Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


The Future of Christian Eschatology 1

posted by Scot McKnight

This is a 5-part series we will post this entire week at about this time. It will unpack a “partial preterist” view of Jesus’ eschatology. Oddly enough, I was interviewed last week by CBS TV in Chicago about 2012. Evidently, some folks are getting riled up about the imminent return of Christ. (I think the interview will be at 10am Wed or Thurs.) Here goes …

Because my life’s story finds itself wrapped around the various
poles of Christian thinking about eschatology, I have in the following
allowed my own story to govern the shape of my thinking about
eschatology. In short, along with many other theologians, my thinking
has moved through several “either/ors”: either pre-tribulation or
post-tribulation rapture and either literal or metaphorical
interpretation of eschatological language. By a strange twist of fate,
my own thinking moved to the metaphorical hermeneutic while many
popular evangelical preachers were packaging once again the older
notion of the pre-tribulation rapture. To adjudicate between the
literal and the metaphorical, one needs to examine prophetic language
honestly and fairly; furthermore, as will be shown below, one needs a
firm grasp of what Jesus was speaking of when he gave the address now
recorded in Mark 13 (and Matthew 24 and Luke 21). I have not footnoted
the paper but have left it in its original public lecture format.


Kris, my wife, is a psychologist and her research for her dissertation was on the process of individuation, or growing into adulthood, for kids who were raised in Fundamentalism. It gave her a solid foundation for understanding, among many other things, me – for I was reared among the Fundamentalists. But I was raised at a time that had lots in its favor, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and Grease – when it wasn’t Olivia Newton-John and John Trovolta but real kids with tattoos and cigarettes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeve and sporting a pompadour. That environment also gave me a vision of the world to understand disasters like rock music with a theory that the world was going to pot – in two ways, one not metaphorical. I was a bit of a Tom Sawyer so school was a bore; the only that interested me was competition and that occurred at recess. Teachers made us memorize, they weren’t interested in self-esteem, and the politically correct group was still in kindergarten – whining already. My teachers thought I was a rough without the diamond.

But the best thing we Fundamentalists had going for us was the Rapture, and it was coming before the Great Tribulation and it might occur at any minute, and I was ready but most other people weren’t, especially those who attended rock music dances on Friday nights and learned to dance without moving their feet. They were going to Hell, we were taught, and a Fundamentalist’s Hell is all-bad; Heaven is all happiness without fun or pleasure and with lots of prayer meetings and rules that were obeyed without questions being asked. To be ready you had to be one of us, a Fundamentalist, and not one of them, Liberals and Modernists. Back then, the world was a very simple place, filled with people like Donna Reed and Beaver Cleaver and Andy of Mayberry. We had the Bible and we had, right next to it on our bedstands Salem Kirban’s Guide to Survival and Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth. A veritable literary holy trinity. These people taught us a belief that all things prophetic were literal and they did so, to use John Updike’s language, with ‘a spinsterish consistency.’ And they knew the future with rococo detail.

Then I went off to college and read George Ladd’s The Blessed Hope and Bob Gundry’s The Church and the Tribulation, and my heart leapt the gap and landed in their pockets. This meant my teachers were wrong, and that meant also my pastor and my parents. The world was not quite as simple anymore: boys were lengthening their hair and girls were wearing slacks to church and young kids wanted to bring their guitars to church and pastors weren’t sure how to deal with these changes. But, things in the world were still getting worse and it wouldn’t be too long before the Anti-Christ, someone like Gorbachev or Kissinger or the Pope (we were very anti-Catholic), would take over and we’d be raptured – but it would be more challenging this time, because the rapture wouldn’t be until the end of the tribulation. The tribulation didn’t come and neither did the rapture – the verdict on who was right still wasn’t in – so I went to Seminary just in case more history would occur.

When I was in Seminary I saw a trend that only now is bringing forth what I never suspected then: nearly all my Seminary teachers were post-tribbers and most of my student peers were as well, but people in the churches were not catching our wave. I knew that my peers would soon populate pulpits and over the next twenty years the whole situation would change. Seminary is, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “a lot of young men shut up together, all thinking about their souls [and eschatology].” He then asks, “Isn’t it awful?” (Letters, 132).  We shut-up eschatology-thinking seminarians thought pre-tribbers would disappear like the American Condor – but alas they (both the pre-tribbers and the birds) are making a comeback. I should say something about George Foreman but won’t.

