Understandable Eschatology? Arabs, Evangelicals, and ‘The End’

Eschatology, literally the study of the last things, anywhere is a difficult topic. Nevertheless, the topic is of such magnitude and, whether we realize it or not, such real-world relevance that we must attempt to unravel the complexities [or dare I say absurdities] we too often find associated with ‘The End’.

Of course, volumes have been written about the topic: some great, many bad. As such, it is beyond the scope of this simple post to outline the historical evolution of eschatological thought, attempt the deconstruction of pop-dispensationalism, or present a comprehensive theology of the ‘Last Days’. Instead, I wish to discuss the practical relevance of eschatology for contemporary life in the Middle East and present, what I hope to be, an ‘understandable’ eschatological alternative.

Because whether we’re mindful of it or not, eschatology matters. Especially in the Middle East!

Why Eschatology Matters?

Eschatology matters precisely because ‘eschatology informs our ethics’. As Tom Wright explains:

Life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed. The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path toward it. [1]

Our beliefs about the future give shape to our interpretation of contemporary events, and motivate our present courses of action: morally, socially, politically, etc.

Consequently, I have been noticing the existence of what seem to be drastically different theological and ethical visions regarding not just our ultimate future, but the very essence of what it means to be a Christian/Christ-follower. In a sense, it is as if two different, even contradictory religious systems tenuously exist side by side, each masquerading under the same title: Evangelical Christianity.

And, the difference is eschatological.

As followers of Christ, we evangelicals are therefore presented with a choice: Apocalyptic Fatalism or Proactive, Self-Sacrificial Love.

For everyday Arabs, such differing visions of Evangelical faith can result in profoundly different outcomes, each bearing remarkably different fruit.

Why Eschatology Matters to the Middle East?

To repeat, our beliefs about the future give shape to our interpretation of contemporary events, and motivate our present course of action. This is especially true in the Middle East. Living here, I have seen first-hand how the beliefs that Western Christians hold can have a direct, often adverse effect upon the daily lives of many Middle Easterners.

The elephant in the room, to borrow a phrase from IMES MRel Faculty Colin Chapman, is of course the dire situation confronting the Palestinians, held in many respects captive to the apocalyptic fatalism of the American Evangelical voting bloc. The consequences of which ripple throughout the region.

I fully agree, therefore, with Colin Chapman’s assertion that “our very understanding of God, our witness to the gospel, and the credibility of the Christian church” are at stake in regard to our theology of Israel-Palestine. [2] It’s that serious.

Furthermore, like a bad movie played out on the international stage, Middle Easterners as a whole tend to get swooped up into this apocalyptic drama, loyal minions to the dark forces opposing God’s elect. [Re-watch Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” with this in mind]. ‘Axis of evil’ was of course the term used in history. 

Eschatology matters.

Understanding Eschatology?

How then can we appropriately understand eschatology in a manner that does justice to scripture and the universal demands of self-sacrificial love?

To venture a response, I was recently fortunate enough to have been able to read John Paul Lederach’s The Journey toward Reconciliation, wherein Lederach employs what I consider to be one of the most illuminating [and concise] metaphors ever encountered in regard to both eschatology and our collective, reconciling mission as the followers of Christ. His words are simple, yet profound. He contends,

We must keep our feet on the ground, connected to the pulse of real-life challenges, and our head in the clouds with a dream that things can be different. [3]

As we dream and work towards our dream, the world changes in response.

Although he may not use the exact terminology as such, Lederach presents his readers with a proactive, as opposed to fatalistic and escapist, eschatological vision whereby the tangible fruit of God’s Kingdom manifest themselves in and through the reconciling mission of Christ and his followers to the world. Our vision of the future determines our present.

Speaking personally, I have always found the language of ‘already and not yet’ (heard in seminaries across the planet) inadequate in regard to God’s Kingdom, in that it is both complex and difficult to understand for the average person AND in that it fails to provide dynamic terminology in regard to God’s in-breaking Reign as experienced in the present.

Lederach’s simple language, on the other hand, is perfect. God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom coming, a Kingdom transforming, a Kingdom in process.

