Eschatological tensions and the question of the millennium

The mainstream theological tradition has been amillennial since Augustine, and therefore the question of the “millennium” (Rev. 20) has not been a matter of major concern for most major theologians.  Evangelical theology, however, has typically been very focused on this question.  So Donald Bloesch writes,

 “Apart from biblical inerrancy no doctrine has caused greater division in evangelical Christianity in the present day than the millennium.  Though the biblical references to a millennial kingdom are minimal, they have given rise to elaborate theologies based on the reality of such a kingdom.  Because the millennial hope has been a source of inspiration to Christians throughout the history of the church, impelling many toward a missionary vocation, it merits serious consideration.” Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), II: 189.

There are three basic positions on the millennium, along with one important variant on the premillennial position.

Amilliennialism: Revelation 20 is symbolic, not literal, so there will be no 1000 year reign of Christ on earth.  The millennium refers to Christ’s present rule during the church age. Christ has already bound Satan in the resurrection, though it is a relative binding.  Christ will return and the final judgment will follow.

Premillennialism: Christ returns before a literal 1000 year reign on earth in which he reigns directly over the world.  Tends to be pessimistic about the possibility of any cosmic or social redemption before Christ’s return – in fact, things will get worse and worse before the parousia.

Premillennial dispesationalism: divides salvation history into different “dispensations” in which God relates to people in different ways.  There are two parousias: the first at “the rapture” when Christ returns to remove the church from the world; then he returns again at the start of the millennium seven years later.

Postmillennialism: Christ will return after a millennial period in which his reign is exercised triumphantly on earth through the church.  The gospel will be taken to all nations, and will hold sway over the world.  Evil will still be present, but will be subdued by Christian influence during this golden age of the church.

I was lecturing on this topic a couple weeks ago, and in an attempt to help students get a handle on these debates I proposed six different sets of tensions that are at work in eschatological debates. These could be seen as differing emphases within the various eschatological visions that have exercised influence in the church over the centuries. Each of these is a set of “poles” which could be seen as existing on a continuum, and any given theologian might tend more towards one pole or the other.

First, there is a tension between personal and corporate eschatologies. Any full-orbed eschatology will deal with both personal and corporate dimensions, but some tend to push more in one direction or the other. That is, some eschatologies focus more on the fate of the individual: the eternal destiny of the saved and unsaved; questions of how we will be judged; what the resurrection body will be like, and so on. On the other hand, some eschatologies are focused more on the corporate dimensions of God’s plan for the eschaton: the future kingdom of God; visions of social justice, the overcoming of inequalities; the reconciliation of different people-groups, and so on.

Secondly, there is a tension between otherworldly and this-worldly eschatologies. Those eschatologies which are more otherworldly will focus on the radical difference between the future kingdom and the present life. They will stress discontinuities between the world as we know it and the future which God has planned for us. On the other hand, this-worldly eschatologies will tend toward a more “realized” eschatology, and see the kingdom being formed here and now in various ways. They might be uncomfortable with heavenly visions and prophecies, and seek ways for eschatology to have impact in the world here and now.

Thirdly, there is a tension between theocentric and anthropocentric eschatologies. Eschatologies with more theocentric tendencies will emphasize God’s decisive intervention in world history, both in present anticipations of the kingdom and in its final consummation. Human beings are likely portrayed as having little real agency in ushering in God’s kingdom. Theocentric-tending eschatologies might also tend towards more deterministic views of history, stressing God’s control over world events. Those with more anthropocentric tendencies will stress the role of human agents in bringing the future kingdom to realization. Human beings, with God’s help, will be seen as capable of moving history toward its proper goal and the purpose for which God created it.

Fourthly, a related consideration would be the tension between sudden and gradual eschatologies. Some theologians emphasize a sudden and dramatic change that will take place at the end. In this view, we may not see any real “progress” towards the kingdom prior to that sudden, cataclysmic event. In fact, things might get worse before God suddenly intervenes to bring about the final consummation. On the other hand, others might emphasize gradual change and growth, leading to the kingdom. In extreme cases, some have supposed that there would be no dramatic change at the end at all, but a gradual development and progress until one day God’s kingdom is established on earth.