Let me explain what I am saying: at the fundamental level, the entire world of academic Evangelicalism shifted in the late ’60s and ’70s from pre-tribbing to post-tribbing. Some, like the Amillenialists weren’t tribbing much at all, but most of us were post-tribbing. But this change was in the Academy, not in the scores who attended evangelical and Fundamentalist churches. Seminaries and those educated there are called to lead the Church and so I knew that time would eventually calm down the fears of the churches and lead them to see the light on this issue. What happened, however, continues to boggle: when my peers got into pulpits, they lacked nerve and courage, and fell prey to preaching and teaching what the parishioner wanted rather than what they knew to be the truth. Instead of sticking up for their beliefs, they decided to teach general things (Jesus is coming again, the resurrection, the millennium) and avoid controversy (and the rapture was for many of them controversial), or they simply switched their minds to appease their congregations or keep their jobs. I know peers who have told me these very things; I shall not give you their names, though I’d like to.

It is this failure of nerve, I am suggesting, that leads to the modern-day craze of reading and believing the pre-trib views and fictional scenarios of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Some 40 million copies of these books have sold, showing us that America is a hot-house for eschatological speculations. These two authors must soon receive the Nobel Prize for Winning Literature. Each of the 40 million copies, descending like locusts on our airports (that’s an apocalyptic metaphor!), has the same theology and it is a theology rendered impotent, so I thought, by George Ladd and Bob Gundry. Alas, this is not the case. Their books didn’t brush a molecule off Hal Lindsay’s sleeve and they are riding the wave to popular beaches. Our moment of glory was as ephemeral as our suntans gained on their beaches. They put us (post-tribbers) to bed just when the party was about to begin.

George Bernard Shaw once sent Churchill two tickets for the opening night of his new play, noting in the invitation: “Bring a friend – if you have one”; to which Churchill wrote back to say he was busy but would appreciate tickets for the second performance – “if there is one.” Well, I must confess we thought there would be no second performance for the pre-tribbers. Alas, guess who plays the part of the fool? This play has more performances than Blue Man Group. Now to quote Samuel Johnson: “I wish there were some cure, like the lover’s leap, for all heads of which some single idea has obtained an unreasonable and irregular possession” (Life, 328).

What was the case, however, was that the academics of Evangelicalism became increasingly distanced from the lay people of that movement, and this in part because of several factors: first, the “hush-hush” attitude academics had to utilize when in churches because the churches had not changed on eschatology; second, the growing awareness not only of the reasonability of the post-trib viewpoint, but the increasing awareness of Jewish apocalyptic literature which supported new approaches to the eschatological material in the entire Bible as well as the post-trib viewpoint; and third, the development of a flood of literature and scholarship on the historical Jesus that has led to a growing consensus (a slippery and advantageous term if ever there was one!) that the language of Jesus about the future, most especially that found in Mark 13/Matt 24/Luke 21, was to be understood in its Jewish context and not in light of how church people had been interpreting it for nearly a century. (a footnote: the dispensational mode of reading the Bible, its hermeneutic, is a trend that began at the end of the previous century and which took hold through Moody Bible Institute, the Scofield Bible, Dallas Theological Seminary, and famous evangelists and preachers, like Harry Ironside and Billy Graham. End of footnote.)



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RJS

posted March 9, 2009 at 3:32 pm


This leaves me with two burning questions.
(1) Was Kris not raised as a fundamentalist?
(2) How will I reign in and control my burning curiosity for the next installment, or more importantly- to see how it ends? (yes I always read the last chapter before continuing on (even in Agatha Christie) (and DVD is much better than tape))



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Derek Leman

posted March 9, 2009 at 3:51 pm


Scot:
I’ll be following this one with great interest. Thanks for posting on this topic. Last things are terribly important. Redemption and consummation outweigh all the topics people love to talk about (sports, politics, economy, etc.) by light years. Everything is headed toward consummation but teachers of the Bible think it is irrelevant. It’s why I wrote The World to Come in 2008 and why I think N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope has made such a stir.
Derek Leman



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Andy Larsen

posted March 9, 2009 at 4:01 pm


Will be hard to wait for the next installments. I do think this is critical to much of what we think about the future, our expectations for the world vis-a-vis the church and Kingdom of God. God please keep George Foreman out of the ring.
The paralysis of mapping out the future into pre-tribber/post-tribber and rapture talk seems to cut the nerve of doing the work of the Kingdom and makes us by default pretty useless, maybe neutered. I wonder how much the little incident of Jesus cursing the fig tree because it bore no fruit should shape our reading of Matthew 24??



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Eric

posted March 9, 2009 at 4:33 pm


So I grew up attending a fundamentalist church. As a teen in the 80’s, I heard of an evangelical pastor in my town who came out as holding to (what I now understand to be) a partial preterist position. All of the fundy churches in town assumed that they guy was totally insane and had lost any sense of the Bible and gospel. It caused quite a stir. From what I understand, he lost a lot of congregants.
Anyway, I look forward to the discussion.



