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Eschatology Makes Sense of Time

Perhaps the most obvious implication of biblical eschatology (the study of the end, the final things) is the way it shapes a Christian understanding of time. But obvious though this may be, it presents one of the most complex sets of consequences to tease out from the Bible’s account of the final things.

Eschatology is an ending, and it’s also a beginning. It’s like modern ideas of progress, and it’s most unlike them. It relativizes earthly achievements, and it ennobles them. It signals an unbreakable continuity with the past, and it signals a radical rupture with the past. The relationship between eschatology and temporality is complex.

Not all views of the world include the idea of the “final thing(s).” For example, in The Order of Things, the Roman atomist philosopher Lucretius considers that the world will disintegrate to cosmic dust, only to be reborn again in a never-ending cycle, and Aristotle thought the universe was eternal.

As Christians seeking to understand the world, our first question is this: What difference does it make that there’s a biblical eschatology at all, regardless of the form that eschatology takes?

Time’s Shape

Eschatology gives a definite arc and terminus to the Bible’s narrative and therefore to our horizon of existence in this world. It infuses this life with particularly acute meaning.

We won’t have an infinite amount of time or an infinite number of reincarnations to improve on our current state. Life isn’t a rehearsal. For the Christian, history is written in ink, not in pencil. History is linear: it had a beginning, it will have an end, and we cannot go back.

For the Christian, history is written in ink, not in pencil. History is linear: it had a beginning, it will have an end, and we cannot go back.

The end gives retrospective meaning to the whole. As we all know from the novels we’ve read and the movies we’ve watched, the last chapter or the final scene can (and often does) change everything, and without it we cannot be sure of the overall meaning at all.

If there’s no ending, John Lennox argues, then “looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds.” We may see a form here or a blotch there, but any sense we fancy to give to them is merely a figment of our overactive imagination and an effect of the cheese we ate for dinner the day before.

In this picture of an endless and opaque reality, as John Rist paraphrases Augustine’s City of God, life becomes “a monotonously futile search for earthly peace in an intrinsically unstable world.” Or it becomes like the brain-numbing experience of watching a poor-quality 1970s comedy show on hard repeat for hours on end (though I strenuously deny firsthand knowledge of any such practice).

Mechanical Malformation

But because the Christian view of time includes an ending, history can be, and is, meaningful. It becomes not a mere string of events but a plot. As C. S. Lewis notes, it becomes “the cosmic story—the ultimate plot in which all other stories are episodes.”

A mechanical worldview, argues Herman Bavinck, can only have juxtaposition, not history. Things happen one after the other in an eternal, continuous flow of events, but we cannot presume to gather them into a coherent narrative.

The Christian view of time, by contrast, “gives us the right to speak of a development in all things and pertaining to the entire world, because here is a divine thought that must be realized in the passing of time,” namely, that God created all things for his own glory and will gather them all together under Christ at the last day (Eph 1:10).

Lewis traces the effect of this biblical view on literature. The primary epic of Homer, he argues, “neither had, nor could have, a great subject” because “that kind of greatness arises only when some event can be held to effect a profound and more or less permanent change in the history of the world,” and for any event to have that sort of significance, history must have a pattern.

Lacking any such overall shape, the ancient heroic age has nothing but “the constant aimless alternations of glory and misery.” Victory, defeat, feasting, fasting, “nothing ‘stays put,’ nothing has a significance beyond the moment.” The view of history as something concrete, something irreversible and dignified, only fully takes root in the Christian era.

Linear Chronology

Augustine grasped the importance of linear history more deeply than most. He also drew out its implications more perceptively than most. In City of God, the bishop of Hippo takes his lead from the Bible to formulate the first Christian philosophy (or Christian theology) of history.

What City of God gives to the Western world is a new way of understanding and experiencing time. According to Michael Mendelson, for the Greco-Roman world “the importance of history is largely in the cyclical patterns that forge the past, present, and future into a continuous whole, emphasizing what is repeated and common over what is idiosyncratic and unique.”

When Thucydides tells the story of the Peloponnesian War, Mendelson continues, he does so to show it as a “pattern of events that will be repeated in the future,” not as a singular episode. He argues that for Augustine, however, history is “the dramatic unfolding of a morally decisive set of non-repeatable events.”

This isn’t to deny any place at all to circularity in the biblical view of history. Babel echoes the sin of Adam, and the prophets constantly refer back to the exodus, but all of this takes place within the frame of one unfolding story with only one beginning, to which it will never return, and only one end, which it will never repeat.

Only the Beginning

So there we have it: it all ends.

Only, it doesn’t all end. Not a bit of it.

The end of the Bible doesn’t have the feel of a closing-down sale but of a grand-opening gala. Permanence, certainly, but not finality.

The end of the Bible doesn’t have the feel of a closing-down sale but of a grand-opening gala.

Christ is alive “forevermore” (Rev. 1:18). Praise is offered to God “forever and ever” (7:12). For those who worship the beast, “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (14:11). God’s Messiah will reign “forever and ever” (11:15). The smoke of destroyed Babylon “goes up forever and ever” (19:3). The Devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be tormented “forever and ever” (20:10). The citizens of the New Jerusalem will reign “forever and ever” (22:5).

This glorious refrain once more beats the drum of superabundance that, more than any other figure, distinguishes the biblical understanding of reality.

At the close of The Last Battle, the final volume of the Narnia series, C. S. Lewis’s protagonists contemplate the mountains “higher than you could see in this world” with orchards and waterfalls “going up for ever.”

Lewis writes, “Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” The parousia isn’t the end of the Christian story; it isn’t the command to “stay where you are” but to “come further up, come further in!”

The end is neither an endless stasis nor a meaningless juxtaposition. It’s only the beginning.

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