One theologian has said that there are two extremes when it comes to studying eschatology (the doctrine of the end times): Eschatomania and Eschatophobia.
Eschatomaniacs talk about nothing else but the end times. With charts in hand they are ready to give the “Gospel of the end times” to whoever will listen. Their “Gospel,” however, is primarily concerned with issues of the Millennium, the timing of the Rapture, the details of the Tribulation, and the Anti-Christ.
Eschatophobics are a product—a reactionary product—of Eschatomaniacs. Because of the emphasis that many would place on the end times, believing that it is all there is, Eschatophobics shy away from any discussions, commitments, or teaching on the end times. It is seen as “unacademic” and counterproductive to the Gospel.
I believe that both of these extremes are unhealthy for the church and are taking their toll on Evangelical theology. I think that issues of eschatology are being relegated to second-class citizens of theology.
As of today, the score is eschatophobia 10, eschatomania 3. Point eschatophobia. Even at Dallas Theological Seminary, the bastion of dispensational theology, the issues are not discussed much. At least that is how it had become when I was there. The respectable positions are in the New and Old Testament and historic theology departments. Not many people are sought to chair the theology department because of their stature in the area of eschatology. It is simply not in vogue anymore. It is the forgotten Gospel of the End Times.
There are several reasons for this, justified or not.
1. Weary of the eschatology debate. Not unlike issues with creationism, the issue of Eschatology has been smothered over the last century. Theologians have fought far too much over the details of the end times and people are tired of being divided. We are living in a century that is seeking to mend old wounds and let theological bygones be bygones (for better or for worse). Many are attempting to live by the dictum “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity”‘ the dictum, though, is playing out this way, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, silence . . .”
2. The death throes of popularized dispensational theology. With the resurgence of the “new Calvinism” in the last decade comes the rise of all things reformed. This includes a general acceptance of covenant theology which, traditionally, is at odds with dispensationalism (however, things have changed so much among dispensationalists and covenant theologians, being at “odds” is relative to how informed one is on the current status of both). The concerted campaign to discredit dispensationalism over the last half century has had its affect in the academic world. Dispensationalism is seen as synonymous with pre-tribulationalism, pre-millennialism, and, most importantly, naming the anti-Christ! Although much of the evangelical laity is still dispensational, it is not the majority position among Evangelical scholars. If it is, they are just too afraid (ashamed?) to talk about it.
3. A return to tradition. For centuries, the church did not wrestle with specific issues of the end times. There has never been an “orthodox” understanding of the millennium or the tribulation. Many Evangelicals are looking to return to their roots, uniting only around the essentials found in the historic Christian faith. These who are looking for this sort of “mere” Christianity don’t find any “mere” understanding of the particular eschatological issues. Therefore, there is little talk about them.
4. Kingdom now Gospel. For that last decade, progressive Evangelicals (including what used to be known as the Emerging/Emergent Church) have attempted to nuance the Gospel a bit differently. Or better, they have changed the benefits of the Gospel from a focus on the future to a focus on the present. No more is the Gospel seen as your “ticket to heaven” or a place in the coming Kingdom but as an opportunity to have the kingdom now through social responsibility and environmental stewardship.
5. The shame of preterism. As shy as Evangelical academics have been about all things dispensational, they are militantly shamed about the discussions of full-preterism. Full-preterism is the belief that all the future events laid out in the Scriptures, including the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth, have already happened. This has caused many to emphasize the basic orthodoxy of the historic Christian faith concerning Christ’s coming: Christ is coming in the future—the church has always held to this basic truth. In the end, the confession is “I don’t really care what eschatological position you hold as long as it is not full-preterism.”
6. The novelty of eschatology. As much as people want to say modernism is dead, it continually shows how ingrained it is in our lives and beliefs. If something does not sound rational when related to mundane life, it is rejected or shunned. This includes demonology and talks about Satan and the nature of hell. It is generally believed but particularly rejected. Eschatology is no different. When the subject turns to the anti-Christ, the bowls of wrath, the mark of the beast, and man-eating locusts, Evangelical leaders and academics begin to blush. It looks like a “novelty” store into which entrance requires a lowered hat and sunglasses.
I am certainly not promoting either eschatomania or eschatophobia. Nor am I using these six reasons as an argument in support of the current condition which tends toward eschatophobia. I believe that most issues of eschatology are non-essential. But while I believe that we should have liberty in the non-essentials, I don’t define non-essential as “non-important.” If non-essential did mean non important then we need to just white out all portions of Scripture that speak on issues that are not essential. If your theology allows you do do that, we need to talk.
Right now, I simply want to open this door of discussion and see whether those of you out in the Parchment and Pen world agree with this assessment. I am eager to hear your thoughts.
Next I hope to argue for the need for Evangelicalism, especially academics, to rethink the new default status of eschatology. I will also argue that we need to be very careful with the new cliché that the Gospel is not about getting people to heaven. I will argue that, without the hope of our place in the new heaven and new earth, we will have lost the good news of the good news.