The Danger of an Over-realized Eschatology

While the title of this post may sound a bit heady, the subject is one that generally most Christians are familiar with, namely the end times. Eschatology properly defined is simply the study of last things. It doesn’t deal necessarily with THE last day exclusively, but rather the progression or unfolding of events of the last days culminating in the eschaton, i.e. the last day of time coinciding with the inauguration of the New Heavens and Earth. Strictly speaking eschatology began in the Garden. More pointedly, after the death and resurrection of Christ, the apostles considered themselves to be in the last days. Regardless of one’s belief or understanding of the end times, whether it be classified as pre- or post- millennium, meaning that Christ will either return before His millennial reign (pre-) or after (post-) most everyone has an expectation of an interruption of the present age and the beginning of something new or different.

According to the general premillennial view, Christ will return at the conclusion of a 7-year tribulation, which may or may not include a Rapture or catching up of believers into heaven at either the beginning, mid-, or end of the tribulation depending on one’s understanding of Scripture. At that time, God will pour out His wrath on the earth as judgment, allowing those who repent (some say this will be primarily Jewish people at the preaching of the 144,000) to be saved. At the conclusion of these events, Christ will usher in His millennial 1000-year earthly reign, which may include a rebellion and a final judgment at which time the New Heavens and Earth will begin.

According to the general postmillennial view, which is subcategorized into amillennialism, Christ has already begun his millennial 1000-year reign. Depending on how one interprets Scripture, this reign is either heavenly, spiritual, earthly, or some combination. Those postmillennialists who hold to a 1000-year reign of Christ presently on the earth, there is an expectation of a Golden-Age where the gospel spreads to all the nations and generally sin is subdued or lessened significantly. During this time believer’s will hold positions of authority. At this point, this particular view of postmillennialism sometimes begins to overlap or morph into Theonomy/Theocracy. While the general postmillennial view sees things on earth as getting better over time, the ammillennialist may be either optimistic (things getting better) or pessimistic (things getting worse) as Christ continues His spiritual reign and advances His Kingdom on earth. The optimistic amil would have more in common with the traditional post-mil, while the pessimistic amil would have more in common with the pre-mil, again for general descriptive purposes.

Regardless of the view one holds, along with certain variations found in each, all agree and affirm that Scripture teaches the ushering in of a utopia. Again, just generally, for the premillennialist this occurs during Christ’s 1000-year earthly reign, for the postmillennialist this progresses eschatologically from present during the 1000-year earthly/heavenly, and for the ammillennialist, this occurs ultimately in the New Heavens and New Earth.

With this in mind, what is often overlooked is that the world, that is it’s systems, rulers, and influence, is also looking forward to a utopia. Scripture informs us of this plan, typified by the Tower of Babel episode, but realized eschatologically in Revelation, specifically chapter 13 and then through the destruction of this Babylonian utopia later in the book. We ought to keep this in mind as we wrestle through our own understanding of eschatology, namely that there is the presence of evil influence that exists in the world and has as its goal the opposition of God’s kingdom being built as well as the converse in building their own kingdom-utopia. Understanding this rightly might help us formulate and decide which of the above views might best fit Scripture.

Eschatology is one of the more difficult themes in Scripture because of its comprehensive nature from the beginning of time (Genesis) to its prophetic fulfillment (Revelation and beyond). For this reason, many either fail to approach the subject with due diligence, dismiss it outright as secondary or even tertiary, or are prone to a number of errors that have been repeated throughout history. One particular error that has existed at least as long as the New Testament is simply summarized as an over-realized eschatology, meaning an anticipation, expectation, or intention for eschatological events to happen before their God-ordained time. In a sense, its getting the cart before the eschatological horse.

If the subject is to be treated as secondary or even tertiary to the Christian faith, then we might be tempted to say, “so what?”. However, the Thessalonians (and others) were under the influence of those promoting an over-realized eschatology. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul sets forth a clear teaching regarding Christ’s second coming and the order of events. Then in chapter 5 he alludes to those who believe that things are fine and the times are peaceful as well as those who’s lives do not match the hope in Christ coming again in judgment. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, he picks up on the theme almost immediately indicating that it was a pressing and serious issue, not a secondary or tertiary one. In this letter, 2:1-4 the warning is specifically against those who have been teaching and promoting a false, erroneous, and over-realized eschatology. This very same issue exists today, but is far more prominent and is being promoted by both believers and the world which is, as expected, leading to a huge mess.