Furthermore, I am heavily indebted to Tom Wright when it comes to the ability to understand and explain eschatology. In regard to Christ’s resurrection , the ultimate eschatological event, he asserts:

Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. [4]

Eschatology, plain and simple, is this: “God’s name will be honored, His Kingdom will come, and His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. The future is invading the present. Heaven is invading Earth. It began with Christ, but as his followers this too is our purpose, our mission.

Ultimately, it was Jesus himself who spoke most succinctly and poignantly in regard to God’s Reign, declaring:

The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough. [5]

As Jesus teaches us, God’s Kingdom is like yeast working itself through dough, hidden yet transformative upon everything it touches, such that as God’s Kingdom comes and His will is done on Earth as it is in Heaven, ‘Earth becomes colonized with the life of heaven.’

Therefore, in stark contrast to the apocalyptic fatalism of much popular Christian discourse, an alternate and in my opinion much more accurate and Christ-centered reading of scripture provides us with a proactive eschatological vision whereby, like yeast through dough, God’s Reign is actively manifesting itself in our world.

And as such, we Christians become, in our individual and collective contexts, proactive agents of grace, justice, reconciliation and peace, “with our feet planted firmly on the ground, connected the the pulse of real life challenges, and our head in the clouds with a dream that things can be different.

Jesse Wheeler serves as Projects Manager for the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES).  Jesse, his wife Heidi, and their adorable son Nimer recently moved to Lebanon and see it as their personal (as well as institutional) mandate to help bring about positive transformation in the thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.

______________________

[1] N. T. Wright. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (Kindle Location 39). Kindle Edition.

[2] Colin Chapman, “A Biblical Perspective on Israel/Palestine” in The Land Cries Out: Theology of the Land in the Israeli/Palestinian Context, ed. Salim J. Munayer et all. (Eugene: Wipft and Stock Publishers, 2012) 238

[3] John Paul Lederach. The Journey Toward Reconciliation (Kindle Locations 1777-1778). Kindle Edition.

[4] N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. (Kindle Location 4615). Kindle Edition.

[5]Matthew 13: 33 (CEB)

11 thoughts on “Understandable Eschatology? Arabs, Evangelicals, and ‘The End’

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I agree that Western Christians often have a frustratingly one sided view on the Israel/Palestine problem. I have no doubt that the reason for this view is largely a direct consequence of the excitement of seeing Israel again on the map, particularly if one hold to the literal interpretation of OT prophesies. The inability of finding faults with Israeli politics and the very strong ability of turning a blind eye to the Palestinian’s plight seems to go hand in hand with conservative dispensational premillennial tradition.
    This is for me doubly frustrating as I would classify my theological understanding firmly in the same area. I do take a literal view of the Bible. I believe we are citizens of Heaven and are therefore in this world, but as it were, not of it. I do not believe man, even with the help of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Scriptures will ever be quite able to set things right. And if we were, would we really need His second coming? I do believe I have evidence on my side saying that at least at this point in time; the yeast has not quite manifested God’s Reign as we hoped for. Does this make me an Apocalyptic Fatalist? I hope not.
    Conservative Christianity in the USA specifically, seems to be grouped together with a love of guns, a hatred of taxes, support of the capital punishment and an unwavering support of Eretz Israel. I have no idea why. I do not see the connection between a premillennial theology and those ideologies. And outside of the US, churches like my own seems quite comfortable in holding to the same theological principles without sharing in these views.
    I suppose my conclusion is that the best way for Christians to bless Israel, is the same way we should bless the Palestinians and everyone else, by communicating the love of God for all His people. This love is proactive and self-sacrificial, there is no other kind. The idea that we will not get everything perfect until Jesus returns does not for me, hamper this effort.

