I have often thought that eschatology, the doctrine of the end times, gets treated as a tag-on to Christian theology. In other words, it is possible to treat how we view the end as something additional to what we would consider the primary basis of Christianity.
From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of the Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set . . . Hence eschatology cannot really be only a part of Christian doctrine. Rather, the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, and of every Christian existence and of the whole Church.
Yes, the truth is that our view of eschatology shapes the lens through which we view our Christian life in the here and now. And there is no greater display of this than when tragic or culture shifting events happen in our society. Most notably, I can’t help but note the hysteria that has happened among Christians regarding the Supreme Court ruling declaring same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. This has sent many Christians into a fearful tizzy with common declarations that this must be the end times.
I think one of the reasons for this presumption is a faulty understanding of end times interchangeably known as the last days. Many Christians view the end times as a series of cataclysmic events that happen to usher in a 7 year period that is commonly known as Great Tribulation (but not before the rapture of the church) prior to Christ’s final judgement (dispensational premillennialism). In this line of thinking, it makes sense that every disruptive event might be a sign that sets off this chain of events leading to the final judgment. It’s not surprising then, that this scenario elicits fear.
However, the more I study Scripture, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the end times or last days, as is commonly cited, is not necessarily at the end as many Christians presume, but is representative of the time between the first and second Advent of Christ. In other words, the end times or last days began with the inauguration of the New Covenant. Yes, there is a day of Christ’s return and final judgement (2 Pet. 3:10). But the last days are not the last day of judgment but a time we’ve already been living in.
In The Bible and the Future, Hoekema rightly notes;
New Testament writers are conscious that they are already living in the last days. This is specifically stated by Peter in his great sermon on the day of Pentecost, when he quotes from Joel’s prophecy as follows; “For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh . . . ” (Acts 2:16-17). The words ‘in the last days’ (en tais eschatais hemerais) are a translation of the Hebrew words ‘ach rey khen, literally [meaning] afterwards. When Peter quotes these words and applies them to the event which has just occurred, he is saying in effect: ‘We are in the last days now.’
Yes, the writers understood the New Covenant predicted in Jeremiah 31:31-34 triggering the time when God would begin to make everything right. You can also see this is Hebrews;
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Heb. 1:1-2)
Therefore, when looking at a passage like 2 Tim. 3, the last days are marked by behavior that has always been in around;
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying it’s power. Avoid such people (2 Tim. 3:1-5)
The fact that Paul tells his audience at the time to “avoid such people” is a clear indication that he did not have in mind some special eventful season in the future, but that this behavior was present at that time. So the last days are not those that we can anticipate precipitated by the evil or otherwise behavior of humans, but that which has already been present in history since Jesus’ earthly ministry. It’s also helpful to consider that the people of God were looking to one event in fulfillment of OT prophecy not a bifurcated fulfillment whereby some part of prophecy are assigned to the first Advent and some assigned to the second Advent. Hence, the already-but-not-yet eschatological hope considers God’s kingdom as come but not yet consummated in a weave of fulfillment to which there is a bit of mystery.
I believe this makes a tremendous difference in our response to current events. If we believe that the ‘last days’ are triggered by some cataclysmic event in history, then every event will most likely trigger fear. Every event will have Christians asking “is this it? Is this the sign of the end?” Over at Cripplegate, Clint Archer suggests in SCOTUS and Premillennialism that the premillennial perspective of everything getting worse before Jesus returns does not trigger fear. But I contend the opposite as is evidenced by the hysteria and proclamations of end times. And certainly, that’s what we see, isn’t it?
On the other hand, when we see the last days as that time existing between the two advents, it will most likely temper our response because we have the whole swatch of history to consider, which has been full of cataclysmic events. This has been tremendously helpful for me to not react to every earth shattering event that happens as “signs” that everything is about to go crazy.
By now, I suspect that my premillennial friends are pointing to Matthew 24-25 as proof that things will culminate in this scary picture of history, including increase in natural disasters, increase in lawlessness, nations at war and unprecedented tribulation accompanied by a great apostasy.
But Jesus also describes an increase in the growth of the church, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to to all nations, and then the end will come.” (vs 14).
Now, I don’t want to undermine the existence of these events, or persecution or a great apostasy that will occur towards the end. But at the same time, there is also evidence of a juxtaposition of growth of the church and strengthening of the saints (which is typically what persecution of the church does). Hoekema’s section on history is gold because he warns that we cannot possibly know all that history is doing in relationship to God’s plans for the ages;
Since Christ has won the victory, we are to see evidences of that victory in history and in the world around us. But, since the final consummation of the victory has not yet taken place, there will continue to be much in history which we do not understand, which does not seem to reflect the victory in Christ . . . Satan’s kingdom will exist and grow as long as God’s kingdom grows, until the Day of Judgment.
Yes, Christ will return one day and set everything right. But until then, we are guaranteed three things: 1) that in this world we will have trouble; 2) that we can’t possibly know all that is going on; and 3) that Christ through God the Spirit is with us to the end of the age. Instead of fear and alarm, I suggest a more useful response is to live as those with hope and knowing that this is not all there is.
 Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 16 cited in Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 3.