An ethical eschatology

Ted Grimsrud

At various times since 1525, groups of Anabaptists have gained notoriety for their eschatological views, particularly the Anabaptists who gained control of the city of Münster in 1534–5, proclaiming it to be the New Jerusalem.  As a rule, though, the Anabaptist tradition has been characterized by caution concerning views of the “last things.”

Anabaptist convictions, at their heart, have focused on faithfulness in this present life much more than on speculation concerning the future.  Implicit in such a focus, we may see a sense of trust in God.  As we follow the way of Jesus we may be confident that the God who remained faithful to Jesus will also remain faithful to Jesus’ followers.

What follows are two meditations on these convictions concerning importance of the call to discipleship for viewing the doctrine of eschatology.

The End of the World

At the turn of the millennium, many Christian bookstores and the Christian airwaves included an extra large number of “end times” types of writings and sermons.  Reflecting on “the end of the world” is called “eschatology,” the doctrine concerned with the end of the world.  However, what follows here more accurately could be seen as “anti-eschatology,” or, at least, a different kind of eschatology than that found on the Christian airwaves.

“End” as purpose. This is my main point: In the Bible, and I want to propose, for us today, the point in talking about the “end of the world” is not so much to focus on what is going to happen to the world in the future.  Rather, to talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to the purpose of the world.  Or, more directly, our purpose in living in the world.

The word “end,” of course, can have two very different meanings.  One is, “the last part, final point, finish, conclusion.”  In this sense, “the end of the world” is something future and has to do with the world ceasing to exist.  The other meaning, though, is “what is desired or hoped for; purpose; intention.”  “End of the world,” in this sense, is, we could say, what God intends the world to be for.  Why is the world here and why are we here and what are we to be about?

In the years right after I became a Christian as a teenager, I thought of the “end of the world” strictly in terms of the future and how things will conclude.  I looked for the soon return of Christ—and would have been shocked to be still living in the twenty-first century.  When I was in college in the mid-1970s, I quite seriously contemplated dropping out.  Why should I work at preparing for the future when the future wasn’t going to come?

In those days, I basically welcomed the development of nuclear weapons, the conflicts in the Middle East, the likelihood of war with the Soviet Union and possibly also China.  I welcomed wars and rumors of wars.  These all meant that the second coming was at hand.  The “end of the world” was coming soon, and in that I rejoiced.

At some point, though, I realized with a start that I welcomed, actually, incredible human suffering and the destruction of nature, unprecedented death and bloodshed.  I welcomed, in a word, extreme evil.  And, I understood God to be the agent of this evil.  In this view, God’s purposes could only be worked out, I realized, by God killing human beings and all other living creatures on an unimaginable level.

When the scales fell from my eyes (which is how I see it now), I recoiled at my old worldview.  But it has taken many years since then to think through these issues more, and to decide that I don’t need to reject the Bible’s understanding of the “end of the world”, but I need to reject the lenses I had been given as a young Christian for reading the Bible.

“Hope” as escape. I do not fully understand how this view of the “end of the world” as the destruction of the world came to dominate Christian thinking.  However, as with many problems in the so-called Christian worldview (such as seeing God as punitive, such as supporting so-called just wars, such as viewing human beings as corrupted by original sin), I suspect that the “Doctor of the Church,” Augustine of Hippo, had something to do with it.

Augustine’s great fifth-century book, The City of God, grafts Greek philosophy onto biblical theology and comes up with a notion of heaven (the “city of God”) as something outside of time and history and future.  This city, “heaven,” is sharply distinguished from the world we live in, from historical life in the here and now (the “city of man”).  For Augustine, life in history is characterized by brutality, sinfulness, and the struggle for power.

This disjunction between heaven and life in the present led to focusing Christian hope, in effect, on the destruction of this world.  Genuine salvation requires an escape from this life to heaven and eternity and something totally different and separate.

Life on earth is nasty, brutish, and short.  The end of the world is coming (thank God), and the sooner the better.  It is tragically ironic that the worldview that looks to the future for salvation and achievement of heaven, in the present tends to justify violence and punishment and domination—and uses the Bible for support.  This worldview fosters self-fulfilling prophecy.  Since we believe that life here and now is nasty, brutish, violent, and short, we act to make it so.  We see these actions in Augustine and so many other Christians since supporting death-dealing violence toward heretics, pagans, and criminals.

