Eschatology Week: A Christless Eschatology

These reflections grow out of a conversation with a good friend nearly a decade ago, at the height of the popularity of the Left Behind series, in which we pondered how might an Orthodox Christian evaluate the bewildering eschatology that underlies these and other such popular works on the “end-times.”

I should like to start by writing a bit concerning the origins of “pretribulational rapturism,” which are often (especially in polemical literature1) traced back to the apocalyptic visions that a 16 year old Scottish girl, Margaret MacDonald, reported to have in the earlier part of the 19th century. While it is true that MacDonald claimed to have a number of visions where she received new “revelations” concerning the end of the world, it is doubtful that this eccentric claim had much impact in the formulation of “end-times timelines” during the past two centuries. While her spiritual leader and mentor, Edward Irving, did manage to place some of his works on the shelves of many leaders of the 19th century “Prophetic Conference” movement, the notion of post-apostolic revelations was widely discredited in these circles (the direct ancestors, incidentally, of 20th century dispensationalists). It is far safer to assume that many Bible teachers arrived at their conclusion that believers in Christ must be either resurrected or raptured at the beginning of a 7-year Great Tribulation through simple theological deduction. In their minds, the Bible teaches that God has two different peoples, with two different plans: Jews and Christians. God’s saving dealings with one people couldn’t coincide in time with his dealings with the other, so after the death of Christ and the establishment of the Church, the plan for the Jews was suspended until a later time. The 7-year Great Tribulation (cf. Daniel 9:24-27) was understood to be the “time of trouble for Jacob” (Jeremiah 30:7)that is, the time when the plan for the Jews would be resumed. It follows by resistless logic, then, that the Church must be cleared from the scene before such a thing could happen. The Church would experience, according to H. A. Ironside, “Not Wrath, But Rapture.” Thus, it was only after much deduction that the doctrine became firmly established in these circles, even if its positive Scriptural support was feeble at best. (I Thessalonians 4:16-17, Revelation 3:10 and Revelation 4:1 were usually the sole texts offered in support of the doctrine, and each passage can be otherwise and more satisfactorily explained exegetically.)

So much for that. I have recounted the interesting development of eschatological thought in North American fundamentalism not only to dispel the oft-repeated Margaret MacDonald myth, but also to illustrate a point. An Orthodox Christian reading the account above will doubtless be struck by the lack of any reference to Christ himself. This is certainly the case not only in this instance, but indeed with much of popular thought concerning the “end-times.” It is no wonder, then, that South African Reformed theologian Adrio König gave his fascinating monograph the sobering title The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989)! Numerology, mathematical calculations, political agendas, conspiracy theories and flat literalism in biblical interpretation have produced what can truly be called “sci-fi eschatology”an understanding of the end-times majoring on the minors of chronology, date-setting, and character identification2. This understanding of eschatology, which counts with such popular exponents as Hal Lindsey (author of the infamous Late Great Planet Earth) and Tim LaHaye (co-author of the Left Behind series), is vigorously rejected by many Protestants; yet few prophetic voices have been raised to denounce this nonsense, and then only in certain, very restricted, academic circles. Although this debate is quite alien to the Orthodox Christian context, the external agitation affords us the opportunity to calmly consider our own thinking concerning the consummation of all things.

It is my contention that the Orthodox faith is thoroughly eschatological in its perspective, and because of this little time is found to indulge in so-called “speculative eschatology.” In other words, the reason why we spend no time at all attempting to figure out how things will work out at the end of time is that everything we say and do bears the marks of our living firm hope for the “bring[ing] of all things in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). Note, for example, the following words from the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

“Remembering this saving commandment [Take, eat! Drink of it, all of you!] and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious Coming…”
In the Eucharistic mystery, which stands at the very center of the life of the Church, we have not only a participation in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on Calvary, but also a participation in the heavenly banquet of the Kingdom of God. Thus, at that moment, we can confidently speak of the entire history of salvation (including the “second and glorious Coming”!) as having “come to pass for us” already. This is possible because we believe that all of history and prophecy is summed up in the person of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Israel, covenant, kingdom, land, sacrifices, victoryall of these have been assumed by Him and reinterpreted in Him. Thus, we regard it as foolishness when we hear that the modern state of Israel, the United Nations, the European Union, or the Vatican are the key to prophecy, because we are confident that it is in Christ that all things find their culmination. The King has come, announcing that the Kingdom is already among us (cf. St Luke 17:20). Because of this we also reject the heresy of chiliasm, which promises a future kingdom as though the word of Christ were false and the age of Kingdom had not dawned already. Christ has brought to fruition the presence of the Kingdom through his victory over sin, death and hell. But even though the Kingdom is among us, that old serpent, the devil, continues to work the mystery of iniquity. This is why look forward with joy to the last day, when the promise of God to our forefathers Adam and Eve will be completely fulfilled, and the Seed of the woman will forever crush the serpent’s head (cf. Genesis 3:15). Until then, we know that human flesh sits at the right hand of the Father, and because of that, that future victory which is already won is ours in Him.

So the next time we are troubled by the outcome of the ages, or bothered by the majoring on minors of some, look up, for thence shall rise the Morning Star, to consummate the victory he already won, to fulfill the Kingdom that is already at work, and to sit with us at the heavenly Banquet in which he already has made us participants.