Typically, the error of over-realized eschatology can be broken down into errors of health/wealth/prosperity, sinless perfection, and finally the desire for a utopian society. While the former two have received a lot of attention, rightly so, the latter has been largely left alone. However with the events of the last couple of years, it has become a prominent theme and deserves to be addressed accordingly. The utopian error has unfortunately taken multiple paths within Christendom (Western Christianity) and is not exclusive to pre- or post- millennialism, rather it is being expressed differently by both views. Primarily this is occurring at present among significant leaders in evangelicalism who hold to a premillennial view. As we may recall from above, this particular view is generally pessimistic and hinges on a widespread, global tribulation period accompanied with a rapture (some at the beginning, some at 3.5 years, some after a full 7 years). In their over-realized application of this eschatological view, they are literally working to usher in the end times. Let me repeat that. These evangelical figures who are well-known by name, conference appearances, and book titles are working to bring about the last days, often referred to as immanentizing the eschaton. Again, this is from a premillennial perspective. This phrase did not originate with me, but instead finds origins in political theory (interestingly enough) and has of course been used as a pejorative against all parties.

Not to be outdone, there is a substantial movement among so-called conservative evangelicals, with a significant online presence, which flows out of a post-millennial view of eschatology that is also seeking to immanentize the eschaton. As with the previous error, this too seeks to establish a eschatological utopia, but not by pessimistic means of aiding and abetting the world’s schemes, rather this comes by overly optimistic means that a utopia can be achieved – as part of God’s plan – by countering the rampant political immorality with political morality. In other words, by fighting widespread corruption that has come to influence politics, government, business, education – essentially culture at large – with positive influences into these arenas then good will triumph over evil, because God wins, and the blessed hope of a utopia will arrive on earth.

Both of these errors are very real and are more widespread than one would think. But they share a common linchpin mistake, namely the absence of belief in the power and efficacy of the gospel. The former group of premillennialists have resigned themselves to failure and similar to their liberal forefathers have co-signed onto the social and cultural agenda of the world. By doing so, they are being unfaithful and failing to advance Christ’s Kingdom by boldly proclaiming the gospel as a counter to the world’s agenda. This is not a call for them to engage in a so-called culture war, rather it is to call them to faithful proclamation of the gospel in the face of declining Western civilization to save the lost and prepare the people that God has entrusted them with for suffering.

The latter group, espousing a kind of postmillenial belief have also failed to believe in the power and efficacy of Christ’s Gospel. Rather than confront moral corruptness in all its forms with the Gospel, they are instead seeking political solutions in the name of God. To many (not all) of them, see liberals as beyond savable simply because of their political persuasion.

The solution to these errors is simple and is provided in the words of Holy Scripture. 1 Peters 1:13 commands us, “preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” After this we read of the familiar command to be holy as God our Father is holy, a clear reference to Lev. 18:2-4. Therefore, we can summarize that in these last days we are to live present in light of the future. That present living is a call unto holiness, not defeat, certainly not assimilation into the world, and not as culture revolutionaries. Perhaps the key theme of Peter’s letter to a Christian people in the midst of a chaotic and persecuting world was that just as Christ had experienced suffering and subsequent glory, so too shall we. Scripture does not commend the escapist mindset of a utopia produced by an over-realized eschatology – that is an attempt to bring the future into the present, rather it commends us unto holy faithfulness and perseverance in the midst of a wicked and crooked generation.

In the early 1900’s premillennial and postmillennial views in America served as the catalyst for four primary positions concerning Christianity and Culture: The cultural pessimism of premillennialism, optimistic social reform, “not highly doctrinal, optimistic, moralistic, patriotic” evangelicalism, and a spiritual “golden-age of the church…in which the whole world would be won to Christ before his return.” (see Fundamentalism and American Culture, Marsden 1980) Despite the efforts of Christians to beat back liberalism of the early 1900s, a century later we find ourselves faced again with the problems brought on by faulty eschatology. It matters. Knowing God’s will for us in the last days matters. May we be humble enough to seek His word and faithful enough to obey it.

Soli Deo Gloria!

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

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