A more life-affirming worldview. What if, to borrow my friend Howard Zehr’s metaphor, we change our lenses?  What if we look at the Bible and at the world differently?  I found a typo a while ago that, in a published bibliography, switched the name of Howard’s book from Changing Lenses to Changing Lanes.  I think that image also works.  Let’s push the metaphor.  What if we changed lanes and exited this six lane interstate of the Western, anti-creation worldview?  What if we got on a local road where we could see the world more how it actually is and realize that our key question is not about the future destruction of the world but about our purpose in the here and now?

I believe that the biblical worldview was corrupted by the fusion of Greek philosophy and the Bible.  This worldview has much more in common not with our modern western worldview but with the worldview of the very cultures western civilization has sought to stamp out.

This other worldview has been identified by recent writers as “primal”, “aboriginal”, and “indigenous.”  In the primal worldview, the world has purpose, full of the grandeur of God.  We don’t need a future destruction of the world to experience God’s presence, to know the beauty of creation, to be in harmony with the creator.  What we need is a new awareness of God in the here and now, a new awareness of the purpose of the world.  This world is where the action is.

Looking at the Bible with new eyes. Should we look at the Bible with new eyes, looking for what it tells us about the purpose of the world rather than looking for what it tells us about the future destruction of the world, what might we see?  To illustrate, I will briefly mention three biblical texts.

First, Mark 2:23–8 tells us of Jesus’ encounter with opponents who challenge his laxness in allowing his followers to feed themselves on the Sabbath, ignoring God’s law, acting as if the earth is friendly.  Jesus responds: the law is to serve human well being, not human beings to serve the letter of the law.  The purpose of the law, of the world, of life is to flourish right now.  The purpose of the law is to enhance peace, wholeness, well  being in this life.

In Jesus’ entire ministry, he makes it clear that the law is something to be welcomed as a means to the end of abundant life.  Jesus utterly rejects the notion that life is bad, nasty, brutish, and short and that we need the coercive restraint (of legalistic law and its human enforcers) to keep us in line until we go to heaven.  No.  For Jesus the law reflects the God behind the law.  It guides us into the fullness of life in the present and into harmony with the rest of creation.

A second text comes from Revelation 21:1–4.  As often interpreted, Revelation provides a challenge to my proposal.  Is Revelation not about the future destruction of the world?  Well…it is precisely through studying Revelation that I have developed my understanding of the biblical notion of the end of the world.  The message of the Bible challenges us to find the purpose of life in the here and now, not in some otherworldly future.

The Book of Revelation is highly symbolic.  We need to take seriously the opening words of the book—this is a revelation of Jesus Christ.  We shown with symbolic imagery the meaning of Jesus’ message.  We have here a revelation of a different way of seeing the world; different from power politics, from nationalism, from the worship of wealth.  The revelation of Jesus Christ is simply that the purpose of the world is found in love, in mercy, in peaceableness, in faithfulness to the Lamb’s way.  The world is where singing and celebration and joy happen—here and now, if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

A key world-affirming vision in Revelation comes in chapter four, where we see the one on the throne being worshiped by all creation.  Chapter five follows with joyful singing of uncounted voices from heaven and earth and under the earth.  So, when we get to the end of the book and the vision of the New Jerusalem we realize that we are not seeing something from the future and outside of history coming into being after the destruction of this world.  Rather, we see a revelation of what reality is right now.  We need but change our lenses to see the holy in the firm, the presence of the spirit of God here and now, the reality that creation is good and is to be embraced.

Finally, the following words from Micah have become well known precisely because they contain such a precise but comprehensive message of the end of human life—our purpose.  These words could, I imagine, come from any number of primal or aboriginal cultures:  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).

“Do justice.”  In the Bible, and in aboriginal justice as well, this means seek wholeness and the restoration of relationships; seek to bring healing when there is harm.  “Love kindness.”  Treat people, all people, with respect, with friendliness and hospitality, with compassion.  Be gentle.  Listen.  Enjoy.  “Walk humbly with God.”  Know your place in the cosmos.  Remember and accept your finitude.  Remember your responsibility to your children and your children’s children and on and on.  Trust in God – don’t grasp for power and control and dominance.

The “end of the world”, then, remains the same even as we change millennia.  The world is the good creation of a good God.  Our end, our purpose, is to seek harmony and wholeness in relationship with one another and this good world.

Revealing a New World

I find it understandable that people who seek peace and justice in our world and advocate for the vulnerable, would want to stay away from the Bible.  As Desmond Tutu famously said, in reaction to most every movement for social justice in the past two centuries, Christians have used the Bible to defend the status quo, often violently.  “Bible-thumper” is usually used of a person who thumps the Bible while making a strong point.  In reality we could also say a “Bible-thumper” is someone who uses the Bible to thump the peace and justice advocate.