Notes:

1 For instance, cf. Dave MacPherson, The Incredible Cover-up: The True Story on the Pre-trib Rapture, Rev. and combined ed. Plainfield: Logos International, 1975.
2 I am indebted to Spanish Evangelical scholar Dr José Grau for this wonderful term, which appears in his exceedingly useful manual of eschatology as “escatología ficción.”

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8 responses to “Eschatology Week: A Christless Eschatology

  1. I think you’re right about the origins of the Pre-trib Rapture, as far as your argument goes. But it leaves something else unanswered. You write:

    In their minds, the Bible teaches that God has two different peoples, with two different plans: Jews and Christians. God’s saving dealings with one people couldn’t coincide in time with his dealings with the other, so after the death of Christ and the establishment of the Church, the plan for the Jews was suspended until a later time.

    But whence this assumption? (I have a five-year-old, so I know it’s always possible to ask “why?”) I’m not sure I have a good answer myself. It’s one of those things that generally went unquestioned in my experience–sort of like literal hermeneutics, which may be more than a passing comparison.

    As I understand it, the 19th c. Prophecy Conferences grew out of the twin convictions that everyone can interpret the Bible for themselves, and “the plain sense” is the only sense of Scripture. I have a hunch that the “lack of any reference to Christ himself” you point out later is more than just coincidence. Rather, in their total repudiation of spiritual meaning, they reacted directly against the traditional Christocentric hermeneutic and replaced it with a completely linear-historical framework. Instead of reading the Old Testament through the eyes of the New, they would now read the New Testament in light of the Old. The narrative that begins in the Old Testament and progresses around God’s relationship with Israel cannot be in any way undone by the advent of Christ. Because they were reading counter to the NT writers themselves, they could do nothing with the NT Church except relegate it to a wholly separate Dispensation–a parenthesis in God’s larger plan. In this, I don’t know how much they were influenced–perhaps unintentionally–by the historical bent of other 19th c. biblical scholarship. My perception of Evangelical Fundamentalism is that it’s highly reactive in this respect, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they adopted their opponents’ framework here as well.

    Thoughts?

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  2. I haven’t studied the historical origins of rapture theology much, but I have encountered the MacDonald story in several places.

    You’re probably right in that her visions weren’t accepted as a “new” revelation. But I don’t think that’s what she has to do with it at all. Rather, it was more likely that the general content of her visions (even if not the visions themselves) came to be regarded as simply the right way to read the Scripture. That is, she started a new hermeneutical tradition, with the origins of that tradition quickly forgotten.

    I usually see rapturism traced through the dispensationalist Scofield and his influential study Bible.

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  3. Trevor> I emphatically agree with what you've written here.

    Please note that the sentence you quote above was simply a summary of the chief hermeneutical principle of dispensationalism (cf. Scofield's Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth) meant for those who are unaware of it in order to explain for them the following comments. That this largely unquestioned assumption, to paraphrase you, rests itself on precarious hermeneutical grounds is indisputable, and as you know, much has been written on this subject.

    The main subtext of this post is precisely that there is a direct relation between the “Christlessness” of such an eschatology and that of its hermeneutical framework, and thus I agree with your very sharp observations on that point.

    I had not thought about the possible bearing of the fundamentalist reaction to 19th-century critical scholarship, but it seems to me that your point is sound. It is not for nothing, after all, that fundamentalists remain some of the more committed modernists today!

    Thanks for the great comment. :-)

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  4. Fr Andrew> Again, I think the role of Margaret MacDonald in the origins of pretribulationism has been greatly overstated as a matter of course, and chiefly by its detractors. She was not the first one to propose such a theory, and J. Dwight Pentecost, in his colossal work Things to Come, was able to point to a number of post-Reformation historical precedents that could more credibly be singled out as the originators of this “hermeneutical tradition” than this poor, deluded girl. But whatever its ultimate origins, your point that this came to be understood as the right reading of Scripture without regard for its origins is of course true. (Incidentally, one of the things Pentecost wishes to do in his large study is to provide dispensationalism with a “pedigree,” so to speak; to do so, he reaches as far back as the Apostolic Fathers [!], but naturally not with a great dealof success.)

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  5. This was a really great post, Esteban! I’d come across the MacDonald story before (I think in Dennis Engleman’s book ‘Ultimate Things’), and simply accepted it as the settled explanation. Obviously, though, my knowledge of the history and theology of Protestantism is woefully lacking despite having been a Protestant until 18 and having been a pk for a good chunk of those years.

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  6. Aaron> Whew! At least I now can rest assured that I'm not totally crazy! Thanks for the kind words.

    Meanwhile, I didn’t realize that you were a PK! That certainly explains your deviousness. ;-)

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  7. I recently saw one of Dr. Jose Grau’s books and discovered that he DOES believe that Margaret Macdonald originated the pretrib rapture view – but you may already know this.
    Salvador
    (He may have been influenced by MacPherson’s books.)

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  8. "Salvador"> Yes, I am aware that Dr Grau believes that to be the case. His thoughts on the matter, which as you rightly suspect draw heavily on McPherson, appear in chapter 21 of his eschatology textbook linked above. I simply believe that both he and McPherson are wrong concerning the enormous influence they suppose these visions had on either side of the Atlantic.

    Incidentally, I deleted your earlier comment (which you signed as "Jim") and edited this one because I absolutely d NOT tolerate advertising on my blog, period. Please find other marketing venues.

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