Eschatological innovation

The end is near? It’s time to build for the future, says Jason Byassee.

Christians live between two advents. God’s first coming in Christ began in the Annunciation and concluded with the Ascension. The second advent, in victory to consummate creation, will come…someday. Since the church’s earliest days we have struggled to balance hopeful expectation of Christ’s return and patient settling down in the present age.

Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” The saying does not appear in his collected works, but it’s the sort of thing Luther could have said, maybe even should have said. It’s very similar to a Jewish saying, “If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to greet him.”

The end of all things is not a rupture with the present age. It is its fulfillment. That sapling will have time to grow in the eschaton -- indeed, all the time in the world. Deeds of hope begun now will flower in eternity.

But it’s difficult to live out that truth in everyday life. In fact, in biblical times, ancient Christian expectation of the parousia (Greek for “coming”) had already started to fade even in the later parts of the New Testament. It is hard for us to reach the fervor of the prayer that closes the canon, “Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). The reason is clear: Unlike ancient people, it is relatively comfortable for us well-off Westerners to be Christian.

Elsewhere, Christians’ lives more closely approximate those of New Testament times. Todd Whitmore, an ethicist at Notre Dame, has spent years with the Acholi people of northern Uganda, who suffered through decades of civil war punctuated by mass kidnapping of their children for forced military service. Millions of Acholi have left their villages for Internally Displaced Persons camps. After years they became reliant on foreign aid, unable to support themselves, still living in constant fear.

Surprisingly, Whitmore has found that the Christians most engaged in the camps are the most apocalyptic ones. Whitmore calls them “reasonable apocalypticists.” In other contexts, apocalyptic people sometimes act in bizarre, pie-in-the-sky and escapist ways. But in this war, no human effort helped. Only divine intervention could make a difference. One nun told Whitmore, “God is tired, and will intervene.” So, because they believe that God will intervene, they also believe that it’s worthwhile to work for good. Those who hold such apocalyptic views are more likely to cooperate with NGOs or to take in orphans rather than simply to cower or drink.

We can see such reasonable apocalypticism elsewhere. In modern France, Protestants have been rare, and premillenialist Protestants are rarer still. In America, you’d expect such people to create a rapture index. But in Nazi-occupied France, they sheltered Jews.

These Darbyists, named for founder John Nelson Darby, believe that geopolitics will continue to deteriorate until Jesus returns to reign over a reconstituted political kingdom of Jews for 1,000 years. Weird, I know, but at least they have a place for Jews in their theology. According to Philip Hallie’s “Lest Innocent Blood be Shed,” when one family was taken into a Darbyist home in the town of Le Chambon, she was introduced this way: “Look, look my family! We have in our house now a representative of the Chosen People!”

So how do we practice reasonable apocalypticism?

We should act on Luther’s advice: If you knew the world would end tomorrow, you should start an institution. Plant a church. Build a hospital. Start a university. Create something that will help millions. Spin off an act of creativity that would do proud the God who flung stars into space. Reasonable apocalypticism means God will gather up all things and make them not only good, as they have been since creation, but perfect.

Tom Long, a professor at Candler School of Theology, speaks of eschatology as living in the “future perfect tense.” For God in Christ will have made all things well one day.

This is not escapist hope. It is hope to get your hands dirty for. Perhaps literally: People who say we can’t maintain our current ways of food production are not just being gloomy. The response, by theologians such as Duke’s Ellen Davis or on sustainable farms such as Anathoth Community Garden in North Carolina, gets our hands in the soil.

Those who farm that way, and who eat the produce of such farms, believe they are adjusting to a new reality. They are living into a future into which we will all be dragged, like it or not. And they are not doing so with frowns. They are doing so with feasting.

Right eschatology is a matter of living in light of a coming future that will affect us all, often doing so with greater joy than those around us. This will take some getting used to. Flannery O’Connor describes the end as a time when even the good among us have their virtues burned away. Living into God’s future now makes for more hopeful, future-tense living.

Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus! Now let’s get our hands dirty.