Synopsis. The concept of Judgment Day developed over time in response to a wide range of historical, cultural, and theological developments which served to shape our faith ancestors’ view of hope (or despair) for the future. Jesus and the New Testament writers were part of that development. So, now, are we. In light of all we know, what do you believe about the eschaton?
Today I will probably encourage you. And frustrate you. Maybe disappoint you. Perhaps even make you want to get me fired. You know, just another Sunday for me… I do have an opinion about the eschaton which I’ll gladly share. But my hope is that through this teaching, with perhaps new awareness and new information at your disposal, you will land on your own view of what’s to come, and enjoy the peace and hope that can come from it.
First, some questions for you to answer:
What do you think Judgment Day refers to?
What/who influenced your perspective on Judgment Day?
Why do you want or not want a Judgment Day?
What role does the Bible play in your thinking about this issue?
What role does the person of Jesus play in your thinking?
Our casual reference to the Judgment Day is part of a larger study of the word eschaton, which speaks of the last things. It refers to a time in the future when the course of history will be changed to such an extent that one can speak of an entirely new state of reality. Eschatology is the study of the eschaton (Yale Anchor Dictionary of the Bible). What we are doing today is addressing eschatology. Fancy words for your next game of Scrabble/Words with Friends… Apocalypse, a word that is sometimes used synonymously with eschaton, is different. I’ll get to that eventually (a cliffhanger already!).
One of the most important pieces of information for you to grasp is that the thoughts and writings about the eschaton changed over time. Those changes are reflected in the Bible. This means there is not one unified way of thinking about the last days, even though theological traditions define themselves by positions on this and other issues. But hear me clearly: there is a range of thought reflected in the scriptures themselves about what is to come. There is no single definitive answer to the question, what will happen on Judgment Day? Thought is required, and that’s a good thing.
Yesterday, Today, and THAT Day. If you lived as an Israelite – a Hebrew by faith and perhaps also lineage – prior to the development of the monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon, etc.), your idea of the eschaton was maybe a generation or two away, with a fairly specific window of time. If you were a pre-king Jew, your thoughts about Judgment Day had mostly to do with geography. You were told as a kid that God was with you and your people – even as far away as Egypt! The Day of the Lord would be when you and your people got the land promised to Abraham at the very beginning:
Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!”
And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.
Then the Lord told him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.” – Genesis 15:5-7 (NLT) c. 1750 BCE
The hopes of the earliest people in our faith tradition were that they would get and hold onto their own land. Moving around a lot can be interesting and exciting, but there is a welcome stability that comes with planting roots.
Several hundred years later, against the instruction of God, Israel got themselves a King – Saul. Turned out to be a real dud. Though he was tall, dark, and handsome, he was also not wise, and did not tend to some serious internal issues that motivated a lot of his behavior. His successor, David, was Israel’s forever favorite, but his reign was marked with lots of failure on personal and national fronts. Solomon, David’s son, was the wisest who ever lived, yet his lifestyle didn’t show it. The Kingdom was large and prosperous, but the foundation was weak. Four centuries into a monarchial system that was rife with corruption, Israel was clobbered, never to rule itself again (until the 20th century). The prophets of the day warned the royalty and the general population that if they didn’t clean up their act, Judgment Day was sure to come:
18 What sorrow awaits you who say, “If only the day of the Lord were here!” You have no idea what you are wishing for. That day will bring darkness, not light. 19 In that day you will be like a man who runs from a lion— only to meet a bear. Escaping from the bear, he leans his hand against a wall in his house— and he’s bitten by a snake. 20 Yes, the day of the Lord will be dark and hopeless, without a ray of joy or hope. – Amos 5:18-20 (NLT)
Judgment Day was not a day to look forward to, but to fear. Nice, huh? But not effective. Israel lost their country, were scattered, abused, enslaved.
