Is it time for a “New Kind of Eschatology”?

Recently, Brian McLaren wrote an article in the Huffington Post titled, “Needed: Christians Thinking Differently About the Future.” In it, he argues that because many evangelicals believe in a pre-tribulation rapture, or some type of end to the world, they have forgotten their current responsibilities. He argues that many evangelicals (and some Roman Catholics) argue that since the world is going to end and Christ will reign forever, does it really  matter how we treat creation, how we treat each other, or anything else? All that should matter under such a view, according to McLaren, is saving souls. McLaren argues that such a view does not benefit the world and, in his words, “If God has predetermined that the world will get worse and worse until it ends in a cosmic megaconflict between the forces of Light …and the forces of Darkness…why waste energy on peacemaking, diplomacy, and interreligious dialogue?”

While this might come as a surprise to some, I do agree somewhat with McLaren on this issue. For those who don’t know, my eschatological stance is best summed as, “Something is going to happen.” While I do have an eschatology that remains stable and absolute (i.e. that there will be a physical resurrection of the dead, there will be a judgment, Christ will reign over the world, there will be a new heaven and a new earth), the question of how this will all come about is a complete mystery to me. Likewise, it’s not all that important either.

Will the world slowly improve until everyone recognizes Christ as king and therefore He comes down and reigns forevermore? Or will the world get worse until Christ steps in and fights His enemies, bringing His chosen home? Or could it be something we’ve never thought about? If there’s a tribulation, will there be a rapture that takes all Christians to heaven, leaving some behind? Or will we all go after the tribulation? Or will there be a tribulation at all?

These are answers that I don’t think we’ll know until it’s already happened. It seems the Bible is far more concerned with telling us that something will happen at that the world as we know it will end in some way (whether through fire or through improvement), but is less concerned with telling us how it will happen.

Where I agree with McLaren is that people have taken these views of the end, specifically people who believe that God will come back to wage war against humanity, and have forsaken their calling as Christians. Christ gave His famous eschatological speech (or supposedly eschatological, depending on who you ask) in Matthew 24 and Matthew 25. There are literally books written over this one speech. Churches have been split over the view of how the end times will occur and many scholars have waged debates over what Matthew 24-25 means.

In all the debate, our responsibility to our fellow humans and to our environment has gone unnoticed. We quickly forget that in Genesis we are commanded to have dominion over the earth, which is the equivalent of stewardship. Even more importantly, we forget the two greatest commandments: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Notice that in those two commandments we don’t see anything saying, “Discover how the end times will occur.” In fact, all of theology could be said to rest upon one of these two commandments. If all of theology rests upon these two commandments, then it follows that the less likely a theological doctrine is to impact our actions concerning one of these two commandments, the less important that theological doctrine is. Any doctrine concerning who God is would be vitally important because in order to love someone with all our heart, mind, and soul, we must know who that person is. Any doctrine concerning how we are to act toward our fellow humans would also be important. The question of how the end times will occur seems to only minimally touch these two commandments, meaning it’s a pretty unimportant theological quest.

The point is that while it might be interesting to study the how, it’s not nearly as important as studying how we should treat our fellow humans, how well we should know God, or how we should treat creation.

With all of that said, McLaren commits a fallacy that is all-to-common among emergent authors. Often times, they commit the fallacy of “Ignoratio Elenchi,” or making an irrelevant conclusion based on what they observe. For instance, they see the following:

John believes in a pre-tribulation rapture
John believes we don’t have a responsibility to help the earth or humanity because Jesus is coming back soon
Therefore, John’s belief is based upon his view of the pre-tribulation rapture

From that, McLaren says that we need to change how we view the end times. But that’s an irrelevant conclusion. For instance, we could simply ask John the following:

Us: “John, let’s say you and your wife went on vacation and left your children with a friend at your house. You tell your kids that when you come back you’re going to take them to Disneyland, but you don’t tell them when you’re coming back. When you come back unexpectedly, you find that your oldest son has trashed the house and harassed his younger brother and sister. Would you say he deserves to go to Disneyland?”

John: “No, of course not.”

Us: “But what if you promised to bring him? Would you still discipline him or be disappointed in him?”

John: “Absolutely! He’d be punished and I’d let him know how disappointed I was in him!”

Us: “Then John, even if Jesus is coming back and the world will end, does that give us an excuse to trash His creation and ignore the needs of His children?”

The obvious answer is that, no, it does not.  In other words, any conclusion that says, “Who cares about other humans or the world” that is based on the premise, “it’s all going to be destroyed anyway,” is fallacious, it’s non sequitur (the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises). If anything, the belief that the entire world will end in one fiery war after all Christians have been taken to Heaven is irrelevant to how one treats fellow humans or the environment or any other action.

Unfortunately, instead of taking the time to point out to pre-tribulation believers that their apathy towards the world is an incorrect conclusion, McLaren decides to just throw the baby out with the bathwater. This, I am sad to say, appears to be quite common among emergent writers. They often see the actions of conservatives and see the beliefs of the conservatives and erroneously conclude that the beliefs must cause the actions. I have never seen an emergent author take the time to contemplate whether or not the conservatives are being inconsistent with their beliefs by the way they act.

The point is that McLaren makes a false assumption, that people act with apathy because their belief produces apathy, but there’s no reason to assume there is a connection. For instance, Francis Schaeffer believed in a pre-tribulation rapture, but also wrote numerous books on how we should treat our fellow humans (in fact, this was in every book he wrote) and even wrote a book on the Christian duty to protect the environment. While some Christians might support Israel out of their view of the end times (as McLaren states), others support Israel because it’s the right thing to do.

Finally and more as a side note, I would question what McLaren means by “interreligious dialogue.” If he means on social issues and how we’ll work to fight poverty, then I agree that we need to discuss how each community can work together in a minimalistic sense. If, however, he means developing theological unions or working to merge communities of faith, then I’m completely against such a dialogue. This opposition doesn’t come from a belief about the end times (because I really don’t have one), but instead is based upon principle.

Once again we see an emergent author rightfully critiquing something wrong in the conservative evangelical church – the obsession over how the end times will occur and the general apathy toward the world – but going to far and throwing the baby out with the bath water.

One thought on “Is it time for a “New Kind of Eschatology”?

  1. Joel,

    I agree that we should focus much more on loving God and loving our neighbor (as per the Prophets and Matthew 25) than figuring out how everything will pan out in the end.

    I do take issue with one aspect of your article, though. You made the claim that no inherent connection exists between one’s eschatology and one’s approach to life. I disagree. Just because there is no inherent link (although some may dispute that, too) does not mean that there is never any link. Or just because in some cases we cannot find an inherent link, that does not thus mean that in all cases there is no link. In fact, I am persuaded that for quite a few people such a connection is there, at least subconsciously.

    I think that our eschatological vision can shape how we approach the present life. And I think N.T. Wright does a very good job outlining that in his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

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