Would you leave a church if you disagreed with its position on eschatology, or would you be happy to stay? Is it okay for a church not even to have an agreed position on eschatology and to allow elders to come to different conclusions?
Eschatology is concerned with “the last things” and so doctrinally it’s about death, resurrection, judgement, New Creation and Christ’s return. Now, over the centuries there have been so many arguments and fall outs, particularly over how we interpret the book of Revelation that it is understandable when people want to avoid controversy in this area. Eschatology is treated as a second or even third order matter of importance. But is that right.
Well, on the one hand, I’m relaxed when it comes to allowing for differences on the matter. Whether or not you believe in a pre-millennial rapture or that Christ will return after the church has been reigning following great revival is not going to affect anyone’s salvation. However, I don’t think it is so unimportant that a church needn’t come to a conclusion concerning what it believes on the matter.
This is because we cannot look at one particular doctrine in isolation from others. They tend to be interlinked and affect one another. What you believe about Creation and Fall will affect your understanding of the Atonement, your understanding of these things will affect how you see the end times unfolding -and vice versa.
That’s why I’m wary when people pursue particular end time hobby horses. For example, Dispensationalism is a particular form of eschatology which separates out the different ages of history into sealed off dispensations. This view believes that the age of the church is a period of grace, it’s also a period when gifts of the Spirit are absent. It believes that prior to this age of grace and subsequent to it (after the church is raptured) that God dealt with people and will deal with people differently. Dispensationalism adds to and diminishes the Gospel.
On the other hand, Post-millennialism is the belief that Christ will return after the millennium (sometimes a literal 1000 years and sometimes not)when the church prospers and grows. As I said above, it is possible to hold to this view as a Christian. However, pushed to its extreme and it can do two things.
- It can overstate the power/position of the church so that in effect we invite Christ back when we are ready for him.
- It can combine become an over-realized eschatology where so much happens prior to Christ’s return that the significance of the second coming is lost and we end up drifting into a form of prosperity theology.
Another area of concern I have is with extreme forms of Preterism. This approach to eschatology assumes (as per the meaning of the word) that the prophecies we find in Daniel, the end of the Gospels and Revelation have already been fulfilled. Now, in my opinion, Preterism has a point. Yes, it is clear that significant proportions of those Scriptures found clear and visible fulfilment in the events of AD70. However, at its extreme, pure or hyper preterism argues that there is nothing left to be fulfilled. Christ has in effect already returned through a spiritual event and so we should not be looking forward to his personal, physical return. The Parousia (appearance of Christ) has already taken place. This extreme preterism treats Christ’s ongoing existence and presence as purely spiritual which raises significant questions about his nature and identity.
We therefore cannot ignore those particular positions because they have serious implications for our preaching of the Gospel and the life of our churches. We can and should be generous in our orthodoxy but this does not mean that such things do not matter at all.