Apocalypse and Eschatology: Unveiling of the Absurd.
Let’s unpack all of the baggage that is carried by a well-worn theological traveler known as eschatology. You know, the bearer of all things end-of-the-world. Eschatology is the so-called “study” of final things, the end-times, the apocalypse – a theology of the absurd and a bag of chips. Quite possibly, eschatology is the most misrepresented aspect of popular religion this side of Hell. It is not a theology as much as it is a hope that all those folks we don’t like will really get what is coming to them in “the end.”
If we sift through all of the dirty laundry in our carpet bag of beliefs, however, and dig beneath the layer of fundamentalist undergarments, the nature of early Christian apocalyptic interpretative lenses can provide us with an idea of what biblical eschatological thinking and apocalyptic literature might really represent. I believe that we will do well as a people committed to God if we begin to understand eschatology, not primarily as a discussion of how things will end, but an indicator that something has ended, and God expects the church to reveal how the divine will is inviting the world to change its perspective.
Let me clarify some themes. First, apocalyptic literature is not to be taken as a literal representation of how things the world will end. Most of us know that, but in the process of revealing our own frustration with the end-timers of the Christian spectrum, we tend to, like John Spong, want to throw out the revelatory baby with the nasty-ass bath water. When I heard Spong speak once, he humiliated a fundamentalist who asked about the Book of Revelation by stating that the text does not belong in the canon. This was as much a misrepresentation of the text as is popular with the end-timers.
Apocalyptic is not about “the apocalypse” or some final end-times war between dragons and angels. The Bible makes no mention of “second-comings” let alone any promise that scholars agree upon that Jesus will someday return to play volleyball with the frat guys. No, apocalypse, or, apocalyptic literature, is about unveiling truths which have been covered until the time is right for unveiling. Apocalyptic is the manner in which marginalized or persecuted groups of ancient peoples, especially Jews and early Christians, made sense of everything going wrong. If God’s people are being mistreated, there must be some explanation, and there must be some anticipated vindication, and it is in texts such as Daniel, Mark 13, and the Revelation to John that all those oppressed communities made sense of it all.
Apocalyptic not only makes sense of what is going wrong, however. It also offers a way, with plenty of imagery and hyperbole, to discuss the nature of what really is wrong – that being, the nature of the oppressor. Along with revealing the truth of why the world is not working out the way God insists it will (according to scriptures and beliefs, and of course, faith), and why it is not working out in “our” favor, apocalyptic literature reveals what we are to do in the meantime. Apocalyptic allows the reader to make sense of what is happening, and in turn make sense of it to others. How do we interpret events and translate them into theological sense? Often, through cosmic imagery and cataclysmic metaphors of, dare I say, biblical proportions?
We respond to what is revealed with eschatology. What is being revealed in apocalyptic literature, and indeed, through apocalyptic viewpoints, is that the end of an age has occurred, and a new age is being inaugurated. Instead of the world coming to an end, the end of the world’s way of making sense of itself is changing drastically. One truth is being buried while another truth is being revealed. Because the world tends to corrupt every revelatory act of the divine, the divine must continuously recreate and reorder the nature of power relationships. Think of eschatology as a reordering or reality that ends one corrupted view of truth and re-establishes an opportunity for the church to reveal the new age of God. Eschatology is never an ultimate end, but a continuum of ends that invite an always reforming church to reclaim the truth of Christ, the cross, and the resurrection story.
So, let the church, in order to be the church God intends it to be, reclaim eschatology and apocalyptic from fundamentalism and Hollywood, and claim it for what it is – an ethic.
You see, when the church makes any claim about God, this claim is not a propositional truth, but a claim that can only be made credible in a non-believing world by being lived-out by those who believe. We must embody the claims of the gospel, and live lives that reflect the truth of our claims made about Jesus, most importantly, the claim that the world has somehow changed and a new life is possible once Jesus has been welcomed into one’s heart and mind.
To the world, this is a ridiculous claim. In fact, most Christians live their lives in a manner that make such a claim seem ridiculous. Yet, the gospel not only claims that one age has ended and another has been inaugurated through God’s work in Jesus, but the gospel gives us an example of how we reveal this new realm of God to the world. The gospel pulls back the veil that hid from view the reality of how idolatry, violence, hatred, militarism, and racial animosity really affects our humanity. In the ministry of Jesus, the nature of hatred is revealed for what it is, a violation of God’s love and grace, and Jesus claims that this age of hatred has come to an end, perhaps most obviously in Scripture with the fall of the Temple. God has finally acted, not to end the world, but to end our mistaken understanding that power and control are the means through which God’s desire will be realized.
What is unveiled in Jesus life is the biblical truth that servanthood and humility, voluntary sacrifice and suffering are the means which God’s desire for human relationships is revealed. And, it is in the gospel stories of Jesus, and the letters of Paul, that we know exactly how to reveal what God’s vision for us as a church is. It is to love our neighbor and enemies, feed and cloth the poor, visit the prisoners, and love one another more than ourselves. This is an ethic, not a prophecy of some perfect future and because it is an ethic that turns common sense upside down, it is both apocalyptic in revealing a new truth, and eschatological; the end of an age of hatred and war. God reveals that the realm of God calls for the church to be an alternative community of love of neighbor and enemy alike. Truly – that is an end of a world we can all proclaim with joy, knowing that we will live in a new age where God’s presence is understood to be the new normative. Of course, as all apocalyptic literature reveals, and eschatology confirms, there will be suffering and sacrifice experienced by these revelatory communities – these churches of gospel order. This is what is promised by both, the literature, and the cross. From the Sermon on the Mount to Romans 12, sacrifice is to be expected when God’s desire si revealed, because it is an overt challenge to the powers that be, and the comfortable way that those who have exist at the expense of others. But through this, new truths will be revealed through those faithful communities. When it all breaks down, as it always has, there will be a new end, and yet another beginning. This is the way of both the world, and the divine. Like the literature I am discussing, there is often a perception of cosmic struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. As the literature suggests, it takes a faithful community in the midst of chaos to make sense of it all. Communities of Eschatology and Apocalypses are the Gospel of the absurd.