally in a visible Kingdom at the return of Christ at a future time.

So, what does a “Kingdom eschatology” look like. The late New Testament theologian George Eldon Ladd described it well with the title of one of his books, The Presence of the Future. In other words, followers of Jesus become citizens of a new reality that is not yet fully realized on earth.  We can describe this new reality with the phrase “already but not yet.” In other words, the Kingdom of God has come to earth through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in a hidden sense not visible to most. Jesus describes it this way in Matthew 13 in a series of parables. When you read that passage, note that most of the parables begin with “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

But, the biblical writers teach, a time will come when the Kingdom will be fully visible, when Jesus returns to make all things right in all of creation. I’ve already referenced the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. That chapter is perhaps my favorite in all of the Bible. As you read that passage, note that our Lord’s return will bring the fullness of the Kingdom of God and with that includes the entire created order. That renewal of creation includes you and me, but is much more than us. All of creation will be renewed according to God’s purposes. The Kingdom of God which is now present but hidden, will become visible. (My favorite description is found in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the seventh and last of his delightful series of books titled The Chronicles of Narnia.)

Misunderstanding the Kingdom of God

Nineteenth-century American Christians made two great theological mistakes regarding the Kingdom of God. The party that came to be associated with theological liberalism associated the Kingdom of God with our contemporary world and argued that human enlightenment and effort could and would usher in a near perfect society. Proponents of a so-called “Kingdom Now” eschatology argued that the return of Christ was a mere symbol of the Kingdom that human agency and effort would build on earth. Their influential adherents included Harry Emerson Fosdick, a well known Baptist pastor in New York City, and Shailer Mathews, the noted theological historian at the University of Chicago.

The other party (which came to be associated with Fundamentalism) argued that the kingdom of God was “postponed” until after Christ returned to earth at a future date. This postponement led to a “lifeboat eschatology” embraced by the noted evangelist Dwight Moody, and C.I. Scofield, the composer of the popular Scofield Study Bible. Christians should mostly ignore the problems of the world and focus on getting people into the “lifeboat” of Christ before it was too late.

What is problematic about both of these views is that each one ignores a significant aspect of what Holy Scripture teaches about one of the central Christian doctrines–the “already but not yet” nature of the Kingdom of God. Both divorce individual salvation from ethical concern for our fellow human beings and the welfare of society. This bifurcated teaching even impacts our personal eschatology. We talk about “going to heaven when we die.” But what does that mean for most people. I think it often gets reduced to a kind of gnosticism described in the gospel song “I’ll fly away.” That was exactly the teaching of the second-century gnostic heretics who argued that any physical reality was evil and created by some secondary god and not the God described in the New Testament.

Instead, let me suggest that God’s purpose is the very redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23) along with the redemption of all of creation. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of our Lord’s resurrection as the “first-fruits,” as the paradigm for our individual resurrections when we are raised from death as fully embodied persons! Our Christian confidence is grounded in our expectation that when Jesus returns and all of creation is redeemed we will be raised from death as embodied persons in the same way that God raised Jesus from death.

While I think that God does care for his people between the time of our physical death and his return and that the only thing we are aware of during that time is his care for us, that is not the end of the story. Our Christian hope is resurrection and redemption. And, that is what a Christian understanding of history points us toward. Christian historians write history with God’s providence in mind. While much of God’s providence is hidden from us, we write knowing the ultimate outcome–that the Kingdom of God that is now hidden from view will be made fully visible for all at the return of Jesus Christ.

Eschatology and ethics

So, what does this mean for how we live? How does this connection between eschatology and ethics work its way out in our lives, in our Christian communities, even in our society? Let me suggest three important ways.

First, God values human persons, all of them! He values them no matter who they are and he desires that they flourish, both now and in eternity. He even values folks in the political party that you don’t like.

Second, God values justice, both in this age and in the age to come. The prophet Amos makes clear that justice concerns God in our present age, and that justice is integral to human flourishing. And, he wants us to value them here and now.

Finally, our efforts to bring justice and reconciliation to our fellow human beings will be proximate and subject to the realities of our fallen, sinful. But, that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to encourage justice.

We don’t need utopian schemes. Instead we need to work for justice in the concrete realities of life. When we see ethnic cleansing, racism, slaughter of innocents, people living without hope, mental illness, God challenges us to act. We act with words–the words of the grace-filled gospel of Jesus Christ. And we encourage actions that bring justice in our congregations and in our communities.

Wow. Our eschatology really does determines our ethics.

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is Senior Librarian and Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.