Christian Ethics, Christian Eschatology

A thought I had that led to a tweet that led to a Facebook conversation, prompted the suggestion that maybe I needed an article to explain what I was thinking.  I shall try to make good on an explanation, with this caveat.  I pretend no special expertise in ethics or eschatology.  Maybe the fool is rushing in.  If so, so be it.

The tweet:

“A Christian ethic must always remain coupled to Christian eschatology.”

Eschatology as a category of theology has two distinct aspects.  Its better known feature deals with scripture’s and the church’s teachings on “last things” – a literal understanding of the Greek words eschatos (last) and logos (in this case, study of).  The most well known topics have to do with theories about death and the afterlife, the intermediate state, the Lord’s return, final judgment, heaven and hell.  Eschatology in this sense then deals with final events in history as we think of history.

Within Christian thought, there are a number of approaches to eschatology: preterist, futurist, realized, for example.  Each term involves particular ways of understanding the Bible’s prophetic passages, both Old Testament and New,  especially the book of Revelation.  Christians have argued e’er long about which eschatological understanding is most faithful to scripture.  This is a big reason why some Christians think the whole business is overly speculative and not worth fighting about.  Better we leave the future to God and learn how to do justly and walk humbly.

One commenter who disagreed that Christian ethics should remain tied to Christian eschatology raised the specter of dispensationalism as a corrupting influence.  The dispensationalism mentioned originated with John Nelson Darby, the nineteenth century Bible teacher and eventual Plymouth Brethren leader.  Darby’s system was popularized by C.I. Scofield in the United States, beginning in the early twentieth century, through the Scofield Bible.  This Bible has been very popular among fundamentalists (using this term historically, not pejoratively) and evangelicals.  The Great Tribulation in the book of Revelation, the the rapture of the church and a premillennial understanding (that Christ would return at the beginning of the thousand year reign) of Revelation 20, are well known aspects of this dispensationalism, though among dispensationalists there is variety of perspective.

There is more to Christian eschatology, however, than the various competing views of end times.  Rather than focusing exclusively 0n what will happen or what is yet to happen, eschatology also deals with how God’s final purposes are revealed before the end of all things.  When Jesus announces that, with the beginning of his ministry, the Kingdom of God is at hand, this statement prompts us to think eschatologically.  Jesus’ resurrection as the first fruits of the New Creation and the powerful manifestation of the Spirit on Pentecost, which Peter announces as the fulfillment of Joel 2’s “last days,” are critical to eschatology.  Not about what will happen, but what has happened, which absolutely shapes the future.

What does any of this have to do with Christian ethics?  My original point, that Christian ethics should always remain tied to Christian eschatology, was not to identify a particular theory about (especially) end-times scenarios.  Rather is was to gesture toward the fact that Christian ethics – a theologically-grounded vision of the good, the just and thus the obligatory – must keep in mind the aim or goal or of God’s purpose for creating and recreating.  This is the aspect of eschatology that I believe indispensable to Christian ethics.

If Christian ethics does not stay tied to Christian eschatology, it does not mean that we avoid eschatology.  Any ethical system has an ultimate aim, a view of human flourishing, which necessarily includes purpose (telos).  Even if we say, “We’ll leave it up to the individual to sort out her ends,” that is a way of talking about human flourishing.  It is an ethical viewpoint with an implicit eschatology, an individualized one, to be sure, but an eschatology nonetheless.

Consider these examples.  The time management/leadership guru, Stephen Covey, is famous for the aphorism, “Begin with the end in mind.”  If we want to be good – ethical as well as effective – leaders, we have to have a vision of the goal.  If this is not an eschatology, per se, it has inevitably eschatological features. On a larger scale, historians of the Enlightenment have argued that at least some of the philosophes like Voltaire were attempting to find a way to establish a just society without need of the church’s, or even God’s, involvement.  They thus proceeded with a kind of secularized eschatology.

Believing that we can have a non-eschatological Christian ethic implies that laying hold, even in a proximate way, of God’s ultimate purposes is not really needful for Christian ethics.  This seems like a foolhardy, even dangerous, proposition.  It does not prevent eschatology from “tainting” our ethics. Someone’s vision of ultimate human good (of our flourishing) will take priority.  For Christians, if that vision is not grounded in convictions that grow from our Christian tradition, then we will wind up working for a tyrant and not the one we call Teacher and Lord.

To be sure, Christians learn from all sorts of ethical systems that stand separate from the Christian faith.  I am by no means calling for some narrowly “biblical” constraints.  At the same time, we need to be able to recognize differences.  And Christian eschatology – an understanding of God’s vision for human flourishing, for salvation and the New Creation – it seems to me, remains indispensable.

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. My thinking about eschatology has been influenced most, probably, by Tom Wright’s work. Is argument, broadly speaking, is that eschatology is about God’s work in history, centered in Israel and coming to its climax in Jesus. Given this framework – which is also a way of looking at scripture as a whole – he suggests that we find ourselves in a Five Act drama:
    – Act 1 – Creation
    – Act 2 – Fall
    – Act 3 – Israel
    – Act 4 – Jesus
    – Act 5 – The Church

    We see the first scene of Act 5 in the NT; as the church today we continue to “act out” the same play, though in later scenes of Act 5. This model presupposes that we can talk about what God has done and where God wants to end up; the challenge is in discerning how to carry on the story now in our current settings.

    Now, if we’re good moderns, this won’t look like ethics. Ethics requires general principles we can apply to the dilemmas of life. We don’t want an approach to ethics that is rooted in a particular community and situated in time.

    Naturally, this difference shows up in our approach to theology as a whole, particularly our understanding of Jesus and his aims (and the nature of salvation). If Jesus came as an educator – to give us the right principles to live by – and an inspirer – to inspire us to actually do those things, eschatology is irrelevant at best, a distraction at worst. But if Jesus came to DO something (like fulfill God’s promises to Israel, to restore humans to a right relationship with God, and to heal the creation as a whole), eschatology is vitally essential.

  2. Robert Hunt says:

    I would want to separate God’s purposes from any chronology, even though I’ll acknowledge the difficulty of doing this from a human perspective trapped in chronological thinking.

    Certainly the human world will undergo changes from a human perspective. And scripture promises there will be from a human perspective a second decisive intervention by God that will bring to a close the present era in earth’s history and that of humanity.

    But is that all there is for God? Is God just the God of one tiny little corner of the universe? Our vision of the New Jerusalem is one in which the gates are always open and the “nations” come in unending procession. We/They reach their destination, but that is not God’s destination – if God has one which seems a dubious claim. The end of our history cannot possibly be the end of God’s history. Considering the entire universe Feynman rightly said of the Christian story, “the stage is too big for the drama.”

    Look at this another way. God’s “ultimate” purpose was entirely fulfilled at the end of the sixth day of creation, when God saw that all was good and rested. Somehow the rest of creation’s history is being acted out within God’s completion of the creative act. I suspect that realizing this, and thus that all eschatology is “realized” in the formal sense, is all that keeps us from dragging God into the chronological limitations imposed by the human mind.

    So in sum – we need to draw a distinction between “end” in terms of purpose and “end” in terms of chronology, which is why I’m not sure how helpful it is to relate ethics to eschatology. Everything we need to know about righteousness has been evident since the completion of God’s creative act, at which time all God’s purposes were fulfilled. Recovery and fulfillment are just two sides of the same anachronistic coin.

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