I am thankful I didn’t grow up in a Bible-thumping family.  I was lucky enough to be able, in time and without too much emotional trauma, to begin asking after what the Bible actually says rather than simply accept the authority of those who use it to oppress.

I now believe the emperor has no clothes.  The “Bible thumpers” do not reflect the central teachings of the Bible.  People justify capitalism in the name of what they call biblical Christianity when, in fact, the Bible has a term of condemnation for what capitalists do—usury.  People assert that government leaders come straight from God and, as citizens we are simply to obey, not to question why but simply to ask how high when we are ordered to jump. In fact, from the start to the end, the Bible itself teaches suspicion of and takes quite a critical stance toward kings.  The typical sentiment in the Bible is not, “obey the government.”  The typical sentiment is, “we must obey God not human beings.”  Human beings who lord it over others are singled out by Jesus as being exactly what his followers are not to be like or to be impressed with.

As Americans, we live in a time of Bible thumpers in high places.  Now, perhaps more than ever, people who read the Bible as the story of God’s incredible love and care for vulnerable victims of power politics and for the people who resist the unjust status quo need to recover and spread abroad the actual content of this book.

Children of Abraham. The story of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis twelve has long been one of my favorites.  We have in a nutshell the basic message: God brings life out of barrenness (Sarah was unable to have children, a terrible tragedy; she and Abraham had no future). God gave life as pure mercy.  That is what God is like.  But the point is not simply to give Abraham and Sarah children and future descendants.  There is a bigger point for this gift.  God has an agenda.  Through Abraham and Sarah’s descendants God will bless all the families of the earth.

As Christians, we consider ourselves to be children of Abraham.  We live in light of this promise and have been blessed as a consequence of the promise.  With this blessing, though, comes a calling.  Be channels of blessing to all the families of the earth.  Jesus repeated this calling. His final words call his followers to go to the nations, take the message of God’s love, teach the nations to follow Jesus’ commands (see Matt 28:18–20).

The last book in the Bible, Revelation, tells of the fulfillment of the promise.  The world is transformed, the New Jerusalem comes down, and within this renewed world we find leaves from the tree of life that are for the healing of all the nations.  The blessing is carried out.

The promise to Abraham and Sarah sets the agenda for the rest of the Bible, actually, for the rest of history.  Live as a channel of blessing for all the families of the earth.  This promise, in a real sense, conveys a worldview, an understanding of what matters most.  As human beings, we are meant to be in communities of wholeness and healing.  We are meant to know God and to know each other as children of God.

The context of the promise, the context for the rest of the Bible and for the rest of history, is that we all need healing.  Abraham and Sarah are broken and without hope.  They need healing.  The nations need healing.  And this is how God brings healing.  God forms a people who know love and who share this love.

As we know, Jesus lived directly out of the promise.  He ended up coming face to face with powers of brokenness and being broken.  The conclusion to that story is the basis for hope that the promise remains.  But God raising Jesus from the dead does not gloss over the reality of the brokenness, though it does inspire us to continue to trust in the promise as God’s way.

Brokenness in the world. However, the brokenness continues.  The worldview centered on the promise remains contested.  It is not the only option in our world, not even the dominant option.  People in our world have other worldviews in which to trust.  Some of these, though, instead of fostering wholeness foster barrenness and alienation.  A buzzword today is “globalization.”  Globalization often refers to a worldview that I would suggest is a major rival to the worldview of the promise to Abraham and Sarah.

Globalization, in one definition, refers to neo-liberal economics that increasingly dominant all four corners of the globe, transforming everything in its path, treating everything (and everybody) as a commodity fit to be exploited for the sake of profit.  This globalization stands dead set against the promise.

One expression of globalization may be seen in the incredible growth of urban slums throughout the world.  I quote from the beginning of an article called “Slum Politics” by James Westcott posted on the AlterNet website on February 18, 2005.

In the last three months, the Bombay Municipal Corporation has demolished eighty thousand shanties in a city where three million people are slum dwellers.  The local government recently granted legal status to homes built before 1995, and bulldozed everything else.  The devastation is “tsunami-like” according to the Indian Inter Press news agency.  Three hundred and fifty thousand people have been made homeless but only fifty thousand new apartments have been provided.  The program is part of Bombay’s plan to re-model itself on the ruthlessly prosperous Shanghai, which has tried to eradicate its slums.

