it's always the end of the world as we know it, but not the way a lot of people think:
Updated: Mar 25
on eschatology, millenialism, and the whole thing having nothing to do with covid or Russia.
I posted this material as a twitter thread awhile back and thought I'd share it on the blog today.
I teach the story of millennialism largely as a cautionary tale about the power of culture and context to shape doctrine such that we’re no longer reasoning biblically and theologically.
And boy does millennialism demonstrate this. The world is feeling hopeful about medicine and missions? Time for optimistic eschatology. Devastated by the terror of war? Eschatology goes pessimistic.
And then add the bizarre twist of dispensational premillennialism, a proposal which knows almost no roots in the history of theology or biblical interpretation but which nonetheless manages—for a time—near total dominance
It does this by claiming biblical literalism. By declaring that adherence to any other doctrine is a rejection of biblical authority. AND by drawing on deeply set cultural desires and fears endemic to the moment in Western society.
For more power, throw in capitalism and some bestselling novels, which will get you into churches where you wouldn’t show up otherwise.
Fear suffering? Here’s an unprecedented balm: a pretribulational up-and-out rapture. Surprised by events in national Israel? Interpret them as end times signs of God’s eschatological promises. Still Antisemitic anyway? Give Israel a different God from the one of this “dispensation.”
I hope the story is a big WARNING about hermeneutical gymnastics at the expense of all good standards of theological and biblical reasoning.
BUT here is a major encouragement. MOST doctrine is not like this. Of course it’s contextual. Of course it’s cultural. Of course it’s limited. But the story of most doctrine can meet all kinds of standards dispensational premillennialism will never meet.
The doctrine of the trinity is culture and context dependent, but it stands the test of time. It meets the test of catholicity. It relies on sound hermeneutical commitments, including to the unity of the canon.
Besides the story about how doctrine works, I want my students to know three reasons that dispensational premillennialism is—hopefully and rightly—fading.
First, good biblical & theological reasoning warns against the Gnostic escapism of that up-and-out rapture.
God is saving this world, not getting us out of it.
Second, good biblical & theological reasoning insists on the unity of God’s character across any periods we may discern in salvation history.
And third, good biblical and theological reasoning asks questions about Christians trying to use Israel for our own purposes. Theology asks for us to look for the antisemitism lurking there.
Last point: dispensational premillennialism thrived by claiming a “literal” reading of scripture. We can’t let anyone claim such a reading without asking prior questions about hermeneutical commitments. (in this case, are apocalyptic texts exclusively or mostly future predictive prophecy, or is there more going on here?)
I love literal readings. The letter matters. But we don’t have to let those with prior political/ethical/and cultural commitments define what literal i
I'll close with some book recommendations.
Though a bit older now, this is a helpful book from an evangelical theologian, weighing and sorting through the recent history of millenialism.
Though not strictly "eschatology," Gary Burge's Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land" Theology will be useful to folks wanting to think with a New Testament scholar about what the Bible does and doesn't teach about the land of Israel.
Dispensationalist scholars are themselves rethinking many aspects of of the kind of dispensationalism described above. Craig Alan Blaising's Progressive Dispensationalism will help you understand how and why.
If you're interested in reading some weighty theology in the field of eschatology, Ratzinger's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life addresses classic themes of Western eschatology in a classically Western way, reread through Ratzinger's own genius. Don't miss his rethinking of purgatory.
N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church has long been a favorite for me. The book reminds us that resurrection is bodily, and that this matters in every way.
Not an eschatology but a parable to help us think about eschatology, C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce puts you on a bus to heaven and asks whether you wouldn't prefer the bus to hell.