Once again, their view of Judgment Day changed from the Monarchial vantage point. It was not about getting the Promised Land, either – a trademark of a Patriarchal view. And it was not about getting their butts kicked. Now it was about being restored, which reflected their Covenantal sensibilities. Jeremiah, a prophet who lived through the fall of Israel, offered these words of hope about that coming day:
5 “For the time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will raise up a righteous descendant from King David’s line. He will be a King who rules with wisdom. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. 6 And this will be his name: ‘The Lord Is Our Righteousness.’ In that day Judah will be saved, and Israel will live in safety. – Jeremiah 23:5-6 (NLT)
The “Day” was hopeful – something to look forward to. The great prophet, Isaiah, also had similar tones. Interestingly, scholars believe that what we call the book of Isaiah actually was composed of different voices over time, and reflects the Monarchial Judgment day as well as the Covenantal and even shows the development into apocalyptic thinking. Here is a covenantal example:
This is a vision that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: 2 In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be the highest of all— the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship. 3 People from many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of Jacob’s God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. 4 The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore. – Isaiah 2:1-4 (NLT)
So far, each of these modes of thinking are rooted in Israel’s experience, and have an actual day in mind in the future. Also, the future was still bound to earthy history. There was no thinking at this point about the eschaton reaching beyond the grave. What might we expect from a people who, for hundreds of years, try to hold onto hope for the peaceful restoration of Israel, only to see generations come and go. Over time, the people began to wonder if God might exact judgment at a much later time, through supernatural means. Apocalypticism was born, mythologizing the earlier modes of thinking about the eschaton:
Constitutive in the judgment will be a resurrection of the dead (51; 61:1–5), after which the righteous and chosen will dwell on a newly created earth, from which the sinners have been permanently expelled to the darkness and torture of Sheol (38; 45; 50; 58; 54; 63). Although fulfillment of prophecy cannot be an explicit category in this pseudonymous text, the language of Third Isaiah is evident; and the heavenly Chosen and Anointed One is seen as the referent of biblical descriptions (understood as prophecies) of the Davidic king and the Servant of the Lord. Just as important, this author is a bearer and transformer of the traditions generated in the names of Enoch and Daniel. – Yale Anchor Dictionary of the Bible
This line of thinking did not exist in the early history of Israel. But it did reflect much of the thinking of the Ancient Near East (ANE). In other words, once again, the thinking about Judgment Day was shaped by the experience and time of the Israelites. This was the case all the way up to the time of Jesus.
After 600+ years of being occupied, all New Testament writers and characters reflected a first century apocalyptic mindset whereby a supernatural event would upend life as they knew it. The new reality would be clearly different than the status quo. Rome defeated. Religious leadership held to account. This was prevalent in the culture of Jesus’ day – something that was not fully appreciated until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1946-1956, revealing what Jewish people were thinking in Jesus’ time. Apocalyptic fever ran hot in Jesus’ day and through the first century, which is reflected in many New Testament letters and remembered sayings of Jesus.
In one of Jesus’ parables talking about the coming day (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus made the point that it’s not what you say that you believe that results in acceptance by God. Rather, what you have done with what you believe reveals what you truly believe. Fruit provides the evidence of your faith. Not doctrinal adherence (which is what the religious leaders of his day demanded). Paul echoed this sentiment, in part, when he talked about how what we do with our lives portrays what we’re truly made of (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
The early church developed a tradition of worship whereby they began living as if the future Kingdom was fully present – realized eschatology. They didn’t choose to wait for the Kingdom of God to come and do its thing, because the Kingdom of God was already present, doing its thing:
In Christian worship the anticipated goal of final, eschatological deliverance was drawn into the sphere of present experience and celebrated as if it had been fully and finally achieved. In the phenomenology of this worship, past and future collapse into an eternal present; and the spatial distinction between heaven and earth is momentarily obliterated. In the light of this kind of cultic experience, there can be no hard and fast dichotomy between the presence of Jesus in the midst of the worshipping community and the “distant” presence of Jesus at the right hand of God. – Yale Anchor Dictionary of the Bible
The early Christian community believed in the Kingdom God now and to come. They could live in the “now” of the Kingdom even while working through the muck of life.
