“We prefer to forget the future.” This was the title of a newspaper article about the world economy. But it seemed an appropriate description of the attitude of many Christians. Some are afraid of thinking about the future. Others are put off by the unbalanced views put over by people who do think about the future.
However, it is clear from the New Testament that we shouldn’t forget about the future. Rather we should think seriously and frequently about it.
I recently read through the New Testament to see again what it said on the End Times (Eschatology). Although I know the NT very well I was surprised by the amount of teaching on this subject. Here are a few brief points which show the importance of our thinking about the future.
1. Jesus stressed the Kingdom which ultimately is eschatological
There are two aspects to the Kingdom. One is the present rule (or “kingdom”) of God in the lives of Christians and in the world. This is very important. But the other is the future manifestation of the Kingdom when Jesus returns. The concept of the Kingdom includes a very definite eschatological message. This is the “age to come” when God’s royal rule will be fully revealed, transforming the whole of creation.
2. Jesus taught us to pray regularly for his Kingdom to come
This is, of course, contained in the “Lord’s Prayer”: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So in the great pattern prayer Jesus taught us we pray for this eschatological Kingdom to come so that it may be heaven on earth. Clearly, therefore, Jesus intends us not only to be frequently thinking about the return of Christ but praying for it to happen.
3. The NT teaches us Communion has an eschatological perspective
Paul wrote: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” So Communion is looking forward to the return of Christ as well as looking back at his death and resurrection.
4. The NT regularly focuses on eschatology
I counted 118 passages on eschatology in the NT excluding the Book of Revelation. This includes eight major passages (whole chapters, give or take), plus, of course, almost a whole book – Revelation. In terms of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels I noted that there are 46 passages in 33 chapters.
I listed the eschatological subjects referred to in these passages throughout the NT in order of emphasis (the figures are the number of passages I counted): heaven/eternal life (42); judgment (42); the Return of Christ (40); the wrath of God/Hell (22); looking for signs of the times (11); resurrection (9); the restoration/transformation of all things (5); the eschatological aspect of Communion(4); the antichrist (4);the future of Israel (2). Again, these figures do not include the Book of Revelation.
It is clear that Jesus intended us to think frequently about eschatology. It is also clear that the apostles thought about it regularly and taught the church accordingly. But many of us do not do so. Eschatology needs to be reinstated in the church and in the thinking of the individual Christian. It is perhaps helpful to realize that this is in line with the creeds and liturgies of the church, as the Appendix makes clear.
1. The creeds show church tradition regards eschatology as important
The creeds contain important sections on eschatology:
“he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in …. the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. …. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
2. The Anglican Church (for example) includes eschatology in its liturgy
Following on from the previous point it is helpful to note the incidence of references to eschatology in one mainstream church. The various eucharistic prayers in the Communion service include the following words:
- Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (which is an eschatological statement)
- we look for the coming of your kingdom,
- looking for his coming in glory
- he instituted, and in his holy gospel commanded us to continue, a perpetual memory of his precious death until he comes again.
- May we and all who share this food offer ourselves to live for you and be welcomed at your feast in heaven where all creation worships you
- we proclaim his death and resurrection until he comes in glory.
- help us to work together for that day when your kingdom comes and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth. Look with favour on your people, gather us in your loving arms and bring us with … all the saints to feast at your table in heaven.
- we long for his coming in glory.
- Gather your people from the ends of the earth to feast with …. all your saints at the table in your kingdom,
where the new creation is brought to perfection in Jesus Christ our Lord;
- Bring us at the last with [N and] all the saints to the vision of that eternal splendour for which you have created us;
The various Acclamations in the Communion service include the words:
- Christ will come again.
- Lord Jesus, come in glory.
- When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.
- Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
- Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This is good as it indicates that eschatology is not a fringe issue officially. However the issue is that in very many churches these liturgical references are not associated with the clergy teaching with any regularity (or at all) about eschatology or the congregations thinking about it.