“Mythical eschatology is basically discarded by the simple fact that the return of Christ did not take place immediately, as the New Testament expected, but that world history continued, and—as any reasonable person is convinced—is going to continue.” Even before Rudolph Bultmann in his programmatic essay “New Testament and Mythology” (1941) thus categorically dismissed the biblical prediction of a definite end of history by the sovereign intervention of God, modernist theologians had started to substitute for it other types of eschatology, which seemed to appeal more to common sense.
Some like Albert Schweitzer symbolized the message of the end by transforming it into an ethical attitude of radical responsibility. Others replaced the transcendental realization of the kingdom of heaven by evolutionary theories or revolutionary strategies. “Can we set aside both falling firmament and sprouting spores as our images of history and act on the conviction that there is no future except the one we make?” asks Harvey Cox in On Not Leaving It to the Snake.
Today, however, it is just the “reasonable people,” outstanding scientists like Bernhard Philbert and Gordon R. Taylor, who warn us that world history is more likely than not to come to a cataclysmal end within the foreseeable future. Most people today are quite aware of the volcanic situation in which we are living, even if they dodge the issue by escaping into narcotizing amusements or hectic activities.
No wonder that Bible-believing Christians have become extremely sensitive to the apocalyptic prophecies. Some groups of Jesus people even call themselves “the last generation.” Outstanding evangelists make the return of Christ the keynote of their message, and Hal Lindsey’s bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth has run into dozens of editions. In August, 1971, evangelical theologians gathered in Jerusalem to hold their first international congress on the biblical prophecies about the end.
Such eschatological awareness is, indeed, an attitude vital to genuine Christian faith. Jesus wanted his disciples to live and act in ardent expectation of his return, no matter how far away this return might be. The short-end perspective in prophetic vision by no means refutes the reality of its content. It must rather be understood as a design of divine permission to keep this expectation alive and make it an integral element of Christian existence.
Still, our Christian concern for the last things has its risks. It can degrade into spiritually unhealthy attitudes, as Paul observed in the church of Thessalonica. And irresponsible writers and preachers may exploit it to produce sensational effects of curiosity, anxiety, or illusion that by no means resemble that state of ardent and obedient watchfulness in which the Lord wants to find his disciples when he returns.
A central concern of evangelical theology should be to establish a common basis of eschatological teaching that is both faithful to the clear texts of biblical prophecies and relevant to events of world history that clearly have an apocalyptic significance. In fact, eschatology can be called the only part of Christian theology that allows for a real development of insight, as there are both biblical texts and historical events that remain obscure to us until by the leading of the Holy Spirit (John 16:12–13) they are placed in juxtaposition.
This is a most responsible task, as the life and death of Christ’s flock is at stake. Therefore it can only be tackled in a highly responsible way. Haphazard hypothesis and speculation must be excluded as much as eccentric exegesis. We must be humble enough to listen to the expository answers of our spiritual fathers and to place our own solution under the correcting judgment of our brethren. Nowhere has evangelical individualism created so many unwarranted doctrinal factions as in eschatology.
The problem is that even a fundamentalist view on biblical theology cannot by itself arrive at evident conclusions. For the prophetic texts constitute a peculiar literary species. They very seldom convey an unequivocal message that can be collected from their plain wording. Rather we have to distinguish carefully between the historic application at the time of the author, the employment of metaphorical imagery, sometimes taken from the contemporary world of religions, and the really prophetic prediction that sometimes even finds its fulfillment in different events at different stages of salvation history.
Thus prophetic texts often consist of different transparent levels, which in our natural perspective have merged into one single and therefore highly enigmatic level. This gives them to the rationalistic mind an obscured appearance; the features of the multi-level visions mingle and cannot easily be distinguished.
In this case it is evident that the inspiration of the writer must be supplemented by a new inspiration of the reader to let him recognize what the Spirit by this particular text really wants to say to the Church in our time. But nobody is entitled to claim such personal inspiration unless he recognizes that the same spirit is also given to all other members of Christ’s body, and is willing, therefore, to place it under their judgment.
And even then we cannot always be sure whether the Holy Spirit has already removed the veil from those texts. For he will render their message only at that time when it is vitally needed.
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