How Not to Study the End Times
Eschatology, the study of the last things, is a fancy word for something we all already do. All of us think about the end. Yes, our culture and our fears push to the periphery thoughts of our death and the life hereafter. But count on it: at some point in your life, you are going to agonize over what will happen to you after you breathe your last. You can’t attend a funeral—whether of a religious or nonreligious person—without hearing somebody’s eschatology, their concept of what happens after death. We are all eschatologists. But that doesn’t mean we always engage the end times well. In at least three ways, we could go wrong in this most basic theological discipline.
- We are tempted to engage in speculative eschatology. When end-times study is not rooted in Scripture, it becomes vain dreaming, the dogmatization of our wishes. In a time of unfathomable suffering and pain, Job asked his mostly well-meaning friends, “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood” (Job 21:34). When it comes to matters of eternal life and death, we need more than “empty nothings.” We need more than traditional religious rituals and mantras that suggest, sometimes superficially, that the best is yet to come. The effervescent goal of living a decent life falls pitifully short of guaranteeing a blessed eternity. Vague wishes of a better afterlife are impotent to deliver solid hope. Speculative eschatology is a sign of biblical illiteracy and spiritual immaturity. When it comes to the end times, we need to put childish ways behind us and listen to what God says.
- We should beware of argumentative eschatology. For some of us, the very topic of the end times is off-putting because it can be such a contentious issue. Some of us have felt our Christianity questioned by those who have a different concept of the end. But surely God does not peel back the curtains of future history, giving us a glimpse into the staggering profundity of death and judgment or the glorious return of the King of heaven that we might contend with other Christians over how things will work out. It is certainly possible—and necessary—to distinguish between two conflicting end-times views without needlessly blustering about the perceived superiority of one’s own view.
- We must avoid avoiding eschatology. It sounds pious to say, “I don’t think much about the last things. I know God is in control. I’ll leave it up to Him.” Is eschatology even necessary? Isn’t it enough to simply trust that God will work everything out in the end? Should we not approach this topic with the attitude of David, who said, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Ps. 131:1)?
Instead, Scripture teaches us to develop what some have called an “apocalyptic spirituality” in which we so deeply sense the dawning of the age to come that we begin to realize its wonder in this present age. The Apostle Peter captures in a single phrase Scripture’s unified application of eschatology. In light of God’s plan to purify the cosmos, he asks, “What sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” (2 Pet. 3:11). With Peter, Jesus (Mark 13:35–37) and Paul (1 Thess. 5:6) call God’s people to respond to the coming of the end with watchful sobriety. The same emphasis is found in Hebrews 10:25; seeing “the Day drawing near” ought to strengthen our hope, devote us to worship, and galvanize us in our expressions of love and good works. If Christ is returning, if His judgment will be eternal, and if hell is as terrible as heaven is delectable, then studying the end times is eminently practical. Those who lose sight of the end can become careless in their conduct and arrogant in their rejection of God (2 Pet. 3:1–7). By contrast, a biblical eschatology provides a rationale for ethics that goes deeper than pragmatic concerns. With God’s help, eschatology can chill our blood at the thought of sin and judgment, and it can warm our hearts with God’s gracious work of redemption.
God invites us to meditate on the future, not to speculate or altercate but to better share His perspective on this life and the life to come. And this is how we should study the topic. The way Scripture and the church’s historic confessions teach eschatology is much more like gazing upon a dazzling sunset than analyzing and describing the chemical properties of the sun. We need more than a skeletal, technical, clinical understanding of the end times. We need a robust eschatological vision that can invigorate us with the reality that God’s last work will change everything and that the change has already begun.
This excerpt is adapted from The Future of Everything: Essential Truths about the End Times by William Boekestein.