But Shanghai’s slums remain, as they do in other cities, as part of an inexorable global trend: two hundred thousand people a day are carrot-and-sticked from the countryside to cities that then refuse to accommodate them.  In Bombay they end up in shacks by the road, on the railway tracks and next to the airport—embarrassingly visible from landing planes.  In Lagos, two-thirds of which is made up of slums, a shantytown has sprouted up on an enormous, slowly burning garbage dump.  In Kibera, the slum surrounding Nairobi, raw sewage flows over the few water pipes, and latrines are so scarce that people simply defecate in plastic bags and then throw them as far away from their dwelling as possible—a phenomenon called “flying toilets.”  Eighty-five percent of the developing world’s urban population now lives in slums, and forty percent of slum dwellers in Africa live in what the UN calls ‘life-threatening’ poverty.

We ask, why this proliferation of slums?  Probably the main factor is the dispossession of masses of the world’s people.  The economics of globalization have driven people from the land.  The ages-old farm economies are being devastated.  The rural populations have become utterly expendable.  So they end up in urban areas in hopes of scraping some kind of livelihood together—where they tragically remain expendable.

This is how sociologist Mike Davis describes the situation in his book Planet of Slums: “The labor-power of a billion people has been expelled from the world system, and who can imagine any plausible scenario, under neo-liberal auspices, that would reintegrate them as productive workers or mass consumers?” (p. 199)

A biblical alternative to globalization. Does biblical faith provide resources for responding to these developments?

It is tragic that so many Christians have capitulated to the worldview of globalization.  This capitulation has been accompanied by neutering probably the most powerful sets of images in the Bible that could help Christians resist, the so-called apocalyptic writings of the Bible.

Modern interpreters of the Bible tend to read biblical apocalyptic as irrelevant to present life.  They see apocalyptic as speaking of the future final outcome of history, the destruction of this world, the catastrophic intervention of God to use brute power to obliterate and rebuild.  On the one side are the future-prophetic interpreters (such as the writers of the Left Behind books) who take this as literal prediction of the future.  Biblical apocalyptic then becomes actually a buttress for the status quo.  Its concern is not the here and now but the by-and-by.

On the other side we find the scholars and mainstream interpreters.  They tend to assert that the early Christians (including Jesus himself) believed this world-ending catastrophe would happen in their lifetimes.  Of course the early Christians were wrong (plus, such world-ending supernatural acts are unbelievable for modern scholars), so these early Christian visions end up having nothing to say for our lives in the here and now.

Rethinking biblical apocalyptic. However, a closer look at biblical apocalyptic, reading it on its own terms in the context of the entire Bible, without the blinders of either the future-prophetic or the failed-expectation views, reveals a worldview that directly speaks to us and can help us resist globalization.

We start the rethinking by considering the word “apocalypse” itself.  This is the beginning word in the Book of Revelation: “the apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”  This term is translated in English, of course, as “revelation”—“the revelation of Jesus Christ.”  The Book of Revelation is about envisioning the world in light of Jesus Christ.  The visions given in Revelation address the need for fresh insight into the meaning of history.

However, what is the actual content of this revelation?  What is the author of Revelation trying to convey?  John, in reality, gives a concrete message about life in this world.  The focus of the book is on John’s pastoral message to the churches of Asia Minor (see Revelation 2–3).  John gives this basic exhortation: stand strong in the face of the “globalizing worldview” of the day.  Stand strong in the face of the civil religion of the Roman Empire that treats people as commodities, stand strong in the face of Rome shedding the blood of the prophets and seeking to separate people from God’s love by requiring them to trust in the Empire’s supremacy.

Revelation concludes with a clear and direct contrast between two kinds of community—the community of Babylon (the community of empire, of exploitation and oppression) and the community of the New Jerusalem (the community where people worship together, where the Lamb is followed in the paths of persevering love, where even the kings of the earth find healing).  The reader is given the choice.  Which community will you be part of?

If we stick with this motif of “revelation,” using the Greek term “apocalypse,” we may see that Paul’s writings, say especially Romans, are also apocalyptic.  At several key points in Romans the term “apocalypse” is used, again translated “revelation” or “revealed.”  At the beginning, Paul’s thesis statement: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith to faith”—or we could say, the righteousness of God is “apocalypsed” through faith (1:16–7).  The gospel reveals the true will and saving character of God.  And God’s will is revealed for the purpose of bringing together Jew and Gentile in a new community to carry out the promise to Abraham.

