I. The Last Things — and the Kingdom of God
The areas of discussion and disagreement among Christians over these issues and their consequences are numerous. We will focus on the theme so favored in our days: the last things. In doing so, we will need to look closely at a doctrine that underlies the whole disagreement: the kingdom of God. First, what do we say in our family of the faith?
Eschatology is the branch of theology concerned with the final events in human or world history. The word comes from the Greek adjective eschatos, meaning "last," frequently used in the New Testament (as in II Timothy3:1, "... in the last days there will come times of stress," but also in such familiar usage as Matthew 19:30: "But many that are first will be last, and the last first"). Christianity and many other religions teach about the last things. It is a universal human experience that we come to our own personal end in history. The world, and history as we know it, may or will come to an end also. If so, how? Is there anything beyond that end? How do we know what to expect?
For Christians the central event in history is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This event sheds light on what went before: God’s election, covenant and law -- that is, choosing, teaching, and preparing a people for the coming of the One. The present and future are seen in the light of this event also. We have been shown what human beings are called to be. When we glimpse the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we glimpse the future God has for us.
Eschatology is used in two ways. We speak of "last" meaning end or purpose (for this the New Testament often used the word telos); and of "last" meaning completion, like the last act of a drama. The biblical purpose, with varying degrees of clarity, is the same in both Testaments: that humanity may dwell in the presence of God, live under the reign of God in peace, justice and love.
Judaism pictured the last act pointing to the Messiah, the day of judgment, and the messianic rule: a perfect and peaceful future. Hope here looks to future fulfillment.
The New Testament differs on this point. What God wills to accomplish has already begun in Christ. Eschatology, what will happen in the future, is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From that memory the church looks to the return in glory of the crucified Lord. According to all the historic churches, the last act has four features:
return of Christ -- "second coming"
These elements echo through many texts. A general agreement develops throughout the New Testament that these are the themes that belong to God’s purpose for creation coming to fulfillment in the last act. And there is a consistent New Testament silence concerning where, when or how this will happen. Such a script is not for us to know. Signs of the times are to be watched until the cross and resurrection. Afterwards, because the central event has taken place in Jesus Christ, signs will not add anything.
But the New Testament’s agreement about the elements and the silence concerning details does not mean no ambiguity remains about related matters. Two points of controversy are indicated already in the Scriptures. A split over particularity/universality developed concerning the hope of salvation. Who shall be saved? God’s particular people, the Jews who recognize the risen Lord? So thought the Jewish congregation in Jerusalem. Or all the people, even those not Jewish? So thought Paul and the Gentile converts who formed or joined congregations. Who was right? In a way both were. God has been preparing the Jews and everyone else for salvation.
Another point debated was the time: is salvation, or the kingdom present now or is it still future? On the one hand, salvation and the kingdom form a present reality with the outpouring of the Spirit, according to the Fourth Gospel. On the other, faith needs hope. To be reconciled does not mean that redemption is completed in us here and now, said Paul and others in the New Testament. Both are true; the problem is one of proportions. Is it more present than future? Is it more future than present? At different times the church moved the emphasis from one to the other. Problems arose when some were unwilling or unable to live with the dynamics of both and chose an either/or answer. Because this either/or still tends to divide Christians, we need to look at the biblical picture of the kingdom of God and point to some interpretations.
The kingdom of God is a term frequently used in the first three Gospels. It is not defined because the hearers were familiar with it. Yahweh is king for the psalmists, the prophets and even in earlier tradition, so it made sense to talk of God’s kingdom. The term speaks not of a place, but of God who is sovereign over all. The earth is covered with kingdoms, but the day will come when God’s kingdom, now hidden but known to the righteous, will be revealed for all people to see. In the post-exilic writings (sixth century B.C. and later) this hope is joined to the hope of a Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Man, to whom authority is given by God. After the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus begins his public ministry, saying "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15, Matt. 4:17).
The nearness of the kingdom is revealed not only in Jesus’ words, but also in his actions: healing, casting out demons, performing miracles or signs. He not only signals the kingdom in his person, the kingdom is here. The good news is not only the message of Jesus, but Jesus is the message. We are called and enabled to enter the kingdom through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
The kingdom that is ushered in by Christ culminates in his cross and resurrection. It does not come by might, but by divine self-giving. Here the meaning of the kingdom is revealed, yet remains a mystery. The kingdom is here because the work of Christ brought it in, yet he taught us to pray, "Your kingdom come." It is here, yet it is to come. The kingdom is bound to its king. The early church hears: "God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36). Christ is king on earth and in heaven. The believer participates in the kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ. But the disclosure of the kingdom for all to see is still in the future, it awaits the end of time and the return of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:11).
Preaching in Acts shows that to preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen again is to preach the kingdom of God. The church is not the kingdom, but Christ acts within the church and guides it, where and when it will be guided, by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 4:20) so that the church witnesses to the coming kingdom and continues to pray: "Your kingdom come." This special nature of the kingdom being here already and yet still coming, and the call of the church to pray and become participants in the kingdom, not to create the kingdom, has been difficult for some people. When the church was not lively enough with hope to live in the tension of the kingdom already here -- but not yet -- it missed the mark. It came to premature conclusions by stressing one set of texts and forgetting others.
There were Christians through the ages who thought they had discovered signs of the imminent coming of Christ, who will usher in the kingdom. The year 1000 was expected with terror and anticipation. Would not that be the year of Christ’s return? The year of the Council of Trent, 1560, was also suggested. The 19th century saw a lot of speculation about the imminent return. The Adventist church was forged in the experience of waiting on a particular day for the return. The waiters were disappointed, but a new church was born.
Still others seemed to have lost heart about humanity. They could see no sign of God's work and reign either in the church or in the world. Humanity appeared so helpless and hopeless that even God could do nothing with them. If there is to be a kingdom of God, God must reverse, destroy, counteract all that hinders its coming and establish the kingdom independent of human life and response, or lack of it. Not only the feast of the kingdom is provided by the king--the guests will not even have to walk. All is foreordained, dispensation will follow dispensation. resurrection.