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David B. Johnson

posted March 9, 2009 at 4:37 pm


Scot,
Looking forward to this series very much. I find myself in a church where I find in convenient to “teach general things,” even though my parishioners are aware of my eschatological views. I have found it helpful to paint a broad picture of the eschatological hope of the Canon, a recreated earth/Eden, and then allow the pieces of LaHaye and Lindsay to fall where they may. We have seen people reading their Bibles in a way that over time will cause them to surrender their views. What has struck me is the certainty and passion with which these brothers and sisters hold on to their views. It seems this issue has a direct effect on how one views the world (politics, Middle East, etc.) and for so long it distinguished Fundamentalists from “The Others.”



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Ask Mr. Religion

posted March 9, 2009 at 4:53 pm


Looking forward to your unfolding partial preterist perspective.
AMR



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Peggy

posted March 9, 2009 at 5:16 pm


Thanks, Scot…excited to read the rest — you’ve made many a partial preterist comment over the past two years, and I’ve been reading up on it, so I’m ready for the rest of the story (and remembering Paul Harvey, too).



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Drew Strait

posted March 9, 2009 at 5:52 pm


I do look forward to this! I hope you will talk about the implications of eschatology on our ethics. I recently heard someone quote Brian McClaren saying something to this extent: “The future of the church in America will rise or fall with our view of eschatology.”
Does anyone know what book/lecture this is from?



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Jeff Hyatt

posted March 9, 2009 at 7:21 pm


I join the chorus of eager readers. My background is quite similar to yours, Scot. I hope that you will address the destruction of the earth in the context of your paper. This is a significant part of the eschatology that I grew up with. It underpins our callousness towards creation and the physical welfare of others – including other Christians.
Write on my friend!
Jeff



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Kyle

posted March 9, 2009 at 8:51 pm


Great! Ladd changed my thinking drastically while I was in seminary as well.



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David Kirkner

posted March 9, 2009 at 9:16 pm


Thanks Scot. One of the best Bible educators from whom I’ve had the privilege of learning. This preterist view interests me. The form (apocalyptic genre) really does create the message. I wondered for years why I was confused, not blessed (Rev 1:3)when reading Revelation. The preterist approach brings that blessed hope alive. Bring it on brother!



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Matt

posted March 9, 2009 at 10:44 pm


Scot,
I converted to post-trib at DTS and preach it in my church. I just thought you should know that there are some of us with backbone! (Although I have been accused by the congregation of being post-mil and even of preaching the “social gospel.”)



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Matt

posted March 9, 2009 at 11:16 pm


Yay for Ladd and Gundry! At least “progressive” dispensationalism appears to be displacing conservative (?) disp.



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Dave Leigh

posted March 10, 2009 at 12:22 am


Scot, Your introduction is already a breath of fresh air on this subject! Thank you!



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plymouthrock!

posted March 10, 2009 at 12:33 am


Scot,
I think you may find after careful study that to admit of a “partial”
position is to ultimately admit the full.



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Scott Eaton

posted March 10, 2009 at 1:47 am


As our recently departed friend Paul Harvey used to say, I’m looking forward to “the rest of the story!”



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RonMcK

posted March 10, 2009 at 2:08 am


Post Trib is an restful halfway house on the road to the truth, but it is not the final destination.



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ET

posted March 10, 2009 at 3:15 am


hey everyone,
I don`t know how is is in your country but in my country (israel) usually fundamentalist eschatology goes hand in hand with a prohibition on studying theology in a christian college . So most of the time people don`t have the chance to learn that there are a lot of chalenges to this kind of eschatology. the most annoying thing is that this kind of eschatology , usually produces a lack of care for air pollution and for the generations to come.
besides of being (in the view of many respected scholars) untrue to the biblical evidence this kind of eschatology made people (like me) run away from some books of the bible (like Revelation). G.B Caird wrote a commentary on Revelation , on the back cover F.F.Bruce wrote something that goes like this: the end is not an event it is a Person. In my opinion this kind of eschatology (Rapture , visble and unvisible coming of christ etc. ) had caused us to think of the end as an event and not a person (God the father , Lord Jesus and the holy sprirt) . moreover , in my opinion, it encourages eschatocentric eschatology (focusing on end time events ) instead of Christocentric eschatology (focusing on being compassionate and loving in the face of the end wich is Christ reign with the father and the Holy spirit).



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Martin Scott

posted March 10, 2009 at 9:38 am


Glad you are putting a few notes down on this. In the UK it is such a surprise to see how well the ‘Left Behind’ series has done… but nevertheless the influences of such theology are still there to be felt. And then in many parts of the world the escapist mentality is robbing people of making an investment into their communities or even their own education. I look forward to reading the other posts.