  2. Jesse- thank you for this challenging and thought-provoking post. Apart from the specific significance of eschatology in life and ministry in the Middle East, another huge issue which this article addresses is the reality that many Christians believe that, because they are not “theologians”, they can avoid holding any eschatological views whatsoever. After all, the eschatological portions of Scripture are often the most confusing and difficult to discern… However, what they fail to recognize is that choosing to remain “eschatologically neutral” is actually a myth- a non-option rooted in apocalyptic fatalism. Choosing to be theologically passive rather than actively seeking out biblical truth lands you in essentially the same boat as adopting a theology of passivity. Our theological perspectives or “lack thereof” are always the product of historical, biblical discourse whether we realize it our not. Our job as believers, both corporately and individually, is to actively seek God’s truth while simultaneously striving to live it out in every area of our everyday lives. As you so rightly point out- eschatology matters!

  3. Interesting way of tying eschatology to the Kingdom of God through the leading of an ethical life. Also Lederach describes God’s Kingdom as “a Kingdom coming, a Kingdom transforming, a Kingdom in process” is an affirmation that the kingdom of God that Jesus launched, had a purpose which was to shape gradually his followers and prepare them for the heavenly destination.
    This implies that we today who are the followers of Christ need to always renovate our hearts and minds so that we can contribute to the transformation process that the Kingdom of God is leading in order to unfold the life to come in heaven as Paul Wright put it “to colonize earth with the life of heaven”.

  4. The clearer we can define and understand our goal in life, the more we can experience God’s reign in the present. When the disciples urge Jesus to eat (John 4:31). He replies to them “I have food to eat of which you do not know” (John 4:32). and Jesus explains that “My food is to do the will of Him, who sent Me and to finish His work” (John 4:34). We often have no clue what God expects from us or mistake our own desires for God’s will for our lives. A better understanding of eschatology assists us to know better the “food” which God has for our lives. Following Jesus in our every day lives, by committing the day to Him, asking Him for wisdom and forgiveness, loving others as ourselves allows heaven to enter into our environment. God’s timing, heavenly justice and Divine love are uncommon or unknown concepts in this broken world (John 4:35 – 38). “For now we see in a mirror, dimily, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). We do not fully understand the “food” Jesus refers to, but know that one day we will fully understand. This promise encourages us to do His will, even if we do not know where it will lead us or if we have sufficient faith to fullfill the Great Commission… We have no other choice than to let life of heaven come to our daily environment if we want to follow Jesus and discover our personal goal towards eternity!

  5. I agree with the comments made. We cannot overlook the significance a theological eschatology position has on our understanding of the mission of the church. All claim a position, even if we have never taken the effort to articulate its points or carry its ramifications to its logical ends. While some are clearly more in-line than others, no position can claim to be complete. Every position is partial, a dim reflection in the mirror, for right now “we know in part and we prophesy in part.” The problem is not that we disagree on eschatology- theological disagreements have been part of the church from its earliest days – the tragedy of eschatology occurs when a theology trumps Jesus Christ’s example and teaching of how we should live in the world. When a few verses from Revelations, Daniel, and Isaiah nullify the Sermon on the Mount, then we have a far-reaching problem. Eschatology, or any theology, is not God. Jesus is. The challenge is to wrestle for an eschatological theology that is in line with the principles of the gospel, rather than a theology that throws the words of Jesus out the window. It always puzzles me how some Christians speak about the Middle East as if the Gospels of Jesus Christ were never written.

  6. Thanks for this post Jessy. A hugely complex topic to grapple with. As I read it I was reminded of my driving instructor who would say “where you look determines the direction in which you drive”. Our vision of the future affects the way we look at today. If the earth is doomed why waste our time trying to save it. Yet our God is a God of new beginnings, reconciliation and life. If we set our mind on the charactor of God it will shape how we interact with the world today. Philippians 4 verses 8 and 9 tells us to focus on the positive and then put this into practice.

  7. Great post. Indeed, it cannot be emphasized enough that one’s eschatology shapes and largely determines one’s actions, and the nature thereof, in the present. And I find it also ironic that people, rather unkowingly, hold to several competing eschatologies at once; I speak here of those who hold a more dualistic-pessimistic vision of the ‘end-times.’ We must continue to displace the dualistic versions for holistc-healing ones that push the church to mend rather than continue to hurt the world and her inhabitants.

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