The other key moment of “revelation” in Romans is at the end of Paul’s long and careful argument about the need all people have for God’s mercy: The righteousness of God has been revealed (“apocalypsed”) apart from the law in the message of Jesus Christ (3:21).  We misunderstand this “apart from the law” if we read this as a rejection of Judaism.  Rather, it is the opposite.  Paul is saying that the true message of the promise is the unification of Jews and Gentiles in one community of faith.  The exclusiveness centered on a misuse of the law is abolished through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The result, again, of the “apocalypse” of God through Jesus is something that transforms life in the here and now—a new community that knows peace due to the breaking down of walls of enmity.  Remember that the letter to the Romans was written to Christians in the belly of the beast, the capital of the Empire.  This community of faith directly challenges the oppression of Empire, as we see in Paul’s litany of various “Gentile” injustices in Romans chapter one.

Transforming life in this world. So, in these two apocalyptic texts—Revelation and Romans—what we see is not a promise about the end of the world but a promise about the transformation of life in this world.  As God’s answer to Rome’s injustices, Rome’s version of globalization, the apocalyptic message focuses on the formation of communities of resistance.  These communities embody the worldview of the promise and make it known to the nations.

A third passage reflecting these same dynamics comes is the foundational revelation of the entire ancient Hebrew story, God’s involvement in freeing the people from slavery in the exodus.  Again, God acts in opposition to the world’s “globalizing” empire, in this case Egypt.  Egypt also treated people as commodities, breaking their backs in exploitation (Exodus 1:13–4).

God intervenes with saving work—a revelation (“apocalypse,” even if the actual word is not used in the book of Exodus) with the same consequence as in Revelation and Romans.  God’s intervention results in the formation of a community of resistance, a community formed out of the ashes of the exploitation and enmity, to be characterized by transformative justice.

So, biblical apocalyptic speaks directly to our present world crisis.  We see in the apocalyptic imagery of the Bible a direct clash of worldviews.  On the one hand, we see the worldview of promise, of healing community, of valuing each human being.  On the other hand, we see the worldview of forced labor, of hard work in mortar and brick, of the trafficking in human souls spoken of in Revelation, of the manifold injustices mentioned in Romans one.

The Bibles resolves this clash of worldviews not by a history-ending catastrophe.  The Bible’s message does not give hope for escape from life on earth.  Rather, the Bible’s resolution may be found in witnessing to genuine life in history, in banding together in communities of resistance to say no to the idolatry of violence and the so-called progress that creates a planet of slums—and to say yes to ways of life that are sustainable and equitable and joyful.

[Adapted from Ted Grimsrud, 
Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publications, 2007), pp. 179-189.]

1 thought on “An ethical eschatology

  1. aljsteiner

    I like this emphasis of not expecting God to destroy the world as a Biblical view of “End of World”. The whole Biblical emphasis as I see it, is rebuilding the creation community (loving, self-giving, helping the poor, the sick, those in prison) working as God’s colony on earth now.

    I see you don’t like the term “original sin” and the assumption that mankind is bad. On the other hand, as I see the story of the fall, we/man have a tendency to seek power outside the way of God. In general, the systems of man try to build empires of any size, leaving hell as their result.. There are gang empires in slums, there are empires of nations, that seek to hold the oil needed to commerce. There are empires that find cheap global labor to undercut local workers. We participate in these empires many way, buying gas, buy cheaper goods at Target, Walmart etc. These empires all come at the cost of hell on earth for many if not most of the people on earth. Unfortunately, man is perfectly capable of creating all of the catastrophes in Revelations. For me, this is the Wrath of God, the limiting work of God that prevents us from totally desecrating, abusing and destroying everyone and everything that stands in the way of our own empire.

    God, the slain Lamb came and allowed himself to be killed to reshape our systems of selfish empire, and to make a better way for us to turn to the empire of the slain Lamb, showing God’s deep purpose and desire to rebuild community with us, and including us in the process of rebuilding the empire of the slain Lamb.

    The heroes in Revelations, are the martyrs with clothes washed in the blood of the Lamb. In life they have clothed themselves with the way of the empire of the God, the slain Lamb, they have proclaimed the empire of the slain Lamb, and they have died for their lives and their words. These are the heroes dressed in clothes washed in the very blood, the very essence of the way of the slain Lamb.

    As you say, the challenge of the “end of time” is to focus our purpose. We need to open our eyes to see the idols that prevent us from living and speaking the way of the slain Lamb. We need to humble ourselves to work and live with others, together groping toward the way of the slain Lamb. May we open the door of our hearts and minds to the Spirit of the slain Lamb that we can ourselves follow the way of the slain Lamb, perhaps we too can become some of the slain Lamb’s heroes.

    May it be so.


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