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William Cheriegate

posted March 10, 2009 at 10:02 am


Nice to see you’re re-publishing this great article of many years ago.
Hardly any have had the courage to admit that Jesus’ message was entirely for the early 1st century church. That the whole of Matthew 24 and even 25 have in that sense come to pass.
That’s why I applaud NT Wright for saying so, I like his “achievement and implementation” message. Jesus has achieved it, the church’s job is to implement his message.
The american Left Behind circus has moved out of town. I hope there’s no return.



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Kenton

posted March 10, 2009 at 10:56 am


WOW!
Here’s a thought: If this is really a case of pastors “lacking nerve” perhaps lay people should speak up more?
I’ve tended to take the “don’t make waves” tact on this one. There’s a pre-trib line in the official doctrine statement, but functionally we never address it – except for one SS lesson that all the 5th graders receive whose parents don’t take them out (like I did). It’s the crazy uncle in the attic (or the elephant in the room?) So how does one make the decision of speaking up or shutting up?



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John W Frye

posted March 10, 2009 at 11:18 am


I like our Israeli friend, ET’s comment (#18), the dominant American eschatology ends up being “eschatocentric eschatology.”
Scot, my background is very similar to yours, too. Saved as a Junior Higher and going to a dyed in the wool dispensational “Bible Church” and then off to MBI and DTS (this is middle 60’s and early 70’s). With Hal Lindsey becoming the end times guru.
What I find interesting is the passionate certainty with which secret rapture insiders told me who the anti-christ was–U Thant, JFK, the Pope (I forget which one), Saddam Hussein, and lately Obama. And the books! Eighty-eight reasons Jesus would come back in 1988 (40 years after the establishment of Israel as a nation…blah, blah, blah).
I think many brainwashed pre-tribbers like me see the whole system as a big comic book joke. This stuff is tabloid material, not serious exegetical study. As was mentioned by someone earlier on Jesus Creed, this whole system takes the Book of Revelation away from the Church as any form as pastoral counsel and turns it into a mystery that only the gnostic insiders know how to unravel. I’m so tired of it.



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dcp

posted March 10, 2009 at 3:49 pm


I found myself agreeing with what ET #18 said: usually fundamentalist eschatology goes hand in hand with a prohibition on studying theology in a christian college. that is my experience. i am following this series with interest because I’ve always known there was more to it.



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Kacie

posted March 10, 2009 at 5:25 pm


Wow Scot, this was interesting. I think part of what plays into this is that how lay people in the US think is influenced SO much by the media and entertainment around us, which is why the Left Behind series is so powerful. It simplified a theology and made it entertaining, and therefore spread to people who could ingest it without ever studying it.
I suppose that leads me to ask another question – do we respond by trying to spread our theology in similar ways? Is the damage done by theological beliefs that are wrong, or is the damage done by the cultural ignorance and vulnerability to persuasion? Or both? If the appropriate response is the education of pastors and teachers, then you (and my husband) are going down the right track. Do we also need to educate the filmakers and book writers, or are they to be educated by the pastors?



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David Scott

posted March 15, 2009 at 8:22 pm


Scot,
Marvelous series. No lie – I was trying to explain this to my wife about two weeks ago. Now I’ll just send her to you.
Dave



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Christy

posted March 20, 2009 at 10:34 am


I’ve always known that what was and is still being taught in our churches today regarding Eschatology was false. Just a simple reading of the text tells you that. Jesus and the Apostles make it very clear that they were all living out the last days and they weren’t mistaken about that. It still amazes me today that most people (including those in our churches who are supposed to be the great theological minds because they went to seminary) read the Bible as if it was written expressly to them and not as it was written, to people of the first century. Perhaps if people would pick up the book and not take it out of the context and time that it was written, things would actually start to make perfect sense to them and then they would “KNOW” the truth. Once you know the truth, you will realize, the Bible from beginning to end it one totally cohesive history of God’s grand plan for humanity and it has been fully fulfilled, we just haven’t accepted it yet. But, I am confident that one day it will happen just as God promises.



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gary wearne

posted April 8, 2009 at 1:11 am


Hi Scott,
and interesting story.
I am certainly “provoked” by reference to your “metaphorical hermeneutic”. What do you mean by this?
I did a search of your blog and couldn’t find anything and i would like to get a grip on it.
You might like to read my blog about the importance of hermeneutics at http://thechristianworldview.blogspot.com/2009/02/importance-of-hermeneutics.html and give a response if you think it’s off track.
In Christ,
Gary



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