Fifthly we could talk about pessimistic and optimistic eschatologies. Here the optimism or pessimism relates to the degree to which the eschaton is breaking into the world today. Some have little hope for present realization of the eschatological kingdom, and instead look upon the world around us as a discouraging place which is wasting away. Others see signs of the kingdom and are optimistic that things really can improve here and now. Obviously those who have otherworldly, theocentric, and sudden eschatologies will likely tend towards pessimism, whereas those with this-worldly, anthropocentric, and gradual eschatologies will tend towards optimism.

Finally, there are futurist and realized eschatologies. Obviously, echatologies with more futuristic orientations will orient there hope to the coming consummation of the eschaton, and be less hopeful about the present age, whereas those whose eschatologies tend towards a more realized perspective might have less focus on the future hope, and more focus on hope for present transformation.

Using these sets of “tensions,” I’ve developed the following analysis of the millennial positions, with my suggestions regarding how potential strengths of each view could be integrated.  This probably needs further explanation in a separate post, but I’ll leave it here for now – comments and suggestions would be welcome.

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 6: the new creation

In the later years of John Wesley’s life, the new creation became a dominant theme in his thinking and writing.  To a large extent, he embraced an integrated view of God’s creation, avoiding the typical spirit vs. matter dualism that so often lies beneath the surface of Western Christian thought.

This meant that Wesley did not treat issues relating to the physical world as unimportant, because all of creation was created good in its very physical reality, and because God’s plan of salvation includes the deliverance of creation (not its destruction, as some believe).

These convictions are reflected in a number of ways, including Wesley’s interesting reflections on the suffering of animals (see Sermon 60) and on the original state of creation before the fall (see Sermon 56, §I.1-14).

But it becomes especially clear as Wesley thinks through issues of eschatology, where it becomes clear what he thinks “the new creation” means – not disembodied souls floating in the clouds, but a new heavens and a new earth.

His sermon bearing the title “The New Creation” makes this clear, as he tries to think cautiously but imaginatively about what the new heavens and the new earth will be like.  For example, he suggests that there will be no more comets (§8), no more hurricanes or destructive storms (§9), no polluted water (§12), no volcanoes (§15), and no animal suffering (§17).

But the climax of his vision of the new creation comes in the closing paragraph, where Wesley discusses the deliverance of human beings to “an unmixed state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in paradise.”  He concludes that,

…to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him! (Sermon 64, “The New Creation,” §18)

This category of “new creation,” of course, was not just about the future restoration of all things, but was very important to Wesley’s understanding of salvation itself.  Of course, 1 Cor. 5:17 uses this same big-picture concept of new creation in relation to the salvation of the person – “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”   The problem is that many Christians never see the big picture implied in this verse – that is, that their participation in the new creation is part of the bigger picture of God’s restoration of all creation.  The goal of God’s work of redemption is not to take disembodied souls out of creation, but to bring about a new heavens and a new earth, which includes resurrected and transformed human beings.  Therefore, for human beings, salvation means not only “continual enjoyment of the Three-One God” but also “of all creatures in him!”

This has two obvious implications for mission.

First of all, if our vision of salvation is a physically resurrected humanity, where all physical ailments and infirmities are healed, then meeting physical needs in the present is not irrelevant to the church’s mission.  God obviously values the physical well being of his creatures.  Therefore, our own work of physical healing, and meeting the basic needs of human beings can be an anticipation of God’s own final restoration.  Meeting physical needs can be a witness to the future new creation.  It is not surprising, then, that John Wesley was very interested in physical health and healing, as well as preaching the gospel.

The second implication is that our mission should include care for the created world.  God’s plan of salvation includes the restoration of the earth, as well as the resurrection of human beings.  Humanity was originally created in the context of creation as a whole.  It is not surprising then, that God’s new creation will also put humanity in the context of a transfigured creation, which will include not only a physical earth, but – we have every reason to expect – a new and transformed ecosystem, including and plant and animal life.  Because of this, proper stewardship of the present creation can be a witness to and participation in the new creation which has begun in the resurrection of Jesus.

[If you are interested in looking into this second implication at greater depth, I recommend the new book by Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed.]