Even though this teaching offers only a brief overview of the development of eschatological thinking, I hope I’ve made the point that the idea developed over time in response to a multitude of influences. There was not uniform thinking about eschatology – where and when you lived in Israel impacted your thoughts about the eschaton: “In all likelihood, the eschatological perception of reality was experienced by those who were not necessarily in charge of either Israel’s political or religious institutions… It is important to emphasize the fact that neither Jewish nor Christian eschatology can in any way be considered a unified or consistent system of beliefs and symbols about the saving events of the future. (Ibid.)” To be blunt: the thinking about Judgment Day – even for Jesus – was rooted in the time in which they lived. The question, then, that we must ask is, would they think the same way, given all of the world history that has passed since? I seriously doubt it – especially regarding timing. The precedent is that belief is shaped by experience. How then do we think about the eschaton or apocalypse? Or do we? Or should we?
I think there are some things we shouldn’t do. First, in light of all we’ve covered, I think it would be really foolish to build a view of the end of time on a foundation 2,000 years old, which was built on shifting sand for nearly 2,000 years before that. Taking all we’ve known since into consideration is a time-honored tradition practiced by rabbis for centuries, was practiced by Jesus and Paul and the whole gang of disciples (which is why they got into so much trouble), and has continued to be part of the Christian tradition since on a wide range of issues. We stretch. The faith lives and breathes. That’s what keeps it alive. That’s a very good thing. The opposite would be to live in a time capsule from the first century, which is absolutely impossible.
A second thing I think we should avoid is binary thinking. We human beings love our binary thinking that keeps everything and everyone neatly separated into categories we can control. The remembered sayings of Jesus even reflect binary thinking: the eschatological parables are about separating sheep from goats! Yet simultaneously we see Jesus being incredibly inclusive in his lifestyle and with the grace of God. Jesus’ life was built on the Micah 6:8 mandate to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. He went to the cross because he believed and lived it so much. When he speaks in binary terms, I think there is a different tone and meaning than when we try to do the same. So, as tempting and cathartic as it may be to consign certain people groups and politicians to hell, it is absolutely off point, out of line, and will not in any way result in more grace breaking into the world. Just the opposite, I think.
I take great comfort from Paul’s image of the refiner’s fire. There’s a lot of good stuff there. Building my life with precious stones sounds a lot like Micah 6:8 to me. We get to do that! Isn’t that awesome? It’s possible! It’s encouraged! It’s empowered. At the same time I am deeply encouraged by the fact that the chaff in my life will someday burn off. Some of the chaff I know about and do nothing about. Some of the chaff stays with me even though I work hard to get rid of it. Some of the chaff I don’t even recognize because I don’t have eyes to see it. One day, however, I will be free of it! I don’t really care if it’s the day I die or if I stay in some sort of sleep mode until some final day comes – the point is that the chaff will be gone, leaving behind what I hope will be beautiful stones I’ve tried to incorporate into my life and the rest of the world. That’s hopeful to me. It’s like justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin. It’s like grace is inherently just. I don’t need to condemn, then. But I can grace, knowing justice comes along with it.
At the end of the last book of the Bible (Revelation, Chapter 22), there is a picture of the Holy City shining bright with beautiful precious stones. Precious stones! Sounds familiar! In the middle of the city is the river of life, with fruit trees on the banks producing fruit every month for all to enjoy. An invitation is given for any and all who are thirsty to come and drink. A feast of water that sustains and animates life, sourced from the very depths of God. Can you imagine it? This beauty calls us forward, not to cower in fear of future retribution (so we better say the right secret password to get us in), but to confidently approach that throne with all aspects of our lives for the duration of our lives so that all lives might experience the fullness of life.
May it be so for you. May it be so for me. May all hear of it so that it may be so for all people everywhere.